In any form of journalism, news, almost by definition, is people. Since we are a sports magazine, the odd dog. horse, boat or fish will make our pages from time to time, but by and large the player's the thing, and in this week's issue we bring you stories about a variety of sports figures: auto-racing impresario J.C. Agajanian, horse trainer Charlie Whittingham, Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hoosier Basketball Coach Bobby Knight.
The last three are by John Underwood, Peter Carry and Pat Putnam. Each writer claims to have no standard manner of conducting interviews—and each promptly goes on to outline methods he finds consistently rewarding. "I certainly don't deal the same way with Bear Bryant as with Rod Laver, or with Abebe Bikila as with Larry Csonka," Underwood observes, "but the secret of getting to anyone is to achieve some kind of empathy, to understand what has contributed to his particular character. You start by reading everything you can. Then my preference is to get to know him almost as a friend. You may lose objectivity, but it's worthwhile in the long run; if you don't pierce that crust, you'll never find anything out. And I think it is important to get them where they live, literally. It helps to see how they interact with their families and friends. You may not use a lot of it, but you learn so much. For the Nicklaus story I had lunch with his wife Barbara, practiced pass patterns with his kids, played tennis with Jack on his grass court, spent time in his office while he did business, trudged around his golf course with him and flew in his privately leased plane. The more you get the more you know you're missing, but you can block your subject in.
"Remember," Underwood suggests, "that if you tend to be awed by athletes you never allow yourself to see a man's inner sanctum, and that will, in itself, distort the picture. The thing about sports heroes is that they are just a cut away from the friend you play golf with. There's a whole lot of difference between Einstein and the guy who makes A's in his college chemistry class, but the professional athlete and the kid who wins letters in college are only a shade apart."
"I think I may differ from John because I cover a beat and am likely already to be acquainted with my subjects," says Carry, our pro basketball writer. "I find interviewing works best on the road. In a plane you have a captive audience. Players are usually pretty bored, and reluctant interviewees simply cannot jump out of moving planes and buses. Basketball players are pretty accessible, though. They are not as harassed by the press as football and baseball players. And the latter play far from the spectators, heavily clothed and indistinguishable without their numbers—basketball players perform in what amounts to underwear, close to the crowds, and their mistakes are more obvious. As a result they are looser, more willing to discuss problems and generally have more open personalities. There are exceptions, of course." One of the exceptions is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He is a very bright, very private person," Carry said before he went off to do this week's story. "He sometimes shies away from interviews and he is under stress now because of the horrible murders. I have hopes he'll talk to me about the current situation, since he usually thinks it worthwhile to express himself clearly on topics he considers more important than basketball. Then again, he could understandably, be withdrawn by now. Who knows?" (Pete does, at this point: see page 16.)
February 19, 1973
Finally, there is Putnam. Pat is an interviewer of the in vino veritas persuasion, finding it useful to maneuver his subjects into the nearest convivial bar. "But I have a rule," he says. "If they take a drink, everything is off the record. I'll call the next morning and ask them if it's O.K. to quote them, and 90% of the time they say that it is. There has to be a great deal of honesty in your writing," Pat adds. "There are too many creeps in this business."