The Art Of A Beautiful Game

I have a confession to make: after two seasons of covering the NBA I had started to become lazy when it came to asking players the kinds of questions which warranted them throwing out something more than the traditional sports cliches.

Don’t get me wrong, I still do my homework leading up to each game, it’s just that instead of taking some risks or digging deeper with the questions I asked players, I was starting to throw generic questions out to players and was getting frustrated when I would get generic answers thrown back at me.

After reading Chris Ballard’s new book I found myself renewed and motivated for another season of covering the NBA while being given the motivation to dig a little deeper in the kinds of questions I asked players. Instead of asking a generic questions, I’m going to dig a little deeper by asking them questions which probe and require players to dig a little deeper in their responses.

In his book, Chris manages to dig deeper by challenging Steve Kerr to a three-point shooting contest to test a theory he has, races Shaquille O’Neal one night on his way back to his hotel while sharing a ton of stories like how Kobe Bryant’s competitive streak refuses to allow a high school teammate crack double figures during a game to 100.

While you won’t find me racing Shaq in my car when he visits Toronto again later this season, you will find me digging a little deeper this season like I did with my recent interview with Daniel Gibson where we talk about muscle memory and how he keeps loose on the court during shooting slumps.

Since this book served as such a big inspiration to me I hooked up with Chris to pick his brain about some aspects of the book. Below you can read the quick email exchange we had last week:

1. Something that stood out from the book is how you use your experience as a basketball player to dig deeper with your questions that most journalists. When did you realize playing professional basketball wasn’t in your future and when did you start to focus on journalism as a career?

It wasn’t so much a matter of realizing professional basketball wasn’t in my future – there was never any doubt about that, really, unless you’re talking about maybe playing in a very small league in a country very far away – as trying to find a way to incorporate basketball in my future in some way. One of my college teammates at Pomona, Mike Budenholzer, went the coaching route and is now an assistant with the Spurs. Another college teammate, Jason Levien, became an agent and, through those connections, ended up as assistant GM of the Sacramento Kings (that two guys from a DIII hoops school ended up in the NBA is both a testament to those two guys and a story in itself). For me, I figured journalism was my best shot, mainly because it’s what I knew. Right out of college I wrote a book about pick-up basketball called “Hoops Nation” that sold about 6 copies but was a remarkable experience to report and turned into something of a career stepping stone. From there, it seemed natural to stick with it. I still find it amazing that I get to write about something I love for a living.

2. In this book there is a great collection of stories and anecdotes from your years of covering the NBA. Have you ever considered starting a blog for Sports Illustrated where you can share stories that don’t find their way into the magazine or books like this?

That’s a great idea. At times, I’ve used my weekly web column on SI.Com as a place to post stuff that doesn’t make the magazine. Recently, at the behest of SI I’ve started tweeting as well (SI_ChrisBallard) but I’m not sure how much depth you can provide in 140 characters. So yeah, we’re still figuring that out…

3. You mentioned that one of the main reasons for writing this book is to remind fans why they fell in love with this game. In a way, it’s your attempt to reach out and show readers the areas of the game that are still “pure” and not corrupted by money or corporations. How did writing this book help remind you why you love this game?

Every time I would sit down to write I’d get into a chapter and start thinking, “Well, if I can knock out 1,000 words by noon then I can sneak off to the Y for the noon run.” And, inevitably, I’d go whether or not I made it to 1,000 words. And, really, that’s the best way I can put it: talking to these guys about the game  – the Battiers and Kerrs and Kobes – made me want to go play it. Right now. Because there was a passion that’s contagious. When I had my shooting contest with Kerr  – the basis of one chapter – by the end of it we were both so amped up we talked shooting for another hour (and I seriously think Steve was ready to go suit up). That’s what I love – millionaire executives who start acting like 14-year-olds when they get around a ball.

4. As a writer for Sports Illustrated you get to watch NBA games all season long. Who are some of your favorite players to watch? What aspects of their game do you find so alluring?

It may sound cliché, but I’d watch Kobe or LeBron play anywhere, anytime: 2-on-2, 3-on-3, pop-a-shot, whatever. There’s a mastery of the game with those two, on a number of levels. You can spend a whole night just watching Kobe’s footwork. Others: I love the way Jason Kidd and Steve Nash control the game. For shooters, I’ll go with Ray Allen and Anthony Morrow (seriously, watch him sometime – so pure). And for hustle/grit, it doesn’t get any better than Nocioni – it’s just too bad he’s on the Kings.

5. What was the most rewarding part of writing this book? And, on the flip side, what was the most challenging aspect?

The most rewarding part was feeling like I understood the game on a deeper level – and could pass that along to readers. I’ve covered the league, on and off, for ten years but hadn’t had the luxury of going this in-depth before on subjects. Shadowing Battier for two games was like taking a master class not only in NBA defense but in efficiency and media manners.

The most challenging aspect, as always, is the writing. There are only so many metaphors for a ball going through a hoop.


Gash Almighty

Early in the spring of 1982, when he was a skinny freshman at North Carolina – before he had enough fans to start his own religion – Michael Jordan was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. That was the kind of name Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted.  Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldn’t even get Matt Doherty.

When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind the Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a big-name athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Michael Jordan from these men? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?

Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot and when that summer’s ministry rolled through Raleigh Correctional Center, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh Team USA warmup, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell-block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didn’t receive salvation would at least have something to write home about.

But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes like catcher Jim Sundberg and pitched Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit ‘em with the Good Word, a martial arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yard’s emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing  samurai sword show, he asked for a volunteer.

History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Michael willingly climbed on stage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Chain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteer’s stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a fully Southerner decked out in an all-white martial arts suit accented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.

But Jordan was more skittish than most – and emphatically said “No.” Crain wasn’t fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that he wasn’t quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge the way you’d expect. He climbed the wood platform and laid himself back on the weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on Mike’s belly.

As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. The folks in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so that stray rind and see wouldn’t blind him, but MJ’s eyes were already shut tight enough to secure a home.

Crain drew back his sword – and slashed into the juicy green melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin Jordan’s protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was not hypnotized and drew even closer to the laid-out Jordan.

Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audience’s reaction that he’d succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in Michael’s lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, he checked to make sure his volunteer was okay. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, Michael spotted a tear in the fabric.

Dude was irate.

“Look watcha did!” he screamed at Crain. The warmus were MJ’s reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggest Michael check to see whether he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Michael wouldn’t look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near Jordan’s navel. Since he hadn’t felt the wound, Michael was hardly concerned, even after the doctors at a nearby emergency room needed three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudge – but not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmup gear like this, though, was one of a kind.

After the Jordan snafu, Glass took Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain estimates that he’s performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. “That’s not a lot,” Crain jokes. “He’s missed over 70 game-winning shots. Only mine are more costly.”

Michael didn’t speak much about the incident after he returned to his UNC dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasn’t a prank. Everyone marveled over this uncharacteristically bizarre thing he’d done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a Faces of Death video.

So the next time you moan about our obsession with Jordan and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.

The was an excerpt from EPSN The Magazine’s special edition Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame Collectors Issue. I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy from an ESPN rep and I’ll have a review up on Hoops Addict in the next few weeks. If you’re  Jordan fan this is a must read. Between stories of samurai’s trying to slice up Jordan, a first hand account from Phil Jackson and epic stories of legendary closed door Dream team scrimmages, there are a ton of exclusive quotes, stories and photos that will have you unable to put this down until you’ve read it cover to cover.


In The Scrum With Randy Foye

Fresh off his introductory press conference with the Washington Wizards, guard Randy Foye talked to members of the media about his true position, his initial reaction to being traded, his thoughts on Kevin McHale’s influence on his game, and his memorable duel with Dwyane Wade last season.

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