Editor’s note: This Q&A was originally published on Oct. 15, 2018. ESPN2 will be re-airing the first seven episodes of “Basketball: A Love Story” beginning Saturday at 10 a.m. ET.
Good afternoon. This is Jackie MacMullan from ESPN, and I am thrilled to be joined by very well-awarded filmmaker Dan Klores, who has just released “Basketball: A Love Story,” which I already know is going to be my favorite film of all time, Dan. And having been involved in this project with you a little bit, I just want to know, how on earth did this come out of your brain?
Klores: Well, you weren’t involved a little bit. You were instrumental, actually. In many ways, it’s been a pleasure, actually.
MacMullan: Right back at you, Dan.
Basketball: A Love Story
Director Dan Klores creates a vibrant mosaic of basketball by exploring the complex nature of love as it relates to the game. Watch episodes.
In addition, you can buy the book, which is based on the film series, by Jackie MacMullan, Dan Klores and Rafe Bartholomew.
Download and listen to this conversation between MacMullan and Klores.
Klores: You know, I wanted to do a multipart piece on basketball for many years. Maybe around the time I was doing “Crazy Love” or finishing it. So I spoke to Adam Silver, who’s been a friend since the early ’90s, and he was encouraging about it, and then I spoke to Jeff Zucker, another good friend of mine, who at that time was chairman of NBC. Both had the same advice. They said, “You got to speak to Dick,” meaning Dick Ebersol. I wasn’t thinking about ESPN, and so I went to see Ebersol, who I knew somewhat. Always a gentleman. Great executive. Went to his office. Pitched it: 10 hours. We had a pleasant, 20-minute meeting. He walked me out of his office. He’s about 6-foot-3, and I’m 5-10. He put his hand over my shoulder. He was so erudite, I had no idea I was rejected. [laughter] The idea was gone. He had no interest in it. Basketball has always been my complete escape. I come from a background that we didn’t know we were poor, but we were poor. I think about it now, you know, we used to define ourselves as a lower-middle class. But, you know, I think that was comforting to my father. He came from a broken home. He was a veteran — Iwo Jima, Okinawa. My mother was 17 when she had me. She was a foster child. More often than not, my sneakers had cardboard in them because the holes were so, so big in the bottom. And my father sold pots and pans door-to-door.
Klores: And no one graduated high school in my family.
MacMullan: You didn’t, either?
Klores: I eventually did, but that’s sort of a miracle too because things that I got interested in … you know, I’m 68. I am absolutely a child of the ’60s, and I was extremely self-destructive for a good six-, seven-year period. So the release I had was always basketball. That was the healthiest release. When I moved when I was about 12, a couple of blocks in Brighton in Coney Island, that was a basketball neighborhood, so I had a late start. But that was the way to get out of the house. That was the way to be part of friendships. I wasn’t good at that time, but I was tough. And in those days, you could be 5-foot-10, and you could be a great rebounder and hang in the air, and that’s what I developed, so that became my identity on … the court, that I wasn’t going to take any s— from anyone.
MacMullan: So I just want to ask you one question because you’ve asked this of everybody in the film. When did you first fall in love with basketball?
Klores: I fell in love with it around then, about 12, 13, because now I’m in a group, and guys are playing all the time, and I’m getting better and better but not as good as them at first, and basketball was everything. Making the team in seventh, eighth grade was everything. Going to the Garden for doubleheaders for G.A. seats at 50 cents and clinics by [Bob] Cousy and Johnny Kerr and Cleveland Buckner and Kenny Sears before the first game, and then you get a pass to leave the Garden to go out in Times Square to get a steak at something called Tad’s Steakhouse, which was like $1.39. None of us had ever had something that they were serving there called French bread, and they weren’t really steaks. They were like, who knows what they were? But it was a happening for us, and going back on the subways and making the team and traveling all around Brooklyn. Saturday mornings PAL in Redhook and Tuesday nights Flatbush Boys Club and later Saturdays in the Brownsville rec center and JCH [Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst]. The team was everything. The crew was everything. That became my circle, and the park was everything. So I fell in love with it, and just like in the film, you know, where people talk about how they roll up a sock, and they pretend. I mean, that film does come from me, and I think everything in art is memory … And I’d be in the bedroom and close the door and put a hanger and make it into a rim and either with a sock or a piece of loose-leaf paper, and I’d become Barry Kramer from NYU or the McIntyre brothers from St. John’s. It was basketball day and night. No matter what other sports we play, basketball became the pecking order, you know, in your friendships, how good you were. And so you play day and night, nonstop. The first time I remember even playing, I was younger, like 7 or 8 years old, and I went down to the schoolyard with my friend. And we didn’t have a ball. We had what you call a dodgeball, which is a volleyball.
MacMullan: Right, a softer ball.
Klores: Yet we had no basket. I think it happens with anyone that’s in love with something. Of course it does. We pretended we were someone else.
Klores: But I think that’s everything. If you are interested in music or dance or television. So I was Bob Pettit.
MacMullan: Oh, interesting choice.
Klores: And he was Bill Russell. And I hadn’t spoken to this guy — he passed away about a couple of years ago — he moved to Dallas, and he called me about something five years ago. And I said, ‘Do you remember that?’
MacMullan: When you were Bill Russell and I was Bob Pettit, did he remember?
Klores: Yes, he did. He did. And that was at dodgeball. But then it was the basketball, and little things meant everything. You get lights in a schoolyard. Oh, we could play at night.
MacMullan: So playing in the snow. I’m sure you did that.
Klores: Of course! No, no, it was every day — bar none. From 12 to the time I was about 26, and I started getting healthier and getting away from the negative things when I was about 23 but still played every day. Every place I ever went to in this country or this world — when I was in the Army, you know, when I lived aboard a Navy ship teaching college-level history out in the Mediterranean, you know, it didn’t matter. That was it. Go find a game. Go find a game.
play0:32Basketball: A Love Story — ABA Empty Seats
The upstart ABA had many issues to deal with during its first season, especially low attendance.
MacMullan: Do you think that basketball is unique because you can play by yourself? All you need is a ball and a hoop.
Klores: Absolutely. And it’s part of the film. I’d be by myself countless hours depending on the situation, if I was away alone somewhere or had a fight with a friend and didn’t want to show up, you know, and just shooting and working out and working on your moves. And you know, you get different things. I remember being about 12, 13, and the big thing was buying spats. They were ankle weights, and you’d put them on your ankles because they were supposed to help you jump. I mean, we didn’t realize they’d probably kill your knees later on.
MacMullan: It’s probably not what they’re recommending today.
Klores: Yeah, but that’s what you do. Even graduating from Keds to Converse was a big deal.
MacMullan: Which, by the way, Converse had not an ounce of support. My first pair of sneakers were Converse high tops, which I then promptly sprained my ankle and was out six weeks.
Klores: But you never knew it then because they were the Chuck Taylors, they were for the real players, and who ever thought about support for your sneakers? That never came up. So I remember buying a pair of Cons about 10, 12 years ago … because of the memory. I couldn’t even wear them. You can’t even walk with them.
MacMullan: I know. They’re so floppy.
Klores: And because we didn’t have anything, I’d buy the high whites — they were $9 — or steal them.
MacMullan: OK. Statute of limitations, I think you’re OK.
Klores: The same way we did record albums or pants …
MacMullan: You stole pants?!
Klores: Yeah, you know, or supermarket stuff.
MacMullan: Man, I hope I can keep you out of prison by the end of this podcast.
Klores: But the white high tops because there were only white and black in those days … when they’d get a little dirty or no good anymore, I’d cut off the top of the whites, make them into half sneakers, put shoe polish on them for the summer. Make them black halfs.
MacMullan: Oh, there you go.
Klores: And because they were cool.
MacMullan: Weren’t you cool? That’s pretty good. So let me get back to Dick Ebersol for a minute now. So he says, “Good to see you, yeah no.” So you at this point, I’m assuming, haven’t done any of the interviews or anything.
Klores: Yeah, I did nothing. I didn’t do anything. I don’t remember if I had that meeting before I did “Crazy Love” or not or after. So then I met a guy named Geoff Reiss, who had Connor Schell’s job at ESPN. In fact, Connor was his either intern or a young man learning from Geoff Reiss. So he really liked some of my films, and I told him this. He says, “Oh, we want to do that. We want to do 10 hours of basketball.” He introduces me to John Skipper, who I loved and still do. And a North Carolinian and well-read, and we hit it off, and he said, “We’re in. Ten hours. Five parts. We’re in.” So then I started doing the research, and I started reading a lot. I don’t ever watch other films about my subjects ever.
MacMullan: And why is that?
Klores: I don’t want to. I don’t know. I don’t want to be influenced. I want to do my thing. I read everything. I mean, the reading and the preparation is everything because when you go in and interview someone, if they don’t know that you’re immensely prepared, you’re gone. So that’s the way I look at. These aren’t five-minute interviews. I read everything. I took prodigious notes. I don’t use a computer. Everything I do is yellow legal pads, long-hand. So I’m reading in diners and sushi bars, everything, and taking notes. Then Skipper calls me one day. “Sorry, Dan. We don’t have the funds for this.” So he said, “But we want to work with you.” So right on the spot I came up with the idea of “Black Magic.” I did this four-hour film for ESPN. I loved doing it. It won the Peabody. …
And then I didn’t want to do anything else that had to do with sports. Zero. Nothing. And this is the last thing I’m ever going to do that has to do with sports. But they started 30 for 30. I did the Reggie Miller movie [“Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks”]. It’s not how I originally wanted to do it. I wanted to run a photo of the Knicks fans freaking out in the back as Reggie hits the shot, but it evolved into something that I had a lot of fun with. I made it into a comedic opera actually, and then I went back. Geoffrey’s no longer there. Connor’s there. I worked for him for two films. He was delightful. It was terrific. Libby Geist, now at ESPN, she was my assistant for years, and so I said, I want to do this 10 hours. They said, you’re on.
And then I started the research. Quickly I learned 10 hours isn’t enough. So it became 12 hours, six parts, but I underestimated what it’s going to take. It takes me two full years to do a 90- to 120-minute movie, and this is a 20-hour movie that we’ve done in four-and-a-half years. But Jackie, when I mapped out my path here, if I look at my notes from five years ago as to how I’m viewing this, scene by scene, story by story, that’s almost what happened exactly.
MacMullan: So you really did have it in your head. So let me ask you: Who is your very first interview?
Klores: Well, my first interview was with Jack Ramsay because I had heard that he was quite ill, and it was during the NBA season. So I realize while I wanted to get him right away and there was no point in doing contemporary people then because it was during the season, and I wanted to get some of the elderly men and women early. So Jack Ramsay was incredible. I went down to Naples, Florida, to his home. He was I guess 80 years old [he was 89] and riddled with cancer. He sat in his chair in the living room for over four hours, never got up, really in pretty good shape mentally, only repeated a couple of things. And an absolute brilliant, brilliant, brilliant mind, not only about basketball but about leadership, and that’s the key to a great coach, is leadership.
MacMullan: Jack Ramsay is one of my favorite people. So I’m a 21-year-old journalist showing up at these NBA games, and everybody is like, “Who the hell is she?” Except for Jack Ramsay. He just put his hand out and said, “I’m Jack Ramsay.” And I said, “I’m Jackie MacMullan.” And that was that. And I learned so much from him. I thought he was great in the film because he covered a pretty large scope, both the college and the pros. And if I’m not mistaken, didn’t he pass away quite soon after?
Klores: Right after, soon after. A shame. And then I went up to Syracuse to interview Dolph Schayes at his home. I met his son at one NBA All-Star Game, and his son set it up, Danny Schayes, and Dolph Schayes was magnificent. He had a nice home in Syracuse, where he retired to. He was a great player, and his wife was ill, and he was taking care of his wife. So he’s very, very bright. Graduated high school at 16. All-American at NYU and a great mathematical mind. And from there I went to [Jim] Boeheim because I was already in Syracuse. I mapped out who I wanted. I had a list the whole way, every city, every location, because you’ve got to think of that. You don’t want to go into one city and pay for a crew, and you know, you might as well get two a day, if you can three. It’s exhausting. As I said, I mean, you know, Bill Russell is almost a six-hour interview. Oscar Robinson six hours. So that takes a lot out of everyone. I don’t think anyone took a break.
play0:48Basketball: A Love Story — Make Coach Proud
Jim Boeheim and Billy Donovan explain their thoughts on what it means to be a coach.
MacMullan: Did you find when you were interviewing these guys — some of whom you knew, some who didn’t know you. For instance, Bill Russell — did you know him?
Klores: I met Russell once or twice. Actually, I did him a favor once and never asked for anything, and he actually sent me a book with his autograph, which was pretty cool.
MacMullan: Right, because he rarely does that.
Klores: But then the next time I saw him, he acted like he never knew me.
MacMullan: But that’s Bill. That’s how Bill is.
Klores: I know his daughter, Karen, you know.
MacMullan: So I was wondering, because the interview with Russell was fantastic. It’s great in the film, and it’s great in the book, and I found that particularly great because I know Russ pretty well, just from being in Boston, and if he doesn’t know you, he’s not going to give you much. So how did you get Bill Russell to …?
Klores: I’ll tell you what happened. Thank you. Two things. Two people that he trusts gave him my credentials: Rick Welts, a dear friend since the early ’80s, and Charlie Rose … from the NBA. Charlie and the NBA.
MacMullan: Charlie’s a star.
Klores: They’ve been great. They’ve opened so many doors. So they opened it up for Russell. I went to Seattle. I’d never been there. What I got to his home, pulled up, and right before I pulled up, I get a call from Charlie that he’s not going to do it. Yeah, not going to do it. I said, I came out to Seattle. He told me right there in the driveway. Like, what are you saying? And he said, “Oh, no, no, he hates ESPN.”
MacMullan: Right, he does hate ESPN.
Klores: So at that time, it was supposed to be for ABC.
MacMullan: Oh …. So you said, well, we’re not ESPN. We’re ABC.
Klores: So I walked in, and with the woman in his life. He was with her.
MacMullan: Jeannine …
Klores: Very nice. And I made my case. And I didn’t realize he had hearing issues, so his hearing aids were not working. So I’m sitting there at his table. I said, “Look, let me tell you why you should do this.” I said, “I don’t know what your issue is with ESPN. This is ABC.” And he said, the same company. I said, “Yeah. All right, man, but like, come on.” And I said, “Did you see my film ‘Black Magic?'” And he says, “You did ‘Black Magic?'” I said, yeah. He says, OK. Same thing with John Thompson. “Black Magic” outwardly … it’s a film about the civil rights movement to alter the lives of players and coaches from historical black colleges. But it’s much more than that. It’s really about the outsider, the person and the institutions that are excluded, and so both John Thompson and Russell said, well, OK. But still I had some convincing to do with Russell. He was not a fan of the Hall of Fame.
MacMullan: He’s not. That’s correct. He didn’t go for his induction.
Klores: And when I voiced my displeasure at that time — I don’t feel this way anymore — but because the Hall of Fame, in my opinion, did not treat John McLendon well, nor does it honor the players and coaches, the men and women of historical black colleges. So we were akin on that, and then, man, we went to it, and he was, he’s Bill Russell. I mean, he’s not now a great storyteller, but he has such great depth.
MacMullan: So just give people an idea of your favorite clip, couple clips that you used of Russell in the film.
Klores: Russell reveals a lot. I mean, he was a two-time All-American, undefeated in college, junior and senior year they went to consecutive championships in San Francisco, and his coach that everyone thought, “Oh, they had a great relationship.” No, the coach was constantly trying to change Bill Russell’s game, so that didn’t work, and Russell said, “Hey, man, I’ve just blocked five shots in a row. Now you’re telling me I know I can’t leave my feet on defense? You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Right. But Russell here’s, here’s one of my favorite things that he said. He was being recruited by Abe Saperstein while he was in college to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. And Russell, this great all-American, Olympic hero, gold medal in ’56, and Saperstein is trying to get him. He tells Russell, “I’ll give you $50,000 if you come with us.” Then Russell introduces him to his father. He tells the father $17,000. So right away, that trust is broken. It’s gone. So Saperstein comes back to Bill Russell, a child, 21 years old, man, and says, if you sign with the Globetrotters, every time that you are on the road, I will make sure that this actress — whose name I won’t mention — this actress meets you in your hotel room. This is in the film. And Russell looks at Saperstein and says, in the film, “If you think that I would want to be with a woman that you could buy like that, you’ve got the wrong person.” And that was it.
And they tried the same thing with Oscar Robertson. You know, I mean, because it’s a myth that every — even though the quota system had denied so many great black players of the opportunity to play in the NBA — it’s a myth that every black player wanted to play for the Globetrotters. That didn’t exist. John Chaney didn’t want to play for the Globetrotters. Ben Jobe didn’t want to play for the Globetrotters. I mean, obviously there’s many pluses to it, but it isn’t for everyone. And you know Russell, look, I didn’t want to do the obvious. I didn’t want to do “Who’s better: Russell or Chamberlain?” I figured out, that whole David and Goliath thing, we call that story David versus Goliath. The David is Chamberlain, the Goliath is Russell. Russell had the 24-hour intensity to want to kill you, to beat you. Wilt, he’s going to be on the beach, man.
MacMullan: Yes, he’s Shaq before Shaq was Shaq.
Klores: Yeah, you know. So Russell did know how to work. That whole argument about all “Russell had more talent.” I don’t know if that’s true at all.
MacMullan: I think, kind of based on the transcripts, you would conclude it’s not true.
Klores: I mean, to the Hall of Famers that play with Chamberlain, you know.
MacMullan: Ruklick was great in that film, Joe Ruklick.
Klores: Ruklick was great. Chamberlain’s teammate with Philadelphia and his rival. Chamberlain’s first college game, Kansas versus Northwestern, Joe Ruklick 6-foot-9 out of Chicago is the center for Northwestern, and the coach says, We’re going to play him straight-up in his first college game. He said, I held Chamberlain to 53 and 32.
MacMullan: Well, I liked the story too about how Ruklick, when he was in high school, was named the best center in the nation. Even though Wilt Chamberlain was playing. And, of course, it was because Wilt Chamberlain was black. And Ruklick, the first time he ever meets Wilt Chamberlain, goes up to him and shakes his hand and said, I want to apologize, I took your player of the year award. And he talks about Chamberlain’s hands being as big as a baseball mitt and saying that’s OK, and that’s how they became friends.
Klores: Yeah. And, you know, I have a great scene. I love it. And I cut it because it’s really 1957. So it’s a scene that’s about Auerbach and Russell and Cousy and Heinsohn and Sanders. Well, Sanders it’s too early … [Sam Jones] Sam … building this great dynasty that’s going to happen. You know, it’s this love affair, and with Auerbach and Russell. And from there I cut into something else in ’57 another New York guy transforming the game, Frank McGuire, coming from New York to Chapel Hill to build this program at North Carolina, and then I come back to Boston and Russell and Auerbach, but within that whole thing, Tommy Kearns, who was the point guard from North Carolina, and they play Chamberlain and Kansas in the ’57 finals, and it might have been the worst coaching job in history by the University of Kansas coach. It’s almost impossible to do a worse job. North Carolina is undefeated. But the Kansas coach allowed Frank McGuire to slow it down. But in that scene for the first time, I think I got this guy … he’s Wilt’s last surviving teammate maybe at Kansas. And he’s funny, and he says, “Well, the real reason Wilt came here was financial consideration.”
MacMullan: Isn’t that great? Yeah, that’s great. So you know just for some of our young listeners, you absolutely tapped into some of the great players of today. You interviewed LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry. Who am I leaving out? Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis. So of that collection, what stands out to you?
Klores: I spent less time with Anthony Davis, and that includes Kobe and Steve Nash.
MacMullan: Steve Nash, who’s always great.
Klores: They are basketball scholars.
MacMullan: What do you mean by that?
Klores: I mean that their understanding of the intricacies of the game combined with their dedication and work ethic is the reason that they are who they are. I sat with Durant. I’m not talking about, like, he knows trivia or basketball history. He knows his craft and art, his movement. He knows how to save time and motion on both ends of the court. And that’s the case with all of them. Not saying they’re always right. It doesn’t matter. But their understanding of the game, it’s exceptional. Like, when I sat with Chris Paul, who I’ve known for years. I’ve actually coached against his guys a lot in AAU. And we spoke about not so much about defense but making the steal, which is a scene in the film. And he’s describing how against a 2-on-1 break, if he’s defending and he’s in the middle, and he’ll say something simple. “Well, where should my hands be? Where should my hands be if I’m in the middle?” Right. And I’m looking at him, saying what a simple question, but I’m not completely sure of the answer, and I think I really, really know the game. And he said, “Well, my hands should be up.” And I said, “Why?” He says, “Because then they’re going to make that pass below my hip. As soon as they see my hands up, and then my hands are coming down, and I’m going to get that steel.”
MacMullan: There you go.
MacMullan: One step ahead.
Klores: Wow. Or Durant. I have seen on the Durant playing against the double-team. People think about peripheral vision as just coming down and seeing the floor in front of you. But how about that vision of sensing when that double-team comes and making that snap decision and suckering the opponent into it. Bernard King says in the film because there’s a part about him, the whole thing about his turnaround baseline jump shot, and he says something very smart. He says the defender can’t know what … he may know your tendencies, but he doesn’t know what you’re going to do. And on that level, man, these guys … They really got it, man. And they’re secure enough. We’re all imperfect. We’re all flawed. They’re secure enough to know it. LeBron on going rim-to-rim and seeing the floor. He describes it as a NASCAR driver. Man, you know, I mean, and going into four minutes of explaining that.
MacMullan: And if I recall correctly, too, and knowing when I get a ball in a certain place at a certain time at a certain spot on the floor, you cannot stop him.
Klores: The paint. The paint really interested me. I thought I was going to do a scene on the paint, but I didn’t, but I got so much stuff, I did a scene called Little Big Men, and that’s a scene about seven great guys 6-foot-1 or less.
MacMullan: So let’s give them the roll call.
Klores: So that’s Cousy, Isiah, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Phil Ford, Lenny Wilkins, Allen Iverson. I know I’m forgetting someone.
MacMullan: Steph Curry maybe?
Klores: No, no, not in that….
MacMullan: Calvin Murphy?
Klores: Calvin Murphy. Thank you.
MacMullan: The baton twirler.
Klores: Yeah, just magnificent. Magnificent. And it’s not about, “Oh, I’m a little, so I got to be the toughest guy out there.” No, no, no, it’s reading the floor. It’s knowing when they’re going hard, when they’re lightening up going hard, or your first three dribbles lightening up between the 3-point line, half court and then seeing it, you know, and then making that decision, and not only that, then making their teammates trust them .. their teammates trust them. There is no accident, in my opinion, about who the great players really are, and that mental makeup. … And it’s on every level in basketball now. If you don’t dedicate yourself to that mental preparation, that mental growth, then you’re just a guy in a pool hall. You know Ben Jobe always used to say to me he says is “Danny, the pool hall is filled with guys with potential.” Sure, you know, and that’s the truth. You know there’s guys as good as Chris Paul somewhere.
MacMullan: But they have got … a lot of times, they’re playground legends. They can’t get their act together.
Klores: And the mythology about these guys, the playground legends, is hogwash. Man, it’s just hogwash. You had great moves, and you average 40 in high school, but so what?
MacMullan: I actually feel for some of those playground legends in a way because sometimes the aura becomes too big. Like, I always think about that with Stephon Marbury. The fanfare with which Stephon Marbury came to the NBA to me was ridiculous. Ridiculous.
Klores: Well, you know, those are bigger issues, of course. It’s family, sure. And you know, it’s lack of the right mentors. It’s belief. It has everything to do with fame, and it’s not only basketball’s, it’s belief in the illusions of power and success, and Marbury, I don’t put him in that category. But you know, I put all sorts of others in that category. And so do a lot of other people. I was with Sonny Hill the other day, and he says it’s nonsense. You think these guys can go out and compete against a guy that wasn’t even a starter in the NBA, like Pat Riley? Pat Riley would … eat them up to spit them out.
MacMullan: Pat Riley is another star in this book, by the way. The scene where he tells you in the film and us in the book that Game 2 of 1985 Finals is the biggest game in Laker history because the Lakers have lost Game 1, the Memorial Day Massacre. Kareem is underwhelming. And he talks about that game. You know, Kareem on the bus with his dad and all of that. Then they go on to win, and just the scene with his wife.
Klores: I love Pat Riley. I love him, and what I love about certain people is the fact that they are so dedicated that even men now 65, 70, 75, women, their memories are so intact about their passion. Pat Riley remembers everything. Jeff Van Gundy remembers everything. Krzyzewski remembers everything. I was interested, Jackie, when a coach finally wins. Do you feel joy? Or do you feel relief? I was interested in that. And I interviewed a shrink named Ira Glick. David Stern introduced me to him. He’s a sports psychologist in San Francisco. So I started asking coaches — like I did with the paint with players — lots of coaches, when you finally win, you feel joy or relief? So I had the records of all of that. So now I’m down in Miami interviewing Pat Riley for about two-and-a-half hours. And I asked him, and he was very thoughtful about it and said in 1985 he was going to get fired by the Lakers if he didn’t win because he lost in ’83, and he lost in ’84.
MacMullan: He choked in ’84.
Klores: He knew it. His wife knew. He had a great team, but they couldn’t beat the Celtics. So now they finally win in Boston. The Lakers win, and the locker room is jam-packed wall-to-wall like a subway at rush hour. And the person that walks in that he needed to see is standing in a corner, and he can’t get to this person. Now because of my own relationship with my father, I’m sitting there myself thinking, “Well, he’s probably talking about his father, right?” But he wasn’t. It was his wife. And he’s talking about this on camera. And he breaks down in tears. He’s overwhelmed with tears.
MacMullan: It’s an amazing scene. The guy that was with the slicked back hair, who you never see a hair out of place, you never see this man show his weakness or his emotion.
Klores: But that sprung another thought from me in that scene. Is there such a thing as tears of joy? And the common answer to that is, well, when men have their first baby or a baby, they cry, which I don’t remember crying when I had my first baby. But tears of joy. Now I believe. Of course there are tears of joy. And the reason I believe it, because I’ve felt it. I felt it. It happened to me, and it happens to people. But men don’t like talking about that and aren’t talking about stuff right. So I was lucky. I did this film “Crazy Love” and out in L.A. It was nominated for what’s called the Independent Spirit Award, which was like the Academy Awards for independent films. And it’s a big ceremony on television, and my wife wasn’t there with me because she just had a baby, and three kids were home. It’s on television. And I win, you know, I make my bulls— speech, you know, I totally wing it because I wasn’t expecting to win, although I should have. And it’s in the afternoon in L.A., and they bring me to a press tent and I walk out, and I’m happy. I bump into Phil Hoffman. You know, great, great guy, and he’s hugging me. And I’m just happy, and then I call my wife, Abbey, in a corner, and I break down in uncontrollable tears. I could not stop crying. There was no signal. Nothing. Nothing. And in that scene, Joy versus Relief, Dr. Ira Glick says, I’m paraphrasing, because we cut to, like Riley, we cut to Michael Jordan crying or LeBron. And he says, what’s going on in the mind is, “See Daddy? See? I did what you finally didn’t think I could do.” So it’s that release. And I think that, and the other thing — I’ll tell you something. This is really, this is nuts. … I don’t go to games rooting, you know. I actually sit there like coach for many years. I still feel like a coach. I’m so old that during the warm-ups of the games now, I appreciate the stretches.
MacMullan: We’re journalists, and we’re not supposed to root. You’re conditioned your entire career not to root for someone.
Klores: But I root for whoever Donnie Walsh is coaching. You know, it’s not about you or my friends. When Cremins was at Georgia Tech, I root for him, you know of that. When my first baby was born, I was already 47. He was born on my birthday. My son. It’s another thing that men don’t talk about — absolutely positively not. And it’s it’s evolved into the film in a certain way. It’s not obvious. So, you know, like men know, when they have with their kid, they take the baby from the mother, and the men, the father is alone for an hour, right, sitting there alone for the hour [scared stiff]. And you hold the baby all by himself because you know the doctors are with the mother. I’m sitting there with my son, Jake. And you know, he’s bundled up, the Vaseline’s on his eyes and murmuring and crying and coming back, and you know, and you think they’re smiling at you, but they’re not, and you’re just hoping … hope I don’t fumble this kid. And all I’m saying to him. Do you talk to your baby then? Well, of course you do. You know, so I’m just saying, “You’ve got a great mama. Your mother loves you. You’ve got a great mama. You’re going to be a great basketball player.”
MacMullan: Oh Dan. And he is, right?
Klores: He’s playing at Columbia. …
MacMullan: You do a really great job with the women’s game in this film, and just, you know, Carol Blazejowski should be a household name. So should Ann Meyers. So should Val Ackerman. I mean, Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie, Lynette Woodard. They’re all in the film, and I wonder what struck you the most about the women’s game. I know you didn’t know probably as much about it going in as you do now.
Klores: And you were so helpful. I mean, beyond helpful. There is no way in the world I was going to make this movie in terms of 20 hours chronological into mini biographies. There’s no way I’m doing five minutes on Stan Musial and Barry Bonds, six on steroids. No way, man. I wasn’t going to do that right. I needed real feeling with each story. Real feeling. I understood when we started five years ago, I didn’t know much about the women’s game. I liked watching the really good college games. You know. I’ve never been to one. Right. OK. But I like to watch them. I didn’t really watch a lot of WNBA, but I watched. But I wasn’t going to treat women like, OK, you’re going to be one scene. No way, man. Oh, here’s my thing on women. So they were going to be integrated throughout the entire piece. But I always felt that basketball paralleled the history of race relations in America, and in some way it does. I don’t want to overstate it. Right. But now the first woman that we interview — and I didn’t do the interview, I did about 70 percent of them — is Val Ackerman. I’ve known Val for years. I didn’t I didn’t think she would be an especially great interview, to tell you the truth. She’s very reserved. She’s careful. But when I got the transcript back, and I’m listening and reading Val Ackerman talking about being a woman playing, being denied, being the outsider, being excluded, getting half a scholarship and sharing it with another player.
MacMullan: She got the room, and I got the board, I think it was.
Klores: I closed my eyes and said, “No, basketball doesn’t mirror merely history of race relations,” and this is true. Basketball mirrors a history with the underdog and the excluded in America ever since it was invented. And women are very much a part of that, and man, that was an unbelievable breakthrough when I said, “That’s it. Man, I’m going big-time for it.” There’s a woman from ESPN, they introduced me to Carol Stiff. I never even met her until the other day. This is four years. And she opened up doors, and then you said to me, you said to me that you spoke to your friend at The Washington Post, Sally [Jenkins], and she said, “Well, you can’t do this unless you get …” Oh, no, I think you turned me on to Cathy Rush … And man, oh man, Cathy Rush. I mean, what she did, win 90 percent of her games, three consecutive national titles.
MacMullan: In a little, tiny school run by nuns [Immaculata].
Klores: So there’s footage in the film of the nuns doing hula hoops and on roller skates and banging on drums like they’re homeless guys in Times Square, all to raise money [they sold toothbrushes], and Title IX hurt them. So there’s six different scenes on women, six, and women are integrated throughout the entire piece. And they were beyond f—ing fantastic. They were unbelievable. Each and every one. The idea that in 1974, ’75 is the first doubleheader at Madison Square Garden that’s going to have a full woman’s game, and the other game was men. It’s Immaculata with Cathy Rush coaching versus Queens College, a great team at the time, and 12,000 people show up for a doubleheader in the Garden. The women’s game is first. Immaculata wins. Now, dig this. Dig it, man. Nine-thousand women come down from the stands to the floor of Madison Square Garden to walk in line and shake the hands of every woman that played and coached on both of those teams. And after that, they left. They didn’t give a s— about the men’s game. That’s right, man. Wow. Man, yeah. Wow.
MacMullan: And you know, your point about Immaculata is correct because Cathy Rush did this as a part-time thing. Her husband’s Ed Rush [former NBA referee]. Ex-husband, that’s right. She came home one night. She said, I think I got, like, you know, my own Oscar Robertson here, and it was Theresa Grentz who went on to coach at Rutgers, and you know, the coaching tree from Cathy Rush is amazing also, but the reason it was such a good story was because they’re playing against powerhouses. They’re playing against universities, and they’re this tiny college. And when Title IX finally went into effect, they got left behind. Immaculata got left behind.
Klores: You know, if you look at the makeup of the basketball player — the Bill Bradleys and the Grant Hills and the Kiki Vandeweghes — who are fortunate enough to come from more stable homes, they are the unusual.
MacMullan: Oh, for sure.
Klores: So this struggle and for women too, Nancy Lieberman, unbelievable. Unreal. You did that interview. And when I listened to her and your interview, I just flashed on, I love this word: tomboy. And that’s what we name this scene. You know, I love it because it’s real and also because it’s probably offensive to some people now, you know.
MacMullan: But, like, you know how many times I was called a tomboy in my life?
Klores: Nancy Lieberman, man. She had a brother at Far Rockaway. The parents are divorced. The mother is a little unusual. And the mother’s puncturing her basketballs at home when you don’t play in [the house], and that ball might puncture. Now you need a shrink. Bring it to a shrink, you know. And like, that’s what you have. What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with you? (Editor’s note: This is Klores recalling an account of Lieberman’s mother saying Lieberman needed professional help because she was too obsessed with basketball.)
MacMullan: And what about her stuffing her jacket? So she takes the subway out to Rucker Park, and she stuffs her jacket full of, like, tissues, so she wants to look bigger on the subway because she’s afraid. As she gets to Rucker Park, and there’s a bunch of black kids there, and she looks at one, and she goes, “Your name Rucker?” And he says, “No.” And she goes, “Well, good. This ain’t your park because I’m playing.” Who has the nerve to do that?
Klores: She’s got it, you know. But whenever she was an amazing player, and Rebecca Lobo, when I do the scene, it just, there’s those moments that I just get chilled, and she’s shooting around with her daughter on the set of Sesame Street. And she says, you know, “Now my daughter knows that girls can play basketball and can excel in anything they want, but my husband took her to her first men’s game, and she came home, and she says, ‘Mommy, I had no idea that boys play basketball, too.'”
MacMullan: How great is that.
Klores: And I grew up when six women were on a team, and three on one side, you know? Like, when you tell young women that or any women that, you know where they say what?
MacMullan: Well, all of those women, you know, Ann Meyers loved to play with her brother, Dave Meyers, at recess, and Mommy made her wear a dress to school, so she when her mom wasn’t looking would put on shorts so she could wear that at recess in case she toppled over playing whatever — basketball, football, whatever.
Klores: Well, you say it in the movie, the idea that, you know, I mean, it really was this stereotype that women don’t like to sweat.
Klores: But worse was this thing that women don’t play to win. You know, I mean, come on.
MacMullan: You gotta be kidding me. Ask my neighbors. All the boys in my neighborhood whether I was playing to win or not.
Klores: It’s funny, but once you get on the court, I don’t think we hadn’t played with a girl until maybe like (age) 20, 19, 20 in a park. But once you get on a court with a girl, there’s two things that are going on, you know. Number one, you sure as hell don’t want to get embarrassed, but that’s with anyone. You know. And number two, it takes you a little while to say, hey, I’ll give her the shot. But after a while, you say, “F— that, man. No way, man.”
MacMullan: You know what else happens? I was a shot-blocker. Every time I played with guys, if I blocked a shot — FOUL. I’m like, you’re lame. Are you kidding me? What a lame-ass person. Are you serious? I didn’t. So they’d come down again, foul the hell out of them. Now THAT’S a foul.
Klores: But you know, that’s, in a way, it’s part of the film. Like the different rules in different cultures of the game. You know, why some areas excel in certain things. You know, guys playing outdoors all the time can’t shoot. I talk a lot about in the first night, and I don’t start with Naismith … I felt like if I open up with Naismith, I lose my audience. So the third scene in the film is Latrell Sprewell choking P.J. (Carlesimo) because it comes out of this great scene called, “The teacher’s. The coach.” What did the coach mean to the player? The mentor, the paternal figure, the maternal figure, you know, the teacher. You know, like the disciplinarian, and then Kenny Smith says, and Mark Jackson, yeah, but then all of that stuff started changing. Guys are answering back coaches, throwing shirts at them, cursing them out. One guy even choked a coach. Boom natural entree. So all of a sudden, we’re in the mid-1990s, third story of the film. Then I cut to Naismith. Then I cut to Naismith. But I loved that stuff, too. I mean, like, you know, the innocence of the game, the game as a form of migration to this country and across this country and then scandal. Those two big scenes and the ’50s scandal, when the mob guys are offering up their beautiful wives to these players, college players … unbelievable. “Sleep with my wife. She’s a showgirl. But you’re going to dump points” … Right. Crazy, right.
MacMullan: Well, we could go on all day, but we cannot.
Klores: Let me tell you that one Russell story before that you asked. I’m sorry I have this scene called the “genius gene” because I was interested, and it’s appropriate for guys like Lebron James. Absolutely, positively, I’m thinking when you get to be so great as a player, is it something that you’re born with mentally that makes you different? Are you a genius, or do you just have this great gift that you work on and work on it? And I’ll tell you the reason I thought about it. Many years ago, ESPN, and I think they had like, they were doing some promotion for, like, the top 50 athletes of all time. The thing that pissed Russell off actually about them, right? And on the stage, they had Wayne Gretzky, Bill Russell, Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis and Jim Brown. Just those five on the stage. And I was standing in the back, and I’m looking at these five people, and Jackie, they weren’t even talking. They were different. There was something I saw in them from ear to ear that was just different, just different than almost anyone else. I realize that they had something mentally, and I couldn’t explain. It was more than just discipline.
MacMullan: There’s an edge. There’s like an edge to them … Martina especially, wow.
Klores: So I felt, like, OK from that, and that was a long time ago. Always stayed with me. And don’t you think it’s these images that evoke our creativity … over time, right? So that’s years ago, all of a sudden, it hit me: genius gene.
MacMullan: So that’s where Russell came in.
Klores: So I have a scene, as I interview Russell at his home on this, and after a while I said, “Do you think you are a genius?” And he said, “No, I don’t, but for many, many years, I remembered every play of every game that I ever played.” So that’s in his mind, that trap. That’s special. That’s not the normal person. That’s not the normal player. That’s not the normal musician, the normal dancer, the normal painter, the normal actor, the normal director … that’s the normal engineer. It’s not. Every play of every game. He said the pressure got too much. I had to give that up. But still. And maybe he’s not. I don’t know what it’s like to find and love to find genius, but it’s different. It’s different. And that scene, there’s no verdict. Some guys think, yeah, there’s a genius to it. Some guys don’t. But one thing is clear to me: It’s an art form. Basketball is an art form. I think that’s, you bet that, and it’s a common denominator. And Stern says it. It’s the same thing about music. You can put it 19,000 people, 50,000 people together, and it’s a shared moment. A shared hour, two or three. We have the same thing that we love.
MacMullan: There you go. “Basketball: A Love Story.” Thanks so much, Dan Klores.
Klores: Thanks, Jackie.