Ask Sam Smith

I was just wondering what you thought of David Halberstam? Did you ever work with him much, especially when he was writing 'Playing for Keeps'? I remember reading it -- the only Halberstam book I've ever read, unfortunately -- and thought it was just fantastic. For someone to have been able to write insightfully about topics as disparate as the Vietnam War and the Chicago Bulls, he must've been really something. I wonder if there are any particular memories you have of him? --Prashant Rao, London

I consider myself fortunate that I got to spend time with him when he was writing that book, sharing a few dinners and some plane rides. They were some of the best times I had working in journalism. It's a rare treat to have the kind of job I do. Though it becomes part of your life, you get to meet and know people most others consider special. I've played golf with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, went hiking with Phil Jackson and dined with Larry Bird. I worked in Washington, D.C. in politics in the 1970s and was in the Oval Office to interview Jimmy Carter and at a party at Ted Kennedy's house.

It was such a treat to get to know Halberstam because I've found there are very few people I considered truly smart and special. He was one. I read his books on government, the media and Vietnam, which inspired me in college and thought his basketball book "Breaks of the Game" about the 1978 Portland Trailblazers was the best sports book I ever read. I never thought much about writing books since I loved daily journalism so much, but when I started writing "The Jordan Rules" in 1991, I patterned it after "Breaks."

When I met Halberstam over dinner, I told him that. He asked if I had a copy. I still had my old, dog-eared paperback. (Back then I couldn't afford hard covers.) He said to send it to me and sent it back with an inscription about hoping someday I could write a book like that. It was really clever and thoughtful of him. He always had time for young journalists and though I hardly was young, I called him a few times in recent years and he always was eager to provide help and advice and would always ask me to look him up when I was in New York. I wish I had more chances. He was the best and the brightest.

How about New Jersey trading Richard Jefferson for Zach Randolph? The Nets need a low-post scorer to complement Nenad Krstic, while Portland deemed Randolph expendable with the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers don't have a small forward worthy of playing time on the roster, because Martell Webster and Darius Miles have been busts, and Ime Udoka is a nice defensive piece, but should not be getting Bruce Bowen minutes. It seems like a good fit for both teams. --Andrew Janoff, Livingston, N.J.

A man--or youngster--after my own heart. With the Bulls doing so well, I haven't had to offer my potential help. Though there are 29 other teams in need. I think that's a great possibility and really makes sense because it serves the needs of both teams. It's easy to throw out names, but it seems clear the Nets want to cash in Jefferson for some inside strength. They were in serious talks with the Bulls for Luol Deng last summer. And the Trailblazers, no matter what they say publicly, would love to dump Randolph and get something useful. The risk to the Nets is Randolph runs with a tough crowd and being so close to New York could be a disaster. But I can see the teams talking about it.

This might seem like a silly idea, but do you think the Bulls might have tanked their last regular-season game against New Jersey to get Miami in Round 1? It seems that Paxson built the team to match up better against Miami and Detroit more than teams like Orlando and New Jersey, which could be why those teams give us more trouble. Plus playing the Heat provided a national TV audience for an under-appreciated Bulls team. Face it--if they were playing the Nets as the 2 seed they'd be banished to NBA-TV like the Cavs. And people wouldn't take the Bulls as seriously if they got to the Eastern Conference Finals by avoiding the Cavs and Heat (assuming the Pistons would have won that bracket). I think the Bulls got exactly what they wanted, and can avoid New Jersey until a possible matchup in the Eastern Conference finals, when the Bulls would again have home court. --Chris, Dubuque, Iowa

I can assure you there were no such thoughts, though I know based on your thinking you believe there was someone on the grassy knoll in Dallas and the government and mob were involved. Management and the staff were furious with the team after that loss since that bracket seemed almost a certain run to the conference finals. It's winning that matters, not how artfully it's done. In talking to people around the Bulls for the weeks before the playoffs, the one matchup they privately wanted to avoid was Miami. And though they don't believe in them and neither do I, if there were conspiracies, wouldn't it be to get Shaq and Wade in the conference finals instead of a team without an All Star? The Bulls felt they could play the Heat because of the way they played them last year and were on the brink of a 3-2 lead. They also thought Wade was playing possum the way he was dunking in the final game of the regular season. They felt he was due for a breakout against them. The players were devastated about that Nets loss at the next practice, but they are resilient and once they got into the series knew they were better.

I take issue with some of your comments regarding Tim Duncan. I thought Tim Duncan's job was to win basketball games, not entertain the media. But I guess, according to you, I was wrong. Did it ever occur to you that maybe the reason Duncan is so on guard with the press is that he is concerned that his words and his actions will be misrepresented by the media? Shocking as it might be, the media do that on occasion. How do you know Duncan isn't having any fun? Because he's not doing a dog and pony show for you after every game. You have nothing to base your assumptions on other than your dislike of this player. Nobody plays in the NBA for 10 years unless they like it. For a man who has succeeded at just about everything he's pursued, Duncan cannot win. If he doesn't get arrested or talk smack, then his style of play is boring; his personality is boring. Why don't the all the media just get a petition and order Duncan's retirement since he is such a plague on the league? By the way, I never want to hear Duncan's name mentioned when you in the media get on your self righteous high horse and claim that players would be better off going to college instead of moving straight into the NBA. Duncan stayed in college four years, graduated with honors and all it got him was a boring style of play, a boring personality and a litany of criticism from hacks like you. --Bonnie Foust, Boston

Wow, you are angry. Still upset the Celtics dumped a season in 1997 and couldn't get him. This pertains to a response to an email last week. Frankly, my dear, none of us truly give a damn if Tim Duncan talks to anyone. Here's what I wrote about Duncan, which I hardly saw an as attack: "It is interesting with Duncan because he has long been a miserable character with the media. He's not a bad guy and everyone gives him a pass because he is such a great player. He's just a guy you don't talk to much because you can tell when you go over to him he's angry you did." Not a bad guy, as I wrote. I was making my point about Duncan going the extra yard to help cause someone lose his job by misinterpreting (from everything I've been able to find out about the exchange) Joey Crawford talking about fighting. Duncan had one ejection in his career before that. It hardly seems he's been targeted by Crawford. But I've dealt with that already. I try to give fans insights here that they can't get elsewhere and mostly don't get in the newspaper because of the declining space and limits on what I can do. No one doesn't admire Duncan as a player and good citizen. He is patently unfriendly and unhelpful with media and it's hard to understand why. Brent Barry engages constantly and have you ever seen him misquoted or hurt by what he said? The media tries to be fair and ask perhaps 10 minutes of Duncan after games and practices. It hardly seems like too much. But if he doesn't care to do that, no one condemns him for it. I feel sad for him that he can't seem to enjoy talking about the game and his game. Watch the media interviews. It's not like the questions are difficult or personal. "So, Tim, how did it feel?" I've never known anyone in the media to call Duncan a hack. Though if you are talking with my golf game, I have no quarrel as truth is the ultimate defense.

I know this topic has been beaten to death, but if the Bulls lose in the second round to Detroit, do you think Paxson will be content and make no changes in the off-season? I'm a huge fan of Pau Gasol, but if that trade were to materialize, who would you deal to get him? Every article I've read points to the fact that Gasol would be everything the Bulls need plus would be the perfect complement to Ben Wallace. So, if you were Paxson, would you make a trade this summer for Gasol (assuming the Bulls lose in the second round)? If yes, then who would be part of the package (including any of our draft picks)? --Mayur Thaker, Chicago

Very few teams see ahead very well when they are successful and the pressure is to come back with what you have. It hurt Miami. If the Bulls were to lose to Detroit, they would have made a big step and be on the verge the way Miami and Detroit appear to be aging. I think the way things are going the Bulls will want to stand pat with much of their core, perhaps other than Nocioni. It's also key where the draft pick from the Knicks is. If it's Top 3, it changes everything because they'll have something of great appeal and could revisit Gasol. I don't think they want to continue bringing rookies in given how close they appear to be. Even if the pick goes to the bottom of the Top 10, I think they'll still be active in trade talks, though not with Gordon, Hinrich or Deng.

Sam, I know its tough to get on Scott Skiles. However, I still feel that Larry Brown can be the type of "closer" that the Bulls need to get to the next level. I know he had 23 wins with the Knicks--but really with Marbury, Francis, Rose, overweight Curry, Crawford, etc. He was blessed to get 23 wins. So, Brown to Chicago, how about it? --JYD, Jersey City, N.J.

Yikes! That's one thing I know for sure will never, ever happen. There's no reason to get on Skiles, especially the way he came out of the Miami series with Pat Riley trying and failing to counter everything the Bulls did. I still believe Brown can be a credible coach somewhere, but he is hell on young players, of which the Bulls have many, and had big time problems with Ben Wallace, who helped lead the internal rebellion that got Brown his buyout in Detroit after he went looking for a job in midseason. He would be the last guy the Bulls would ever consider if they lose Skiles.

You receive quite a few e-mails bashing Hinrich. Do these people watch basketball? Is he not flashy enough? If the Bulls didn't have him to do the bulk of the ball handling they would be not nearly as good. When Gordon is tasked with handling the rock bad things tend to happen: dribble into someone's chest, mysteriously fall down or throw a pass that would get him the hook in an AAU game. Gordon is a special player but if one player has symbolized the Bulls turn around over the last few years it has to be Hinrich. --Russell Hammer, La Crosse, Wis.

I'm not sure he's the one player. It's more an ensemble: Deng's work to improve, Gordon's willingness to take big shots and Hinrich's relentless play. What bothers some people and the Bulls at well at times is Hinrich isn't the classic point guard decision maker. But I think he makes up with it with relentless play on defense and a willingless to step up and be an offensive threat. I don't see anyone asked to work as hard as he is and I consider him an invaluable player.

If the Bulls were to get the fifth or sixth pick in the draft, what do you think about drafting Brandan Wright from North Carolina? I think he, Tyrus Thomas and Luol Deng would form a very formidable front court (freakishly athletic albeit a bit small) for years to come. The Bulls would not have a traditional center, but the way the game is evolving, I believe that this proposed front court would wreck havoc on the rest of the NBA. --Dave, Chicago

It is interesting to consider the possibilities of the evolution of the game we see with the Bulls and Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. It is actually the Atlanta Hawks model and while no one wants to model themselves after them, the idea isn't bad: to get a team filled with long, 6-8 athletes to play every position. It was somewhat in vogue when Penny Hardaway came along to play point guard for Orlando before his knee problems and, of course, Magic Johnson. Like the Bulls with Chandler and Curry, the theory was good, it was the application. Atlanta just has the wrong guys. But it's an interesting and, I think, good concept, especially on defense since you can switch every pick and roll and make it tough for the NBA's basic play. Though the way the lottery works, either the Bulls get one of the top three picks or move down to the 9-10 area. The word is Wright goes in the Top five after Oden and Durant. But Paxson still is old school and I think believes in having the post big man.

With P.J.'s pending departure, the Bulls will need a big guy to play with Ben Wallace next season. What are your thoughts on the Bulls signing a big guy like Darko Milicic? --Derik Deliar, Miami, Fla.

Darko is intriguing, though I am not a big fan. He had a little flurry at the end of the first round loss to Detroit and my guess is the Magic end up keeping him. He is a restricted free agent and they won't want to lose him for nothing and have the Pistons with their No. 1 pick this June. The Bulls can only offer the exception of about a $5 million starting salary, and Orlando would match that. The Magic want to pursue a free-agent scorer like Rashard Lewis, so it is no lock they'll want Darko back and pay him, though they'd want something decent in a deal. Though I find Darko too in love with the jumper and a little too casual for the Bulls style of play and Skiles.

You worte "I think Kobe would win in this era because Jordan never developed the three-point shot." Didn't he hit 6-from-8 in just one half in that famous Game 1 against Blazers? -- Gilson Rodrigues, São Paulo-Brazil

That's why he probably made that famous shrug because even he couldn't believe it. This was in reference to a question I answered last week about which guy would win the scoring title. I felt they'd win in their eras because of the way the rules were. I know many consider it heresy to say Jordan could not do something, but he never was the shooter from distance Kobe is. Though I still think he'll get into the Hall of Fame.

Living in LA we hear how frustrated Kobe is these days. If Kobe asked for a trade do you think the Bulls would have enough to get him? --J.P., Los Angeles

No. Kobe may be asking for everyone else to be traded. LA is different from everywhere else. It's about a show and entertainment there as well as the game. No one puts on a better show than Kobe. He's not going anywhere.

I was watching the game with some friends, and we noticed that Tyrus Thomas didn't play at all in Game 4 against the Heat. Any idea why? He must have ticked off Skiles if Malik Allen got so much playing time while Thomas rode the pine. --Adam, Chicago

I didn't ask Skiles, but it seemed obvious in Game 3 that he was scared to death. Every time he touched the ball he couldn't get rid of it fast enough. He is a kid, after all, and I think the atmosphere and pressure was way too much for him. I thought Skiles handled it beautifully. He didn't say much, but didn't put him back in so as not to embarrass him. Sefolosha could play because he's played pro ball before in Europe. I don't expect to see Thomas much on the road in the playoffs, but he feeds off the crowd and I think he'll play in the home playoff games and more against Detroit because their big guys are slow and he can sneak in behind the zone on them and dunk.

Given Tyrus Thomas' difficult attitude and as much as people want to like him, have you ever dealt with a player who was a general pain for his first year or two and then ended up being an OK guy and turning around the public perception? --Thabo, Orinda, Calif.

Yes, several. Alonzo Mourning was as angry and mean as anyone when he first came to the NBA. He once tried to throw women out of the locker room and would rage at interviewers. Even before his kidney problems, he changed quite a bit and became, if not a teddy bear, interesting and approachable. He still has an edge to him, but he seems to enjoy engaging the media. Usually guys come around on some level because you just can't be angry that often given how good things are for players in the NBA. I assume he will, though I don't think he'll ever be on the all-interview team.

The more playing time Sefolosha gets, the better he plays. This is taking minutes away from Duhon. Do you think that the Bulls will trade Duhon or just put him at the end of the bench? Second, Viktor Khryapa has been an absolute bust this season. When GM Paxson was asked why he chose Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge, he said because Portland offered Khryapa in a deal. If Skiles and Paxson knew what they know now about Khryapa, do you think the would have drafted a different player with last year's top pick? I'm not upset with Thomas, I'm just curious. --Brian Brewster, Columbia Md.

No, Paxson liked Thomas the best and I think still feels good about the pick. Khryapa was a bonus, effectively a player for nothing. It's just that the Bulls are deep and Skiles soured on him. It happens. He could have played more and I know he's devastated about how the season has gone. Paxson never envisioned that and it was a good move. But you don't tell a coach who to play, and a coach gets comfortable with certain players. He never did with Khryapa. As for Duhon, he's sort of a forgotten guy, but does put in good minutes, like the closing game in Miami and will be more valuable in the playoffs than Sefolosha. But there is a transition going on there and you can't have that many guards. I expect Duhon could be part of a trade package because there are quite a few teams who like him and he does run a team well and defends hard.

Forgive me for jumping the gun now but has there ever been a team that has won the NBA Championship without any of its players being an All-Star or winning an individual award during the year they won it all? --Affie Carpio, Manila, Philippines

I know Seattle made the Finals in 1978 without an All Star. I don't know of any other teams to do so given the Celtics with a team filled with All Stars dominated the NBA into the late 1960s and with fewer teams before it was almost impossible for a top team not to have an All Star.

It would be interesting if you could address your sense of the future of Tyrus Thomas on the team. He's a blast to watch on the fast break, and he seems to fit into the new NBA of smallish 4s. I had thought Horace Grant was too lean to be a 4, but then look what happened when he dismantled the Lakers on the fast breaks in the '91 finals. You see Tyrus having a career more like Grant's or becoming a more explosive scorer like Shawn Marion? --Mike Dennis, Foster City, Calif.

Probably closer to Marion. Horace was a better rebounder and more a position player and more sophisticated. Remember, he was a top player in a good conference at Clemson for four years. Thomas is more a product of this era's AAU style of wanting to run and dunk and get on the highlights. I never thought Marion could be much of an offensive player, and he surprised me. Maybe Thomas will as well.

Watching Shaq play, I can't help but think why he always gets a free pass for being out of shape. I believe he could have been a much better (and healthier) player if he just made a commitment to staying in shape. By taking weight off his legs he would play more and be more of a force defensively. I think Phil Jackson even said that Shaq never could make a commitment to staying in shape. Shaq was always going to be dominant and he allowed himself to become lazy because of it. --Brad, Chicago

I believe that was the true genesis of the Kobe-Shaq feud. Kobe is a serious player and was appalled he'd work so hard and see Shaq out of shape and doing little work, that he'd spend the season getting into shape. There were other issues later that caused the breakup, but Shaq plays basketball because he is big and it enables him to have the lifestyle he wants outside basketball. It has been a huge frustration to every coach he ever has had, but he's so unique and talented you'd accept what he did. Because when he played, no matter if it wasn't at top form, there was no one to handle him. He is a classic what if, though many big men don't like the game and were forced into it as kids. If Shaq had Jordan's desire and attitude, he'd probably be the best player in the history of the game and have won a title every year he played.

My understanding is that when Krause left the Bulls he took a job scouting for the Yankees. Any insight as to what really occurred? Was he sick of being blamed for the Chandler/Curry (seemingly) failed experiment and left or was it "recommended" that he step aside. Knowing of Reinsdorf's loyalty to his people, this must have been a difficult separation, was it not? --Dean Sadowksi, Melbourne, Australia

It was difficult, and Krause, despite what Reinsdorf did for him for almost two decades, was furious and angry at the organization. He since has reconciled and Reinsdorf even helped him in baseball after Krause was let go by the Yankees. He now works for the Mets. It was time. Reinsdorf felt Krause deserved a chance to rebuild after being the general manager with the team that won six championships, and no matter how popular he was, Krause did make key decisions to get key pieces for the championships. When it went bad, Reinsdorf accepted Krause's resignation, which, as we all know from government, is the way to go out gracefully. Knowing Reinsdorf, Krause was well taken care of financially and there are few organizations in sports that have more veteran employees and have fewer people leave, indicating Reinsdorf creates a good and fair working environment.

I know you've been covering the NBA for a few decades or so. I assume you must have started off on NBA coverage as a beat writer. Was it for the Tribune with Bulls or somewhere else? Just interested in a bit of your professional history here. I briefly tried searching your name on google, but with a name like Sam Smith I've got no chance. Also, has it ever been hard for you to stay relatively impartial as a reporter should in the face of either great or really likable teams? --Cameron, Chicago

No one ever is truly impartial or objective in the media. You try to be fair, which is the best you can do. The key is building relationships with the people you cover. It's how you develop a knowledge of the game and the people, which is what the fans seek. It's been rare in more than 30 years in journalism that I've found subjects to whom I was close but didn't like. I've found the great majority to be relatively ordinary people with one great skill. They become rich and famous, but mostly are common.

I was closer to the players when I was younger since they were essentially peers. Now I tend to be closer with the coaches and team executives. But there still are quite a few players I spend time with and talk to because of a shared interest: basketball.

I wrote some sports and about the NBA in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was working in Washington, D.C. writing mostly politics and then for The Tribune magazine. I moved to sports fulltime in late 1983 and early 1984 and have been writing regularly about the NBA for the last 20 years and have not missed even one Finals game or All Star game in that time. I also do some outside writing and have written some books and worked for various magazines while also working for The Tribune. One of my first sports magazine stories was spending a day for US magazine with Jordan when he first came to the Bulls.

I realized in college that I wasn't going to make it as a baseball pitcher. I began developing an interest in journalism and wrote some of the sports stories for the college newspaper. I graduated with an accounting degree, but that never panned out, so I went back to school and got a master's in journalism. It was the Vietnam era and I became politically active and saw sports more as a hobby. I got a job in Ft. Wayne, Ind. as a government and investigative reporter. By the mid-1970's, I was ready to move on and if you are in politics, Washington was the place to be. I took a huge pay cut to go to Washington to work for a startup news service serving as an adjunct for New England newspapers. I was writing for newspapers without Washington bureaus in Waterbury, Conn. and Lawrence, Mass.

After a short tour as the press secretary for U.S. Sen. Lowell Weicker, I went to The Tribune in 1979 as a political and national writer. But I guess I was destined to end up in sports. I was always a fan, but growing up in New York City, players were just guys then and you'd often see them riding home on the subway with you. Some of the Dodgers lived near my neighborhood, and I never thought to ask for autographs. I even bowled for Gil Hodges' bowling alley traveling team, after he retired and before he managed the Mets. He used to yell at us¬ónot when we'd lose but when we didn't act professionally and with dignity. I learned old school from him. And Zen from Phil. What else is there?

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