Seth Davis Discusses His Book, His College Days, His Hobbies and His Big Break at Sports Illustrated
It was a pleasure to meet Seth recently, and he agreed to do a Q&A with this site regarding his book, which is out now, When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball. You can buy the book here. It took awhile to get this interview all hashed out, but I want to thank Seth for taking the time to answer all of my questions (and there are a lot). CHJ will be at CBS’ television studios next Thursday to chronicle the goings on amid the chaos that happens, and Seth made that happen. Again, an extended, public thanks; he didn’t need to do that, and offered without hesitation.
You mention in the back of the book that the book itself wasn’t your idea; it was Paul Golob’s, who is the editorial director of Times Books. So how did you get this gig? And I must admit I’m shocked that a book about the events of March 26, 1979 weren’t written before this. Were you?
SD: Absolutely. When Paul first mentioned the idea, my initial thought was, “Oh my God, that’s a great idea.” And my second thought was, “I can’t believe nobody has done this yet.” And yet, as good as an idea as it seemed, I had no idea how rich the narrative really was. I knew very little about what went on that season, so I was pleasantly surprised every step of the way.
What were your memories of the events of that inevitable collision between the two schools in 1979? How old were you? Was college basketball on your radar back then?
SD: This game was played exactly three weeks before my ninth birthday. I have no recollection of watching it, so I’m sure I didn’t. I do, however, distinctly remember knowing about it. In a way, that’s more appropriate, because the story lay in the excitement and anticipation of the game rather than in the game itself. The first NCAA championship game I really remember caring about was 1982. I grew up in the D.C. area, so with Georgetown in the game (they would lose to North Carolina), I had a natural rooting interest.
You make note of all the 98 people you intereviewed for this book. There are two glaring omissions: the main subjects. Both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson aren’t listed. Were they too hard to get for an extended interview? You mention how shy/isolated Larry Bird can be. What did both of them say when you tried to get some of their direct thoughts about the game? Or did you purposefully choose to interview everyone BUT them?
SD: I would have loved to have interviewed Magic and Larry, but at this stage in their lives, they have the ability to do their own projects and tell their own stories. That was unfortunate, but ironically, those are actually the two guys that I needed the least. Both have written autobiographies, both have had numerous books written about them, and of course both have been quoted out the wazoo over the years. So even though I didn’t get to talk to them, their voices come through loud and clear.
The book has a couple of good quotes, like Spartans coach Jud Heathcoate saying, “Some players can get the ball to the open man for the shot, but Earvin can get the ball to the man for the basket.” Any that stick out to you months after you’ve finished the book?
SD: I’ll give you another Jud-ism that I heard after I wrote the book, so it didn’t make it. When talking to a scrub player, Jud liked to say the kid was “a 20-20-20 man. You play when we’re up 20, down 20 or when there’s 20 seconds left.”
How many hours of game tape would you say you watched while writing this book? And did you rewatch the title game with both Heathcote and ISU coach Bill Hodges?
SD: I did watch the game with both of them. I also watched it with Mike Brkovich, a Michigan State guard. And I watched it a few more times myself. On top of that, I probably watched 12 to 15 games each of Magic and Bird on video. Those guys could play a little.
One of the best aspects of this book is you don’t get too glossy: You acknowledge that since the game in ’79, it hasn’t been so rosy for everyone. Magic, astonishingly, has not donated any money to MSU, even in the wake of the school erecting a statue of him outside Breslin, right? And Larry Bird hasn’t helped some former coaches, includhing Hodges, who has dealt with weight problems, a divorce and being throwin in and out of the college game for almost two decades. Why do you think everything turned out so bittersweet?
SD: Life is bittersweet. If you’re just writing about sports and not writing about life, then you’re not writing something worth reading.
If MSU-ISU was “The Game That Transformed Basketball,” what would be the runner-up to that title?
SD: My initial suggestion for a subtitle was “Read This Book Or You’ll Die,” but I got overruled.
The process of writing a book fascinates this interviewer. Was it a hard experience for you? How long did it take? Compare writing a book to doing an extended feature for SI (outside of the obvious word-count disparities).
SD: It’s like the difference between building a dollhouse and building a real house. (Or at least, a really big dollhouse.) It’s just more of everything. More research, more time, more interviews. The only tedious part was organizing all my material. I had several years’ worth of newspaper and magazine articles, and not only did I have to read all of that, I had to then take notes on my laptop and catalogue everything. Writing is very, very lonely work, but it is the most gratifying thing you could do. As the saying goes, the best part about writing a book is being done.
Take us inside the CBS studios during The Tournament. What’s it like? Are you always sitting at that desk, watching the games? What’s the atmosphere like? And I assume it’s going to be quite different now with Kellogg on the road this year.
SD: Most fun you can have with your clothes on, but make no mistake, it is a mental and physical grind. We don’t get on the air that much, but we have to always be ready to go on the air. It takes a lot of energy to keep track of so many games for four long, consecutive days. I’ll miss Clark in the studio, but I’m happy for him to have the chance to call the Final Four. It literally couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. And Greg Anthony is also a really good guy, and he’s very smart and committed. I know he’s going to be a great teammate.
We must discuss Duke, your alma mater. How difficult is it for you to remain objective both on television and in print? Do you think you do it better than Jay Bilas? (Not trying to rabble rouse, promise.)
SD: It’s not hard to stay unbiased at all. Sure, I’m a Duke fan, but fans are typically more critical of their own teams anyway. It’s really not relevant to what I do, but I know people are always going to find biases where they’re looking for them. I think Jay is just about the best in the business, so I’m sure the same goes for him.
What’s something you can share with us about Coach K that many people don’t know, but he also wouldn’t mind people knowing?
SD: The man loves his F-bombs. Remember, he was in the military and he played for Bob Knight. He’s really fricking funny, too.
The most underrated and overrated Blue Devils of all-time are:
SD: Underrated: Thomas Hill. Overrated: Seth Davis. (Ed. note: What a cop-out!)
What was the goofiest, perhaps most regrettable, thing you did in college? And since you worked on Duke’s school paper, does that mean you never partook in camping out at Krzyzewskiville?
SD: I camped out once or twice my freshman year, but by the time I was a sophomore I started getting press passes. Much cooler.
Are you in favor of expanding The Tournament? And that “opening round” game is terrible, right?
SD: Absolutely opposed to both expansion and the opening round game. There’s enough mediocrity in the tournament, and expansion would only screw the mid majors.
Should there be conference tournaments?
SD: I love the conference tourneys. They’re fun, they get everyone from the league in one place and they make a lot of money. Nothing wrong with that.
Just to get off sports for a brief second, what else, outside of your family, do you make time for? What interests do you have?
SD: I’m an avid golfer, but being the father of two young sons, I don’t get to play nearly as much as I’d like. My four-year-old comes to the range with me, though, so when they get into playing hopefully I’ll get a few more rounds in.
Jim Calhoun recently had another memorable press conference. Kind of a loaded question: What’s the most memorable press conference you’ve ever been at, and what’s the toughest question you feel you’ve ever had to ask at — at a press conference or otherwise?
SD: I don’t know if it was the most memorable press conference, but I was also at Calhoun’s presser after the Pittsburgh loss, when he was complaining about the refs. I thought it was so hilarious I had to stand in the room biting my lip, because I feared if I broke out laughing he would charge after me like John Cheney going after John Calipari.
How did you land the gig at SI? What events led to that happening? You were young when it happened, so did you anticipate getting such a great job so early?
SD: Biggest break of my career. I applied for the job with maybe the greatest cover letter of all time. I wrote it like it was a newspaper story, and the byline read “By Cove R. Letter.” The woman I mailed it to called me right away.
You’ve covered golf as well, right? Do you play? What’s your handicap?
SD: Sam Snead said a man has two handicaps, one for braggin’ and one for bettin’. Since I’m braggin’, we’ll call it a 9.
Outside of Carolina, give us the three or four best college basketball towns in the country that you’ve visited. And factor in home-court advantage to your answer.
SD: Allen Fieldhouse is my favorite place other than Cameron to watch a game. I’m a sucker for Spokane, Washington. And let’s throw in Madison and Rupp Arena.
Where do you stand on the ever-arguable one-and-done rule?
SD: I don’t think there should be any age minimum. If the NBA doesn’t want these kids in their league, they should stop drafting them.
Let’s look ahead to March. Give us your pick for:
–A legitimate mid-major very capable of making the Sweet 16
SD: VCU and Siena.
–Which team is most likely to fall in the first weekend: UConn, Pitt, Oklahoma or Louisville.
SD: Louisville. No point guard.
–Better team: Butler, Gonzaga or Xavier.
SD: Gonzaga, but not by much.
–Team that is losing steam by the week. (Think Arizona last season.)
SD: LSU, lost to Vandy and Auburn to end the regular season.
Two-part question: Not counting the UK-Duke game in ’92, what’s the greatest college basketball game you’ve ever seen, and what’s the greatest game you’ve ever watched in person?
SD: Best game in person was the ’91 semifinal when Duke beat UNLV. (I was in the stands with my buddies, not on press row.) Best game ever was a color war basketball game at my old camp, Camp Equinunk, in Pennsylvania. A 15-year-old kid hit a halfcourt shot to win the biggest game he’ll ever play in. Talk about One Shining Moment!