Jack McCallum is the best.
I don’t mean, specifically, the best writer, though he’s certainly very high on the list. I don’t mean the best editor, though when I worked with him on Sports Illustrated’s Scorecard section he repeatedly made my shit sound (somehow) intelligent and witty.
No, what I mean is Jack is one of those special guys people look to be around; one of those guys who—somehow, some way—makes you feel better about yourself. Back when we worked together at the magazine, few things brought me greater joy than listening as Jack told one story after another from his days covering the NBA (A tip: Get him to talk about Darren Daye. Trust me). The tales were always long, always hilarious and always priceless. Hell, I’d pay money to sit around a table with Jack, Steve Rushin, Rick Riley, Phil Taylor, Chris Ballard, Jon Wertheim, et al and not say a word. Just listen and laugh.
Although he is no longer employed by the magazine, Jack is still a player (and a playa) of LeBron-esque skills. I had the honor (it really was an honor) to blurb his new book, Dream Team, and it ranks as one of the best sports biographies I have read. Jack spoke with all 12 members of the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team, as well as myriad coaches, officials, etc. His gift comes (I have long believed) in his authenticity. There is no game to Jack; none of the BS phony dialogue too many of our peers seem to employ. He’s just a really good guy who you (or any athlete) would love to sit down and chat with. For young, aspiring scribes, there’s a lesson in that.
Here, Jack talks about Dream Team; about how he approaches a writing project and the moment when he felt too old to cover the NBA. He loves the New Jersey beaches, blueberries and Greg Kite; is certain Len Bias would have been a stud and is equally comfortable calling Kwame Brown a dud. One can visit his website here, and follow his Tweets here.
Jack McCallum, the Quaz is your court …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Jack, the first time we ever spoke was in 1995. I was a 23-year-old features writer for The Tennessean, doing a piece on the art of the sports autobiography. I called you to talk about Shaq Attack, the book you wrote with a then-NBA rookie named Shaquille O’Neal. This is a question probably only three of my 10 readers will find interesting, but how the hell does one get 250 pages out of a 24-year-old center who has done almost nothing in his life but played basketball?
JACK MCCALLUM: And you could add … with very little time to do it since Shaq’s peeps didn’t get around to signing the contract until mid-March. Anyway, you research every possible thing you can think of. I remember going through every game, not to talk about the games, but to find the “little things.” Maybe in one game you see that he shoved, say, Patrick Ewing. Well, you don’t care about the shove. You care about what he thinks about Patrick Ewing. You get him to riff on that. You ask if he watched Ewing growing up and even if he says no, you ask whom he did watch. You use the little things to get to the big things. You report the hell out of it and leave no stone unturned because—as you know—it is up to you to turn the stones.
J.P.: I’ve surely told you this before, but you’re one of my all-time favorite writers. Truth be told, you’ve had the career I’ve long aspired to: Distinguished, respected, uncompromising. I’ve never seen you screaming at Skip Bayless on ESPN or guest hosting the Best Damn Sports Show or bitch slapping Mike Lupica (which, for the record, I’d pay to witness). My question is, how would it have been different had you been a writer coming up in the early 2010s, as opposed to the late 1970s? Has Twitter and Facebook and blogs turned us all into whores? Can a guy just be a “writer” anymore?
J.M.: You probably say that to all the writers. But thanks. It would be completely different if I were starting out now, and that is becoming clear to me now because I’m pulling out all stops to flack my Dream Team book. I’ve done everything but put on a short skirt and sit in a window in Amsterdam. We’re just going to have to stop thinking about it in terms of being “whores,”—and I admit it’s tough for old-timers like me—but self-promotion is the new normal. It’s the way it is, and, to be frank, the more us old dudes are on the new stuff, the more we tend to like it. At least, that’s the case for this old dude.
J.P.: A college kid says, “Mr. McCallum, should I go into sports writing?” What do you tell him?
J.M.: I tell him he can call me Jack, first of all. (But not if he’s in one of my writing classes at Muhlenberg, my alma mater.) And I say, “Yes, absolutely go into it. But learn to write. Because if sports doesn’t work out, you can write about movies or food or celebrities or politics or plays or …”
J.P.: I know bits and pieces of the narrative, but how’d you get here? Born in 1949, graduated from Muhlenberg in 1971, hired by SI in 1981 … but how did it all happen? And, looking back, are you happy with what you’ve done and accomplished?
J.M.: I started at a small newspaper and learned how to do everything. After six or seven years, I knew I could do this pretty well and sent out clippings to bigger places. And a guy at SI named Jerry Tax, a legendary editor, liked some of my stuff and asked me to try a free-lance piece. The first one worked. So did the second and third. I wrote about 10 pieces free-lance, had some successes and some failures and got hired in 1981.
Hey, the way I started, with the money I made at a small paper? ($510 a month.) I never thought I would make a decent living, never mind doing it at one of the great magazines in the world. It’s a cliche’ but I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Okay, maybe George Clooney’s luckier. But he’s good-looking.
J.P.: People tend to view the sports eras of their childhood as the “golden” eras. In basketball, I look back longingly to the 80s—Magic vs. Bird, the emergence of Jordan, the rise of Uwe Blab. You were covering hoops during this time. Am I just a kid waxing nostalgic, or was there something special and unique about it all? Something … different?
J.M.: I’m glad you said it first because I would sound like it was just some guy talking about how great it was when he was there. But it was better. It had the individual stars it does now but it also had the team competition thing, the rivalries. And the perception that the guys were better guys and played harder and all that crap was there, too. For a writer, to a certain extent, you are only as good as your material. Tom Wicker got famous because he was there for the JFK assassination. He might’ve been good anyway but that was a break. Did any sports writer ever have better material to work with than I did? I’m serious. The guys were great, they were reasonably accessible, the public loved them, they understood the process, and SI put them on the cover.
J.P.: What’s your approach to writing? What I mean is, let’s say Sports Illustrated calls and says “We want 2,500 words on Shane Battier.” What’s your approach to reporting and, then, to writing? Do you pull a last-minute overnighter? Do you write at home? In a coffee shop?
J.M.: From the moment I start my reporting, I’m thinking of a lead, whether it be a scene or a setup or whatever. That way, when I start writing, I don’t sit there for an hour doing nothing. I can’t do it that way. It’s too hard. I have to have what’s going on the page in my head, and if I don’t have it, I get up and walk around, eat a popsicle, watch a Law and Order re-run and keep thinking about it. Then I sit down and write. And I don’t stop to look things up. That bogs me down. I put in TK KOMING [Jeff’s note: At Sports Illustrated, and other places, TK stands for “To come.” And, no, I’m not sure why it’s not TC] and go back to it, so I keep the flow going. But you gotta get your reporting in first. The writing gets easier; the reporting never does.
J.P.: I had the pleasure of reading your biography on the Dream Team before it was released, and thought it was truly fantastic. How did you come up with the idea? What were the obstacles? Who was the easiest, and who was the hardest, to get to talk? And was Christian Laettner as big an ass as I perceive him to be?
J.M.: On Laettner … pretty much. He’s trying to be a good guy as he gets older. But he got off to such a great start in the other direction that it’s hard for him to completely change.
As for the idea, I should’ve thought of it, but an editor at Random House came up with it and called me. I said yes in about seven seconds or less. (Whoring continues.)
I’ve been blogging on jackmccallum.net (whoring redux) about the background to my interviews. None were easy to set up and all were pretty damn good. But at the end of the day you have to get the big boys, and I really enjoyed what I pulled out of Jordan (some stuff about his dad) and Bird (some ruminations on the beauty of basketball in general.)
J.P.: I have often used this space to ask athletes about the aging process; what it’s like to be Shawn Green hitting .230 … how does it feel to be Phil Nevin, 34 and surrounded by a bunch of 20-year olds. But I’ve never asked a writer. So, eh, Jack, you’re 62. Many of your contemporaries have retired. Some are, well, dead. Was there a point where you were like, “Ugh, I’m chasing people half my age?” Or a point where you got tired of the grind, the road, the game? Or, on the other hand, does writing sports keep you spry and involved?
J.M.: For me, it happened when I was talking to LeBron when he first came into the league. I’m talking to him, and he’s kind of listening to me but kind of zoning me out, and I realize, “Holy shit, I’m old enough to be his grandfather. Not his father; his grandfather. Better Chris Ballard to get to him. Or Ian Thomsen. Or Lee Jenkins, who did get to him and did a helluva piece a while back.”
But I will say this: Writing-wise, not only do I feel like I have not lost anything, I feel that I’m better than ever. Sorry if that sounds conceited. And I believe this: The digital age should improve writing, not the other way around. I make references now that I wouldn’t have before because readers should be able to find that reference in a split-second. Everyone reads with his or her device turned to Google. We should be getting better, more sophisticated, more diverse, both as writers and readers.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career as a writer? Worst?
J.M.: Greatest: Well, they put me in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Whether it was a mistake or not, my name is on a plaque in Springfield. The lowest: Well, I referred to ex-Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien as the “late Ted Stepien” in a story, and he was still alive. He called me about it and I had the presence of mind to reply, “Where are you calling from?”
J.P.: Your book on the Phoenix Suns is wonderful. I’ve never been embedded with a team for that long of a time. I’m wondering, is it hard to be unflinchingly honest? What I mean is, you see these guys every day. You develop bonds and, I’m guessing, friendships. If you thought Mike was a shit coach, could you have written so? And were there any hurt feelings post-publication?
J.M.: In answer to the last question, lots of hurt feelings, particularly on the part of Shawn Marion, who, after the book came out, confronted me about it. He never physically threatened me, but he was pissed.
I know this sounds weirdly unlikely, but I picked the right team. I knew a lot about them, and I knew I would like them and that’s part of the reason I asked them. This would not have worked if you didn’t like the vibe. I liked all the coaches, I liked most of the players—that includes Shawn, by the way, who’s a good person—and, fortunately, they had a great season.
Now, by the time the book was over, Mike D’Antoni had become a pretty good friend of mine and remains so. So did the other assistants. I have admitted in print that it would be hard for me to write about D’Antoni objectively. Anyone who claims he can write about friends honestly is lying. That’s why you shouldn’t hang around a beat forever. You start to cultivate certain people, you celebrate them (on or off the record) and you forget about the new people.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JACK MCCALLUM:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Byron Scott, the Christmas City Classic, Taylor Swift, Admiral Stockdale, fresh blueberries, getting edited, Steve Nash, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Celine Dion, your Twitter account, Eric Show.: Xmas City Classic, blueberries (I’m from Jersey and once picked them in 113-degree weather), Steve Nash, Byron Scott, Twitter account, Stockdale, Taylor Swift (she once hung out in Stone Harbor, N.J., where I do in the summer), Eric Show (at first I thought it was a typo and you meant Eric Snow), getting edited, Ketchup (don’t put it on anything; I’m a mustard guy). Celine Dion. (Dion of Dion and the Belmonts might be first, though.)
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I was in the head, flying to Mexico City, and the plane dipped and—I kid you not—my head hit the ceiling of the plane. As I was up in the air, I thought, “Don’t forget to flush.”
• Five most naturally gifted writers you ever worked with: Saying someone is gifted might imply they don’t work hard. I want to make sure that that’s not what I’m saying. 1) Steve Rushin—not even close. No one even thinks of the stuff that Steve thinks of, far less writes it; 2) Richard Hoffer—dark sensibility; 3) Scott Price and Gary Smith—they both work their ass off on reporting, but it still comes out looking like genius; 4) Bill Nack—takes pains—and I do mean pains—to get it right … and he gets it right; 5) Frank Deford—hey, it’s Frank Deford.
• The five worst NBA players you’ve ever seen?: Michael Olowokandi; Joe Barry Carroll, Kwame Brown, Jack Haley, Greg Kite (Greg was a great guy, by the way, but that’s not what you asked. The first three make the list because they had potential and did squat with it.)
• Does Michael Jordan have what it takes to be a successful NBA executive?: Yes, if he would get a guy in there who would stand up to him and say, “No, Michael, we should do it this way, not your way.” But Michael has always been the Alpha Dog. Chuck Daly used to say—and he’s probably not the first one—”Your greatest strength is usually your greatest weakness.” I really believe that. Alpha Dogdom worked on the court, not in the boardroom.
• If there’s one Jack McCallum article people should read, it’s …: I’d like you to read the piece I wrote about my best friend who died in Vietnam, which I paired with a young man who died in Afghanistan.
• Miley Cyrus recently announced she’s getting married. How do you feel?: I feel the over-under on her divorce is seven months.
• If Len Bias had lived, what sort of NBA career do you think he would have had?: No way he wouldn’t have been great. No way. He had everything. No weakness. Blake Griffin-like athleticism with a fundamental game. Think Durant with fewer points but maybe a slightly better floor game.
• Funniest joke Tom Verducci has ever told you?: That he was going to hit a 5-iron out of a trap from 200 yards away and get it to the green on the 16th hole at Architects. Then he did it.
• Five reasons someone should make Bethlehem, Pa his summer vacation spot: You shouldn’t. Go to Stone Harbor. 1) The beach; 2) Nothing happens there so you can relax; 3) The cinnamon smell at the Bread and Cheese Cupboard; 4) Springer’s Ice Cream; 5) 96th Street basketball courts. South Jersey beaches are one of the most underrated treasures in America.