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15 Questions with Slam’s Chris O’Leary

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One of the many now classic Slam covers...

One of the many now classic Slam covers...

One of the great things about the media era we live in right now sports-wise, is that there is always someone on the case no matter how small the story. With the proliferation of blogs, podcasts and various other elements of "web 2.0," it's amazing to see the amount of coverage that exists on any matter of sports topics.

In today’s post, we bring two examples of this.

First off, the 60th edition of the blogosphere’s Carnival of the NBA, this time hosted by hoopsavenue.com.

The Carnival always does a great job of collecting stories from across the league and is a great way of getting caught up on some of the recent articles you may have missed.

Second, our latest series of 15 questions, this time with Slam’s Chris O’Leary. As a long-time Slam reader (I still have edition number 2 with Shawn Kemp on the cover), it's great to see the magazine make such a successful transition to the online world, something some other major publications have struggled to do.

1. RaptorsHQ: First off, can you give our readers a little intro to yourself and your work with Slam?

Chris: I grew up reading SLAM (down from issue one through to issue 122 today) and it was always my dream to write for them. My first story for the magazine was a small piece on Brampton’s Olu Ashaolu in issue 94. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to get to interview some of my favourite NBA players, like Jose Calderon, Paul Pierce, and Gilbert Arenas. My sneaker blog, Sole Searching, launched on SLAM’s site this summer.

2. RHQ: How did you get started in sports writing?

Chris: When I was in school at the University of Alberta, I started writing for the Gateway, the student paper on campus. After a couple of years of volunteering, I spent a year as the sports editor. At the same time, I got pretty heavily involved in contributing to Hooplife.ca. It was a great way to let loose with basketball feature writing and to learn about what worked for me and what didn’t. Today, in addition to my work with SLAM, I cover everything from university sports to the CFL and NHL as a freelance writer in Edmonton.

3. RHQ: What’s it like being so up close and personal with the players you cover?

Chris: It’s cool telling basketball players that you write for SLAM. Lots of times over the last few years, I’ve said the name of the magazine and watched the person’s demeanour completely change. Their guard comes down and you can tell they’re more open to you than they are for other types of media (I get the guard-up, pseudo demeanour out of most of the football and hockey players I interview, which is how I know the difference).

4. RHQ: Who’s been your favourite NBA player to interview? In fact, who is your favourite sports writer of all time?

Chris: I think my favourite interview so far has been Paul Pierce. I talked with him just over a year ago, shortly after the KG trade went through. He told me he thought the Celt’s had enough depth beyond their big three to be a good team and that he thought they’d win the championship. I didn’t really believe him, but it turns out the guy knew what he was talking about. I knew it was time to end the interview when he told me he had to take a dump.

Favourite sports writer of all time? That’s tough, I’ve read a lot of great writers’ work. I really try to read everything that Lang Whitaker and Scoop Jackson write. Lang’s creativity blows me away, while Scoop’s passion shines through in whatever he does. I also really enjoy Michael Grange at the Globe and Mail, and Doug Smith at the Star.

5. RHQ: And on that note, who is your favourite basketball player of all time?

Chris: I’m all about the two-way ties, I guess. I got into basketball as he was getting out, but Magic Johnson captivated me and still captivates me every time I watch old Lakers footage. Michael Jordan was the player I grew up watching and I think he’s the best to have ever laced them up. The longer he’s out of the game I appreciate his legacy (and no, I don’t count the Wizards years in that legacy). Look at the season Kobe had this past year: hugely successful record, first MVP and then he loses in the Finals. Mike went six-for-six in the Finals. The guy just always found a way to win. That’s why he’s my favourite. Maybe give an assist to the Air Jordan XI in that legacy too.

6. RHQ: Past Slam, what are some of the other sites you read?

Chris: SLAM’s the main site for me, and I end up following a lot of their links onto other blogs. I mean, there’s just so much stuff out there, you know? I do regularly read Raps HQ, but I will admit that I only started after you guys came to Hooplife. I try and read one of the Toronto Star, the Sun, Globe and Mail or the Post every day for Raptors stories as well.

7. RHQ: Highs and lows; your most embarrassing moment and your highlight as a sports writer?

Chris: Most embarrassing, something comes to mind pretty quickly. My first day covering the Eskimos, I was trying to find Jason Tucker for a quote. I had never been in the locker room before, didn’t know what the vast majority of the players looked like, and paid the price as a result. I went over to Tucker’s locker stall, saw a guy sitting there and said, "Hey Jason, you got a minute to talk?" The guy mumbled something back at me, which I thought was, "I don’t want to talk."

"You don’t want to talk?" I said back to him, thinking, ‘great, Day 1 here and I’m getting attitude from guys already.’ The guy kind of scoffs at me and says, "No, I said I ain’t Jason!" Then he started laughing at me, and the two guys with him started laughing. Then they kept laughing. Walking out of the locker room I could still hear them laughing. I can happily say that it’s gotten better from there, but going back the next day was tough.

My highlight as a sports writer isn’t a specific moment, but just the fact that I get to do this day in and day out. I love the grind of the whole thing. Meeting other writers, watching them work and learning through them and then comparing what we all came up with the next day, it’s the funnest job I’ve ever had. Getting free stuff is cool too, I won’t lie.

8. RHQ: Let’s turn to the Raptors, what did you think of the Jermaine O’Neal trade?

Chris: I got into this in depth on my Raps’ preview for SLAM this past week. Basically, I think that if JO is healthy, this trade is a huge step forward for Toronto. O’Neal’s health kind of sets everything else into motion. The possibilities of Bosh and JO working together are endless and it’ll free up Andrea Bargnani while taking pressure off of him to produce. TJ Ford’s departure was a must in my opinion, and I think Jose Calderon is in position to explode this year with the offence squarely in his hands. If O’Neal’s knee gives out on him though, the guy’s deadweight and Bryan Colangelo will need to start looking at other options as the season progresses.

9. RHQ: Can Toronto compete with the Boston’s and Detroit’s in the East now?

Chris: In a game-by-game basis, I think Toronto will be competitive with Boston or Detroit this year, meaning I think the Raps could beat any team any night. Come playoffs though, I don’t see this team getting past either squad, unless they put together a spectacular 82-game run. Right now, I don’t see it happening but we’re still a good month from the season starting. Come April, all of my opinions could be turned upside down.

10. RHQ: Which team, East or West, do you think improved the most this off-season?

Chris: I like Philly picking up Elton Brand and re-signing Andre Iguodala. The Sixers surprised Detroit (and many more people) in the playoffs. There’s something there and with Brand in the lineup, they’re only going to get better.

Out West, I’m excited about Ron Artest going to Houston. It takes a lot to get substantially better in that conference, but Daryl Morey pulled it off with that deal. Oddly enough, I was at the NBA Live 09 camp in Vancouver this past July and talked about trades with Morey, who was completely tight-lipped (with me, anyway) about anything. I got on my flight to go home that night and the texts started coming in about the deal.

Chris is excited to see just what the Tru Warrior can do in Houston...

Chris is excited to see just what the Tru Warrior can do in Houston...

11. RHQ: Talk to us a bit about your recent experience at the NBA Live 09 camp?

Chris: This was my second year at the Live camp. It’s always great to get out of Edmonton for a day or two and enjoy Vancouver, and when you get to sit and talk ball and videogames (two of my favourite things) with some of your favourite NBA players, it makes for a great day. I wrote an article in SLAM 122 about Live 09, and it’s the most excited I’ve been for a basketball videogame to come out. The Dynamic DNA feature, the daily updates and the game itself look incredible. That was a completely accidental shill for the game. I kind of feel like Chuck Swirsky right now, damn.

12. RHQ: What was Andrea Bargnani like to talk to?

Chris: I’ve talked about this with a few of my friends after talking with Bargnani, and I might be completely wrong in saying it, but I get the feeling that he hides behind the language barrier when he doesn’t want to answer questions. I tried to talk with him about the criticism he got this past year and after having to rephrase the question a couple of times, he said something to the effect of losing in the playoffs was very sad. We want to get further next year.

I also asked him about the glut of NBA guys taking European contracts this summer and he said he wasn’t surprised about it. I asked him if he’d ever think about going back to Europe and he looked at me like I was dumb and said no, I play in the NBA. I didn’t think it was that dumb of a question. If the guy doesn’t show improvement down the road, Europe could be in his future sooner than he might want to admit.

13. RHQ: Do you see him as being the X factor next year for Toronto in terms of competing with the top teams in the league?

Chris: I saw Bargnani as more of a X-factor last year than I do this year. It’d be great to see him turn a corner this year and like I said, if O’Neal is healthy and him and Bosh work well together, he’ll be in the right situation to blow up, but right now I want to see the improvement, rather than hope for it. If he can get to another level as a player this year, the Raps are that much better because of it.

14. RHQ: There's been a lot of discussion lately that traditional sports media no longer holds the same meaning in today's world of blogs, vlogs and Youtube. What is your opinion on this and where does Slam fit in?

Chris: Traditional sports media has completely changed in the last 10 years, maybe less than that. I love the direction we’re headed in and I wouldn’t be writing this right now if it weren’t for that shift in the industry. Had I not been reading Lang Whitaker’s online work at SLAM, had I not been emailing him with my rants/attempts at humour and insight, I don’t think I would have pursued sports writing.

For me, SLAM has grown in sync with the changes in the industry. Look at how their site started out, with maybe six or seven people writing on it and how many great writers are involved with the site now. There could be more video and podcasting up there in my opinion, but SLAM’s always moving forward with the site. I think to stay relevant in this thing that’s what you have to do.

15. RHQ: There seems to be this reluctance on the part of mainstream media to recognize the other side of the coin, why do you think that is?

Chris: Any reluctance to that other side of the coin by the mainstream is foolish. I think some of it stems from an elitist mentality, where people who have gone to school and worked in the industry for years and years are insulted or maybe even threatened by the thought of someone blogging from their laptop after working eight hours in an office all day (or maybe by a freelancer that writes run on sentences with no regard for punctuation, perhaps?).

That said, I’m seeing a lot of mainstream media outlets working to adjust to make that side of the coin part of what they do. Just about every beat writer or columnist in Canada has a blog, whether they cover the NBA, NHL, CFL, MLB or university sports. If you’re a good journalist, you want to have that room to roam and interact with your readers. I think the best part of all of these changes is that it opens up massive opportunities for interactivity. I got into this stuff because I love talking sports and telling stories with people. That’s what it’s all about to me, whether you’re talking into your webcam about why Chris Paul should have won the MVP, or you’re posting the leftover transcripts from your interview with a pissed off coach who said a bunch of hilarious stuff that you couldn’t get into the paper.

A big thanks to Chris for the interview and we look forward to reading his thoughts via Slam this season!

RAPTORSHQ