Alex, it's a real pleasure to have you join us. Cheers.
Hey, thanks so much, Todd. Happy to be with you.
We have a common passion for basketball and history and, uh, you, you were a history major at Princeton, right?
That's right. Many decades ago, um, sometimes I thought I was majoring in Pete car's offense. I'd be sitting there in the stands watching back cuts and <laugh> flare screens and all that good stuff. But yeah, no history and funny history's kind of fallen out of favor as a major, as, uh, I think undergrads are getting more and more practical in what they're choosing to major in. But boy, I can't think of a major that, that set me up better for journalism than
That. Well, you were a history major at Princeton. I majored in beer at Kentucky, so, uh, I think, uh, somehow we both ended up writing about basketball <laugh>
Boy, two, two places to get, uh, to, to get a, uh, advanced degree in hoop. Um, certainly the timing of it when I was at Princeton, I mean, there were so many great players and teams that came through there in, in its context. <laugh> not gonna be trying to vibe with you in in the big blue on that. But, um, boy, I learned a lot about the game, just being around that program.
Well, you documented history the history of basketball really through your era, in your 36 years at Sports Illustrated,, great moments, influential figures, the growth of the sport, and, you've authored and also co-authored seven books about the sport. Why basketball? Alex, what is it about that sport that was the heartbeat of your career?
I, I ask myself that question every now and then, and I think part of it is you could play it on your own, uh, just going out into the driveway or down to the park. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> just needed the ball. And I was a fairly solitary kid. I didn't have, uh, any brothers, and I was the oldest and my dad was an immigrant from Europe, had no interest in sports. My mom was a musician, even less interest in sports. And I just to fit in, I think, um, I wanted to at least know my way around the court and sort of understand how games were played, and basketball is the easiest way in. Now, part of that was grown up in Central Jersey during the sixties, and I actually spent my childhood in Princeton, New Jersey, and Bill Bradley and Jeff Petri and Brian Taylor. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and those guys were just starting things going there.
And, um, and of course I was wedged right there between the Nixons and the Sixers with the Celtics kind of haunting people, uh, to the Northeast. And, uh, it, it was just kind of, basketball was in the air. And I guess when I got outta college, having been exposed somewhat to, to the Princeton system through Pete Carll and landed at Si right on the cusp of the eighties, ESPN is ramping up. I, you could say that I was kind of a child of ESPN professionally, um, because the college basketball was about to boom. The UCLA dynasty was over, and if you recall in the eighties, economy is booming. So we had so many ad pages and every weekly issue in season, there would be at least one NBA story and usually two college stories. Right. And they, they needed fresh meat to throw on the beat. So I found myself leaving the office very soon after I was hired as a fact checker, just to go out, report stories soon enough, start writing them. So having a little facility with a sport, uh, was probably my greatest professional advantage.
I grew up and, and went to college in the mid eighties, and you and Curry, Kirk, Patrick were covering college basketball. And for me it was like every week was a treat, and as the college basketball game just boomed, I mean, I really knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about some basketball.
Well, interestingly, si has had a real role. I think if you, if you look at the sixties and seventies, um, before I got there, the role as I played in popularizing the tournament, but more than anything, turning college hoops from a regional sport into something where we were that kind of eye in the sky that was seeing the whole landscape.
I guess Frank to Ford cover in the famous 66 final, um, but then curry in a real regular way, um, providing that, that kind of national eye on things. And I remember as a reader, just in high school and college reading curry and just, there was so much joy and excitement and, and childlike enthusiasm in his writing. Yeah. That you just, you wanted to be there. You felt like you were there in the arena.
Tthe NBA was a little more still in its funk, I think. But college hoops was the thing that, um, that really got me juiced, uh, when I figured maybe there's a way I could make a living doing this.
You certainly did 36 years at Sports Illustrated. I think you were the longest tenured writer on staff when you finished there in 2016. So you, you covered a lot. Not just basketball, you covered a lot of things around the world. China, Cuba, Russia, Iran, six, six continents. I mean, it also put you in some very unique places. I think it once put you in a car with Dennis Rodman driving and Carmen Electra writing shotgun. Is that correct?
Yeah, me in the backseat. Uh, <laugh> you've done the research for Todd? I
Oh, doing research. Of course. Yeah.
Yeah. No, this was, this was about six weeks before I was to get married. And I remember calling my wife the next morning, it was the middle of a playoff series that I'd been thrown at, uh, in some May. And, uh, I called my wife to be, uh, and said, I don't think I'm gonna need a bachelor party <laugh>. Um, there he was driving two blocks down a downtown Chicago Street backward, and then he was doing 95 on the Dan Ryan and <laugh>. I was in the back saying the rosary and common electra is like egging him on. And <laugh>, I, I'd like to say that, um, that all my assignments were of that, uh, ilk, but of, of course, I I know Austin on your Austin Murphy, my old colleague on your podcast talked about the Mike Mike Silver effect, <laugh>, where, where you find yourself in the hot tub with some wide receiver and that's where you get your story. That was not me. Remember I covered mostly colleges. Right, right. Where you're getting pretty limited access, but, um, yeah, that was a pretty unforgettable,
Uh, all right. So what kind of car was it and how did you end up in the car?
I got shoved in the car by his agent, um, basically cuz his agent was just in vain, was trying to pin Dennis down, gimme some time. And here it was clear he had plans for the evening mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, you know, he looked at me like, you know, you, you really wanna do this interview, here's your chance. He shoves me into the back of the car. Dennis has never been a shrinking violet. He's happy to perform for people. And, um, you know, we just saw where the itinerary of the night was gonna take us. And truth be told, it's that kind of hanging around time that we're always creating for. Right. And, you know, it was, it was gold right in the middle of a playoff series, and if Robin isn't this loose cannon, there's no way you get that kind of access.
It's like 3:00 AM Right?
It was, but well, by the time it was 4:00 AM by the time our various visits to various clubs and other such places were over, I, I staggered home with a, with a taxi. There were no Ubers in those days, but I was no way, I was going back wherever home was to Dennis and Carmen in, in their custody because I could see my life flash before my eyes
Was she happy that you were tagging along as a third wheel, Alex?
Oh, she didn't seem to mind it at all. And I remember, you know, Dennis is kind of this meter and greeter type personality. So we'd show up at a club and he would go drifting off into the mosh pit and she'd be at the periphery, say, Okay, uh, I'm not following him, but I can hang out with her. Which was Oh yeah, yeah. Not combat duty and Right. So I filled my notebook with her telling me how sensitive he was and, um, you know, X and y and Z. So, um, you know, the, the hard life of the, of the sports writer,
I can only imagine what that expense account looked like. Uh, uh, Alex, you have seven salads on this expense account. <laugh>,
Considering that everything was comped, I got shoved into the car. I didn't have to pay for anything except a cab fair back to my hotel. Um, all of these clubs were happy to see Dennis and Carmen come in for free, and I was just comped as part of the entourage. Uh, everything worked out just, just fine.
I, you covered a lot of different things, Tour de France, Olympics, World Cup World Series. Even when you think about some of the international sporting events, uh, that you covered, again, besides basketball, is there something that, a place that you recall it's memorable for a particular reason?
It's funny that college, anyway, hoops only choose up four or five months of the year. So I did find myself doing a lot of other stuff through the summer. And even the February of 94 was the little hammer Olympics. And I did get thrown on the speed skating beat, knew nothing about the sport. But then of course, you know, the typical American television viewer doesn't really know speed skating either. And that, if you recall, is the Olympics were Dan Janssen finally won a medal, a gold medal, and I got to cover that, which was a pretty sweet experience, but that, that's not quite the same as doing a, um, doing more of a, a reported feature, which those are the ones that I really, really enjoyed sinking my teeth into. And there were a couple of those that were a lot of fun. I did one in advance of the 94 World Cup where I looked at how Ireland had become this great soccer nation, loving the sport, even succeeding on the national stage, international stage when, uh, Ireland's of course's relationship with this game, which was this British army game, basically mm-hmm.
<affirmative> right. Was fraught with the Irish people's not unfounded, uh, antagonism for, for British soldiers. And, uh, that was fascinating to be in Belfast for a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and the Republic at the height, height of the troubles, and then going back and interviewing the English Yorkshire native who was coaching the Ireland national team and just kind of painting that picture for American sports fans who would be watching the World Cup later that summer. Um, that was a great experience to have. And then I was able to do a, a piece that we ended up turning into a television short doc. I worked with the guys who did Hoop Dreams on it. And, uh, it was all about the, the 1989, uh, World Junior Champion Yugoslav basketball team mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, that beat a Larry Brown coach team in the finals of the, of the world's that year and became World Champions.
And the guys on that, that team, Vladi Divots and Dino Raja, Tony Kko, um, because of the war in the Bains, they'd been kind of torn apart. The relationships had been ruptured. And so the 96 Olympics were the first at which you would see, uh, all these component parts of Yugoslavia competing separately. And it was a very sad story, but everybody seemed to want to talk about it. I I still remember these interviews with divas and KU coach particularly just how emotional they got. And, and I think partly because they'd been practicing professional basketball in the US almost like mercenaries for a number of years while this war's going on back home, they didn't really feel like typical Americans understood what was happening. Right. So I, I almost felt I was in this weird role of therapist where they were telling me these things and kind of, because it would make them feel better to unburden themselves.
And then maybe I could go on and tell the story to American readership. So, um, that's just one of many stories about international basketball. I, my whole career's been this fluke of timing. You know, I told you about the ESPN launching right when I arrived in the business mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and then all those ads that were choking the magazine through the eighties and nineties, filling our coffers and allowing them to send me anywhere and giving me enough time to build out these stories. And I would say probably the most rewarding part of all those years was getting to turn to international basketball at a time when the global game was gonna really raise the level and enrich the texture of our game. And to be able to tell those stories. I remember just in advance of the 84 LA Olympics being given an assignment on okay, if the US were ever to lose in an Olympics, how would it happen?
And I went over to Europe and talked to Spaniards and Italians and Yugoslavs to try to get a sense and filed that story. And that was my first taste of international basketball. But then there's this whole parade of influential figures, and so many of them had great stories. And that kind of rounded my year out in a lot of ways, you know? Yeah. You can cover colleges in the nba mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but then there be the Olympics. There'd be the Fiba worlds, there'd be the Euro basket when, you know, Bosnia's national team makes it to the final with guys who've escaped from Sarajevo by running across the tarmac, dodging sniper fire. And, um, and that, you know, led to my first really major journalistic book, which, um, actually is gonna get reissued right. Uh, in the fall, which, um, called Big Game, Small World about the global game. And I, that just opened all sorts of doors. It's been been a blast.
How did it change your perspective when you did come back to the States and, when you're back on a, a regular type of assignment, whether it be college basketball or nba, how did it change how you viewed that once you had gone and seen the game played, uh, around the world?
That's a great question. I mean, one of the, one of the ways it definitely, um, changed, I, I, I think I no longer looked at American coaches as, as these gurus and Savan, um, you know, clearly summer college coaches have great, great track records and have been innovative, but there are a lot of people around the world, particularly, uh, Yugoslav coaches who are really think the game and have a real sense of the team. And I think also, certainly if the college level, as I began to see more US college players who came from other countries, I'll never forget Obino ii, this Nigerian kid who played at Maryland talking about how he couldn't believe that American players who get free college education didn't take their studies more seriously. Um, that there was a real sense of, yeah, I can really pull myself up on bootstraps here, not necessarily make the nba. In fact, more and more you stay in your home country if you wanna make the nba because the club system over in Europe particularly is so good at developing great pro talents, but if you really wanna be a student athlete, so many of the serious students who were also really good players were starting to come from overseas, and that was impossible not to notice.
How did it influence how you saw the game of basketball in terms of the way it was played?
Well, it's, it's interesting. The thing we see so much now in the nba and NBA is the tone setter, and it all kind of filters down to the grassroots and travel team ball. And you see a lot of the high ball screen and then it's a little dribbling point guard cornering off the high ball screen that maybe kicking out for three. Right. And of course, you also see, um, Euro steps from James Harden and Kevin Durant lifting up his, his one knee like Dirk did on his jump shot. But yeah, just seeing this kind used to be that the State Department would send coaches over, you know, like Peace Corps volunteers, you know, to teach these benighted ignorant people how to play basketball. And now the, the knowledge has been flowing now for the last 15, 20 years has been flowing in the other direction.
Right. And, and it doesn't mean that there aren't really thoughtful, smart, innovative American coaches, but a lot of them are taking these concepts and kind of repurposing them and tweaking them. And, um, and that's been fun to see because it really is, you know, we talk about when borders and walls come down, then there's kind of this rising tide that lifts all boats to mix metaphors there. But, but I think over 30, 35 years of watching Hoop, I've actually seen that and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, boy, if you sit Mike Chesky down having coached the US team in Japan at the world's, that first time he had him under his care and they lost to Greece and he was, you know, furious and disappointed and felt he left his country down, but he also looked at what the Greeks were doing in terms of setting screens and being rugged, and he learned a lot. Right. And then, you know, I don't think it's an accident that he pretty much didn't lose after that. Right.
Well, in the early nineties, I was covering college basketball in the city of Cincinnati, and I was sent to cover a Xavier basketball was playing in a tournament in Tokyo. Now think about newspapers in those days. They sent me to Tokyo <laugh> for this like December tournament. And the thing I remember about it was that the Japanese fans, um, they didn't really get the game a whole lot, but they loved, they had a play by play guy over the PA system, and he would describe the action as if he was calling radio and it was all in Japanese, but then he would throw in don't shot or steal, and the people would go crazy. But the thing they went craziest about was when the cheer cheerleaders came out and built a pyramid, they just thought that was the greatest thing ever. So, so they were a little behind on basketball in Japan, but, uh, I got to witness the enthusiasm they had for trying to be open to it. And that really kind of opened my own eyes to the fact that, you know, people around the world are into this game, they're starting to figure this out, and they, they kind like it. It just made the whole world seem a lot smaller for me.
Well, and the other other thing about the world becoming smaller because of the globalization of the game is, you know, it used to be that you could count on an international player, maybe to be maybe a little more mechanical, but also more fundamentally sound. And now everybody's seen the same end one videos and mix tapes, and everyone has the same bad habits, you know? Exactly.
Right. Everybody's taking six steps. Yes.
The euro step, making it to these shores. It's probably not a net positive. I don't know. I
Can hear my dad. He's walking, He's not walking Dad. He's, that's the way it's played now, I'm sorry. Okay, we're gonna talk more and more hoops, but I want to get into a story about football, Alex, all these years of writing about basketball around the world, and if you google your name still, this comes up <laugh> in 1995 for Sports Illustrated, you wrote an open letter to the University of Miami, President Edward t Foot the second, you suggested that the University of Miami should shut down its football program and it got a little bit of blow back for you from Dade County Florida, didn't it? What was that like after that story?
Ran Hurricane Nation was, uh, yeah, category five, I don't know, <laugh>. Um, so there, there's a backstory to it that I'm happy to,
Get it to share. Yeah, sure. And This's where all the fun is. So we were in the middle of, um, an editorial competition to see who would run the magazine. And there were two finalists and we all called it in-house the Bakeoff between, uh, one guy Dan o Kran, who had been the editor at life, and then kind of the in-house candidate, Bill Colson, who had come up, started like me as a researcher and become an editor. And, and Bill grew up in Coral Gables and he was fascinated by all things happening with college sports and kind of the balance between athletics and academics. And, uh, something hit the police blot outta Coral Gables. And it was, you know, you know, number Z in a long line of things that hurricane football players had been involved in. And he was looking for a cover story.
Um, and he had about, I wanna say he two months, maybe three months, to kind of do his audition, um, to run the magazine. And he button hold me in the hall and said, Well, what do you, you think you think they should drop football? I said, Well, you know, if they did, they could press the reset button. You know, they could get the bad apples out if they need to. They could send a signal, you know, whatever. I said, Well, that, yeah. See if, think about that, you know, some story about how they, how they ought to, ought to drop football. So another editor hand me a copy of this historical book about the University of Chicago and how their president, Robert Maynard Hutchins had gotten rid of football in 1939 and I
Think, Yeah, they, Chicago was a member of the Big 10. What?
That's right. And it took another five or six years, but then they left the Big 10. Right. Um, but anyway, he, he never regretted the decision. So this editor hands me that book and I have like three days to turn this story around. So I say, Okay, how am I gonna tell it? And I thought, well, maybe there's the old open letter, you know, just appeal to this president who I think he'd either been at Duke or he was a Duke grad, and say, There's a way you can pull this off, you know, balance the two. Stanford does it. Duke does it, but right now you're not doing it. Yeah.
This is mid nineties. The Miami hurricanes are rolling. They're winning, but they're also in the news all the time. It's kinda nuts.
Yeah, it was kind of nuts. And, uh, so I'm, I'm reading this historical, you know, maybe the old history major in me, but I'm reading this historical account of the University of Chicago and Robert Maynard Hutchins, and then I see this little mention that Edward t Foot ii, the president of the University of Miami is married to the daughter of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Oh. So basically
All, all I have to do is conjure up the voice of this guy's father-in-law in my open letter to him.
Did Ducan interrupt some harumph Harumph
<laugh>? Well, I tried to avoid that. I mean, I didn't wanna be a fu duddy, but you know, as your, your father-in-law wisely saw when things got outta whack and I, I made the argument that, you know, needn't be more than a pause, but just something that, you know, could help you hit that reset button. And, um, so anyway, they do the very stark cover why the University of Miami should drop football, uh, which got turned into t-shirts that were sold throughout South Florida that said why si should drop dead. That was about four or five weeks later.
I like to have one of those. That's a good one.
Oh, I have one in my drawers. Oh,
Dude, really? That's
A fun. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Um, but the, the real rollercoaster ride for me was after the story comes out and I did a number of TV interviews just trying to be a good sport, but some am shock Jock, a drive time radio guy in South Florida got a hold of my home number, the perils of these sports writer directories, I suppose. Oh
Yeah, He did his homework. He
Did it his homework. Yes, exactly. And, um, so he cold calls me, uh, at home while he's on the air. And I was smart at that point. I gotten enough nasty blowback that I was just letting the machine pick up, but of course, like an idiot, the greeting on my answering machine has been programmed to say, Hi, you've reached area code, blah, blah, blah. So all of South Florida is getting my home number.
Oh, no, <laugh>.
So it was days before the call started to, uh, subside <laugh>. But, um, but yeah, that, that's sort of the origin story. And then, um, my experience writing the story, and then of course the coda is that Bill Colson's brother Dean Bill ends up winning the Bake off and becomes the SI editor. But his brother Dean is a trustee at the University of Miami and a regular tennis partner of President Foot <laugh>. So of course I'm thinking, Oh, Bill did this so they could have a spicy Thanksgiving meal. <laugh>, he goes back to see his family in Coral Gables <laugh>. Anyway, that's the, uh, that's the whole
Have you ever received an honorary degree from the u?
Never received an honorary degree from the U but interestingly, I got a call out of the blue from a penitentiary from one Nevin Shapiro.
Oh, yeah. Speaking the hurricanes.
Yeah. The Miami Booster of Great notoriety who for whatever reason thought I was gonna be the guy to tell his story. And sure enough, um, I ended up finding him in a, in a pen down in Louisiana, and, uh, talked to him about some of his encounters. And, and maybe 15 years after that 95 story, um, did a story using, using Nevin as a way in. But, um, yeah, it's kind of the story that, that hasn't died for me <laugh> as much as it was really three days out of my life. I mean, I, you know, I did a lot of work on it and I did a lot of thinking on it, and I don't regret anything about it, except that, you know, there was a whole lot more in 36 years than those three days.
Yeah. And then every once in a while when things seem to die down, some idiot like me comes back and kicks the Ambers of the campfire. And now you're gonna be getting calls from Dad County again.
<laugh>. Yeah. It's a fun, it's a fun story to tell.
Well, my career started in the late eighties, like I said, and started with college basketball. And you wrote a book in 1990 called Raw Recruits. I have it right here. And the reason I have it is because I st this is an original copy, Alex. I had yellow highlighted sections in it. I treated this like a textbook. I was doing my homework to cover college basketball because this book was so great. It dove into the, the underbelly of college basketball. What was it like to report on that book, back in the day of the Wild West,
All the things I remember from that era and working on that book with Armen Kata, by the way. Right, right. You know, Armen really was the reporter on it, and I tried to stitch it together, and I remember coaches, assistant coaches really wanted to talk about what was going on. They weren't gonna go on the record, They weren't gonna name names necessarily. Um, but they wanted to talk. And I don't know, again, if it was therapy or they really wanted to see some structural change come, come to this sport. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I remember particularly Judd Heath coat coach at Michigan State who was in Right. President of the Na C um, he considered it what was going on in the sport to be directly the result of all the TV money flowing into it. And he was really upset that the money was being parceled out according to how far you went in the tournament. The more games you won, the more that school was gonna collect, which is Yeah,
There was an incentive to cheat. Right.
Total incentive to cheat. Right. And, and he, he said, We, the coaches don't want that. It's making our lives miserable. It means that our boss, our ad is gonna be that much angrier if we don't make the tournament and we're gonna get fired sooner. And I look at my assistants and I, I can't do anything but say, I need you to get me players. What kind of a signal is that, you know, at all costs. And, uh, it's so much fun, by the way, to listen to some of the pods that you've done was some of these old s sec writers like Ron Higgins and Jerry Tipton, because these guys back in the eighties were, they were covering a lot of these same things and had a real sense of, of the texture of it all. Um, Right. So I think that was one of the things when we, when Armen and I attacked raw recruits, we'd done a lot of reporting for the magazine, some of which hadn't made it into the magazine for legal reasons or whatever, and frustrated us.
So we wanted to, to do a book length project where we could kind of get our yaya's out a little. And, um, but we wanted to, to paint that picture of kind of what the system was like. And if we were pointing fingers, it was more to indict the whole system. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And truth be told, there was a, a book maybe 15 years before ours by a guy named Len Shapiro at the Washington Post, um, called Athletes for Sale. Right. And then about 12 or 15 years after our book, um, Wetzel and Jager did a book called, uh, Soul Influence. Right. Which was basically, you can write the same book every 12 to 15 years, but just interchange the names, you know, now it was sneaker money and then it was something else. And, um, I guess when I look at the college landscape today and I see ni l um, just like maybe Judd Heath coat and his dotage probably thinking, you know, that's an improvement because the system has been tweaked, has taken some of this hypocrisy out.
And those of us, like you and me who love hoop, we don't have to do the runes, you know, satchels of cash thing on the side. Now when you got a tar telling you, I like transfers because their cars are already paid for <laugh>, you know, then you kind of like the runes, cuz the characters and the rogues and all that. It's great copy, but Right. Um, I, I did love toggling between the pros and the colleges because you go to the pros and it was just X's and O's it was Right. Basketball. Yeah, just basketball. Yeah. And basketball is, Lord knows, it's, it's neat enough all on its own, uh, to keep me anyway entertained. And there are great stories in it. Um, but that was one project that Armen and I decided, you know, we're, we're just gonna see what we can find under the hood here.
And it was, Well you found a lot under the hood of Kentucky, the <laugh>. I was a stu I was a senior in 1988, graduating. And this book has a lot about what happened at the University of Kentucky at that time with this big scandal about money being sent out to a family in la And, and I remember in the spring when that story broke in Los Angeles Daily news about Claude Mills. Chris Mills, the player, his father had money sent to him and it popped open that day. The story broke. I was at the University of Kentucky's practice Gym Memorial Coliseum. Eddie Sutton was in the his office to, to, he was gonna put a statement out right about the initial story. And me and Mike Emery from, uh, Associated Press and Brian Malloy from Uppi were standing out in the hallway and I know the har guys were coming over cuz I used to work there. And anyway, Eddie's back there with this booster who has a giant tall cal cowboy hat on. And at one point Eddie comes out to use the restroom, and when he comes back, he says to the three of us, Do any of you guys have a dictionary? I need to look up the word absolve.
<laugh>. Yeah. It's,
So I knew right then
We're all recruits when it came out, I was looking, I'm like, Oh, this has got some good juicy stuff in it. Because I was there as a young kid in the heat of it thinking, Wow, this is, this is college sports, huh.
Well, and I, you know, I, I mentioned a moment ago how it wasn't about pointing fingers at people so much as indicting the whole system by laying it out. And to this day, I do not believe that Dwayne Casey put the money in that envelope.
I, I do not believe he did. And I, I think that's colored my, um, standing on the sidelines applauding as I've watched Dwayne really make his way in the sport as a coach. Um Right.
He was the assistant coach. He got blamed took to fall initially.
Right, right. And, and number of bits of reporting, Armen and I were able to do suggest not, not beyond a shadow of a doubt, but suggested that Dwayne, you know, Dwayne may have known what was going on, but, uh, he did not put them on.
He wasn't orchestrating it. Yeah. You had, you mentioned Jerry Tarkanian and you had a story a few years ago, the great, the great U N L V coach who was always battling with the NCAA throughout his career. Um, you had a story that said co he was college basketball's last honest man. Yeah. What did you mean by that?
I, I guess it picks up on something. Billy Tubs told me, um, you know, if we're gonna talk tar, we're gonna Billy Tubs, his name isn't too far behind, but
The Oklahoma coach. Right.
The, Yeah. The old Oklahoma coach who knew that if he's gonna be the basketball coach in Norman, he had to be entertaining because football was always gonna be king. And Billy once told me, he said, I just think even just each of us should be given a budget, just be given a pot of money, and it's up to us, you know, like a corporate executive to let's just have honor among thieves. That was a phrase he used, Honor among Thieves, and everybody gets the same amount and just see what you can do with it. You know, like you're playing Monopoly or something. <laugh> and, and I, I, I love that. I mean, so, okay, if, if Tar and Billy Tubs were both coaching at the same time, they would've been the two last honest men. Um, but he was so disarmingly candid about, um, he really didn't care how they did in class.
These were kids that he believed had prospects only if they could develop their basketball talent to go to the pros. Um, which I don't think is necessarily true, but that's, it was the last chance to learn for a lot of guys. That was the type of player that TAR was looking for. And he, you know, there was no posity to him. You know, he wasn't grooming his hair like Lou Olson or any of that mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, um, it was refreshing. And I think the more you, the more you knew about the rest of, of college basketball. Um, and I heard echos of this in your interview with Dan Wetzel, um, and I, I completely agree with Dan that, you know, for some people to kind of pull on this artificial mask of, of virtue, um, in a sport that certainly at that time was so uniformly corrupted, uh, just does a disservice. Let's, let's be, let's be honest. And Tark always was pretty open about, you know, this is the business we've chosen.
Right, Right. Like Hyman Roth <laugh>. Okay, there you go. What kind of interactions did you have with tarc? Do you, anything, uh, that you remember that, you know, paints a picture of who he was when you were dealing with him as a reporter?
Yeah. He was always trying to win your favor, you know, was very Las Vegas. Um, I remember as parting words to me when I was leaving his office after one interview for a story was, Oh yeah, look me up. Next time you're, you're in town, I'll, I'll get some hookers for you <laugh>. And you know, that that's, that's Las Vegas hospitality and you know, it, it's, you know, let the record reflect that on that time, in no subsequent time did he do that for me, but that's the way he trafficked in favors. You know, that's sort of how that city works. And he was a perfect fit for it. He knew how to put on a show they were gonna run. Um, he was gonna do all the worrying about how good the team was and chew on a towel. And, um, you know, and I think he, he genuinely cared about his players, but I think he saw them as one dimensional, uh, people. He didn't, he didn't see the, you know, that Greg Anthony became, uh, successful as a broadcaster, for instance, isn't something that Tark would've encouraged him to do or, or try to engineer for him that Greg did it on his own is to Greg's credit. Um, but I think Tar just saw these guys as kind of, you know, he was Father Flanigan and they were the, the kids that ended up in his home for wayward boys.
Right. Well, I do feel like looking back, things were so much more gray than we sometimes portrayed 'em back then, especially when I was younger, like in my twenties, just learning the business that you were covering. Nobody writes a whole lot about Sam Gilbert, John Wooden's money guy in Los Angeles. Right, Right. And, but John Wooden is, you know, in many ways, rightfully so a saint, but not really a saint. Right,
Right. But because of the business he chosen and, and where things went, and frankly, what la how different is LA from Las Vegas in a lot of ways? And I will say that I, when I went into this business in the early eighties and first getting exposed to college basketball, uh, maybe it's cuz I'd fallen for the game at an Ivy League school, but I had, I did, did have a kind of unctuous idea about what it should be. And, um, the great thing about raw recruits and a lot of the reporting I did through the late eighties, um, was it disabuse me of that, um mm-hmm. Particularly covering the Southeastern Conference and, uh, boy, what a, what a show that conference was through the eighties. And they had to be, because they had to kind of create the audience in a football craze
Part. Yeah. It was like Billy Tubs at, in the eighties. I mean, at Oklahoma they had to do the same thing. Right, Right.
Exactly. Exactly. So, um, I think just being in the offices of these coaches, visiting their practices, understanding what was going on at the grassroots, um, gave me a much better sense. And that by the time the nineties rolled around and beyond, I wasn't quite as moralistic, uh, and idealistic as I was at one time. And I think that made me a better journalist.
You've written about so many influential figures in college basketball, and John Wooden, obviously at the top, and Dean Smith, Mike Cheki, who you mentioned, Bob Knight, Pat Summit. We're talking, you know, top name people in the history of college basketball. When you remember writing about them or having one on ones or spending time with them, uh, is there one that sticks out more than another? And if so, why?
It's funny, it's hard for me to talk about Dean and Kay without talking about the other, and I've asked myself why, and is it because they're from the same conference? Well, yeah, to some extent. Is it because the campuses are eight miles apart? Well, yeah. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but I think it's because when I'd, I'd parachute into Raleigh Durham airport, you know, in October just before the season started to get a sense of what was going on there. Um, I would usually visit both coaches and both campuses. And it was hard not to draw the comparisons and, and the parallels and, and the differences. And the great takeaway for me was, and remember in the early nineties, there are three consecutive NCAA titles that wind up on those two campuses. Duke. Duke. And then it's 93 maybe thanks to Chris Weber, Carolina <laugh>. Um, and I walked out of each coach's office, you know, I'd usually walk out of Cheskys office with a full notebook, and I'd walk out of dean's office with very little in my notebook.
And I try to figure out, well, why? Oh, it's because Shatsky is trying to kind of overtake Carolina. So he wants to throw open his program because he believes in what he's doing and he needs the publicity and so forth. Dean is sort of protecting what he's built. He wants to protect the privacy of the players, therefore you can't talk to the freshman until they played a game. Um, you know, there'd be these veiled criticisms that you'd hear from one coach about the other's program and the way they did business. Like Chesky would say, you know, if you put a plant in a jar, grow to take the shape of a jar. But if you let the plant just grow out in the open, who knows what shape it will take. Okay. I can see what you're saying there. You know, Dean Smith, the only guy who held Michael to 20 points again.
So, um, it, it was impossible not to compare them, but I came away, I think, consistently with this sense that, um, that there was no one right way. And I, I think if you look at Wooden, if you look at Pat Summit, if you look at Tarkanian or ISO or Calhoun, they all had something about their past that influenced how they went about their business. They were usually smart enough to, I'm not sure Knight was toward the end of his career, but they were usually smart enough to adjust for the times or their talent or both. Um, but, but having a different theory of the case didn't mean anything other than they had a different theory of the case and they found a way to win or to sustain excellence. And, um, and again, it was, it was Chesky and Dean who were the, these great examples kind of in each other's face and the fact that it's such a wonderful rivalry and, and it got renewed in such a great way just in the past year, um Right. On several levels. Um, so it's, maybe it's at the front of my mind. Well,
We've heard, we, we've heard so much about Cheki because of his retirement, but you know, Dean, it's been quite a few years now since Dean passed away. Um, and you mentioned that when you would interview him, you'd come away with very little, Well, what was he like to interview one on one?
He would, uh, because he had such a great memory, um, and he loved the sport of sparring verbally and being argumentative, You know how it is in our business. We'll ask a question with some kind of premise or we'll set it up because we want people to know that we've done our research or, uh, you know, that we know this and or guide the answer in some way. And it seemed like every time I would ask Dean a question, he would dispute the premise of my question. Yeah. But that's not really true because back in 1947, you know, it would, and, and, and you're spending your wheels, you get a finite amount of time in his office and you try to defend your premise when really all you wanna do is advance the interview with him answering a question. And eventually I learned a little bit to be a little smarter how I framed my questions.
But that was the consistent thing with Dean. At the same time though, I just loved that quality of his, that that Socratic, Oh, let's have a dialogue here and I'm not necessarily gonna agree with you. Um, and the other thing he had was a real humility. He, I remember once he got all philosophical about, Yeah, it used to be that, uh, I would tell myself, Oh, if we lose but we play well, we should feel good. And then I'd ask myself, Oh, but how come I feel so bad when we lose? And that opened up this whole side of him where he struggled. It had to do with his faith. His, he would like to read Kike guard, you know, he was kind of an amateur philosopher. Hmm. As we know, he thought global events were much more important than anything that happened on a basketball court. So he sometimes would take refuge than that. Um, he would take up these causes and hobby horses or like freshman eligibility or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I'd usually be 15 minutes of him haranging me for that before I could get
The question. It's like, it's your fault,
<laugh>. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And um, so it, I found Squi was wonderful with his openness and Dean was, was wonderful in his just this kind of restlessness and his, he always felt that the world was just outside his window. Right. In a good way. And, and I really like that cuz I don't wanna write about, you know, why you beat Wake by 12, My story's coming out a week or two later, and it has to have more context and sort of be a little bigger than that. So
I always remember like that the NCAA tournament, you know, whether it be the first round or the Final Four, Dean would start his press conference complaining about how to, the student athletes were missing class because of this media responsibility. And initially I would take it as, Oh, this is kind of bogus. But then the more I thought about it, I was like, well, he's trying to make a point. And I started to see it a little differently. I mean, I still thought it was bogus <laugh>, but I kind of, kind of saw what he was getting at and it was just another way to spar with us. Right. Like you said,
It was, it was, but it, there was sincerity there too. I mean, one of the places that were Dean and Kay definitely diverged was Kay was maybe because he was younger and he came of age in the eighties, which was a very entrepreneurial decade. He really felt Duke basketball was this like startup that he was running and that if he could cut some deal for, you know, with Nike or he had his camp or whatever, that at the very least the money from it ought to go to was, you know, graduate assistant or whatever. And whereas Dean was, was just passionate about any money that comes into this athletic department from Nike. And there was a lot going to Chapel Hill that should go to the university as a whole that should go to academic scholarships, should go to the library. I mean, what are we here for? It's not to put, you know, a plush or pile of carpet in some coach's office mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And, and that was not bogus. That was real. And, and, and that reflected to me, I think a little bit of, Oh yeah. The depression was part of Dean's childhood, or at least his parents were, were connected to that. Right. And, and Dean and Kay was much more a modern, um, kind of Sunbelt entrepreneur type character.
That's interesting. All right. Enough of these coaches, these these Dean and coach K guys. Yeah. Although the, the segue here is the joke you made. Only Dean could hold Michael under 20. Michael Jordan, you wrote about him throughout his career at different times, including when he was at North Carolina playing for Dean Smith. Do you remember the first time you met Jordan and what your impression was of him as a player and a person?
Yeah, I, I remember it vividly. It was in Carmic Auditorium, so that's not the Dean Dome. It's, it's the old gym that was a Tar Heels played before the Dean Dome was built. And we were said they just had a practice in there and I think he was, it would've been his freshman year, but Dean wouldn't let me talk to him if he hadn't already played a game. And he was just open and almost childlike. Not at all the kind of assassin that we think of as in the, from the last dance. You know, just, um, you know, just the broad smile. And indeed he had a little bit of that, um, a couple years later when I did the first cover story of him as a bowl and followed the team on a road trip out to la. Um, and we went with a photographer, Manny Milan, the same guy who took that great Monro cover.
Was, was, was Michael a rookie at the
Time? He was a rookie, yeah. He was having Okay. A great rookie year and mm-hmm. <affirmative>, we ended up putting him on the cover and, um, yeah. And Manny got him to go to a, a go-kart uh, place and because it'd be great pictures and there he wasn't a go-kart, just having a blast, you know, not looking like a guy who was gonna rule the league, uh, but just looking like a, a kid with great talent who was having fun. Um, and he had a lot of that same openness and naivete. I remember asking him for that story, um, you know, what are your goals for your career? And you said he like to win championships and this and that, and then play in at least one all Star game <laugh>. And of course you all right.
Yeah. You might wanna adjust those a little bit. But, um, yeah, and it was all, the story was built around how Nike was introducing a personal shoe and all these things seem like they're from the beginning of time when you consider all that has elapsed since then. Um, but yeah, he was very, very open and no real sense of how competitive he was except I would hear from other people, I would hear about how his tongue would come out when he was really bearing down and concentrating. His best friend was this guy Buzz Peterson from Asheville, North Carolina, who I think had nosed out Michael for Mr. Basketball in the state. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So of course that set the terms of the competition, cuz Michael never forgave buzz that, but Michael made Buzz's best friend. You know, maybe keep your enemies close, but your friends closer or whatever the expression.
I love all these Godfather efforts as This
Is great. Yeah. I'm sorry, I didn't know you. No, I love it in this direction here, <laugh>. I love it. But this is the business we've chosen. But, um, yeah, he was just, just a college kid and I think it was kind of after the, he had an injury early in his career with the Bulls, and then it was a coaching change and he saw just how much of a business it was. I think that combined with this innate competitiveness turned him into this kind of more monstrous personality that we've came to know. And not always love, but certainly respect.
When he was a player at Carolina, did you see signs that he would, that he had an assassin like personality in his game? Yes.
Yeah. And I, I always turn people to one game. It was a game in Colefield house. Len Bias was of course still there
Right? At Maryland, yeah. And, um, Jordan had a really good game against a very good team. I mean, bias was just the beginning of it. They had Ben Coleman and, uh, Adrian Branch. They were a terrific team, but there was just something about the way Jordan was commanding the court, that there was just another inch of elevation that he had and confidence. And he ended up intercepting a lazy pass to the wing with about four or five minutes to go. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and just got to do his whole thing. And he cuffed, dunked it and slammed it down. And I, I remember we went up to him in the locker room after the game and somebody asked, Oh, were you trying to send a message with that dunk? And Michael just looked down and his sneakers, he was untying him and he looked up and he said, No messages. You know, like my story, I said like, like an efficient secretary. You know, it was just, that was my first little glimpse of the Michael who would just do everything on his terms. And it wasn't until his junior year in college, the end of his junior season, um, that we really saw that.
Yeah. And then he went to, to the 84 Olympic team on the gold medal with Bob Knight coach. And then eight years later he's on the dream team, you know, and Michael, it was well on his way at that point to, you know, to being Michael, you know, this mythical figured out by then he had won some NBA titles, MVPs, um, but that dream team seemed to take it even further beyond our own borders. Um, what do you remember about the Dream team experience and Michael's effect on the game worldwide?
Yeah. Well, everything that happened with the team within that cocoon really has been documented so well by, by Jack McCollum on our staff. Right, I was left to basically cover the rest of the world. So, you know, poor Angola, uh, I don't, as, as Charles said, I don't know nothing about Angola, but Angola is in trouble. Um, and, and then of course, Lithuania and, uh, them winning the bronze, which was, they might as well have won a gold. Um, but yes, the, the dream team and the years after that, so the six, seven years after that kind of set the table for me to do big game, small world, because there might not have been that much basketball, uh, distributed around the globe, if not for that galvanizing moment in Barcelona, which was more exhibition than competition. And certainly in Europe. Um, you know, you just saw the Tony Parker, Mano Geno believe the, there was a whole Dirk, a whole generation of players that were coming along.
And those three guys I mentioned don't really get mentioned in my original big game Small World, which came around around 2000, 2001, um, because they were kind of in incubation as a result of the, of the Dream team. So you get a real sense of the quality of player. Those three guys are all first ballot Hall of Famers, I think. Right. Um, definitely. But it was the inspiration I think of, of what, what the dream team did that led to that. And then of course, that, you know, Duran and Harden or adapt adopting into their own games. These, uh, these little European quirks to how you play the game is the ultimate compliment.
what was it about Jordan that just made him so appealing to people, around the globe?
Well, I know in, in China there was a particular cultural response. Um, so Chinese, young Chinese people who like basketball are not impressed by the Chinese National League. They think it's inferior product. Um, so as long as they could watch him NBA a games, and except for when Darrell Moy would put his foot in his mouth, they, they generally could, they would always wanna watch NBA games. And Jordan very quickly, I think partly because the color red, which he wore with the bulls, is considered auspicious in Chinese culture. Uh, it's the, it's the color of the dynasty. Um, obviously the flag of the country, Um, partly because of his whole imperious attitude. He sort of imposes his will on the competition. Um, it's a combination of, uh, talent and hard work, evident hard work. He's not seen as a slacker in any way. And unlike, say, Al Allen Iverson, whom a lot of Chinese people think would break the rules by palming the ball every time he dribbled it, <laugh>. Um, but
That was only in practice.
Yeah. That was only in practice. Um, but Michael was seen as sort of tick in every box. So he was beloved in China, which gets you, you know, that's like 25, 20% of the world right there. Um, but even beyond that, I think the whole, there was a book called Michael Jordan and the new global capitalism that came out. And the fact that Michael generated so much endorsement interest that he was this, you know, had the GDP of a small nation, um, I think captured a lot of interest and curiosity around the globe. And then the dream team, I mean, it elevated basketball as a sport and basketball could plausibly argue that globally it was right there behind soccer. Soccer was always gonna be number one, but, but, but comfortably there and, and among a certain generation, maybe even for a while there through the nineties, number one. Um, and Michael was the face of it, you know, like the Ali back in the sixties, he was the equivalent. He was somebody to take us kind of through the nineties and into the two thousands.
Right. I think your observation about, you know, China's even the color red, I think that's so intriguing because it really does contextualize where the perspective is coming from. And that comes from, you know, your years of traveling the globe and seeing the game played other places and getting an understanding about how did they view it compared to how we view it here in the States. It's really
Interesting. Well, every country I went to for that book, and frequently when I would do reporting for SI pieces, you know, I, I depended on the kindness of strangers who would become friends. So frequently they were media people in those home countries who really knew the texture of it. And if I was lucky, they could introduce me to, you know, the Dean Smith equivalent of China, who I got to sit down with.
And who was it,
Some old coach from Shinji, not Shinji. Uh, it's a, it's a city where basketball was first introduced sort of a coastal city, ang maybe. Anyway, he was, he was great. He talked about how basketball has eight pieces because of the seams that wrap around it and how he sees this piece as being this part and the hardware and the software. And it's the way I began the book. And, um, yeah, there was a wonderful Chinese broadcaster, uh, Suji Shu set me up with him. And, um, in the Philippines, there was a guy there who was kind of my, my guide and, um, you know, went the more exotic the place, you know, going to the Afro basket in the midst of his Civil war and Angola. You better have somebody who can arrange, you know, for your body to go home if things go all sideways, all of a sudden.
Was there ever a place where you were just amazed that basketball was being played or, or appreciated at a certain place that you just never would imagine that basketball be played here?
Probably the closest to that would've been Bhutan, this and mountain Kingdom near Nepal and India. And what makes it so unlikely that basketball was popular there is that they regulate tourism. You can't even get into the country except in very limited numbers, because they don't want to become like Nepal overrun with backpackers and have the culture be compromised. But as it happens, they're ruled by a king and the king loved hoop, and he would have the Bhutanese, uh, mission to the United Nations, send him VHS cassettes of NBA highlights every week. And, and he would play pickup games with the royal bodyguards. And I'd heard these stories, Wait
A minute, who won
<laugh>? Oh yeah, no, you and, and people did not play him man to man, because in the particular strain of Buddhism that they practice in Bhutan, you the king is a deity and you can't look him in the eye. So there, there's a zone is very, very highly recommended. Nobody's
Slapping the court. Check him one on one.
No, he's slapping the court now. But I, I'd learned enough about it to know that, oh, a place like that, there's a story to be told. And I, I went there for the book thinking maybe I could get a, an interview, um, with a king. And of course that wasn't to happen, but there was still a great story to be told <laugh>. Um, and there's a second generation, so one of the King's sons is now on the throne, and he loves this hoop too. And he ended up marrying a woman, the, the queen, who is a great basketball player. She loves to play and she plays in a pickup game of her own. So, um, yeah, the story is ongoing. I do update in this new edition that's coming out in the, in the fall, in October. Um, I did little codas to every chapter and it was so much fun to go revisit what's going on in Bhutan.
That's fantastic. Well, we learned so much, uh, about basketball here in the States, but around the world because of your travels and your lyrical writing and reporting on the game. And you know, as I mentioned, not only all those years at Sports Illustrated, but you know, the seven books about basketball, your editor of, of basketball, great writing about America's Game, which I, which was published by a Library of America in 2018. I highly recommend, and, uh, I also recommend people to go into Si Vault and, and read some of your, just, just great, great stories that made an impact on my own career. We could talk basketball for hours, Alex.
Oh, you've got the pedigree, Todd, If, if anybody was on the staff of the Kentucky Colonel
You know, I, I shout
Out to the colonel
Yeah. To the small hours of the morning with, with you and John Clay and t in and all the, the great people from that part of the world. So
Yeah, great times. And one other thing I wanted to mention, and for the history lovers, your book that came out in 2021 N Papers about your grandfather and father, uh, German immigrants who came over and became US citizens. Uh, you actually went and lived in Berlin for a while to research that, right?
Yeah. Took the family over there to, to basically try to unpack a story that, um, put on the shelf while, you know, chasing sports news of the week for 36 years. And that was a great family experience and I learned a great deal. And, um, yeah, it was shifted gears, but you know, what, um, all the tools that you learned as a sports writer, you know, knowing how to go into an archive and find a, a narrative thread and who are the protagonists and what should be on the cutting groom floor, all that stuff came in handy. So I, I felt real lucky to have had those 36 years behind me.
Well, Alex, we've been very lucky to have you with us on this episode. It's been very enjoyable to catch up with you again.
Thank you, Todd. It's been a great pleasure.