By Myles Brown
I’m a 29 year old, 6’4 black man with a limited handle, a streaky jumper and slightly above average defense. But in the Target Center, when I cross the velvet rope and enter the tunnel, children often mistake me for one of the Timberwolves. Bag over my shoulder and pen in mouth, I’ll smile, take the compliment and enthusiastically slap the aisles of tiny palms as I make my way through. Because as much as I would like to sit them down and talk about what my friend George calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, I simply don’t have the time.
My friend Britt would never be mistaken for a basketball player. But upon first glance, I was guilty of mistaking him for someone else. Someone boring. Someone unwilling, unavailable, unrelatable or anything else that someone like myself might assume about a 55 year old white man. Time has shown I couldn’t have been more wrong and I told myself just as I would have my prepubescent audience, “Being conditioned to think that way doesn’t make you any less wrong”.
Back in December, Kelly Dwyer proclaimed Britt Robson to be the future of sportswriting and five months later all I can tack onto that poignant analysis is that Robson’s insight into the game and it’s personalities transcends the sport and is equally applicable to a world without boxscores or locker rooms. It was a pleasure to sit next to him all season to learn not only about basketball and writing, but also to pick up a few tidbits about the game of life.
I sat down this week with Britt to discuss the sibling rift between accredited journalists and their blogging brethren along with a host of other topics. The following two hour transcript is a glimpse into the knowledge I’ve been soaking up all year. Enjoy.
SLAM: You grew up exposed to a lot of great basketball in Boston. Do you think that you would be as rabid a fan or as involved with the game as you are if you’d have grown up in Buffalo?
Robson: Well when I was growing up they had the Clippers. Actually, they didn’t quite have the Clippers back then, but if you’re saying would I in a place with no NBA? Um, probably not. If I were a kid today growing up, exposed to cable TV? Probably. Although one of the things I loved growing up in Boston was that the Globe at the time had a great sports section. They had Bob Ryan writing hoops. And back then when Bob Ryan was in his prime and he wasn’t an asshole like he is today, he knew a lot about the game and if you just watched the game, you could glean a lot about the game. I mean the Celtics were the prototypical team. They played great defense before anybody thought to play great defense, they shared the ball, they were kind of like a better version of the Spurs today. They won 11 rings in 13 years or something ridiculous like that and when you’re a kid and you hear things like that, you get excited about it. Plus they had Johnny Most as their radio guy, they just had a nice culture of things that appealed to me. So the easy answer to your question is that I know that my intense love of the game stems from seeing excellence at an impressionable age. I think the game is good enough on its own merits where I would get into it regardless, I just don’t know if I would have followed it with the intensity that I did.
SLAM: What about the game appeals to you more than other sports?
Robson: I think they’re the greatest athletes in the world, first of all. I think a 6’8 power forward would be an amazing tennis player, an amazing tight end, probably a hell of a defenseman in hockey, a great lacrosse player. These are guys who are really strong and really big and it’s not like football where you have to hit people, you have to be athletic. I’ve never been a big fan of seeing who could pick up the most weight and crush somebody else in terms of running them into the ground. The kind of athleticism that always amazed me was being able to think clearly and quickly in terms of your physical intelligence as well as your mental intelligence. Being able to adjust spontaneously to something like a running back does in football. You have that dimension in basketball, also to me five guys is just a great number for a team. You have to be smart to play the game well, but you can’t be a pinch hitter, or a first baseman. You can’t be somebody that’s out of shape. Anybody that’s out of shape in this league gets exposed. Shaquille O’Neal, Sam Cassell, you name it, if you’re out of shape on the court, they will find you. So it’s a combination of intelligence, athleticism, strategy and access to the personalities since you can seem them up close.
SLAM: What inspired you to write and what are your influences?
Robson: Probably sports. I learned how to read by reading the sports page. My mother loved words, my father loved arguments, so being able to use words and arguments. And then Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, if I started I could probably name fifty or sixty writers. Whenever I go to classes and people ask ‘How do we get to do what you do?’ what I always say is read. The only way you become a good writer is to read a lot. It’s through osmosis that you pick that stuff up, you crib from the best. It’s kind of like a jazz musician. But I think for me what it was is that I have a really big ego and when I’m at a party and someone asks me what I do, I don’t want them to walk away when I tell them, you know? And I want to be next to people I admire. I want to be near-I write about music, sports and politics-I want to be able to talk to a saxophone player, I want to be able to talk to a shooting guard and I want to be able to talk to a governor. I want access to them to have to be able to answer my questions. But then I also want to be able to pontificate what I think about it. So those things all go into it. I need my ego fed, I need to be able to write, I need to able to make a mark in some way shape or form, and I need to able to argue with people. I need to be able to blend. Thank God the online world came along, cause for thirty years I’ve been writing a mixture of reporting and opinion and now suddenly it’s the en vogue thing. When I started, people didn’t like that.
SLAM: What are your goals in sports writing and what do you think your responsibility is to your readership?
Robson: My goal used to be ‘To be famous’. I think the older i get and the less famous I turned out to be, the more I changed that goal to be to satisfy myself and have the respect of my peers. People whose writing I admire, I want them to if not admire my writing, respect my writing. Internally, I want to be able to be writing something at two in the morning, having looked at three or four different sources and be able to pull things out of the air that I didn’t even know I knew. Then begin to make connections, draw analogies, and throw words around that come from me-but as the classic cliche goes, you don’t know where it comes from-and all of a sudden your game is elevated. I don’t do this for the money, I do it for the notoriety and the satisfaction of creating something.
SLAM: You’ve covered politics for 30+ years. What are the similarities in politicians and athletes?
Robson: Athletes are more honest in their arrogance. Politicians can’t afford to be honestly arrogant cause then they’ll look bad. Athletes don’t worry about looking bad because they rightfully have most sportswriters in contempt. I mean sports writing-and political writing for that matter-the people who do it as hack work and just want the quote, just want that….There’s kind of a rogue thing that happens, it happens in music, it happens in sports, it happens in politics, it happens anywhere where everybody just wants to play the game and make their job to go get the most predictable thing rather than the least predictable thing. Athletes gravitate to that, politicians gravitate to that, they like predictability cause then they don’t look bad. And I think one of the things that happens is with athletes-if you go for the less predictable thing-have a tendency to tell you to get fucked, in so many words. Or treat you in a way that indicates to the people around them that they don’t regard what you’re doing as legitimate or something. Politicians would like to do that but they can’t because their image is much more tied up in what you are saying. Michael Jordan doesn’t need me, or for that matter, Al Jefferson or whoever doesn’t need me. Tim Pawlenty wouldn’t talk to me anymore anyway since I rip him so much, but most Minnesota politicians need me more than most Minnesota Timberwolves do. I’m writing about what they do for a living and what they do for a living is literally is determined by what people think of them, whereas with basketball that’s not necessarily true.
SLAM: What about musicians? What are the similarities in how they approach their craft?
Robson: I think there’s a lot more similarities between musicians and athletes. The thing with musicians and athletes is their greatness happens through some kind of internal drive. Rasheed Wallace for example is a phenomenal specimen. Incredibly gifted, smart, athletic, everything else. But for some reason you just get the impression that somewhere along the line he just never took that next step, for whatever reason. There are certain guys that just get better. Some of it is mental makeup and some of it is physical makeup, but they just have something inside of them that is unique that is physical, but then something inside of them that is unique that’s just will power driven. The thing I’ve noticed about great musicians is kind of the same thing. There are some like Charlie Parker who everyone knows is just this heroin addict, but if you know about Bird any, he worked so hard at refining what he was doing in the time he was around. John Coltrane, one of my favorites, Sonny Rollins, these guys just throw so much of themselves into what they do and I think athletes do to. Politicians, it’s a little bit of a different deal. Athletes and musicians I think are very analogous. Basketball is kind of a mating between jazz and hip hop, that’s what I really think about it, back to when we were talking about what I like about basketball. I love jazz and I love hip hop. Jazz is improvisational, hip hop is improvisational, basketball is improvisational, but all of them rely on knowing the foundation. If you don’t know what key ‘All the Things You Are’ is in, you’re not going to be able to play that great solo. If you don’t know the play on the court, you’re not going to be able to see the court, as Gerald Green found out. If all you can do is battle rap, you’re not going to get very far.
SLAM: What was your journalistic training?
Robson: Never took a journalism course in my life.
SLAM: Not one?
Robson: Proud to say.
SLAM: Did you graduate college?
SLAM: What was your major?
Robson: Political Science and Radio/TV. I wanted to be the next Curt Gowdy going in, but then I realized I didn’t have the discipline. The problem with being radio and television-particularly television-everything is so split second and not only soundbytes, but you have to break for a commercial at a set time, everything is so coordinated to be a certain way. But it doesn’t leave you a lot of room to do anything. When I started in radio, back before the Howard Sterns and Rush Limbaughs, it was a different kind of deal. What I realized is that, ‘I’m not that disciplined’. I don’t want to be that disciplined. I don’t like discipline that much, which is one of the reasons I would never be a great basketball star. I’m the Rasheed Wallace-although worse-cause I don’t want to do that stuff.
SLAM: So then how did you ‘hone your craft’?
Robson: I wanted to be a poet. When I was 15 years old, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. A war was going on. The guys I hung around with in high school who went to college a year or two ahead of me, were going on strike and taking over ROTC buildings and that’s what I wanted to do when I went to college. And that’s what I wound up doing. And so I got into college as much for the politics and social aspect of it as I did for the schooling aspect. I dropped out after a year and a half and just started hitchhiking around the country. 1976, I hitchhiked probably about 25,000 miles. Went East/West about two or three times and North/South two or three times. You couldn’t do that today, obviously. But it was a a great experience. I read a lot of Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, took a lot of drugs and just enjoyed the hell out of myself. I saw the country. And all that really helped me develop a sense of not caring much about money and I still think the best way to prepare if Exxon is gonna give you a pension down the road is to know that you can live hand-to-mouth if you had to. Now having a wife and a son complicated that, I’ve got a mortgage now and the whole nine yards, but I always wanted to keep that mentality. I’m 55 years old. If all kinds of bullshit happened to me between now and when I die at 110, I’ll have broken even cause I’ve had 55 great years. I’m not saving for something, I’m enjoying myself, which all gets back to this idea of how you get to be who you are. If you’re sticking your thumb out and people are picking you up-I used to get a buzz cut and carry a Navy duffel bag cause people would pick you up that way-and a lot of times somebody would pick me up in a Volkswagen van and it’s be a bunch of people getting high. Just getting coked out of your brain or stoned out of your brain for four hours and then all of a sudden you’re making a turn and you’re off on the middle of the highway in the middle of nowhere, you’re high as a kite, you’ve got you thumb sticking out and somebody comes along like Mr.Military and you’ve got to talk to him for like two or three hours. You get to know people and you get to know how to present yourself to people on the fly in very different ways, which is very important as a writer and a journalist. To be able to react and adjust to certain situations, to size people up. I got to know people hitchhiking whom I never would’ve got to know otherwise. So that was really important. Far more important than going to journalism school. If you read a lot of good writing, you’re gonna learn how to write, I think. You’ll learn what feels good to you and establish your own rhythm. You want to be able to have the confidence-I am arrogant enough to think that whether it’s Michael Jordan or Wynton Marsalis or somebody else-that I’m going to be able to conduct an interview with these folks and they’re going to respect what I say enough to give me answers to my questions. If I’m doing a full blown profile on somebody, then I’ll feel like I have the chops to ‘get that guy’. To find out who that guy is. If I’m writing a 5,000 word piece on something, then I feel like I’m going to have to be able to research it well enough and analyze it from enough points of view that I can give a good nuanced portrait of what’s going on. The way you do that isn’t to go to journalism school and graduate school and post-post graduate school and doctorate school and kiss ass every step of the way, do the whole hierarchy business and someday get to be the columnist in the daily newspaper. It’s to do whatever you feel like doing and find people who will let you do it. That’s what I’ve been able to do. I’ve been able to write about music, sports and politics for a variety of publications. And now with online and blending reporting and opinion becoming more accepted, it’s easier for me than ever. The approach I’ve taken, you have to be consistent with it and you have to have no regrets.
SLAM: Do you think there are any advantages in journalistic training in covering the NBA or politics or anything else?
SLAM: Not one?
Robson: No. Well, as long as you don’t buy into it. If you want to audit the course, then sure. Those are careers. I think if you want to go into a ‘career’ in journalism then you’re fucked right off the bat. You’re going to have to play a lot of internal politics and you’re going to have to follow certain spinets and go a certain way and you’re going to have to buy into a set of assumptions. That isn’t what I do. It certainly wouldn’t have helped me and the people who it would help want to do something different than what I want to do. And I don’t want to have to play internal politics, I don’t want to have to be nice to somebody I don’t like or be not nice to somebody I do like. A lot of that is inevitable. I think people who were starting out to be journalists as their career and knew that’s what they wanted to do and have a certain set of assumptions, they know much better than I do the advantages of doing things that way. I don’t see those advantages, what I see are impediments more than advantages.
SLAM: How did your access change your perception of the league as a whole?
Robson: I developed a lot more respect for coaches. Part of that is because coaches have to talk to me. Sam Mitchell, Terry Porter, K.G., there’s also some players that have taught me about the game. But coaches, Flip Saunders taught me a lot about this game. Just listening to him after games talk about things. Even Wittman, who I don’t consider a very good coach, I listen to how he analyzes a team and why he says what he says. When you say access, Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach, I can read their books. But if you can go to practice and ask the coach whatever you want, you can have a theory. Sometimes I used to run things off Flip like, “This is what I’m thinking about this particular team…” and he’d say “No, this instead….” or something. And even if I didn’t buy into his argument, his argument was at least a viewpoint that helped me figure out my viewpoint. Having that kind of access. Or even Sam Mitchell telling me stuff, Sam used to love to really needle people. If he thought you were wrong he’d press it through the ground. He would not let anything rest. What that had the effect of doing was you got to know his philosophy extremely well about some things he fervently believed in. And the things he fervently believed in, well, he’s the one who basically taught me, “There’s no shortcuts”. If people are screwing around, eventually they’re toast. So that was something, I wouldn’t have been able to have that opportunity. Like anything else, the closer you get in terms of access the more you realize how big, how strong, how fast these guys are. How hard they work. Any professional sport you see up close, if you ever sit courtside at a tennis match instead of watching it on TV. It’s just phenomenal what these people do. I have a lot more appreciation for the intricacy of the game and also I’ve been taught a lot by people who make the game their living.
SLAM: Do you think equally worthwhile analysis can be offered without access?
Robson: I think a really smart guy, or woman, could watch a basketball game and offer up a take that no one else has that is very valuable. Ralph Wiley didn’t strike me as somebody who was traveling with teams, he observed things. It kinda goes back to that whole idea that hitchhiking is a way to learn how to be a writer, Ralph Wiley was a Hitchhiker of the Galaxy kind of guy himself. Those kinds of writers are the writers I admire. Hunter S. Thompson. Access helps you to do certain things n terms of sportswriting that can be very valuable, but there are people who don’t need access to write great stuff about sports.
SLAM: How do you think the internet has changed coverage of the NBA?
Robson: Really for the better. You don’t have all the gatekeepers. Most media outlets in the old days were compromised by their access to a team and their sponsors. Most beat writers are not critical people, partly because they need that daily access and partly because they don’t want the stress of being with people that don’t like them for six months a year. I understand that and I don’t blame them. But it’s all the better to have another group of people who almost by the nature of the fact that they’re bloggers or they’re online and they feel that they’re not quite ‘legitimate’, they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. Or maybe they’re going to try and go about things a bit differently and some of it’s bullshit. But just being able to have a whole array of other things added to the palate. I think that the democratization of journalism and writing in general by the internet has been a marvelous thing.
SLAM: Do you think the backlash against bloggers is rooted in a commitment to ‘responsible and objective journalism’ or are these people just uncomfortable with a shift in the medium?
Robson: I think they feel like they’re doing the right thing. I think when bebop came along in the 1940′s and people who were really into swing heard it, they legitimately thought it was noise. I think when hip hop came along people who liked pretty soul ballads heard it, they legitimately thought it was trash. I would liken blogging to a new strain of journalism. Blogging isn’t quite journalism. Journalistic reportage is like swing music, whereas blogging is kind of like bebop. Some of it can be perverted. It can be bad. Whenever someone has been successful with one system and another system comes along that could threaten the hegemony people get threatened. Should there be standards? The same journalists today who talk about the ‘bad bloggers’ and all the things that are happening, use anonymous sources. They paraphrase quotes. These things were like anathema 25 years ago. They’ve compromised the standards of the 50′s and 60′s in journalism and I would say for the better. Standards are always changing. Objectivity? I’ve always felt the most honest thing I could do was indicate my biases right upfront. I’m a K.G. lover, if I’m ripping on K.G. then he’s really fucking up. Whereas if I’m somebody who’s been pissed off all year that K.G. doesn’t come out to do interviews until twenty minutes before my deadline and I’m ripping on K.G., well you may not know that K.G. is fine, he just doesn’t give interviews on time. Who is doing the objective, truthful thing then? Everything is relative. The people who read newspapers have a certain expectation, the people who read things online have another expectation. But to say that one is a paragon of virtue and truth and the other one is this bastardized form that is highly suspect is wrong. The National Enquirer existed a long time before the internet did. The system doesn’t connote credibility, the writer connotes credibility. You expect somebody from the New York Times-well, you used to-to be trustworthy. You expect somebody from ESPN to know what they are talking about. You expect to somebody at Deadspin or Free Darko to. I go there because I’m going to get wisdom more than I’m giong to get intelligence and I’m going to get insight along with a deeper level of truth more than I’m going to get the ‘factual’ truth. And I’m going to know sometimes that these guys are not ‘telling the truth’ or they’re exaggerating something, but I can get something from them that I can’t get somewhere else. You just have to consider the source and you have to be smart enough to know what’s worthwhile and what wastes your time. And people who say it’s all online or it’s all in the newspaper, no. You’ve got to pick and choose.
SLAM: Is objectivity even an attainable goal? Aren’t our observances subjective due to our varying backgrounds and world views?
Robson: Objectivity is a tough word. I like the word balance more because I can want something to happen so badly that I would distort reality. If I do that often enough, I hurt my credibility as a journalist. It’s not that I’m worried about objectivity, I’m worried about credibility. I think you lose your credibility for being unbalanced. People known I’m a K.G. lover, but if I don’t ever rip K.G. then my love of K.G. is useless. People are not going to put any stock in it. It’s like when I do a profile on somebody I admire, I look for things in them that are flawed . Because I want to figure out why I admire that person. If somebody is a flawed individual and you admire them anyway, why aren’t those flaws important? If they are important, why don’t I notice them very easily? You use it as kind of a process. Steve Nash is a perfect example. Steve Nash doesn’t play defense, the guy has won the MVP two years. Clearly people don’t like defense. We’ve learned this. Okay then, that’s fine. Steve Nash is marvelous to watch, he’s got incredible heart. I’ve got a soft spot for him cause he’s a lefty politically, anti-war before it was chic, probably because he’s Canadian. There’s a lot of admirable things about this guy. But if you’re going to write about Steve Nash and not mention the fact that he can’t guard anybody, then your balance is off and your credibility in my eyes is off. If you’re going to vote for Steve Nash as an MVP and make the case that he’s the MVP, then you better be able to justify why you’re voting for him despite the fact that he can’t play defense. That’s where objectivity and balance are important. When you accept and acknowledge the realities out there. The reality as you see it has to be included in context of what you’re writing about. If you ignore that reality then you’re not being objective or balanced and you’re hurting yourself and you’re diluting your readers who aren’t smart enough to see through it. And you’re hurting your credibility in the eyes of the people who are smart enough to see through it. That when I care about objectivity I want the respect of my peers and I want to satisfy myself and I want to be able to entertain and inform my readers. Those things can’t happen unless I’m able to check myself and my own biases. I need to put them in context. I like to go against the grain, I like to say somebody is good who most people don’t think is good and vice versa. But you better know the arguments.
SLAM: There was also a complaint that media access is too limited and it prevents them from making any connections on a ‘human level’. Is enough of an athletes character is revealed through their performance or do we need to know them more as people to understand them as players?
Robson: It would be fine with me if we demystified athletes in terms of somebody’s character. Ty Cobb was a racist asshole and has been labeled that and vilified now, but at the time he was extremely popular. Babe Ruth was this larger than life presence, ate fifty hot dogs, called his own home run shots and all that. It wouldn’t surprise me if Babe Ruth was racist, or it wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t a great guy. But he finessed it somehow, he’s on the golden side of things. The point I’m trying to make is, we mythologize things. The game is enough for me, I don’t need people mythologized. But, I understand that if athletes want to make $10 million a year, they don’t do it on the basis of the game, they do it on the basis of the myth. You’ve got a hard core group of people and then you’ve got concentric circles and the more concentric circles you can make, the more money you can make. Well the more concentric circles you have, the further away from that core circle-the game itself- you get. So this attendant bullshit, which is access, which is what they’re talking about. Being able to see somebody take a leak someplace, have a meeting with a coach or something, the more invasive you can be in somebody’s life and turn them into celebrities and myths. The more money they’ll make, the more the game will grow as a myth, it’s all marketing. So, the short answer to all of that is, I don’t care about access. I like to go in the locker room , I like to talk to a coach after the game, but I don’t really need to. I like it and it gives me some satisfaction, but if you’re asking me whether I need to know that Al Jefferson is on his third wife, or that Michael Williams got a cheerleader pregnant his second year here, I don’t need to know that. I don’t need to know that Marko likes to hit the clubs or that he’s got Adriana Lima as his girlfriend. It doesn’t bother me one way or the other. I don’t report on it, but if it’s in front of me I’ll read it. But if I had the choice and I have a limited amount of time in my day and somebody wants to give me a recap of a game I haven’t seen, I’ll take the recap. I won’t read the social life. So, the people who clamor for access want to make myths, the people who grant access want to make money. If that’s the game they want to play, that’s fine with me.