Professor, father, husband, writer....& all around pain in the ass, Ryan Jones is a rarity among sportswriters: You actually manage to enjoy his work in spite of his snarkiness. As a source of knowledge on topics as broad as basketball, hip hop, netball and Joe Paterno's bathing suit preference , Ryan is one of our favorite writers and a friend to our blog world. The former Editor in Chief of SLAM Magazine and working teacher at Penn State University, he is a source of hilarious content both on the SLAM site and in other media, Ryan is in a class all by his lonesome. Some would say it's by design, others would say it's because of his farming roots, but for us, it is a pleasure to have the man, the semi-myth and the quasi-legend grace us with some insight into his world.
Mr. Jones, take it away.
SKO: Chuck Klosterman, our maiden interviewee, says that "the people who write about sports despise the subject they write about". How fully does that apply to you?
RJ: As someone who A) enjoys Chuck's writing and B) drank lots of Miller High Life while watching the 2006 Orange Bowl from the comfort of his couch, I must respectfully disagree. (Those things have nothing to do with each other, or with your question, but you seem to want me to name drop, so there you go.) I'm not sure, but I THINK Chuck was referring more to beat writers, the guys who cover a team 8 days a week for 9 months and probably DO end up hating everyone and everything related to that sport and that team when the season's over. From my brief time in newspapers pre-Slam, and from knowing a lot of beat writers while I was at Slam, I can certainly co-sign on the number of miserable cats who do THAT job for a living. It's the relentless nature of the schedule and having to deal with the same people every day for so long, particularly when those people are often uncooperative at best.
That said... the beauty of how we did/do things at Slam is that it had almost the opposite effect. While I was usually sort of burned out on the day-to-day NBA grind by the end of any given season, I never came to hate the sport. If anything, being at Slam made me more of a hoop fan than I ever was. Let me be clear: I was always a big basketball fan, but until I got to college, my love of the "game" was overly reliant on my love of the Los Angeles Lakers. Then I went to a Big Ten school and had front-row seats for Bobby Knight, the Fab Five, Mike Finley, Big Dog, Shawn Respert and, um, John Amaechi. That, and the Lakers falling off a bit in the early-mid '90s, made me more of a BASKETBALL fan. Then I started at Slam in the fall of '99, and my immersion in the game went next-level.
So, Klosterman doesn't know what he's talking about — although his latest Esquire column (August or September issue) is one of his best yet. His first novel is out this month, too, I think. Not that he needs my help selling books... Ok, back to me now!
SKO: Lebron James is transcendent at the game of basketball as is your distinct writing style, and you have a well defined connection to him. Do you think Mr. James can focus his energies to the game he gets payed to play as stringently as he does the rest of his money making ventures and if he does where can he wind up in the pantheons of NBA history, in your opinion?
RJ: 1, LeBron... should I know that name?
2, Did Myles put you up to this question?
Anyway... It's pretty impossible for me not to sound defensive or jock-riding on this or any question that is critical of LeBron. But you guys are paying me a lot of money to do this, so I'll give it a shot.
Rule No. 1 of successful debating is (I think), Present your opponent's argument first, then refute it. So: You're absolutely right to imply (as I think you're implying) that LeBron still isn't getting everything out of his game. There are absolutely still times where he seems to... not DISAPPEAR, really, but settle for jumpers or fail to demand the ball when you know he's the only guy on the court who can do what needs done at a particular moment. It's frustrating to watch, particularly for someone like me. I've had conversations with his old high school coach about this, and he sees it and absolutely agrees — sometimes you just want to scream on the dude and say "Take this sh*t over!"
That said... I disagree with almost everything else your question implies:
1, My writing style is not that distinct. Or distinctive.
2, It's worth noting that LeBron makes a LOT more money through endorsements than the does actually playing basketball. That said, I've never really been down with the whole "he'd be a better player if he didn't worry so much about off-court distractions" argument. I didn't buy it with Shaq, and I don't buy it with LeBron. I've watched him work out. I've heard too many coaches talk about him leading through example and hard work. I just don't think it's an issue.
To me, the flaws in LeBron's game are inseparable from the things that make him great. What has ALREADY made him transcendent is his selflessness — yeah, he's got two-guard skills in a PF body, but far more important, he's got the mind and eyes and heart of a point guard. I'm honestly not trying to make excuses here, but I really think this explains him: dude CAN take over most games, but he'd rather get everybody going, dime his mediocre teammates into respectability, etc and so forth. That he's willing and able to do this is so much of what makes him great; that it often means not using all of his physical gifts to just run sh*t himself is what leaves us wanting more.
I blame some of this on coaching and some of it on the quality of teammates he's had since entering the League, but of course it ultimately falls on him. LeBron can (and must) continue to improve, and that fact that he's still got room to do so is frightening — in a good way. As it is, right now, he's f*cking amazing, arguably the best player in the game, and he WILL get better, as he has every year so far. Pardon the broken record or skipping iPod or whatever, but he's STILL just 23.
And with that, to your ultimate question: I think he's on pace for top-10 all-time. Whether he's top 5, or maybe even in the GOAT argument, will depend on how many (if any) chips he stacks. I'm optimistic.
SKO: What, in your opinion, are the major flaws of the American high school basketball system?
RJ: Can I sound arrogant and judgmental for a minute — or at least, more arrogant and judgmental than usual? To me, the problems with high school basketball are reflective of the problems in larger society. People are greedy and short-sighted and selfish, all things that society tends to reward (short-term, at least) and encourage. I guess I could try to break this down a little more, talk about the AAU system and the sneaker companies and the NCAA, but... sorry, this election season has me feeling particularly misanthropic. Plus, David Foster Wallace just killed himself. So my fallback answer to everything is "People suck."
I don't think high school basketball is any more screwed up than anything else, is my point.
SKO: If you were named NCAA commissioner for one day, what are the top three things you would change?
RJ: 1, Disband the NCAA. Do I really need two more?
The problem with the NCAA is that its hypocrisy is sort of too deep to even fathom — as a governing body, it only has power because the universities it governs ALLOW it to have power, and the universities grant that authority because it (the NCAA) makes them money. So, I'm not sure how to really solve the big-picture issue, because you'd have to tear up the very foundation of college athletics, and there's a lot of coin weighing that foundation down. (Sh*t is HEAVY). In lieu of that, I guess I'd try the following:
1, Appoint a board of student-athletes to go over every single rule in the NCAA book and ask this question of each one: "Does this rule ultimately exist to benefit student-athletes?" If the answer isn't a definitive, absolute "Yes," that rule is off the books.
2, I'm not fan of out-and-out "paying" student athletes, but there is middle ground between amateurism and professionalism that the NCAA is too stupid to consider, but should. Varsity athletes in pretty much any sport — and this goes well beyond big-time D1 football or hoops — obviously don't have time to work in-season, and for most kids, the "season" these days is pretty much year round. Plus, if they DO get a summer job or something, they face scrutiny about getting hooked up by a booster. Beyond that, there's the simple reality that a lot of these kids come to college from NOTHING. I know of a ballplayer here at Penn State who is one of four or five kids, dad's out of the picture, older brother's in jail, the whole sad cliche. He had to bum rides to get home to visit his mom over the summer. There are thousands of kids like this in schools around the country, every year.
The obvious solution, to me, is some sort of stipend or allowance system, by which kids get something — $100 a week, $300 a month, $1000 a semester, whatever — just to have some money in their pocket. Maybe they have to qualify, like they would for financial aid; maybe they pay it back only if they make a certain amount of money after graduation, or maybe they don't pay it back at all. Whatever — the NCAA could absolutely afford it (anybody see how much CBS pays for the Tournament?) and it solves or at least cuts down on a lot of potential problems: Poor kids would be less likely to be tempted by street agents or runners or boosters, and coaches wouldn't have to think about risking the NCAA's wrath for giving a kid bus fare to go see his mother during his very brief summer vacation.
3, Disband the NCAA. Unless I already said that...
SKO: Also, if the NCAA top brass were to magically disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, would the world be a better place?
RJ: What's that phrase about "The devil you know..."? I've been thinking about that a lot this election season, and I suppose it applies here. But, short answer: Yeah, I imagine so.
SKO: You've got to put together a squad of 5 dudes (any NBA player past or present) to run against a team of robot Kobe Bryant's, who ya got?
RJ: PG: Magic Johnson
SG: Michael Jordan
SF: LeBron James
PF: Randy Couture (robots are an exception, so I figured I get one, too. Couture > robots).
C: Bill Russell
SKO:Fill in the blank: Eazy_E is to Alex English as Ma$e is to .......
RJ: This one has Tariq written all over it.
Answer: Kobe Bryant. Ha!
SKO: With details if possible, who has been your best interview ever and who has been your worst?
RJ: This is a tough one. For a lot of reasons, NBA guys tend not to be great interviews, and I feel like most of my most memorable interactions from my time at the magazine have NOT been in a formal interview setting: Making fun of Damon Jones' feet in front of his teammates; watching two different Slam writers (not me, in either case) get one-on-one time with Rasheed Wallace after he'd basically told a slew of waiting newspaper guys he wouldn't be talking after a game; sharing a half-full NYC subway car with Steve Nash (after he'd won his second MVP) when no one else on the train recognized him; talking about Radiohead with Tom Gugliotta; hanging out with Mark Cuban in his room at the Ritz in Philly at 3 in the morning after a Mavs-Sixers game — this after Cubes had already picked up the tab for Russ and I and a female who will go unnamed... yeah, interviews are boring. Kobe was a pretty good one. LeBron had his moments. Shawn Marion's cockiness was always welcome. Derek Fisher is one of the nicest dudes ever, from what I know of him. And Morris Peterson — just a cool guy to BS with about whatever.
My most MEMORABLE actual interviews would probably be LeBron as a high school sophomore (just because it was LeBron... as a high school sophomore), OJ Mayo and Bill Walker when they were in high school, and Kobe back in '03. More on that later.
Oh, and Jordan, for Slam 100, just because. It last 13 minutes start to finish, but it was a one-on-one at a time when he pretty much didn't do those anymore. So that was cool. Interesting sidenote: The shoes I wore to that Jordan interview, some relatively hard-to-find seamless AF1s, are now the shoes I wear to mow my lawn. Symbolism, b*tches.
SKO: And who's the one person you'd love to get some time with?
RJ: Bono. There are no basketball players that I haven't spoken with that I care to. That'll be a hugely disappointing answer here. Sorry.
SKO: Any plans for another book?
RJ: No. You're welcome.
SKO: All political affiliations aside, you'd totally do Sarah Palin, right?
RJ: No. I mean, as 44-year-old mothers of five go, she looks pretty good... but she's still a 44-year-old mother of five.
SKO: Finally.....Kobe? There's got to be something you can give us, isn't there?
RJ: Um... I imagine I'm guilty of having overplayed this whole thing to get a rise out of website regulars over the years. There really is no big, interesting story. What happened was a combination of A) my naivete and immaturity with B) his engaging yet possibly psychotic personality; I'm sure he's not really psychotic, but there's SOMETHING going on there...
Anyway, I'm culpable in that, as a life-long, diehard (I thought) Lakers fan early in my days at the magazine, I was maybe a little too willing to give dude the benefit of the doubt where so many others were questioning aspects of his personality. It all started in the spring of 2002, when I went out to L.A. to interview him for a feature. My idea was to talk about how "misunderstood" he was, whatever the f*ck that meant. Anyway, the game I went out for was Pacers @ Lakers in March of '02...
Jog your memory for a second.
That's the night he and Reggie had their little end-of-game brawl at Staples, an incident perhaps best remembered for Austin Croshere's oh-so-sexily torn jersey and Reggie's post-fight comments about "issues," a vague and titillating reference that may not have meant anything, but only added to the sense that he was a dude people couldn't really figure out. Me, I thought I'd figured him out, at least a little. I did more reporting for this story than any other I did while with the mag (pretty much none of which ever saw the light of day), asking a boatload of players and coaches about him, what they thought made him tick, why he caught so much hate for not being "real," etc. Personally, I eventually arrived at an amateur psych analysis, which is that he was this upper-middle-class black kid who grew up in Europe, then came back to the U.S. as a teenager, at the height of hip-hop culture, and was never quite sure where he fit in. Authenticity was ALWAYS a problem for him, and I felt bad for him. I figured he needed a hug.
Anyway, back to the moment: I'm in L.A. hoping to get some one-on-one time with him the day after the game, and now of course he's going to get suspended, and I'm thinking I'm screwed — I won't get any time with him. But he plays ball, gamely shows up at practice to answer questions from the beat writers, and then we get a few minutes face to face. One of the things I brought up right away was how many letters the mag got about him, such a weird mix of love and hate, and basically how our readers — these loyal, involved, die-hard hoop fans — spent so much time trying to figure him out. I don't remember the conversation verbatim, but he was basically like, "Yeah, I read the letters." That led into a broader (though still brief) discussion of perception — that was the key word that kept getting repeated, and would come up again when I finally interviewed him at length six months later — and he was like, "Yeah, I think about that all the time, and you're the first guy who's really asked me about that. I want to talk more about this. I never do this, but here's my number."
Well, he f*cking had me.
I guess I'll never really KNOW if he was being sincere, but in retrospect, I tend to think he wasn't. At the time, though, I was completely wrapped around dude's finger. I believed I was the only basketball journalist alive who UNDERSTOOD this guy, which, even if it were true, would've been a dumb thing for me to get too excited about. It didn't help that we actually traded calls a few times, including HIM calling ME a couple times, unsolicited — once while he was waiting for the team plane to take off, at like 7 in the morning or something — for no other apparent reason than to say what's up. No joke. Think about that: This guy, calling me, just to bullsh*t and say hello. That never came CLOSE to happening with any other player I ever dealt with, and certainly not one on his level (who also happened to play for my favorite team). This only cemented my sense that he was sort of lonely (still seemingly exiled from his own family, aloof with his club-hopping teammates, etc) and, yes, misunderstood, and that he saw me as someone who actually "got" him. Like, you know, I felt his pain.
Or how's this: The Lakers played the Sixers at some point not long after, and for reasons too annoying to get into, I got screwed out of a press credential. Only I didn't find out until I was already on the train from NYC to Philly like four hours before the game. Desperate, I call his cell and leave a message basically saying, "Hey dude, I'm supposed to have a credential but it fell through, I'm on my way to Philly, I'm sure it's a dumb question since this is practically your home town and you must have 100 people to leave tickets for, but any chance you've got one to spare?" Not long after, I get a call back from one of his bodyguards — one of the same dudes he was apparently hanging with in Colorado not long after — saying he was leaving a ticket for me to pick up at will call.
After all this, I was pretty much ready to name my first born after him.
Anyway, that fall we do the interview which became the cover story in Ish... um, I can't remember the number, but the yellow one with him in the black Nike Swingman uni and the trophies lined up in front of him, which remains one of my favorite all-time covers. Anyway, we get back into the whole perspective thing, and I think it ended up being a pretty good Q&A, and that's that. The phone calls mostly cease, but whenever I was at a Laker game in NY or Jersey or wherever, it was always love, big pounds in the lockerroom, etc.
Then Colorado happens. My general take, which I spouted on a couple of brief, stupid appearances on Fox New Channel (!), was that, you never know what could happen, but I really didn't think he was capable of something like that.
Things just got weird from there. Our face-to-face interactions were never anything less than warm and positive, but there was a combination of rumors and work-related encounters that slowly changed my opinion of him. The rumors came from people — sneaker-industry folks we knew and trusted, NBA team PR folks, other players or friends of players — some of whom, it must be said, were affiliated with companies he once endorsed but had since left under less-than-amicable terms. But, still, there were a LOT of stories, and they came from a lot of different people. Stories about him menacing or mistreating assistants, coming up with wack marketing or product ideas, then blaming the company when they weren't well received, just generally being two-faced and a diva. Again, just rumors, but...
The work-related stuff was more of an issue. Basically, we tried to get him for a story post-Colorado, and he understandably wanted to hold off talking to anybody about anything. When we finally did get him, things seemed different. He was offering weird ideas — cover ideas, story concepts — and sort of playing hardball with access. Again, his right to handle all that how he wants. Maybe he's changed by the whole Colorado thing, maybe the people around him (fam? agent?) were pushing him in a different direction. Whatever, it was like pulling teeth trying to get something done. Then we finally DID get something done, only it fell through last second, entirely because of him. There seemed to be a lot of bullsh*t and manipulation going on, which was both professionally and (for me) personally really, really frustrating.
I feel compelled to state that, throughout, whenever I actually SAW the dude, it was friendly and cool and all was well. Always polite and accommodating and professional. But all this other sh*t going on behind the scenes... for a lot of reasons, I'm reluctant to be too specific, and I'm aware that this may sound petty or whatever, but this is how it went down through my eyes, and it really soured me.
Anyway, this played out over the course of a couple years, I guess. Contrary to what some in our little bubble-roofed corner of the world would love to believe, dude never bitch-slapped me or dated my mom or anything. I imagine if I ran into him today, I'd get a smile and a pound. But the combination of things I heard from people I trusted, and then things I dealt with myself, made it hard for me to root for the guy, and, by extension, the team I'd lived for since I was seven years old. Which was a bummer, but I'm over it. Go Cavs!
***To read more of Ryan's work, check the SLAM site and pick up a copy of his book: King James: Believe the Hype---The Lebron James Story
"We, the elite Linkstigators, have formed like Voltron, We could have used our powers for evil. It was quite tempting, actually. But instead, we have decided to bless the internets with the most slammin' blog (no pun intended). A blog which is dedicated mainly to the game of basketball, but also to diverse topics such as Mountain Dew Code Red, Democratic primaries, Guitar Hero 3 and post-structuralism. We are sponsored by Nabisco."
Cheryl will offer “A Sistah’s Point of View” (ASPOV) to this madness, because as you will read over the next few months, it will be needed. I see connections, like Haley Joel Osment sees dead people. Connections between modern sports, culture, politics, race and racialization, art and dance, religion and myth. I will try to point these out without being too esoteric or dogmatic (but if I am, sue me). But what you can always expect is that I will be open, honest, and often catty. (That was an awfully un-feminist thing to say, huh?)”
White Hot Eboy, or just plain E, is a polarizing figure. On the SLAM site, the place of his e-origin, Eboy seems to move between love for his regular foils to sheer unbridled hate for his detractors. Here in this blogventure, look for Eboy to speak on basketball in all forms, movies, tv, politics, sports in general and anything else that he can throw his opinion at. Besides, he's legally obligated to be truthful and forthright, so stay ready, an E-storm is brewing.
TADOne, or just plain TAD, is quite possibly the most sane member of this blog group, although, that is not saying much. My sarcasm, or just plain lack of empathy, has been known to reach epic levels of true disdain. Because of this, I have a love of binge drinking and mindless humor. Therapy is good.
I am a sensitive, delicate soul. I use sarcasm and cynicism as self-defense mechanisms, douchebag. I do this to protect my faberge-egg-like psyche. If only I could increase my self-confidence, maybe then I could achieve a moment of sincerity. But I can't. So instead I have to be content with writing sublime pieces which delve into the realms of basketball, football (American), football (real), literature, religion, The Legend of Zelda and Reese's Pieces. I may even occassionally shed some insight into the complexities of the human condition. No promises, though.
My turn-ons are non-smokers and world peace. My turn-offs include crystal meth and springtime.
You may (though most likely don't) know me as commenter H to the izzo from SLAMonline.I will no longer answer to that moniker-ever.I'm retiring only to return again,but this won't be no Linkin Park collaboration.My list of lifetime achievements include being the second most foreign member.The youngest member,the least educated member.I roughly rank as the 3rd most white member and am three time Vodka chugging champion in my district.I intend to prove that basketball opinion and having little else better to do are a dangerous mix.I am usually wrong and am possessed by the ghost of Charles Oakley's right fist.