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So you want to be... Blazer Beat Writer

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This is the first in what could become an ongoing series of pieces on what it takes to do some of the jobs surrounding the Blazers that we all see every day, often take for granted, and sometimes think we could do better.  Joining us today is the Oregonian's Blazer Beat Writer Jason Quick.  Jason was kind enough to take some time on the recent road trip to answer some questions about his job and how he does it.  

So you want to be a Blazer beat writer?  Chew on this from Jason Quick...

BlazersEdge: Can you share a little bit about how you came to this position? Obviously a journalism degree is a must, but how far is NBA Beat Writer up the food chain of  sports journalism jobs?  What kind of things did you cover as you were starting out?

I earned a degree in Technical Journalism from Oregon State in 1992 after graduating from Corvallis High in 1988. Throughout college, I worked part-time at the Corvallis Gazette-Times and in the Oregon State University sports information department, where I was in charge of wrestling. Learned from some real pros at both places, for which I'm forever in gratitude. Newspapers are an incredibly competitive field, even inside each newsroom, so when colleagues are willing to help a young kid get better, that says a lot about their character.

At any rate, I stayed at the Gazette-Times for 7 1/2 years until I was hired part-time by The Oregonian to cover preps. Worked at The O for about a year, then was hired full-time by the Salem Statesman Journal. Hated it there, and stayed only 10 months before I was hired back by The Oregonian to cover the Portland Power of the now defunct women's American Basketball League. Had a great time covering the team, especially one of their head coaches, Linn Dunn, who was a real spitfire of a lady. She was tough, and it gave me great experience in dealing with an intimidating figure.

After the Power went under, I covered Golf, including the 1999 Masters- still probably one of my most enjoyable assignments. I walked the course with Greg Norman's wife for two days as he made a run (Jose Maria Olazabel eventually won it). Also covered the Seahawks home and away for two seasons (Dennis Erickson's last year and Mike Holmgren's first year) before being assigned to cover the University of Oregon.

Covered the Ducks football team that beat Texas in the Holiday Bowl behind Joey Harrington. Harrington and I never saw eye-to-eye - I was more of an A.J. Feely type guy. Really enjoyed that beat - I thought Mike Bellotti was an interesting and honest coach who treated the media well, and I liked the kids on the team. Lots of good stories with college kids.

After the football season, I started covering the Ducks basketball team that featured freshman Luke Ridnour, Luke Jackson and Freddie Jones. But right before the Pac-10 season started I got a call from then-sports editor Dennis Peck telling me I was being shifted to the Blazers beat. The Portland Tribune was starting, and the Blazers beat writer at the time, Steve Brandon, was leaving to become the Trib's sports editor. They chose me to replace him, which was a daunting task. I was in the parking lot of the Casanova Center when I found out, and on the drive home to Portland I remember being incredibly uncomfortable; I couldn't even name the Blazers starting five at the time.

But there I was, 30 years old and covering the top team in Portland. It was scary, but also exhilarating. My first day with the Blazers was a home game, and I remember introducing myself to each player in the locker room before the game. Rasheed Wallace wouldn't shake my hand, let alone look at me. Nice first impression.

BlazersEdge: What's your schedule like, especially on the road?  Do you fly on the team plane or do you have to book your own travel?  Can you describe a typical game-day routine?

By far, the worst part about my job is the travel. In a word, it's exhausting. Not to mention lonely. When I first started, I was young, single and hadn't been to many of the cities on the NBA route, which made it more exciting. But now, I'm old (37) and the travel wears on me, especially now that I'm married. There's nothing more depressing than a hotel room in, say, Milwaukee in the middle of December. Or for instance, as I'm writing this, I'm in my room at Oklahoma City with the Pistons-Pacers game on in the background. All I want is to be home with my wife.

Besides being away from my wife, the worst part of travel is the lack of sleep. For instance, on this trip, I covered the Houston-Blazers game, got back to my hotel at midnight, then had a 4:15 a.m. wake up call in order to make a 6 a.m. flight to Memphis. Although Houston and Memphis are relatively close, there is no airline that makes a direct flight, so I had to go through Denver, which meant an two hour layover that was made longer by a delay because of snow. I didn't get into Memphis until 3 p.m., and had just enough time to check in to my hotel, check email messages, change clothes and get to the arena by 5 p.m.  I was in a daze, certainly not in the mood for a double-overtime game. Got back to the hotel around midnight again, and had another 6 a.m. flight - this time through Chicago (another delay) - and got into OKC at 1:30 p.m., just before the Blazers practice. All I want to do is sleep.

Typically, my game day routine is this: Head to shootaround at 10:30 a.m., maybe blog, or get a head-start on a future story I'm working on. I usually get to the arena at 5 p.m. for a 7 p.m. start. I always head straight to the court, watch the players workout, then head to the locker room when it opens (5:30 p.m.). In the locker room, I just hang out, talk to the guys, get a vibe for what's going on. In Houston, I spent much of the pregame interviewing Ime Udoka because I knew he was going against Tracy McGrady that night, and Ime had been shutting down some top scorers of late.

I hang in the locker room for 15 minutes until Nate has his pregame availability from 5:45-6:05. I go to his office and spend the entire 20 minutes picking his brain, talking about trends, different players, etc. It's usually my favorite part of the night, particularly on the road, because it's usually just he and I.  Nate is widely regarded among NBA beat writers as one of the best coaches to deal with, and I feel lucky to have him. I'm closer to him than I was with Mike Dunleavy, but we are not quite as close as I was with Maurice Cheeks, but that's probably because I had Cheeks for four years, and this is only my second year with McMillan. Cheeks and I would talk about more personal stuff, while Nate and I talk more basketball. That being said, Nate is very considerate. I've had some illnesses in my family over the past two years, and Nate makes sure he asks about them, how they are doing, going as far once to ask me if I wanted him to call my dad to pick his spirits up. Pretty classy.

After I talk to Nate, I usually do my pregame show on KFXX, which takes me up to about 30 minutes before the game. I try to eat then, but sometimes I transcribe my interviews so I have them ready for after the game to insert into my story. During this time, I also make a checklist of things I want to either include in my story or keep an eye on during the game.

After the game, I spend about 30 minutes in the locker room. I like to have at least 45 minutes to write my story.

But back to the original question: I do not travel with the team, mainly because they board their private jet after every game to head to the next city, while I have to stay at the arena and make my deadline, which is usually at 10:50 p.m. Pacific time.

BlazersEdge: Do you see players much away from the arena (presumably on the road)?  Do you ever develop more personal relationships with the players or staff?  If so, how does that impact your job?

I don't see the players much away from the arena. There might be an occasional run-in at a mall, or at a restaurant, but generally, no. But yes, I do develop more personal relationships with various players and staff - that's only human nature. On this team, I feel like I'm tight with Joel Przybilla, Juan Dixon, and Zach. And on the coaching staff, I'm close with Nate and have gotten to know lead assistant Dean Demopoulos pretty well. The other coaches - Maurice Lucas, Bill Bayno and Monty Williams - are all cool, but out relationship is more of the "What's up?" variety than anything else, unless I'm interviewing them for a story.

I don't think having closer relationships impact how I do my job. I recently had to write how poorly Joel was playing, and he didn't take well to it, but hey, that's what I'm paid to do. Sometimes the truth hurts, and as long as I can back it up with facts, then I feel comfortable writing it.

BlazersEdge: For obvious reasons we're not going to ask you about anyone on the
current team at all, good or bad.  But which former Blazer players or staff members were the most fun and/or interesting to cover?

I liked covering Damon Stoudamire because he was always a great story from a human interest standpoint. He had so much turmoil, controversy, and obstacles throughout his Blazers career, which made for some great stories that went beyond basketball. And really, that's what I enjoy about covering sports - relating how these athletes go through everyday problems or struggles that we all go through.

I also liked Ruben Patterson, because you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth. Ruben and I had an interesting relationship. When he first got here, we clashed --mainly because he didn't like what he felt were "negative" stories about the team's misdeeds. But in the last two years, we became close. I actually have a lot of respect for Ruben. He changed his life around, and deep down, he is a caring person who just wants to be liked.

Also one of my all-time favorites was Dale Davis. A great, great guy. Funny as hell. A big teddy bear. Loved to have fun. We would often bet on trick shots, and we once bet on who would win a race from one end of the court to the other. It came about during a practice, when I chided him about being old and slow. "Who you calling slow?'' he asked. "You,'' I said.  So we lined up on the baseline, and with the team watching, we raced. He killed me. With those long legs, the race was over before we reached halfcourt. I will always remember Cheeks coming up to me after the race and saying, "Bet you have a little more respect now for what a professional athlete is, huh?'' Couldn't have put it better.

Another funny story about Dale. We were in New Orleans one year, and as usual, I found myself at the blackjack table at Harrahs the night before the game. It was getting into the wee hours of the morning when I decided to leave, but I happened upon Dale at a table. I saddled up and played for several hours with him, his agent and his girlfriend. Every time he would push with the dealer, he would say "A push is better than a shove". At any rate, the game against the Hornets was an afternoon tilt, and I was hurting. Apparently, so was Dale, for at halftime, a sheet was passed along press row that said 'Blazers center Dale Davis will not return: headaches.' I'll never forgive him for not playing hurt like I did.

Another of my favorites was Shareef Abdur-Rahim. What a class act. To me, he is the definition of a Man. Good father and husband. Considerate. Introspective. Respectful. Just a good person. Probably one of the most impressive professional athletes, from a character standpoint, I have ever been around.

There are a lot of great guys I've covered though: Steve Kerr, Steve Blake, Antonio Daniels... I could go on and on.

BlazersEdge: Fans often wish that players' personal qualities would match their
great professional ability.  Obviously that's not always the case, but are there any
former Blazers you covered that you walked away from saying, "Now THAT was a great guy..."?

Ooops, guess I got ahead of myself and answered this above. But one guy I didn't mention earlier, who I have a ton of respect for is Scottie Pippen. I don't think people realize what a great player he was in Portland. All the little things he did on the court were so incredible. No question in my mind he is one of  the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. But there was so much more to Pip. He had this air about him. I always say Pippen was the ultimate professional. Just in the way he carried himself and the way he prepared and played. He was a warrior. And there was just this regal air about him, that you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Pip and I had some monumental clashes.  He once charged at me in Vancouver for 'nit picking' at the team during its 2001 demise and he once ordered the Blazers PR staff to keep me from asking him questions, once ending a postgame interview session in front of his locker when I entered the group and asked a question. But in all, we were fine, and I probably respect him more than any other player I've covered.

BlazersEdge:  The role of the media has changed in recent years even as society
and the expectations of its consumers have changed.  Some people see your task as information delivery, others as entertainment, others as a watchdog, others as a team cheerleader.  How do you see your role?

Well, I definitely don't see my role as team cheerleader. I'll leave that to the Blazers broadcasters. I see my role as telling the truth about what's going on with the team, and to do so in a way that is entertaining, yet insightful. I don't understand the fans who rip me for reporting that Darius Miles cussed out Cheeks, or that Bonzi flipped off his home fans, or that Zach sucker punched Ruben in practice, breaking his eye socket, or that Rasheed and Damon got popped for smoking weed on the way home from Seattle. Negative reporting? How about negative actions by the players? Do you really want to root for these players? That's not up to me, but I feel like people should be informed in their rooting decisions.

In the case of game-story reporting, I'm probably a little different than most beat writers. I don't get into the shooting stats, or the 14-2 run to end the third quarter. That's boring, and really, most fans can get that information from the box score, or they already know it because they watched, or listened, to the game. My job is to tell them what it all means. I get great access to these guys - I'm around them everyday for nine months out of the year - so I try to use that access to give fans information or scenes they don't get from their seats. And, after covering the team as long as I have, I think I have a pretty good feel for what is a big deal, and what isn't. When Juan Dixon and Nate recently got into it during a timeout in Phoenix, I knew it wasn't a big enough deal to include it in my game story, but at the same time, I knew it was something to keep an eye on. However, last season, when Ruben blew up at the coaching staff in New York, I knew that was over the line and needed to be addressed immediately in the story.

BlazersEdge:  Follow up...There's a perception of two broad stripes of media out there:  the (supposedly) hardcore, factual, front-page genre and the increasingly popular entertainment-driven, celebrity-oriented, over-the-fence-gossip genre.  Sports reporting obviously blends elements of both.  Where on that continuum does it fall?

Tough question, and I'm not sure exactly what you mean, but I will give it a shot.

There's a hazy line between a player's personal life and that of being a celebrity, meaning his actions are open to public scrutiny. There have been times when that blurred line has bugged me and it sickens me to be a reporter. I think Zach's off-the-court actions is the best example of this. But for me, it all boils down to the fact that I'm a beat reporter, so I have to base everything on fact. I don't have much leeway, as say, a columnist does. The thing people have to realize is that I see these guys everyday, so if I can't be throwing unsubstantiated gossip out there, because I will have to face the music.

BlazersEdge:  Where do you sit on the issue of closed practices and the like?  Should everything be open?  How much access should the media have?

In the NBA, I think we have adequate access, certainly much better than anything in college athletics. The locker room is open 45 minutes before the game.  Practices are supposed to be open for the last 30 minutes, although over the years we increasingly get to watch less and less. The funny thing about that is you hear coaches saying reporters are so dumb, but they don't let us watch what is being taught in practice, or who is out-performing who in practice. As a result, I think I ask Nate more technical questions about plays, game plans, etc., than he would like. But at the same time, I have learned more about the game from Nate than anyone else. He has a great technical mind, and I love picking it.

The biggest development among NBA beat writers this season has been the NBA's decision to sell press-row seating to fans. In most arenas we no longer sit courtside, and are instead seated up in the lower bowl. That has eliminated much of the color of the game - the interaction between coach and players, players and players, refs and coaches, etc.  I think fans enjoyed that aspect of coverage.

BlazersEdge:  Are there any things you think it's out of bounds to cover or print?

Like I said earlier, I think certain aspects of a player's personal life should be left alone. People don't need to know who is going through a divorce, for example.

BlazersEdge:  Many media folks are now doing blogs as well, yourself included.  What do you see as the purpose/role/raison d'etre of your blog?

I struggle with the blog. On the one hand, it's a great avenue to get information to readers that I can't fit into the day-to-day stories. But at the same time, it's a lot of extra work.

BlazersEdge:  Are there different criteria for what can be printed in a blog versus what makes the paper?

No. We should aim to be as factual as possible in both.

BlazersEdge:  What are the best things about your job?  The toughest?

I never know what is going to happen when I go to work everyday.  That's invigorating.

The toughest is the travel, as I said earlier, and dealing with ignorant people who have no idea what goes into getting an article into the paper.

BlazersEdge:  What's the oddest/funniest/most shocking (you choose one or all) thing that's happened to you doing this job?

Oh, there are too many to count. I've had Rasheed bum rush me in San Antonio, Pip charge at me in Vancouver, Bonzi has more than once threaten me, and more than a fair share of ridiculous dealings with the Blazers pr staff. It all has kept it interesting.
On a side note: I respect this website more than any other. It has the most informed and intellectual discussion of Blazers basketball out there on the web.

And that's quite a compliment.

I want to thank Jason very publicly for giving us so much to chew on.  His responses surpassed my wildest dreams and I enjoyed hearing what he had to say.  I hope you did too.  You could tell just about the exact time the sleep bug hit him in the interview and I am honored that he took the time to do it in the midst of that schedule he described!  I'm sure he'll stop by at some point to see the reaction, so let us know what you think in the comment section.  If there's enough positive response we might think about doing another one covering some other position.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)