School of Hardwood Knocks #12 - Dan Devine
The cream of the crop show their best crossover moves as roles are reversed and interviewer becomes interviewee.
“I like writing about stuff I find legitimately funny, and there’s plenty of that almost every day, because the NBA is the funniest sports league in the world.”
This quote, ladies and gents, portrays NBA blogger Dan Devine to a tee: a writer who is determined to expand his knowledge and improve his craft, but someone who also enjoys the lighter side of life and willingly applies it in his work.
From the moment he started writing for Yahoo! Sports’ well-known “Ball Don’t Lie” blog, it was was clear Dan was destined for wrardom (writing stardom? No? Ok . . .). Talented, smart, and very, very witty, the blogstar (there we go) has provided his humorous insight into the NBA. Think of him as being icing on the cake, adding a layer of finesse to the excellence “Ball Don’t Lie” already possesses.
Accolades aside, Dan was kind enough to take part in the interview I conducted with him for The Pick and Roll’s series titled “School of Hardwood Knocks“. In this piece, Devine covers a variety of topics: from his beginnings as a writer for an African American Newspaper, to his opinion on the Knicks and Nets, to his first experience working All-Star Weekend, Dan thoroughly discusses it all. So, without further ado, read and enjoy my exchange with your man Dan Devine.
1. Can you begin by telling our readers a bit about your background, when you first fell in love with basketball, started writing about it and your career progression since?
Sure – I wrote a little bit about the background here, and I have to drive traffic to Yahoo, so I insist you click.
I’m from New York. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Staten Island, which is one of the city’s five boroughs. I was raised on the bruising, beat-you-up Knicks teams of the 1990s, and John Starks was my favorite player as a kid. I’ll love him forever, and while I’ll acknowledge that his shooting cost the Knicks Game 7 of the ’94 Finals, I’ll never stop believing that if Ewing and/or Harper could’ve bought a bucket in Game 6, when Starks scored 27, there wouldn’t have been a Game 7.
Basketball was never my favorite sport growing up, but after I graduated from college, I got interested in the NBA stuff I found online while wasting time at my desk job. I really liked a podcast called The Basketball Jones and a jokes blog called The Blowtorch, and started exchanging emails/comments with the people who ran them (more on them later). Reading/listening to/talking to them led me to other sites, like Matt Moore’s Hardwood Paroxysm, Zach Harper’s TalkHoops and Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop, among others, and the links out from those sites led me to other sites, and all that got me (in a small way) into the conversation. I also loved FreeDarko, but those guys seemed too smart to reach out to without knowing what you were talking about. I later learned they were nice and I was dumb to be intimidated.
TBJ’s J.E. Skeets got hired to run Ball Don’t Lie, and we kept in touch; Trey Kerby from The Blowtorch started contributing to BDL, and we kept in touch, too. I eventually pitched a story idea that Skeets liked and he let me write it (for free). That got my foot in the door, and after a while, I started getting paid a small freelancer’s fee for each post. When Skeets left, Trey took over and wanted me to keep writing, so I did. Then Trey left, Kelly Dwyer took over and he wanted me to keep writing, so I did. After about two and a half years of that, I got offered a staff job. That was about a year and a half ago.
2. Am I right in understanding that you worked for an African American Newspaper in Boston called ‘Baystate Banner’? What type of writing did you do for that newspaper and what did you learn from the experience?
Yep, that’s me – a veteran of Massachusetts’ longest-running black weekly. (If you’ve never seen me, I’m really white.)
I wasn’t having any luck finding journalism jobs in Rhode Island without a journalism degree (my college didn’t have a major in it) and a clip file consisting only of school newspaper stories about rock music, so I started looking in Boston, the nearest bigger city. My girlfriend sent me a help-wanted ad for the Bay State Banner, a small neighborhood newspaper in South Boston. They wanted someone to manage the office and be the publisher’s assistant; if I did well, I might get to help copy edit and maybe even write some. I soon found out that the paper was really short-staffed, which meant I could do a lot if I hustled; I had my first story published a month after I started, I was working on the weekly copy-edit staff a few weeks later, and I was deputy editor within a year.
I wrote about a lot of different kinds of stuff at the Banner – state and local politics, education and transportation, community/police relations, arts and entertainment, etc. I learned that Boston’s complicated racial history is, in a lot of respects, not really “history.” I learned that being willing to put in long hours and try a lot of different things usually works to your advantage, and that like four straight years of 70-hour weeks isn’t good for you. I learned that sometimes people appreciate just being asked what they have to say, even if the person asking is some clueless white kid. I learned that I really liked editing and helping run a (very small) newsroom, but that I wanted to write more, and that being a general assignment community news reporter probably wasn’t for me. Other stuff, too.
3. What parts of the job do you find thoroughly enjoyable? Any aspects you absolutely loathe?
I like writing about stuff I find legitimately funny, and there’s plenty of that almost every day, because the NBA is the funniest sports league in the world. I like the challenge of trying to know something about every team, and find something worth enjoying about every team, and of trying to learn more about the game all the time. I like getting to talk about things that are funny and fun with people every day.
While I wouldn’t say I “absolutely loathe” anything, I don’t like the arguments that crop up around stuff like totally subjective player and team rankings. I don’t like how readers tend to assume that everything you write about their favorite team stems from a deep, deep hatred of them. I don’t like the times when we’re required to pretend everything a famous person says is interesting and worth discussing. Beyond that, though, it’s pretty great.
4. I understand you currently reside in Brooklyn and possess a passion for the New York Knicks. As a result, it seems reasonable to assume you own a strong opinion of the organization’s offseason moves. What are your thoughts on the franchises’ summer overall? Did the ball club end up improving their roster, or will the team take a step back in 2013/14?
I have the benefit of answering this question a few weeks into the season, so . . . yeah, they will take a step back!
Even before seeing the slow start to the season, though, I didn’t believe the Knicks got better on the whole. I liked getting Metta World Peace on the cheap, but I didn’t like giving up multiple players and draft picks for Andrea Bargnani. I loved bringing back Pablo Prigioni and adding Beno Udrih for next-to-nothing, but I hated losing Chris Copeland and Steve Novak, because the Knicks’ offense was at its best last year with multiple floor-spacers and 3-point shooters available. (Plus, those guys were fun.) I also didn’t like the “no real backup center behind Tyson Chandler” thing, which, as we can now see, isn’t working out so hot. I still think they’ll be a playoff team in a rough division/conference, but no – not better.
5. Since you do indeed live in Brooklyn, I feel obligated to ask you about the new-look Nets as well. Do you believe the franchise put together a legitimate contender in the East? Also, what do you think about the club bringing in Jason Kidd to serve as the team’s head coach? Is he capable of properly leading these talented players, or was his hiring premature?
Yeah, a 3-7 start makes you feel like there’s a long way to go, doesn’t it? Heading into the season, I thought the Nets’ moves made them a stronger, more complete team than the Knicks, and might give them a puncher’s chance against Miami, Indiana or Chicago in a short series. If the Kevin Garnett we’ve seen through the first 10 games of the season is the one we get for the rest of it, though, their ceiling drops considerably. I was skeptical of the Kidd hire when it was made and remain skeptical of it, and have not seen anything yet that makes me think it’s going to be a rousing success right now.
6. As the associate editor of Yahoo! Sports’ basketball blog “Ball Don’t Lie”, it is clear you possess a tendency to consistently write pieces covering off-court, NBA-related news. Do you prefer creating articles which review these types of intriguing stories over ones which have more significance to what happens on the court? Any specific reason as to why or why not?
Well, I think there’s room for both kinds of stories on a site like ours, and I know there’s an appetite for both kinds of stories on a site like ours. I prefer writing stuff that I actually enjoy working on, and that can vary – some quick little jokey things are more fun to work on than others and some more in-depth breakdowns are more enjoyable to dig into than others. I’m not an Xs-and-Os genius, a trained scout or an advanced-stats wizard; trying to represent myself as one all the time would be disingenuous and wouldn’t necessarily lead to consistently good content. Also, I wouldn’t find it very fun.
BDL has to serve a lot of different kinds of readers, from die-hards who want to know everything about icing a pick-and-roll to casual fans who just want to see sweet dunks and funny plays to folks who might just dig a human interest story. We try to keep a pretty decent mix on the site, and since Kelly’s so good at hardcore analysis and Eric’s so good at taking smart, unique angles on stories both serious and silly, I tend to gravitate toward the perhaps-not-quite-as-significant-on-the-court to help keep that mix right.
7. ‘Ball Don’t Lie’ has quite a storied history with a number of eminent members of your profession writing for it at one point or another. Could you fill out readers in on a little bit of the blogs history and how it’s changed over the years?
Wrote about that a bit above. Kelly’s been part of BDL since its inception nearly six years ago, and one of the best in the business for even longer than that. Skeets and Trey, now of NBA TV’s “The Starters,” each had distinguished runs at the site’s helm. Eric, formerly of FreeDarko and The Sporting News’ gone-too-soon The Baseline, has been awesome since he’s come on. And a number of folks have passed through at one point or another – Nick Friedell, who now covers the Bulls for ESPN Chicago; well-traveled pro “Too Much” Rod Benson, who’s been published in a number of places; Holly MacKenzie, who’s great and prolific and motivated; and probably more that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s been a very good place to work, and a place that produces very good work, for a very long time. I hope I’m keeping up my end of the bargain.
8. I view BDL and its relationship with Y! as an interesting one, as BDL is on the cutting edge, whereas Y! holds an interesting position itself being a pioneer of the internet age and is new media. As far as the internet goes, however, Y! is as established as it gets (oldest of new media, if that makes any sense). This is probably most noticeable in places like the comments section, but do you agree that Yahoo/BDL holds an interesting place in the blogosphere? If so, what ways have you noticed it in your job?
Well, first off, it’s kind of you to say that we’re “on the cutting edge.” We try to keep up.
I mean, it’s true that BDL has been a big national NBA blog for a long time, which is nice in that it affords a certain level of name recognition. (Having a recognizable name doesn’t hurt, either.) I can’t speak with too much authority to the place BDL occupied before I started writing there, but I was a regular reader of the site before I came on-board, and in my memory, it was sort of like magnetic north for fun random things worth seeing and non-major/mainstream takes on the stories of the day, and The 10-man Rotation was a go-to place to find sites, writers, opinions and jokes you might not have come across before. That, as I understood it, was the idea – rather than decide you had to cover the league one sort of way or another, you could do a little of everything and have fun in the process.
Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I’d like to believe that BDL still offers that sort of broad array of fun/smart/exploratory stuff, that mix I mentioned earlier, to today’s readers. To what degree that sets us apart from other sites in an increasingly crowded landscape is probably not for me to say, though; I’m just glad to be part of said landscape.
Which, now that I think about it, is probably the most important way that Yahoo’s place in the blogosphere affects my job – it allows me to have a job. So, y’know: Thanks, Yahoo.
9. Is there anything really obvious that every wanna-be writer should be doing, but not enough people actually do? If there was one thing you wish you’d been told before you started this as a profession, what would that be?
In my first season of full-time coverage, I learned that trying to record and watch literally every game was a mistake. All it did was jam up my DVR and make me feel like I wasn’t watching enough basketball.
These aren’t writing-specific things, but it would’ve been a good idea for me to learn Photoshop, learn how to shoot and edit video, and learn how to record and produce audio all at professional levels before taking this job. All of those things seem to be getting increasingly important, even if you mostly just want to write.
You say you want obvious, so I’ll call your bluff — everyone who wants to write should read as much as possible, and read all kinds of stuff. Long-form reported pieces, novels, comic books, straight daily news, comedy sketches, screenplays, novellas, whatever. The only way to get better at putting your own words together is to expose yourself to the way other people do it, take what you learn from that, and put it into practice yourself.
Also, y’know, write. If you want to be a writer, then write. Write as much as you can, as often as you can, wherever you can. You’ll write a ton of stuff that makes you want to cringe when you look at it later, but every person who’s ever published anything has felt the exact same way, even about the stuff most of us think is stellar and beyond reproach. What’s important is getting the bat off your shoulder. At least, that’s what important at first. Then it becomes about editing and revising, constantly, for the rest of your life.
Oh, and here’s a good one: “The NBA season is longer than you think, and the offseason isn’t really an offseason, so you have to prioritize figuring out how to have a ‘rest of your life.’” I’m still working on that one, but I’m getting better at it.
10. You had the privilege of working All-Star Weekend for the first time last season in Houston. How was your initial experience at this event? Any intriguing tidbits you have to share regarding your interactions with the players? Are you looking forward to the advantages of having it on home soil (the secret passage ways that will allow you to have first access to the players etc)?
My initial experience was fine, thanks. It was hectic and kind of crazy, and I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to write about and where I should be focusing, which led to some chaotic situations, but it was a lot of fun.
I didn’t have any especially eye-popping interactions with players, but here’s the broad strokes of what I remember: Ricky Rubio was very charming. Eric Bledsoe seemed kind of like he was holding back a little because he wasn’t sure how he wanted to be perceived. Joakim Noah, Jrue Holiday and Kenneth Faried all seemed like really good eggs. Paul George and Damian Lillard seemed like they 100 percent believed they were about to hit new levels. Zach Randolph was wearing very bright red (I think) Chuck Taylors and Brook Lopez was wearing a Sonic the Hedgehog T-shirt. Also, I got a laugh (albeit a small one) out of Tim Duncan, which felt pretty cool. I walked behind Jadakiss in the security line at the airport, and when we saw Bill Russell ahead of us, both of us were awestruck, and we talked about it a little. That was dope.
I’m not sure about “home soil” – the Knicks and Nets beat reporters have much stronger and better-earned claims to that – but if having All-Star in NYC means not having to do any extra flying, then that’s nice. Of course, if Yahoo wants to fly me to New Orleans this year, I’m sure I’ll manage to deal with it.
11. How much of an impact has advanced statistics and analytics had on your job as a writer? In this day and age, people hold varying opinions on how the success of a ball club as well as an individual player can be determined: some fans argue statistics serve as the greatest indicator, while others believe actually watching the games helps develop the best understanding on the subject. Do you feel any pressure on you to publish more pieces with an analytical slant or do you feel its better to focus on your strengths, which is what got you your job in the first place?
Generally speaking, I think it’s awesome and helpful to have more information about stuff that’s happening on the court that I might not always see. That said, I think relying solely on stats without “actually watching the games” doesn’t do much for you because A) it strips away the context in which the stats were compiled and B) taking the basketball out of basketball isn’t very fun. That said, I think anyone who with a straight face suggests that analytics people don’t watch tape, or that scouts don’t pair their eyeball judgments with some type of numbers, is either lying or isn’t paying attention. It all goes together.
I don’t feel pressure to publish more analytics-heavy posts, necessarily, but I guess I do think it’s important to become more conversant in that kind of information. It’s not like it’s going to just stop being a big thing in the NBA; if this tide is rising and this is going to become a bigger and bigger part of decision-making and conversation, then I better work on making it one of my strengths, you know?
Plus, part of me likes going to stuff like the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, feeling woefully out of my depth amid a bunch of really smart people who think differently than I do, and trying to figure out how to relate that kind of information to the stuff I know, think and want to know about the league, and how to communicate it all to readers who might not care at all about Synergy, SportVU or whatever. It makes me have to try harder, which isn’t bad.
12. Following on from the last question, obviously humour is one of your strengths, but another which becomes very obvious when listening to you on podcasts, is your ability to build rapport and put people at ease (whether it be complimenting someone on their god-awful segue or finding a positive to their ability to miss their alarm clock). I know this sounds quite basic, but I believe being good at those two things is just as valuable to someone working in industry as having a highly analytical mind. Did the strengths I mentioned come easily to you, or did you have to work on them, and have you found you’ve been able to work them to your advantage?
Wow, you are being very nice to me! That’s probably just so I’ll continue to answer your vicious gauntlet of a questionnaire.
I think it’s a combination of a few things — me talking too much in general, my natural inclination to talk even more when I’m nervous or feel like I’m expected to perform, wanting to be polite to people who’ve invited me on their shows, and kind of always looking to make tiny little jokes. I guess those things come naturally, and I guess I’ve used them to my advantage insofar as I don’t think most people I’ve talked to on the radio/in podcasts have wound up hating me.
13. In terms of writing about basketball being your full-time career, compared to some of the people in the profession, it is reasonably new to you. Who were some of your favorite basketball writers when you were simply a fan of the game, or just getting started in the business? Outside of basketball, who else has influenced you and your writing style?
To the extent that being a kid and thinking “He seems like he just likes being mean, and that’s not something I want” counts as being influenced, let’s go with Mike Lupica. I’d be lying if I didn’t say Bill Simmons, because I am a 31-year-old who read a ton of Page 2 in college. The FreeDarko guys, led by Bethlehem Shoals, were a cosmic kick in the head. Kelly’s Behind the Box Score column amazed me because it basically seemed impossible that anyone watched that much basketball, got that much out of it and could communicate that much to me.
Outside of basketball, I remember really liking Chuck Klosterman’s early-2000s features for SPIN magazine and his first few books of essays. Probably the most important writer I’ve ever come across, though, is Jack Handey, the comedy writer who did “Deep Thoughts” on “Saturday Night Live,” plus a million other things. He’s maybe the funniest person ever and his jokes are so good, simple and all-encompassing that they make you want to make little jokes about everything all the time to try to get as good at it as he is. You’ll fail, but there’s value in trying.
14. Some writers disown their previously beloved team as soon as they start writing professionally in order to appear impartial. In contrast, you are still very much a Knicks fan. Was dropping your fandom ever a consideration for you? Do you ever worry about being deprived of access to a particular player or team based on something you write? How should aspiring writers handle the prospect of this happening?
Dropping my fandom has never been a consideration. It should be, because the Knicks are a cruel, cruel mistress, but it has not been. I don’t worry about being deprived of access because I don’t really have very much right now – I don’t travel with teams, I’m not in locker rooms and at shootarounds regularly, and that’s not really my job. I do think that if you’re willing to put your name on something, you’d better be willing to take whatever consequences come with it, but that’s true whether you say something negative or just make a joke that falls flat.
15. What would you advise someone getting a start as a writer/blogger/website in order to become more visible and set themselves apart, given the amount of blogs and websites now being started up?
Oh, boy. That is not an easy thing. I guess I would say, do whatever you can to make sure that the thing you’re writing or making sounds and/or looks like you. We can get stat dumps, set breakdowns, highlight clips, etc., from basically everywhere at this point – the value comes if you can make sure the thing you’re making sounds uniquely and specifically yours. And if you’re proud of something you’ve done, don’t be afraid to plug it – reach out, tastefully and without being rude/crazy-aggressive, to the people you like and respect and try to put it in front of them. (Send me an email asking about a 10-man link, if you’d like.)
16. What are some of the do’s and don’t for people wanting to forge a career in the industry? Is there a right way and wrong way to approach a person such as yourself when trying to make a name?
Building off a couple of things I’ve already written, I think the biggest thing is to reach out to the people whose work you like, let them know you like their stuff, be nice when you interact with people and don’t be a jerk unnecessarily. Being contrarian and always looking to argue might work for some people, but it seems like an exhausting bummer of a lane. Starting from a stance of being friendly seems way better.
17. Do you notice many differences between people who work full time in the industry and studied journalism at University/College, versus those whose path began as bloggers?
I’m not sure. I’d guess that most beat writers at papers at NBA cities have at least some level of journalism training, but I don’t know how many blog people like me also came out of news in some form or another. There used to be significantly different skill-sets, demands, responsibilities, etc., but I’m not sure that’s the case anymore, with newspapers and outlets doing so much more online and beat writers having to become basically full-time bloggers/podcasters/whatever about the teams they cover.
Oh, wait – one big difference is that folks with traditional journalism backgrounds have much more respect for deadlines. I can’t blame them.
18. Having connections and networking is undoubtedly an important part of your job. How hard is it to build these connections initially? Is it something that, provided the blogger is good at their job, is simply reliant on time or are there things an an aspiring blogger can do to hasten the process?
For me, being funny really helps. If you make good jokes, I’m more likely to remember who you are, and if you establish a level of good-joke-making consistency over a long enough timeline, I’m much more likely to check for the things you write.
19. Do you have any plans to write a book/biography? Considering your wide array of interests, and great sense of humour, I think a basketball-based book that segues all over the place would be fascinating. Going into the realm of fantasy, if you could write a book on any subject what would it be about?
Thanks again. (Look at you, with all the flattery.) No, I haven’t had a basketball book idea that seemed worth pursuing to the degree that writing a book would demand. Maybe someday, but not yet.
I’ve thought on and off for the last few years about trying to write a book about my family, if only because it would give me the kick-in-the-ass excuse to put fresh batteries in the digital recorder, set it down in front of some pretty amazing storytellers and ask them to tell me about growing up in an Irish Catholic cop family in Brooklyn in the early-to-middle part of the 20th century. That’s a lot to get my arms around, though.
20. Thank you for your time, Dan. Is there anything we’ve left out or additional information you’d like to let our readers know?
No, I think I’ve pretty exhaustively covered just about anything anyone would ever want to know about me. Thanks for asking, and sorry about that.
For more Dan Devine:
He can also be found on Twitter at @YourManDevine