Interview with Brian Hendrickson

"... I immediately called Zach [Randolph] hoping to get a comment from him. When he answered his phone, his speech was slurred and he wasn't very responsive to my questions. One thought shot through my head: "Oh great. This dude is stoned out of his mind..." 

~ Brian Hendrickson, Vancouver Columbian

The Vancouver Columbian's Brian Hendrickson needs no introduction; his articles, thoughts and statistical analysis are linked to on this site on a weekly (if not more frequent) basis. 

Recently, we caught up with Mr. Hendrickson via email to discuss: his career as a sportswriter, his thoughts on blogs (including his own Blazer Banter), his idea of creating a "super fan" section in the Rose Garden, how Maurice Lucas is a big fan of his expanded shot-charting statistics, and, of course, what Zach Randolph sounds like when he is under the influence of a General Anesthetic. 

Without further ado, here's the transcript of our conversation with Brian Hendrickson.  I know it's long but it is well, well worth the read.

Also, be sure to check for Mr. Hendrickson's contribution to Honor Terry Porter next week.    

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BlazersEdge: How did you become the Blazers beat writer for the Columbian? 

Well, it was a pretty roundabout path. I grew up in Yakima and moved to Indiana when I was a senior in high school. I went to Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (don't ask me to explain that one, please) and worked at the Indianapolis Star while I was in school before getting my first job in Wilmington, N.C. That was a pretty nice gig down there for a guy in his early 20s fresh out of school. My wife and I were 15 minutes from the beach, I played golf at least two days a week during the summer, my first beat was to cover UNC-Wilmington men's hoops with a sprinkling of ACC football and basketball, and we were wearing shorts in December -- couldn't be a much nicer situation. I had opportunities to do a lot of cool work, too.
Wilmington is Michael Jordan's hometown, so when he retired I did a lot of work on his life growing up there, wrote a small book that was distributed around the region, and wound up getting a spot on ESPN's Michael Jordan Sportscentury. I covered two U.S. Open golf tournaments and was standing 50 feet from Payne Stewart when he hit his winning putt to beat Phil Mickelson in 1999, covered a Final Four, lots of NFL football, several NCAA Tournaments, and then made the  one move that I regret in my career: I became a sports editor. I quickly learned that middle management, for me, is about as pleasant a spot to be in as the center of a fire-ant nest. It was typically a six-day, 12-hour per day job in which about 10 of those hours were spent in meetings, taking phone calls from angry readers and dealing with whatever minor or major drama-of-the-day may came up. I wasn't writing (and the original plan was to make me the staff columnist when I made the move) and I could never be in the middle of the action, which is where I wanted to be.
So when the opportunity to cover the NBA came up out here, it seemed like an ideal next step. I got to rediscover the Northwest, which I really missed in the 14 years that I had been gone, and it gave me a new professional challenge that I was craving. My only previous experiences covering the NBA were a few Pacers games when I was in college and three Washington Wizards training camps in Wilmington (when Jordan came out of retirement), so it gave me a chance to satisfy a lot of professional curiosity. I had an image in my head of what the NBA and its players were about -- such as no defense played in the games; players were arrogant spoiled brats, etc. -- and I wanted a chance to see if it was accurate. It was a great challenge, particularly since I came in on the heels of the Jail Blazers era, and I was expecting to go to war each night I stepped into the locker room. And the funny thing was, I discovered that many of my expectations and preconceptions were far from accurate. Even during the 21-61 season, most of the guys on the team were pretty good to deal with. And the group they have now is the best group of athletes I've ever covered at any level.

 BlazersEdge:  Without question, you place a big focus on stats compared to other local writers.  Are you a "Moneyball" guy?  Why the deep interest in stats and what role do they play for you in evaluating talent?

The funny thing is, I'm far from a stat geek -- though you would never believe that from the work I've done lately -- and math has always been my weakest subject. The work I've been known for in the past is more along the lines of my Brandon Roy profile and other feature work. I'm much more interested in the human side of sports and getting behind the box scores to the richer moments. But when I started covering the NBA, I found that it was helpful to keep my own stats — those the NBA does not compile — to help me gain a deeper understanding of the team and to spot trends more quickly, because so much can get lost during an 82-game season. You have to be able to separate perception from fact, which is hard to do when the games start bleeding together in late January. You start asking yourself, "It seems like LaMarcus is taking a lot of shots away from the basket recently. Is that true? Or is that just an inaccurate perception?" And unless you can look up the stats that will show you the truth — and the NBA doesn't always break down the most telling stats for us — you simply don't know. So I've always kept track of specific stats to give me that frame of reference.
But I really jumped into it this season with a project that I started to refer to as my personal Frankenstein. People who read my blog may see the expanded stats that I put up as a pdf to download, but that barely scratches the surface of what I keep. The full spreadsheet is a total of 103 worksheets, 82 of which are customized box scores for each game, which take about an hour to update. Those serve as a database of game stats that feed into other worksheets: One is the compiled stats that I turn into a pdf for my blog; 17 are game-by game breakdowns for the overall team and each individual player; and the rest are breakdowns of specific stretches of the season that I regularly reference, such as the Blazers' 13-game win streak. It's an incredible reporting tool, and in the process it has sort of carved out a niche identity for my work among the Blazers writers. There is an amazing amount of information that the NBA supplies, but doesn't compile, such as the distances on each shot. What I've done is simply take that information and put it into a useable, searchable format, which I can then use as a reporting tool to help me back up or disprove issues that I'm writing about, or counter perceptions that I may have. In other words, I can go from asking, "Is LaMarcus taking too many shots away from the basket?" to saying, "Jeez, LaMarcus didn't take a single shot inside 9 feet against Sacramento, and has taken two-thirds of his shots outside that distance in the last month." Now, instead of questioning the accuracy of my own perception, I'm moving on to asking specific questions about that trend.
To give you an idea of how valuable that information can be, Maurice Lucas actually asked for my breakdowns of LaMarcus' shot selection back in February and shared them with him when they were trying to convince LaMarcus to commit to his post game. Maurice told me that LaMarcus was shocked to see how often he was turning to his mid-range shot when he saw the numbers, and he almost immediately started doing a better job of operating in the post. Now, I have no idea what role, if any, seeing those stats played in the change. But I got a big chuckle out of the fact that Maurice wanted to show them to LaMarcus, because it illustrated how useful that information can be (in fact, Maurice told me he posted the stats on the Blazers' bulletin board for all the players to see, which gave me an even bigger chuckle. I knew then that I was doing something worthwhile). When I explain to people how I use those stats, though, I always think of Kevin Pritchard's description of how he uses their quantitative analysis process during the draft: It's not an end-all solution for talent evaluation, but it always makes me think about performances and situations differently. And several times I've stumbled across something that may add a new layer of understanding to a situation which I otherwise would have overlooked.

BlazersEdge: Who was your all-time favorite Blazer to cover?

Zach Randolph, believe it or not, was my favorite former Blazer, and people are always stunned to hear what an easy guy he usually was to deal with. I think people imagine this thug who was a complete prick. And in actuality, Zach could be pretty funny, easy going, and for the most part he handled tough questions well. He was one of the few guys on the team who would always take my calls when I dialed his cell. In fact, my favorite Zach story came last spring when he had the surgery on the torn ligament in his thumb.
The Blazers sent out a release about it, so I immediately called Zach hoping to get a comment from him. When he answered his phone, his speech was slurred and he wasn't very responsive to my questions. One thought shot through my head: "Oh great. This dude is stoned out of his mind and I've got him on the phone. How the hell should I handle this?" So I started asking about his hand and trying to figure out what exactly was going on -- did I catch him napping after surgery? Drunk? Stoned? -- when he suddenly asks me to hold on for a second. I hear some mumbling, and then Zach comes back on: "Hey Bri, can I call  you back? They're about to start operating." The guy took my call doped up on his anesthesia as they were about to operate!
We had a good laugh over that a few days later, and when I think of Zach I always think of that story. But that's also what was so frustrating about covering Zach. One day you'd have an experience like that one, and you'd tell everyone about it and say, "See, Zach isn't a completely bad guy," and feel confident in saying it. Then the next day the Portland police would be investigating him for something, you'd feel like an idiot for telling anyone that he wasn't a completely bad guy, everyone would be looking at you like you're an idiot for having said he's not a completely bad guy, and you'd want to turn to Zach and scream, "Why the hell do you always have to act like an idiot!?!"

BlazersEdge:  Do you have a horror story of covering the team or the NBA in general?

Sorry for the buzz kill, but I don't really have a horror story that I can remember. I kind of feel left out when Jason Quick starts telling his multitude of tales -- which to be honest, I've heard few worse -- and I have nothing worthy to add to the pot. I have to say, I've been very lucky in my career. When I went to Wilmington I got there just in time for an era when UNCW won three conference titles while I covered them and upset Southern Cal in the NCAA tournament. I covered some great teams at Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State — including Carolina's 2005 national championship team — and they all had pleasurable players to be around. And then I got here in time for the Roy-Aldridge-Oden era. I always seem to start covering a team just when they're about to rise to the top and have good people to deal with. I wish I had that much luck in the lottery.

BlazersEdge: Everyone's talked about his favorite moment so far this season.  What's your most underrated moment for the team this year?

You know, I think the Blazers' win over Atlanta back in January, when Brandon had that incredible final three minutes to rally them to the victory, was one of the most significant moments of the season. I understand that Travis' game-winner against Memphis was perhaps the most exciting, particularly since it started the win streak. And Brandon's block on Carmelo Anthony to seal their win over Denver is up there, too. But Brandon was absolutely incredible in those final minutes against the Hawks (and he did it with the flu, no less). The air ball he forced from Joe Johnson. The block he had on Josh Smith -- who is three inches taller. The shots he made to put the Blazers ahead. It was like watching Jordan close out a game. I remember standing in the back hallway at the Rose Garden and Jason Quick looked at me and said, "I don't know if I believe I just saw that." It was exactly what all of us were thinking. I've seen Brandon do some incredible things, but that was one of those moments where I sat back and said, "Nobody understands how freaking good this guy is going to be."

BlazersEdge: What do you think of the job Coach Nate McMillan did this season?  Do you think he was overlooked in the Coach of the Year discussion?

I thought Nate did a great job all around this year. He managed the roster and rotations well, he managed to keep the hole in the middle while Greg was out from becoming a critical weakness and the guys in the regular rotation each showed a significant amount of development. I think one of the keys to that, though, was the fact that Nate learned to pull back a bit and not let the Sarge side of him suffocate and burn out the team, and I think that was an important step in his development as a coach. Now, has he been sold short as coach of the year? I really don't think so. It was a great year. Certainly the Blazers achieved much more than anyone expected. But remember, the win total was bolstered by that great run in December and January. They had losing months in February, March and April. And while that was still a great accomplishment for this team, when you compare it to New Orleans' rise (FYI: Byron Scott is my pick for the award), or to what Rick Adelman did with Houston -- they had a longer win streak during a more difficult time of the season in the most competitive playoff race in the NBA's history -- I don't think Nate is in the discussion. I think the Blazers had to either make the playoffs or, at the very least, narrowly miss for Nate to be competitive with that group.

BlazersEdge: Blazers fans have often said recently "the city (being Portland) is embracing the team again."  Vancouver sometimes gets left out of the equation (mostly unintentionally).  Do you see any divide in Blazers fans across the stateline or is it a singular fan base?

Oh, I definitely think it's a single fan base, because any time someone finds out what I do for a living it's guaranteed to be followed by a half-hour long discussion about the Blazers. So as you might imagine, I don't tell anybody what I do. Even my wife, an ER nurse, has had to learn to never tell anyone she works with that I cover the Blazers. Of course, many already know, and they often try to converse with her about the team, as if she somehow osmotically absorbs my knowledge each day (she actually does not watch basketball and knows little about the Blazers, so the conversations are often along the lines of talking to a very disinterested wall). There's also a clerk at Fred Meyer who chats me up every time I'm in the store because one time I gave him my bank card and he immediately recognized my name. Apparently his family owns season tickets and he's definitely up on the latest events. These may be chance encounters, but I won't dismiss it as being something that simple. I know the 'Couv feels cut off from Portland, and I think in many ways the town prefers it that way. But from what I've experienced, it doesn't apply to interest in the Blazers.

BlazersEdge:  When it comes to access to the current team, do you feel your needs are being met?  If you were on the other side of the aisle (as a PR person), would you allow more or less access than is being allowed currently?

The access was great this past season. The media relations staff they've assembled -- Cheri Hanson, Collin Romer and Jim Taylor -- are the best I've worked with, and Nate and Kevin Pritchard always make themselves available whenever we need them. It's so hard to believe that only two years ago I was having every interview I would do with a team official tape recorded and feel like I was having the Blazers secret police following my every step. In those days, I'm sure team officials would have freaked out if they found out Brandon Roy and I had arranged an interview at his house, and I think they would have done their best to shut it down. Instead, it was not even questioned when I told Cheri about it after the fact. And honestly, I think that more open, trusting relationship is something both sides should work to achieve. The Blazers still tighten down when it's necessary, but for the most part leave the access very open.
And if I switched over to the PR side, I would understand the benefits of that approach. The media really can be a pretty easy group to get along with most of the time. We just want to get our jobs down with a minimal amount of crap to deal with. You do your best to accommodate me, and I'll do my best to accommodate you, and everyone can go home happy. Of course there are times when a team has to clamp down on access, and there are times where we have to get tough, ask difficult questions and do things that will be generally unwelcome by the team. But most of the time we're asking about pick-and-rolls, starting lineups, rotation adjustments and game strategies. There's no need to turn those days into an us vs. them environment. And if you do it all the time, as the Blazers once did, you're going to have nothing but problems. Just ask the Knicks.

BlazersEdge: Many members of the so-called Mainstream Media are now blogging and you've been going at the Blazer Banter blog for awhile.  What do you see as the purpose of Blazer Banter?  Simply to find a place for the extra stuff that doesn't make the column? 

The weird, and cool, thing about blogs is that there is no real definition for the term. It's pretty well defined by the individual. Some people use them for commentary, links or news. I mix mine up a bit, but the overall philosophy behind Blazers Banter is to use it as a supplement to my daily reports in the paper and to present information that is difficult to convey in the paper. Sometimes the content on Blazers Banter will play off what I have in the paper -- perhaps an enhanced breakdown of what I'm focusing on in the print edition. Other times the content will be very unique and "worthy" of being in the newspaper, but can be more effectively presented through the blog because of the unique tools that are available there. That's why you'll see my stat breakdowns in Blazers Banter, but you won't often see them in the print edition.
I recognize that newspapers are effective devices for delivering news, but at the same time they are a constricting format. They're great for narrative features, notes, info boxes, graphics and pictures -- all the essential nutrients of a beat. But the blog lets me go beyond the essentials and provide extra information to supplement the print reports. Good examples of this are the tables I often use to illustrate trends and stats, or the expanded Blazers stats I post. Both of those tools let me get a lot of useful, interesting information to readers that not only wouldn't work in the newspaper, but often COULDN'T work. So I don't look at Blazers Banter as a separate product from the paper, and I certainly don't use it to regurgitate what I have done for the paper. Instead, I try to make each a unique report that capitalize on the strengths of each medium to round out our coverage.

BlazersEdge: After being around the team for the first time this season, I have heard the phrase "the NBA is a business" repeated over and over by almost everyone involved.  Do you see the team and the league only through professional eyes or do you still have a fan's soul underneath the professional exterior? If you could change it, would you make the game more professional (the David Stern approach, with dress codes and stricter rules) or less professional (think the ABA) or leave it as is?  Why?

The thing that I haven't been able to get over in covering the NBA is how scripted the events are. Outside of the game itself, it's constantly choreographed entertainment that is spoon-fed to fans and, as a result, puts them in a more passive position than they are in, say, college hoops. There's the Blazers Dancers, the Junior Blazers Dancers, the Bowflex Strength Team, the Jam Squad, etc., etc. Every timeout is marked by a contest or video presentation, and it repeats over and over. The first year I covered the team I often referred to the supplemental entertainment as "the circus" because they would roll out one act after another.
I don't think anything reminds me of how much of a business the NBA is than those experiences, and every team seems to follow the same formula. It feels like a color-by-numbers atmosphere. How often do you see the scoreboard essentially instructing the fans what to do? You either have Blaze leading the "DEE-FENCE" chant, or a player saying, "It's the fourth quarter. Get on your feet and make some noise!" It's like telling a race-card driver, "Apply pressure to the right pedal, and don't hit anything!" The environment feels sterile to me, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I've covered so much college basketball in two great areas of the country -- Indiana  and North Carolina.
In most great college arenas, the atmosphere is determined by the fans and their passion. They play a more active role, such as by singing the school fight song, and they have more intimate contact with the teams by being closer to the floor. In the NBA the most passionate fans are high up in the stands, where their cheers are less noticeable, while the high-priced seats have a more corporate flavor. You don't see the mayhem and passion, and I personally want to see that showcased more. I want to see how much fans care, and I want it up front and center. So if I could change one thing, I would create a "superfan section" -- a small block of perhaps as few as a couple hundred seats close to the court that would sell for a cheap price and would be available only on game days.
That way the ticket brokers, corporations and wealthy season-ticket holders wouldn't be able to monopolize the best seats, and the most passionate fans would have a reward for their devotion. Put the crazies down close to the court and showcase their passion. It would change the atmosphere at games and make the true fans -- not the Jam Squad, Junior Blazers Dancers and every other gimmick the marketing gurus conjure up -- a focal point of the games. Why do you think the Cameron Crazies at Duke have such a renowned reputation? They bring the mayhem to court level. Nobody would know of them if they were in the upper deck. This idea is idealistic, and I'm sure finances would prevent it from ever happening (the NBA's business model, after all, revolves around squeezing every dollar of revenue out of its arenas). But man, it would be fun.

BlazersEdge: How knowledgable do you think the average Blazers fan is, compared to fans in other cities or fans in years past?  Can you think of a few things that fans just "don't seem to get" that you've picked up by spending so much time around the team and the league?

Blazers fans remind me a lot of fans I knew in Indiana, because they are so passionate about the team that it drives them to pay more attention and learn more than fans in other cities. I've experienced other fan bases, both college and pros, where the fans just look at what is in front of them and never care to get beneath the surface. But Blazers fans understand things about the game, the collective bargaining agreement, the players and strategies better than most that I've dealt with. That said, there are characteristics that they share with all fans -- their passionate bias toward their team causes them to dismiss reason in many cases. One guy last winter wrote me and said the Blazers needed to package Darius Miles and Raef LaFrentz and send them to New Jersey to get Jason Kidd. I got a good laugh out of that one -- and not in a mean spirited way at all. It's just a fan being a fan. They're concerned about what they're getting, and don't consider that New Jersey was thinking the same way!

BlazersEdge:  Let's say the Blazers win the title in 2012, where are you?  What are you doing?  Are you celebrating?  Cranking out a story?

Hopefully I'll be around for that ride, so right now I'll say I expect to be rushing out a game story while the rest of Portland is in the streets celebrating. But if I've moved on to something else by then, I'll certainly be following them when they win the title. You get so close to a team when you cover them that it's hard to sever that connection when you leave. Sheesh, I haven't covered a UNC-Wilmington game in five years, but I still watch their games whenever I can get them on my sports package. I have no doubt I'll be the same way with the Blazers.

BlazersEdge: Do you any advice for those considering a career in sportswriting?

The one thing I tell young people interested in the business is to spend as much time in the field doing journalism as they do in the classroom. So many students don't understand what it takes just to break into this business, let alone move up. During my junior year in college I was the sports editor for my student paper, worked a part-time job at the Indianapolis Star, sometimes drove more than 75 miles round trip to cover events for tiny papers in rural Indiana for $17.50 a story (accounting for the gas, I often lost money on every story) and took 15 credits worth of classes. Meanwhile many of my classmates were focusing on their grades, making honor rolls and impressing their professors, but they hadn't had a single story published anywhere by the time we graduated. By the end their prospective employers were wondering why they had a resume and no tangible experience or writing samples -- the most important things a person needs to get hired by a newspaper.
Meanwhile I had loads of clippings and I never once had a prospective employer look at my grades. They didn't care. They wanted to know that I had a degree and could do the job well, not that I got an 'A' in media ethics, and it was my writing samples that showed them that. So I try to explain that to young people. Work hard in school, get good grades, but also get out in the field and do the job while you're in school. Write for the student paper. Get a part-time job for a small newspaper. Start building up your resume before you get out of school. It's a very, very competitive business. A lot of people like the concept of being a sportswriter. You have to stand out from that pack. And the more you can do to prepare yourself during your college years, the better chance you have of standing out.

BlazersEdge:  Aside from your current position, what's your dream job? Is it in sports or something completely different? Why?

When I first got into the business I had specific papers (such as the Washington Post or Boston Globe) in mind, and specific beats (North Carolina, etc.) in mind as my "dream" jobs. But over time it has changed dramatically. I'm not so concerned about the size of the paper, or the beat. Instead, I'd love to be in a position to focus on in-depth stories. I've been able to do several of those types of stories at the Columbian, but it's hard to do it consistently when you have a regular beat to cover that is as demanding as the Blazers.
I followed a high-school football player named Trey Foote through the final few weeks of his life as he battled bone cancer, and it turned out to be a heartbreaking, yet incredibly inspiring, story that truly touched the community. It was gut wrenching to work on, but the most rewarding experience I've ever had in this business. There are things I learned from Trey and his family that I will never forget. I've also followed a local mixed martial arts fighter during an event at Memorial Coliseum and told the story of that sport through his eyes, and Blazers fans may remember the profiles I did on Brandon Roy and Martell Webster over the last couple years. It's always richly rewarding to be able to get intimately close to a subject, tell their story in depth, and pass along something that may influence and impact a reader.
I always learn something from those projects and find them to be personally and professionally rewarding. They're the moments when you feel like you do something significant as a journalist and can make a difference (particularly the work I did on Trey), which is the reason I got into this business in the first place. So I would jump all over a job that would let me focus exclusively on that type of work.

Many thanks to Mr. Hendrickson for his thoughtful answers to our many, many questions.

-- Ben (benjamin.golliver@gmail.com)

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