Wanted to take a moment and thank all you jeffpearlman.com visitors (and Twitter and Facebook followers) for sticking with me throughout a strange, rough, intriguing 2011. To be honest, I feel as if the blog slipped a bit this past year—too much writing about Sweetness, too much whining about Sweetness—and not enough original, odd, quirky content.
Luckily for all, no new books for 2012. So it’ll be me, writing about bloody poops and boogers and Christianity and Mitt Romney and Mahopac.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am blessed to be living my dream, and you–dear reader—are the reason I’m able to.
Back in the mid-1990s, I found myself positioned in the Sports Illustrated “bullpen,” a place where young fact-checkers try and find their way into the magazine. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was surrounded by a bushel of future stars—Grant Wahl, L. Jon Wertheim, John Walters, Stephen Cannella, Paul Gutierrez … the list goes on. Yet, some 15 years later, the one who has gone on to the greatest fame is, without question, Seth Davis.
Along with being known as one of the nation’s top college basketball writers, Seth has emerged as a March Madness fixture for CBS Sports. His analysis is, without fail, insightful and well-said. Which, knowing Seth, is no surprise. From our first days working together, it was clear this was no dummy (despite his Duke diploma).
Here, Seth defends college basketball’s honor, slams Mitt Romney, talks TV egos and why he won’t be sitting alongside Stuart Scott in the SportsCenter studios.
Seth, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Seth, to get right into it: I hate Division I basketball. Hate it. Not the on-court action, which can be quite riveting. What I hate is all the bullshit that surrounds it: The scumbag boosters. The recruiters slinking their way into inner-city housing projects and promising the world. I hate that Ohio State travels to away games on a chartered jet, with a cheese tray featuring chunks of cheddar carved into the shape of the Buckeye O. I hate the impact of money and the way coaches bounce from job to job without worrying about the impact it has on the kids. My questions for you, Seth: A. How do you put up with this stuff? And am I wrong?
SETH DAVIS: You’re wrong and you’re not wrong. Certainly there is a high level of – as you call it – bullshit in college basketball. But let’s be honest, if we let ourselves be turned off by bullshit, then we wouldn’t have any sports left. (At least not any that people would want to watch.) Is the bullshit in college basketball any worse than the steroid, money and agents culture of baseball? Or the violence and hoity toity attitudes of pro football? How about the NBA right now with all its labor issues? How’d you like the refereeing in the World Cup?
Most reporters who have spent time around pro and college athletes will tell you it’s vastly preferable to hang with the college kids. Even the best college players in the country are still pretty psyched to talk to a reporter from Sports Illustrated. And like you said, the games are riveting to watch. There is no more popular sporting event in America than the NCAA tournament. And did you see that Indiana-Kentucky game? In the end, that is all that really matters. The rest of it is, well, bullshit.
Let me add one more thing. That seedy grass-roots culture that you describe, it’s very real and it’s very problematic and it’s very corrupting. You know what else it is? Very intriguing. I am fascinated by the recruiting underbelly of college hoops. I enjoy figuring out where the tentacles reach and touch, where they come from, how various coaches are working the levers of the system to gain a competitive advantage. I don’t do a ton of reporting on recruiting, but it’s also fun for me to see the best high school players in the country, before they become famous household names. So I plead guilty to it all. I plead guilty to loving it.
J.P.:How’d you get here? As in, what was your path to being one of the big names in college basketball coverage? I know you’re from Connecticut and attended Duke. But we all have precise life paths. What’s yours?
S.D.: I’m guessing you and I are both odd and lucky in that we knew what we wanted to do from a young age. When I was growing up, my dad’s favorite movie was All the President’s Men. We can both recite every line of that movie. The Woodward and Bernsteins of the world were heroes in my house. It was easy for me to want to be like them.
The other guy I wanted to be like was Glenn Brenner, who was the sports director at the local CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. I even got to do a couple of internships for Glenn, who sadly died from a brain tumor at the age of 44 (just three years older than I am now). I looked at him and said to myself, “He’s got a fun job, he’s famous, and he makes a lot of dough. That’s gonna be me someday.”
So I always had this twin notion of being a writer and being on television. I never really separated the two. People are surprised when I tell them that Duke did not have communications or journalism as a major. The upside to that was, I was the only kid on campus who wanted to do this. So I had my run of the student newspaper, the student TV station and the student radio station. Between those responsibilities, going to parties and squeezing in a few rounds of golf, I also went to a class or two.
I was also fortunate in that shortly after I got to Sports Illustrated, the magazine started an all-sports cable channel called CNN/SI. There weren’t a lot of writers at the mag willing and/or able to go on the air, so I jumped all over that. I got my big break at the 2003 Final Four when CBS asked me to do a segment on prospective coaching changes. They brought on as a fulltime studio analyst the following season.
J.P.:You started your career at the New Haven Register, around the same time I started at The Tennessean. We’re both newspaper guys who, I’m guessing in your case, dreamed of writing sports for a daily paper. What was the experience like, girding it at a daily? And do you think, for up-and-coming journalists, that specific dream is dead?
S.D.: If that dream is dead, it’s a shame, but yeah. I mean, if you were coming out of college today, would you look at a career in newspapers as a great future?
Like you, working at the Register was a great way to learn the craft under the radar. I like to say that wisdom can only be accrued through experience – and “experience” really means “fucking up.” I made a lot of mistakes during those two-and-a-half years, but fortunately I was at a place where it didn’t cost me my job. I’ll admit there were days in New Haven where I worried that no one would find me, but I wouldn’t trade my apprenticeship there for anything. I think of it as my grad school education.
J.P.:Your dad is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. You’re also Joe Liberman’s God son—hell, you even gave me Liberman’s book (don’t think I ever returned it). What sort of role did politics play in your youth? Were you destined to be politically active/minded?
S.D.: Politics played a very big part of my youth. I take it for most people, politicians are portrayed as inept, corrupt, shallow and the like. In my house they were heroes. I mean, you couldn’t be a more romantic hero than FDR or JFK. My dad’s dad was a good old-fashioned Jewish World War II liberal. He hated Ronald Reagan with a visceral passion – and he could not countenance being friends with someone who felt otherwise. I remember one time when I asked what he would do if he found out Mom voted for Reagan. He looked at me seriously and said, “I honestly think I would have a hard time staying married to her.”
When I was 6-years old, my dad introduced Jimmy Carter at a rally. Carter came to the stage and picked me up in his arms. I think I still have a picture of that signed by him. When I was ten, my dad held a fundraiser for Ted Kennedy at our house. I still remember being upset when the Secret Service wouldn’t let me into certain parts of the house because Kennedy was speaking out back.
So to answer your question yes, I was destined to be politically minded. I am a total junkie and follow everything, but to be honest I tune a lot of it out. I’m looking to be informed, not provoked, and there is too much shouting going on from both sides. I don’t watch Hannity and O’Reilly, and I also don’t watch Olbermann and Maddow. J.P.: Along those lines, a question I’ve always wanted to ask someone … I’ll ask you: I’m always amazed how—conservative guess here—70 percent of male college and professional head coaches are not just Republican, but very conservative. It strikes me as odd, because these are men who know the hood; who see the value and impact of social programs on the poor; who grasp what it is to struggle and come from single-parent homes and need government assistance to survive. So why do you think these guys lean so far right? And have you ever had that discussion with anyone?
S.D.: It’s funny that you have that impression, because I don’t think that is true. I actually do talk politics with a lot of coaches – I talk politics with everyone – and my sense is that you have the same breakdown amongst that group of people that you do any other. There are plenty of liberals among coaches ranks, but there are also plenty of Republicans and conservatives. Most of them actually don’t follow it that closely or consider themsleves in any camp – which is how I gather most of the country is, and probably should be. I think people’s politics depends mostly on how they were raised and by whom. So I wouldn’t say coaches on the whole are any more conservative than the rest of the population.
J.P.: You and I came up together at Sports Illustrated, so I’ve always considered you to be, first and foremost, a writer. With your TV success, is this no longer true? And did you always imagine yourself going into television and away from print?
S.D.: Very astute of you to ask, so I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I still consider myself, first and foremost, a writer. In fact, with my quote-unquote TV success, I consider it to be even more true. My writing chops is what differentiates me from others who are on TV. After all, I obviously didn’t play the game (not at any kind of high level, anyway), so I don’t have the street cred of someone like Clark Kellogg or Greg Anthony. I’m also lucky in that CBS has put in an analyst’s role that is unusual for a person with my pedigree. They don’t ask me to stick to being the “information guy.” I pick games, I break down games, I analyze games, players, teams, coaches, etc. This isn’t rocket science, after all, and I’m glad they understand that.
Most of all, my experience as a writer is invalubale to my ability to communicate on the air. I generally have a small window, perhaps 10 to 15 seconds, to get my thoughts across. Just like writing any story, you have to make decisions about what small snippet you want to emphasize, what specific point you want to make, and then articulate that point as well as possible. Those instincts are churning as I’m pouring through all my information and then deciding what goes on the air.
You may not know this, but I actually did a little stand-up comedy when I was living in New York City. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but as I like to say, for someone who sucked I wasn’t bad. I had a comedy teacher who used to tell us that if we had five minutes of stage time, go up there with four minutes of material. That way you’re not rushing to get everything in. I use that same line of thinking when I’m on the air. It’s the same thing we do as writers. We edit ourselves. (Or at least, we’re supposed to.)
J.P.: My daughter Casey is 8, and next summer she’ll be competing her Biblical requirement of following all other Jewish children to sleep-away camp. Your first book, Equinunk, Tell Your Story, is about your beloved camp, where you eventually worked as a counselor. When I try explaining summer camp to people who never went, they look at me blankly. What did summers away do for you? And why did you decide to write a book like that—as far away from sports as possible?
S.D.: My experience as a camper and counselor at Camp Equinunk was by far the most signifant, formative experience of my life. It made me who I am. Best of all, it gave me a huge community of friends who to this day are the closets and most important people in my life. Just last weekend, seven of us went away for the weekend and rented a nice log cabin right near our camp, so we could visit camp and just be together. It reminded me again how lucky I am to have such incredible friends. They’re my brothers, really.
I decided to write the book because, first and foremost, it gave me an excuse to spend another summer in camp at the ripe old age of 29. (Hey, it worked!) I had always believed that a camp summer would make for a great book. It has an obvious beginning (the buses roll in), you meet characters who succeed and fail in all sorts of intense situations, the summer has a climax (color war), and then the story comes full circle at the end (buses leave). I had actually fooled myself that I could convince a publisher to pay me, but I’m glad I didn’t know that wouldn’t happen or I never would have gone. I wrote a beautiful book and self-published it. People are still buying it, too. Every six months I get a check for 80 bucks from my publisher and I take my wife out to dinner.
And I understand about trying to explain it to other people (read: gentiles). They have to live it to know it. Of course, if they’re looking to learn a little more about the summer camp world, feel free to tell them to read (or at least buy) my book!
J.P.:You wrote a fantastic book about Magic and Bird meeting in college, and you’re now working on another sports biography (I won’t reveal the topic unless you want me to, Seth. Lemme know). I find the whole process torturous. How about you? Where do you write? How do your organize your thoughts? How do you compare writing books to writing magazine pieces?
S.D.: First of all, I have no problem revealing that I am working on a biography of John Wooden. It won’t be out for another couple of years – assuming I finish the fucking thing!!!
Writing a book is indeed torturous – but it is an exquisite torture, or we wouldn’t do it. I don’t know about you, but I find the biggest challenge is just the sheer magnitude of the task. The researching, the interviewing, the outlining, the writing, the re-writing, the re-re-writing….there is a lot of joy in that. The hard part is, just when you’ve finally polished off another 7,000-word chapter – is there anything more gratifying than hitting that print button? – it’s time to start on another. I think right now I’ve written 14 chapters in my first draft – and I’m only in 1961. That doesn’t seem like I’m that far along, but considering I started in 1910, it isn’t bad. But I have a long way to go.
I tend to do my best writing in the mornings. Which is funny, because when I first got to SI, it seemed like everybody was pulling all-nighters to meet their deadlines. I thought that’s how you’re supposed to work. But I find it very hard to write (or at least write well) when I’m tired. Although with three young boys and several fulltime jobs, it seems like I’m always tired. Organizing my material is probably the hardest part, as I’m sure you can relate. I’ve become the master at using interns – college students and other eager beavers who think I’m doing them a huge favor by assigning them lots of tedious work and not paying them for it.
I think when people think about the difficulties of writing a book, they imagine the writer huddled over his laptop in agony, wondering what word to type next. When you do something that is so research-intensive, writing is the payoff, the real joy. Yes, writing is hard, but when you’re rolling, and you see all that hard work come to life on the printed page, it is a thrilling high.
J.P.:I get the feeling that a lot of print reporters go to TV for ego. Being recognized in an airport; having people say, “Hey, aren’t you …” I’m not saying this is the case with you, but how much of an ego buzz comes from television recognition? And do you think it’s a driving force for the careers of some?
S.D.: Yes, it’s cool to be recognized in airports, restaurants, arenas, etc. Not gonna deny that. But frankly, it wouldn’t last long as a driving force to go into a chosen career. And in my case, it certainly doesn’t happen enough even if that were the case.
At the end of the day, you have to enjoy the work, or you can’t do it (or at least, can’t be good at it). What makes TV fun is the excitement of doing it, of being at a big event like the Final Four, going on live TV knowing a lot of people are watching, and having a chance to have a genuine impact with the very little airtime that I am given. As you might imagine, a lot of people ask me which I like better, writing or being on TV. My answer is always the same: TV is more fun, but writing is more gratifying.
J.P.:One reason I left Sports Illustrated when I did was because I simply got worn down by the day-to-day repetition of sports. Someone wins, someone loses, someone surprises, someone disappoints. You’ve now covered, in one way or another, 20 or so NCAA Tournaments and seasons. Are you ever just like, “I don’t give a shit anymore”? Do you ever tire of the games?
S.D.: I never, ever, ever tire of the games. If I weren’t covering them, I’d still be watching. But your point is well-taken. There is a certain sameness to covering season after season – Midnight Madness to the preseason runup to the nonconference season to the conference season to Selection Sunday to the tournament. If anything gets to me sometimes, it’s not the sameness, it’s the smallness. I turn on the radio sometimes and hear people breaking down in minute detail things that obviously do not deserve so much attention. Then again, as I mentioned before I’m a political junkie as well, and there is a lot of smallness in political reporting, too. It’s an interesting paradox, no? Politics is something that is genuinely important, yet people who cover it make it small and talk about it as if it’s a sport. And sports is genuinely unimportant, yet we talk about it like it’s life or death.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SETH DAVIS
• Rank in order: Paul Tsongas, Spencer Dunkley, Mitt Romney, Mouse McFadden, Michael Dukakis, Jason Bateman, your mailbox, Celine Dion: Paul Tsongas, Michael Dukakis, Spencer Dunkely, Jason Bateman, Mouse McFadden, my mailbox, Celine Dion, Mitt Romney. You could pretty much come up with any list (pestilence, lice, killing of the first born) and Romney would probably end up last.
• Five best non-Duke college basketball players you’ve ever seen: Len Bias, Tyler Hansbrough, Juan Dixon, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette.
• Five best Duke players you’ve ever seen: Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Shane Battier, Jason Williams.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: I have never had that experience (and hope I never will). But last week I got a tweet from Deadspin saying they wanted me to email them so they could ask me something in private. The seven minutes between when I sent my email and they replied were the longest of my life. It occurred to me that that’s what it must feel like if you think your plane is about to crash. Turned out that it was much ado about nothing, but it was scary.
• Ever considered running for office? A possibility in the future?: I actually have considered it, but never to the point where I would actually do it. The truth is, I really don’t know enough to hold public office. Of course that hasn’t stopped many people from running – but the point is it should.
• ESPN offers you $900,000 to team up with Stuart Scott for 350 SportsCenters a year: Despite his North Carolina pedigree, I actually like and respect Stuart Scott. (I met him once but I don’t know him.) But if I’m doing SportsCenter 350 days a year, that means I have 15 days off all year. So you’re gonna have to add another zero.
• Fill in the last line: Knock knock. Who’s there? Moses Scurry. Moses Scurry who?: Moses Scurry who was more famous for being in a hot tub with a known sports fixer than on a basketball court. My kinda guy!
• Do you think Pat Summitt would have made a capable DI men’s basketball coach?: Absolutely not. I think Pat Summitt would have been a GREAT men’s coach. I have been saying for years that an AD should hire a woman to coach his mens team. If I were an AD at a D-3 school, I would do that if for no other reason than the publicity. People who say that a woman can’t motivate male players are wrong. If you control someone’s scholarship and playing time, you can motivate them.
• Could an openly gay player survive on most DI basketball rosters?: I’m assuming many already have. Kids are a lot smarter than grownups (especially grownups who vote Republican).
• Are you holding out any hope for the Kid ‘n’ Play reunion?: Openly rooting against it.
Actually, we’ve leased it—a Toyota Highlander for 36 months.
I’m not a fan of buying or leasing cars. It’s a pain in the ass, and the wife and I rarely agree on the vehicle of choice. Though she doesn’t love minivans and SUVs, she insists that—as a family with two kids and myriad play dates—we need something big enough to fit in a gaggle of tykes. I agree … but I loathe driving buses. So I aim as small as possible. Inevitably, we bicker, then come up with a resolution.
I’m babbling. Though I never like acquiring cars, watching the wife at a car dealership is like watching a card shark in Vegas. She is, to be blunt, masterful. Without getting into details, by the time we left the New Rochelle Toyota dealership, the price on our Highlander had dropped by $110 per month. How? Relentlessness. Intensity. Mostly, smarts.
Here are the wife’s car negotiating keys:
1. Go within the last few days of a month. And, ideally, the last few days of the year. Why? Because all dealerships have to make their quotas, and toward the end of months and years the incentives are plentiful (Note: Rainy days are a huge bonus.).
2. Do your homework online. Know how much a car will cost; know what features you will want and won’t want.
3. Tell the dealer to give you his best price—then tell him you’ll take that and call the area’s other dealerships. That scares him into believing you’ll give someone else the sale, and will motivate him into giving you a better price. The last thing he wants is you leaving, especially when it’s clear you want a car.
4. Obvious one, but find out beforehand how much the percentage rate will be. That will help you determine how much to put down. The higher the percentage rate, the more you want to put down.
5. Don’t stop until you get your lowest price … until he says there’s absolutely no more room to negotiate, and the dealership has made its final offer.
6. Lastly, work with a dealer you find trustworthy. We happened to luck out today and be greeted by Thomas Acheampong, a warm, friendly, anything-but-slimy 31-year old who was polite and courteous and clearly a long way from the cliched scammer. Thomas has worked for Toyota for two months, and he seemed determined to make a sale without being determined to take advantage of his customers. That meant something to us. And, I must say, if you’re looking for a Toyota in Westchester, I highly, highly recommend the man. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, after spending nearly three hours inside the Toyota shop, the wife needs a nap.
In my status as a Z-list celebrity, right behind Mike O’Berry and Denis Mandel on the fame rankings (but clearly ahead of Roger Menache), I get recognized by face, oh, once a year. It usually takes place somewhere completely random. Once, I was sitting in the robot store at the Palisades Mall. Another time I was writing in a coffee shop. Again, it rarely happens.
However, it did happen the other day. And, man, was it humiliating …
So as I’ve discussed myriad times, authors move books. Literally. When I’m in a store, and I see my books poorly placed, I lift them up, do a little two-step shuffle and relocate them to prime real estate. That’s exactly what I was doing on Friday at the Barnes & Noble in Yonkers, N.Y. About 10 copies of Sweetness were buried way back on a table in the rear of the store. So, after locating them, I casually picked a bunch up and slowly, gracefully placed them on the NEW table up front.
It was at this moment, placing down the books, when I was approached by a dude in a Mets hat.
“Is that your book?”
“You’re Jeff Pearlman, right?”
I was stunned. Beyond stunned. And mortified. Beyond mortified. So I did what any person in my shoes would have. “Uh, no,” I said.
So my friend Frank and I just engaged in a lengthy, sorta fascinating discussion on the word “Cunt.”
There are a million curses out there, most of which can be used without so much as a bat of the eye. Shit. Fuck. Dick. Dickwad. Pussy. Motherfucker. Asshole. Asswipe. Asshead. On and on. As one who curses quite often, I’ve thrown all of the above around with reckless abandon. Yet cunt, for some reason, carries added weight. To call a woman a cunt is to risk your life. To call a man a cunt, well, not much better. The word itself feels heavy; like, instead of getting punched in the head by your brother, you’re getting punched in the head by Lennox Lewis.
But why? According to Wikipedia, here’s the background:
The word in its modern meaning is attested in Middle English. Proverbs of Hendyng, a manuscript from some time before 1325, includes the advice: Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding. (Give your cunt wisely and make (your) demands after the wedding.)
Personally, I’ve probably called someone a cunt—grand total—four times in my life—and zero times since age 15. Sometimes I’ll use it jokingly with very, very, very close friends, but only in the complete understanding that we’re kidding around and it’s acceptable.
Did a quick Nexis newspaper searching, curious what would come up on the president. This is the first article he ever appeared in. Genuinely fascinating …
The Associated Press
February 5, 1990, Monday, AM cycle
First Black President of Harvard Law Review Elected
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 275 words
DATELINE: CAMBRIDGE, Mass.
The Harvard Law Review has elected its first black president in more than 100 years of publication at Harvard Law School. Barack Obama, a 28-year-old second-year law student, was elected in balloting Sunday by last year’s editors. Obama, a native of Hawaii, succeeds Peter Yu, the publication’s first Asian-American president. Obama said his election shouldn’t be seen as a sign social barriers have broken down. “I wouldn’t want people to see my election as a symbol that there aren’t problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society,” he said. “From experience I know that for every one of me there are a hundred, or thousand, black and minority students who are just as smart and just as talented and never get the opportunity.” But Obama also said his presidency “sends a signal out that blacks can excel in competitive situations like scholarship. It’s also a sign of progress.’ The review, founded in 1887, is published eight times a year and contains legal articles by professors, scholars and students throughout the United States, law school spokesman Michael Chmura said. Each year, about 30 students serve as editors of the review. The students are generally at the top of their classes, Chmura said. The student elected president works for one year coordinating the work of the other editors, and has final say over the review’s contents, he said. Obama, who received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1983, took time off before law school for social work on the South Side of Chicago. He said he would like to someday return to community work, and has not ruled out a future in politics.
In the history of modern America, no phrase has been misused with such audacious inanity than “making history.” ESPN has actually perfected the artform, insisting that some third-rate athlete just “made history” by becoming the first Oklahoma City Thunder guard to hit six-straight three-pointers while standing on the left side of the court on a Thursday in November. It’s truly ridiculous—just because someone is the first to do something, or just because someone accomplishes a noteworthy feat, doesn’t mean we’re actually witnessing history.
Hell, I’d argue (strongly) that, by winning the World Series this year, the St. Louis Cardinals did not make history. The World Series was played in 2010. It will be played in 2012. Someone will win, someone will lose. It’s happened, literally, dozens upon dozen of times. Interesting? Perhaps. Attention-grabbing? Sure. Headline-worthy? Absolutely.
Historic? No, no, no.
In that spirit, I bring to you the greatest misuse of “making history” I’ve ever seen. Here’s the video …
The merging of the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys isn’t history, or even slightly historic. Fuck, if we’re gonna be honest, it’s a travesty that—were there a God—could have been avoided. To merge a pair of dreadful, lip-synching has-been boy bands on one stage is as unhistoric as unhistoric gets. It’s a three-game hitting streak by Scott Flectcher. It’s a Jojo B-side. It’s the George Washington Bridge upping its toll by a quarter.
A couple of days ago I read a piece in Sports Illustrated about the lengthy and remarkable career of Walter Iooss, the magazine’s legendary photography. One particular Iooss story caught my eye—while shooting LeBron James last year, Iooss wasn’t allowed to speak with the basketball star. No, if he needed to make a point or ask something, Iooss—8 million times more accomplished and talented than James—had to go through a member of the so-called King’s entourage.
Now take today’s Quaz guest, Tina Thompson. An all-everything basketball star who stands as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, Thompson responded to my Quaz request, oh, an hour after I sent it. She was beyond generous with her time, and answered the following questions with detail and intelligence. Bravo.
Here, Thompson talks dunking, Houston Comets, Celine Dion, Showtime Lakers and why, at age 36, she’s as good as ever.
Tina Thompson, take it to the hole—Quaz style …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Tina, so I’m gonna start with a blunt one. You were the first draft pick in WNBA history. You’re the league’s all-time leading scorer and the only person to play in every season. You are, in a sense, Ms. WNBA. Which leads me to this: I feel like something with the WNBA hasn’t fully worked. I mean, you’ve inspired many girls and women, which is great. And you’ve lasted 15 years—a feat many people would not have expected. But, to me, it still feels as if the league is propped up by the NBA; that the moment David Stern says, “No mas,” the WNBA dies and this whole thing goes away. Tell me why I’m wrong—or right. Also, do you think the WNBA is limited, fan wise, by being a women’s league? What I mean is, can it simply never reach the heights and popularity of MLB and NFL and NBA because of gender? Or can the nation, as a whole, embrace it?
TINA THOMPSON.: First, the WNBA is still relatively young. Considering where we are now in comparison the NBA, NFL and MLB at this same juncture the WNBA is doing well. The WNBA is the most successful women’s professional league in American history, and there is a lot to be said about that. Like any relationship where there is assistance by the big brother (NBA) in order to get up and running or to succeed. There will come a time where the little sister/brother has to stand on its own. That also is a process. In my opinion the WNBA is at that stage. Becoming a public business and having independent ownership is the first step. There will be growing pains but that isn’t abnormal. I consider myself a pioneer, of course I would love to be paid more money, travel better and stay in grand hotels like the NBA, but that is not the reality and definitely historically not the journey of a pioneer. Yes, we have inspired many young girls, a feat in itself. That’s where it all starts for me—someone has to be inspired. From that inspiration someone will be motivated to work harder to make the necessary steps to right things that will guarantee success. I truly believe that. On top of the fact that we work pretty darn hard and we are pretty good basketball players to boot.
David Stern to me is an innovator—he see’s things that most people don’t naturally see. Does everyone always agree with his vision? No. But that’s not the point. The point is that he saw something with the WNBA, something good, something great. He sees the big picture and we are all in this situation because of that vision. From what I see, he is a man who does not like to fail, so I doubt that No Mas! is an option any time soon. I do believe that the WNBA can be respected on a national level. We are already being viewed across the world and have a very broad fan base. I do believe that the key to getting people in the seats is marketing. Making people more aware of the player’s and when we play. What I can say about a WNBA is once we get a non-believer into an arena to witness a game, they become believers.
J.P.:You were born and raised in Los Angeles, and you learned the game on the courts at Robertson Park. You first started going there at age 10 and, the narrative has it, earned your way into games. I’m not 1/1,000 of the player you are, but I’m guessing—at that stage in our lives—I’d have had a much easier time getting a run. In fact, I’ve never really seen a girl earn genuine pickup props at a playground filled with men. So how the heck did you?
T.T.: Lol, you’re probably right. The first thought is to always choose the guy first if the other choice is a girl. The assumption is that the guy is always better. And it wasn’t easy to change that perception. I had to put in a lot of work and received tons of rejection. But I didn’t give up and I guess out of sheer respect for the fact that I put in the work they gave me a chance. I took advantage of that opportunity. I competed and I earned the right to play. Still to this day a guy will automatically assume that he is better simply because he is male by gender. Ridiculous. If I had a dollar for every time a guy said he could never let a woman beat him at any anything, I would be earning an NBA-like salary. Call it male ego or just plan ignorance for this assumption on their part. But I call it silly and can attest to the untruth. I know I’m better not because I’m “Tina Thompson” but because I put in the work and I know the game. So Mr. I Play Every Couple of Sundays—please give me a break and stop being so disrespectful. I will smash you.
J.P.:My daughter is 8 and extremely tall (She projects to somewhere around 5-10). You’re 6-2 and, I’m guessing were always “the tall girl” growing up. It strikes me as a rough burden to hand a young female, based on societal expectations and all. So, well, was it? And did your height steer you into basketball?
T.T.: I’m a product of relatively tall parents. My mother is about 5’9″ and my father is 6’4″. All of my siblings are pretty tall. I’ve played basketball since I was about nine or 10. So I don’t think I ever went through a stage where I felt awkward or different because of my height. I was always around people for the most part (athletes) who were also tall. Even though I was taller than a lot of my peers I’ve always been able to still go shopping and find clothing pretty easily. I have an average size foot for my height so that wasn’t a problem either. My older brother always expressed to me the importance of being very ladylike and basketball shouldn’t have an impact on that. I learned really early that basketball was what I enjoyed doing but I didn’t define who I was. So I embraced my height and I felt rather normal around my friends. My height had no effect on my choice to play basketball. I was a huge Lakers fan of the 80s teams and my older brother played. So more than anything I would say my basketball influence came from admiration of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, “Showtime” and wanting to hang out with my older brother.
J.P.:You’re staring down your 37th birthday. Last season you averaged 9.9 points for the Los Angeles Sparks—obviously an excellent output, but the lowest of your career. I’m fascinated by aging in professional athletes, and how it impacts their physicality. I think of it this way: I’m almost 40, but I can still compete at a relatively consistent level because I’ve never maxed out my abilities (in other words, I play in the YMCA and playgrounds when I can). You, however, maximize your abilities every year. It’s what you’re paid to do. So how has aging changed things for you? What arer the difficulties? The complications? And how much longer do you want to play?
T.T.: I didn’t know that last year was my career-worst performance. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you my stats from any season let alone compare my career outputs. I just know that it didn’t feel good. I could probably say that about the last three years of my career. I haven’t performed the way that I know I can. And I don’t believe it’s because of age or was it due to lack of effort. I have always played in a way that I void myself of regrets. Meaning that I give all I have to give to my team so that when I leave from in between those lines, I have no regrets. So I do not regret the way I played. I do regret the other non-basketball things that did come into play and had an effect. I have aged for sure—at 36 I am no spring chicken, but I am still able to compete at this level. Where I have noticed the age having an impact, though, is mostly in my recovery. I just don’t bounce back as quickly as I used to but that’s normal.
I have the most complications in adjusting to the new athlete—the personality more than anything. I’m old school so I come from the mentally that you put in the work and you gain the reward. No sense of ownership, you don’t claim anything you haven’t worked for nor do you expect it. In my opinion the two mentalities just don’t meet at the same juncture. You live and you learn.
J.P.:I’m fascinated by sexuality in sports and, particularly, homosexual athletes and the reaction to their presences. I once did a lengthy piece on the subject, where a pitcher told me he didn’t want to play with “those people” and Ken Griffey, Jr. told me his best friend was gay and he could care less. It seems in women’s sports, homosexuality is much, much less taboo than other places. It also seems much less taboo among African-American athletes than in, generally speaking, the African American communities across America. Do you agree? And does sexual orientation ever come into play in the WNBA? Can it hurt a team?
T.T.: I personally don’t get into anyone’s personal life unless they involve me in some way. I believe that personal lives are just that, personal. What people do in there private lives should remain private. I don’t ever think that anyone should bring their personal lives to work—that’s not for the workplace. It can become an issue if anyone’s personal life has an affect on work place affairs. In sports, well, at least team sports, we rely on each other to be focused and be at our best. So to think that things non-sport related are having an affect on the sport, problems in the team are sure to follow. I do my best not to judge. We all have are beliefs and some of us agree and others don’t. That’s the way of the world. It’s possible to see things differently and no one be wrong.
J.P.:I have an odd perspective on women basketball players and dunking. It seems whenever a female can dunk, people go crazy, waiting, waiting, waiting for the magical moment. Then it happens—almost always a straight-ahead one-handed jam—and it’s, well, sorta dull. I mean, it’s merely putting a ball forcefully in a basket. I also think it sorta demeans women’s basketball. Forget the crisp passing, the sharp shooting, the intelligence of the game—SHE CAN DUNK! Do you care when women dunk? Does it interest you? And should it matter?
T.T.: I personally think dunking period is overrated. Maybe I feel that way because I can’t dunk myself. I do find it fascinating at times to see certain guys defy gravity and do these amazing athletic things but at the end of the day it’s just two points. I believe it takes more work and skill to shoot with the accuracy of a guy like Ray Allen or Dirk Nowitzki. Athleticism in most cases comes from genetics. Things you can’t teach and are few and far in between. Some are offended by the statement that women’s basketball is played below the rim and men’s basketball is played above the rim. Well, not me! It takes much skill to separate yourself from everyone operating on the say level as you. Michael Jordan is who he is because of an extreme work ethic and great genes. Take away the athleticism—are the possibilities of his greatness still possible? I’m not so sure.
T.T.: I was definitely bothered by the fact that the Houston Comets franchise disbanded. It was where it all started for me, I accomplished so much there and had so many great memories. I am most bothered by the fact that my jersey will not be able to hang in the rafters with Kim’s and Cynthia’s. But the memory of that franchise is impossible to forget. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to. People will remember and so will I! Too much greatness happen during the period, not just for the Houston Comets but for the WNBA as well.
J.P.: I read somewhere that, pre-WNBA, you were planning on attending law school. Is that true? And what would you be doing right now—and what would your life have been—had the WNBA never existed?
T.T.: Yes, it is true that pre-WNBA I was planning on attending Law School. I’m not really a what if type person. But I would guess that I would be practicing law as a criminal defense attorney, and working on a judgeship. It was something that I always wanted to do as a young person. I still aspire to receive a degree in law, not so sure if I would practice in a court room. But the feelings are still there. I image that my life would be pretty exciting and full of accomplishments, just not in an athletic way.
J.P.:There’s something in sports that’s long fascinated me—and I’m going to ask you. A huge number of college and professional athletes share attributes to you: African-American, from the city, established their love for basketball on the playgrounds. Many, many, many come from poor households, often with single parents and little support. They thrive thanks to the goodness of others; on YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs and the like. Yet, from my experiences, most college and pro coaches—despite seeing (and capitalizing) on such environs—are extremely conservative, politically. They’re anti-social programs, anti-long unemployment benefits, anti-government subsidizing of the arts and community clubs. Frankly, I don’t get it. Tell me, Tina, am I wrong? Am I off? Or is there a major contradiction? And have you ever had this debate?
T.T.: I’m not sure what you mean exactly. I wouldn’t say I grew up poor. If I did, I wasn’t aware of it. I grew up with both of my parents in our household, my parents were married for 35 years. As far as inner-city athletes not being cultured if that’s what you mean? I personally think that is more of a media-driven thing. In sports we’re all about selling things to whomever is buying. And the rags to riches story is what appeals to people and they enjoy it. They are extremely fascinated with it in my opinion. I know many of athlete’s that have interest out side of the sport. I have a great relationship with Baron Davis from my home town. I remember seeing a special on him when he was with the Golden State Warriors. The crew was interviewing him from his home and asking him about the artwork on his walls and the books in is library. I was disheartened by the fact that people assumed that he was playing a part, that he was not cultured enough to collect art and or be an avid reader. If you know Baron you know that he is very intelligent, he is an extremely out-of-the-box kind of guy. He is one of many. So I would say, it’s more how we choose to market city kids who become professional athlete’s versus their lack of being culture or the inability to be cultured. I mean, you assumed that I lacked culture, grew up poor and came from a single parent household. In fact the only assumption was that I was African-American, but that’s pretty obvious. [*Writer’s note: I followed up later with Tina on this. The question was clearly poorly phrased. I didn’t mean to imply to Tina—or readers—that she came from a poor or rough upbringing, or that being African-American means one derives from such a background. What I meant was that many athletes do come from rough pasts—and that coaches seem to have no sympathy for the plight of so many]
J.P.:I hate asking these questions—but it does, admittedly, fascinate me. Will a woman ever play in the NBA? Not merely as a stunt or a training camp PR deal. Can it happen? Why or why not?
T.T.: I feel the question of will a women ever play in the NBA is no longer relevant. Considering she doesn’t have to now that we have a league of our own in the WNBA. Great debate question 15 years ago, no longer necessary.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, do tell: I believe it has crossed my mind before, during turbulence, but nothing I thought far enough into to elaborate. I prayed and moved on.
• In your mind, percentage chance that there’s no such thing as an afterlife and we all just turn into dirt (feel free to elaborate)?: I believe there is life after death and I most definitely want to go to heaven.
• If you started at small forward for the Knicks against, oh, Indiana tonight, what would you line be?: I’m not really a stats person like that, I actually don’t even look at the stat sheet. What I know is that I would have to shut down Danny Granger in order to win. I’m up for that.
• Five things in your purse: Wallet, cell phone, anti-bacterial, lip balm, camera.
• I thought Cindy Blodgett was gonna light it up. What happened?: So did I … not sure what happen to Cindy. I played against her when she was at Maine. Awesome talent.
• I’m Jewish. Can I come over to the Thompson household for Christmas. And what would you like me to bring?: Of course you can come over for Christmas, I would prefer you bring chicken matzo ball soup (love it).
• Least-favorite movie of all time: Zoolander • You attended USC—an absolute sports powerhouse. I can name 100 Trojans off the top of my head—no problem. I attended the University of Delaware, home of 0 professional basketball players. As we speak, however, the best college player in the country is Elena Delle Donne, a Delaware Blue Hen. Can I hold that over your head?: Absolutely not! Lol.
That is, if the accusations made by a former St. Joseph’s player named Todd O’Brien are true.
Which, I believe, they are.
Seriously, read this. By now, I am no longer shocked or even disappointed by the near-universal dickheadedness of big-time college coaches. But I remain disgusted. O’Brien was a marginal St. Joeseph’s player who had the audacity of wanting to pursue of course of study elsewhere. When he asked for approval to transfer, Martelli denied it. Why? Because he was pissed.