Last Call

by May 12, 2008

(Parts one and two)

SLAM: What do you think the state of the NBA is heading into a new decade?

Robson: I’ve never been much of a big picture guy that way. There was a time when everybody was bad mouthing the NBA, people really ripping on the NBA cause there weren’t enough points. Remember that about six or seven years ago? I remember saying that watching Mookie Blaylock and that kid from UNLV (Stacey Augmon) in the backcourt for Atlanta was one of the most beautiful things I had seen. The way they would just attack people, I thought, was beautiful. But I could see that people like home runs in baseball instead of hit and runs and they like 110-109 games versus 93-92. Basketball is a great game, it’s gone through ups and downs, highs and lows, and yeah there was a period of time where athletes just kind of went crazy. But it happened in baseball too, Dave Parker and all that. There was a bunch of cocaine happening in baseball and then all the steroids were happening in baseball. Basketball, I think there was a pretty big “me” culture for a while, I think it’s less so now, but it probably affected the game some. I always say, “It’s basketball season.” and I’m going to watch it. I’m going to be there for opening day and I’m going to be there for the last day of the playoffs. And if it’s not as good as it was in ’91 or ’86, it’ll be better next year. It’s kind of like those questions, “Is rock dead?” or “Is God dead?” you know? I don’t know. I don’t care. I feel the same way about rock and God as I always did and I’ll still pray to something probably and I’ll still listen to hard music whether you call it rock or not. Whatever they’re calling the NBA nowadays, unless it just totally changes beyond what I’m…..It’ll take a lot for me to lose interest.

SLAM: What’s your biggest concern about the league?

Robson: The fact that other people seem to be concerned about it. I think that it’s becoming a little bit too marketing savvy. I think that David Stern, who I consider to be a great commissioner on the level of Pete Rozelle the greatest commissioner in sports, it’s almost time for him to retire. He’s done his thing and now he’s getting to the point where two things have happened that I never thought would happen: One is the thing about the suits and the fines and that other stuff. When they went to the polymer basketball and then changed it back, that made me feel good. But this thing with dinking around with the players off the court bugs me a little bit. You know, regulating their lifestyle. And this total cave in to Bennett and losing basketball in Seattle which is very analogous to Minnesota. He saved the franchise here in Minnesota about eight, ten years ago when it could’ve been sold to New Orleans. But he blocked that. Why he didn’t step into a situation that’s at least the same, if not better, for the people in Seattle, to me that’s a stain on his watch. And so I’m concerned that basketball is becoming a little bit too corporate. A little bit too much letting the owners lead everybody around by the nose and treat the players more like cattle. Which is a trend in a lot of sports.

SLAM: What do you think is the biggest asset the league has right now?

Robson: That there is always the chance of a competitive circus. I mean people who like the circus, who like to see so many wild things going on, all those feats. The thing about the circus that always kind of bothered me was that it was inane. There wasn’t a real point to it. Putting the competition in where there was a winner and a loser…If there were a winner and a loser among the clowns, or among the lions or whatever…The great thing about basketball is you’ve got the spectacle, but it means something at the time. It’s a far better spectacle than hocket or baseball or football. It’s the greatest athletes in the world, competing against each other in a confined area, but still with enough room to do what they want to do. That’s just a perfect game. As compared to the WNBA or college hoops or whatever, which is a great game, but you don’t get the same feeling. Watching Chris Paul yo-yo the ball or just watching guys like Ginobli play, I could watch those guys all day long.

SLAM: You’ve been covering the league for quite a while now (17 years). How has the game changed? How has the player changed? And is it for the better or the worse?

Robson: Shorts are a hell of a lot longer. To the point where I’d to see a retrenchment a little bit. I don’t want to see the tighty-whiteys, but I like the athleticism, I want to see the bodies head to toe. I think the zone hasn’t as much of an impact as people thought and I think that’s a good thing. I come and go on the hand checking, I mean obviously the rules about the zone and the hand checking are designed to get more offense into the game. Which is probably a good move, for the casual fans, because people began to realize that defenses win games. How else has the game changed? High school and international players have made a big difference. Particularly in the frontcourts. I’d say a quarter of the quality big men now are foreign born. And then high school, I like that. People always talk about the Chris Washburns and who was the other guy, Leon Smith? There’s a few guys like that. Gerald Green is probably another example. Guys who just got screwed. But their failure rate is no worse than the guy who is supposed to be a great pro after four years of college. People forget about that. Sometimes it just wasn’t gonna be, even if they stayed in school for four years. But then people say, “What about the college degree?” Bullshit! If somebody’s got a B.A. from Duke who fucking can’t spell his name or whatever, I mean c’mon. Then they’ll go sell cars or teach basketball, that’s what they’re gonna do. They’re gonna have the P.R. job or they’re going teach basketball. But that’s what they’re gonna do and they don’t need to learn quantum physics to do that. And if they do know quantum physics, well then after they make a few million, you know when Mark Madsen is done collecting his millions, then he can go into business if he feels like it.

SLAM: So do you think the game is better or worse than when you started covering it?

Robson: I don’t know. My interest in it remains the same. I think I’m a little more into it. Part of it also is I have more influence, I mean more people read me so I’m interested in it more. It feeds my ego more than it used to. So it’s hard for me to know whether I enjoy the game more because the game is giving me more than it used to or whether I’m getting more out of the game from an appreciation standpoint instead of an ego standpoint. I do know that I’m enjoying the game more than I used to, I just don’t like to have these comparisons where everything is better or worse. Cause it’s always different. Is George Mikan more dominant than Kareem than Shaq? I don’t know. Is Oscar Robertson better than Michael Jordan or vice versa? I don’t know. And those are great debates to have, but if you’re talking about the game, Kevin McHale is a great one for saying, “Back in my day”… I’ve been fortunate enough to get free music all this time, now I’m finally at an age where I can’t relate to a lot of hip hop that’s coming out. I stayed with it for a long time, but at some point you just have to honestly say, “I don’t get it”. I mean I understand how Lil’Wayne is better than the other guys of his genre, but don’t try comparing him to Nas with me. This whole idea that somebody’s raison d’etre revolves around drinking cough syrup and that epitomizes his sound, that’s the opposite of why I like hip hop. So there’s an instances where I’m an old fart. Hip hop has passed me by. I would like to say it’s gotten worse, but no, hip hop has passed me by. That’s the way hip hop has gone, I’ve stayed, so it passed me by any way I want to look at it. Basketball has not passed me by, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse, it just means it’s continued to hold my interest.

SLAM: You’ve also covered this team for quite a while. Have you developed any attachments? Do you have any weak spots or preferences after being involved with something for 17 years?

Robson: I used to love K.G. There was probably thirty times where I walked out of that locker room just thinking, “I’m just blessed to be around a guy who plays that way and gives me the kind of stuff after a game that shows me a little bit about the character of the guy”. To the point where, these seven games against Atlanta have really opened a lot of cans of worms that made me start to think you know? It’s kind of a crisis of confidence for me as to whether or not I need to cop to the fact that I’ve been living on a fantasy for a while or whether or not I should be a guy that uproots in the faith at precisely the time when I should be holding the faith. But the very fact that I’m thinking that way means I’m in the tank for it. You have to cop to that. I think that at the same time, I’m a long time Kobe hater and I’m liking Kobe. I mean I really, significantly disliked the guy for a long time. I don’t know, part of it might be him, part of it might be me, certainly I’ve noticed that he’s playing differently if not better, but maybe it’s just that I liked disliking Kobe cause so many people liked him. So in terms of the Timberwolves, I loved Sam Cassell his first year here. Hated Sam Cassell the second year he was here. He was kind of the same except that his boisterousness and his “don’t take any shit from anybody” was directed as being with the Timberwolves and everybody else can go screw themselves the first year, and the second year it was “I’m Sam Cassell with my boy Spree and the Timberwolves can go screw themselves”. And in that instance, was I reacting because I’ve covered the team and I noticed he was screwing the team or was it because he was screwing the team that I’ve been around for so long? I don’t know. There’s probably a little bit extra to it. But I do think that I’m not a Timberwolves fan, I’m an NBA fan before that. I’m impressed that so many people read what I write at a time when the team is very bad. I am very thankful for that, the fact that I’m able to generate enough numbers to keep the people who pay me money happy.

SLAM: You’re also a reader. What do you look for in your NBA coverage?

Robson: That depends. If it’s the Hollingers and, I look for analysis strictly in terms of sabremetrics or whatever you want to call it. Evaluating things in a way I normally wouldn’t evaluate them, you know, numbers crunching. I understand the value of it, I don’t live and die by it. So sometimes I read for stats and then there are some guys, there’s a beat writer for New Jersey (Dave D’Alessandro) who seems to always come up with ways for me to think about the game more completely. I think a lot of people don’t like him, but I’ve liked Doug Collins in the past and the way he’s talked about the game. I’ve really liked Jeff Van Gundy recently. Jack Ramsay every now and then. And Kenny Smith. I read True Hoop now, just because it’s a nice roundup. Sometimes that roundup has really compelling things in it and sometimes that roundup is just, “This is what’s going on inside somebody’s locker room”. I don’t need a brilliant writer to tell me how two guys are pissed at each other. A lot of it I read just to glean information. If I want to read great writing about the sport….I don’t know, I really like Bill Simmons’ writing, unfortunately his analysis has slipped a bit, but I like the way he puts words together. I miss Ralph Wiley tremendously. Great basketball writers don’t jump out at you. I mean, Taylor Branch on the civil rights movement, sports doesn’t have a Taylor Branch. I don’t read sportswriting for inspirational writing. If I want to read inspirational writing , more often than not it’s usually fiction.

SLAM: What are you looking for yourself when you’re covering a game?

Robson: One of the things that Flip Saunders taught me is the game is all matchups. That’s how the game is determined, you exploit the matchup you have. If somebody can’t stop or needs more than one person, maybe even two or three, huge difference. Huge difference. And so I look for where mismatches are erupting on the court. That will always determine to me how the game is going. Maybe it’s a mismatch in terms of someone not being able to get a rebound. The Wolves small lineup just fucking drove me crazy all year cause it just seemed like a recipe for losing. I got tired of watching it. I was looking for things to comment about and almost every time I’d come back to that. Early. I don’t want to write about the same thing over and over again. I want somebody smart enough when I’m seeing the same thing over and over again to change it. I’m looking for things that are clearly apparent to a knowledgeable basketball fan but aren’t obvious to a casual fan, because I think my readership has both. I’m looking for things that surprise me. If I notice something where I’ve educated myself, I immediately want to tell somebody else. All of that fits into the tenor and flow of the game. Sometimes it’s a 13-4 run midway through the third quarter. Which is why I like +/- sometimes. Who’s on the court when something erupts and why?

SLAM: You’ve told me what you’ve learned as a enthusiast, but what have you learned as a writer during this time?

Robson: I’ve learned that I don’t know jack about the salary cap. There was a story I wrote one time about the salary cap, I think I even lampooned Sid Hartman or somebody for saying something and it was based on a knowledge of the salary cap that was inaccurate. Literally in the head of the writers page in the next issue of City Pages I apologized to all of my readers for not knowing what the hell I was talking about and called the entire column a waste of their time. Because it was and when you make a mistake like that you really have to cop to it. Write about what you know and if you don’t know remember when you didn’t know….I’m going to make another mistake somewhere down the line and it’s going to be bad and the only thing you can do is, ” I totally fucked up” and take whatever shit comes your way. But try to avoid that as much as possible. It sounds basic, but it really is something that you’re gonna want to avoid. As a writer what I’ve learned is that sometimes you can be too cute by habit. One of the things I like about The Three Pointer is I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to craft it. I’m trying to get it done before I go to sleep cause I know people want to read it the next morning and I’m not going to get up early. Which means I don’t have a lot of time to agonize over it and I’ve found that when it comes to writing about the game that doesn’t matter that much. Readers don’t mind a few typos, or if I dropped a word or if a few tenses are off. I guess one of the things I’ve learned is theres advantages to being a beat writer, you don’t have to worry as much about craft and you can also trust your instincts. I’ve found that I’m not that stupid if I just basically throw down whatever I want to put down. I don’t have to think about it for a day or two and let it settle cause it’s not going to be appreciably better.

SLAM: Who are your top five players of all time?

Robson: Boy, I don’t know. Oscar Robertson is up there. I consider it my duty to not have Oscar Robertson erased by my memory. I understand how great Michael Jordan was, he may even be better than Oscar Robertson. But the only way I can describe it to people is imagine if somebody comes along in the next couple of years who’s better than Jordan, but just by a little bit and then everybody starts to forget about Jordan. Are you gonna be pissed off a little bit? Yes. Oscar Robertson was amazing. He averaged a fucking triple double. He was a great ball player who is now somebody who isn’t considered to be as good as Michael Jordan. That’s the way people think of him. In the same way, just in terms of the style, I loved Elgin Baylor. He was one of these guys who was a small/power forward and an incredible, freakish athlete. He’s another guy who gets lost in the mix. Then there are guys you like just because you like them. I also loved Sam Jones when I was a kid, he was the original bank shot guy. Would he be in my top five? Probably not. As much as I loved and rooted for the Celtics, I think that Larry Bird is a little overrated. He was a great player, but he went into a system that was a great team system. He didn’t have have to create his own culture or system. Bill Russell on the other hand did. He had Red Auerbach, but Bill Russell defined modern basketball. That defense wins games and that the little things matter. I used to get frustrated by how inept Russell was on offense, but I appreciate it more now than when I was a kid. One of the players I admire more than anybody is Iverson. Just because it’s one of the few times in my life that I really can say that I feel for the little guy. The two guys who get pounded more than anybody in NBA history are Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. But Shaq is 7’1, 340 and Iverson is 6’1, 180. You don’t get the impression when he’s limping around that he’s doing it for effect. You really do get the impression that he’s only thinking about the game and he’s just trying to work these parts out because that’s his history. You see him keep going. Same thing with K.G. He’s in my top five because he’s a superstar that I love to see up close and personal. Jordan isn’t in my top five just because, it’s his choice and I respect it, but he did not use his influence to do anything other than make Michael Jordan a whole lot of money. More power to him, but no more power to me or anybody else apparently. So he can’t be in my top five. What I remember are teams and when I remember the Celtics or the Spurs and they have been two of my favorite organizations. Greg Poppovich the other night in the third quarter Game 5 or so against the Suns when they were up a bunch, somebody misses an assignment and he calls timeout just to go crazy on them. And you know he’s doing it because he wants people to know “Never let up” not just for this game but because you never want to let up at any time. And that’s what will get us in a game when were down 19 and help us win another time. Don’t ever assume because the score is a certain way that you can take plays off. He seems to really live by that. And then they were way ahead of the curve on foreign folks. Parker and Ginobli, Jesus Christ. That’s amazing. And they gave up Scola who a lot of people are sleeping on. Scola is Rookie of the Year by such a large amount. I saw Horford against the Celtics, Scola is better. Kevin Durant, not even in the conversation. That’s what I don’t like about the NBA. The Vince Carter, Kevin Durant worship. The guy shoots 42%, gets 27 a game on a team that wins 18 games and were supposed to think he’s the best rookie versus a center who got his team into the playoffs and a guy on a team who lost their best player and still won 22 in a row? I mean c’mon. Kevin Durant didn’t carry either one of those guys jockstraps. That’s obvious to me. And yet it’s the points, that’s where I dislike somebody like Simmons and even a lot of other NBA aficionados that think Durant was better. I don’t get it. But my top five? K.G., Bill Russell, Iverson, Oscar Robertson and um, somebody else. The Spurs organization.

SLAM: Who are your top five current players?

Robson: LeBron, Kobe, Duncan, K.G. and I go back and forth between Paul and Deron Williams.

SLAM: If you could cover any team past or present for one season, who would it be?

Robson: I think I probably would have liked to have covered the Bulls when they had Rodman, Pippen and Jordan and Krause and Jackson feuding and it was clearly coming to an end but no one wanted it to end and they won like 70 games. That would have been a fucking fun team to cover. Just because there’s all this weird shit happening. Rodman was something to watch, Jordan was trying to do it all over again, Pippen had to go to number two to number one back to number two, Krause was clearly hated. And then interesting guys like Bill Wennington, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, the white crew. I actually think the Isiah and Laimbeer team was a fun one. Cause the Pistons hadn’t won in a long time. Teams that resurrect. I had a lot of fun covering the ’04 Wolves, the team that won the Western Conference. Just because it was a step that nobody had taken in this franchise. That kind of amazing success is fun to cover. And then you think back, would I have liked to have been in New York when they had Reed and Frazier and DeBuscherre and Bradley? Yeah, I would. Not least, because I would have been in New York City at the same time. See some jazz before or after the game. There were a lot of different teams, but you know what? I had fun covering the Timberwolves this year and it was one of the worst years we’ve had.

SLAM: What are your playoff predictions for the rest of the year?

Robson: I think it’s going to be the Spurs and if it isn’t the Spurs it’s going to be the Lakers. One of those two teams will win it all. In the East, it will either be the Celtics or the Cavs, it won’t be the Pistons.

SLAM: One bold prediction for 2009?

Robson: People will begin to realize that they were wrong about Kevin Durant. He will drag Seattle down. But that’s not bold enough…..Portland and New Orleans will play in the Western Conference Finals.

SLAM: Last one. What did you think of that new Roots album?

Robson: Haven’t heard it. How’s that for a letdown?
Once again, I’m glad those of you who read the Britt Robson interview found it to be informative and enjoyable. After reading it himself-and your comments-Britt wanted to make a few clarifications…

First of all, I want to thank Myles Brown for spending a ridiculous amount of time not only talking to me but transcribing nearly every word of our two-hour talk and providing an accurate rendition of what was said. As to his kind words in the introduction, I simply want to say that the friendship is mutual.

That said, I must confess that it’s pretty jarring to have such a large and clear mirror held up in front of you. When Myles initially asked to speak with me, I had no idea that he wanted a verbatim Q&A and that everything I said would be posted. When he informed me after the interview that this was his plan, it would have been pretty hypocritical of me to object.

But I do want to take this opportunity to tell you where I winced, and sincerely regretted what I said. This in no way disputes or rebuts what Myles has reported—he quotes me accurately. But a couple things are pretty harsh and glib, and others may be confusing, and demand a little context.

I clumsily called Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan an asshole, gross shorthand for wanting to stipulate that Ryan’s comments a couple years ago about smacking around Jason Kidd’s wife was an asshole moment for him. I stated in the interview that much of what I learned about basketball and basketball writing came from Ryan. I didn’t state that when I called him last year as a source for my story on Kevin McHale, he was very helpful and engaging. Taking the low point of Ryan’s illustrious career and using it to brand him with a blanket epithet was an asshole move on my part.

I called Larry Bird “dumb as a post in life.” Well, having never met the man outside of a visitor’s NBA locker room, this is quite a reach. The clumsy reference was to Bird’s tenure as a NBA executive with the Pacers, where he has been partner to a variety of moves that I do consider dumb. Big difference.

I conflated things that are true—that Marko Jaric likes to hit the clubs and has dated Adriana Lima—with complete fabrications, like Al Jefferson having three wives, causing confusion on the part of at least one reader. What I was trying to convey is that gossip about players’ personal lives, be it true or not, is not as important to me as the way they play on the court.

In the course of answering the question about my “top 5 alltime NBA players,” I changed the context from my five “favorite” players alltime to those I consider to be the five “best” players alltime. Readers were justifiably confused. To clarify: Michael Jordan is not one of my five favorite NBA players (that would be Russell, KG, Oscar, Iverson and probably Hakeem), but I would regard him as one of the five best of all time (along with Wilt, Russell, Oscar and either Duncan or Magic Johnson).

Finally, I’m gratified—no, flabbergasted—that people seem to have gotten so much out of the interview. I’ll probably pull out some of these comments when I need to buck myself up in the future. Thanks.

Britt Robson