The Washington Post’s Michael Lee Talks NBA Lockout
[Paul PCS – NW Washington, D.C. – photo: K. Weidie]
In case you didn’t notice, Saturday, October 1st marked the start of the fourth month of the NBA lockout, and judging from the latest round of meetings that resulted in absolutely nothing, more preseason and possibly regular season games will be cancelled. Still, some players continue to organize glorified All-Star games in intimate venues; other players are contemplating or have made that overseas leap until the lockout ends; while other players find solace in working in their local furniture stores.
NBA fans have exhibitions and a topsy-turvy NFL season to thoroughly distract them until the owners and players reach a resolution. NBA bloggers like yours truly are forced to come up with creative ways to keep their writing chops sharp, and their basketball sites relevant, but we still have “real” jobs to sustain us during business hours.
But I found myself wondering what happens to those NBA beat writers whose job it is to cover a team all year. Sure, there is the occasional fruitless NBA negotiation to report on, but that’s a far cry from reporting about training camp, talking to the head coach about how his players are progressing, and anticipating the upcoming season. And if the season is cancelled or delayed significantly, what do NBA beat writers write about instead?
I posed these questions and many more to Mr. Michael Lee, Washington Wizards beat writer for the Washington Post.
Rashad Mobley: Were you covering the lockout in ’98-’99? If so, are there one or two stories that stick out about how difficult it was for you as a sportswriter?
Michael Lee: No, I wasn’t covering the NBA in 1998. At the time, it had no affect on my career, since I had just graduated from college. I had to work my way up to the NBA beat, so at the time I was primarily focused on high schools, colleges and the Atlanta Braves. But as a lifelong fan of the league, I was certainly following every aspect of the lockout because I wanted to see games. I vividly remember some of the foot-in-mouth comments from NBA players – Patrick Ewing on the spending habits of players and Kenny Anderson’s willingness to get rid of one of his Mercedes. And how could anyone forget David Stern’s beard? I’ve thought of growing one now.
RM: Since there has been no official summer league, no mini-camps and no free agent activity, what has the extra free time allowed you to do both professionally and personally?
Lee: I got to go on a real vacation. The past few years, I’ve always felt guilty about taking more than a week off, so I never had the chance to hop on a plane, leave off my Blackberry and just chill. For our fifth anniversary, my wife and I went on a two-week excursion through Europe. We ate paella in Barcelona, visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, walked through the Forum and Colosseum in Rome and took a cruise on the Bosphorus in Istanbul. We had a wonderful time and I can honestly say that I didn’t miss a thing.
The lockout has also allowed me to write about more than just the NBA. I’ve had to cover a Stephen Strasburg rehabilitation assignment in Hagerstown and I also wrote two Nationals game stories, which forced me to go back to my days covering the Braves back in the day. It also served as a reminder of how much I was out of my element – and it had nothing to do with baseball. Fortunately, I know the difference between a foul in baseball and a foul in basketball (Full disclosure, I played little league baseball and was also on my high school baseball team. I once had dreams of being the next Darryl Strawberry – without the coke, of course. My problem with baseball is that I had poor reflexes and I’m naturally indecisive, so I couldn’t hit or field — which meant that I spent most of the games as a cheerleader in a cap, long pants and stirrups). It was just strange being back in a clubhouse and being around more normal-sized humans than I am a regular basis. The experience has been fun, though.
RM: During the NFL lockout, there were fans who simply did not want to hear anything about the negotiations or the meetings, unless a resolution was reached. As someone who has to cover the lockout in some shape, form or fashion, are you conscious of that? Or do you just report on what you know, and hope someone reads?
Lee: I honestly think fans just want to see the baby. Leave the labor pains for the pregnant lady; they want to see the games. I’m kind of the same. The hard part about these labor negotiations is that so many people have agendas that they want to get across, which makes all of the information leaks and sources a little hard to trust. Every meeting has a cryptic feel and is supposedly the most important. Yet they keep meeting for more important meetings. I’m a procrastinator who gets a rush from deadline pressure, but these talks are taking on a Congress-debt ceiling feel. But really, most casual fans don’t give a hoot about basketball-related income, revenue sharing, Larry Bird rights or the mid-level exception. Hardcore fans care, but I’ve focused more on what players are doing during the lockout. These charity games generated some excitement for a few weeks. The so-called “lockout league” in Las Vegas was a good tool to help players stay fresh and competitive. My editors have sort of kept me away from the nuts and bolts of the labor negotiations and I’m not really complaining because I think fans care more about how the players are being affected. Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin have both signed to play overseas, other guys are staying busy and working out. That’s really what I’ve been focusing on.
RM: Let’s say the lockout lasts until early next year, what will you do for writing material, and do you have (or want) the option of covering another sport? What if it lasts an entire year? Is this something that your editors and your colleagues have discussed, or is everyone in wait-and-see mode?
Lee: I have several ideas that I have proposed. I don’t really want to get into some of the plans that we have for the Post, but believe me, I won’t be sitting around twiddling my thumbs. If this thing continues to drag on, we have a lot of stories – basketball stories – in the works. It might not be the same old game stories and analysis, but it will be interesting and compelling, I hope.
RM: Given that the Wizards are such a young team, should there be concern about what kind of habits John Wall, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, and the rest of the gang will accrue without team guidance or structure? And more importantly, do you think Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders discussed this with each player during exit interviews?
Lee: I’m not worried as much about the Wizards because they are so young and the team is set up in a way in which it was prepared for a lost season. People jumped on the Wizards for signing Blatche to an extension last summer, but the lockout and the possible loss of a season was one of the motivating factors. Blatche was going to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012. By signing him to a deal back then, they made sure that the core was in place whenever the NBA returned. Blatche didn’t have the best season but if his contract is still movable and could remain an asset if he comes back and plays at the level he did at the end of the 2009-10 season. If he doesn’t, the Wizards can move him and get something for him. They could’ve been in a more difficult spot if Blatche had a great season and hit free agency a year later. Next summer, the Wizards will have to worry about signing JaVale McGee, who will be eligible for an extension whenever the lockout ends.
I’d be more worried if this were a veteran team, like Boston or the Lakers, with guys on the tail end of their careers. I’d be upset if I was a fan of the Miami Heat because LeBron James will have a harder time getting not one, not two, not three…
With a young team, this lockout is actually forcing them to develop some self-discipline and train on their own. So far, you have to be impressed with the results. Blatche organized some workouts, which was a great step in the right direction, even if he wasn’t able to get all of his teammates to attend. Wall has stayed busy working out and so have McGee and Jordan Crawford. Trevor Booker and Kevin Serapin are both playing overseas and challenging themselves to get better. Those are all positive signs, so I wouldn’t be upset about anything other than not seeing Wall put on his displays of dominance during the regular season. He has been incredible this summer and his confidence is through the ceiling.
I’m certain that Ernie and Flip gave each player an individual program to follow this summer, as they do in each exit interview. This one may have been more elaborate, since few were confident that the labor situation would get settled on time in the first place.
RM: On the flip side, Nick Young scored 60 points in a summer league game, JaVale McGee put in work in the Philippines, Andray Blatche organized workouts, and John Wall has been working on his game, and has been impressive in every exhibition he’s touched. Does this mean anything at all for the season and for their respective confidence levels? Or is this just another summer, where there are inflated numbers against little defense?
Lee: Having confidence is never a bad thing. What you want to see each offseason is that guys work on their weaknesses, gain a greater belief in their strengths and come back better for it. The only major concern that I have is how Blatche’s shoulder is coming around. He hasn’t had the chance to work out with team trainers and doctors and might have some trouble recovering at the rate that he normally would. I wouldn’t totally discredit Wall’s 40-point games this summer, because though defense isn’t a priority, he is still having his way against professional basketball players and his jump shot is better.
RM: What do you think of the players who have openly considered playing overseas? Are they trying to put pressure on the owners, or are they genuinely interested in playing overseas while they wait for this lockout to end?
Lee: I only trust it when I see it. Deron Williams didn’t talk about it. He signed a deal with Turkey and didn’t make people go on a will-he-or-won’t-he guessing game. When guys started talking about going overseas earlier this summer, I thought they were blowing smoke, primarily because there aren’t as many jobs over there as some might lead you to believe. Reporters asked the question because we had to, but it doesn’t mean anything until a contract is on the table and a guy is looking for a ballpoint pen. Also, the style of play, training regimen, travel and lifestyle is vastly different from what they are accustomed to in the NBA. I’m not sure if people understand. Now, if the lockout drags on, more guys might have to go over there but I think it really hurts their leverage when they come back to negotiate deals in the NBA. The money isn’t as large over there. It’s good for guys like Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker to get more minutes against quality opposition, but I think the overseas option works best for those type of guys, not necessarily the superstars. If the season gets cut down, it would be cool to see how many more guys decide to play in China even though they can’t get NBA outs.
RM: I know it is impossible to predict when this lockout will finally, especially since recent meetings with the owners and players seem stagnant, but what is your best guess as to when this will end? And how many games do you think will be played this season?
Lee: I have no idea. I’ve heard that this could be an all-or-nothing proposition, that owners don’t want to have another shortened season, especially since the 1998-99 campaign featured a lot of bad basketball and set back the NBA for several years. The quality of play was bad and fans were reluctant to come back, especially with an inferior product. It’s a shame that the league has returned to a point where it has more star power than ever, more young players set to take over, and some established teams that are relevant and it could all get wiped out over money.
RM: Have you talked to Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton or Shelvin Mack since the draft? And so many NBA experts gave the Wizards high marks for their selections in the draft, and even though those grades won’t be earned until the season starts, do you think agree that the Wizards did a stellar job in the Draft?
Lee: I have not spoken with Vesely or Mack since the draft, but I have spoken with Singleton and Vesely’s representatives. But I think the Wizards did a great job in the draft addressing their needs. Singleton stands out most to me, because he might be the steal of the draft. I don’t know how he slipped all the way to 18, but that was a solid pickup because the Wizards need more players with a little dog in them. Singleton has a little edge to him, and he’s already fired up because he didn’t go as high as he expected. I’ve heard good things about Vesely, but I can’t say that I’ve seen him in person. It’s hard for me to make a fair assessment based strictly on some YouTube clips and the words of other people. I’d like to see for myself what he can do. I saw Mack at Butler the past few years and he will immediately fit a role in Washington as a backup for Wall. I think it’s great that he already was cool with Wall and Singleton, so he should fit in fine.
RM: Have you ever seen a summer like this where so many big NBA stars are making concerted efforts to play summer league games? And what (if any) carryover will there be once the regular season does resume?
Lee: I’ve never seen pro-am leagues play each other, but I have seen NBA players in pro ams before. I just think that it has attracted more attention because there isn’t any other NBA news to write about. I think there was some hope for these summer league games, but unfortunately, the guys organizing these events didn’t really look into the aspects of marketing and promotion that are needed to help them become successful. Also, as more and more games started to creep up, they started to realize that players are pretty unpredictable in the offseason, when they have a chance to set their own schedules and forget about some commitments. I know that Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and LeBron James have organized some games lately, but cannot see this as a sustainable option for players. Mostly, because unless you are a veteran or a superstar, you need to make money now. The earning window for most NBA players is short – an average of five years. If the NBA loses a season, one-fifth of a players’ maximum earning potential is gone. That’s some scary stuff to consider. I mean, I’ve got at least 30 more years to work before I can retire. Most players are out of the league for a few years when they reach my age. These charity games have been fun, especially for the fans, but eventually, players will start having their hands out seeking a cut.
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