PEARL JAM always had a connection to sports. Its original name was, famously, Mookie Blaylock; its first album, Ten, was an homage to Blaylock's jersey number. But Jeff Ament's affinity for basketball extends far beyond fandom. The baller-turned-bassist met up with Kenny Mayne for a recent game of H-O-R-S-E in Seattle, where they talked trash about the rocker-jock divide, musicians with no game and being hated on by Courtney Love.
KENNY MAYNE: You were a point guard before you were a bassist. Tell us about your athletic career.
JEFF AMENT: I grew up in north-central Montana. There weren't a ton of athletes there, just a lot of farm kids. I was all-conference my senior year and all-state in football.
What position in football?
Quarterback and strong safety. I led the state in defensive interceptions my senior year, with seven in nine games. Then I went to Montana to play basketball and found out quickly that my college career wasn't going to work out how I'd envisioned it.
The other players were a level above you?
Yeah. Mike Montgomery was the coach. He sat me down and said, "If you work really hard, by the time you're a senior you'll get some minutes on varsity." I remember thinking, "There's no way I'm going to work this hard for four years to maybe get some garbage time when I'm a senior."
Were you already into music at that point?
I'd played a little guitar in high school. Where I grew up, I could be a punk rocker and a jock. But in college it became apparent that those two worlds didn't mix. When I brought my guitar back to school after Thanksgiving break, a friend handed me his bass and said, "Listen to the Ramones."
So you're self-taught?
I'm self-taught. But the two worlds of sports and music didn't really mix. I came into college as a jock. Where I grew up, I could be a punk rocker and a football player. Nobody told me I couldn't be both of those things. When I went to college it became apparent that I had to belong to one group. If I was a jock I couldn't continue to cut my hair the way I had been cutting my hair. That earring that you have? You have to get rid of that.
What was the move to the music world like?
There was a period, after I moved [to Seattle], when I had to hide the fact that I played ball from the punk-rock guys.
It wasn't cool to be athletically inclined?
No. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love talked trash about the fact that I hooped. I once stopped to say hi before a show, and as I walked away, Courtney yelled, "Go play basketball with Dave Grohl!"
Are the other Pearl Jam guys athletes?
Yeah. Everybody's athletic in their own way. We all run, surf and stand-up paddle. Ed [Vedder] loves to play baseball. Mike [McCready] skateboards. In the early days we always had a basketball and a football in the bus.
Maybe the lesson is, especially as you get older, that we aren't really in all these divisions.
You get to a point where you don't care about the cliques anymore. It's like, Man I'm just going to do what I want to do.
It seems you've come to terms with that fact that you're a little of everything -- you play bass, you still like your sports. You're not worried about being judged anymore.
Right. Just happy to be moving, breathing.
You were a SuperSonics season ticket-holder and took their move [to Oklahoma City in 2008] hard. Did you root for the Thunder last season?
Absolutely. Kevin Durant and Nick Collison wore green and gold. If you're a basketball fan, how could you watch that team and not go, "What those guys are doing is amazing"?
How did the Sonics leave Seattle?
I think it's really similar to how the Cleveland Brown left Cleveland. You knew something was funny when, in the middle of the last season, [former owner] Howard Schultz and [team president] Wally Walker held a press conference. They were on TV talking about things they had to do to get a new arena built. But Key Arena had only been remodeled 15 years earlier. I remember thinking, Wow, that's really weird timing. If they had done that a year earlier, when the Sonics magically made the playoffs and almost beat the Spurs in the first round -- or before they got rid of Nate McMillan and Ray Allen -- then I think they would have had public support. Or some public support. But when they did it, they had zero public support. I can't think of one person I hooped with who said, Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. We need to build a new arena even though we're still paying on the last arena.
Yeah, we didn't look at Key Arena as being that bad. What about Madison Square Garden? They fixed it up a bit, but it's still just an old, beat-up place. But because it's called "Madison Square Garden" ...
It's bad. I mean, Arco Arena? Charlotte? There are so many bad arenas.
Could you love a new NBA team, if it moved here, with the same passion?
I think I'll have to date 'em for a while first. If things work out, I might see if somebody wants to split season tickets the first few years.
Let's say a team does come here. Do you worry then about feeling guilty, like you just ripped off some other town?
Out of all the options out there, Sacramento is both the best option and the worst option. It's the best option in that the [Kings] probably have the best potential playoff team -- if DeMarcus Cousins somehow gets his brain figured out or gets a coach who can coach him and if Tyreke Evans comes around. The Kings have a good squad to start with. But Sacramento's a small city. You take that team away from Sacramento and what do they have? A double-A baseball team, that's kind of it.
We met at a photo shoot. You and Shawn Kemp were shooting a poster that the Sonics later gave away to fans. Was Kemp really a Pearl Jam fan?
Nah, not at all.
He just knew that you were somebody famous who showed up at games?
I think his publicist just came to him and said, "Hey, these guys are huge. We want to do this promotional thing. This is what you have to do. You signed the contract." That was the first time I met Shawn. We hung out a fair amount after that. But I remember being super nervous. I loved the NBA. I was even more nervous when I played in the first Rock 'n Jock game, because I was out there with Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Reggie Miller. That was my life highlight at that point. I'm on the court with NBA dudes? Are you kidding me?
Which fellow musicians would you want to join you in a pickup game?
Guys who can actually play? That's tough. There are not many good musician hoops players.
Oh lord, no. He's terrible! That reminds me of the first Rock 'n Jock game I played in. [Leonardo] DiCaprio was about 14 or 15. He played in that game, but he was just terrible. You know who's a good player? That Malcolm in the Middle kid. But the best musician I ever played with would be a tossup between two drummers -- Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Steve Gordon of the Black Crowes.
You'd still need a big man.
Hmm. [Nirvana's] Krist Novoselic is 6'7" but he has no game. Ice Cube? I've balled with Ice Cube.
Let's talk about Kareem Abdul Jabbar. You wrote a song about him that made it on the album Lost Dogs.
I think it was voted the second-worst Pearl Jam song of all time.
Well, at least you have humility about it. It's called "Sweet Lew" and it's about you meeting Kareem Abdul Jabbar -- Lew being Lew Alcindor, his original name. What's the story there?
It was the second Rock 'n Jock game and he was our coach. I couldn't have been more excited. So I built up my courage and went up to him and said, "Hey Kareem, I just want to say that you've been a huge inspiration to me." And he just kind of looked down at my hand and said "That's great," and did a 180 and walked away. Left me ice cold. When I started to write that song, I was pissed. And then as I wrote the song out, and got into what it was probably like to be Kareem, I felt bad for him. And I started to think, "Wow, somebody's probably felt that way being around me. I probably wasn't in the mode, or somebody was a little bit too excited, and I was like, 'Oh that's great, kid.'" So at the end of it I felt for Kareem. He's 7'2". He can't hide.
Have you ever told him?
No. But he was on NBA TV a few weeks ago. He's like 60-something now, but he just grabbed the ball and did a sky hook, and I fell in love with him all over again.
How old were you when you saw your first NBA game?
I saw the Harlem Globetrotters play in Montana a couple of times when I was 8 or 9. My first NBA game was in 1983. It was Dr. J's final season with the Sixers and Charles Barkley's first season. I sat in the rafters. It was like a $4 ticket. I was stoked. I could believe that I was watching Dr. J. He had been on my radar since I was eight years old. So to be in the same building as him?
In 1996, during the NBA Finals, Ed and I were hanging out in the suite, having a beer, when Dr. J walked in. We just looked at each other like, "How does this happen?" He walked over and said, "Hey fellas" and we ended up talking for half an hour. He told us a great story about the paper route he had as a kid. Two weeks into doing the route he got bored and decided, "It gotta make this more interesting." So he came up with all these creative ways to deliver the papers. He'd time himself and do the route backward. He'd throw the paper around his back. He told us that the paper route actually helped his basketball game. He said, "I always tell kids: Be creative with whatever you're doing, because you never know how it will influence whatever you end up doing."
What's your greatest Sonics memory?
The Dr. J thing was amazing. But my greatest game memory was '96. We beat the Jazz. We'd had two early exits from the playoffs the years before that. And I'd been touring in Turkey and Egypt with a side band called Three Fish so I had missed the bulk of the playoffs, which was tough. I got home the day of Game 7 against the Jazz. My brother and I went to the game. It was a tight one, and we finally won. At the end of the game, I just ran out onto the court without thinking. My brother and I were going nuts, jumping all over the place. Then I looked around and realized, "Oh my god. We're the only civilians on the court right now." I thought we were going to get thrown in jail. So we sort of snuck off the court.
If you could do it all over, would you rather have made it as an NBA point guard or a bass player?
I'm happy, because I'm almost 50 and still doing it. Unless you're a vegan freak of nature like Tony Gonzalez, I don't think you can play sports much past your early 30s.
So rock 'n roll was the more cautious career path?
That does seem crazy.