Interview with Jonathan Abrams of Grantland.com

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Updated: December 19, 2012

Fans of sports and pop culture who enjoy the multitude of articles on Grantland.com have probably perused the work of Jonathan Abrams on more than one occasion.  While Jonathan has written a number of great profiles on NBA Players such as Stephen Jackson, J.R. Smith, Zach Randolph, and most recently Chauncey Billups, my personal favorites are the two oral histories he put together – The Malice in the Palace, which detailed the infamous 2004 melee in Detroit, and The Greatest Team That Never Was, an account of the rapid rise and drastic fall of the 1980s Houston Rockets. 

As a lifelong NBA fan, I loved everything about these features.  They were so many interesting quotes, details, and stories worked in that I had to read each at least a couple of times.  I caught up with Jonathan recently to discuss these stories and learn a little bit more about the Houston team that bottomed out in spectacular fashion.

 

PAC:  I believe this was second Oral History you have done; was either topic more interesting than the other?  Do you have any input in selecting the topics?

Jonathan Abrams:  Malice at the Palace was a little bit tougher because a lot of people still didn’t want to talk about that incident, so it was harder getting people to commit to discussing it.  With the Rockets piece, trying to track down different people was the most difficult aspect but overall most people were willing to talk about it right from the start.   

Both of the stories were topics that I had discussed with Bill Simmons before we went ahead and did them.  The Malice at the Palace was one he talked about with me a while ago; I believe when the lockout was still going on last year.  At that time it was too hard trying to get in touch with guys during the lockout, so I put it on the backburner for a little while and tried to do it once the season started.  And then when the season started I just tried to start talking to those guys and get that story going. 

PAC:  Is it hard getting people to buy in and talk to you on these topics?  Or is it a domino effect once you get a few on board?

Jonathan Abrams:  The big thing with the Malice at the Palace was that Stephen Jackson opened up and talked to me for it.  Once he talked to me, other people started to talk to me.  Primarily because he said a lot of things that I don’t think people were aware about, and I think other people just wanted to comment and not have Stephen Jackson talking for them.  So doing that interview with Jackson really opened things up for me.    

PAC:  Was Ralph Sampson that much of a phenom that both dynasty teams of the 1980’s (Lakers/Celtics) tried to acquire him at one time or another? 

Jonathan Abrams:  When Sampson was young he was really thought to be the next “it” thing to hit the league.  Obviously his career didn’t turn out that way. 

PAC:  It seemed like a no brainer for the Rockets to select Clyde Drexler in the 1983 draft given his roots at the University of Houston.  Was it surprise that they didn’t or was Rodney McCray the more highly rated prospect at the time?

Jonathan Abrams:  I guess at the time (Rockets coach) Bill Fitch thought that the McCray would fit into what he was trying to build more than Clyde Drexler would.  I know he wanted a guy who could defend the wings, and McCray kind of fit that mold better. 

PAC:  Talking to people from that era, just how big of an uproar was it league-wide when Houston won the coin flip for the second year in a row and were able to draft Olajuwon?

Jonathan Abrams:  Yeah that was basically why the lottery came into place because teams could sabotage their way into definitely being the #1 pick or into having a 50% chance with the coin flip of being the #1 pick.  Back then the worst teams from each conference would get together for a coin flip to see who would have the top pick.  I don’t think there is any doubt at all that the league did that because of the Rockets winning in consecutive years.

PAC:  Why were the “Twin Towers” able to coexist on the court so well together?

Jonathan Abrams:  When you think about it, their games really weren’t the same.  They were able to complement each other skill wise really well.  Sampson was able to play farther away from the basket, while Hakeem was more of your traditional post player with gifted footwork.  It’s tough to say who would’ve had the better career; obviously Hakeem has great longevity on his side.  But at the same time, I think Ralph Sampson entered the NBA with more acclaim then Hakeem did. 

PAC:  How surprising was it that the Rockets beat the Lakers to advance to the 1986 NBA Finals?

Jonathan Abrams:  I think it was definitely a surprise to a lot of people.  The Rockets looked like a team that could be good down the road because at that point Sampson was in this third year and Olajuwon was in his second year.  It looked like it would still take a little while but they really picked up steam at the right time.  Watching that team play it was really just two seven-footers being that graceful and skilled; it was really something that the league hadn’t seen before.    

PAC:  Did you get the sense that the Houston players felt they would’ve beaten that Celtics team (widely considered one of the greatest teams in NBA history) with John Lucas running the point?

Jonathan Abrams:  That was the thing they said they needed in the Finals – somebody to really be able to get them into their offense.  Robert Reid, the guy who replaced John Lucas, really wasn’t a point guard.  He was a guy who more or less who just got the ball up and down the court, but Lucas was really good at running the break and he was a perfect distributor to be able to get the ball to Hakeem and Ralph. 

PAC:  In the few playoff series in 1986 you wrote about it seemed like there were a ton of fights and physical altercations.  Was fighting that prevalent in NBA during the 80’s? 

Jonathan Abrams:  It was such a different league with much different penalties around that time.  Players knew that if they got into a fight they wouldn’t even be suspended, they would just be fined.  It was usually no big thing.   

Even then flagrant fouls were much more harder than they are now.  The whole game has really changed.  A lot changed after the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich fight as well, and this piece was after that, but the league was still in the process of transitioning into what it is now today. 

PAC:  Sounds like the Oakland Hyatt was a haven for drugs and other illicit activity back in the day.

Jonathan Abrams:  That’s what Robert Reid mentioned, and you definitely heard stories.  That’s where Lucas relapsed and a couple of other guys as well; I think Walter Davis was one of them, Roy Tarpley maybe.  Apparently it was place that people knew they could get drugs whenever they went too Oakland and stayed there.

PAC:  Will you be working on more of these in the future?

Jonathan Abrams:  Yeah, not sure what the next one is going to be just yet, but I really like putting these oral histories together and plan on doing more going forward. 

 

I want to thank Jonathan again for his time and am looking forward to his next comprehensive story.  For more of his features, check out his page on Grantland.com.

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