The Fury Files: Roland Lazenby

Posted: November 12, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Welcome back to the Fury Files, which return after serving a six-month suspension for PEDs. Check out the previous editions with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Michael Kruse, Chris Jones and Chris Ballard.

This week’s guest is Roland Lazenby, and this could be the timeliest Fury Files of them all. Lazenby is a veteran writer, the author of more than 60 books. Many of those focused on the Los Angeles Lakers, and he’s written some of the best books there are about the franchise and the superstars who have played for the purple and gold. He’s also written a biography about Phil Jackson, who has, as you might have heard or read recently, made his way into the news again. Lazenby’s Mindgames is a superb look at the Zen Master and if you still find yourself wondering what motivates the mysterious legend, Lazenby’s decade-old book is your best resource. (Hopefully in a future edition of the book, we’ll learn what really happened when Mike D’Antoni was hired over Phil, which broke as this was going to, er, press).

Roland Lazenby’s next book will be a biography of Michael Jordan.

But Lazenby does much more than write about the NBA’s longest-running soap opera. His newest project is a biography of Michael Jordan, which is scheduled to be published in 2013. Like the Lakers, the Bulls — and their superstar — have long been subjects for Lazenby, who started off as a newspaper reporter in Virginia and has also been a professor at Virginia Tech and now Radford University.

Lazenby’s Bulls books include Bull Run (focused on the team’s record-breaking 1996 seasons) and Blood on the Horns.

I can’t say I’ve read all of Lazenby’s dozens of books, but I think I’ve read all of his ones about the Lakers, including the incredible oral history The Show: The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It. His 2010 book Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon, is the best thing ever written about the tortured hoops genius, and that includes West’s own autobiography, which was released after Lazenby’s best-seller. Also, if you’re a hoops fan, follow Lazenby on Twitter, where he is one of the more entertaining scribes.

In 2007, in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Lazenby oversaw a book put together by his journalism students, called April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers.

Lazenby took time off from tweeting about Jackson and putting the finishing touches on his Jordan biography to talk about Kobe Bryant and Jordan, Phil and Tex Winter, the life of a biographer, Sid Hartman, the worst losses — and greatest victories — in Lakers history, and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Roland.

Phil Jackson’s journey keeps getting stranger. Lazenby’s biography helps show why Phil is like he is.

As someone who has an advanced degree in the Study of Phil Jackson, how surprised are you that his tenure with the Lakers is now starting to resemble Billy Martin’s career with the Yankees? Phil is a guy who’s known for, well, bad exits. But now he could be, as you tweeted, saving the Lakers for a third time. Is it something specific about the Lakers that has a type of hold on him or is it that he enjoys playing that role as savior, that as great as the franchise is, it still needs him to set things right? Is it an ego thing? Legacy?
Phil’s legacy speaks for itself. Ego? Phil’s is the size of Mongolia. He’s wed to the Lakers, a team that still carried enough triangle remnants to allow him to resume his march on the NBA’s record books. If that happens…

It seems like the Jerry West book would have been a dream project for you, considering the connections to your youth, your dad and your own basketball interests. Is there any project that could top that one as far as hitting so many personal and professional connections? Can even the upcoming Jordan biography top it?
Jerry West was my father’s hero, and to some degree mine. I enjoy putting basketball in a larger context. In that regard, MJ is the ultimate basketball story, the game’s nativity of sorts. The challenge of the MJ book has just about worn me out. But I’m getting there.

When you were working on your West biography, when did you find out West would have an autobiography coming out? Did that add any pressure to your own work as far as the publication date or simply with the material? And if you hadn’t been working on your own book, would you have had any desire to be his co-writer on his autobiography?
West told me about his autobiography when I called him to tell him about my book. It’s always hard to write a biography that’s going up against an autobiography. You’re at a supreme disadvantage. But it worked out well. His family members were quite forthcoming, and Jerry was also gracious in helping me.

As a biographer, when do you know you’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing? I read an interview you gave where you talked about some of the items you discovered on West that were too late to put in the book (his work on a school newspaper, for instance). Is it simply about meeting a deadline or is there a time when you realize, “I have the information I need to put a book together. It’s time to start writing.”
No, the pit is bottomless, particularly with MJ. It is exhausting. But more fascinating than exhausting. The deadlines, the absolute final deadline, defines it all.

You’ve spent a lot of time analyzing and writing about four of the more fascinating personalities in NBA history, West, Kobe, Jackson, and Jordan. A few questions on those four:
1. Part of Jordan and Bryant’s greatness is their arrogance. West obviously had a lot of confidence in his abilities too, but he also had these devastating insecurities and demons, which it seems the other two never dealt with. Is there a simple answer to what accounts for why one of the three best shooting guards in history would have those torments while the other two don’t? And did West’s help play a role in his greatness or would he have been even better if he had Kobe and Jordan’s unwavering confidence?
They are what they are, each a child of a different era of the game. West has huge confidence too but was scarred by his upbringing. MJ is the locomotive. Kobe’s still defining all that.

2. If you could eavesdrop on a two-hour therapy session with one of those men, who would you choose?
MJ. I have his book due. Don’t think he’s much of a fan of therapy. But he may be. He’s gotta spend that money somewhere.

3. Time’s winding down, your team is down by a point, who do you want taking the shot at the buzzer: West, Kobe or Jordan?
I have to go MJ. I’m not stupid.

Lazenby’s biography of Jerry West sheds light on the tortured basketball genius’ early life, on-court triumphs and devastating defeats.

4. As West’s famous “F*** Phil Jackson” line proved, Jackson and West’s relationship was strained even before Phil took over in 1999. They seemed destined to clash as GM and coach. But how about this hypothetical, which is impossible to prove either way but intrigues me: Phil Jackson the coach would have loved coaching Jerry West the player even more than he enjoyed working with Jordan and Kobe. True or false?
I think Phil would have loved to have a guy like West on the roster. But his demons always made that a challenge.

What kind of post-basketball career do you picture for Kobe Bryant? It seems many people think he’ll be something of a recluse when he retires, which, the way he operates, might not be until he’s in his mid-40s, no matter what he says. But do you see him withdrawing from basketball? Engaging in front-office work? Coaching? Broadcasting?
I think Kobe could end up doing relatively normal things. It’s hard for a celebrity to do anything. Especially a mega celebrity like Jordan. That’s part of his problem, but only part. The amazing thing about West is that he’s been able to endure celebrity while marching right ahead to do all the scouting he ever wanted to do. West loved watching the game too, something that hasn’t transfixed Jordan, at least not in the scouting sense. But it’s truly hard for him to have a public life. That’s been true since he first came into the NBA.

Tex Winter was always known for his blunt nature and fearlessness when sharing his opinion, whether with a superstar in practice or a reporter in the post-game. As someone who’s spoken with him so many times, where do you think that frankness came from? Was it something he developed as he got older and had been around for so many years, or was it always there? Were Phil and the superstars ever annoyed with Tex’s approach?
Tex was a child of the Depression, to some degree. He was a pole vaulter and relatively fearless. Most of all, he was a genius. Most of the people who played under or coached with Tex loved him, drew much from his passion. They laughed a lot at it as well. Because he was flat out all about the triangle and the game. Sometimes he was obviously annoying. Mostly they chose to enjoy all that he was.

Of all the quotes Tex gave you, which stands out to you as being his most insightful, whether it’s a line about the game itself, his experiences, Phil, Kobe, Jordan or Shaq? Tex’s explanations about the triangle, while not imminently quotable, are perhaps the thing I treasure most. But I treasure every single thing about the privilege of Tex’s friendship.

Lazenby’s The Show is one of the best books ever written about the Lakers. It was also tremendously challenging for the biographer.

Of all the books you’ve written – more than 60 now – it seems like “The Show” must have been one of the most challenging. In the Acknowledgments you write about conducting more than 500 interviews over a two-decade span, although many of them happened in three years. Some questions on “The Show”:

* When did you decide that the oral history format was the way to approach the book?
Terry Pluto in Cleveland pioneered the basketball oral history, taught us all something about the fun of that format. I did a Bulls book in modified oral history format and learned more.

* How much raw material did you have with those interviews and how did you manage to organize and catalog all of that information?
Too much. The publisher had me cut a couple of hundred pages, then admitted they’d measured the page count incorrectly. Just a fiasco. That’s ok. I’m proud of the book.

* The book’s 468 pages. What would have been your ideal length for the book?

* For anyone from Minnesota, Sid Hartman is a legend, though many would probably use other words when describing him. And countless people have classic Sid stories. But even people in his home state might not be aware of his amazing role with the Lakers, which I’m guessing was probably a surprise to those people who only started following the team when the franchise moved to LA. What is your favorite Sid story when it comes to his role with the Minneapolis Lakers?
I teach college and tell every class about Sid’s story as a kid with a mean drunk for an old man. His coverage of Minnesota teams as an adolescent and the thank you notes he wrote to every coach he interviewed. Those thank you notes provided him with a network of relationships that allowed him to operate at a higher level. It’s a powerful story and an important one for any generation.

* What are two or three particular anecdotes you had to cut that were especially memorable, which perhaps you’d include in a Deleted Scenes type edition?
I’d have to look back over everything to answer that. I was on yet another deadline. I bucked up and cut the book. It wasn’t a happy experience. I don’t draw any delight from even thinking about it. I’ve said before people don’t draw a lot from revisiting their moments of woe.

If you had to rank these heartbreaking defeats in Lakers history, with one being the most gut-wrenching, the most devastating, what would be your order and why?

* Game 7 1962 NBA Finals
This one is the granddaddy.

* Game 7 1969 NBA Finals
This one is the unparalleled agony.

* Game 7 1970 NBA Finals
This one is the reality check.

* Game 4 1984 NBA Finals
This one was delightful. It spiced the Bird/Magic rivalry and drove Earvin to his greatness.

* Game 7 1984 NBA Finals
Ditto above.

* Game 4 2008 NBA Finals
Nothing like an epic collapse to define the moment that nobody wants to talk about yet no one can forget.

And conversely, if you had to rank these victories, what would be your order and why?

* Game 5 1972 NBA Finals
Relief, not joy.

* Game 6 1980 NBA Finals
The legend is born.

* Game 2 1985 NBA Finals
Kicking the bully.

* Game 6 1985 NBA Finals
The moment.

* Game 4 1987 NBA Finals
Magic defined.

* Game 7 1988 NBA Finals
Showtime’s legacy victory.

* Game 7 2010 NBA Finals
Candy for the kids.

How has being a professor affected you as a writer? Does simply being around students provide you with more energy and enthusiasm? Do their different perspectives cause you to look at your subjects in a different way?
Plenty of energy but I have learned every bit as much from my students as they have from me.

Did you ever have any doubts about doing the oral history on the Virginia Tech shooting? How difficult was it for the journalist in you to try to piece something together that was so horrifically personal?
It was terrible. We were numb. That’s the only way we could do it. I had been a police reporter dealing with bad things. I’ll never decide about the value of the book. That’s up to each person.

In an old online description for your book “Yo, Baby, it’s Attitude!!!” it says you’re the NBA columnist for, “one of the hottest sites on the World Wide Web.” What was, what happened to it…and was it one of the hottest sites on the Internet?
News and Observer in Raleigh pioneered early sports Internet for McClatchy newspapers. It was a pioneer, but with the Internet that just meant you lost lots of money early discovering the truth.

You worked as a reporter for the Roanoke Times from 1980-1984. During those years, what were your journalistic aspirations or writing dreams? Did you want to work your way up to a bigger paper, to a magazine? And how did you eventually transition into writing books?
Yes, I wanted to rise. But while there working full time I entered the writing program at Hollins University and was told by a professor that if I wanted to be a writer I should think about writing a book. So I did. About Ralph Sampson. And that launched everything.

On a related note, book writing is definitely romanticized. But during those first years you started writing them, it seems like it would have been as much a grind as a dream. How tough was it toiling away book after book, and which book helped put you on the map as an author? And do those early efforts make the success you’ve experienced in the past decade and a half even more satisfying?
It was hard doing that grind and quite disappointing and frustrating. But I had a family to feed. And I wanted to be a working writer. I was lucky to have those projects to learn from.

  1. Don Peterson says:

    Never realized how much common ground Roland Lazenby and I shared. Living in Minneapolis as a kid, I’d sneak into their practices. Watch “Hod Rod” Huntely etc.. Watched big George Miken in his final years with the Lakers on and on. Bob Short moved the Lakers to LA in the earlie 60’s. Read Sid Hartman’s sports in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Played pick up games in the summer with the Lakers and ” Big Elg “. Spent 39 years with Converse in sales and promotions. Dealt with untold numbers of athletes. Watched Ervin Magic Johnson in high school and Michigan State. Dealt with Larry Bird, played in his golf tournament in Terre Haute several times. This common ground goes on and on……………… Don Peterson

  2. shawnfury says:

    Thanks for the comment, Don. Awesome memories. My dad’s idol was Elgin. And when they were still in Minnesota, he saw the Lakers on a barnstorming tour in a small town in southwestern Minnesota.

    Did you by chance get to go to larry’s home when they filmed the famous Magic commercial, pulling up in the limo?

    • Don Peterson says:

      No, I never went to Larry’s home. However I did visit the homes of a few of his hunting friends in Terri Haute. There were rare animal which had been killed mounted all over the place. Seems I spent more time with Magic Johnson , Julius Erving and others. Great memories ………….

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