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.


Ryan McNeill
Ryan McNeill has appeared on ESPN Radio, MTV Canada, SiriusXM, The Fan 590 and other radio programs and TV shows. He has covered the NBA with media credentials since the 2007-08 season.
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