Q+A: Rus Bradburd

by January 16, 2013

by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam

Being an assistant coach at a Division 1 school, as Steve Pytel says in Make It, Take It, “is not the greatest job, but still…”

Pytel is right.

On one hand, he—in concept—does what he loves for a living, and enjoys certain benefits that guys his age in other professions don’t. There’s the glamour of TV, the opportunity to directly impact—for better or worse—the lives of young, gifted, often less fortunate teenagers, free apparel and the possibility of escalating into a head role, a position where autonomy is the norm.

On the other, more common hand, the assistant job is fruitless, if not conducive to misery and affliction. There’s the countless hours spent recruiting, time spent away from your wife and kids to chase 17-year-olds. There’s the lack of job security, the boss who’s always looking over your shoulder, the internal struggle of self-worth and the unwanted familiarity of being forlorn. On this hand, look no further than Steve Pytel.

In Make It, Take It, coach-turned-writer Rus Bradburd tells the tale of Pytel, an assistant at Southern Arizona State University who is fighting to keep his job, family and composure in one piece. Pytel has been an assistant for a decade, but in the nothing-is-ever-promised world of college hoops, he is still waiting for his big break. As Bradburd eloquently states, Pytel “wishes he could recapture a feeling about basketball that he hardly remembers.”

We all know the basics of a college basketball program—recruiting, rule bending, money, pressure, politics; the list goes on—but Bradburd, who spent 14 years coaching at UTEP and New Mexico State (Yo, he recruited, and essentially discovered, this guy!), delves deeper, giving readers a fictional yet incredibly authentic and revealing glimpse into the game behind the game.

Bradburd’s first work of fiction, Make It goes through a wild season of basketball, seamlessly interweaving narratives of struggle, triumph, exhaustion and uncertainty. The book explores the affect of hotel rooms, rental cars and “promises,” and captures the essence of the 40 minutes of catharsis a coach experiences a few times each week. If you have even the slightest interest in the inner-workings of the high-stakes, roller coaster ride that is college basketball, Make It, Take It is a must read.

We recently caught up with Bradburd—who is currently an English professor at NMSU—to dissect his new book, and, as is to be expected when chopping it up with someone of Rus’ experience and caliber, we gained invaluable knowledge and insight along the way.

SLAM: You’ve already written two books, but they were both non-fiction. This is your first work of fiction; why now?

Rus Bradburd: I’m actually trained to write fiction, so I was always “supposed” to write fiction, but I got distracted along the way and wrote two non-fiction books.

Originally, I was studying and writing fiction at NMSU, but then after I graduated, I went over to Ireland to coach, and in Ireland my writing kind of got derailed. Which is ironic, because my original plan was, “I’ll go coach in Ireland where it’s easy, and I’ll have time to work on my book of fiction.” But it was such a strange place to coach—the gym was horrible, like wooden backboards and tile floors horrible, and it was just so weird and different to me—that I instead began keeping a diary, and it just got away from me, where I couldn’t focus on the fiction for awhile. So instead I kept a manuscript which eventually became my first book, called Paddy on the Hardwood.

After Ireland, I unexpectedly put off the fiction writing again. I was at my summer camp in El Paso and Nolan Richardson stopped by, and I immediately felt the need to write about Nolan and his story before somebody else jumped on it. I thought it was a good idea for a book because Nolan is such an interesting character and he had so much social significance.

After finishing Nolan’s biography, I finally settled down and delved into my novel. I’ve been working on Make It, Take It since 1997, but to say it’s been 15 years in the making isn’t quite accurate because I went two or three years without touching it.

SLAM: Aside from the obvious—you’re a basketball coach—what inspired this particular book?

RB: For me, what’s always interested me and gets me going about basketball are the stories behind the scenes, and not so much just listing a bunch of statistics. And I think basketball fans are also fascinated with this aspect; we all want to be “in the know.” For instance, with ESPN’s 30 for 30, fans love those programs because they take you behind the scenes. But what I was trying to do was get even behind that, into the inner-workings of how coaches and players think.

And often times I think fiction gets at a truth that non-fiction can’t get at. I think there’s great baseball fiction, but there hasn’t been much basketball fiction. One of the things that sports does, and particularly basketball, is that it puts players and coaches in a pressure cooker, and under pressure character gets revealed. I don’t think sports build character; I think they reveal character, and personality, and weaknesses.

SLAM: Are the players and coaches and events and experiences in the book—whether it be the arduous recruiting trips or the struggles of family life—based at all off of true experiences?

RB: Oh yeah. I won’t name the names, but I’ve combined and condensed people. There’s four coaches in the book, and people have come up to me and asked me, “Are you Steve Pytel?” And the answer to that is, yes and no. I think I’m all four of the coaches; I have traits—good and bad—of each coach in the book.

As a coach, when things are going badly, you wind up disliking the players in a way that sort of becomes ugly. And I guarantee you, when coaches are losing games, they wind up really disliking the players. It’s happened to me a bunch of times, and the feeling of not liking a kid sucks, because deep down you know he’s trying his best, and after all, he’s just a college student.

SLAM: The format of the novel is very interesting. Each chapter is like a story or an event, and it’s told from the vantage point of a specific character, which essentially gives the reader each character’s perspective. Why did you decide that format? I personally thought it was very effective.

RB: Originally the book was supposed to be a collection of short stories, but then I came to realize I was using the same characters over and over again, so I decided to turn it into a novel. So it’s like a novel-in-stories. It’s holds up as a novel, but it’s really a collection of stories.

SLAM: In the book you convey the harsh realities that people of different races often experience and endure. For instance, there’s a buffer between Steve Pytel and the players he recruits, and even the guys on the team don’t respect Pytel because he’s white. You’ve written about race before, but is that something you’ve experienced? I imagine you’ve been to recruiting tournaments where you were one of the only white guys present, and I’m sure you’ve had to pitch UTEP or NMSU to an African American family, who may not welcome you with open arms at the beginning…

RB: Yeah, I was often The Outsider, but being The Outsider is a great advantage for a writer so I think those experiences really helped bring my writing to life. A lot of great writing has a “stranger comes to town” theme to it, and so I think I got great stories out of that.

But also, I’ve always been interested in how whites and blacks communicate, or don’t communicate. And I think I had an advantage—I grew up around African-American kids, my roommate in college, who I’m still friends with, was African-American. Looking into that culture always interested me.

But even more than how they communicate, I tried to explore the power dynamic between White coaches and African American players. I’m sort of stunned by the politics of a lot of white coaches, and their relative tone-deafness to African American culture. Race was a huge issue when I was coaching, and it’s still a huge issue today. And I think those sort of ideas are constantly colliding in the book.

SLAM: One thing that was really interesting for me was how you included personal essays from the players on the team. It’s one thing to tell the story through the eyes of the players, but why did you do it through class essays?

RB: As an English teacher, now I’ve seen those essays. I’ve had athletes in class, and what’s sort of heartbreaking and beautiful is their voices in these essays, and I thought that I could capture their voice. I think there are a lot of things going on underneath those essays. The reader understands things—whether it be Jamal Davis’ girlfriend having an abortion, Leonard Redmond’s drug charge—and with a book about college basketball, it just seemed like an organic way to get the players’ voices down on the page was to have them write sophomore or freshman level essays for their English classes.

SLAM: Most, if not all, the personal relationships and marriages in the book are quarrelsome and end badly. Pytel’s wife divorces him; Jack Hood’s wife leaves him. In the real world, is that really how it works? Can being a high-profile basketball coach be such a divisive career? It seems like with all the emotions involved, it’s very difficult to maintain a healthy family life at home.

RB: Yeah I think so, and there’s tremendous pressure just time-wise because you’re gone all the time. I worked for two pretty odd guys in the business—Don Haskins (UTEP) and Lou Henson (NMSU)—who were statistical anomalies because they remained happily married over the years.

There’s a lot of families that get torn up by it; there’s a lot of divorced coaches out there. I don’t see how married coaches do it; you’re gone for a month or two every summer, and you’re gone every weekend. For me, that’s the part that I’m most selfish about. I wouldn’t want to commit that kind of time to college basketball anymore without the guarantee of rewards, and of course no one can guarantee there will be rewards at the end.

SLAM: In the book, Jack Hood (head coach) and Steve Pytel (head assistant) don’t have great camaraderie and aren’t like-minded individuals, which may or may not have translated to poor on-court performance. In real life, is the relationship of the head coach and his lead assistant vital to the health and success of a program?

RB: Yes, I think that’s very much true. But that’s also another complex dynamic because I’d say most, if not all, lead assistant coaches think they know better than the head coach. They think they know how to run things and know how to coach the team, so there’s always sort of that odd sense of tension behind the scenes that you’d never see by watching the game on TV.

SLAM: Is it like that in real life—that one guy can put in so much work , sacrifice so much to recruit players, put his whole family life on the line to move the program forward, be right on the cusp of breaking through and then just never get a chance to be a head coach?

RB: I think it’s very true, and it’s sort of like a boxer near the end of his career, where if you take a tough loss and suffer a severe beating, it’s probably over for you at that point. And I think the same thing happens in Division I. If it doesn’t happen for you by the time you’re in your mid-40s, it probably won’t happen. There aren’t a lot of head coaches getting their first crack when they’re in their 50s. Some of them are happy to stay as assistants, where there’s less pressure, but for some guys it tears them up that they never got the chance to have their own program. And I won’t name names, but there’s been a lot of great assistants who never got a chance, and a lot of mediocre assistants who did get a chance. So I think a lot of it has to do with luck and timing.

SLAM: The book obviously is near to your heart, as you’ve experienced a lot of what you write about. From a flow standpoint, did that make it easy to write?

RB: Well, for one thing, I had to confront a shit-load of demons. This book has a lot of “me” in it, so my thumbprint is definitely on the book, but it was also a learning experience for me as well.

SLAM: You left coaching in 2000. Was the book a way to still tap into your love and passion for the game? This seems like a great way to intertwine and connect your passion for writing and basketball.

RB: Yeah. Basketball has been the backdrop of all three of my books, and it’s funny because initially I started to write the book because I wanted to explain to the world what it’s like to be a college basketball coach, but I think it evolved into not explaining to the world but trying to understand what happened to me in my 14 years of college basketball, and trying to come to grips with it. By telling my story, I think I understand what happened to me.

You know, well before either of us were born, Eldon, there was a presidential candidate named Adlai Stevenson, and he’s probably the smartest, most intellectual guy to ever run for president. Someone asked him once, “What do you think about this issue?” I can’t remember what the issue was exactly—the labor movement or something like that. And he said, “I don’t know, I haven’t written about it yet.” And that feels very true to me. Make It, Take It is my attempt to sort of understand college basketball more so than explain college basketball.

SLAM: After you left coaching, you did color commentary for New Mexico State, and now you’re a professor of English at a Division I school. How is it being on the other side of the curtain? Do you see things differently?

RB: Yes. One thing I’ve particularly noticed, and felt, is the overemphasis of athletics within a University. For example, in the English department here at NMSU, we have to scratch and claw for pennies, while some athletic coaches make a ton of money every year. And it seems to me to be terribly overemphasized, and we’re not even one of those schools where athletics completely hijack the university. The truth is, most Division I programs are losing money, yet they aspire to be one of the best, so schools keep flushing dollars into the system. But it’s not only the school; it’s also the parents and the community, and that’s something the book tries to get at. The book isn’t about condemning college basketball; it’s more about the idea that when human beings are involved, people are willing to go to great lengths to achieve a certain goal, and interesting stories are going to come out of this strange, pressure-cooking system.

SLAM: Your former recruiting buddy and co-worker Tim Floyd is now back at UTEP. Do you still keep tabs on the program?

RB: There hasn’t been a day since I quit coaching that I don’t think about Don Haskins or Lou Henson. I’ve learned a ton from them about how to deal with people, and how to look at the world. So I keep a close eye on Tim Floyd, even though I’m not at practice every day, because we worked together for a long time and we have a great relationship. Most of what I’ve learned about recruiting comes from Tim. He’s a remarkably talented guy; Tim is one of those guys who could do anything. He’s an ultra-talented guy who would be successful in any field.