What do the Kobe-Shaq era Lakers, the Isiah-helmed Knicks, and Prokhorov's Nets all have in common, other than some of the most entertaining and disastrous player-management relationships in recent history? They've all been covered by one man.
"I'm a writer at heart and still consider myself a newspaper guy to the core, but after 22 years, it's nice to learn a few new skills."
Howard Beck was on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News from 1997 to 2004. Then he moved to the New York Times and covered the Knicks until 2012, when he shifted his attention to the Nets for their inaugural season in Brooklyn. Last year, in a move that shook up the sports-media landscape, Beck left the Times for Bleacher Report, an outfit better regarded by many at the time for its SEO techniques than for its journalism reputation. But thanks in part to hires like Beck's, and a wholly synergistic relationship with Turner's television channels (Turner acquired B/R for a reported $175 million in 2012), the site is establishing itself as more than just a collection of user-generated slideshows with excellent Google juice.Now a national NBA columnist instead of a single team's beat writer, Beck has been more able to focus on league-wide stories like the so-called "tanking epidemic," the significance of Jason Collins, and assessing David Stern's legacy. "I'm enjoying the freedom to simply pick the best stories and pursue them, wherever they may be," he tells Gelf.
In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, Beck discusses his new job, what he misses about print deadlines, and why hiring Phil Jackson could mean a fundamental change for the Knicks ownership.
Gelf Magazine: How has your time at Bleacher Report been so far? Have you been able to accomplish the things you set out to do there?
Howard Beck: I'm really happy with the move. I loved every moment of my nine years with the Times, and leaving was the most excruciating decision I've ever made. But B/R offered the chance to spread my wings a bit, primarily into video. I'm now doing several video segments a week that run on the site, as well as regular turns on NBATV (which, like B/R, is run by Turner Sports). I've never aspired to be a TV guy. I'm a writer at heart and still consider myself a newspaper guy to the core, but after 22 years, it's nice to learn a few new skills. And I definitely don't miss newspaper deadlines.
Gelf Magazine: Did you view your move there from the Times as a loaded Symbol of Sports Journalism in Our Times or just a new gig?Howard Beck: I suppose it's both. I mean, I'm not a symbol of anything, just one guy who made the best decision for his own career and personal life at a specific moment in time. I don't see my move as a statement about the state of newspapers or the threat of new media, etc. But yes, I'd say it's also indicative of the media landscape in 2014. Ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, there weren't nearly as many options for an NBA writer outside of traditional media.
Gelf Magazine: What's the biggest difference been so far?
Howard Beck: No deadlines! Well, that's not entirely true. But there's much more flexibility when you don't have presses running and a fleet of trucks idling on the curb. It's a mixed blessing, really. I probably write better on deadline. Panic is a great tool for focusing. The primary difference is that, as a national columnist, I'm not strapped to a single team anymore. I covered the Lakers for seven years, then spent most of the last nine years on the Knicks (with a temporary detour to the Nets). I'm enjoying the freedom to simply pick the best stories and pursue them, wherever they may be.
Gelf Magazine: What is the No. 1 challenge facing Adam Silver as new commissioner?
Howard Beck: Avoiding a lockout in 2017 would be a good start. But there's no pressing issue at the moment.
Gelf Magazine: Do you believe the NBA draft system is broken? What do you think of some of the proposed methods to fix it?
Howard Beck: The tanking issue, as I wrote this week, has been vastly overstated. But the NBA now has a perception problem, because so many fans (and media) believe it's a significant trend. The fact is, the lottery system does create a marginal incentive to lose, or for a bad team to intentionally get worse. That's probably not an ideal model, and I think the NBA would acknowledge that. I think it's likely they will change the lottery odds, at a minimum. I'm a big fan of the "wheel" system designed by Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren, but I'm not sure it will get the necessary support to be adopted.
Gelf Magazine: Has the field of basketball analytics mostly evened out by now or do some teams retain a significant advantage?
Howard Beck: Really tough to say. So much of what teams are doing is proprietary. We might never know who's developed the best analytical tools, except by observation: Who consistently nails the draft? Which teams best maximize their cap room?
Gelf Magazine: Who were the best people to interview during your tenure on the beat?
Howard Beck: In general, anyone who's thoughtful, candid, and enjoys the conversation. So many come to mind: Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal (on his good days), Karl Malone, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw, Mike D'Antoni, Gregg Popovich, Donnie Walsh, Steve Kerr, Jeff Van Gundy, David Stern, David Falk, Shane Battier, Malik Rose.
Gelf Magazine: Will James Dolan ever stop interfering with basketball decisions?
Howard Beck: Well, he's about to hire Phil Jackson to run the team. I don't think Phil would take the job without ironclad assurances that Dolan was ready to back off. But we're about to find out.