The first day of March rocks.
Spring beckons, as does the year's best sporting event. The images are legendary; Jimmy V, Keith Smart and Bryce Drew to name a few. But if we had to name the official image of the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament, it would have to be Christian Laettner's miracle shot lifting Duke over Kentucky in the 1992 Regional Final.
I was a college freshman at the time, and still remember watching that game live in my dorm. Twenty years later, I still get goose bumps with each replay. But Laettner has another special place in my heart. He tops the list of "the most surly athletes I have interviewed."
After an NBA playoff game, Mr. March was snappy and rude to me for no reason when I was overly polite in asking for a minute of his time. I can see why his Duke teammates affectionately nicknamed him "Asshole" - this according to Gene Wojciechowski's book "The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball".
I can't remember if I interviewed Laettner after that and it isn't fair to condemn him as a jerk by one experience. The reality is some athletes will treat you the same whether they win in straight sets or lose a five-set heartbreaker. But as journalists, we can't count on that. So let's look at some constructive ways to deal with the myriad of sports personalities.
"From what I've noticed, very little is required to get these men (or women) to tell you exactly what they are thinking," says Alex Brady, Producer for NFL Network. "They have almost no filter, and a press conference is almost like a therapy session for them."
In his prime, Mike Tyson was king of the sound bite. "Lennox Lewis, I'm coming for you man. My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable, and I'm just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children."
A quote like this would certainly take you off guard or make you burst out laughing. Be ready to roll with it.
"The key is to really listen to their answers and base your next question off of that," Brady says. "Seems obvious, but a lot of reporters don't do this."
John Schwarb is a veteran sports author and writer who is now a Site Producer for the PGA Tour. He recalls a story he did on Danica Patrick a few years ago.
"The makeup artist hired by the photographers didn't show and a replacement had to be found fast, " Schwarb says. Lots of standing around before I got there, and it continued after I got there. After a while I figured I might just interview her first, and approached her right as she was talking to the photo team about food -- of which they had none for Danica and her mother."
Schwarb continues. "Danica just exploded on them -- and me, just for standing there. It was ugly. I couldn't blame her for all the trouble (those people were so disorganized, they took my rental car to get take-out food), but it was pretty amazing seeing her go complete diva. A half-hour or so later she got her food and I was able to interview her, and she was fantastic. She apologized for the outburst and then gave me an hour of great stuff. By the end she was texting her husband, trying to find me a good golf course. I've told that story a few times as an example of a star athlete being able to turn the switch just like that. I think my job, as a writer, was to be a professional in return -- be prepared, ask good questions, and try to make some kind of connection."
Steve Overmyer, Sports Anchor for WCBS in New York, can relate to the Danica story. "After losing to the Dolphins in Miami, I asked Jets Linebacker Bart Scott if the Jets defense is as good as he thought they should be," Overmyer says. " He squared his 6'-2'', 240 pound frame up to me on live TV and asked "What are you saying? That we suck?" That was the first time I ever thought a player might actually hit me. But by the end of the interview he was teasing me about my chest hair showing. That is one good thing about this persona, they can flip back to light-hearted conversation very quickly."
"Derek Jeter is the master of the genre," says Steve Berthiaume, ESPN Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter anchor. "He's smart, loyal, professional and a genius at answering your question while saying absolutely nothing. He does this knowing he's the face of the franchise and will avoid any suggestion of controversy or incident. He stays above it so have specific and relevant questions and move on. That's why he's Derek Jeter. He's always pleasant, always patient and always professional."
Like Jeter, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is not going to give you juicy fodder for debate on PTI or indicate the severity of an injury. Going in, just know the chance of getting through an NHL game without a fight is more likely than hearing a compelling sound bite from the hooded one.
"The Canned-Answer Man makes sure they don't reveal anything in their answers. That's their right," says Paul Crane, a veteran sportscaster for over 30 years at the national and local level. "That also makes it the interviewer's responsibility to ask something that might get a good answer. Whether you've found something unusual about your subject or not, it's always good to try to ask a question they haven't been asked before, or at least not very often."
Crane says he had a positive experience interviewing Belichick because he went in there prepared, established a rapport, and the coach actually stayed after the interview and chatted off camera for about twenty minutes.
Think Ozzie Guillen, Bob Knight, Bill Parcells. Guys like this keep ESPN producers salivating.
"In a sense, you WANT this guy to go off, makes for good television or a story," Brady says. " The problem is, this guy generally goes off and makes YOU out to be the idiot."
I covered Knight while working for student media at Indiana University. I saw him rip reporters for asking seemingly respectable questions. This can shake your confidence.
"Don't be bullied and you'll be respected," says Berthiaume. "If the subject begins barking at you or trying to intimidate you, all that's required is to remain calm, don't blink and politely repeat the question. I once saw Bill Parcells get asked after a game if he thought he 'outcoached' his opponent and you could feel the entire room cringe at such a ridiculous question because everyone with a brain knew Parcells would never criticize another coach like that and he appropriately shouted down the person who asked it. Don't be that guy. If you know what you're talking about you'll have no problems. Often, incidents with these types are the reporter's doing."
"I've found that knowledge is power," says Chris Duncan, Sports Writer for the Associated Press who also covered Knight.
"You've got the unpredictable types like Knight, Randy Johnson or Jeff Kent, who will just tear into you, no matter what you ask, depending on their mood - or, more often, how they or their team did in the game. But if you frame your question in a way that demonstrates command of your material, the athlete/coach will usually respect you enough to answer in a reasonable way."
Jeremy Lin's rise from obscurity to OMG. Tim Tebow's work-ethic. Kobe's ridiculous talent. And Tiger Woods, because…well, he's Tiger Woods. These are the athletes who transcend sports. And if not careful, their presence can turn any reporter into a kiss ass.
"First and foremost, I treat them as normal as possible," says Seth Fader, Coordinating Producer for PGA Tour Productions. "I think people fall into the 'star-struck' trap, and they lose all credibility immediately with the athlete. The bigger star they are, the more normal I treat them, as I end up being one of the few that actually does; and I think I earn a bit of respect."
Bill Hartman is a veteran Atlanta sports reporter/anchor for 35 years. "I confess that I have been awestruck by some of the people I have interviewed," Hartman says. "Any sportscaster who tells you differently is not being truthful. The rock star interview is a lot like playing football. After the first couple of questions, you lose some of that intimidation and it's just an interview. My all-time favorite rock star interview: Muhammad Ali."
In my experience, if the team doesn't set up a press conference for the Rock Star, tracking them down in the clubhouse can be like getting into Walmart at 3am on Black Friday.
"If it's a locker room, expect pushing and shoving for a decent spot in front of the player, there's just no getting around it," Berthiaume says. "If it's a news conference podium set up just make sure you're on time. These guys are in demand and will generally expect to be mobbed by the media. Most handle it well. In the late 80's I went to Charlotte to interview Michael Jordan. Before the game, he was surrounded at his locker but was polite and pleasant as he sat in a chair sorting through the hordes of extra tickets he needed to provide for friends and family. These guys are pros, they get it. You just have to be patient and ready and you'll generally get what you need. It's all about being ready to go when they decide to talk."
Some athletes are widely known for adversarial athlete/media relationships. Over the past twenty years, nobody more so than Barry Bonds.
"He treated many a reporter like dirt," Hartman says. "Did it to me. And I witnessed him do it to others."
"I try not to be too intimidated, " Schwarb says. "Not easy if you're talking to someone like Bonds, and you're a kid, but you gotta have confidence or they'll see right through you. Give yourself a pep talk, even write out your very best question just to be sure (and you might only get one question), and fire away."
"It's a lot like dating...or summoning the courage to walk up and talk to the hottest girl at the party," says Duncan. "No need for a fancy pick-up line, don't outsmart yourself. Walk up, make eye contact, extend your hand and introduce yourself. I've done it with notoriously difficult athletes and coaches, and it works every time on the first intro."
"Tony LaRussa...Tim Duncan...Roger Clemens come to mind," Duncan says. "I got lucky with LaRussa, famously prickly with the media. I introduced myself to him at the time the Cardinals had Chris Duncan playing right field. "I'm Chris Duncan, from the AP here in Houston...The other one." LaRussa actually smiled and said, "Wow, can you hit?" I answered, "well, no, I can barely write." He liked that, and he remembered me every time after that when the Cardinals came to town."
Berthiaume recalls a time when pleasantries didn't exactly work for him.
"I once walked up to Reggie Jackson on the infield at Fenway Park well before a game while he was simply standing there doing nothing, talking to no one," Berthiaume says. "It seemed the perfect time for a few questions. I walked up to Jackson with a camera man behind me and politely asked if he had a few minutes. He stared directly at me for 10 seconds, said nothing and walked away."
Everyone gets blown off at some point, and you can't take it personally. But you can learn from it, as Crane did with a hall-of-fame quarterback.
"No need to try any small talk, just ask and hopefully get the answer," Crane says. "I have been doing this for more than 30 years and could be doing it another 30 and while I don't know much, I do know this.. Dan Marino will never, ever be able to be removed from the 'Top Five A-Holes I Have Ever Dealt With List.' I dealt with him many times and he was a surly, condescending prick every single time. I never had the displeasure of putting him in a private one-on-one, so my approach to dealing with people like him was just get in, ask what I needed and get out."
Are you seeing a pattern here? Preparation and confidence are crucial for interviewing athletes and coaches, and the confidence will come with experience.
Written by SportsTVJobs.com Senior Writer Pam Modarelli-Hegner