If you are a longtime reader of Sports Illustrated, you know Jack McCallum. He joined the magazine’s staff in 1981, primarily writing about basketball, but over the years has reported on a variety of sports-related topics ranging from baseball chatter to electronic football.
McCallum is also the author of Seven Sconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns, a behind-the-scenes account of the Suns’ 2005-06 season. He is also co-author, with SI colleague Jon Wertheim, of a novel about pro basketball titled Foul Lines.
In November, he parted ways – to a degree – from SI, and since he has nothing better to do, and despite having shaved his mustache in fear of reprisal from bearded co-workers, he made some time for the fools at the American Mustache Institute. In our rich and compelling interview McCallum discusses why the Rockets might be better off without Tracy McGrady, who he likes in the NBA this season, we talk mustache and he offers weak excuses for removing his lip sweater, and finally – finally – he fesses up about his relationship with Boston Globe NBA columnist Jackie McMullen.
AMI: You were a longtime mustached American, which as we all know brought you great power and dignity. So why did you abandon our peoples’ way of life?
JM: It happened right after a colleague of mine at Sports Illustrated who hadn’t seen me for a while said, “Hey, still got the 70s porn ‘stache, huh?” I shaved it the next day. And I’m not making that up. I subsequently spent a season with a proudly mustachioed Mike D’Antoni, then coaching the Phoenix Suns. It sometimes made me sentimental for lip growth but I’m over it now.
AMI: Did you know that (according to the Dead Sea Scrolls) every time a mustache is shaved, an angel in heaven dies and falls to earth?
JM: I hadn’t heard that, but I do believe it.
AMI: Did you find that when you still wore a mustache you were either a) accused of random crimes, or b) had a strangely powerful effect on women?
JM: It was mostly (b.) and it was mostly my mother-in-law. She said I looked like Tom Selleck with the ‘stache. She was the only one. And her vision was kind of going.
AMI: Would you have ever believed, had I not told you, that there is a brave organization like the American Mustache Institute which serves as the ACLU of the mustached American people? And what does this say about modern society?
JM: I think it’s a great thing as long as the society is honest enough to look at some ‘staches and say, “Dude, we think you should shave.”
AMI: News made the rounds in November that after 27 years at Sports Illustrated, you took a buyout and moved on. Why was it time to leave and what will you miss most about SI?
JM: It was my own decision and, honestly, finances had a lot to do with it. The company was generous with their buyout packages to ancient mariners like myself, and right away they made me a Special Contributor so my byline will still see the light of day from time to time. And the idea of not getting on a plane 60 or 70 times a year was nice, too.
What I will miss is calling up and saying, “This is Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated.” After all these years, it is still one of the world’s great magazines.
AMI: Some great journalists of the last quarter century like you, Tony Kornheiser, and many others are leaving traditional media — either voluntarily or involuntarily — and much due to the evolving media landscape. What do you think about the new world of media?
JM: You probably shouldn’t compare me to Tony, who’s a lot more famous than me and making TV money. My own decision really didn’t have anything to do with new media. In fact, what I’d like to do is some old media stuff— write another non-fiction book or two and make a second foray into fiction. Having said that, I’m now writing a weekly column on our website, SI.com.
AMI: Did you happen to catch Buzz Bissinger and Will Leitch on the now-infamous HBO Bob Costas broadcast? If so, what did you think?
JM: I sort of understood the spirit of what Buzz was saying, but, in truth, by that time, I was a fan of blogs. You couldn’t cover the NBA without reading True Hoop. And to do my SI.com column, I peruse all those wise-ass sites and find a lot of clever writing in them. The problem, however, will be if modern journalism suddenly becomes defined as armchair commentary and no one goes out to report and actually finds out what the hell is going on.
AMI: You’ve really made your mark covering the NBA so let’s talk about the league. Who do you like this year and why?
JM: Well, you’re a prisoner of what you’ve written before, so I’m on record, back in October, as liking the Hornets over the Celtics in the Finals. That looks like it’s going to change. The Lakers will win the West. And I’ve come around to the Cavs winning the East. And I see the Lakers winning the championship. Whatever you do, do NOT take that to the bank. Or you’ll need a bailout.
AMI: As far as picking New Orleans, unquestionably they’ve been a disappointment this year. Not only have they not built upon last year’s success, but the midseason Tyson Chandler debacle was an embarrassment that was clearly about budget despite claims by the GM. What’s happened to the team this year? Why have they not taken the next step?
JM: Injuries have something to do with it. Stojakovic and Chandler have not been healthy. And the West has something to do with it–The Lakers, Nuggets (getting Billups), Rockets and Blazers all got better and the Spurs did not regress. The Hornets could still make some noise in the playoffs
AMI: If the NBA playoffs were to begin tomorrow, New Orleans would play Houston. I’ve written before that because of Tracy McGrady’s absence at least every five games, the team has gotten used to playing without him over the past five years. The thing is, they seem to play very well at times when he is out. Why do you think that is?
JM: Because he’s a ball-hog who’s too unpredictable to play with and has done less with more natural ability than any player in recent memory.
AMI: We’ve gotten the sense that the NBA has some very serious issues marketing itself to young Americans while David Stern seems to want to put lipstick on the pig and pretend it’s all right. What are your thoughts? Is the NBA in trouble?
JM: This requires more of a book-length answer, so I’d have another mustache grown by the time I completed it. My short answer is this: There are far more arrests and criminal malfeasance associated with the NFL than with the NBA. You can look it up. But negative perceptions about the NBA tend to stick because the game itself is not as ingrained in the American psyche as football. Overseas, Stern is a god and the NBA can do no wrong. Over here, that is a status reserved for the NFL. All sports–ALL sports–are in some kind of trouble because of the economic crisis, albeit the NFL less so. My opinion is that all will survive with some changes in the financial structure. IN the NBA I would expect to see the end of long-term contracts in the next collective bargaining agreement.
AMI: So most importantly relative to the league, in the history of the game, who had the best mustache?
JM: I’m going with (Knicks coach Mike) D’Antoni. He’s had the thing going for like 30 years now.
AMI: Speaking of great NBA mustaches, late in Larry Bird’s career when he was suffering from back ailments, why didn’t he lean more on his slender yet power lip curtain for support?
JM: I believe he saw old photos of that wispy thing he had and wanted to repress all those memories.
AMI: And while we’re on the topic of the Celtics, it’s always great for the league to have a team like Boston playing well. Of course, it seemed the Lenny Bias tragedy sent them into a tailspin from which they didn’t recover until acquiring Garnett and Ray Allen before last season. Why did it take a team like Boston so long to get the ship turned around?
JM: They also had the Reggie Lewis tragedy. They were set back a couple years by Rick Pitino’s bad moves when he became GM. They lost Tim Duncan in the draft lottery. Look, it takes a lot of teams a long time to get back.
AMI: Is it true Jackie McMullen is just you in drag? You both cover the NBA, you’re both Irish. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
JM: Jackie will tell you that she has broken at least two stories because someone returned a call I had made to her. Not that she needs it because she’s more of a celeb than I am. Anyway, I’m Scottish. A few centuries ago one of my ancestors apparently wanted to pretend he was a drunken poet, so he turned the Mac in our name to “Mc.” It turned out that he was a drunk, though not a poet.
AMI: So aside from your contributing status with SI, where will you be popping up?
JM: I’m going to be writing some travel pieces and hope to be working on another basketball book and maybe a detective novel. It’ll be about a guy with a Dashiell Hammett-like mustache.