Jack McCallum Talks Phoenix Suns

I have been trying to catch up with Jack McCallum, mostly to tell him how much I love his new book on the Suns, and we finally connected on the phone today.

First of all, let's be honest: it was extraordinarily enlightened of the Suns--the players, the coaches, the staff, the ownership, and everybody else--to let Jack McCallum peek behind the curtain for most of the season. (For the record, he says he was with the team for training camp, 40 games, plus he didn't go home once through all of the playoffs.) Plenty of people have plenty at stake, and most teams just wouldn't cotton the idea of a reporter with a season-long all-access pass. And by my reading of the situation, this book is unbelievably positive for the Suns. McCallum tells me that he likes every single member of the organization, and that comes across in this book.

I said to him that I can't remember ever reading a sports book that was written with so much, well, affection. And it's clear that he still feels incredibly bonded to the coaching staff in particular.

What's more, I challenge anyone to read this book and not end up rooting for the Suns. To my way of thinking--and I recognize I am far from a typical reader, in that I am totally fine with a little dirt--this is a 315-page brochure for what's great about the Suns.

But it's not a whitewash job. For instance, just about everyone in the book curses again and again. "You're living in a cocoon if you don't think that happens in the NBA," says McCallum, "and I admit, I cuss myself, so I'm not bothered by it. But people do get upset about it."

There are also plenty of negatives in the book. For instance, there's kind of an ongoing theme of Amare Stoudemire being a really nice guy, but also absurdly unworldly and, most importantly, in McCallum's words, "dogging it in rehab."

Similarly, motivating Shawn Marion to play hard every was a recurring priority for the coaching staff. James Jones is not depicted as the most prepared guy ("the thing I felt worst about" says McCallum "was that I never got a chance to also say that he is a great, smart kid, a good teammate, and totally reliable"). To my reading at least, owner Robert Sarver is almost always looking for an ass to kick, and comes off like Yosemite Sam.

Anyway, for whatever reason, McCallum is getting the inkling that the initial reception of the book from the team might be a wee bit chilly. For instance, Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash were slated to join McCallum at a book signing December 2 in Arizona. They recently canceled. There have been reports that Amare Stoudemire is not thrilled about the book.

"The idea that there is some resentment of this book in Phoenix--it does trouble me," says McCallum. "I have an affection for the people on that team. I had to write the most honest portrait I could, but even a hard-bitten journalist can be touched sometimes."

"I have been doing this for 36 years, I have been at Sports Illustrated for 25 years, and I have been covering the NBA for about two decades. You reach a point where it gets to be a grind. That was never true with the Suns. I never felt that way once in all the time I spent with that team. I really was re-energizing. Partly that was the basketball, and partly it was the affect of the guys. There is literally nobody in that organization that I didn't like. If there were some negative aspects to some portraits in the book, it was not because I didn't genuinely like that person."

Assuming he must have seen and heard some juicy things that he opted not to include, I asked McCallum what ethic he used to decide what to what made it into the book and what didn't. "First of all, if someone told me not to write it, I didn't write it. Secondly, I did some self-censorship. There were some times where maybe a coach rips a referee in the heat of the moment, and it seemed there was no reason to get him fined 50k just because someone forgot to ask me not to write it. Beyond that, I just had to be honest and forthright."

Some other notes from our conversation:

  • McCallum speculates that the crux of the Suns' problems this season has been trying to figure out how to play Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire together. Diaw has been out of synch and out of shape, "and now he has half as many touches," says McCallum.

  • Remember the whole story about Alvin Gentry calling Michael Olowokandi a pussy? McCallum says they had extensive conversations at Sports Illustrated about whether or not it was OK to have that word in the magazine. They considered various things like "p...y."

  • McCallum says "it's astonishing how books are not fact-checked." As a CYA, McCallum hired a fact-checker to do some work on his behalf.

  • McCallum says "what these guys know about basketball blows me away. I got better at keeping up as time went on, but when I first joined the team I often had no idea what they were talking about. They would see a few seconds of video, and every coach in the room would remember 'oh this is where we got caught with everyone on the left side because Shawn was slow coming over' or whatever it was. I was watching the games looking for that stuff, and I didn't remember it at all. I just have an incredible appreciation for that profession. I don't believe anyone gets an NBA coaching job without having some serious chops."

  • After we got off the phone, I realized I had made a major mistake by not getting more details about the moment when Suns owner Robert Sarver thinned Jack McCallum's eyebrows.