Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Washington Post Sports Writer Michael Lee, and he provided me with some excellent answers to various basketball-related questions. This week, I had the chance to ask questions from yet another Washington D.C. area writer who covers the Washington Wizards: Mike Jones of the Washington Times.
Jones will be entering his second full season of covering the Washington Wizards for the Washington Times (he started in January of 2008), and prior to that he was a sports copy editor for that same newspaper. During this season, Jones was lucky enough to be one of the favorites of former Wizards’ head coach Ed Tapscott. Before and after games, Tapscott would specifically ask Jones to pose the first question and he would do so with great aplomb.
On a personal note, Jones was extremely helpful to me in my early days of covering the Wizards this season. He helped me figure out where to go, who to talk to, and he would come up to me and say hello, when he easily could have given me the cold shoulder and I was appreciative of that.
In this interview Jones discuss all things Wizards, some of his writing influences, his favorites around the league and whether Kobe Bryant or LeBron James has more pressure on them.
Rashad Mobley: I was an English Education major in college, and although I aspired to be a sports writer back then, I really didn’t pursue it until a couple of years ago. Talk a little bit about your journey from college to Washington Times beat writer?
Mike Jones: I got my start covering high school sports for my hometown paper, The Fauquier Citizen, while still pursuing my journalism degree in 1999. I later got a full-time job at The Citizen and worked my way up to sports editor. It was an award-winning weekly paper, but my goals were higher. Covering pro basketball or football was my dream, and to do that, I needed to land a job at a major metropolitan news paper. One of my mentors put me in contact with Gregory Lee, deputy sports editor of the Boston Globe, and his advice for cracking into these highly competitive ranks was to get my foot in the door as a sports copy editor, and seize every writing opportunity I could. I landed a copy editing job in the Washington Times’ sports department and volunteered for any feature writing opportunity I got. Two years later, the Wizards’ beat came open, and they offered me the job. Greg Lee’s advice was right on the money.
Mobley: I know many times during this most recent Wizards season, I found myself at a loss to come up with something new to write, when they kept losing the same way game after game. What was the toughest part about this last Wizards ’08-’09 season as a beat writer. The best part?
Jones: The toughest part, like you said, was trying to find a way to tell the same story a different way. But that’s really what it was. Every game had a similar theme to it, and the same shortcomings kept popping up. The best part was, regardless of how bad the Wizards were, I was getting paid to have a front row seat at professional basketball games and write about it and travel all over the country.
Mobley: What do you think the top three keys for the Wizards are going into next season?
Jones: Health, health and health. Haha, no, seriously, health is No. 1. If Gilbert Arenas has his health, and the Wizards have Jamison, Butler, Haywood and Stevenson back together again, this team will automatically be much better. It doesn’t even matter if Gil is dropping 28 and six every night, which I don’t think will happen, but as we saw in the sneak peak he gave us, his court vision and skills as a creator for his teammates are irreplaceable. The second key is the Wizards buying into Flip Saunders’ philosophy, which I believe they will. And third, further development out of their younger players. If Dominic McGuire, JaVale McGee and Javaris Crittenton build on what they did last season, and Nick and Andray Blatche finally turn the corner, this is an extremely deep team.
Mobley: What did you enjoy most about covering Eddie Jordan? Ed Tapscott?
Jones: Eddie Jordan was really helpful in giving me insight and really breaking things down for me as I was still learning the ropes of covering both the Wizards during the second half of the 2007-08 season, when I took over for John Mitchell (Washington Times). Ed Tapscott was always entertaining and educational because he loved to talk, and always had some word for the day that you would expect to hear in a Harvard classroom, not an NBA coach’s press conference. He also did a great job of explaining things, and because he has basically worked in every capacity imaginable in the NBA, he really understood the job that reporters have to do, and he did everything possible to help us.
Mobley: What’s your favorite arena to visit and why?
Jones: I’ve got two. Staples Center and TD Banknorth Garden. I think some of it has to do with the Lakers and Celtics being the two most storied franchises in the league, another has to do with the electric atmosphere. With those fans, it doesn’t matter if they’re playing the lottery-bound Wizards, or championship contenders, they’re totally into the games. In LA, the Magic Johnson statue that’s outside the arena gives me goosebumps every time I walk up to it, as does Jordan’s statue up in Chicago.
Mobley: I recently saw you on nba.com doing a video short about your NBA Draft experience. Describe that experience for those of us who could not be there?
Jones: About 90 minutes before the ESPN broadcast of the lottery, representatives from each lottery team, and a few members of the media, are taken into a guarded room. Wireless Internet was disabled, cell phones confiscated. And they walk through the process, explaining the number of combinations designated to each team, and the lottery begins. First combination: the Clippers, which was hilarious considering the Wizards had won a tiebreaker for that extra tenth of a percent for second place. I was sitting next to Michael Lee of The Post, and he looked at me and said, ‘They’re getting fifth.’ And sure enough, that’s how it played out. Fitting considering the luck of this team the last few years. We sat there, locked in the room, but able to write our stories, until the completion of the ESPN broadcast. Then I hurried downstairs, sent my first edition story, talked to Flip, got on the phone with Ernie, made some revisions and banged out my second-edition story, and it was a wrap.
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.
Jones: Ah, that first game. Both hilarious and miserable all wrapped into one. It was January 23, up in Cleveland, during the 2007-08 season. Not having done this before, I didn’t know what to expect, but anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. My flight was delayed for mechanical reasons. I got off the plane and had no idea where I was going. I took the train to downtown Cleveland, came out the station, and was supposed to have a short walk to the my hotel, which was across the street from Quicken Loans Arena. I was already running late, but had to check in because I was wearing a ratty pair of jeans and an old hoodie. I trudged out of the station weak from a bout with the flu I was battling, and it was snow all over the place, I went the wrong way, had to turn around, walked back in another wrong direction, got sick and upchucked right there on the streets of Cleveland, not once, but twice! I finally found my way to the hotel, checked in, collapsed on the bed and texted then-Wizards PR man Zack Bolno to tell him I wasn’t going to make the pre-game press conference, which was starting in seven minutes. Finally got dressed, headed over to the arena, wandered around until I found the press room and thank God Ivan Carter was in there. He had been to Quicken Loans Arena many times before so I followed him to our seating, and fortunately the game was a blowout, like 121-85. That made it easy to write. I easily made deadline because the story was written by the start of the fourth quarter, got my post-game quotes (let Ivan ask all the questions) and staggered back to the hotel and slept like a baby. Thankfully, it got a lot better from there.
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?
Jones: Seriously, the Wizards. It seriously is like a Night at the Improv every single night. So many funny stories – many of them unprintable – but stuff that you just can’t make up. There’s no locker room in the league even remotely close to the Wizards’. And guys like Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler are great; knowledgeable, accommodating, but have great sense of humors as well. I was pretty impressed with the Spurs’ locker room. Completely different atmosphere from the Wizards, though. It’s all business, though. Guys are sitting there, scouring over scouting reports like they’re notes for a final exam, watching game film…. One of the coolest locker room experiences for me when I was first starting out last season, however, happened to involve both the Spurs and the Wizards.
Like, two weeks into covering the Wizards, we’re in D.C. during pre-game availability and Antonio Daniels was standing in front of his locker, getting dressed, but with his back to the door. Tim Duncan tip-toes into the locker room, grabs A.D. from behind, and both have a good laugh. Duncan sits down, just chilling. The Lakers had just acquired Pau Gasol, and Gil and I were talking about how it was going to help LA, and A.D. and Duncan jumped right in talking with us. I’m sitting there, rookie beatwriter, thinking to myself, “Wow, this is just like the good old days, engaging in sports debates with players back in Fauquier.” Then I realized, “You know what, that’s because these are just regular dudes, too. Just happen to be genetic freaks with big paychecks.”
Mobley: Who are your top three interviews in the NBA and why?
Jones: I’ll say Allen Iverson, because he just keeps it real, Gilbert Arenas, because he’s always entertaining and you never know what you’re going to get from him, and Dwight Howard, because he’s both insightful and can be pretty funny as well.
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?
Jones: I don’t feel like they’re stepping on my territory because I’m at the games sitting courtside, in the locker rooms, doing the interviews and writing my stories. Bloggers read what I write and add their insight to it for fans. It’s positive for both sides. Take the guys who run Bulletsforever.com for instance. They link to my stories, which gives me extra reads, and I give them something to analyze. On more than one occasion I’ve seen them point out something from a different point of view than I had thought of. I’ve even had some bloggers e-mail me with questions about something I wrote, and that helps me continually try to look at things from a different angle and provide better coverage.
Mobley: The late Ralph Wiley, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, and the Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon are three of my biggest sportswriting influences. Who are your favorite three sportswriters to read?
Jones: Michael Wilbon, Scoop Jackson and John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News. Back when I was in high school, I always read Wilbon and Scoop’s columns and couldn’t get enough of them; their insight, their voices, writing style. That’s when I decided, ‘I wanna be just like these guys when I grow up.’ Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I’m giving it my best shot. Then, very early in my sportswriting career, maybe the second or third year, I met Smallwood at a conference he spoke at on sports writing. We talked afterwards and he was so helpful in giving tips on the business, so I began following him religiously.
Mobley: Who do you think has more pressure to win a title this year, LeBron or Kobe?
Jones: I think LeBron does. I spent two days up in Cleveland a few weeks ago just to do a story on the every-day-joe fans and their expectations for LBJ & Co. It’s borderline idolatry. They expect this man to walk on water, heal the sick and raise the dead economy of the city. Kobe’s Laker fans want a title as well, and Kobe wants to win so he can finally stop hearing how he can’t get a title without Shaq, but he doesn’t have the expectations that have been heaped upon LeBron. And Kobe also has more talent around him. It’s a 1.5-man band in Cleveland.