Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Chicago Hilton

Let me tell you one of the simple, basic truths about the relationship between NBA players and the media: they don’t particularly enjoy talking with us, not usually at least.

It’s a fact that has pretty much shown itself to be true over the fifteen or so Chicago Bulls games I’ve attended this season, and over all the professional basketball players I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with. Don’t get it twisted; there are a lot of really nice guys in the league: Jermaine O’Neal, Derek Fisher, P.J. Brown, and the story I’m about to tell you is about one of those really nice guys.

But there are a ton of players who are either just too busy to chat with media, or who don’t have the necessary charisma and patience to conduct a cordial interview with me. Of course, if I was rich and/or famous, the novelty of it all would probably wear off very quickly and I’d grow bored and impatient with reporters, too. Can’t blame them, I guess.

The point is that usually I feel like I’m imposing on a player when I ask for a few minutes of his time before the game, just to chat a little so I can meet my needs for the company I work for. Last night, when I covered the Bulls-Hornets game, I had one of my best interviewing experiences of my young sports journalism career.

The way I do things is by first heading into the visitor’s locker room, since I can interview the Bulls whenever I want and only get a chance to see the guests maybe once the whole season. In this case it was the New Orleans Hornets, an extremely young team on the cusp of playoff contention in the Western Conference. They’ve got their studs—a former rookie of the year, a dunk contest winner, and so on…

But the team also has a couple of rookies on the squad, one of whom a college teammate of Ben Gordon named Hilton Armstrong, so I had him on my list of guys to chat with. I generally enjoy talking to rookies because they don’t have that cocky feeling of entitlement yet, so they’re pretty easy-going about interviews. It’s all still pretty new, so they’re excited. Plus, they’re younger than me, unlike most of the other guys I talk to, so I end up feeling like I’m in the driver’s seat, which is a nice change of pace. Makes me less nervous.

Anyway, Hilton’s this huge kid, kind of lanky with a baby face, and I caught him chatting with a couple of teammates as I moseyed into the visitors’ locker room. I said what I always said when I initiate contact, “What’s going on man? Joel Brigham, nice to meet you. Got time for a few questions?”

To my surprise, however, Mr. Armstrong looked at me with an flabbergasted expression and gave me a rather unexpected response: “No one’s ever interviewed me yet.”

I sort of laughed, thinking he was feeding me a load of crap because come on, we’re 2/3 of the way through the season, this kid’s a lottery pick, and no one’s talked him at a game? But then I started to think about it. The kid hardly plays at all, he’s averaging something like 3 points a game, and with all the other media darlings and stud muffins on the team, I very much doubt he’s someone the Oklahoma City papers are dying to track down.

He’s just sitting in his spinny ergonomic chair looking at me like a little kid who’s just heard his father say, “Hey sport! I’ve got a surprise for you!” He’s giving me that “What is it?!” look.

So I conduct the interview, and though his answers were pretty stock and not particularly enlightening, he answered every single one of them with the fervor of a first-time interviewee. He was in the moment, loving every second of it, and I had a really nice time watching him love it.

See, so much of this sports writing this is hurried and cut-throat and political and fast, that it can surely be frustrating at times (as all jobs can be), but it was in this little poetic moment that I found a moment of peace. Just to think how cordial this young man was, how excited he was to be interviewed. He didn’t even get into the game last night, but at least in one way it was a special night for him.

I guess it’s the teacher in me to have found this so nice, but it was a cool thing. I wish more of this was like that, but I can assure you that Kevin Garnett was nowhere near as nice. Confident, funny, and informative, but not particularly nice. Like I said, though, if you’ve been that famous that long, you don’t have to be.

When you’re a rookie getting hardly any playing time, you do. And Hilton Armstrong was.

Hoopsworld.com interview with Hilton Armstrong