Tuesday, August 19, 2008

An Interview with Marc Stein: Part II

As promised, herein lies Part Two of our two-part (despite what my friend Lingering Bursitis might have said to the contrary) interview with ESPN's Marc Stein. Part One can be found right here -- or you could just scroll down the page, but that defeats the purpose of hyperlinking, eh?

Again, big thanks to Marc for taking the time to speak with UF!

After the jump, Marc talks about the NBA, blogs and working for ESPN.

Q: One of the interesting contrasts between European football leagues and the NBA is the different systems for player movement from team to team. It seems like each system has its own massive imperfections. In football, you have essentially an unregulated market – no salary caps, with the best players always moving to the best teams for increasingly astronomical sums. In the NBA, the draft and salary caps have done a good job of ensuring parity, but you wind up with lots of purely cap-saving moves (the recent trade involving Marcus Camby being a prime example). Any thoughts about whether the sports can somehow find a happy medium?

STEIN: It's two completely different worlds. So there's realistically no common ground for a happy medium. You can't really compare a 30-team league governed by a commissioner to the comparative confusion of worldwide football and the constant shuttling of players from country to country to country.

I much prefer the salary-cap system, because it levels the playing field to the point that a team in a market like San Antonio can build an NBA powerhouse, which gives hope to fans everywhere. It’s awfully discouraging for clubs like City, Nash’s Tottenham and so many others knowing before a ball is kicked that we’re playing for fifth place at best. But there's little point talking about instituting a salary cap in the Premiership if La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga don't have the same. And even if the impossible happened and Premiership chairmen agreed to implement a cap, how could there ever be a cap that applies across numerous leagues of all shapes and sizes worldwide? It's almost impossible to fathom.

I will concede, though, that the NBA's salary-cap system will look plenty flawed itself if teams in Europe start consistently outbidding our teams for players. But we're not even close to there yet, with all due respect to the Childress Movement. All the talk about 50-mil-a-year offers for Kobe and LeBron, furthermore, is WAY premature. There's simply no proof yet that teams abroad can pay that kind of money, before we even get into some of the other obstacles . . . like the fact that Greece is a marketing wasteland for basketball players and can't possibly appeal to LeBron. Until we see hard evidence that there will be offers sufficiently rich and sensible for a LeBron or a Kobe or even a borderline All-Star to leave the NBA in their title-contending primes, keep me in the Believe It When I See It camp. I just can't forget how reluctant some guys have been to play in sensational cities like Toronto and Vancouver. Now they're going to flock to Europe for money we don't really know exists?

Q: Another contrast between the NBA and European football is the playoffs v. promotion/relegation system. I love the NBA, but even I will admit that the playoffs have become interminable and the end of the season rendered meaningless, especially for teams trying to gain a better draft pick. On the other hand, the EPL remains competitive throughout the season and relegation battles often take on just as much importance as matches at the top of the table. The playoffs are obviously the NBA's cash cow, especially in terms of TV coverage, but is there any chance that the NBA could emulate football and try to make the regular season more meaningful?

STEIN: Don't think it's a problem exclusive to the NBA. I imagine baseball seasons feel pretty empty when your team is out of it in July. I naturally love the promotion/relegation concept, but the reality, as you know, is that we're again talking about two completely different worlds. England has 92 professional football clubs operating independently and lots of leagues below the four main divisions. We've got nowhere to relegate our teams and no pool of promotion candidates because of the affiliated minor-league systems in major US team sports. They've got us beat on this one. By a mile.

Q: Greg Lalas recently criticized you for not covering football in addition to basketball. Is covering football something that you've ever considered? What about an EPL power rankings column?

STEIN: I read Greg's piece and your recent interview with him and I appreciate the fact that he went back and acknowledged that I'm not some "mainstream sports guy" who had a soccer epiphany. I covered soccer in the mainstream press before his brother ever pulled on a national-team shirt. I covered the US national team extensively from 1987-91 for The Orange County Register, back when my man Paul Caligiuri's goal in Trinidad put US soccer back on the international map . . . and back when the sport was such in this country that a college kid like me could walk into the newsroom of the second-biggest paper in California and talk his way onto the beat of a World Cup-bound team. I didn't get to go to Italia '90 -- don't know that I would have been sent even if I was out of college -- but I did get to cover the '94 World Cup for the Los Angeles Daily News right after my first few months on the NBA beat.

There were simply NO papers in the States back in those pre-MLS days where you could make a living as a full-time soccer guy. (Almost the same held for tennis, which was actually my “first” sport, apart from the New York Times and LA Times.) Some of my closest soccer-writing pals from that era -- like Steve Goff (Washington Post) and Scott French (MLS Magazine and another alumnus from the Cal State Fullerton journalism factory) -- are still going and have my full admiration for putting up with years of snubs from their editors and the countless desk shifts they had to log for the right to occasionally do some soccer to make it to an era where there actually is an MLS beat.

But when I got the chance to cover the Clippers, as a 25-year-old, I could barely contain myself. I think I was the youngest traveling beat writer in the league at the time and it was an absolute dream come true, because the NBA was by far my favorite big-league sport. The NBA, soccer and tennis were my three sporting dreamlands and I was determined from a young age to make it in one of those arenas as a journalist. I was fortunate enough to get an extensive taste of covering the latter two sports while still a student at Fullerton and then got my big break NBA-wise when then-Daily News sports editor Tod Leonard (another soccer sympathizer) did some shuffling and threw me onto the Clips. Some 15 years later, this really feels like what I was born to do. I think I knew it on my very first road trip, too, looking at all the conventioneers in the hotel and thinking: "All these chumps have to sit in some dreadful all-day presentation and I'm going to an NBA game. I am indeed the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

I initially wanted to be a baseball writer like everyone else in my sports-writing generation (and several generations before that) but quickly found that the NBA was where I belonged. Basketball had the more interesting, revealing and unpredictable characters, all playing a game so athletically tasty that me and my high school buddies taped SportsCenter every night so we never missed the highlights, all of which seemed to be within an arm's length from what were often sensational seats on press row, all in a sport that was global like soccer. (One reasonably why Nash is so popular with footballers around the world is that footballers generally LOVE the NBA.)

Most importantly in my case, I fell harder for the NBA after I started covering it and once I started meeting the people. Turns out that I love talking hoops as much as watching hoops. Not sure why, but sports like baseball and boxing, which I inhaled as a kid, didn't work like that for me as a writer. I was a total Strat-O-Matic baseball seamhead by the age of eight, but my interest in baseball now is reduced to taking my sons to the odd game and buying hats and plastic helmets that I liked in the '70s and '80s. Basketball, by contrast, became even more of a religion after I graduated to beat writer.

However . . .

I can't deny that, like Greg did, I have asked myself once or twice if I should have found a way to do more footy along the way. It’s really not even possible any more in this era of specialization, but it is true that mixing in more soccer somehow -- I think covering the U.S. men's and women's teams at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 for The Dallas Morning News was my last extended exposure to footy on a media basis -- would have been a great way for me to give back to the sport I love so much.

Soccer is still (and might always be) struggling for a foothold in this country and needs more journalists who truly love it to help in the fight for exposure. This is obviously not a problem at ESPN, where we have an army of soccer guys. In general, though, there's still only a small handful of American sportswriters championing the beautiful game's cause. And that’s an issue for the sport to deal with just like the struggle to attract the best athletes.

Q: That said, what's the best and worst thing about being an NBA reporter for ESPN?

STEIN: Best thing? How much time do we have? I don't know that I could aptly describe what those four letters have done for me and countless others who left the newspaper world for Bristol. All the different platforms . . . resources . . . audience size . . . creativity . . . access . . . reach . . . our constantly evolving technology . . . my colleagues on ESPN.com's NBA squad. I could go on and on.

There are only two negatives. 1) Time on the road gets harder and harder when you've got two growing little champs in the house who are looking for Daddy. 2) The NBA calendar is as non-stop as any in sports. We go from Oct. 1 through late June, then it's the draft one week after the Finals . . . and then free agency and summer league starting July 1 might be the busiest time of all. One of my favorite GMs has a great saying that he loves to trot out at summer league when we’re all in a gym in July for hours at a time watching summer hoop that isn't always of the highest standard: “Life’s not bad, boys. We’re on expense accounts watching basketball.” I realize that no one who has to go to those hotel conventions with the overhead projectors wants to hear about our “grind,” but I remember a great line Dan LeBatard had in an interview with The Big Lead where he basically said that sports writing, compared to doing TV or radio, does hurt sometimes. Especially when you’re an obsessive freak-show perfectionist like I am. The writers who are good AND fast – Mark Whicker from my hometown OC Register is probably the first who comes to mind in this category – are my absolute idols. This gig would be even greater if I could be more like Whick and less like the guy who spends 10 months at a clip overthinking comma placement.

Luckily for me I have an unbeatable method for getting refueled. Last thing I do before NBA training camps open is to sneak over to England for about a week to pretend I live there and go to a mess of games all over the Northwest of England. There’s no sightseeing or socializing or any of that proper travel nonsense. It’s a 100 percent soccer trip. And September is a great time because there's almost a game every single day between the various leagues and cups. I love going to a little place like, say, Crewe on a Tuesday night for a Carling Cup game and seeing all the strange looks when folks get introduced to this crazy Yank who came to their small stadium in the middle of nowhere on his vacation.

Q: We'd be remiss if we didn't ask you about the supposed controversy between the Mainstream Media(tm) and the Blogosphere(tm). It seems to me, at least, that on a good day the two complement each other quite well. Blogs are more interested in amusing coverage but also directing traffic and holding the MSM somewhat accountable, whereas the MSM has the vast resources to do the actual reporting that's impossible for kids working in their parents' basements . . . although, to be fair, most of us at UF have just recently managed to move out of our parents' houses and some of us even have day jobs! So what do you see as fueling this debate?

STEIN: Arguably no one is more sensitive about being criticized than us paid critics in the media. Therein lies some of the tension. Media types are being called out louder than ever for their mistakes and watched very closely. Too closely in some cases, but like you suggested: We’re being held accountable like never before. Yet I think it's also true that there are a handful of bloggers out there who love telling each other in print how much smarter they are than us old-school fossils whose reporting still supplies much of what is dissected in the blogosphere. So heads naturally butt.

Another source of tension: Good bloggers and fan sites can cover their local NBA franchise in ways that the local papers cannot. They generally don't have the insider access for newsgathering that the papers have, but when it comes to pure coverage of a game they have more eyes, no space limitations, no deadline issues and no traditional "rules" to handcuff them. Team blogs and fan sites are also great at finding every printed word and video clip about their teams, which adds another layer to their coverage. So just speaking from an NBA perspective -- since the blogs I read most are NBA-related -- traditional media types have been steadily forced to raise our games to deliver stuff that reader doesn't already know yet. I see that as a good thing and take it as a personal challenge. Some of my peers apparently don't.

I would classify myself as a fairly voracious reader of a small collection of blogs from the NBA, sports media and footy worlds. I like, as much as anything, how they save me time by finding and linking stuff I might not have otherwise seen and send it right to my RSS reader. One of my favorite things about Henry Abbott’s work at TrueHoop is that he somehow tracks down links and passages that might not have made it onto the daily rumors page at HoopsHype.com, which anyone who has anything to do with the NBA reads every morning. That's impressive . . . and incredibly helpful.

My complaints about the blogosphere are the old standbys. It's disappointing when the coverage gets too personal or spreads wild speculation, but that’s something that the people we cover in pro sports have to deal with on a daily basis. No one ever said that the sports media would be immune to the same treatment.

And I know I wish I would have had the blog outlet when I was a newspaper beat writer. It gives you so many more options. Marc Spears in Boston, Brian Windhorst in Cleveland, Jonathan Feigen and Fran Blinebury in Houston, Ira Winderman in Miami, Ken Berger in New York, Paul Coro in Phoenix, Sam Amick and Scott Howard-Cooper in Sacramento, Doug Smith in Toronto, Ross Siler in Utah . . . those are some newspaper guys just off the top of my head who have a fun blog touch and have made good use of the immediacy advantage that blogs have over papers. My old paper in Dallas has a dedicated Mavs blogger (Tim MacMahon) who, in addition to his own commentary, does a great job of finding anything and everything worth reading about the team and putting it in one easy place to find. My old L.A. pal Tim Kawakami, meanwhile, is a full-time general columnist for the San Jose Mercury News who happens to churn out about 25 blog posts a week. Many of them are Warriors-related and any Dubs fan would tell you they're absolutely must-read.

You hear lots of complaints about how independent blogs don't face the consequences faced by their mainstream counterparts when they're wrong or over the line and how they lack the proper training, contacts and journalistic checks and balances to be treated as an equal. And maybe there are some cases where all that's true. But I don't think it's our place to worry about how the readers classify every blog they encounter. This is a free country and people can start their own website if they have something to say. I’d like to think the audience can generally determine for itself what's what and who's who.

Q: Next to being on the same field with Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Steve Nash and Thierry Henry, was being canonized by the Onion the greatest achievement of your career?

STEIN: I was certainly honored to see ESPN.com's NBA Power Rankings acknowledged by The Onion and more amazed by how many people saw it and e-mailed me about it. This season will be my seventh doing the Power Rankings and the interest in them, knock on wood, only seems to be growing, with John Hollinger’s daily computerized rankings definitely adding to the interest and debate. But with all due respect to the satire press, I can't quite put The Onion in the same sentence as playing with Growler and Macca. Like I said way, way, way too many words ago at the top: I've had far more fun than I deserve over the years, but lining up with legends like that for the Showdown in Chinatown is pretty much in a category unto itself.

Marc Stein writes about the NBA for ESPN.com and also appears on the WWL's television and radio programs. If Man City really do spiral down this season, please think good thoughts about him.


The Fan's Attic said...

Wow...great stuff. Marc was really forthcoming.

Keith said...

Marc, just because Citeh are never playing for better than fifth place doesn't mean other teams aren't (I'm looking at Spurs, Everton, and yes, my own Villans as examples in recent memory)

The NY Kid said...

Outstanding stuff, spectator. And a big thanks to Marc for taking the time to speak to our little footy blog.

jjf3 said...

tremendous job, Spectator. Great interview, and great response from Marc...