Books | Sports

December 4, 2006

A Suns 'Assistant Coach' Tells All

Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum wrote a book about his season on the bench of the Phoenix Suns. He tells Gelf why Steve Nash's race didn't win him the MVP award, what he really thinks of Charles Barkley, and why he'd like to see an NBA team in Vegas.

Aaron Zamost

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum spent the entire 2005-2006 season following the Suns as an “assistant coach,” documenting the day-to-day activities involved in coaching and playing for an NBA team with title hopes. And yet even after writing a book about his year with the team, he still can't escape the Suns. “I saw Nash after the game [last night],” McCallum told Gelf in an email Saturday. “Told him, jokingly, I am tired about doing publicity for the book in Canada and having everyone ask me, ‘What is Steve Nash really like?’ ”

Jack McCallum
Jack McCallum
McCallum’s book is full of the random drama and stories you might expect from following around a dozen millionaires and those who pay and coach them (Shawn Marion laments that the Suns don’t sell an official Shawn Marion bobblehead doll; the owner, Robert Sarver, wants to shave McCallum’s eyebrows; the coach, Mike D’Antoni, listens to "Pink" on his iPod). But Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin' and Gunnin' Phoenix Suns (named after the Suns’ offensive game plan) is also honest and objective, a very personal look at how players and coaches deal with playoff basketball. By the end of the book, you’re sick of these people for the same reason you’re sick of your family after spending the holidays with them. You know them too well.

McCallum spoke with Gelf about the book, the Suns, why he'd like to see an NBA team in Las Vegas, and why he’d never vote for Charles Barkley. Following are edited excerpts from the interview. (Also, you can hear McCallum and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, December 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: What has been the general response to the book from Phoenix players and coaches?
Jack McCallum: Players? I have no idea. They rarely comment on books. Steve Nash asked for a copy of a Celtics book I wrote years ago and he told me how much he liked it. My guess is, he won't read this one. Amaré Stoudemire had a strong reaction to my calling him "unreliable" but I wasn't around for it. I just saw the coaches for the first time and they all told me how much they liked it. Then again, they came out fairly positively.

GM: Any specific feedback from Nash?
JM: I asked him if he read it. "No, I didn't get a copy," he said.
"Well, you make a decent salary," I said. "Perhaps you could spring for the twenty bucks at a Barnes & Noble."
"You mean, you can actually buy it in stores?" he said. "I thought it was one of those write-in deals."
He was kidding about the last part, but he seemed authentically surprised that a book about the Suns would be on mainstream shelves. Despite some of the negative passages, there was absolutely no reaction about that from any of the [other] Suns. Maybe they'll read it in the summer.

GM: Stoudemire comes across in your book as somewhat casual and lazy about his rehab. Can this sensibility be credited solely to his age? Lack of college experience? Do you get the feeling that other young players generally would have reacted similarly to such an injury so early in their career, or is there something specific to Stoudemire?
JM: I think it's a case-by-case basis. In general, though, young players have far, far less understanding of the long-term benefits of careful diet, taking care of your body, things like that. It's a source of almost daily frustration for Nash that guys do not prepare better. Then again, when I was 21, I did some strange things, too.

GM: What do you think of Stoudemire’s comeback difficulty so far this year? Was it foreshadowed by anything you saw last season?
JM: Suddenly, you know, Stoudemire is playing real well. Maybe he was in fact motivated by some of the nay-sayers like myself. But he's at about 80% and looking better every game.

GM: You frequently allude to Nash's rabid popularity in Phoenix. But he seems (to me at least) to be one of the least charismatic personalities in the NBA. How do you think he connects with the fans? I always suspect it's the "average joe" thing that has made John Daly so popular.
JM: Not sure how you're measuring charisma. He's immensely popular, so I do think you're in the minority. I think he connects with fans very well, partly because of his race, partly because of the idea that he's achieved so much with seemingly "average" athleticism, partly because he is perceived, correctly, as an unselfish player.

GM: True. It's just that, at least to me, he doesn't seem that interesting when he's being interviewed. He's kind of quiet, not lots of big smiles—he doesn't have that public energy or playfulness that, for example, Magic had.
JM: I agree. Then again, I find absolutely no one charismatic when they're being interviewed. You mention Magic as the standard. That is telling. He is the standard. No one before or since was able to infuse an interview with charisma. I swear this is true: When I'm watching a game and a player is about to be interviewed, I hit MUTE. Alas, sometimes I wish I could hit MUTE when I'm interviewing them.

GM: You write, "A better argument is that an MVP should be a better defensive player than Nash is." Do you think MVP Nash is better than Gary Payton was at his very best? Jason Kidd?
JM: I think Nash at his best as a point guard was better than Payton at his best. Jason Kidd had a couple years when he was better as a point guard because of his all-around game. Right now, Nash is better.

Steve Nash
Steve Nash was awarded the league MVP award for his play and not his race, McCallum says.
GM: How much of a factor was race in Nash's selection as MVP? JM: Positively, absolutely none. And you're asking that of someone who constantly alludes to race as being a determining factor in the NBA's relative unpopularity in relation to football, baseball, college hoops, etc. The MVP is selected by the basketball writers. We do a shitty job on some things, but I think we do an outstanding job, by and large, on voting.

GM: Is that a fair topic for discussion?
JM: Race is always fair. I just think it's irrelevant in this case.

GM: Do you think Marion's sensitivity to Nash and Stoudemire's popularity is justified? From your description of the situation, it reads like the coaches are coddling Marion.
JM: The one place it is justified is that Nash's defensive liabilities are overlooked and Marion's ability to defend five positions is undervalued. I wouldn't say they coddle Marion. I would say the coaches spend more time trying to figure out how to present something to him than they do with the other players combined.

GM: It seems the main difference between Marion and other NBA players who claim to be "disrespected" is that he does not derive significant motivation from such criticism.
JM: I would agree with that.

GM: Given both Marion's unique skills and his frequent involvement in trade rumors, to what other teams might he best contribute?
JM: Any team that does not play an extremely structured system. I couldn't see him with Houston, for example, or being a real cog in Phil Jackson's triangle. But he would help almost any other team as long as there is someone to get him the ball.

GM: To what other teams might the 2004-2006 Suns compare? Could they have run with the Showtime Lakers and other high-scoring teams in the 80s?
JM: Well, the Showtime Lakers won four championships. So of course they Suns aren't that good. They haven't won any. Could they run with them? Absolutely. Would they beat them in a seven-game series? Absolutely not.

GM: NBA writers/commentators frequently allude to the old NBA adage that "defense wins championships." After spending a year watching the Suns, do you get the feeling that this is true? Do you believe a team like Phoenix (or past Dallas teams) could win a title by following D'Antoni's system?
JM: Providing a three-word adage, no matter what it is, is far too simplistic. The Heat won last year because Dwyane Wade morphed into Michael Jordan. The Spurs and Pistons won partly because they could lock you down and partly because they could score in the halfcourt a high percentage of the time. The D'Antoni system could absolutely produce a champion. The Suns are not a horrific defensive team, don't forget, merely an average one. If the system doesn't produce a champion, it's not because the system is essentially flawed; it's because other teams were better.

GM: So if the system can work, and it's just a matter of trying to match up well against other playoff teams, how might D'Antoni tweak the team's roster to get the team to the Finals?
JM: Two ways. Suddenly turn Stoudemire or Boris Diaw into a defensive, rebounding force. Or get a guy like that. Now, I agree that isn't easy. Kurt Thomas is that guy but, when he plays big minutes, the Suns worry that he takes too much away from their seven-second style.

GM: Honestly, how much effect does a coach really have on the game? (The "Phil Jackson wasn't good, he was lucky" question.) Shouldn't the better team win regardless?
JM: Honestly, quite a lot. I figured one night that an NBA coach makes at least 50 decisions on the fly during a game—substitutions, inbounds plays, timeout calls, matchups, etc. Now, will the team with the best talent probably win? Probably? Could you or I coach an all-star team to a championship? Definitely not.

GM: But I could coach the Knicks to a 5-11 start, right?
JM: I don't think so. Under you or me, the Knicks would've gotten off at 4-12.

GM: There's no defending Isiah Thomas as a coach/GM, is there? I have to say, I really like that the Knicks stink.
JM: I'm not sure about Isiah as a coach. He wasn't great at Indiana but he wasn't bad. The irony is, he collected so many overpaid, untradeable players as a GM that he screwed himself as a coach.

GM: Where do you believe D'Antoni ranks among current NBA coaches?
JM: He's near the top. Based on track record, though, you would have to rank Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich ahead of him.

GM: Would you be naming Pat Riley if he hadn't won a championship last year? All I remember about Riley is that for most of my life he lost to the Bulls (when he was with the Knicks) or Knicks (with the Heat) in the playoffs every year.
JM: That's because you're not old. I remember Riley, see, winning four titles in the '80s and getting there a couple other times. If I ask you to name a great politician you might say Bill Clinton, whereas I'd say Thomas Jefferson.

GM: What do you really think of Charles Barkley? He could be a politician soon.
JM: I like Charles a lot. I think he's funny and a total original. I do think his balloon has to be burst once in a while, though. The idea that everything he says is gospel or news is ridiculous.

GM: Would you vote for him for governor?
JM: Not if it was my state he was going to govern.

GM: Is there a team in any other sport (baseball, basketball, football) that you'd be interested in following in a similar fashion?
JM: God, no.

GM: What freedom did you have in writing your own book that you don't have when writing for SI?
JM: You're not constrained by space and you can use the f-word. That is liberating. [Editor's note: You can also use "fuck" on Gelf.]

GM: How did Foul Lines [McCallum’s previous book] do? Was it received well by the NBA?
JM: Foul Lines sold as most fiction, particularly most first fiction sells: mediocre. It might be pointless to say that I don't care because it was so much fun to write … but I don't care because it was so much fun to write. I know the NBA execs got a certain pleasure out of the fact that it didn't make too much of a ripple and never became a fire they had to put out.

GM: Do you think they should put an NBA team in Vegas? I can't imagine that'd be a good idea.
JM: You ever see Hustle and Flow, possibly the only great movie about a pimp? If the NBA were in Vegas, it would not be hard out there for a pimp.
As a native of Atlantic City, N.J.—the real gambling mecca (that's a joke)—I hold no special love for Vegas. But I'd like to see a team there for only one reason: To watch NBA coaches balance their own love of the tables with the fear that their players would party themselves out of a game. For example, you're in Indy on Wednesday, in Vegas on Friday, and have a game somewhere else on Sunday. You could spend as many as three nights in Sin City. What do you do? I'd like to see coaches make that decision.

GM: My favorite line in the book is actually your last: "Writing about someone generally precludes having a friendship with them, and all I can say is that I hope I stayed on the correct side of that very thin line." It's not like you were the Suns beat writer; you covered them from the bench/bus/locker room the entire year. Does that make criticizing them difficult? How do you keep these two parts of your personality separate?
JM: It's an eternal question. I've run into the situation before though not to this degree. Both the hard and easy answer is that you're a journalist first. You take a deep breath and write what you think. In this case, honestly, I had true respect for these guys. I thought they did their jobs well, and that's what I wrote. Did my friendship with them influence my evaluation? I would say no, but that might be for a higher power to decide.
You got all the way through the book before coming to your favorite line?

Related in Gelf

McCallum and Jon Wertheim answer Gelf's questions about their work of NBA fiction, Foul Lines.

Related on the web

•McCallum's article last year for Sports Illustrated about eight days with the Suns.

•The blog True Hoop also talked to McCallum about the book.

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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