ATLANTA -- Watching a basketball game is very much a pursuit in perspective.
From a $1,000 floor seat, the action is unimaginably fast, but if you want to see game strategy unfold, walk a dozen rows up where you can view the full chessboard. Want clarity and the ability to rewind? Your 52-inch HD screen will do the job. But if you like the big game to feel like a spiritual revival, head to a packed sports bar.
It’s not just a question of surroundings. We can draw the same kinds of distinctions between the die-hard fan and the casual observer, between someone who has money on the game versus a disinterested party who’s just tagging along.
Journalists live in an in-between state. They’re fully immersed in the game, but rarely do they have a vested interest in the outcome. There might be individual players a writer would like to see succeed on a general level -- and sportswriters love to have predictions confirmed -- but any nominal favoritism that exists is completely detached from emotion. It’s a very strange place to watch a game.
For years, that was the world inhabited by Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger when the Hawks were at home. On game nights, he filled up his coffee, gathered pregame impressions from warmups and press availabilities, topped off that coffee, then marched up the top of the first level, where dispassionate members of the media sit on tall bar stools at Philips Arena in front of their laptops.
On Wednesday night when the Grizzlies and Hawks met in Atlanta, the mental exercise was entirely different, as it has been for every game since December when Hollinger departed press row for the front office. The view from Section 105, where the Hawks seat visiting VIPs, doesn't look the same.
“I’m not thinking about the story,” Hollinger said. “All I’m thinking about is the game. There’s no longer a narrative.”
It’s not as if Hollinger the Analyst didn’t examine the data to glean the most meaningful information. But instead of using that material to craft a story, he’s now cataloging it to make decisions about how to assemble a roster and forge a future in Memphis. If the Grizzlies struggle to find certain kinds of looks at the basket, that’s no longer an emblem of their identity, it’s a real-life problem.
At halftime, with Memphis trailing Atlanta 58-48, Hollinger studied the box score and gravitated to a couple of columns that are all too familiar to anyone with a stake in the fortunes of the Grizzlies.
“We had four 3-point attempts, only one of which was like a genuine catch-and-shoot corner 3,” Hollinger said. “We’re in this game because we have 10 more possessions than they do.”
At first, hearing “we” emanate from Hollinger’s mouth sounds a bit like Sanskrit until you realize that he’s now in the “we” business. While he’s every bit as rational in his approach and empirical in his methods, Hollinger now has skin in the game. (Speaking of which, he also now wears a suit to the arena.) For the first time since he grew up pulling for the Celtics in the 1980s, he has a team, and that new reality colors his entire viewing experience.
“That’s the biggest different -- the rooting,” Hollinger said.
So when the officials fail to call a moving screen on Atlanta, or a Grizzlies shooter has his toe on the 3-point line, or Zach Randolph makes a strong defensive stand when he could’ve easily checked out, it feels a little different. These plays inform larger truths about the team, just as they did from press row. But as time progresses, every success or failure will be an expression of how well he’s doing the job.
“I’ve been pretty calm so far,” Hollinger said. “But inevitably as we get further into this, it will probably get harder.”
For Hollinger, watching League Pass and video of NBA basketball used to be an exploration for ideas, themes and patterns. These days, he surveys that landscape through a single lens -- the future of the Memphis Grizzlies.
“I’m looking at players a little differently,” Hollinger said. “Any time I’m seeing a player, I’m thinking about how he would fit on our team.”
The Grizzlies staggered through another loss on Wednesday, dropping the game in Atlanta 103-92. There’s plenty for decision-makers in Memphis to chew on, and there’s also ample time to address the issues and a pretty solid defense to fall back on.
After the game, as the media ran back to the press room to grab their notebooks and digital recorders, Hollinger placed his smartphone in his jacket pocket and … that was it. No quotes to gather and no story to write.
“At the end of the game, that walk out of the arena is pretty cool,” Hollinger said.