During the NBA season, it is difficult to really get to know the other journalists around you. There are players and coaches to be interviewed, matchups to watch, and deadlines to be made. You may get the opportunity to have a conversation or two in the media room prior to the game, at halftime of the game, and after the game while waiting for the players to make themselves available. Still, it is difficult to glean anything of substance from your peers in those instances.
Now that only four teams are left in the playoffs, and the amount of NBA to be covered is subsiding a bit, there is more of an opportunity to get to know some of the journalists, specifically the ones who cover the Washington Wizards. One of the first beat writers I had opportunity to reach out to was Washington Post Beat Writer, Michael Lee.
Michael Lee has been covering the NBA for seven years now — initially with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and now with the Washington Post. During that time he has interviewed players from Shaquille O’Neal to Kobe Bryant to Gilbert Arenas. With former Washington Wizards beat writer Ivan Carter gone to work on television, Lee is now thrust into the role full-time.
In between covering the Western Conference playoffs and the Washington Wizards draft prospects, Lee took some to answer some tough questions.
Rashad Mobley: At the start of the 2008-2009 season, I wrote about my struggles in covering my first NBA game. I was nervous, I couldn’t find the visitor’s locker room, and I couldn’t seem to ask the right questions. Take us back to your first NBA game, and describe that experience.
Michael Lee: Wow, my first NBA game feels like a lifetime ago — back when I had a little more hair on my head, a little less hair on my face and a lot smaller waistline.
I was placed in a pretty unique situation when I began covering the NBA. I was actually covering the 2002 NCAA Tournament in Greenville, S.C., for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I got the word that I was not going to the later rounds because the paper needed someone to cover the Atlanta Hawks. Unfortunately, my former colleague, the late Jeff Denberg, had come down with a brain tumor and nobody else wanted to cover one of the lousiest teams in the league at the time.
My first game was on a Saturday night in late March against the Bulls. This might not be believable to people who see me wearing a suit at every game now, but back then, I was a jeans and sneakers kind of guy (still am to an extent). But I really had nothing to wear, so I threw on a sweater, some slacks and my “church shoes.”
I was so nervous and excited about finally getting to cover the NBA. Since this was a chance to showcase my skills and potentially get me off of my beat covering high schools, I didn’t want to blow this opportunity. I put a ton of pressure on myself that day. I had no problem navigating the Philips Arena because I had lived in Atlanta for four years already and had been there for a few other events and some Hawks practices.
But the first time I walked into the locker room to cover a game, I really just wanted to make sure that Jason Terry and some of the other guys on the team didn’t think I was lame. I also wanted the coaches to feel comfortable with me, even though I was just 25. I remember a few weeks after I started covering the team and I sat down to talk to Paul Silas, then-coach of the Charlotte Hornets.
Silas looked at me and asked, “How old are you?”
I told him, “25.”
“You look younger than that,” he said.
And so it began.
Mobley: As a member of the mainstream media, how do you feel about bloggers and writers from Internet sites basically stepping on your territory on a nightly basis? Do you think this is a positive or a negative?
Lee: I don’t feel that anybody is stepping on my territory, because last I checked, nobody else is writing stories for me at the Washington Post and nobody else is getting a cut of my salary. We all have the right to watch games, formulate opinions and provide analysis. I’m not against blogging or blogs –- most of the time, they send more people to the Post to read my stories. I certainly have no beef with that.
I think most bloggers are fans of the teams they cover, which I’m not. Since they have an emotional or rooting interest in the teams or the games, they have a different take on them. Sometimes those opinions are fresh and interesting. Sometimes bloggers bring up a subject that I perhaps overlooked because I was focused on something else. But other times those opinions can get personal.
I do have a problem when people throw out random, unsubstantiated rumors. I also take issue with people who have never covered a game, never confronted a professional athlete with a difficult question and never had to show up the next day after a tough story decide to attack a newspaper reporter over something they write. I mean, I think we can agree to disagree on some things and I’m never afraid to admit when I’m wrong or make a mistake. I think some guys try so hard to get attention that they take an unnecessarily negative slant. To me, that’s a waste of the public forum.
But overall, I’m okay with blogs. After all, I am a blogger, too.
Mobley: As you may have heard, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons is on mission to become the GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves. What do you think of this and his chances overall? And more specifically, if you were the GM of this Wizards team, what moves would you make between now and draft day?
Lee: Very entertaining. He wanted to run the Bucks, too. I think Simmons has no shot at running a team. I’d rather he keep entertaining us as the Sports Guy anyway. But one thing that I’ve learned from my seven-plus seasons covering the NBA is that some general managers don’t really know what they are doing, but most do. I also know that it is a very tough, stressful and demanding job. Not only are you messing with an owner’s checkbook, but you are also affecting the mental well-being of fans, many of whom invest their lives into their favorite teams. That’s a lot of pressure not to mess up.
If I was General Manager of the Wizards, I really don’t know what I’d do. I might need to take a lot more time to think about that. I’m not one who believes the Wizards, when healthy, are one or two pieces away from being a championship team (Of course, it really depends on that one or two pieces). I’m also of the belief that the Wizards are really in a serious holding pattern until they can determine just how healthy Gilbert Arenas is. The two games he played this season were not enough of a sample size for me. I still don’t know what I have there. Thus, I still don’t know what this team is, and I really won’t know until Arenas starts playing in November or so.
Mobley: During the course of the year, I found the San Antonio Spurs to be the most intriguing team to interview because everyone from starts like Tim Duncan to Coach Popovich to the role players like Matt Bonner could talk about basketball and non-basketball issues at the same time. What’s your favorite locker room to cover and why?
Lee: The Spurs are very underrated. I think people look at those uniforms and see Tim Duncan play and think they are dull and boring. But I’ve always found the guys in that locker room to be pretty knowledgeable, accommodating and often funny. I’ve always enjoyed talking to Tim Duncan.
My favorite locker rooms (I cannot settle on one) are the Wizards (they are loose and hilarious), the Orlando Magic (Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson are comedians), the Boston Celtics (they have a bunch of guys that I like, and Doc Rivers is arguably the best quote in the league) and the Phoenix Suns (Shaq, Amare, Grant and Nash give you good stuff from all angles). I miss the Pistons from a few years ago, when they had Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace.
Lee: The thing I liked about Eddie [Jordan] was that he always carried himself with class and dignity, same with Tap. Eddie would rarely dodge the tough questions and usually gave me pretty frank and honest answers. He also had a great offensive mind and was an extremely hard worker. My favorite Eddie memory, and I’ve shared this story before, was during my first year covering the team. I sat down with Eddie and his staff for dinner during training camp. He asked me some questions about my personal life. I mentioned that my fiancé (now wife) was getting her PhD at Harvard.
Then I said, “So I did all right for myself.”
“You can’t consider yourself a slouch now,” Jordan said. “You work for the Washington Post, the most powerful paper in the country. You guys brought down the President. You aren’t doing too shabby yourself.”
I only got to deal with Tapscott as the coach for the final three weeks of the season, but I first met him when he was running the Charlotte Bobcats. He has always been a great communicator and he uses his law degree quite well to argue his points with clarity and decisiveness.
Mobley: Who are your top 3 interviews in the NBA and why? They can be players or coaches.
Lee: 1. Shaquille O’Neal. The best interview in sports. He is incredibly quotable and so quick to come up with the catch phrase of the day. He knows when the tape recorders are on and how to fill a notebook. I can’t wait for him to retire and become the Charles Barkley for the next generation. I’d watch just to hear what he has to say, too.
2. Gilbert Arenas. The first time I interviewed Arenas, he was a second-year guard at Golden State and he told me a great story about how then-coach Eric Musselman motivates the team. “Yeah, he told us, ‘Coke is the real thing. Jennifer Lopez’s [butt] is the real thing.’ We got to be the real thing when we play out there.’ ” At that point, I knew he would be the money quote. When I covered the team in 2004-05, Arenas was very open about just about every subject I threw his way. We had some long conversations about his life and basketball. He would also talk about the games he was watching on TV. His honesty and openness was quite refreshing.
3. Kobe Bryant. I’ve always had some of my best interviews in one-on-one sessions with Kobe. I remember when I started out covering the Hawks, Kobe gave me about seven or eight minutes during a stretch when he scored 30 points or more in eight straight games. I’ll never forget that. Since then, we’ve had lengthy conversations about the Jordan comparisons and a lot of other topics. He often comes off stiff in interviews, but we’ve had some pretty relaxed and open conversations.
Mobley: Since the Wizards won’t get Blake Griffin, should they trade the pick?
Lee: I think so. I don’t see the need to add another youngster unless they plan on trading one of the ones they already have. If they can trade Andray Blatche or Nick Young for somebody who can come in and contribute right away, a veteran banger or something, I say do it and keep the young talent and hope he blossoms into the something special.
Mobley: Who is your pick for the NBA finals?
Lee: Lakers over Cavaliers. I picked the Lakers in October. I’m sticking with them.
Mobley: If the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards were both at full strength, which team would give the Cleveland Cavaliers a tougher series?
Lee: This was an easy one. Boston. The Celtics won the championship last season and they already have a playoff victory over Cleveland. No matter how well the Wizards have played Cleveland in the regular season, at full strength they are still 0-1 in a playoff series against them. In 2006, the Wizards probably played better but they lost.
Mobley: What is/was it like working in a sports section with two relative sports giants ([Michael]Wilbon and [Tony]Kornheiser) and what if anything have they taught you, and what have you learned from them?
Lee: I never really got to know Tony Kornheiser because he rarely came to Wizards games and I wouldn’t run into him otherwise. The only advice Kornheiser gave me was during the 2004-05 season, when the Wizards were about to reach the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Kornheiser put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You should leave after this season because it’s never going to get better than this.” I moved on to cover the NBA the next season and the Wizards have yet to win another playoff series or more than 45 games. The man knew what he was talking about.
I have a much better relationship with Wilbon, since he’s an NBA junkie and our paths cross all the time. I’ve always been amazed with Wilbon’s ability to go from idea to column in a matter of minutes. He’s a deadline dynamo. I remember during Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals — the infamous Robert Horry shot — I had Wilbon on my right and Mike Wise on my left. Both of those guys had already flushed out about 75 percent of their columns completed while I was still struggling with my first paragraph. I always joke that Wilbon is a machine because he can crank out copy faster and better than most anybody I know.
Wilbon hasn’t offered me very much advice, other than when he made a pitch to me a the 2004 Athens Olympics to leave the AJC and come to the Washington Post. Wilbon has really been a sterling example of the need to work hard and stay hungry no matter what you’ve accomplished in life. That guy could very well sit back and simply enjoy the fruits of being a multi-media star, but he still works the phones, works the locker rooms to get information. You have to admire that.