So You Want To Be...The World's Greatest Blogger

Today we resume our "So You Want To Be..." series, looking at people around the NBA, its teams, and media.  We are privileged to welcome the founder, author, and blogger-savant from TrueHoop, Mr. Henry Abbott.

Blazersedge:  Take us back to the genus of TrueHoop, before the bright lights and four-letter networks.  What's your background and what made you decide to start blogging?

I was just another freelance writer before blogging. I mean, it was cool that I got to interview NBA players a lot for HOOP and Inside Stuff (I had a degree in journalism from NYU and experience as a staffer at CBS Network Radio News and was a reporter/producer at the CBS radio affiliate in Madison, WI, where I lived for a while). But that only paid some of the bills. To pay the rest, my wife and I ran a nice little business where we wrote copy for various kinds of ads, brochures, websites, marketing materials and the like. It was great to be independent, but it was hardly inspiring work most days.

Then my friend Alex, at a party around Christmas 2004, made me learn about his blog, and start one of my own. He literally called me over to the laptop in the corner of the room, and practically forced me to examine what I took to be his mega-geeky world.

But I gave it a whirl, and quickly found interesting people were coming and commenting on my free little blog. It was a debate. This was WAY more interesting, important, and relevant than other kinds of websites. In the blog world, from the very beginning, I felt very much like a fish in water. The voice, the relationships - these were my people.  

I just knew I had to do it, and do it seriously. So I read ALL ABOUT blogs, RSS feeds, Web 2.0,  the long tail and all that. I sent myself to blog university, essentially, and we started a business running blogs for businesses. TrueHoop was to be the show pony. But it turned out that TrueHoop ate the whole business for lunch, which I'm not complaining about. I loved that business, but now I write about basketball all day! Give me a break!

Blazersedge:  You've espoused the idea that every good blog starts with a thesis.  What's the thesis of TrueHoop?

A blog is like a book, or a college course. It's a big, ongoing endeavor. You mean you're going to drone on and on at me about something - and you're not going to be passionate about it? No, thanks. There must be some kind if higher holy calling (to borrow a phrase from Steven Rubel of Micropersuasion, one of the people I learned a lot about blogging from).

I find myself saying "TrueHoop is all about ..." and then finishing that sentence several different ways. But it's something along these lines: using the freedom afforded me by this awesome medium to make public the truthiest truth I can about the NBA. Not the bits that sell magazines. Not the bits that fit the AP style. Not the power rankings and the armchair quarterbacking. But the part where this is a bunch of humans at work, who are both way more flawed than you'd realize from watching highlights, and way more likable than you'd realize watching police reports. It's about humans.

Blazersedge:  You've worked as a professional writer as well as being a blogger.  What are the similarities and differences between the two?  Mainstream society still considers traditional (press) writing a far higher art form than blogging but does blogging have distinct characteristics that recommend it or make it indispensable?

People are just biased against blogging because it's new, they don't understand it, and a lot of the early users have been people in their living rooms writing about whatever lame thing they did a half-hour ago. But there's nothing inherently low-quality about blogging.  It's software. Software! A tool! Like a printing press, or a typewriter. Is a typewriter truer than a printing press? Less so? You tell me. (When printing presses were as old as blog software is, they were known mainly for printing bibles. Things evolve.)

You can tell me that many blogs are irresponsible, amateurish. But DO NOT tell me that what you do Dave, or what I do, is somehow lesser because it uses blog software. There are dreadfully irresponsible people in traditional media. (One little example: if you have tons of money and want to have some fun, spend a bunch of money advertising with a magazine. Then suggest that you'd like that magazine to write a flattering article about you or your product. At a distressing number of magazines, your reception will be shockingly warm!)

Blazersedge:  One of the hallmarks of TrueHoop is your wonderful ability to make connections all around the league.  You might almost say you're a "made man" when it comes to getting inside the NBA.  How did you develop those contacts?  

I'm in the mafia, the Freemasons, and the Skull and Bones society. It's amazing what kind of doors some good networking can open for you!

No, seriously, I have very average connections for a full-time professional NBA writer. People like Marc Stein, Chris Sheridan, and Brian Windhorst blow me out of the water in that department. I just write a lot more, so it seems I know more people.

(And, for what it's worth, I'm 33, and plan to write about the NBA for a long time. I hope that I'll have WAY better NBA connections as the years roll on. If I don't, I'm doing something very wrong.)

Also working for me: I like people, I'm not afraid to call anyone, I expect them to respond to me like a journalist, people email me (and I'm sure you) a lot of interesting stuff, now I get to say I'm from ESPN.com which helps, and the William Wesley investigation gave me a reputation as someone who won't fall for the surface explanation. A lot of people are yearning to tell some truth, and some of them call or email me, thinking I'm a natural ally, and that's sure helpful. Finally, I have now been doing this long enough that some of my "contacts" are actually real deal friends.

Blazersedge:  The league has a reputation of being insular and somewhat detached from the fan base.  Is that justly deserved?  Was it difficult to break in?  And was there a particular moment when you knew you had made it?

No, I can't really say I'm aware of a velvet rope. You hang around long enough, make enough phone calls, eventually you'll know people, even in this bizarro world of millionaire celebrities and the people that hang around them. One of my big theses: everyone is a human.

Blazersedge:  How has TrueHoop (or writing TrueHoop) changed with the move to ESPN?

My life is shockingly the same. Same desk, same office, same plants suffering the same lack of attention. People care about typos now, and I endeavor to fix them. They pay for me to travel places. I don't have to run another business in my spare time. Now no one's surprised if it's good, and indeed they're mad if it's mediocre.  I get more email. People think I can get them jobs. When I use anonymous sources, or have a story that is in some way sketchy, I get to bounce ideas off smart editors - who also sometimes tip me off to stories. And I have agreed to basic restraints like not linking to hate speech or porn. I go to meetings sometimes.  

Blazersedge:  How did the whole ESPN thing come about?  Can you walk us through that process?

TrueHoop started in May 2005, and almost immediately it seemed blessed. A month or two later, it won an award from Forbes. Then people started getting in touch, helping me with things. And lots of people had ideas about how TrueHoop could partner up with them in some way. I had a whole folder in my email inbox for business opportunities. The vast majority of those offers were not very special - essentially people looking for free content in exchange for something lame.

But there were a few interesting calls. I met with some big-name companies. One of them made me sign something promising to never mention that we met! There were some very respectable and great people who were ready to put ads on TrueHoop.

The most interesting call, however, came from ESPN in the Spring of 2006. An editor there called and asked, essentially, what I planned to do with TrueHoop, and would I be interested in talking to them? I drove to Bristol and spent a long time getting to know people who I now talk to several times a week. They struck me as good people. I think we liked each other.

We didn't know how to work together, though. I didn't want to abandon TrueHoop and go be a regular sportswriter. They had no track record of hosting blogs. We had to invent something new. There were several more discussions, and two zillion emails. It took a long time to even figure out that what they wanted to do was buy TrueHoop. At various times it seemed it would just never work. But eventually we ended up with an arrangement that made sense. We had the basics agreed to in email form around Thanksgiving of 2006. Then it was the lawyers' job to make that a contract, which was finalized in January 2007 sometime, nearly a year after we started talking.

Blazersedge:  The Trailblazers have engendered a boatload of successful bloggers.  There's you, John Hollinger (formerly of OregonLive now ESPN), Eric Marentette (formerly of OregonLive now working for Kobe Bryant's publicity staff), Casey Holdahl...Jason Quick writes a fantastic blog in addition to being one of the most respected beat writers around...Mike Barrett writes one of the best TV Broadcast crew blogs in the league.  Is there something in the water in Portland?  Or is there some characteristic of the team that either attracts or creates quality, thoughtful writing/analysis?

The Pacific Northwest is pretty web savvy, for one. I'd also make a case that the Northwest has always been a jeans and shorts kind of crowd. And blogs work best, I think, in a voice that is devoid of airs and graces. Portland is also, you know, pretty white, and for whatever reason so are a lot of sports bloggers.

One final point is that Hollinger, Marentette, and Holdahl were all plucked more or less from obscurity by the same honcho at Oregonlive - Kevin Cosgrove (he has since moved back to the East Coast and works for Oregonlive's parent company) - who was very early to taking blogging seriously at a major site.

Blazersedge:  As a fan who ended up writing about and being in intimate contact with the league there must have been plenty of moments of transition/evolution.  What is the best thing about being tied so closely now to the NBA?  What things have you found disillusioning?   How has your appreciation of the league transformed over the years?

The first year, or so, that I covered the League, I remember being, frankly, shocked. I'm not sure what I expected, but I can tell you what didn't happen: I didn't waltz into the locker room and have all my favorite players would announce "HEY, my MAN!" and initiate a series of chest bumps and fancy handshakes.

Instead they were largely sullen. A lot of NBA players, to this day, strike me as depressed. I could write ten thousand essays about that. But it is what it is. The locker room can be a great place of laughter and joy, but especially when the media is around it's home to a lot of yelling, brooding, and whining.

But eventually, all parties get more comfortable. You're essentially talking to a stranger seated next to you at a wedding, only just one person is allowed to ask the questions. Awkward, right? Time makes that less awkward.

It is not true that I'm closely tied to the NBA now, though. Sure, I talk to plenty of people from the league, and like many of them very much. But, I mean, in my own way - I try to be pretty sober about these things -- I lay into David Stern, or this or that player with a certain regularity. And I haven't heard one word about it.

Blazersedge:    What is one thing the common fan doesn't realize/acknowledge/appreciate about the league that they probably should?

In almost every locker room, there is a nearly infinite supply of free gum, cough drops, ginseng supplements, honey sticks, starburst, and the like. It's amazing.

Editor's Note: We have that at my house too. Just look between/under the couch cushions.

Blazersedge:  You are one of the few writers who mentioned the Blazers on a regular basis before the #1 pick came Portland's way.  What is the national perception of the team like?  Does anybody notice or care what happens in the Pacific Northwest?

I object to the question! In my mind the only proper attitude is to destroy the rest of the league, and let them worry about how they feel about it.

[Editor's Note:]  You just KNOW that last sentence is immediately going to become somebody's signature.

Blazersedge:  What do you foresee for the Trailblazers in the coming years?

It's good. No, it's great. Roy, Oden, Aldridge ... nourish, place in sun, and wait.

I do not think it's appropriate to make people think we'll be really good this year, or even next. We just shipped away our only truly accomplished player, and we were bad even with him. The pieces are in place. But it's not time, yet.

Also, the roster as it is now, is not a team. It's a talent farm. We have a lot of multi-talented players, some of whom will work out, and some of whom will not. We're still trying to sort out who's who. But there are not a lot of great role players here - guys who will defend like hell and not sulk if they never touch the ball. The Spurs play a lot of those guys (Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, Jacque Vaughn, etc.)

Those guys will have to developed or acquired well before it's title time, because every championship team has them. Instead, the Blazers have literally a dozen or more players who, if they reach their full potential, will be multi-talented stars. Lesson of the Whitsitt era: underachieving would-be superstars are not the happiest, hardest-working support players.

A really crude way to make that point: think three years down the line. How many shots per game should Brandon Roy get? How about Greg Oden? LaMarcus Aldridge? Martell Webster? Travis Outlaw? Josh McRoberts? Channing Frye? James Jones is here to shoot. Taurean Green was the leading scorer on the national championship team. Steve Blake can hit big shots. And never forget Rudy Fernandez is on the horizon. Jarrett Jack ... you could make a case that when playing their best all of those guys would shoot ten or more times a game.

The team might have 75 shots per game or so to go around. Top scorers like Roy and Aldridge might combine for 40 of those many nights, and so they should. Which means, to me, a lot of scorers calling their agents and asking for trades. Wouldn't you rather give those minutes to someone who is designed to help his team without the ball? A couple of  title-winning dudes like Bruce Bowen or Tayshaun Prince would be nice. And maybe Green and Joel Przybilla have that mentality already.

There are a million other such dilemmas: how can you possibly maximize the talents of Taurean Green, Petteri Koponen, Sergio Rodriguez, Jarrett Jack, and Steve Blake? Of course, you can't.

None of this is news to Kevin Pritchard. And all of this is really just picking the fly poop out of the pepper. Happy days are here again. We have the best young talent in the league. Even happier days will be here when we can also say we have the best role players - because that's an essential part of winning titles.

Jeepers, you can see why Henry is considered the best NBA blogger in this universe and in at least four of seven parallel dimensions as well.  Many thanks to him for taking the time to chat with us.

We have a couple more of these coming down the turnpike with folks within the Blazers organization, so stay tuned as the pre-season progresses.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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