Monday, August 18, 2008

An Interview with Marc Stein: Part I

When Lingering Bursitis and I had the honor and the pleasure of attending the Showdown in Chinatown a while back, little did we know the mileage we’d get out of that chance encounter on a warm, summer day. As you may recall, one of those who took part in the game was ESPN’s Marc Stein, by day an NBA reporter, but also a lifelong footy fan. We have to admit that we were a little jealous of Marc, getting the opportunity to run around with Steve Nash, Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler and the rest. But, it turns out that there couldn’t have been a better representative for us, the fans.

Marc Stein recently took some time out of his hectic schedule covering the NBA to answer some of our questions about football and various other topics as well. A big thanks go his way. Marc is what we, in the business, like to call a real mensch.

Find out why after the jump in Part I of our interview.

Q: You already covered your experience at the Showdown In Chinatown for but how exactly did you get involved in the game. And about how long did it take you to say "yes" to playing?

STEIN: Apologies first of all for the link you've included and foisting so much on the public about this already. But I think anyone who's heard anything about this day of fantasy football can understand why I can't stop talking about it.

How did it happen? Dismayed as I am that one man can be so good at both footy and hoops, I have to give Nash all the credit. It was all his idea (with some encouragement from his trusty Italian sidekick Simone Sandri, no doubt) to let me bring the level down a few (dozen) notches, ensuring that I would be there to chronicle it all but as much because he knew how much it would mean to me to be out there. I've covered Nash at close quarters since he dribbled into Dallas in 1998 and we hit it off largely because of soccer, which is the sport he'd rather talk about 11 times out of 10. He was introduced to Fowler and McManaman years ago, quickly became close friends with them . . . and has since heard ad nauseum from me how those two are two of my absolute, all-time favorites.

Let’s just say that Nash must have realized that he’d lose me forever as his Ahmad Rashad -- when I'm not working as Nowitzki's Ahmad Rashad, of course -- if I wasn't allowed to sneak out there somehow.

Q: Will you be trademarking the term "Plimptonian Power Rankings?" If not, you probably should, even though I'd guess very few readers have any idea what you were talking about.

STEIN: Really? Inhabitants of the modern-day sports blogosphere don't know George Plimpton? A major disappointment, if true.

For the kids out there: Plimpton is the undisputed, legendary father of participatory sports journalism. Please read his Wikipedia page immediately.

[Ed.: I probably should’ve given readers far more credit. As an aside, the first time I heard about George Plimpton was when my Mom told me that he hit on her when she was working at NBC in the 1960s!]

He actually did full-length books on his experiences, but I've done OK for myself with probably more dabbles than I deserve in the Plimptonian realm. Besides the two other cameos I described in the article -- playing for a week with indoor soccer's Dallas Sidekicks and trying to return Roscoe Tanner's serve on three different surfaces -- I've also shared some interesting court time with Elgin Baylor and Pete Sampras . . . and was once paraded on the Maine Road pitch before a night match with a City scarf held over my head like a new signing. That was for an article I was invited to write in the Manchester Evening News.

I know, I know: I've actually had WAY more fun than I deserve.

Q: I thought it was interesting that some NBA players who were rumored to be involved in the Nash/Claudio Reyna match (Nate Robinson, David Lee and you mentioned Joakim Noah) weren't there. Did their teams pull the plug or was it more scheduling conflicts?

STEIN: No idea what happened to Nate and D-Lee. All of a sudden they went from available to unavailable. At least with Noah there's a story. Joakim called Nash when he read about the game on Page Six in the New York Post, told Nash he was dying to play and then called shortly before kickoff, apologizing for missing "yesterday's game." He had the wrong day somehow.

Q: I think everyone who was there agreed that Jason Kidd, among the NBA players, was the biggest revelation on the football pitch. Watching Kidd play, I couldn't help but think that he would've been an amazing professional soccer player, with the same athletic skills, vision and playmaking . . . plus at 6-3 he'd actually have a height advantage. What's your take on the argument that the United States would produce more top soccer players if student-athletes didn't gravitate towards other sports?

STEIN: I had to apologize to J-Kidd because I had it totally wrong in my preview story for Never knew he had a soccer background and I made it sound like he had never kicked a ball in his life.

As for the bigger issue . . .

I don't know that I have anything profound to say beyond than the obvious. Soccer just doesn't have a big enough profile in this country -- and you have to wonder if it ever will -- to consistently attract the Kidd-level athletes. You'd like to believe that a country this big could hook, say, 50 of the best athletes under any circumstances. Or at least 20. But America is just totally unlike almost every other nation around the world, where soccer is generally the runaway No. 1 sport. What's the ceiling for soccer here with so many sports ahead of it in the queue and so many choices? I honestly don't know that soccer has moved up much in my lifetime.

Q: Changing topics slightly, when did you become interested in football, especially your beloved Manchester City? And how closely do you follow the Premier League during the season?

STEIN: Apologies, again, to anyone who has already been subjected to this sad, geeky, long-winded story.

My brother and I are the first generation in our family born in the States, so footy is the sport my father grew up with in Romania and shared with us. I was first exposed to English football when I was 11. We made frequent trips to Israel to see family in my youth and the only sports publication in English that you could find in the Holy Land in those pre-internet, pre-cable times was SHOOT! For those that don’t know, SHOOT! was a famed kiddie soccer mag that had heavy involvement from all the big England stars of the day and was published mostly on a weekly basis for a good 40 years before meeting its tragic demise in June as yet another victim of the unforgiving world of modern publishing. I will always hold it dear because SHOOT! immediately became my bible to get through the summer. I milked every word out of every issue.

Knowing nothing about the geography or the history of the English game, I was going to have to pick a team some other way from all the names and clubs I was suddenly trying to learn on the fly. On the back cover of my first issue, pictured in stunning sky blue, was City defender Tommy Caton doing a Q&A. City's kit had a strong resemblance to the shirt worn by my AYSO team back in Southern California -- except ours was one of those cheapo light blue mesh shirts with all the little holes and a white v-neck – so that’s the glamorous story of how this City fan was born.

The choice obviously stuck. And in what I consider to be a true sign from above, I made this call without even knowing that City had won the FA Cup in 1969 one day after I was born. Once I eventually discovered that bit of trivia, I realized that me and City were meant to be.

But it was pretty tough to follow English football back here in the States, in my experience, until the early 1990s . . . even though my dear Uncle Josef in Israel arranged for me to receive SHOOT! by mail in California through my teens at a ridiculous cost. As a kid, Toby Charles’ unforgettable broadcasts on Soccer Made In Germany and games in Spanish (starting for me with the 1982 World Cup) were the standout international footy programs I remember watching, overshadowing some sporadic coverage from England on similar UHF stations in SoCal. I more clearly remember subscribing to Sports Channel America (which I think is now basically Fox Sports Net) around 1991 or 1992 (for about $10-12 extra monthly on the cable bill) because they had an English footy highlights show every week. Then the Internet arrived and the world amazingly and mercifully started shrinking. Every season it wonderfully gets a little bit smaller, too. Example: Just in the last month I’ve watched both legs of City’s first UEFA Cup qualifying tie against a tiny team from the Faroe Islands and a preseason friendly against AC Milan on internet feeds that come from I don’t know where. I don’t know that you could have done that as recently as two years ago. I love this game!

In adulthood I'm your basic Premiership snob/geek who can't find much time for the MLS, but I also have an equally deep (and disturbing) love for England's lower divisions. I'd rather watch club football than international football any day of the week and I'd rather watch a League Two or Carling Cup match on Setanta than a La Liga game. Don't ask me to rationalize any of this because I know I'm a freak. I guess I just grew up reading so much about English football -- without actually being able to watch what I was reading about -- that even clubs in England's lower leagues have mystical qualities in my twisted world. City also spent three long seasons in England’s second and third tiers in the late '90s before the club started to rebound, which took me to some remote outposts that only cemented my Football League fetish. Sixfields Stadium in Northampton, for example. I've indeed been there to see City in what is now known as League One; it's one of the roughly 40 or so professional football grounds in England that I've been to in the past decade-plus. Like I said . . . total geek.

How closely do I follow the Premiership now? Closer than I want anyone to know. Closer than my family can stand. Let's just say that no one in the United States finds a way to watch more of the three daily helpings of Sky Sports News that we get over here than me.

Q: What do you make about the Thaksin Shinawatra/Sven-Goran Eriksson drama at Man City?

STEIN: It's nothing, sadly, that I didn’t expect back when Frank, as we call him, got the club. I always feared, with all the potential pitfalls attached to Shinawatra’s legal situation, that City could end up worse off than we were before he took over, which was an absolutely excruciating time in the last days of Stuart Pearce's regime. I dearly hope I’m just being my usual paranoid, worst-case-scenario self, but the developments coming out of Eastlands are ominous, to put it charitably. And you get conditioned as a City fan to wonder when the next crisis will hit.

As for Sven specifically, clearly he didn’t deserve to go. The man only had us in the top five for half the season and did the league double over U----d, after City had gone nearly 40 years without beating our neighbors twice in the same season. If I must be honest, I was not a fan of his football, like a lot of City fans, largely because Sven insisted on playing a dour system (only one man up front) even at home. But let's face it: He was absolutely fantastic in his first season, results-wise, getting a team full of new players to gel so quickly. Sven also had an undeniable presence that was even more impressive than the top-10 finish. Not Mourinho-like, obviously, but Sven gave City unmistakable credibility, especially in the area of player recruitment. He could call any player in the world and at least get that player to take his call. Don't know if City has ever had another manager with that kind of juice.

That said, I'm a pretty big admirer of Mark Hughes, in spite of his U----d connections and last week's slip up to whatever the hell that Danish team is called that Danny Califf plays for now. He’s a rare breed (top young British manager) who’s joining the club with the most underrated, on-the-rise youth academy in England (reigning FA Youth Cup champions). So I fall into the camp of City fans who have their fingers crossed that we might have gotten away with one when Frank was able to convince Hughes to come to Eastlands after forcing Sven out prematurely. I think Hughes is good enough to solidify us as a top-six or seven side, but that naturally depends on Shinawatra's troubles going away or someone with money coming in to rescue him.

If the stories are true about Shinawatra wanting or needing to sell the club . . . don't make me think about what happens next. But that’s life as a City fan. It’s a roller coaster that never lets you off. As legendary striker Franny Lee famously said back in the club’s glory days -- and I'm paraphrasing here to Americanize his quote -- City would have an overflowing trophy case if they gave out cups for screw-ups.

Q: Do you think Ronaldinho would have worked out at Man City?

STEIN: Nope. No chance. Ronaldinho surely thinks he’s still too good to go from Barca to City. Factor in the ridiculous money we'd have been risking and it only could have ended in tears.

Part II of our interview with Marc Stein is on its way tomorrow!


The Fan's Attic said...

He's like us! A soccer nerd.

Kyle said...

What a great read. Good to see we're all not alone as American EPL stalkerazzis.

The Fan's Attic said...

I wonder what it was like watching Sunday's game against Villa with Stein. Probably not a pretty sight.

Spectator said...

I'm sure that Marc wouldn't mind if I included a bit from his last email to me:

The interview does, however, coincide with the worst week City's had in a long time, which is saying something. Bojinov's injury . . . I could deal with that as a freak of nature. The defending against Villa after an unforgivable UEFA Cup result was as bad as I've ever seen, which is again saying something. We were missing four or five regulars but it was still incredibly depressing, spoiling my morning at this tremendous cappucino bar I found in Vancouver that pretty much only serves coffee and footy.

Chad said...

Great interview. Thanks Spectator.

Keith said...


Can you forward my response to Stein RE: Sunday-

Dear Marc,


Anonymous said...

Gabby Agbonlahor punked all those City must be said, Young too...

BerbaBent said...

I think Villa looked very good. One of the better results this weekend. My "Result of the weekend" has to go to Newcastle. They got stuck in and took away a deserved pt. I do not care that Man U were shorthanded as they are the EPL champs at home. Well done Geordies. Also, their away support was fantastic. Outsung the Mancs for 90 minutes

Keith said...

We looked good, but we went to sleep a bit after the first goal, letting Johnson get into position to fall from a stiff breeze in the box, and did our typical last five-minute coasting to allow the second. Hopeflly when the new backline gells, we'll stop conceding late. But if we can hit home like that with regularity, it won't matter. Plus, it would have been 4-6 with Carson in goal.

And I only got to see the first half and last five minutes of Newcastle/ManUre (the other 40 mins were spent going from Brooklyn to Nevada Smith's to cheer the Villa on with our supporter's club), but I was really impressed by Koogan's squad. Given in particular looks like he'll have a great year.

Lingering Bursitis said...

Keith: you should make the trek to Kinsale one of these weekends

Lingering Bursitis said...

Also, don't forget, 2 more parts of this interview to come this week!

Spectator said...

Actually only one more part, LB, but the sentiment was right!!

Evan said...

When I read he worshiped Fowler and McManaman, I assumed he was a Scouser. Considering their level of play when they were with City, I find it a little tragic that's the best that a Man City fan can come up with.

Mike Georger said...

so with all these espn people getting interviewed here, im starting to worry that my little 'espn sucks ass' post is going to land me in the mouse's gulag

Keith said...

Yeah, but who'd sing with me, then, LB? (The Villa Supporter's club meets at Nevada's)

And Mike- two decent folks at ESPN plus Andy Gray getting a pass from Sky don't mean that the four-letter will actually be good at the sport; remember, they still hired Julie Fowdy this year. And OOS

Sarah said...

Great interview. I can sympathize with the driving the family crazy watching footy thing. Soon it'll be driving the roommates crazy.