May 4, 2010

Interview Request, I

I loved telling stories and I loved writing and, more than anything, I loved editing the stories I’d written – kind of like a person with O.C.D. loves washing their hands. The interviewing still made me shudder.

I used to treat interviews the way George Constanza would treat a phone call to a woman. George, if you aren’t familiar, was hopelessly devoid of confidence. Thus, he liked to make notes before he called a woman so, if the conversation hit a lull, he would have some fodder to call upon. That was me trying to do an interview: I’d make a tedious outline of how I thought the interview should transpire in case I started stammering. I was always afraid that things would go south – a fear that was justified by numerous awkward, clammy-handed interviews.

A few years back, I hated nothing more than doing interviews. It’s not exaggerated hyperbole to say that I lost sleep over interviews. I literally did lose sleep over interviews. If there were some way to do journalism without doing interviews, I would have been all over it.

The first really good story I wrote, about my high school’s drunk-and-later-suspended cheerleading team, wasn’t all that great at first. The scoop was that 15 of the school’s 17 varsity cheerleaders were getting wasted at one of the girls’ houses, and that girl’s mom got ticked and then called the school to report the transgressions. All the girls got suspended for the season, and it was a big deal in our high school.

Well, the original draft that I turned into my high school editor, Dianne, didn’t have an interview with the mom. I was too freaked out. I talked with the athletic director and some of the cheerleaders and the school district’s Director of Something-or-Other. The mom, though? No way.

I forked over a print-out of that first draft to Dianne, knowing that the mom’s absence was a huge flaw. I was like a kid handing a report card to his parents with a big fat F, hoping that the parents don’t notice.

Dianne did notice. “The story is fine,” she said. “But you really need to talk with the mother.” I knew this was true, but I didn’t want to accept it. Finally, though, I grew a pair and interviewed the mother; that interview made the story 10 times richer than it was originally.

My aversion to interviews carried over to college. The first time I interviewed our college’s basketball coach I was freaked out; the first time I interviewed University of Colorado’s hoops coach I was even more freaked; the first time I interviewed a CU player, I probably sounded like that bumbling kid trying to explain the F on his report card. I loved telling stories and I loved writing and, more than anything, I loved editing the stories I’d written – kind of like a person with O.C.D. loves washing their hands. The interviewing still made me shudder.

But after a while, slowly, I started enjoying interviews. There was a cumulative effect – the more people I interviewed, the more relaxed I got. The more relaxed I got, the better I got. The better I got, the more relaxed I got. Eventually, the anxiety was removed from the process once I realized that, hey, all you’re really doing is talking. If you’re confident in your ability to hold a conversation, then you should be confident in your ability to give an interview.

I officially conquered my interviewing phobia while freelancing a University of Missouri-Kansas City basketball game for the Kansas City Star. That night, the Big 12 football championship was being played at Arrowhead stadium, in Kansas City, and the Star was strapped for writers. My number was called.

After the game I was summoned to the interview room. There was one other person in the room, UMKC’s sports information director, and we waited patiently for players and coaches to file inI was slouched in a folding chair with my digital voice recorder in hand. And when Dane Brumagin – UMKC’s top player – and the coach waltzed in, I couldn’t have been more lax.

In theory, it was probably the most nervous I ever should have been heading into an interview session. It was, after all, Division I basketball; the story was for the KC Star; I was on a tight deadline. Plus, with the room devoid of other reporters, I couldn’t rely on anyone to ask questions for me. I had to fish for quotes all by myself, without the cloak of anonymity. But I was ice-water cool.

My story, “UMKC moves in, gets the win,” started thus:

UMKC must have realized that the dark blue line about 20 feet from the basket doesn’t mean “Do Not Cross.”

After launching 39 three-pointers in their last outing – compared to just 26 shots from inside the arc – the Kangaroos dared cross into the Land of Two. They might just try it again after a 70-62 win against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne at Municipal Auditorium Saturday night.

“Our first couple games we averaged over 30 threes a game,” said UMKC coach Matt Brown. “We shot half as many three against Wichita State and we win, half as many threes against Bradley and we win. There’s a correlation there: less threes, you win games.”

The Roos, 4-6, 1-1 in the Summit League, missed 25 long balls in their previous game against Oakland, an 84-78 loss, and had pumped up a total of 65 threes in their last two contests.

At least for a night, UMKC decided to ditch the three-pointer-each-minute strategy and opt for a more two-pointed attack.

Led by Dane Brumagin’s game-high 28 points, UMKC shot just 21 threes against IPFW, 3-5, 0-2. Brumagin, who came in averaging 16.4 points per game, was a perfect nine-for-nine from the free throw line.

“I think we made a point to get to the foul line and attack,” Brumagin said. “That way we were able to get some free throws and less three-pointers today.

“It’s one of those things that goes game to game. If guys are feeling it then they might string off a few, but tonight we were just having success getting the ball inside.”

As I transcribed those post-game quotes from Brumagin and Brown, I remember thinking how chilled out I seemed. And why not? Why be nervous about talking to UMKC’s best played when I’ve interviewed CU’s best player? Why get sweaty-palmed about UMKC’s coach when I’ve interviewed a former NBA coach? It was after that UMKC game when I realized that interviewing wasn’t simply not annoying. It was fun.

But now, in China, interviews are even more laborious than they were with that mom back in high school. Just with one big difference: It’s not that I’m scared that the conversation won’t be fruitful or that I’ll flub questions. Over here, I simply can’t ask questions.

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