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Thursday, June 25, 2009
Between the Lines of a Chat Transcript

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Before writing about basketball, I worked in opinion journalism. The interview subjects you encounter in that world generally make their livings expressing their ideas in words. In many cases, these are people who are paid to have conversations, give speeches, and write books. One of the hardest things to get used to is the reality that athletes are a different breed of subject -- particularly young athletes. You might prep a series of questions that you're certain will produce dazzling, thoughtful responses, only to find your notebook or recorder filled with short declarative sentences that you can't do much with.

The process behind TrueHoop's Draft Prospect Chat is the media equivalent of speed dating. The six prospects move from station to station, making quick conversation for 15 minutes. When time is up, they rise from the TrueHoop couch, then drift over to ESPN Radio, or ESPN HotList. And so it goes for 90 minutes.

The chat produces fun stuff, but there's a lot to be gleaned from the subtext of our conversations that doesn't make it onto the transcript:

Tyreke Evans
Evans is a phenomenally creative guard and was one of my favorite players to watch last season, but when he first sits down with us, he doesn't offer much. He's totally polite, but biographical queries and meta questions about the draft are answered minimally. 

Then something happens. 

The subject turns to actual basketball, in this case, Evans' deadly crossover. Evans lights up and becomes animated, gesturing how he executes his go-to move. Evans then explains how he teases his defender with a light crossover first. Sometimes, that's enough to get the defender off-balance to his left, meaning Evans can slide past to the right. Other times, the defender shows he's not falling for that that, then Evans comes with a much bigger and harder crossover which actually creates an opening to the left.

This portion of the conversation clarifies an inconvenient limitation for people who want information from ballplayers. Sometimes, athletes aren't inclined to tell you how they feel -- and that's their right. This reticence can be mistaken for inaccessibility, but it's often nothing more than a desire to guide the conversation to a more comfortable place. And aren't we all like that?

Brandon Jennings
Jennings and Evans are an exercise in contrast. As a personality, Jennings is an exhibitionist. He slouches on the couch and speaks freely. He projects the confidence of someone completely unafraid that he might say something silly or self-incriminating. It isn't that Jennings is a loose cannon, or even careless. It's a commitment not to take himself too seriously. 

As the case study in American basketball's Freshman Year Abroad program, Jennings has been peppered with an exhaustive diet of questions about what it means to play in Europe as a 19 year old -- what it means to him, to his game, to the NCAA, to the future of education as we know it, to the psyche of the American teenage jock. You almost feel guilty probing him on this stuff, except that Jennings is still processing what it all means, even as he speaks. Unlike most athletes who -- with the help of agents, media consultants, and their own practice -- have boilerplate responses ready for the five most commonly asked questions put to them, you sense that Jennings has never given the same answer twice. This condition got him into trouble with the Ricky Rubio flap, but it's a quality that makes him engaging, and one of the best conversationalists and most interesting people in this draft class. 

Stephen Curry
With all the mock drafts, parlor games, and media scrums in New York this week, it's easy to forget that for most of the kids that will be drafted tonight, the announcement of their name by the commissioner  will be the single biggest moment of their lives. At his availability Wednesday afternoon, DeMar DeRozan expressed this more profoundly and sincerely than anyone I've seen this week. For him, the cliché holds -- it's a dream come true. And it's a bigger dream and a more profound truth than most of us can relate to.

For Stephen Curry, the experience is probably radically different. Here's a kid who grew up around the NBA, rubbed shoulders with the gods, and knew them by name. While most of his fellow draftees have coveted the dream from afar, Curry had had a frame of reference every day of his life living under his roof. Given all that, does Curry appreciate this distinction? Is he aware of how much different this process is for him? I think so. The evidence is most apparent when Curry talks about Davidson, the comfort that came with knowing every kid on campus personally, with being a person first and a celebrity second. It's a level of self-awareness that should serve him well. 

Tyler Hansbrough
There isn't anyone in New York City having less fun than Tyler Hansbrough. The kid they call Psycho T seems miserable, and you can appreciate why. Hansbrough has been lauded as the ultimate competitor, the kid on your youth team whose competitive spirit was held up as a shining example of how to play the game -- any game. Yet on the eve of the draft, the narrative constructed around Hansbrough tells a different story: Players with his assets tend to be overvalued for those intangibles, and smart teams would be wise to avoid prospects who look like him and have his skill set and body.

That pisses Hansbrough off, which is apparent from the moment he sits down on the TrueHoop couch. He's combative and defensive, and eager to get his point across: He's a winner. He's competitive. He's a grinder. Aren't these things the league allegedly values?

Hansbrough's dilemma is a tough one: He's the world's, what 300th best basketball player? The NBA is brutally unsympathetic to his plight. He'll be chosen in the first round tonight, but the certainty that's accompanied him throughout his career -- the comfort of knowing that his tenacity would be rewarded every step of the way -- is about to disappear. Hansbrough knows this, and that awareness is fueling his anxiety.

Hasheem Thabeet
Just before Thabeet walks in, the ESPN Zone folks set a platter of savory goodies on the table on the far side of the room. When Thabeet enters, he spots the chicken wings, fingers, chips and dip and takes a seat. He pours himself some lemonade, digs into the wings, and asks if we can come to him.


Thabeet loves the process, adores being in New York this week, and is particularly fond of TrueHoop's "Thabeet" set list -- which is the first thing he mentions before the formal chat gets started. Thabeet's presence fills the room. The party will be at his house and, if there's good food, Jordan Hill will be there. Hill, whom we sat down with half an hour earlier, spots Thabeet and the spread, and re-enters the room, making himself comfy next to Thabeet, grazing on the spinach dip. 

When Thabeet's fifteen minutes are up, he extends his huuuuuge hand in our direction and bids goodbye. He can't wait to figure out what's going on next.