The story of how I met Washington Post, Sports Bog writer, Dan Steinberg, can best be described as creepy. We were both in a bar last July of 2008, I recognized him, but I did not dare approach him, because I was certain he had no clue what Hoops Addict was, let alone know that I wrote for them. Despite my relatively thick skin, I was not up for being embarrassed at that moment.
However, the next day I sent him an email explaining who I was and where I saw him, and he was nice enough to respond to me. He told me anytime I had a DC area sports tidbit, story or picture, that I should send it to him. Thus a working relationship was born.
Since then Dan has linked to an Hoops Addict article on his site, we shake hands and speak at Washington Wizards related events, and we recently had a chance to greet each other at the Blogs with Balls conference, where he was a panelist.
Fresh off his appearance at Blogs with Balls, Dan was nice enough to talk a bit about many topics including the conference, his new gig with The Sporting News, his favorite Washington Wizard interview, and his experience with the toughest interview in sports, the NBA Commissioner, David Stern.
Rashad Mobley: For people who do not know your story, briefly talk about your journalism journey from University of Delaware to your “Cheese Boy” nickname to your current “Sports Bog” at the Washington Post.
Dan Steinberg: Wow, briefly. Ok. Got a job doing investigative journalism/policy research for the Center for Public Integrity, wasn’t really ready for an office job, applied at my neighborhood Whole Foods, got assigned to the cheese department, became a buyer, began freelancing and working some part-time hours for The Post’s sports section, eventually became a quasi-full-timer, and then an actual full-time college sports reporter, didn’t like doing beat work, got sent to the Winter Olympics in Italy to blog, spent much of the time writing about Italian cheese, came home and requested a full-time blogging spot, finally got one approved about six months later in the Fall of ’06.
Mobley: You have covered a variety of events from the National Spelling Bee to the 2006 Winter Olympics to Washington Wizards games. What has been your most challenging assignment, and which one do you consider to be your most rewarding?
Steinberg: There’s nothing more challenging than being a beat guy. I did it for six months (Maryland football, George Washington and George Mason basketball), and it almost buried me. The people who do this for 20 years are heroic. There’s no way to replicate or explain the feeling of going to bed at 12:30a.m. and not being convinced that your rivals won’t have massively important news concerning your beat in the next morning’s paper. As for rewarding, geez, I don’t know. My favorite assignment I’ve ever had involved covering the NAIA basketball tournament in Kansas City. I don’t think I did the event justice, but I loved every second of that experience.
Mobley: I recently listened to your appearance on Dan Levy’s On the DL podcast,and you mentioned that you now have a gig with “The Sporting News”. Talk a little bit about how that came to be, and how is it going thus far?
Steinberg: Whew. Well, Shawn Schrager, an editor there whom I’ve known for a while, contacted me and asked if I’d be interested. I really don’t have any time, and any time I do have should be devoted to actually answering the e-mails that people send me that I ignore (my deadline on this Q&A was last week, right?), but I figured I would try it, because I’m interested in appealing to a more national audience than the Bog has allowed. How is it going? Not sure that’s for me to judge, but I’ve found it frustrating. I’d say 75 percent of what I do on my site involves at least some hands-on initiative, whether a phone call, a trip to a game, a trip to a practice, an e-mail,
whatever. For TSN, I’ve tried to be like a more traditional blogger (I think) and just riff off some bit of Internet news, and I’m finding my
riffing powers to be limited. Thus far, anyhow. I need practice.
Mobley: You’ve been on the receiving end of some gentle ribbing from your former colleague, Tony Kornheiser. What was your reaction when he left Monday Night Football? And if and when he gets back on the radio, will you be appearing on his show?
Steinberg: I don’t think it’s been gentle. I don’t think he likes me. That’s fine, although it’s sad, because one of the things I loved about The Washington Post when I first arrived in D.C. a decade ago, was his sports column. I was never convinced I wanted to be a sportswriter, and I never was very well-versed on national voices, and so I was completely unfamiliar with his work, but I loved it. It was funny, and it didn’t take sports seriously, and there were inside jokes and rusty-razor jabs at favorite targets and it made you want to pick up the next day’s paper. That’s the greatest compliment a columnist can receive, I’d think. And this was before PTI and Monday Night Football, before Tony was a national celebrity.
Without sounding like a complete sop, that was one of the reasons I was thrilled to get a job here, so I could be his colleague (and Wilbon’s too). When I would newsaide and he would come into the office or call the main Sports line, I would actually get a little thrill. And look, it’s not like Tony cares enough about me to have an opinion one way or the other, but we sure don’t seem to be best buddies, the way this whole storyline would have ended in my fantasy. Not that I fantasize about Tony Kornheiser. You know what I mean.
As for MNF, for a whole lot of reasons, none having to do with the broadcast team, I don’t watch much of that any more. So his arrival at MNF didn’t affect me much, and his departure didn’t either. If it results in him returning to local radio, I’d be thrilled, because I’m much more likely to listen to the radio in the morning than I am to watch TV late at night. I would gladly appear on his show, but he’s hardly ever asked me in the past, and I don’t think he’d be likely to ask me now. Plus we really wouldn’t have much to discuss. Hey Tony, still a depressed bald Jewish guy? Yup? Me too.
Mobley: Since I am a writer for Hoops Addict, I suppose I should ask you some basketball questions. Who are top three NBA interviews so far? Which Washington Wizards player is your favorite?
Steinberg: I’ve said this in many venues, so I’m not just saying this for your benefit, but I always say that Gilbert Arenas is the best interview in sports. There are thousands of smart athletes, but he’s both smart and unpredictable, and will say things that can actually make you think about life. Not to be too over the top. His whole spiel about finding meaning in your life around New Year’s of 2008 was almost inspirational, although, like everyone else in the world, I was back to my same old tricks by about Jan. 5. Anyhow, a lot of inspirational athlete talk comes from the book (or The Book), and Gilbert’s is just random stuff off the top of his head, plus it will be followed by a discussion of playing video games online against 15 year olds and creating elaborate marketing schemes involving bacon
treadmills. I haven’t seen anyone close to his combination of smart, funny, reflective and bizarre.
I also had a great time talking to Joakim Noah. Maybe he was just in a good mood, but he was also reflective, and willing to give lots of his time to a dude who had no specific questions, no particular story to write, and who he had never met. And look, my blog is local and makes no apologies for that, so I’ll slide Caron Butler in here as well. In the right city and the right role, Caron could be a massive fan favorite. Gilbert’s dominance here, combined with the playoff losses (Caron has never won a series in D.C.), combined with the last two forgotten years, has allowed him to be a tad under the radar, but he’s a great talker with a great story and a knack for knock-em-dead
I don’t really have a favorite player, per se, but it’s hard not to smile when you see Oleksiy Pecherov.
Mobley: Tell the Hoops Addict readers your favorite Agent Zero story.
Steinberg: Well, I’ve never done a more memorable Gilbert story than the time I followed him bike riding all over downtown D.C., past government agencies, past clueless tourists, past workaday lawyers, in front of the White House, etc. Part of what made it so memorable was driving behind a dude on the bike while a photographer hung out my car window, but it was just so zany a thing to be doing, me chasing after a zillionare pro athlete riding a mountain bike through D.C. while wearing headphones, that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
But that’s no better than 20th, at best, on the list of Gilbert stories, most of which didn’t involve me. Here’s another good one: when a bunch of video gamers accused Gilbert of cheating, or getting around the rules, to up his player rating on Halo a few years back. I told Gilbert that it was becoming a big Internet story. He wanted to see. So we went back to the training room, where media members aren’t really supposed to go, so he could jump on a computer. He read the message board threads, and wanted to respond. I was getting ready to create a profile for him. Then Eddie Jordan came in and summoned him to a film session. It felt like getting busted by dad.
Mobley: How much “creative control” do you have with what to write about in your column? For example, July is notoriously one of the slowest sports months of the year. Will you make a concerted effort to write about something like the WNBA? How will you determine what to write about?
Steinberg: I pretty much can do whatever I want. There was one summer (my first) when I actually did write some about the WNBA. But most of what I do is kind of on the margins of sports; occasionally it’ll veer over the line and concern wins and losses and Xs and Os, but just as frequently it will kind of dance around the edges of the competition to find other interesting nuggets. Or at least unique. Or mildly unique. Or at least, that’s the goal.
But for that to work, someone else already has to be providing the wins/losses/Xs/Os. With things like the Mystics, and the Washington
Freedom, and the Bayhawks, and the Maniacs, and all the other less-hyped team, there’s so little legitimate coverage that it feels both weird and unnecessary to provide that bonus coverage from the margins. Plus, to be crass, my job is to generate page views, and by and large the WNBA isn’t providing that. Neither is, for example, the George Mason basketball team, and so I don’t really cover them either.
Mobley: As you probably know, NBA Commissioner David Stern is one of the toughest individuals to interview in or out of sports. Have you had the pleasure of talking to him before, and if so, what would you say or do to keep yourself from getting intimidated, stonewalled, or worse?
Steinberg: I once asked him what sort of watch he wears. And I sort of interviewed him this winter, at an event honoring Wizards owner Abe Pollin. There were other reporters there as well, many of whom were asking serious questions. When they were done, I chimed in with a few weirder questions, because that’s sort of my job, as of this moment anyhow. But if I was acting more as a real reporter trying to break real news about real issues, I think the basic conversational tactic is the same: be yourself, look him in the face, ask follow-ups, ask follow-ups to the follow-ups, keep saying “one more question, I’m sorry to take up so much of your time,” hopefully into the third or fourth hour, etc. People like David Stern aren’t in their jobs because they’re stupid; if they don’t want to tell you something, the best question in the world won’t fool them into caving. When reporters break news about the NBA, it’s not often because of their relationship with David Stern, but instead because of their relationships with the armies of decision-makers, agents, players and front-office types who operate underneath him.
Mobley: What was your overall impression of the recent Blogs with Balls conference?
Steinberg: Honestly, I’m not sure what to think. Since my tendency is to get depressed, I’ll say part of it depressed me, but I can’t even exactly explain why. Some of the triumphalism (if that’s a word) got me down, this feeling that we’re the future and jerky newspaper reporters are the past and we’re going to take their lunch, and their lunch money too. Some of it was the overwhelming age, racial and gender similarity of the crowd. Some of it was the feeling of drinking too many Guinnesses before 4pm in a basement on a June Saturday. But all that aside, it’s an incredible concept, it was great to meet dozens of people I’ve only known as email addresses, and to see friends I haven’t seen too much outside of Super Bowls and other bizarre blogger-togethers. For better or worse, this is an extremely unique community that we’re kind of part of, and the family reunion aspect made me feel warm inside. Either that, or the Guinness did.