TrueHoop: Phil Jasner

Jasner overcame gap, leaves a void

December, 6, 2010
Adande By J.A. Adande
Now that I’ve moved past my selfish lament that I’ll never again see Phil Jasner, a good man whose company I’ll miss, I’m wondering how we’ll all recover from the loss of that rarest of combinations: someone who brings historical perspective without a generational gulf.

Jasner covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, through Charles Barkley, during the days when the closest thing to a star was Clarence Weatherspoon, amid the ups and downs of Allen Iverson and on to the current roster with a majority of players who weren’t even born when Jasner first got on the beat.

The league’s players were moving away from him, but he never held it against them. He didn’t let differences in age, culture, salaries or anything else interfere with his pursuit of the only thing that ever mattered: the story.

“He just treated them as basketball players,” said Billy King, a former 76ers general manager. “The money, the color…none of that mattered to Phil. It was, did you play, did you play hard?”

I think Jasner would echo the sentiments expressed here by another irreplaceable journalist, the late David Halberstam, who during the 2001 NBA Finals expressed his fondness for Iverson despite the inherent differences between the two.

“We come from different worlds, and we are likely, once the Finals are over, to remain part of our different worlds,” Halberstam wrote. “Just to admire him is good enough.”

Jasner had to do more than admire Iverson. He had to cover Iverson. That meant chronicling an MVP season and Iverson’s mercurial ways. That meant sometimes having to write things that Iverson or anyone else wouldn’t like to read about themselves. Yet Jasner came from a place of respect, thus he commanded Iverson’s respect as well.

You could see it even in the full transcript of the infamous “Practice” press conference, which continued long after the clip you’ve memorized by now. Iverson challenges him, but he ultimately yields to him, instead of brushing him off with a Rosenhausian “next question.” What stands out is how resolute Jasner was in his quest for Iverson’s explanation, rather than imposing his own views on Iverson.

Reporter: "There are people that have suggested, myself included, that instead of shooting 40 percent, you...

Iverson: "What do you know about basketball? Have you ever played?"

Reporter: "Yes"

Iverson: "I don't know Phil, I don't know you as a basketball player. I know you as a columnist but I have never heard of you as a player though.

Reporter: "Why is that an issue?"

Iverson: "Why is that an issue? Because we're talking about basketball."

Reporter: "Let me ask my question."

Iverson: "Go ahead, Phillip."

Reporter: "Supposed you shot 44 percent..."

Iverson: "I don't know about that. That is in God's hands. I do not know if that will help me or not. That's God. God does that, It ain't up to you to say if Allen Iverson does this then he'll do that. That's up to God. It ain't up to anyone in here. That is up to God. He handles that.

Reporter: "You have control over your body?"

Iverson: "God has more control over it than I do. You know that. God has more control over your body. I do not care about how much you eat, how many weights you lift or how good you eat, if God says you're gone, you're gone.

So Jasner didn’t exactly get what he was looking for, but he did wind up with a rumination on the powers of the Almighty from Iverson, which might be worth even more. (Reading Iverson’s quote and Stephon Marbury’s tweet on logic and Jesus Christ makes me realize we need a theological student to write a thesis on NBA players and their views on religion, pronto).

Even though Jasner very well might have more basketball knowledge than the people he covered, Jasner let them have their say. I worry that’s missing from coverage today. People don’t even consider the value of the other side.

When Jasner criticized King (now the general manager of the Nets), King might call to discuss it. Their relationship was strong enough to allow for such conversations without them being confrontational. Jasner would always let King have his say, then reply: “Fair point.”

Civility combined with familiarity. Jasner never played in the NBA, but he dedicated himself to learning about it and covering it for so long that he became an authority. King said Jasner would often tell young Sixer players about the glory days of Doc, Moses and Andrew Toney. Jasner was so detail-oriented that he once warned me about some errors in the 76ers official stats.

An early – and perhaps first – meeting I had with Jasner came at a Spurs-Lakers game right after Christmas in 1992. I was in my first year in the business, covering the University of Illinois football team for the Chicago Sun-Times and taking advantage of their trip to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego to spend a little time at home in Los Angeles. I drove to the Forum to do a story on John Lucas, the former No. 1 overall pick who had just taken over the head coaching job of the Spurs. Jasner had flown in because the Sixers happened to be on a West Coast trip.

The last thing any beat writer needs is an extra flight. But it was Jasner who suggested it to his editors, when he saw he’d be in the same time zone as Lucas. That was the dedication Jasner had to his job. His work mattered more than convenience. And the game mattered more than the culture. He might not have listened to the same music as the players, but he could find a common topic.


Phil Jasner leaves a lasting impression

December, 4, 2010
Coon By Larry Coon
Phil Jasner, the Philadelphia Daily News’ beat writer for the 76ers since 1981 and a Basketball Hall of Famer, passed away Friday. He left his mark on millions of people, directly and indirectly. Here’s the story of my one interaction with him, back in 2000.

I started my FAQ ( in 1999. In the first couple years I was still learning how the NBA worked. I still am, frankly, but back then my learning curve was much steeper. If some CBA-related event happened in the league I’d dissect it, identify which rules controlled it, and make sure I understood why it was legal.

One of those events occurred in 2000, when news broke that the Minnesota Timberwolves had circumvented the salary cap by making an under-the-table agreement with power forward Joe Smith. By their secret arrangement, Smith would sign three consecutive below-market contracts. At the end of three such contracts the Wolves would have Smith’s Bird rights, and could re-sign the player for any salary up to the maximum. They would then make Smith’s sacrifice up to him with a large, long-term deal.

Undisclosed agreements and promises of future contracts are strictly forbidden in the NBA. When the league found out about it they came down hard on the team, including owner Glen Taylor and GM Kevin McHale. They took away five first-round draft picks, fined the team $3.5 million dollars, and suspended Taylor and McHale for a year (they ended up taking leaves of absences instead, in return for which the league returned one of the draft picks).

The league also voided Smith’s current contract with the Wolves, of course. But interestingly, they also voided Smith’s two previous contracts with the team, which were already completed. It was easy to figure out the logic -- if they just voided Smith’s current deal the Wolves would retain Smith’s Bird rights, and could simply re-sign him to an Early Bird contract. By also voiding his previous contracts the league erased Smith’s entire history with the team, leaving the Wolves unable to re-sign the player to anything more than a minimum-salary contract. This was all part of the news on the day commissioner David Stern announced the Wolves’ punishment.

But nobody seemed to figure out another angle to this story. Bird rights are conveyed to the player’s “prior team,” which the collective bargaining agreement defines as the team for which the player was last under contract. If Smith’s Minnesota contracts were erased from the record books, then it meant the Philadelphia 76ers suddenly became Smith’s prior team -- and since Smith had completed a three-year contract with the Sixers, that team therefore inherited Smith’s full Bird rights.

Obviously, situations like this one aren’t detailed in the CBA -- it’s a matter of correctly interpreting the existing rules. This is when we would try to contact people working in and around the league for advice. One of my guys would say, “We should call X,” and usually manage to get that person on the phone with us. On this occasion it was Jasner.

Remember, this was back in 2000, when most of the media didn’t know or care about CBA issues. Still, we got Jasner on the phone, explained the logic, and picked his brain on what the Sixers might want to do. He was skeptical that the Sixers would have any interest in adding Smith to the team, but his interest was piqued when I explained sign-and-trade transactions and how the Sixers might be able to leverage Smith to obtain an asset they did want.

Nothing ultimately came of the Philadelphia angle -- the Sixers didn’t make a move, and Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons. But what left a lasting impression on me was Jasner. He didn’t know me from Adam, yet he took a call from two strangers, patiently sat through an arcane explanation of league rules, and offered a well-considered opinion of the team’s thinking in this situation. My one conversation with Jasner influences me to this day -- following his lead, I always try to give time to those who ask for it, even if I don’t know that person from Adam.

The NBA lost a legend this week. Rest in peace, Phil -- and thanks.