Thursday, September 29, 2011

Preseason Q-and-A Series: Jason King of Yahoo Sports

Over the next month, we will be unloading a plethora of preseason college basketball content. From top-25 rankings, to conference previews, All-American teams, player profiles, and even the vaunted "B.I.A.H All-Name Team" selections. We will also be providing a handful of Q-and-A sessions with some of the biggest names in college hoops.

We start off our series of preseason interviews with Jason King of Yahoo Sports. He is one of the premier writers in the college basketball community and is a daily must-read and must-follow.

Aside from writing for Yahoo Sports, Jason authored a highly-anticipated book on the past decade of Kansas basketball. Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade is available for pre-order and will be available for purchase on October 1st. We had a chance to get to know the author and pick his mind about the book, Kansas hoops, the state of college basketball, and of course, barbecue.

Your new book, Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade is set to be released soon. What inspired you to write the book and when did you start working on this project?

One of the most frustrating things about being a beat writer is that you can’t always print everything you know. You’ll hear rumors about things that happen during practice or in the locker room or at the nightclubs. You know the stories are probably all true, but no one will confirm them for you on the record because they’re too scared of being yelled at or disciplined by the coach. I knew that would change once guys left the program.

I made a list of 40 players I wanted to interview along with Roy Williams and Bill Self. I’d kept in touch with a lot of them over the years via e-mail and telephone, and the others weren’t hard to contact. My first three interviews were with Luke Axtell, Jeff Graves and Drew Gooden. Each interview lasted more than an hour, and the latter two were conducted in person. Let’s just say that, after those interviews, I was a big believer in the clichĂ©, “Time loosens lips.” I couldn’t believe how candid and honest they had been with me. Frankly, it was pretty refreshing. At that point I knew I had to press forward with the book.

I recruited Lawrence Journal World sportswriter Jesse Newell – who I’ve long considered one of the field’s hidden gems – and combined we interviewed 38 players and both coaches from June to mid-August. I conducted 28 of the interviews and Jesse did 12. The only two guys we didn’t get were Marcus and Markieff Morris, but it certainly wasn’t from a lack of effort. Still, literally every other big name is in the book with his own chapter: Hinrich, Collison, Simien, Rush, Hawkins, Reed, Morningstar, Henry, Chalmers, Wright, Selby, Giddens, Giles, Arthur, Collins, Aldrich, Langford, Boschee, Chenowith, Miles … no one is missing.

We started the book in early June and had it to the printer by August 26. So much for a relaxing summer. In all seriousness, it was a lot of fun. The players couldn’t have been any more friendly and cooperative.

Is this your first foray into the book world? Have you thought about following this book up with something else?

I actually did a book on Kansas’ 2008 national championship season entitled “Kansas Jayhawks: A Year to Remember – Inside the Greatest Season in Kansas Basketball History”. I’m still mad I didn’t come up with a better title. “A Year to Remember” … riveting, I know. I definitely think this is the end of the road for me when it comes to Kansas basketball books. But if I find a topic I’m passionate about down the road, I’d be open to writing another one.

Right now, though, my plan is to spend the next few weeks marketing this book and doing some signings. Then I’m going to focus 100 percent of my attention on the college basketball season. It’s going to be a fun year in college hoops.

Some excerpts from your book were released last week and seemed to gain a lot of attention, especially the story of Kris Humphries' recruiting visit and the Kansas/Villanova tournament game. Are they any good stories that didn't make the cut for the book?

Honestly, no. I really didn’t chop anything. My goal was to hold the book to 400 pages and, after we turned in all the chapters, it came in at 390. Jesse and I just let guys talk and talk and talk until their heart was content. Believe it or not, there’s some really good stuff in there from some of Kansas’ walk-ons. Matt Kleinmann’s chapter is about 5,000 words. (Sherron Collin’s chapter is the longest at 8,000-plus words/20 pages).

I know you’re probably thinking, “Why would I want to read 5,000 words about Matt Kleinmann? Well, the chapter isn’t all about him. It’s Kleinmann telling funny stories about his teammates or about things that happened at practice. Nick Bahe and Stephen Vinson have good stories, too.

Take us through how you ended up writing for the Dallas Morning News at 15 years-old? Were you covering games then?

I was very lucky. I attended Hillcrest High School in Dallas, and the newspaper there (The Hillcrest Hurricane) was routinely named one of the best high school publications in the country. The paper’s advisor at the time has been named national teacher of the year and speaks at conventions throughout the country. I signed up for his Journalism I class as a high school freshman and was immediately hooked.

Mr. Tate pushed his students like a football coach would a player. He was very demanding but was also a great motivator. After completing Journalism I, I was allowed to join The Hurricane staff as a sophomore. Sensing my growing passion, Mr. Tate suggested I contact the Dallas Morning News about covering high school football games. I asked him if he thought they’d hire a 15-year-old. “Don’t tell them you’re 15,” he said. Sure enough, I called them and they hired me to cover a game each Friday for $45.

The stories were only three paragraphs, and I was responsible for providing complete stats and a full boxscore. Still, at the time, it felt like a big deal. The Dallas Morning News had about 50 other stringers doing what I was doing every Friday night. Who knows, maybe I wasn’t even the only 15-year-old. But ever since then I’ve loved hanging out in press boxes, keeping stats and just being around the action.

The thing I’ll remember the most, though, is Mr. Tate going to that very first game with me and teaching me how to keep stats and then sitting next to me in an assistant coaches’ offices as I dictated my story to a Dallas Morning News employee around 11 p.m. – and then high-fiving me after I hung up the phone. More than 20 years later, Mr. Tate is still my No. 1 mentor. And he’s still going strong as a teacher. He’s got students at some of the top journalism schools in the country and has produced multiple National High School Journalists of the Year.

What’s funny is that he moved to the Kansas City area a few years after I did to take a job at Shawnee Mission East High School. I joke that he’s just following me around to be my own, personal writing coach. In all seriousness, sometimes I wonder what I would’ve done with my life if I wouldn’t have walked into his class as a 14-year-old high school freshman.

Now, you graduated from Baylor. What has it been like as an alumni to see the basketball program go through such highs and lows in the past decade?

Nobody believes me when I say this, but I’m not a diehard Baylor fan. Because of my job, I’m not a fan of any school. I want my coverage of Baylor to be balanced and fair, and I think it has been. I’ve been extremely critical of Baylor in the past.

The only thing that used to upset me was when people said Baylor didn’t belong in the Big 12 or that Baylor would never compete in the Big 12. To me, that was always an asinine statement. I always knew Baylor would do just fine in the Big 12 as long as it made the right coaching hires. Unfortunately, they had some whiffs that caused them to take a few massive steps back. Harry Miller and Dave Bliss in basketball; Dave Roberts and Kevin Steele in football … awful, awful hires.

But look at Baylor now with Art Briles, Scott Drew and Kim Mulkey. Not a bad trio. When the preseason basketball polls are released in November, Baylor will likely be the only school in the country with a top 25 ranking in football and men’s and women’s basketball. And this is the school that can’t compete in the Big 12? Um, OK.

Say what you want about Waco, Texas – I can name four Big 12 towns that are much worse, by the way – but it sits smack dab in the middle of one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas. Houston is three hours away, San Antonio is two hours away and Austin and Dallas are just 90 minutes away. Considering that, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all that Baylor’s athletics program is faring so well across the board.

Is this finally the year that the Baylor hoops team breaks through and dethrones Kansas from atop the Big-12?

They definitely have a good chance. I honestly think that, other than North Carolina and Kentucky, Baylor matches up with any team in America in terms of pure talent. Again, I’m not saying they’re the third best team in the country overall. I’m not sure I’d put them in the top 10.

But in terms of talent … wow. They’ve got two players (Perry Jones and Quincy Miller) who are projected to go in the top 10. Quincy Acy had 10 dunks in a single game a few years ago. Anthony Jones is a 6-11 three-man who can bring the ball up the court. Pierre Jackson was last year’s National Junior College Player of the Year. One publication listed Deuce Bello as one of the top 20 dunkers in the entire world. And we haven’t even mentioned guys like Brady Heslip, a combo guard who will likely start, and Gary Franklin, another combo guard who started at Cal as a freshman before transferring in December.

Still, even with all of that talent, I’m still picking the Bears to finish second in the league behind Kansas. Chemistry is just as important as talent, and I’ll be interested to see how well this team plays together. Are the Bears going to play streetball and take terrible shots like they have in the past? Or are they going to resemble the selfless team that advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010.

That’s why Kansas does so well each and every year. The Jayhawks take pride in sharing the ball and playing solid defense. They don’t care about scoring stats or about the NBA scouts sitting on press row. They know that, if they win, all that other stuff will take care of itself.

The only problem is that I’m just not convinced this Jayhawks team has enough pieces to win an eighth straight conference title. There is no depth in the post. They’re unproven at the three-spot – although I won’t be surprised if Travis Releford steps up there – and their first guard off the bench will be a true freshman. In other words, I’m picking the Jayhawks because they’ve won seven straight, and I’ll always stick with a winner until they lose. But I don’t feel as good about this one. Luckily, the rest of the league will be mediocre this season, so if Kansas was ever going to have a down year, it picked a good time.

What happens to Kansas if they are left out of the expansionocalypse free-for-all? Five years down the road, what conference are they playing in? How long does the Big 12 last?

I think Kansas will always have a home in one of the Big Six conferences. The Jayhawks basketball program is just too strong. Who wouldn’t want to add a national brand, a national team to its conference? I kind of think the Big 12 will stay together for awhile now. Even if Missouri leaves for the SEC, the Big 12 could add four more teams and be fine. Kansas doesn’t want to move unless it absolutely has to.

There was a bit of an uproar on twitter surrounding Perry Ellis and his decision to go to Kansas when Seth Davis of broke the news just five minutes before Ellis was set to announce. I know Seth was doing his job, but do you think it’s fair to take away a kid's moment like that? Would you have done the same if you had the information?

I don’t blame Seth one bit. I would’ve done the exact same thing, and I can’t imagine there’s a credible beat writer out there who would disagree. He didn’t do anything wrong. Perry Ellis and the University of Kansas don’t sign Seth’s paychecks. Sports Illustrated does, and one of Seth’s job responsibilities is to break news.

I guess the only difference is that I probably wouldn’t have been pursuing that story very hard in the first place. I mean, is it really that big of a deal to tweet where a kid is going five minutes before he announces it? At that point, who cares? That’s certainly not a scoop to celebrate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d tweet the information if I had it, which is exactly what Seth did. But with five minutes to go, I wouldn’t be knocking myself out to obtain it just so the small percentage of my twitter followers who were online could see it a few minutes before the kid announced the decision. And the thing is, I think Seth would agree with me. Those aren’t the kinds of stories he chases. He probably just happened upon the information while he was working on something else and put it out there like anyone would. Seth is an excellent journalist. He has a good grasp of what’s important. I’ve learned a lot from him.

One of the most controversial story lines of the offseason involved UConn and how they were able to manipulate the scholarship numbers to circumvent the punishment they received from the NCAA and get Andre Drummond into uniform. Who do you blame? Is this the NCAA's fault, another example of just how toothless the organization is? Or do we blame Calhoun, the coach that actually took a kid that grew up in a group home off scholarship?

The obvious reaction is to blame Calhoun, but it’s hard for me to do that, because I think just about any coach in the country would’ve done the same thing if they had a chance to add Andre Drummond to their team.

I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the way it is. As long as the NCAA allows this stuff to happen, it’s going to occur. Man … I’ve gotta think someone promised something to the kid who gave up his scholarship. A job after graduation, perhaps? Maybe a cut of Drummond’s first NBA paycheck. Someone needs to take care of that guy.

This is broad, but if you could make one change to college sports, what would it be?

I think kids should be able to jump straight to the NBA out of high school – but only if an evaluation committee determined that the kid would likely be drafted. In other words, they would have to be approved to enter the draft. Anyone not approved would have to spend at least two years in college.

That would help bring stability to some of the programs (i.e. UCLA) that have been hurt by early departures. And letting the John Walls, Kevin Durants and Michael Beasleys of the world skip college altogether would eliminate some of the corruption we see in recruiting circles. Granted, there would still be corruption, just not quite as much.

We know you're a bit of an expert when it comes to food, so if you only had one meal left, what would it be?

Toughest question so far.

I’d probably pick Babe’s Chicken Dinner House. There are several locations in North Texas. Babe’s is tied with Gus’s in Memphis for the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Babe’s gets the nod, though, because of the family-style helpings. For $11.99 you get five pieces of chicken and all of the salad, mashed potatoes and green beans you can eat. Not a fried chicken fan? No problem. Babe’s also has fried catfish, chicken fried steak, pot roast, smoked chicken and ribs. Just like the fried chicken, the portions are huge. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. (

Honorable mention goes to Oklahoma Joe’s barbecue in Kansas City, Ted’s CafĂ© Escondido in Oklahoma City and George’s Bar & Grill in Waco.

Quick hitters:

Favorite arena to cover a game in?

I honestly think Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse is the best. And I don’t think I’m biased here, because most of the writers who cover – or have covered – the national scene seem to agree with me. I’ve never seen a pregame video as impressive and jarring as the one that plays before KU games, and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that gets as loud as it does at Kansas. It’s truly a special place.

Best fan base in hoops?

Kentucky’s fans are about as passionate as I’ve seen anywhere. I’ll never forget DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe telling me about a girl, a student, who started shaking uncontrollably as they were posing with her for a picture at a campus restaurant.

Best student section?

I think the whole game day experience at Purdue is underrated, and a lot of that is because of the students. They make Mackey Arena a tough place to play.

Best tradition in college hoops?

The pregame video at Kansas, but I already mentioned that. Another thing I always enjoy is Crazy Towel Guy at Duke. I’m sure there are hundreds of better traditions out there, but I always get a kick out of watching him revel in his 20 seconds fame, when the whole crowd is chanting his name as he twirls that towel above his head. Sometimes I’ll look at him near the end of a close game, once he’s finished with his routine for the night, just to see how animated he gets when he’s not waving that towel on center stage. He’s actually pretty mellow.

What is #1 on your college hoops bucket list?

I’ve still got a handful of arenas I’ve never experienced. I’ve been to Wisconsin’s Kohl Center – but never for a Badgers game. That needs to change. I also want to go to games at Gonzaga and New Mexico. I hear those places are pretty fun.

Most quotable player and most quotable coach you've covered?

My favorite coach to interview is Kevin O’Neill at USC. Funny, candid, and not nearly as full of himself as some people may think. He’s done a nice job at USC under difficult circumstances. Former Kansas player Keith Langford is my all-time favorite player when it comes to interviews. Read my book. You’ll see why.

Better barbecue? Texas or Kansas City?

Just depends on what you’re after. I like both places. The pulled pork and pork ribs in Kansas City will embarrass anything Texas has to offer. But Texas will do the same thing to Kansas City with its brisket. I’m not a barbecue snob, though. I like it all. Actually, the only thing I don’t like very much is the diced-up, vinegary pork in North Carolina. I don’t really mind the taste, but when I looked at it I feel like I’m looking at dogfood. Barbecue wasn’t meant to be served in an ice cream scooper.

Don't forget to pick up a copy of Jason's new book, Beyond the Phog: Untold Stories from Kansas Basketball's Most Dominant Decade, available now

No comments: