Known simply as “The Sports Guy,” Bill Simmons is a popular columnist for ESPN.com’s Page 2 website and host of the B.S. Report podcast, but the nickname only describes the most prominent of his obsessions. As conversant in the intricacies of Mad Men and The Real World as he is with the weekly NFL betting lines or the epic Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Simmons is rare among sports writers for his playful integration of well-reasoned, provocative opinion and pop-culture references. Though he currently resides in Los Angeles, his passion for all things Celtics, Patriots, and Red Sox-related would make his allegiances to his native Boston clear, even if his accent didn’t give it away. As season-ticket holders, he and his father witnessed the Celtics’ ’80s dynasty firsthand, and that experience informs the prologue to The Book Of Basketball, Simmons’ mammoth, 736-page opus on his favorite game. From a thorough deflating of Wilt Chamberlain’s legacy to a hilarious (and spot-on) likening of Kobe Bryant to Teen Wolf, Simmons offers a personal history of the sport that measures great players and teams against each other and breaks down statistics, usually by asserting that stats mean squat. In the middle of a punishing book tour, Simmons took an hour to talk to The A.V. Club about the rancid state of sports talk radio, the current NBA referee scandal, why Bill Russell is a better basketball player than Chamberlain, and his role in co-producing the stellar ESPN documentary series 30 For 30.
The A.V. Club: On a recent B.S. Report with Chuck Klosterman, you talked about the writing process, and how you weren’t the sort to have a book outlined in advance. So where did you start with The Book Of Basketball? And where did the process take you that you might not have anticipated?
Bill Simmons: I started with the prologue. In the summer of 2007, I wrote the prologue and the Russell/Chamberlain chapter [which compares the legacies of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, and concludes the former was the better player, stats be damned— ed.], and I wrote some other things, but they were just kind of pieces. I didn’t know where I was going, but I trusted the process. It was not the way to do a book, I can tell you that much. I knew I wanted to do the Hall Of Fame pyramid. [The book includes a ranking of the 50 greatest players in order. —ed.] And I knew I wanted to do a greatest-teams chapter. But I really didn’t know how I was going to tie everything together. And initially, I thought it was going to be a little bit more about how to put a team together, and I just went away from that and concentrated more on the history and evaluating, and whether there was a common theme. Then the more I got into the history, it just kind of kept going. There’s so many things I didn’t know, and there was just so little out there. The number of informative basketball books, where you could learn, “All right, why did this happen?”, is very little. And that’s when I knew I was on to something. I didn’t really know if the book was going to work, though, until I wrote about [Hall Of Fame Los Angeles Lakers forward and former Los Angeles Clippers GM] Elgin Baylor for the website in 2008, when he got fired right before the 2008-2009 season. It was one of those columns that I wrote just because I liked Elgin Baylor, not because I thought a lot of people were going to read it. And it was really popular. I got a ton of e-mails from people who were like, “I had no idea…” That’s how uninformed people were. They had just always thought of him as the guy with the bad sweaters during the draft lottery, you know? [Laughs.] And that’s when I knew the book would work, because people were so flabbergasted that this guy was an unbelievable basketball player, and it just seemed things like that were going to work in my favor.
AVC: So you think this ended up being more a book of history than simply a book of opinion?
BS: Oh, I think it’s a blend. It’s more opinion than history, but I think if you don’t know a lot about the NBA, or if you’re a big NBA fan but you don’t know a lot of stuff that happened before you started following, and you don’t know how these guys tie together, or you don’t really understand stuff like these numbers and records that have lived on, that in a lot of cases weren’t as impressive as they seem… Like I always say, Oscar [Robertson]’s triple-double is a good example of that. [Robertson averaged double digits in points, rebounds, and assists per game in the 1961-1962 season, the only NBA player to accomplish that.] It’s not that great of a record, and it’s always brought up.
AVC: [Sarcastically.] Well, you’re obviously really impressed by Wilt never fouling out.
BS: Yeah, the not-fouling-out streak is impressive in a different way. That’s the thing: As I dived into it, there were so many dumb things I found out that actually weren’t dumb—they were kind of fascinating. And they said a hell of a lot about just how weird the league was. Something like Moses [Malone], and how he belonged to four teams in three months. He’s one of the 12 greatest players ever! It was this league that just… not only did the league always seem to make the wrong move, but most of the teams did, too. That was the case for 40 solid years, just this league that kept fucking up and teams that kept fucking up.
AVC: Did current NBA commissioner David Stern make the difference? What was the turning point?
BS: It was more a turning point of perception, which is what I try to lay out in the book. There’s this fairy tale now that [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] rode in on their white horses and saved the league, and it definitely helped, but I don’t think that was really the case. In their first year, almost half the conference finals games were tape-delayed. I think a much bigger issue was cable TV, and the fact that more and more games were being shown on cable, and people could actually see the teams. There was one season where they only showed four regular-season games. So it’s like, “How is a league going to catch on when four regular season games are on TV?” And that really helped. Also, SportsCenter really helped, just being able to see highlights of games—all of a sudden now you’re seeing the best pieces of games, and you’re seeing the best dunk in a game, and I think that kind of swayed people a little bit. And the ad campaigns that started running in 1982, where they started doing the NBA’s “It’s fantastic!” commercials. They started to get it. And I think Stern was definitely responsible for a lot of it. It’s always unclear how much, though, you know? The previous commissioner [Larry O’Brien] green-lighted All-Star Weekend, which was a huge thing for the league, but basically, they had to bat him over the head to commit to it. He wanted to make sure the whole thing was paid for. He had no vision at all. And I think that guy caused a lot of issues for the league. And then there were drugs, obviously, and the league was too black, and that was a big theme back then. “Can the league be this successful with this many black guys?” It’s hard to believe now anybody would say that, but back then, people actually talked that way.
AVC: One of the book’s major points is that basketball can’t be quantified in the same way that, say, baseball could. Intangibles matter perhaps more than statistics. Could you expand on that idea? And how strange was it to have Isiah Thomas, GM of the New York Knicks, talk to you about this?
BS: One of my favorite things about basketball is that you can’t break it down into some sort of science that makes total sense. And that’s why this current statistical revolution really bugs me. I think we’re figuring out ways now to use stats to try to isolate what players do, but you’re never going to be able to rate players against one another, because out of all the sports, basketball is the one that depends the most on the relationship somebody has with his teammates. And if you judged stuff by stats, you would think Wilt was better than Russell, and you’d make a kajillion mistakes that if you were making those same types of things in baseball, you probably would be right. Baseball is an individual sport that we can measure almost to a fault. In my opinion, it’s not even that fun to follow baseball anymore, because you’re not allowed to have any opinions. You have to look up every opinion you’re supposed to have. “Oh, is A-Rod clutch? Let me look that up. Yes, he’s hitting .356 in the clutch. So I guess that means he’s clutch.” What’s fun about it? It’s like algebra. And in basketball, I think so much of it depends on intuition and understanding the game, and understanding that just because somebody scored 43 points in a game doesn’t necessarily mean he had a good game. How guys affect their teammates is more important. For instance, it really would have bothered me if somebody 35 years from now thought [eight-time all-star forward] Vince Carter was a totally worthwhile player. Those are the kind of things that drive me crazy. I wanted to design a book that I could keep updating, and that maybe eight years from now I’d come out with a second edition, and the pyramid would look different. But the basic themes would be the same, because I don’t think it ever changes.
AVC: What do you think of plus-minus, the stat that registers how well a team does when a certain player is in the game? That seems to be the closest that anyone’s come up with to measuring those intangibles.
BS: The plus-minus lineups are intriguing. When these five guys play together, say, the team does this. But I just think it’s a really flawed stat. You know, for instance, let’s say I’m Derrick Rose’s backup point guard for the [Chicago] Bulls. So every time Derrick Rose goes out, I come in. How is that going to affect his plus-minus? Obviously, every time I come in, we’re going to get crushed. So he’s going to look fantastic. And if I’m on the 2008 [Boston] Celtics, and I’m Kendrick Perkins, and I’m playing with three all-stars and [guard] Rajon Rondo, my plus-minus is going to look fantastic every time I’m in the game. I don’t know, the stuff I’ve read about it, some of the results are so stupid. I think if you have results that say Darius Songaila is totally underrated, then that’s it. Just throw your formula out, that’s stupid. If your research reveals that Tim Thomas is a totally underrated statistical player, then throw it out. Start over. Press the reset button.
AVC: What did you think of Michael Lewis’ piece on Shane Battier? [Lewis, the author of Moneyball, posited Battier as a prime example of a statistically terrible player who’s very valuable to a team. —ed.] Lewis seems like the last person who would be writing about a player whose virtues don’t show up in a stat sheet, but it would seem to support your point.
BS: Yeah. He came to a lot of the same conclusions that I would come up with, but did it in a slightly different way, and looked at the process of statistically evaluating somebody like him. And, you know, I think there are ways to do it. You can say, “All right, this guy, every time he shoots a three, he makes 40 percent of them.” Well, that’s good. “He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot.” That’s good. “When he guards, the guys on the opposing teams that he guards, their field goal percentage drops this much.” That’s good. But ultimately, you know, you still have to watch the games. You can’t just crunch data and spit it out. What’s interesting about Battier is that the Houston GM [Daryl Morey], who I’m friends with, they have all the stats that say Battier actually is good, and he’s efficient. But when they had those player-rater type stats, he comes off horribly. Out of 340 players, he was something like the 280th best player. Which, by the way, should tell you how dumb player-rater stats are. But as I said earlier, I think the revolution that’s happening with the GMs is that they’re figuring out how to chart specific things that happen in a game, and how to use them to their advantage. A great example is charting corner threes. So, all right, what is everybody’s field goal percentage when they’re shooting a wide-open corner three? And the reason that you chart that is you might have an offense where the guy in the corner is always open. And you might have somebody like LeBron James, and you’re like, “All right, I want to have a guy in the corner who I know is going to make an open three.” So you crunch all the stats and say, “Oh, look, did you know that this guy actually secretly is 25 for 52?” And I think that’s when they can get really useful. But once you start talking about that absolutely ridiculous Wages Of Wins stat, whatever the fuck that was…
AVC: What was that?
BS: That was a book [written by economists David J. Berri, Martin B. Schmidt, and Stacey L. Brook] that came out a few years ago, and it was saying that during Allen Iverson’s MVP year, he was the 100th best player, or whatever… It was typical. You’re going to have a stat that says Allen Iverson was the 91st best player of that season, or whatever the hell it was? Just press the reset button.
AVC: Couldn’t you look at him the same way as Vince Carter and say, “This guy doesn’t have any championships. Teams don’t necessarily cohere around him,” et cetera?
BS: Well, the difference is, there’s been a lot of great scorers that could never take their team to the finals, a lot of great offensive players who took a lot of shots, and Iverson was the only one out of anybody in that group that actually made the finals. Like George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, guys like that. He had… I forget what I called it in the book, but a “fuck-you intensity,” where there’s something about him that in the last four minutes of a game, his teammates felt like he was going to come through. He got better, he got more… I don’t know what the crunch-time, clutch stats were or whatever, but he thought they were going to win. And when you watch… I watched a lot of DVDs and tapes in preparing for the book, and somebody like George Gervin would just disappear in the last four minutes if you started muscling him around. Iverson really thought he was going to win, and that he always thought he was the best guy on the court. And that’s something that, you know, how do you measure that with a stat? How do you measure that out of the 10 guys on the court in a close game, there’s one guy who thinks that he’s the best guy, and everybody else kind of thinks so, too? You can’t measure that.
AVC: He seemed to me the only guy who brought it on the bronze-medal-winning 2004 Olympics team. He seemed to be the only one that was engaged.
BS: Yeah, totally. And I know [Denver Nuggets forward] Carmelo [Anthony]’s having a really good start to this season, but throw away the stats, because you have to watch him this season to really fully see that he’s getting it. He’s got that look in his eye. I called it “the look” in a tweet, because you know it when you see it, when a guy just has complete confidence, and he doesn’t feel like he can be stopped, and he feels like he’s the best guy on the court, and in a close game, his team’s going to win, and it’s something that you just don’t know until you’re watching the games or you’re in the building. You can just kind of feel it.
AVC: The Book Of Basketball strikes me as a massive conversation-starter. You’re ranking players, you’re ranking teams, you’re constantly questioning conventional wisdom. What has been the biggest sticking point so far? Where are you finding the most resistance to your points in the book?
BS: Well, it just came out, so it’s like one of those things where you send a kid off to college, and you don’t talk to the kid for six months, and you have no idea what’s happening. So I’ve finished this book, and I’m only just now starting to get the feedback on it, and the early feedback seems to be really good. But I haven’t had any people from cities… like somebody from Indiana who reads that I didn’t think [former Pacers guard] Reggie Miller was a superstar—obviously, they’re going to have a shit fit. Or people from Utah, that I wrote that [former Jazz guard] John Stockton was very, very, very good, but never great. That’s like fighting words to somebody from Utah. They can’t handle that. It’s like when I said that [New Orleans Hornets guard] Chris Paul was better than [Jazz guard] Deron Williams, they went apeshit. So yeah, there’s always going to be some provincialism, and that’s usually what people get upset about. The one thing I’ve been surprised about is that I really thought the Russell/Wilt chapter was going to be controversial. But the consensus from people who read that seems to be, “Oh my God, you totally swayed me.” I presented such a compelling case for Russell. I haven’t heard a counter-argument yet.
AVC: It’s a pretty thorough takedown.
BS: Yeah. It’s like an evisceration of Wilt. After it’s over, you have nothing. You can’t come back with anything. [Laughs.] But yeah, I wanted this to be a book that covered all the things I’m constantly arguing with my friends about. About Bird vs. Magic, or whether Moses was pantheon center. My buddy Joe House, who’s mentioned in the book frequently, we’ve been talking about the pantheon since we were in college. This is like a 20-year argument we’ve been having about, “Ooh, start the fifth pantheon.” So it was nice to have a book that puts all those things into one place. I guess the most controversial thing wound up being the ’96 Bulls vs. the ’86 Celtics, because there’s a large number of people where it’s cut-and-dried to them that the ’96 Bulls are the best team ever, and they obviously don’t like the ’86 Celtics. I’m getting some “You’re a homer,” that kind of stuff, because that’s my team. But the facts don’t lie. What can I tell you? [Laughs.]
AVC: A few months ago, you linked via Twitter to this insane vendetta that Oklahoma City sports-radio host Jim Traber had against OKC Thunder forward Nick Collison for basically liking Seattle too much, and not giving Oklahoma City enough respect. [The Seattle SuperSonics were moved to OKC in 2008. Collison’s exchange with Traber over the air can be found here. Warning: It may turn your brain to mush. —ed.]
AVC: That’s an extreme example, but a lot of sports talk radio has that rancid tone. How do you account for that? Is that really how people want to talk about sports?
BS: I think local sports radio has really gone in the toilet. I’ve been dealing with these guys from Boston last week, these guys that I used to tweak all the time when I had my own website, and now that I’ve become more visible, they always try to take shots at me, or twist stuff around that I’ve written, stuff like that. And it’s really gotten to the point where people just throw stuff out, and you don’t even know if they’re joking. These guys said that I made up all the questions in my mailbag. You just throw out crazy shit, it doesn’t matter, and then you move on to the next topic. I think it’s really venomous for the most part in a lot of these cities. L.A. is an exception, because in L.A., it’s totally different. You just turn your brain off. They don’t talk about anything substantial, and they just want to laugh. But I just think the format’s kind of dying. It’s one of the reasons I think people listen to my podcast, because it’s not heavily produced, and I’m not screaming all the time. It’s all bluster, and there’s no substance to it. Even Mike Francesa of New York, when he had Mad Dog with him, he’d never do stuff like that. Now that he’s on his own, he’s kind of just going after everybody. He’s just angry. What are you angry about? You make $4 million a year. Seriously, what are you angry about, Mike Francesa?
AVC: Shouldn’t sports be fun? Seems pretty simple.
BS: I checked out on sports radio 10 years ago. I was in Boston. Maybe it was seven years ago, but I wrote a whole column about it. Just like, “Why am I listening to this? What is entertaining about this? It’s just people yelling at each other, and it’s not smart, and it’s not points that I haven’t thought of already, or talked about with my friends, and why wouldn’t I just listen to music?” I don’t understand why really anybody listens to sports radio unless they’re waiting for the part where they tell you if anything just happened. That seems to be why I tune in most of the time. The other style I don’t really get is the style that we do at ESPN that… I think Colin Cowherd’s actually pretty good at it, but some others aren’t as good—basically, having one guy talking to himself for 10 minutes at a time.
AVC: With no co-host?
BS: The solo guy. Just having arguments with himself. Pontificating. Who listens to this? Cowherd at least will have these really, really well-thought-out and sane angles on things that will make you think, “Wow, I never thought of that.” But for the most part, it’s just weird and rambling. You’re listening to somebody talk to themselves for 10 minutes. I always thought radio should have at least two people, or you shouldn’t do it.
AVC: What is your take on the Tim Donaghy situation? [Donaghy is a former NBA referee and gambling addict who was sent to prison for betting on games he officiated and making calls that would affect the point spread. His new book, Blowing The Whistle: The Culture Of Fraud In The NBA, was recently jettisoned due to a lawsuit filed by the league. —ed.] Could this become analogous to Jose Canseco and steroids, where everybody rushes to discredit this obviously problematic guy who also might happen to be right? How’s this going to shake out?
BS: I like that comparison. It’s a good one. Because I think the one thing they have in common is that when the Canseco stuff started, nobody took him seriously. What I can tell you is that you can go in my archives in 2002, in the play-offs, and I wrote about [veteran NBA referee] Dick Bavetta, and I wrote about some of the games that Donaghy mentioned seven years later. This is not new stuff. This is stuff that even at the time was really, really super-fishy, and I have a lot of stuff from my archives about Dick. I always joked that he was like David Stern’s Luca Brasi. I wrote that in 2002. So [Donaghy] wasn’t really breaking new ground with some of the stuff. That said, it’s hard for me to believe that somebody could just walk onto a court and say, “I’m going to decide this game one way or the other.” I think what happens is a lot of times the refs get swept up by the home crowd, or they get swept up by a comeback, or they get swept up by the guys on one of the teams bugging them, and they just decide “Fuck these guys, I’m going to call for the other team the second half.” Because you forget, the guys are humans. They’re not robots.
AVC: So you don’t feel like just out-and-out corruption is epidemic? Or is that limited to this guy?
BS: Corruption’s a strong word. We’ve seen some really fishy shit, though. I think the range from, I’m going to say, ’99 to 2002 had probably six of the 10 fishiest games that we’ve ever seen. And they all came in a row, and they were the Larry Johnson four-point play, Game Seven of Blazers-Lakers [from 2000], which is a fucking travesty… If you watch that game, some of the not-calls against the Lakers are unbelievable. [Lakers center] Shaq just basically bowling over [Trail Blazers guard] Steve Smith on the deciding offensive play of the season for Portland. No call. And then 2002, Sacramento and the Lakers, Game Six—which, by the way, is never on TV. It’s the only game they always take down on YouTube. The Bucks and the Sixers [in 2001]. Google the Bucks and the Sixers and see all the stories that come up about that series. It does seem like there was a four- or five-year stretch where the team that [the league] wanted… ideally, you would have thought the league would have wanted to win, had a habit of winning. Not just winning, but winning in these games that just had crazy, crazy fucked-up officiating. So I don’t know what to tell you. I just know that I wrote about it as it was happening.
AVC: The league is obviously working hard to keep [Donaghy’s] book from being released, but do you feel like this is the beginning of something? Or do you think this is going to be squashed fairly easily?
BS: It’s not the beginning of anything, because I wrote about this back in 2007. I wrote a huge column about just exactly what a gigantic crisis this was, and fans out there really don’t feel like the officials are that credible, and more importantly, it’s just a poorly put-together system. For the amount of money that the players are getting, and for all the talk about globalization and all that bullshit, the officiating system is not good. They don’t spend a lot of money on training. Some of these guys, who are in their 60s, are still officials. Why are these guys still officials? Who do you know at the age of 62 who has the same hand-eye coordination that he did at 42? These are all points I brought up in my piece, and I think they really need to overhaul the whole thing and decide that they want to make a major commitment to it. In soccer—I’m going to say Italy, one of those countries—the officials are forced to retire when they turn 45 or 46, and yet we have an NBA league where you’re running up and down for two and a half hours, trying to keep up with the best-conditioned athletes in the world, other than some soccer players, and these guys are in their 60s. You can’t tell me they’re not tired at the end of these games, or that that doesn’t increase the likelihood of a bad call.
AVC: What’s more surprising is how bad the baseball officiating has been in this postseason, given that the job is so much more limited. You have people whose entire job it is to watch the foul line, and they’re missing a ball falling a foot fair.
BS: I do wonder, with the Internet and stuff, if we spend so much time picking these calls apart, and if that’s starting to affect the quality of the performance of these guys. There’s almost too much pressure. Because if you’re a home-plate umpire, and you know that every time you’re calling a ball or a strike, that Fox has this camera next to… that they’re showing the pitch, whether it really was a strike or a ball… It’s kind of a weird way to do your job.
AVC: You might as well have a computer do it or something.
BS: Yeah. I’ve talked to a couple people about this. How far away are we from a system where they just put up a virtual strike zone, and if the pitch hits the strike zone, it’s a strike. And that’s it, and it just moves with the batter. I’m sure that’ll happen in our lifetime. I wouldn’t be surprised. With the NBA, I almost wonder if they need to go back to two refs. Clearly something needs to happen.
[pagebreak]AVC: Let’s talk about the current NBA season. Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio is not playing, top draft pick Blake Griffin is out for six weeks, and it seems like Shaq is already an albatross in Cleveland. Do you think the season is off to a rough start? Are there reasons we should be excited?
BS: Carmelo is the biggest thing, to me. He took a leap up. I think he now has to be… I know it’s only been three games, but I think he has to be seriously considered in the top group now, from what I’ve seen. He just seems different. He put it all together, and it’s conceivable to me that a team with him as their best player could win the title. I think the Brandon Jennings thing is really interesting. [Jennings, a rookie guard who opted to play professional basketball in Europe for a season after high school rather than play for a college team for a year, has been lighting it up for the Milwaukee Bucks. He was drafted at #10, after scouts perceived his European experiment to be a failure. —ed.]
AVC: Did you expect Jennings to be that good at all?
BS: I did not. And I did think the Knicks should have taken him at eight. I thought that would have been… in the state [the Knicks] they’re in, where they’re just going nowhere, the pick that they made [Jordan Hill] was just so unenthusiastic. Their fans were so bummed out. I don’t know, it just seemed like Jennings, that would have been a nice spot for him. It seems like he had the kind of personality to maybe make it there.
AVC: But he seemed like he didn’t do terribly well in Europe, and he was considered a problem guy.
BS: It was a shitty draft, though. It’s not like they were saying “Let’s go with the sure thing,” because there were no other sure things [besides Blake Griffin]. Personally, I didn’t think Jennings should go in the top 10, but after seeing him play… I hadn’t seen any tape on him. It’s really hard for me to believe that this guy was only the 10th pick. And also, when you look at the Knicks, it’s a pretty tough one to miss. People aren’t exactly trading Jordan Hill basketball cards. But add that one to the list of logs in the fire for the Knicks. The other thing: I think Orlando’s going to be really, really good. I think we’ve already seen it. They haven’t lost an exhibition game or a regular season game. They’re not even healthy yet. Rashard Lewis isn’t back yet. I think we all might have made a mistake thinking they were the third best team this season. To me, they’re clearly better than Cleveland, I don’t think it’s a comparison. I think Cleveland, that whole situation’s going to be fascinating, because the noose is just kind of hanging around the coach’s neck, because he’ll be the first sacrificial lamb if they feel like it’s not going well. And they have so many new players, and it’s really hard to introduce that many new guys during a season. I don’t know. I see that one ending badly.
AVC: Yeah. Well, it’s starting badly.
BS: Yeah, it’s starting badly, and it doesn’t… you watch it, and it’s just terrible to watch. One other thing that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is [Phoenix Suns guard] Steve Nash putting up big stats again. You know, he’s not 35, and he’s not nearly on as good of a team as he was. And the guy’s still dictating the pace of games, and they’re still scoring 120 points, and everybody seems happy on their team. It’s at least going to be a fun team to watch.
AVC: When you talk about everybody seeming happy on their team… You have these observations that are unquantifiable. Like, for example, the fact that Los Angeles Clippers players hate their coach, Mike Dunleavy, Sr.
BS: That’s why I don’t even really go to other games anymore, other sports. I can watch any football game in HD and probably have a better time than I would at the stadium. The tailgates are obviously more fun, but the actual game experience is more fun on TV at this point. Baseball depends on the seats, and these games are so freaking long now that, I don’t know, I’d rather watch them at home, for the most part. If I lived near Fenway, I’d want to go to games. Basketball’s the one sport that you just pick up so much more when you’re at the games, especially if you have decent seats, or if you’re close to the court. You can watch the guys interact, you can watch them watch the JumboTron during time-outs, and see how they react to the coach. All human-nature stuff. It’s the most human of all the sports. And it’s my favorite part. That’s why I love going. It’s why I freaking pay the Clippers $15,000 every year to watch their latest shitty team.
AVC: In the book, you talk about Iverson as being one of those “season ticket guys.” Does that explain your Clippers semi-fandom, in the sense that you have this team that isn’t the Lakers, and you can go to their games and watch other teams play?
BS: Oh, 100 percent. I’m not a Clippers fan. It drives me crazy when people say that. “Oh, and celebrity Clipper fan” or “longtime Clippers sufferer.” I’m like, “I’m not anything.” I just want the games to be competitive. Just give me a team that’s good enough that I’ll enjoy a game for four quarters. The problem is, the Clippers have been so fucking bad that the game is over midway through the third quarter. At least give me four quarters. At least put the ending up for some sort of question. And they’ve had the same coach the entire time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and he stinks. He’s a bad coach, and they don’t like him. And they didn’t like him last year, and they didn’t like him three years ago. And he’s still the coach, and the reason he’s the coach is because he’s also the GM, because they’re too cheap to hire somebody to do two jobs.
AVC: That’s pretty bad.
BS: It’s embarrassing. Everybody in the stands hates him. Everyone. But it’s not considered a real… nobody cares about Clipper fans, nobody takes them seriously, and on top of that, they’re from L.A., and they’re never really going to mobilize against the team or the guy. But if this was happening in a place where people actually gave a shit about basketball—like a cold-weather place where you actually had time to get really, really fermenting bitter about the whole situation… If this was the Celtics, and this was year seven of Mike Dunleavy, people would be going crazy.
AVC: What do you think about Elgin Baylor then, in relation to that team? Do you sense that his hands were tied in terms of what he wanted to do? Or was he not particularly good at his job?
BS: Both. The answer is A and B. He should have been fired after the Olowokandi pick. [Michael Olowokandi, one of the all-time biggest NBA busts, was drafted first by the Clippers in 1998.] That was a fireable offense.
AVC: You think at the time? Everyone knew this was a dog, this pick?
BS: Yeah. The guy was 24. You’re 24, you are who you are, pretty much, at that point. To put that in perspective, Dwight Howard is 23 right now. And all the guys that were in that draft [perennial All-Stars Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce, among others], for that to be the pick… I think that’s a fireable offense. But, you know, for the last six, seven years, I thought he did an okay job.
AVC: He was Executive Of The Year in 2006.
BS: Yeah. He made the Sam Cassell-Marko Jaric trade, where the Clippers get Cassell and the Timberwolves’ number-one pick, unprotected at two years, which is one of the great trades ever. It’s one of those situations, though, that when you’re the GM of a team that just everyone knows that the owner [Donald Sterling] doesn’t care, and that he’s always going to go for the profit over anything else, the organization is depressed… It’s kind of hard to do your job. Out of all the teams, that’s the team that needs to hire somebody who can get people excited, because it really sounds strange to say, but there are a lot of Clipper fans. They’re people who couldn’t get Lakers tickets, settled on the Clippers, and stuck with them.
AVC: But are they not passionate enough? You say they don’t have that ability to really light a fire.
BS: Nobody’s like that in L.A., because it’s 80 degrees outside every day. You get mad, you storm out of the stadium, and then you’re fine three minutes later. If you’re in Chicago watching it, you come out of the stadium and it’s 12 degrees outside, it makes you madder.
AVC: Let’s say, by some miracle, they put it together, they fire Dunleavy, they start spending money, and they start playing well. Do you feel like you’re in on the ground floor, or are you still going to be kind of distant from it?
BS: You just described why everybody has Clippers season tickets. They’re waiting for the day when it turns. I know that me and my friend Mike, who bought the tickets with me, we renewed this year. I would have renewed anyway, probably, but I think he was on the fence. Anyway, both of us at the back of our mind were thinking about the possibility of getting LeBron [James] a year later. [James, one of the two or three best players in the league, is on the last year of his contract. —ed.] Because if he leaves Cleveland, he wants to go to a good basketball situation, and the Clippers are the best team. The catch is that they’re owned by Donald Sterling. If LeBron did a one-minute background check, he’d be like, “Oh yeah, I’d never want to play for that guy. What was I thinking?” But, you know, it’s the pipe dream of them getting good again, and the seats, the tickets meaning something. And I have awesome seats. I’m on the aisle, six rows up. For an NBA basketball game, you could not have better seats, in my opinion.
AVC: Where are you in relation to Dunleavy? Are you right behind him?
BS: No, I’m closer to the visitors’ bench. I like being near the visitors’ bench, because the team changes each time, and I can be… I remember going to see Miami last year, and [erratic rookie forward Michael] Beasley was just being weird. And I was like, “This is why I have tickets near the visitors’ bench. I like seeing weird things.”
AVC: How did the concept for 30 For 30 come about, and were there balances you were looking to strike in the overall picture?
BS: The initial goal was that we wanted to tell 30 stories. Not count them down. Not do it the way maybe people, fairly or unfairly, would think that ESPN would do something like that. And my initial idea was five filmmakers, and my friend [producer] Connor Schell thought we could do all 30, and came up with a whole indie-type model to pull it off, and we spent a year figuring out topics, and filmmakers, and everything, and at some point really realized that this was going to work. The question was whether ESPN was going to pay for it, because it was really expensive, and also whether we would give everybody the creative leeway to do that, to make the film they wanted to make without giving them too many notes.
AVC: Which is not necessarily the ESPN way.
BS: You said that. I didn’t. [Laughs.] At ESPN, we’re used to doing things ourselves. I think it’s like any other company. In fact, I don’t think we’ve gotten praised enough for that. Would Google outsource all of its content to somebody else? I think when you’re a big, successful, rich company, you’re big and successful and rich for a reason. It’s because you trust yourselves over other people, so I think creatively, it was a huge step. But it really took about 15 months before we thought, “All right, this is definitely going to happen.” And even after that, you’re not sure, and then all of a sudden you start getting rough cuts from people. I feel bad, because I’ve gotten probably more of the attention than some of the other people that have worked on it, because I write sports columns and do the podcast, and I’m involved in this. But there’s a whole bunch of people that worked on it and are continuing to work on it right now. My job basically ended 12 months ago. I’m just here for big-picture ideas and support, and chiming in on e-mails and stuff, but there’s a guy named John Dahl…
AVC: The director?
BS: No. He’s no relation. He’s one of the executive producers. So there’s been basically three stages, and John Dahl is handling stage three, and he gets no attention at all. And that part makes me feel bad, because I think it’s been a collaborative effort, and it’s one of those things where everybody kind of chipped in, and it was just cool. I’m really proud of ESPN. It really makes me happy that they’ve been so committed to it. Ironically, the one problem we have is, we haven’t promoted it enough. Who would have thought that ESPN would ever do anything that they didn’t promote enough? And I think in this case, the reviews have been just fantastic, and we haven’t really done anything [in the ratings]. The average person isn’t going to be able to Google 30 For 30 reviews for an hour, but the reviews have been great, and people seem to like it, and they like that each one is different, and they like that we’re not hitting them over the head with it. And everybody seems happy.
AVC: When you were originally striking out, did you approach filmmakers and ask them for ideas?
BS: No, we had ideas.
AVC: You were like, “I want to cover this angle. Can we get X filmmaker to do it?”
BS: We had like 10 stories that we thought for sure we were going to do. Ironically, I think we only ended up doing four of them. The first goal was to try to figure out exactly what we wanted to do, and more importantly, what we didn’t want to do. We didn’t want to do stuff that people would expect to see. We didn’t want to do the 1980 Olympic hockey team. We didn’t want to do Tiger Woods. We didn’t want to do Magic and Bird. People already know those fucking stories. We wanted to do stuff that either, for whatever reason, stopped resonating for reasons that weren’t even the topic’s fault. The USFL is a great example. USFL is an awesome, cool story, and when we ran the documentary, people were like, “Jim Kelly played in the USFL?” People just didn’t know.
AVC: And four Heisman Trophy winners joined the league. Incredible.
BS: Totally. So that part was cool, and we also… there are stories out there that just have always deserved a documentary and never really got one. I think Ali/Holmes [“Muhammad And Larry,” a 30 For 30 documentary about the Ali-Holmes bout in 1981] is an awesome example of that. I think [Andrés] Escobar’s own goal, which we’re working on, is another great example. [Escobar, a Columbian soccer player, was shot and killed in Medellín in the wake of an “own goal” against the United States that kept his team from advancing in the 1994 World Cup.] That’s a documentary, and that was never done. So there were some pretty obvious ideas, but then there were other times when we talked to the filmmaker, and they came up with them. Dan Klores, who did Black Magic, which is incredible…
AVC: Is that the Reggie Miller one?
BS: Yeah. He wanted to do Reggie Miller, and I don’t know, I wasn’t that excited about Reggie Miller. I was a little bit excited, but I felt like I kind of knew the whole story. And he went in, and he interviewed literally every person who had anything to do with any of those Pacers-Knicks games. You name a character or announcer or media person or player… he even got a gregarious Patrick Ewing, which I didn’t know was possible. And he reinvents that story, and it’s fucking great. And it’s going to be great. And I think that’s the kind of thing maybe we weren’t expecting. We were expecting to get ideas from directors we weren’t nuts about, but because we wanted to work with them, let them go. So when they deliver something that just is awesome, that’s when it’s fantastic.
AVC: Are they all in the can at this point? Or are they still in various stages of production?
BS: Not at all. We’re staggering them over 15 months. So the sixth one runs next week, and then we’re running the University Of Miami one [The U] in December. And then Klores’ one doesn’t go until March Madness. We’re getting a lot of rough cuts, which is… I love it. For me, it’s like, you get these rough cuts, and you jot some notes down. We all jot notes, then we give them to John Dahl, who’s in charge of all the notes, and he decides, out of all these notes he got from these six or seven people that give a shit about this project, I will decide which ones to pass along to the producer, to the guy who’s doing the doc. But we’re not going to put a gun to his head and say “Do this.” We’re like, “Hey, we think these can help make these better, but it’s your call. It’s your documentary. Do what you want to do.” There’s been a couple of times where we’ve intervened, where we really felt something. I think in [director Mike] Tollin’s USFL doc, we weren’t crazy about the theme song that he chose, and we just said, “Can you pick another song? We just think it would be better. We’re unanimous, we feel strongly about this. Just try another song.” And we were right. But for the most part, it’s your film, do what you want.
AVC: Have there been discussions about what will come of them afterward? Whether there’s going to be some giant DVD box?
BS: Oh ho ho, it’s coming. I want to be involved in that whole process, too. It’s going to be like one of those big cool boxes, with all of them. It’s probably too expensive, but I would love to do a director’s commentary of each one. Even though I’m not a director. I don’t know what it would be called, but I would just basically be talking. [Laughs.] We’re definitely going to do the DVD thing, and we’re doing iTunes, the whole thing. But yeah, I think right around the 15th one, people are going to just be blown away. They’re just going to be like, “Wow.” We always make fun of Connor, because every time he gives an interview, he calls [30 For 30] a mosaic. So we Googled all the times he said “mosaic” and taunted him about it. But I think the goal is that maybe after it’s all over, that it’ll be a pretty mosaic. It won’t have everything, but it’ll be a nice kind of snapshot of what life was like in the sports scene from 1979 to 2009. Which is the goal.
AVC: And there’s a specificity to it that’s refreshing. Rather than covering the Baltimore Colts leaving town, Barry Levinson’s “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” focused on the band. Or “Rather than do a documentary on Ali, let’s do it on this specific fight.”
BS: Also, we’ve bailed on ideas that we thought for sure would have worked, and they didn’t. A really good example is [Bull Durham director] Ron Shelton, who was going to do Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, which was on the initial list of 10. Thought for sure that was going to be one. That was one of the top-of-the-list ones I wanted to do, personally. We did the groundwork on it, and there was just nothing there. It wasn’t that interesting. They weren’t that interesting now, and I think they both wanted to get paid.
AVC: But now you have Shelton on Michael Jordan’s time in minor-league baseball. Seems like an ideal pairing of subject and director.
BS: And it was his call. We were going to stay away from Jordan, because it seemed too obvious. And we had been kind of toying around with the minor-league thing, and then I don’t know how it came about, but all of a sudden, he got all fired up about that one. And it was a chance for him to dive back into the minor-league scene. And then when you think about it, it’s like, “Yes. It’s perfect. The Jordan one we will do will have nothing to do with basketball.” It’s kind of cool.
AVC: What did he think of the conspiracy theory you’ve supported, that Jordan was secretly suspended from the NBA for gambling problems?
BS: Well, this is where I have a little different opinion with Mr. Shelton, because he is adamant, and that’s kind of what his film’s about. He tries to debunk the conspiracy theory. I will always believe that Mr. Jordan was told to maybe come up with some things to do for a year and a half, for reasons that I don’t need to elaborate on. I think he was advised to maybe pick up some other hobbies until March of 1995. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you didn’t think he threw himself into this dream of being every bit as good of a major-league player as a—
BS: I’m not sure the most competitive athlete in the history of professional, college, or any sort of organized sports was totally satiated for kicking everybody’s ass. It seems a little far-fetched to me. As if he was like, “Yeah, I’ve kicked enough ass. I’m going to play baseball.” It seems a little iffy. Did you see that Hall Of Fame speech? The guy is still fucking competitive, and he’s been retired for 10 years. He’s going to be the first guy to come back and try to play team sports at age 50 since Gordie Howe. He obviously just can’t handle a life without competitiveness. And from all we know about him now, it just seems really crazy to me that he would just walk away [to play baseball].
AVC: That’s kind of the sad thing about athletics in general—unlike in the movies, the narrative keeps going. It doesn’t end with that last championship. There’s a life that’s led after that, and it’s often a fairly humbling one.
BS: Totally. We’ve seen a lot of guys struggle with it. I think it’s very hard for these guys to have that kind of adulation, and to have their competitive juices quenched nonstop, over and over and over again, and then all of a sudden, it’s over, and you’re told to go away.