BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: THE ELUSIVE POPApril 23rd, 2013
Sometimes the stories that involve the most reluctant interviewees turn out to be the best stories. One of the most famous pieces in Sports Illustrated history is Frank Deford’s 1978 masterpiece about Jimmy Connors that he wrote without the cooperation of the tennis star. Here’s the link:
I am not suggesting that the story I wrote on Gregg Popovich that appears in this week’s SI (no link available yet) compares to that. As a subject, Pop is nothing like Connors—good for him—and as a writer I am nothing like Deford—bad for me. But even before I boarded a plane for my trip to San Antonio last week, I was told that “Pop doesn’t want to talk about himself,” and I offer this background look to demonstrate something about how a story comes together even with a reluctant subject.
Also, when I do these “Behind the Interview” pieces it lets you know that writing a magazine piece involves more than going to a game and munching on free hot dogs, which, by the way, usually aren’t free anymore. Also, it’s a way of rationalizing my existence, which is good for the soul now and then.
I had floated the idea of a story on Popovich a couple of months earlier to Tom James, the Spurs veteran head of public relations, but it took him a while to present it to the coach. “You have to pick your spots with these kinds of things,” Tom told me. After a couple of weeks, Tom got back and said: “Pop told me he’s got nothing against you personally, but he just doesn’t want to talk about himself. Sorry.”
I let that marinate for a while before talking to the two Sports Illustrated voices that mattered the most in this case—managing editor Chris Stone and NBA editor Mark Bechtel. We all agreed that Pop was worth a story, even if he didn’t cooperate. There are all kinds of reasons to write stories about people. There might be a news peg. Or particularly interesting feature angles. Or the subject might be well-known without the public knowing a lot about him. Pop qualified on all counts.
Tom James was not thrilled that I was doing the story. On the one hand, he knows that Popovich deserves the attention, and, as a p.r. man, it is his job to get attention–positive if possible–to the Spurs. On the other hand, he was the one who had to tell Pop: “McCallum is coming anyway.” But he’s a pro and he knows the deal. This isn’t China. You can write stories about people even if they don’t want them written. “Pop will be difficult,” said Tom, “but you’re welcome to come and I’ll help you in any way I can.”
My hope, of course, was that Pop would change his mind and talk, but one had to prepare in case he didn’t. That means talking to more people about him than usual, which presents opportunities that can more than compensate for a silent subject. Fortunately, Pop’s influence is far-reaching. There were many candidates.
Calls were placed … and returned. (That return part doesn’t always happen.) Pop’s mentor, Larry Brown. Former Spurs staffers like Alvin Gentry, P.J. Carlesimo, Danny Ferry, Sam Presti, Jacque Vaughn and even Will Vogt, a video coordinator from a decade ago who is now a coach in the D-League. Former Spurs players such as Steve Kerr and Monty Williams, the latter a suggestion from Tom James because Monty had been unhappy as a Spurs player yet Pop had welcomed him back as a coaching intern. What you don’t need is 20 people telling you the same thing; 10 people telling you 10 different things is far better.
Part of Pop’s rep is the difficulty he gives reporters, so I gave a call to TNT’s Craig Sager, who provided a couple of choice anecdotes. Another part of the Pop story is the conflict he’s had with the league office over his propensity to keep key players out of marquee games. So I emailed a couple of questions to Commissioner David Stern, the easiest way to communicate with that busy man, and he emailed me back.
SI’s Stone suggested that I try to watch a snippet of video from an opponent of the Spurs to see what Popovich’s teams do on the court, an attempt to get at San Antonio’s season-after-season consistency. So I got in touch with Sacramento Kings GM Geoff Petrie, whom I’ve known for a hundred years, and asked him to hook me up with assistant coach Jim Eyen, whose team would be playing the Spurs when I was in town.
Once in San Antonio, I had breakfast with former Spurs defensive star Bruce Bowen and lunch with R.C. Buford, the Spurs general manager. At the Spurs practice facility, I got Manu Ginobili one day, Tony Parker the next and assistant coach Mike Budenholzer the next. (Tim Duncan remained elusive until the finish line.) I watched the video with Eyen in his San Antonio hotel room the night before the game; it was enormously helpful and interesting. (I probably don’t need to tell you this, but coaches notice a few more things than reporters do. )
James helped me get to David Robinson, whom I interviewed at a game, and Sean Elliott (now a Spurs broadcaster), whom I interviewed at the airport before the Spurs left for Denver. James also gave me a history of the Spurs written by Jan Hubbard, a veteran NBA hand. Secondary sources by reliable people can be valuable.
After a few days I had an enormous amount of material. But there was still the matter of Pop himself. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen him. On my second day in San Antonio, I was at the Spurs practice facility and spotted he and general manager R.C. Buford having an animated conversation in the parking lot. Well, Pop was animated and R.C. was stoic; in other words, they were in character. As it turned out, they were discussing the fate of Stephen Jackson, who was released two days later, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I went out to say hello, and Pop greeted me warmly. I felt the same. As is reflected in the upcoming SI story, Pop is unusual in that media types generally like him, even though he rarely gives them much. Here’s a piece I wrote on him back in 2005.
We shot the breeze for a while, and finally I said, “Listen, Pop, I’m here …”
“I’m just not comfortable talking about myself,” he said, knowing where I was going. “It’s an Academy thing.” He is a 1970 graduate of the Air Force Academy.
Pop’s reticence in talking about himself is genuine. Some people tell you they don’t want to talk about themselves, but they really do. That’s not Pop. But I believe that time management has almost as much to do with it. The Spurs, with Pop at the top of the organizational flow chart, are nothing if not time-management-conscious. As Pop sees it, every minute that he’s talking about himself is one minute away from the mission, which is preparation and, ultimately, winning.
“What about if I just checked some facts with you?” I said, playing somewhat of a trump card. A guy like Pop has to respond to fact checking. Hopefully, it was an Academy thing.
“Okay,” said Pop. “That’ll be okay.” And then he was gone.
Over the next couple of days, I reminded Tom about the fact-checking session and finally Tom told me, “Okay, Pop said he’ll do it before the game.”
Before the game is a phrase I never much cared for. Players and coaches can be distracted and there is always the tick-tick-ticking of the countdown-to-tipoff clock.
But that’s what I was left with, a pretty much take-it-or-leave-it position.
We did get together about 90 minutes before tipoff, and, yes, Pop seemed relatively relaxed. (And not just, I assume, because the Spurs were playing the lowly Kings.) He knew that I was there to do more than fact-checking. If I was going to get any details, it would be because he chose to supply them, not because I was wily enough to wrangle them out of him.
I asked a question about leadership and discipline just to get things rolling, and soon we were back at his days as a small-college coach at Pomona-Pitzer in the 1970s. I had a list of questions (something I do rarely these days but wanted to be ready in this case), but this wasn’t going to be his once-upon-a-time life story. In instances when interview time is at a premium, the journalist is better off getting a lot of material on one subject than only a little bit on several different ones. That’s my philosophy anyway.
And that’s pretty much how it went. I heard several things I had never heard before about his time at Pomona, including his enduring friendship with a distinguished scholar named Dr. Steven Koblik. I knew that would be a followup possibility.
Soon, Pop was gone, having given me only 20 minutes or so. But they were good minutes, and you can get a lot done in 20 good minutes.
After the game I asked Duncan a few questions, got a few good answers, and I knew I was home free. I topped it off by talking to Koblik by phone when I got home. He turned out to be a perfect interview, someone from another world who is able to supply a different perspective on the subject. All that remained was to write the damn thing and–trust me–that is a lot easier than gathering material. Gathering material is the root canal part of this job; writing is the teeth-cleaning.
Anyway, that’s a glance at how the story came together. It’s in this week’s SI and I hope you like it.