David Aldridge is not “D.A.”
Yeah, that’s perhaps how you know him, based off of myriad years of NBA television work and hearing the studio hosts “sending it down to D.A.”
But, truth be told, the brand new editor in chief of The Athletic D.C. is a man of the written word. He cut his teeth at the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer, covering the very awful Bullets, the equally awful Redskins, the exciting Georgetown Hoyas—and myriad other events and moments. He’s not merely a student of sports, but a student of monitoring sports. How to approach an athlete. What to look for in a coach-star interaction. When has a team given up. When is a player faded.
In short, he’s one of the absolute best.
That’s why, for the 379th Quaz Q&A, David Aldridge joins us to explain the new gig; to talk Ralph Sampson’s Washington Bullets and why #fakenews drives him to the bring of furor.
One can follow David on Twitter here.
David Aldridge, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: I’m gonna start with a broader question than usual. Hope that’s OK. So you’ve covered a ton of sporting events for major outlets. The Washington Post. ESPN. TNT. The Philadelphia Inquirer. And I feel like, in our business, most of the events we attend fade to murkiness. So what’s an unexpected one that hasn’t? What I mean is—I know World Series and NBA Finals and such are big, because they’re big. But what’s something you’ve covered that really stuck with you? And why?
DAVID ALDRIDGE: I’m not sure I’m weaseling out of your question, because one story I’ve always remembered was at a big event—the Indianapolis 500, in 1988. But the story was about someone not all that famous: the late driver/racer Jim Crawford. The year before, Crawford had been in a terrible accident at Indy during practice—he crashed into a wall, and the resulting impact badly injured both his legs and feet. He had rods in his ankle and they had to jerry-rig a way for him to drive the car the following year to lessen the impact on his feet. He was still using a cane. But he got back in the car to race.
I asked him before the race how someone can do that without giving in to fear. I don’t recall his exact words, but they fell along the lines of “This is what I do for a living.” And it was startling to me that he was so matter of fact about potential serious injury and/or dying. But it made me realize that there’s a huge difference between what civilians like me think about sports and what professional athletes think about them. They understand the risks involved but they believe that their talent and/or experience mitigates those risks to the point of absurdity. As it turned out, Crawford not only raced again in 1988, he led the race for a bunch of laps and was second late before a blown tire dropped him to sixth. It was still an incredible run, especially considering he was the only Buick driver going against the legendary Roger Penske team (and, in the end, Rick Mears won his third of four Indys that year). Incredible. I may or may not have been rooting that day—for the story, to be sure. But also for the guy.
J.P.: Sorta random, but I feel like we in sports media have largely escaped the #fakenews drama. No one hashtags #fakenews about whether Tyrod Taylor should start at quarterback, or whether the Sixers need help at shooting guard. But, man, it still really wounds me, pisses me off. And I wonder A. How you feel about it; and B. What impact you think it’s had on our industry?
D.A.: I don’t believe there’s a journalist of any bent who hasn’t been impacted by the #fakenews insanity. I’m sure if you interviewed writers who cover college sports and teams, they’d have a much different tale to tell you than someone like me who’d been national for a long time. A story like Maryland’s here in the D.C. area is rife for that kind of “My side is the only side” takes by readers. There are people who staunchly defended, and continue to defend, D.J. Durkin. When it involves the alma mater, people don’t always think clearly.
Of course, generally, as a journalist, I’m offended by the notion that “reporting about things I don’t like or don’t want to hear that could impact my worldview=fake news.” But, I live in D.C. I am about 10 minutes from Comet Pizza, which is where the whole “Hillary Clinton is running a child prostitution ring out of the basement of a pizzeria in D.C.” idiocy was supposedly located, and where the guy from North Carolina drove up to, and came in with a gun. And I have friends on that same block who either own or run businesses who’ve received death threats. They aren’t in any way affiliated with Comet—which, again, was not at the location of this (non-existent) child prostitution ring—but they still got death threats, just because they were on the same block. That’s how insane this has become.
I don’t worry about big institutions like CNN or The Washington Post; they’ll be fine. They have strong, long-lasting followings and followers—and, more important, they have access to high-powered lawyers and law firms. What worries me is the small, independently-owned paper in Michigan or Arkansas or New Mexico that tries to speak truth to power, no matter what the power is in that particular place, and is harassed by people for political reasons. Those institutions don’t have the financial wherewithal to survive an economic boycott. And so, what happens? You stop covering the city council. You stop covering the mayor’s office, or the cops--or, at least, you stop covering them as aggressively. And people who live in those places don’t find out how the deputy mayor is using the city coffers as his or her personal ATM, or whatever. The chilling effect is real.
J.P.: You covered the 1991-92 Washington Bullets for the Washington Post. They finished 25-57, and their roster featured the likes of Ledell Eackles, Tom Hammonds and a battered and feeble Ralph Sampson. What is it like covering a crappy team, night after night? Is there joy in it? Is it a nightmare? Is there a way to find fresh copy when it’s lose-lose-lose-lose?
D.A.: I learned so much more covering bad teams than good ones. (I was the kiss of death as a beat guy. Covered the Bullets—they were the Bullets then—for five years, and their “high-water” mark with me was 40-42. Then covered the Skins for three years, and they went 3-13, 4-12, 6-10.) But you learn so much about people in those times: who is a stand-up guy in the locker room, and who goes and hides.
So, guys like Darrell Walker and Jeff Malone, who talked to me every night, loss after loss, were and are some of my favorite people ever in this business. What coaches tell you the truth, even when it’s against their self-interest, and which ones don’t. And, you have to grow as a writer. The 17th time in 23 days you have to write a variation on “This team sucks,” it’s hard. One time, in Atlanta, I remember just throwing my hands up. The Bullets were losing by a hundred in the first quarter, as usual. And this was when Ted Turner still owned CNN, so he came to the game with his then-wife, Jane Fonda. And I wrote a lede about how gorgeous and hot Jane Fonda looked (she did), and how striking Ted Turner looked (this was, for your conspiracy-minded readers, about 15 years before I started working for Turner Sports—which, by then, Ted Turner no longer owned). And my editor spiked it. And I said something along the lines of, ‘well, you come down here and cover this shitty team, then.’ I think that may have been my last year on the beat.
J.P.: You are a recognizable sports media figure. Players call you “D.A.,” coaches call you “D.A.” They know your face, they know your name, they wish you well. And maybe this sounds dumb, but was that level of fame ever enticing or overwhelming? Like, is it sort of an aphrodisiac to have famous, rich, recognizable heroes acknowledge and embrace you? Or is that just dumb?
D.A.: Nota Bene: I hate “D.A.” It’s a totally, made-up, TV thing. But, since it’s short and to the point, I live with it.
I never bought into the fame part of being on TV. And that’s not because I’m extra-crispy virtuous or anything. It’s just that I grew up when newspapers were the most important thing, and I wanted to work for one, and almost nobody I knew at the time who worked for a paper was famous. (I worked in the same building with Bob Woodward, at the Post. We were not, in any way, colleagues. I saw him at a National Press Club event last year, and said “Hi, Bob.” He looked at me like I was a crustacean. I guess the nine years together didn’t produce strong memories for him.) I think, also, I saw how other people acted around famous people and just found it repulsive. If you’ve ever been in a bar or a club with Michael Jordan, you see some of the weirdest things. People lose their damn minds. So fame was never a thing I sought. It was weird for me to try and use my name to get a reservation at a restaurant. Really. If I was 25 now, I might think differently about it. I don’t know. I’m a pretty shy person so the idea of everyone knowing you never appealed to me.
J.P.: You recently accepted a position as editor in chief of The Athletic D.C. A. Mazel tov. B. Why?
D.A.: Everything pointed to the same thing: you have to take this job. I loved working at Turner. It’s the best place I ever worked. The people were terrific, from top to bottom. They treated you great, and they paid you well. Being on set with Chuck and Kenny and EJ and Shaq was always a kick, but so was doing NBA TV with Matt Winer or Casey Stern or Kristen Ledlow. The travel was just starting to kick my butt. You don’t bounce back as quickly as you used to. Our kids are 14 and 11, and my dad is 90 and still lives here. I wanted to maximize my remaining time with each of them, for obvious reasons.
And, the opportunity to work with a new company that really is thinking differently about covering sports, in my hometown, was so enticing. I just knew I’d hate myself if I didn’t make the jump. I could have covered the NBA exclusively forever. I love the games and (most) of the people. But I also wanted to try and stretch and grow, not just as a writer, but as an editor, working with both experienced and young reporters. I really want to help people get better in our business. This was a great chance to try and do that. I just am in love with words. Always have been, and always will be.
J.P.: When you and I were coming up in the business, there was a path. You started at the Post, I started at the Tennessean. We moved to bigger places, sort of this logically linear progression. And nowadays, I’m not always sure what to tell aspiring journalists about entering the field. What to do; whether to do it; etc. What says David Aldridge?
D.A.: The great thing about being an emerging journalist today is there is no path. You don’t have to do that small paper to regional paper to big paper trek. You don’t have to do “paper” at all, of course. The Internet has democratized the world, and while that has serious and significant drawbacks (see “fake news,” above), it also makes it so much easier for young reporters trying to break in. A cell and a laptop, and you’re a content producer. Monetizing that is obviously the nut, but you can at least produce real content that you would not have been able to when we started. There are no gate-keeping media any more. It’s scary, I’m sure. But it also means the truly creative and hard-working young reporters can be seen a lot quicker by a lot more people, potentially by both consumers and employers.
J.P.: You’ve covered sports for a long time. How does it still hold your interest? (I ask because I struggle with this all the time)
D.A.: I’m not going to lie—I wasn’t thrilled by every game every Thursday on Turner during the last 14 years. But the amazing thing about sports is you still, more often than not, see someone do something you can’t fathom. Sunday, I was at the Skins-Giants game. And it was a terrible game. But Odell Beckham made the most amazing, one-handed catch in the fourth quarter. Just a ridiculous display of athletic ability. Literally—”did he CATCH that??” So the win-loss part of it has lost a little steam for me (which is another reason I joined The Athletic, which is all about telling stories, not about the agate). But you still, frequently, see people do things that boggle the mind.
J.P.: You’ve covered the NFL at both the Post and the Inquirer. I always thought the league was far more difficult to chronicle than the NBA, just because the access sucks and their faces are behind masks. What about you? NBA v. NFL as a writer?
D.A.: Completely different sports and mindsets. It’s harder to cover football for numerous reasons. The intricacies of the game are almost unknowable to non-players, and even harder to explain. We have a guy at The Athletic D.C., Mark Bullock, who breaks down film every week to tell our readers exactly what happened on a given play. And it’s remarkable how many different concepts and ideas go into every play. Trying to explain that is extremely difficult. Determining exactly who was supposed to block who on a given play is almost impossible—because guys don’t want to sell each other out: “Well, Troy fucked up his assignment; that’s why the QB got blindsided.” That sort of thing. The access is awful, always has been.
But the access in the NBA isn’t a whole lot better these days. Yes, LeBron speaks most every day after practice, but almost always in a scrum and never for more than a few minutes. It was almost impossible for us to get him to do a sit-down at Turner, and we were a partner ($24 billion, along with ESPN)! And this isn’t personal: LeBron and I had a good relationship. But it’s reality. Having said all that, the NBA is still so much easier to cover, simply because, even though every team has kicked almost all of the media upstairs, you still are so much more closer to the action than you are covering the NFL. And, there are only 12 guys as opposed to 53 on every team. It’s so much easier to establish relationship with pro ballers than football players; there are a third as many. Plus, there’s still a top-down approach in the NFL that doesn’t exist in the NBA, so coaches and front offices have all the juice. As the late Chuck Daly said, in the NBA, players allow you to coach them. Players run the show in the NBA, and they’re finally starting to see the power they really have—again, thanks in large part to LeBron.
J.P.: I just Googled “David Aldridge sucks,” and I found someone who wrote, bluntly, “David Aldridge sucks monkey nuts.” I’m assuming this is not literally true. But I wonder, how do you feel about the world of social media as it pertains to media? Do you like the engagement? Hate it? Has it changed the way we, as a profession, operate?
D.A.: I wouldn’t say I hate it. I don’t think it’s especially healthy. The anonymity of Twitter makes it incredibly toxic. You can literally write ‘the sky is blue’ and have some egg respond “Fuck you.” And we’ve all seen how influencers like Twitter and Facebook can easily be manipulated for nefarious ends. Yet there are still people who are truly thoughtful and genuinely are seeking dialogue and/or feedback, and you can learn a lot if you’re willing to be humble and accept constructive criticism. It has certainly freed athletes to speak their minds more, and that’s obviously a good thing (as I see it). You have to report via Twitter most of the time now, though, and it is not designed for that purpose. But it’s how young consumers consume and communicate. So you have to as well.
J.P.: Here’s your random question of the date: I thought David Wingate was going to be an NBA star. I truly, truly, truly did. You covered Georgetown (after he was there, albeit), you covered the Bullets when he was there. What the heck happened?
D.A.: David didn’t make it ’cause he couldn’t shoot. Point blank. He could defend and he was a willing passer, but he couldn’t shoot. Even back then, in the Fred Flintstone era of the NBA, you had to be able to shoot a little, and especially if you were a two (shooting) guard. But David was a cool guy. Liked working/talking with him.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID ALDRIDGE:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): A.J. English, Tashan Reed, Dave Wohl, Beyonce, Naomi Watts, Luke Walton, Robert Mueller, Toni Braxton, “The Princess Bride,” the musical catalogue of Hall & Oates, the number 17: 1) The Hall and Oates musical catalogue. I happen to think ‘Kiss on My List’ is a damn near perfect song. I am also in love with Liz Clarke, who works at the Washington Post and with whom I do Tony Kornheiser’s podcast. And, as you probably know, Liz is one of the biggest Springsteen fans out there. She’s seen him hundreds of times over the years. And she loathes H and O! Thinks they’re a treacly, unthoughtful, awful group, especially compared with Bruce, not that she would ever compare them, as much as she holds H and o in contempt. And I love that we fight about this, as (imaginary) couples often do about music. 2) Robert Mueller. I happen to think this country is worth saving. Even now. 3) Beyonce. ‘Cause, of course. Summer of ’04, when “Crazy For Love” came out, I was covering the NBA Summer League in Boston. And everybody was listening to it, it seemed. She’s incredible. I remember when she sang for Obama at his second inauguration, I think it was. I sent out a Tweet saying ‘it’s so sad how God didn’t bless Beyonce with incredible talent, or looks, or work ethic.’ And it showed me how Twitter is NOT the place for sarcasm. 4) The Princess Bride. “Have fun storming the castle!” 5) Toni Braxton. Just downloaded her latest album. Toni’s pissed! 6) A.J. English. I assume you mean the father and not the son. If the former, nice kid out of Virginia Union. Had some talent. He could have probably played in the league today; he could shoot. His claim to fame was that one night, somehow, the trainer or whoever put the players’ names on their jerseys misspelled his name. It read E-N-G-I-L-S-H on the back. 7) Luke Walton. A go-to talker as a player. A little more reserved as a coach, as you’d expect. But has that smooth, sonorous voice. Like opening up a can of Barry White. 8) The number 17. I associate this wholly with Billy Kilmer, the quarterback in the ’70s in D.C.. Couldn’t throw the ball more than 20 yards, or run more than 20 yards, it seemed. But a hell of a leader. They called him ‘Whiskey’ for a reason, I reckon. 9) Tashan Reed. Kid wrote a great lede last week on the Clemson-Florida State game, on the professor who was at the game and was so bored—FSU got beat 52-10 or something—he went to the top of the stands, took his shirt off and started reading a book. Tashan walked up there and talked to him. Great idea. 10) Dave Wohl. Just never got to know Dave very well. Nothing personal. 11) Naomi Watts. Nothing personal; I just am not all that familiar with her oeuvre. I had to look her up on iMDb, and the only thing I think I’ve ever seen that she was in was “Fair Game,” and I only saw about a third of that.
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for the Hall of Fame credential of Morlon Wiley: Morlon has become a hell of a personal trainer for guys going into the draft. Done.
• Three memories from your first date: 1) Her name was Carol. 2) I took her to a dance party at someone’s house, whose name I can’t remember. 3) I was driving my dad’s car—a ’77 Cadillac Coupe de Ville—and I spun out on the way. I can’t remember if the road was slick with ice or rain. But we did a 360—a complete loop around—and wound up exactly where we started. How no one hit me remains one of the mysteries guarding my life.
• Who wins in a game of one-on-one—right now—between you and John Mengelt? Game to 15, what’s the final score?: Okay, John is still alive. I checked, and trust you did as well. But he is 69. But he was a former professional basketball player. So, this comes down to shape. If he’s anywhere near his playing weight, he beats me 15-2 or something like that. If he’s three bills or more now, I have a shot at squeaking out a 15-13 deal. If it’s halfcourt.
• What’s the worst sports prediction you ever made?: Didn’t see how Greg Oden could miss as a pro.
• The kid across the street is screaming obnoxiously right now. Do I have your permission to berate him through the window?: Of course. Soggy little brat.
• Five friendliest professional athletes you’ve ever dealt with: In no particular order: Peyton Manning. I know it’s likely an act, but when I was covering football, and this was after ESPN, so maybe he knew who I was, he had mastered that player’s art of greeting me by name when we were re-introduced and working my name into his answers: “well, Dave, you know, I thought they were in Cover Two, so what we had to do there was,” and of course, I fell for it every time, like a dummy. Darrell Walker. Like I said above, I would go to him every night when I covered the Bullets, whether they’d were on a rare winning streak and he’d played well, or they were on a 16-game losing streak and he’d been awful, and he’d have the same greeting every time: “what’s up, Aldridge?” You love guys like that. Brian Dawkins. Hell of a good dude to cover in Philly. Always accessible and available. (I was in Dallas a lot when the Cowboys were rolling in the ’90s as well, and I’d say the same about Darren Woodson.) Steve Kerr. Good God, we abused him in Chicago. Every day, especially when Michael and/or Scottie Pippen weren’t talking. But Steve was the same in Orlando and Cleveland as he was in Chicago. He never blew us off, ever. He’s still great to talk to. Incredibly thoughtful. And, after thinking about it, I do have a number one: Charles Barkley. The Chuckster was gold. The most down to earth superstar I’ve ever dealt with, both as a beat reporter at the beginning of my career in D.C., to the last 14 years working together at Turner. When he was in Philly, my buddy Bob Ford was the beat guy for the Inquirer. And Bob would get the most pained look on his face when the out-of-town guys like me would goad Charles into saying something inflammatory, because we’d skip out of town with a great item for our notebook or whatever, and Bob would have to clean up the mess the next day. I have been with Charles in so many restaurants and bars and clubs over the years. Dozens of dozens. And, every time—every time, I’m not exaggerating—he picks up the tab. Not for me. For everyone. Every night. Night after night. He doesn’t big-time anyone. I was there in Barcelona in ’92, when he out on the Ramblas after a game, and he gave a homeless woman a wad of bills--had to be 10 grand--out of his pocket.
• What do your shoes smell like after a long day at work?: Are they supposed to smell like something other than feet? It would alarm me if they smelled like, say, fried eggs.
• What’s your all-time favorite restaurant?: Probably Prima Piatti. Closed a while ago. Used to take the wife there for dinner before she became the wife. Lovely place in Northwest D.C.
• Tell us a joke, please: I can show you better than I can tell you (h/t The Edge comedy show, circa 1992):