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School of Hardwood Knocks #10 - Kurt Helin
The cream of the crop show their best crossover moves as roles are reversed and interviewer becomes interviewee.
It is no exaggeration that my discovery of Kurt Helin's ProBasketballTalk was nothing short of life-changing. If you're anything like me, upon awakening the first thing you do is check the latest NBA news. ESPN and Yahoo were always first on the list, but finding out about Helin has forever changed my morning ritual, and I must say it's for the better. Kurt Helin is one of the hardest workers in the sports writing business. If you check the times some of his posts are published, you'll think he's a machine, never requiring rest of any kind.
He is also the founder of Forum Blue and Gold, started in the wake of the Shaq trade because there was so much talk in the media about gossip and, letting Helin explain it himself, "who Kobe's wife was talking to at games with Karl Malone and I'm like 'there's a basketball team playing out there'. It was just hard to get good basketball information so I started a blog, talking to myself, more as a hobby trying to do some actual basketball analysis. Real in-depth stuff and trying to treat the Lakers like a basketball team, not a side-show. And it seemed to have found an audience. Five years later I'm affiliated with ESPN through the TrueHoop network, I do some writing for NBC Los Angeles and it's kind of grown. It's developed a really healthy following and, lucky for me, a good reputation." It is no surprise that there are countless media outlets covering the Lakers. Not only is L.A. the country's second largest market. But without an NFL team, and with the franchises storied history; equal parts graceful talent and soap opera, the headlines write themselves. Helin has been covering thee team with a "moneyball", statistically driven outlook since 2004, making him a pioneer in the field of blogging. He has come a long way from the guy who just wanted to talk about basketball, now holding the position of Blogger-In-Chief at ProBasketballTalk on NBCSports.com.
Kurt has been kind enough to takes some time out of his hectic schedule and answer some of my questions. Hopefully, they'll help you become a future big-name writer whose work is half as humorous, entertaining and inspiring as Kurt's.
1. What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Curse that I have to get up that early.
PBT runs on East Coast hours (really nearly a 24 hour clock) but I’m a West Coast guy, so I’m up early. After that I start checking sources for the news out there we want to pass along to people.
2. Kurt Helin the writer: in twenty words or less: how would you describe yourself and or your writing style? I’m a husband/father first, then just a fan of basketball who gets to write about it and is occasionally clever
3. So Kurt, you live in California. What is it like there and have you been to Australia? I love California. I live in the city of Long Beach — musically I reside more in the Sublime part of the city than the Snoop Dogg part — and I love the diversity, the people, the weather, and being blocks from the ocean. I’m really more of an urban guy than someone who wants to live in a planned, suburban space, so the 1913 house and the walkability of my neighborhood make this feel like home to me.
Going to Australia is on my bucket list, but it’s going to be a few years before I get to go I’m afraid.
4. What did you study/major in, in college? Did you find the things you learnt useful through the course of your career? I have a journalism degree, so I am one of the four people you’ve ever spoken to using their college degree in the field intended. Honestly, I found the experience of college and the broadening of who I was as a person more important than most of what I learned in the classroom. There certainly were useful, foundational things taught in my classes but journalism is really something you have to learn by doing.
5. You covered the Lakers on Forum Blue & Gold for a number of years from 2004 until you moved to ProBasketballTalk. What made you become a Laker fan? I grew up in Los Angeles, and not at a time you could really watch the Clippers unless you were a masochist. Everyone I knew was a Lakers fan. (This job drains the one-team fandom out of you; it’s different for me now).
6. You have always wanted (as mentioned in a column) to be the starting point of a discussion. Obviously there would’ve been some that have gotten out of hand because of a controversial topic. Can you provide an anecdote off the top of your head? I still want that jumping off point, but things are different now. Forum Blue & Gold’s format was very different than PBT. When I started FB&G, NBA blogging was in its infancy (there were maybe 10 blogs going) and one of my frustrations as a Lakers fan was how difficult it was to find a thoughtful conversation on the team. There were smart, thoughtful people on some Lakers message boards but you had to weed through a lot of “COUNT THE RINGZZZZ” to find them. So I tried to start my own conversation, and at that blog (FB&G) I VERY strictly controlled the conversation. I deleted any comments in all caps or every “you guys suck because Kobe rocks” comment put up. It was going to be a conversation on my terms. Eventually it formed a nice community.
PBT is a very different animal — its core is as an information dissemination point. We give our opinions on anything and everything, we do some original reporting, but at its core the format of PBT is to let people know everything that matters going on around the league. The comments are far less controlled, combined with the fact the traffic is exponentially higher you get plenty of commenters. The time things really tend to get out of hand are when socially divisive issues arise — Jason Collins coming out of the closet, for example. Those posts generate a lot of traffic but I spend a lot of time deleting bigoted or baiting comments.
7. And dude, no groupies? Why didn’t anyone tell me this before I started writing? It’s hard to believe, but telling a woman you spend all day on a computer talking about sports does not have quite the same effect as saying you play guitar in a band.
8. If you remember, back in 2009, TrueHoop featured a segment called “Meet your blogger” and at the time you were struggling with your writing because it was becoming less personal. Have you found a solution or are you still drinking beer at a Homer Simpson-like rate? I think it’s a constant struggle, and I wish my writing were still more personal. I like to weave in anecdotes about things I watch or read where it fits, but it’s not always something I find easy to do.
To avoid a Homer Simpson body, I’ve had to cut back on drinking like him.
9. How did you jump from a predominantly one-team blog to such a big website such as ProBasketballTalk? Was there a mentor or distinct figure that helped you along this path, or was it just being in the right place at the right time, with the right effort? There were several steps and a lucky break in there, it’s not a story I have told that often. Forum Blue & Gold had started to gain some level of notoriety in the basketball blogging world (I had just joined Henry Abbott’s TrueHoop Network at ESPN for example) when I got a call from the people about to revamp NBCLosAngeles.com, the Web site for the local NBC television affiliate. I ended up writing for them for more than a year in a style much more like PBT (shorter newsy stories as opposed to long analysis posts, a guy named John Ness really was really a huge help) and from that I gained a sense of this style and how to have a strong voice in it.
When my current bosses at NBC decided to start ProBasketballTalk, they asked people they knew for recommendations and this is where the break came in: Michael David Smith (now the number two guy at ProFootballTalk) and I were friends and had worked together at a weekly newspaper in Long Beach (before either of us had blogs and neither of us wrote much sports for the publication). We had followed each other online and remained friends, so he recommended me. Then I was able to say I had already done some work for NBC and my foot was in the door.
10. The majority of the pieces you write are news columns now. How have you transitioned to them from your usual discussion-starting topic pieces? How has your style evolved to assist this? I am a professional journalist, so I can adapt my style to the format. However, I think the goal, even in a short news column, is to make sure there is some opinion in there — this is a good or bad move/idea and here’s why. That starts the discussions. Some things are serious and are played straight (a player getting arrested, for example) but if it’s on the court we should have an opinion to start that conversation.
11. Be honest, which NBA news website do you check the most? Basketball-Reference.com. I have other favorites I reference such as Sham Sports, but in the end it’s the stats I need most.
12. How do you usually get research done on news columns? Do you have access to sites that perhaps, we wouldn’t? In terms of where the news comes from, Twitter is the cornerstone. The NBA has a great Twitter community. I also have contacts around the league I can check things with. I link to other sites when they get something I missed, but in the end Twitter is king for news. The only sites I use and have access to that a more casual fan may not are some of the video scouting sites — synergysports.com (which you could pay for access if you wanted) for example. But in general, I use what you have access to.
13. It seems like you have reached the pinnacle of the sports blogging world already. What do you see as the next challenge ahead as a journalist? Also, what do you hope to achieve within the next 5 years? I have no idea what the pinnacle is, I’m lucky to have a job I love and I work hard at it. Not to go all coach speak, but I’m a process guy — work hard, improve at your craft, put out quality work, be smart about it and the rest follows. Nothing matters without good content. As for the future, I need to improve on and grow my presence across other media — television, radio, etc — because that is now part of the brand if you want to be good at your craft. You can’t be just a “newspaper guy” anymore.
14. You were blogging for Blue and Gold at the time of the Shaq and Kobe fiasco, do you miss all the drama of the Lakers or were you glad you avoided the Dwight and Kobe saga? In part I started FB&G as a response to the Shaq/Kobe circus. When Shaq left it seemed like every Laker story in the L.A. media was “here is what Shaq said about Mitch Kupchak” or whatever, there was no discussion of Rudy Tomjanovich’s offense, or how he tried to use Kobe in the Clyde Drexler role, or the rest of the personnel was a bad fit. So, I started my own conversation to get away from that drama and just talk hoops.
I would much rather write about just the game than the sideshows.
15. Are there any other tips you could pass along to young, aspiring writers (like myself) that are doing this as a hobby just like how you started off, and aspire to be an NBA journalist? First, don’t just write about sports. I love being an NBA blogger, but sports is the candy store of journalism. I know I am a better reporter, writer and frankly person for having spent time as a crime reporter, a business reporter and doing a general assignment kind of thing. Broaden yourself and your horizons.
Let me put it this way (which is something Zach Lowe of Grantland has said as well), after you’ve had to talk to the mother of a murdered child as a journalist, an angry coach after a game is nothing.
As for other tips, read. Read a lot. And not just sports books. Also, just work to find your voice in your writing, then channel it.
17. In your opinion, who is the greatest Laker ever? And why? Magic Johnson. I can understand the arguments for Jerry West or Kareem but I think Magic for two reasons. One, he broke the mold at the point guard position — a 6’9” guy with that court vision and ability to create was something we are not going to see the likes of again. Second, how he has handled the HIV situation helped take that from a “gay disease” to something people in the mainstream had to deal with. Magic made the disease a topic in broader culture, which was good for society. (Also, Magic has just been good for the city of Los Angeles.)
18. Lastly, I’m a big Celtics fan and it seems like we’ve been at war with the Lakers since the dawn of time, what is your prediction for both teams for this upcoming season? Pain.
Sorry, was channeling Mr. T for a second.
The Celtics are rebuilding and it’s going to be a season of roster changeover and struggles. The Lakers may be better suited to run Mike D’Antoni’s offense with this roster but their key guys are old (and in Kobe’s case coming off a major surgery), plus their defense will be terrible. Expect both to be lottery bound. So, yes, pain.
For more Kurt Helin: ProBasketballTalk on NBCSports.com
Follow Kurt on Twitter at @basketballtalk