Dime Exclusive: Q&A With Hoops Writer Charley Rosen, Part One

One of the most acclaimed basketball writers in the world, Charley Rosen has spent years around the game. He played it at an MVP-level for Hunter College from 1959-62. He played it in the Eastern League (a forerunner to the CBA). And he coached it with Phil Jackson.

Since then, Rosen has authored 15 well-received books, among them Barney Polan’s Game, Scandals of ’51 and Maverick (co-authored with Jackson), a ballplayer-turned-journalist.

With it being the 60th anniversary since the scandals of 1951, and with the retirement of his friend Jackson, I figured it was a great time to talk some hoops with a guy who not only once played against Wilt Chamberlain but still writes about the NBA today for FoxSports.com.

This is just Part One. Check back tomorrow for the second half where Rosen talks about the dysfunction of the Lakers, Kobe-for-Grant Hill rumors back in the day and whether Jackson will ever coach again.

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Dime: To start, are you surprised by Dallas and Miami?
Charley Rosen: I’m not surprised by Miami at all. I never really felt that the Bulls were really that good. The regular season and the playoffs are two different forms of the same thing, like scrambled eggs and hard-boiled eggs, the same substance but two totally different entities. And what the Bulls were able to get away with during the regular season, they couldn’t as they got deeper into the playoffs and as you get deeper into the playoffs, the competition is better and teams have an opportunity to do some real in-depth scouting. During the season, you play a team once a month maybe and you have, if you’re lucky, one practice session and a shootaround to go over a gameplan, a scouting report. But in the playoffs, it’s just so intense. The scouting reports, you can go over game videos that are right there, that are pertinent, that are immediate. You can make really impactful adjustments right then.

So given that, Derrick Rose is the only Chicago player who can create a reasonable shot off his own dribble. I anticipated that they had no chance to beat Miami.

Dime: How good do you think Oklahoma City can be in the future?
CR: I think they have to make some changes. I think Russell Westbrook played as well as he could play in Game 5 in a close-down game. That’s as well as he can play. But taking a closer look at what he did, it’s clear this guy is not a point guard. He’s great on a fastbreak and early offense and any kind of broken field and any kind of hesitation in making proper defensive baseline rotations, wham, he can get to the basket. But he takes questionable shots and his jump shot is questionable. When he misses, he bangs it off the front rim. Shooters don’t do that. Shooters, when they miss they go around and out. A good miss is a back-rim miss, not a front-rim miss. When he misses, he misses badly. Shoots too much, makes too many mistakes. As many people have said, he doesn’t always make sure that the ball gets into Durant‘s hands. Durant I think…I think the offense needs to be expanded. Just getting him the ball off a screen-and-roll at the top of the key a step above the three-point line isn’t good enough. It puts too much pressure on him. He takes long threes. If you miss one of those, you get deep rebounds and the other team is off on the run. And the Thunder defense isn’t that good that they can afford to give up so many fast-break baskets. He came off weak-side screens a little bit more frequently in Game 5, but he needs to be used like Ray Allen is used…have him constantly in motion, except you can post him up a little bit, run him off single-doubles, run him off staggered screens, get the ball on the move instead of having to stop, catch it and then create something. It puts too much pressure on him. It’s too easy to rough him up, to get physical with him when he catches the ball at a standstill and that’s what a lot of teams do. So their offense has to open up.

What else do they need? I think they need another point guard. I like Maynor. I think he’s a great backup. Somebody like Andre Miller would be great for this team. Mature, sees the court, understands what’s going on, can score if he has to. He’ll slow them up a little bit, but since everybody else can run, that’s okay. But they need a mature, disciplined presence at the point. Perkins is overpaid. He can bang people around. He can set pretty good picks, but he’s no threat on offense. He can’t guard anybody who can face the basket and go. He’s foul prone. He’s not such a good passer. He’s limited.

Ibaka has got a lot to learn. He’s got a lot talents. He’s got great range defensively, but he still plays like a rookie which is understandable. He’s kinda comparatively new to the game. He needs to develop some kind of post-up game. They don’t have a post-up player. They really don’t have a guy who can demand a double-team and the post-up, which enables them to play inside-out basketball which would create easier opportunities for Durant. So they need a post-up player. I still see Perkins as a backup. When he was playing for Boston, he had four guys who could score, so you could go along with him. But with the Thunder, he doesn’t have that luxury. I love Collison. I think he was the MVP – if there was one – in the Thunder’s play against Dallas, except for that one game, that one crazy game where Nowitzki was like 12-for-15. He controlled Nowitzki as much as you can and he really made him battle for every shot. I think he’s a keeper.

Harden has got to start. He’s too good not to start. He’s not a great defensive player, but he does everything else. He passes like a point guard. He sees the floor. He can find a lane to drive somehow. He can hit perimeter shots. He’s gotta be a starter. Sefolosha, I also like him, but the problem is with Sefolosha, Collison and Perkins, you have three guys who really can’t score so it’s impossible to play all three of them at the same time, which it compromises whatever exists of the Thunder’s defense. And it’s difficult to play two of them at the same time. Sefolosha can hit a three-pointer once in a while but you can live with that. So I think what the team needs – all the talk about they’re young and they’re growing and they’ll learn from the experience, yeah but you don’t learn from blowing leads like they did in the last two games. There’s nothing positive you gain from those kinds of situations, from not executing in the end game. There’s nothing you learn from that.

I think they need a point guard. I think they need a wing who can create and score off the bench to take Harden’s place when Harden starts, and they need another big man, someone who can score in the post and who can be more of a solid defensive presence. Collison is too small to play center for long periods of time. It’s really going to wear him down. The chip they have is Westbrook. He’s got one more year guaranteed and two option years. He’s a guy who’s attractive that people you would think would give up something meaningful in exchange. Yeah, they’re young, blah blah blah blah. That’s really wishful thinking. It depends on what the Thunder want to do. Are they satisfied being in the Western Finals and…I don’t want to say folding, but not being able to do what they had to do when a couple of games were on the line? Or do they really legitimately want to be a championship team? If they want to be a championship team, I think these are the changes that they have to do.

Dime: Do you have any predictions for the Finals?
CR: Well, I don’t like to make predictions. I’m forced to. Being in the media, you kind of have to. Somehow the fans think that making correct predictions proves your expertise. But nobody knows what’s going to happen. If I knew, I would make bets and retire. All you can do is analyze certain things, talk about what has happened and talk about what might happen. But to make solid predictions is I think something that is forced on the media to do. I think obviously Miami is gonna win. I think it’ll be interesting to see how that goes. That’s all I can say. It’ll be hotly contested. At this point, home-court advantage means nothing. Fans screaming and yelling, that’s also overplayed by the media. Players can’t hear them. You are too tuned in to the game. It takes too much focus to play in the NBA. You have to make so many decisions so quickly that fans and all that stuff is just background noise.

Dime: Growing up, you played basketball and coached. Did you eventually anticipate writing about it?
CR: Well at what point? While I was playing…it was hard enough playing (laughs) to think about doing something else. I didn’t really start doing basketball journalism until around 1975 when I was 34 years old and I had a neighbor who just happened to be the temporary editor at Sport magazine just before they hired Dick Schaap. He asked, “Do you want to do a story?” I had been writing before that. I had a bunch of unpublished novels and I kinda got started. I really liked it. I really liked a lot about it. One of the main things: when you play or coach, you make a decision and that’s it. When you write, you can make a decision and then change it (laughs). You can keep on working something until you get what you think is right.

Yeah, I like the idea of writing. I enjoy it. I think my experience as a player, although not at a high level – I played in the Eastern Leagues for a few weeks and was a big frog in a small pond – and coaching on the professional level – in those days, the CBA was great basketball. I coached 50 or 60 guys who either played in the NBA or were about to. Guys I coached against were Phil Jackson, Flip Saunders, both Musselmans, Eric and his father. So it was high-quality basketball. I think that’s where I really learned the game in being an assistant to Phil Jackson for three years. It gives me an unusual perspective on the game, which I enjoy and which readers seem to respond to. But I’m also very opinionated so readers either love me or hate me, which is okay I guess.

Dime: Which book did you have the most fun writing?
CR: Wow. The most fun writing? Certainly not any of the novels. They are too hard. Probably the baseball book – Bullpen Diaries – because I’ve always been a baseball fan. I had a tryout with the Yankees after college where I almost killed somebody. I pitched in college, went to my first Yankee game when I was six years old. I used to go to 30, 40 games a year. I once played basketball with Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra. I actually interviewed Joe DiMaggio, got him to answer a question and got him to sign a baseball without being charged on anything. So I think getting involved with baseball at the level at the book called for was interesting. It’s always interesting learning something new, something you thought you knew and are only touching the surface of it. I think I had more fun doing that. Plus, I had an excuse. My wife couldn’t object when I had to watch every single Yankee game (laughs).

Dime: Could you talk about your book, Scandals of ’51? Where did you the idea to write about that?
CR: The whole thing started when I was in college, Hunter College, which is now Lehman College at the Bronx. My coach, Mike Fleischer, had played baseball at City College with a guy named Floyd Layne. And Floyd Layne was one of the players involved in the City College scandals in ’51, taking money and shaving points. Floyd was also a great player who could’ve easily played Major League Baseball.

What Mike did – I was a sophomore, was like 19 or 18 years old – during preseason practice, he would bring in Floyd and a whole bunch of guys from the Eastern League to scrimmage against us. In those days, there were eight or 16 teams in the NBA and the Eastern League was incredible. There was no other place for these guys to play. It was so good that Paul Arizin, who led the NBA in scoring once, when Philadelphia moved to Golden State he didn’t want to go. He played for Philadelphia, went to school at Villanova, lived in Philadelphia…he decided to play in the Eastern League. And the competition was great. So he would bring these guys in: guys like Sherman White, who in the late ’40’s, early ’50’s was unquestionably the best basketball player in the country and played for LIU and a whole bunch of other guys – Eddie Roman, then at City College – who had been in the scandals and were banned from the NBA. So I would play with these guys and they’re like amazing. They were amazing. They did these little things, a slight pull on the elbow and you were out of the play, a little bump, you turned your heard, you blinked your eye, and the guy went backdoor. They were so smart in so many subtle ways and I was a kid, I was 18 years old. I was always a big kid. I’m 6-9, so basketball was a place where I felt normal. For me, it was such a joy to play basketball. And I saw these guys and how good they were and they weren’t having any fun. Even though I was getting my ass kicked, I was having a lot of fun. There was no joy in their game. That struck me. How can these guys be so good and not enjoy playing?

Also, on my 10th birthday, which also happened to be January 18, 1951, that’s the exact day that the scandals broke. The exact day that it became public. So those things converged eventually, and I knew Floyd. I played a lot of outside ball with him, a couple of tournaments. He used to run a night center. I played against Wilt Chamberlain in his night center once. I almost got my head knocked off by Chamberlain blocking one of my shots. So I knew Floyd and I had this urge to find out what happened. Why are these guys like this? That’s how I originally got involved with investigating the scandals?

Dime: Could you compare a coach like Clair Bee (coach at Long Island University) to another coach like Phil Jackson?
CR: Well, Clair Bee had some problems and those are no secret. He was a big-time alcoholic. That’s no secret. There was also the question of whether he knew and how much he knew about his players shaving points. From what I gathered during my research for Scandals of ’51, he did know and he didn’t wanna know at the same time. It was the same with Nat Holman at City College. Things were different in those days. This actually happened: a guy was a student at one school and he played in the college game for another school. Stuff like that happened all the time. The rules were kind of vague. There was no powerful NCAA police force to make sure that these things (don’t) happen. Guys who were academically ineligible played varsity ball.

Bee was a master of the zone defense. Also, their home court was at the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy. It was really narrow and really short and no one really wanted to play them there. They’d win like 99.9% of their games there because a zone could cover the whole floor. But that was a different style of basketball in a different time, but he did what he had to to become a winner. One of the things he did was he had meat markets, these tryout days where there’d be 100 guys – all by invitation only – with numbers on their backs, and they would play and play and scrimmage and one by one, guys would be eliminated, sent home until he got down to three or four guys that he would give scholarships to. But you could get away with that in those days. So it’s impossible to compare coaches from one era to another.

…Check back tomorrow for Part Two…

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