Catching Up With Buzz Bissinger

Earlier this month I had a chance to read an advance copy of Buzz Bissinger’s book “LeBron’s Dream Team” that he co-wrote with LeBron James. After reading through the book I had a couple of questions and Bissinger was gracious enough to grant me some of his time last week.

Once he got my list of questions he told me my questions were “smart and intriguing.” A compliment that gave my ego a huge boost.

During our Q+A we were able to chat about how the writing process unfolded, what impressed him the most about LeBron James while spending time with him, the most rewarding part of writing this book and he gave his thoughts on whether LeBron will be playing in Cleveland past this season.

Ryan McNeill: How did the writing process unfold? Did you and LeBron James have a lot of face-to-face chats or were most of your chats over the phone while he was on the road with the Cavs?
Buzz Bissinger: In terms of LeBron, all the interviewing was done face to face in Akron. We had four or five lengthy sessions together. In addition I met dozens of times with the other key characters of the book–the other members of the Fab Five and their Coach Dru Joyce. I also did dozens of other interviews to make the record was as factual as possible, particularly when LeBron was suspended by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for the acceptance of two “retro” jerseys when he was a senior. I probably was in Akron a dozen times for three or four days at a stretch. And there were close to a hundred phone calls and e-mails in the name of being as accurate as possible.

McNeill: Was it tough to not change parts of how this story was written so that it would fit your “voice” as a writer? How close is this book to being verbatim what LeBron James told you?
Bissinger: The book is a complete and total reflection of LeBron’s thoughts and feelings. Make no mistake–it is his book. But it is not written in “verbatim” style and there was frankly no attempt to do so. LeBron was attracted to me as a writer because of my voice so I was encouraged to use it. Half the reviews said my voice was too strong in the book. Half said the book was too restrained and unemotional and my voice was not in it enough. Which says to me that the proper amount of voice was used. And we wanted to use voice. We wanted to make the book as elegant as possible. That was a deliberate decision.

McNeill: What was the toughest part of writing this book?
Bissinger: The toughest part was the decision not to do a memoir or but to stick to the story of the book as much as possible, which is basically a coming of age tale involving LeBron and his four closest friends. I thought it was incredibly moving, which is why I entered into the project knowing that the book would be told in the first person and LeBron would have full control. This was never intended to be a memoir and is not a memoir. LeBron is too young, has many years ahead of him and the time will come for him to write the definitive memoir after his career is over. But not now. In some cases, I think critics completely misunderstood that. But it isn’t the first time nor will it be the last. The only people who count of course are readers. And many many many have either told me or sent emails saying how they found the book wonderfully inspirational. Because it is wonderfully inspirational.

McNeill: What was the most rewarding part of writing this book?
Bissinger: To see the obvious bond of love between LeBron and the other members of the Fab Five–Little Dru Joyce, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton and Romeo Travis–both as young kids and when they were in high school. They truly did adore each other and supported each other through thick and thin and became brothers to one another. I also think the role that coach Dru Joyce played, both as an AAU coach for these kids and as the head coach at St. Vincent St. Mary, was truly inspirational. I have met many coaches who beneath the charm are manipulative and only interested in their own goals of winning and moving on. Coach Dru is an amazing man, a true mentor in a world where there are fewer and fewer left. To meet not only LeBron but Coach Dru and the other members of the Fab Five and their families was an experience I will never forget.

It is also wonderful to see how well everyone in the book has done after high school. Yes, they played great basketball in high school and won the mythical national championship. But all the members of the Fab Five went on to do terrific things. With the exception of LeBron of course, they all went to college. Little Dru and Romeo, after great careers at the University of Akron, play overseas. Sian played football at Ohio State and Walsh. Willie McGee is pursuing his master’s in sports management at the University of Akron. To see five African-American kids thrive like this, several who came from very difficult backgrounds, is as good as it gets. And coach Dru is still at St. Vincent St. Mary, still inspiring kids and still winning state championships.

McNeill: During your time working with LeBron, what about him impressed you the most?
Bissinger: How incredibly grounded and decent he is. LeBron has been under a national microscope since he was sixteen. And he has handled himself with incredible maturity and dignity. Many kids would have cracked under the weight of the exposure LeBron got in high school; it was a surreal amount but he went about his life on and off the court without missing a beat. He has continued that conduct in the NBA. Many people have asked me if LeBron as is as nice and accessible and mature as he seems and the answer is yes. He does not travel with a huge posse. He is very careful about who is in his inner circle. He has a sixth sense when it comes to knowing who to trust. He is wonderful with kids. He believes in giving back.

I am biased, but he is to me the most amazing figure in all of sports. There is no one like him both in terms of astounding talent and being a great ambassador for the game he plays. The only one who comes close is Derek Jeter and I love Jeter but he is no LeBron in terms of sheer talent.

McNeill: LeBron’s love for Ohio shone through in this book. If you were a gambling man, where would you put the odds of him re-signing with Cleveland?
Bissinger: LeBron does love Ohio. He loves playing in Cleveland and he loves Akron. Like everyone else, I have asked LeBron what he is going to do and he has flashed me that exquisite smile. I am not privy to any special information, but my gut tells me he will leave the Cavaliers whether they win the NBA championship or not. He has aspirations beyond basketball. He wants to be a billion dollar athlete. He likes challenges and bright lights. There is nothing like New York and the goal of making the Knicks champions again is an incredible one. So I say he goes to the Knicks, IF THEY GET THE RIGHT SUPPORTING CAST. And as you know that’s a big “if” when it comes to the Knicks. LeBron would own New York in a way that no athlete has ever owned it, except maybe for Reggie Jackson after game six of the 1977 World Series when he hit three home runs, and as we know the love affair did not last forever. It would be exciting as hell to watch and I think LeBron would luxuriate in it. But as you say he also loves Ohio, so it is going to be a very difficult decision and I don’t think he has come close to making it yet. And remember, the most important value in LeBron’s life is loyalty. Still, I say he goes. But once again, if anybody out there is a betting man, bet against me.

Bradburd Talks About “40 Minutes Of Hell”

This past week has been a complete blur for me between covering Raptors’ games, finishing off report cards and starting up the Junior basketball team at my school. Despite it being a hectic week I was still able to read through Rus Bradburd’s latest book “40 Minutes of Hell” because I had a tough time putting it down whenever I picked it up. Between learning about Nolan Richardson’s coaching philosophies, the issues he’s dealt with regarding race, what people served to inspire him and his strong family ties, this is a book that both inspired me as a coach and as a person.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of college basketball this is a book you’ll want to read.

On the weekend I was able to chat with Bradburd about a wide range of topics including what inspired him to write a book about Richardson, the constant tension Richardson had with Frank Broyles during his time at Arkansas, why Richardson had a dislike for “book coaches” and the unique situation Richardson had in Tulsa where players frequently came over for dinner or to spend time with his family.

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Book Excerpt: The Art Of A Beautiful Game

Some years ago I had the unenviable task of guarding Mark Aguirre in a pickup game. I’d like to say I held my ground as he posted me up, absorbing each of the bargelike blows he delivered with his hips and prodigious backside, holding strong against the Nor’easter of Ass he unleashed upon me. But I did not. Like so many great opponents during Aguirre’s NBA days, I slid and stumbled and shuffled backward until he was essentially standing under the basket and I out-of-bounds. At which point he could merely reach up and lay the ball in the basket.

How I came to be guarding Aguirre was  a matter of circumstance. I was in Indianapolis writing a story for Sports Illustrated and had wandered over to a local health club looking for a run. Aguirre, then an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers, arrived a half hour later. My teammates, kind  souls that they were, agreed that I should be the one to guard Aguirre.

This was what an NBA coach might refer to as “a matchup problem.” Aguirre was a6’6″, 230-pound NBA legend who averaged 20 pounds during his 13-year career with the Mavericks and the Pistons, and even at 43 years old, he was still in remarkably good shape. I, on the other hand, was a6’1″, 175 pound former small-college  player who had a difficult enough time defending the guys n my local rec league.

For the most part Aguirre took it easy on me in the post backing me down only a handful of times. Not that it mattered; he turned out to be just as adept on the perimeter. At one point I was guarding him on the wing and he fooled me so completely, using a ball fake together with a subtle push on my leg and hp, that I actually turned around to try and beat him to the baseline. In mid-sprint I heard Aguirre chuckle behind me. He was standing in the same spot, having not moved an inch, and calmly fired up and swished a three-pointer. (He was a much better outside shooter than I realized.) “What in the world,” I asked him, “did you just do?”

He only smiled. Mark Aguirre did not get where he was by giving away his secrets to random dudes he meets at the gym.

That night I was him at Conseco Fieldhouse, before the Pacers game, and his face lit up with recognition – and amusement. “Hey, still waiting for that baseline drive?” he asked.

I laughed, then asked if I might pick his brain at some point, this time in the name of journalism. “Check back with me after the game,” he said.

I did, and he was true to his word. That night, after a Pacers win, Aguirre spent nearly 45 minutes in the back corridor of Conseco showing me the secrets of his post moves: how to leverage a defender, which arm to use to swim past an opponent, how to “lock in” an opposing big man on a lob pass, and, best of how, how to “push the refrigerator” (that is, use your outside leg to drive into a defender, as if he were a Frigidaire.)

As Aguirre talked, I realized that in all those years of watching him play, I’d never fully appreciated what he was doing. I just figured… well, I don’t know what I figured. That he just used his butt to move guys out of the way? That he’s been born a little quicker and trickier around the basket than the rest of us?

Unmistakably, though, there was an art to what he was doing one honed over the years, one only certain players have mastered, one only certain players can master, for it requires a rare combination of dedication, talent and intuition. To appreciate it, you need only watch one of those young, springy big men who enter the league each year. You know the type – long-limbed, imposing, throwing down monster dunks. These players may be freakishly athletic, but their post moves are so rudimentary as to be non-existent. Pump fake? Never. Freeze fake? What’s that? Moving the refrigerator? They’re not even good at moving their feet.

Still, it is the resplendent jams of these high-flyers that we see on the highlights, and the 10-year-old boys mimic on Nerf hoops. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I admire the dunk as much as anyone – but it is a shame that few fans are privy to a true craftsman like Aguirre breaking down his art.

Instead, we often hear about how the pro game is flawed, full of remarkable athletes who boast unremarkable skills. As a writer who covers the NBA, I run into this mind-set on occasion. “No one who plays defense, no one passes and it’s all about getting paid,” some people say. “How can you enjoy watching that?”

In response I’ll usually mumble something about Chris Paul and drop steps and bank shots, but that’s not much of a comeback. What I should say is, Sure,there’s a lot about the pro game that’s messed up, like guys who can hit their heads on the rim but can’t dribble with their left hand, and, yes, there are some lackadaisical millionaires, but it’s still a beautiful, complicated game, the best ever invented in my opinion, and there are plenty of guys who treat it as such.

Then I could explain why that’s true. I could describe the way Ray Allen squares up on his jump shot so perfectly that, were he on sand, he would spring up and, upon returning to earth, land precisely in his own footprints. I could talk about underhand scoop shots that rise like helium balloons. I could describe nine seconds left, the floor spread and the arena roaring like a 747 as Kobe Bryant holds the ball at the top of the key, about to break thousands of hearts.

I could talk about reverse layups with so much spin they hit the backboard and then shoot sideways as if yanked on a leash. I could evoke the ka-smack of the one-handed rebound the the ka-thunk of a three-pointer from the top of the key that sinks off the back of the rim as it drops in.

I could mention the Noooooo!-then-Yessssss! Shot and the way bench guys in the NBA hold each other back, as if saving one another from oncoming traffic, because that last play was just too danm exciting. I could relate how, after 40 years of pulling out a little pump fake to the right before shooting a jump hook, my 70-year-old father still employs it every time he plays, not because it works (although occasionally it does) but because it’s like catching up with an old friend.

I could describe shots so pure the net snaps up and has to be untangled from the rim, and the way an NBA three-pointer arcs so high it looks as it if was shot from the moon, and seeing a play on Sunday afternoon on NBC, then seeing it again a few hours later down at the playground, reenacted a hundred different ways. I could talk about back picks you can practically hear through the TV, especially when they result in alley-oop dunks, and how the only thing better is when a help-side defender comes flying over to block that alley-oop.

I could confess that I can spend an hour talking to someone at a dinner party and never make the kind of real, true communication that come from running one seamless give-and-go with a stranger during a pickup game. I could talk about the most compelling moment in sports – one second on the clock, down by tow, first of two three throws – and how it had made men’s careers as well as ruined them.

But  I don’t say any of that, of course. Instead, what I’ve done is write this book. And while it’s not necessarily about all the aforementioned things, it is a celebration of the game and those who play it at the highest level, the players for whom it truly is both an art and a science.

Because while the majority of what we read and hear about the NBA may be day-to-day drama – who wins, who loses, who might get traded, who threw whom under the bus – this doesn’t mean that NBA stars don’t adore the game in all it’s myriad intricacies.

All you have to do is ask one. Not in vague generalities, but speaking his language. Ask LeBron James for the umpteenth time about his impending free agency, or his friendly rivalry with Dwyane Wade, and he will likely say one of the same things he’d said  the umpteenth other time he’s been asked. But sit down with James and watch film and ask him to dissect a pick-and-roll, or how he draws a weakside defender’s attention, and it’s amazing what happens. He leans forward, he gets excited, he talks quickly. He becomes a teacher, eager to explain. Gone are the marketing catchphrases and one-game-at-a-time cliches, replaced by staccato observations. He becomes like anyone else talking about something he loves: passionate.

This book is about passionate players. It is not about one season or the inner workings of a team or the “genius” of a coach, but rather about the beauty of basketball, because even the “ugly” aspects – like, say, defense and rebounding – become beautiful in the hands of the masters.

The material herein comes from research conducted over the course of nearly three years, some of it while working on stories for SI. I gathered much in league arenas and locker rooms, but just as often my work was done over beers (as with Rockets forward Shane Battier, who graciously broke down his approach to perimeter defense while sipping pale ales at a bar in Portland), or in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. (as with Idan Ravin, the NBA trainer known as “the hoops whisperer”), or, in the case of Steve Keerr, while shooting jumpers together at AmericaWest Arena.

But no matter what my method, for a week or two after researching each chapter, almost without fail, I become obsessed with whichever aspect of the game I’d just explored. And because of that, I’d like to publicly thank the noon hoops crew at the Berkley YMCA for putting up with these obsessions. For no sooner had I returned from reporting on, say, rebounding, than I was suddenly trying to grab every weakside board at the Y by jumping laterally, the way Ben Wallace does. Three weeks later I’d be trying to out Kobe’s jab-step-fake-and-go even though a simple rocker would have worked just fine. And, of course, I preached to all who would listen. I became the Deepak Chorpa of the drop step, a Mormon missionary of the motion offense.

It is my hope that, in writing this book, I might inspire some of you to feel similarly: to see the game from a different perspective (or a dozen different ones), to gain a renewed appreciation for the at-times misunderstood giants who roam our nation’s arenas and, above all, to revel in the art of what is truly a beautiful game.

This was an excerpt from The Art of the Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard. Copyright 2009 by Chris Ballard. Reprinted by permission by Simon and Schuster, INC.