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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Interview with Bill Woten, Author of Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown

Nothing in sports surpasses the all-or-nothing drama of the seventh game of a playoff series. In his book Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown, Bill Woten discusses the first 96 game sevens in NBA history, from the Philadelphia Warriors' 85-46 win over the St. Louis Bombers on April 6, 1948 to the Phoenix Suns' 127-107 victory against the L.A. Clippers on May 22, 2006. As for the NBA's 97th game seven, Utah's 103-99 triumph over Houston in round one of the 2007 playoffs, Woten offered his initial take here. Woten plans to continuously update his master list of game seven information and, a few years from now, he will issue a second edition of his book that includes the newest game sevens.

Anyone who is interested in NBA history--or any sports fan who wants to learn about the nature of competition at the highest level of play--should buy Woten's book, which can be ordered exclusively here. In Game Seven, Woten wrote brief recaps of 84 seventh games and more extensive stories about what he considers to be the 12 greatest seventh games in NBA history. He interviewed many of the NBA's greatest players and coaches and each of the game stories includes information that extends well beyond the context of a particular game seven, making the book an interesting oral history of the league.

Woten's painstakingly detailed research also enabled him to provide complete boxscores for each game, so the book is a great one stop statistical resource. There is also a chapter about game seven pressure that includes a chart listing every shot in game seven history that could have tied the score or given one team the lead with less than ten seconds remaining. The book concludes with a 47 page section detailing various individual and team records for seventh games, including an all-time player roster and the won-loss records of every coach who has participated in a seventh game.

Here is the transcript of my interview with Bill Woten, edited for length and clarity:

Friedman: “How long did it take for you to write the book?”

Woten: “From start to finish I think that it took about six years, to be honest. It didn’t really start out as a book. It started out more as a research project. I am kind of a stats nut, if you will. It started out with a desire to track down complete box scores from certain games. Game sevens were always interesting to me, so I headed down the path of trying to track them down. It wasn’t until I got quite a few of them that I thought, ‘Hey, this might be a project that could turn into a book and actually incorporate additional research and interviews.'”

Friedman: “Which game seven did you start the project with and then were you kind of working backwards historically or just from the boxscores that were easiest to find? How did the research process go?”

Woten: “It was kind of a back and forth thing. I think that my interest in game sevens peaked in the early ‘80s. The Celtics and the 76ers met in the Eastern Conference Finals in seventh games in 1981 and 1982. I was kind of a Philadelphia fan at the time and those were two really, really big games that really captured my imagination as a kid growing up and getting involved in basketball. I kind of understood at a young age the special quality of a seventh game; Bird and Magic squaring off in the Finals a couple years later in a game seven in 1984 was a huge game. As for trying to get the boxscores, I was moving backward and forward while working off of a full list (of all the seventh games in NBA playoff history) and then doing a combination of research in libraries tracking down old records while also working quite a bit with NBA teams. The teams were extremely helpful and actually a lot of NBA teams, to my surprise, had better record archives of official game sheets and scoring reports than I imagined, dating all the way back to the 1950s. So it was piece by piece, almost like putting together a puzzle, if you will.”

Friedman: “What did you find out in the course of your research and interviews and looking at the boxscores that surprised you the most?”

Woten: “I think the thing that was most interesting was how vivid players’ memories were of those games and how they would interrupt me mid-sentence or mid-question and then talk for four or five minutes straight about specific details of a certain game. I found that really fascinating because these guys played in hundreds of games during their careers and, obviously, these were big ones but so were other certain playoff games but these (seventh games) were that memorable to them that they could recall specific details about them. I think that was the most interesting thing—how passionate they were about these games.”

Friedman: “How were you able to set up interviews with players who played from the 1950s all the way up to the current time?”

Woten: “That involved mostly working with the media relations departments of various teams. Most of them have a pretty good alumni list, for lack of a better term, to keep track of where various guys are. Most of them were very, very helpful in that regard. The other thing, too, that was interesting, was building (one interview) upon another, talking to one player from a team and then asking him about other players from his team and if they were still in touch; that was quite helpful as well.”

Friedman: “Prior to writing the book, had you covered the NBA or worked as a beat writer or done something else that gave you an ‘in’ with the media relations people?”

Woten: “Yes and no. I did have a newspaper background. I worked for eight years as the assistant sports editor with the King County Journal, which is a suburban daily—-now since closed—-in Seattle, Washington that operated in the shadows of the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I never covered the NBA. I did some Mariners stuff and some other things; mostly, I covered high school basketball, which I really love. I was fortunate enough to cover all of Brandon Roy’s high school career at Garfield High School in Seattle. So I have a background working in the media and with media relations people but I didn’t have any contacts specifically with the NBA. An interesting note about that is that almost every person I contacted did not respond to my initial request, so it did take quite a bit of persistence and multiple requests. I think that they wanted to sense my seriousness or maybe they just got tired of hearing from me and they relented.”

Friedman: “I wondered about that, because whether you are dealing with retired players or current players, some of them are very forthcoming initially while others are not. Since you have a media background, even if it involved covering other sports or other leagues, that gave you an idea or a template of the right approach to take even though you had not dealt with these specific players and teams.”

Woten: “Right. Exactly. The reporting background helped. If you’ve worked as a reporter at all at any level on any subject you learn about persistence and that it takes several ‘nos’ to get a ‘yes’ and that you have to stay after it and try different approaches and different angles. I will say that once I got to the players and coaches that they were extremely gracious with their time. You have probably noticed that as well. Who doesn’t want to talk about the glory days, right? We all want to relive the great moments in our lives. Once I was able to reach them it was very easy; getting to them was a bit more of a challenge.”

Friedman: “Have you attended any NBA seventh games?”

Woten: “I did attend the 1993 Western Conference semifinals between the Rockets and the Sonics; I live in Seattle. That one went to overtime. The Rockets had a couple shots to win, one at the buzzer in regulation and one near the buzzer in overtime. The Sonics won. That is the only one that I have attended.”

Friedman: “Seattle was always a nemesis for the Rockets in the ‘90s. A lot of people don’t know that or don’t remember that. The two years that the Rockets won championships they avoided playing Seattle—I mean, Seattle was eliminated from the playoffs. In ’94, they were the number one seed but they lost to Denver. I think Kenny Smith has even talked about that on TNT, that if they had had to play Seattle that they might have had a problem because the other years that they played Seattle they got eliminated by the Sonics. That was a matchup that was not good for Houston even during the team’s peak years.”

Woten: “Right—-it even went back a little earlier than that, too. I talked with Carroll Dawson the other day and he brought that up, that Seattle was a nemesis for them. I think that Seattle beat them in 1987, 1989, 1993 (and 1996); I think that the Rockets got them back in 1997 in a seventh game when they had Barkley and Olajuwon. It seemed like the home team won most often in that series. In 1993 the home team won every game and Seattle had the better record both of those years (1994 and 1995) so they would have had the home court advantage if the teams had met.”

Friedman: “This may be a difficult question but based on your research on game sevens who would you select for an all-time ‘Game Seven’ team? Who would you pick as a center, two forwards and two guards based strictly on their game seven performances, not their overall careers?”

Woten: “That’s a great question. One thing I did find interesting is that a lot of the players who performed well all-time also performed well in game sevens and I don’t think that we should be surprised by that. Jordan is the all-time scoring leader, by average, in seventh games at a little over 33 ppg in his three games. He didn’t play in a ton of seventh games, just the three, and none of them were in the Finals but he would obviously be on the team based on the three games he played. Jerry West played in a lot of games and was phenomenal but I think that my other backcourt guy would be Walt Frazier. He was fabulous in seventh games but his one (signature) game seven, which I still think is the finest performance of any of them, was his 36 points, 19 assists and five steals against the Lakers in 1970. That often gets overlooked because that was the Willis Reed game and while Reed gave, of course, the unbelievable emotional lift, Reed’s on court presence wasn’t overwhelming at all in that game. Reed only had a couple buckets and three rebounds in over 20 minutes of action. Frazier was the superstar in that game and had an unbelievable performance. At center I’ll go with Bill Russell. He played in 10 game sevens, which is the most of all-time, and he never lost one. He had phenomenal numbers in all of them. At forward, I’ll go with Larry Bird at one spot. He is one of only four players to post a triple double in a seventh game. He played in eight of them and was phenomenal as well, including his great duel with Dominique Wilkins in 1988. (At the other forward, Bob) Pettit was phenomenal, especially in the first marquee game seven, the only one that ever went to double overtime, the 1957 Finals between the Celtics and the Hawks. That turned out to be the first championship of the Russell-Auerbach dynasty. Pettit hit a couple free throws to extend the game and he even had a shot to win at the end of the second overtime. He posted great numbers in all of his seventh games.”

Friedman: “You made five great selections but I would like to ask your thoughts about one guy who you didn’t include: Sam Jones.”

Woten: “Sam was incredible. I think that Russell even said in one of his autobiographical books that if he had to pick one player to be on his side in a seventh game it would be Sam Jones, who shares the all-time single game scoring mark of 47 points in a seventh game--that was later matched by Dominique Wilkins in the duel in 1988. Jones also hit a game-winning shot in the seventh game of the 1962 East Finals.”

Friedman: “Where did you get the boxscore information and the play by play information, particularly for the older games? I know that those boxscores can be hard to find.”

Woten: “They are really, really hard to find. It involved contacting a lot of teams, some of which had better records than others. The other thing that I noticed is that some local newspapers printed more elements of the box score. For instance, minutes played was not always a standard part of the boxscore but maybe for the local team that would be included. It involved looking at all of the local newspapers in a specific area and pulling one or two elements out of each one to kind of reconstruct a complete boxscore.”

Friedman: “Microfilm research?”

Woten: "Yeah--a lot of microfilm research. To be honest with you, if I had to do this all over again and I was starting from scratch I would not do that portion of it.”

Friedman: “You wouldn’t do the boxscores?”

Woten: “I mean, I love them and I’m a boxscore nut and I love that they’re there and I love that they are all complete but of that six years that was four of it--it was the most work for the least amount of stuff.”

Friedman: “I think that you’ve created a great resource. Maybe ESPN or other organizations can call up this information at the drop of a hat if they want to but for the average fan I think that you have created a wonderful resource that is all contained in one book. The first two things that I thought of when I got your book and opened it up were (1) you have all the boxscores dating back to the earliest game sevens and (2) you interviewed a cross section of players covering several decades. Those were the first things that I noticed before I even delved into the specifics of what you wrote about each game. That is why I asked you how long it took you to write the book because I realized that getting all of those boxscores was not a simple thing to do, particularly for the older games.

I have two more questions. First, which player had the most overlooked game seven performance? Obviously, this is subjective.”

Woten: “Two guys, who both played for the Bullets, are somewhat overlooked—-Bob Dandridge and Phil Chenier. In 1978 the Bullets went into Seattle and won the championship on the road (in game seven), which was a well deserved championship for veterans like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Dandridge played well in that game but a lot of people don’t remember that the following year the Bullets made it back to the Finals. The Sonics won that year but the Bullets’ path to get to the Finals involved two game sevens, one against the Hawks and one against the Spurs. Dandridge was just unbelievable in those two games--(great) fourth quarter numbers, he hit the game-winning shot against the Spurs and I think that in the game against the Hawks he had 15 of their last 19 points. Chenier’s 39 points against the Buffalo Braves in 1975 was another phenomenal, phenomenal performance that I think gets overlooked quite a bit.”

Friedman: “My last question concerns something that I noticed in the back of the book on the Acknowledgments page; one of the people you mentioned is Ralph Wiley. Did you mention him because he is someone who inspired you and you enjoyed his work or is he someone you met or had some contact with before his untimely passing?”

Woten: “Like a lot of people, my first memory of Ralph is from the ESPN show “The Sports Reporters,” which was hosted by Dick Schaap. I was just engrossed by that show when it first came on. It was amazing to see people whose bylines you read and here they were actually talking and giving opinions. To me, Ralph always stood out and I couldn’t get enough of his opinions and his commentary. I went on from there to read all of his books and I continue to re-read them to this day. He’s a fabulous writer but, in my opinion, he’s an even better thinker. I always got the idea that when he said something that he put way more thought into it then I ever would. I’ve always admired that about him. I did contact him by email for a couple stories that I was working on when I was working for the newspaper. One of the things that blew me away initially was that he is someone who I idolized as a writer and I knew that he was super, super busy and probably had very little time in his day but he always responded to my emails. There I was, a nobody, and he responded to my emails and shared his thoughts. I did talk to him a little bit about game sevens in general and his memories and he did mention to me--which I put in the Introduction to the book--when I asked him about Frazier’s performance in 1970, ‘Why do you think I still wear Pumas?’ (the same shoe, of course, that Frazier wore) I thought that was pretty cool. We exchanged emails just a couple days before the shocking news that he had passed away. He is an inspiring, inspiring person to me and I really enjoy his work. I wish that he were still around. A lot of things have happened in the NBA lately and I wonder, ‘What would Ralph think about that?’ That is the first thing that I often think.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that’s the case with him and also with Dick Schaap. Something will happen and one of the first things that you think of is ‘What would Dick Schaap’s take have been?’ or ‘What would Ralph Wiley’s take have been?’ You just know that they would have commented in some way and that their commentary would have more depth and more significance to it than a lot of what is being said or written by other people about that subject. You kind of feel a renewed sense of loss from them not being here because you know that if they were here then they would be adding something else to the discussion that no one else is adding.”

Woten: “Right. All of LeBron’s path through the playoffs, the Tim Hardaway incident, Kobe’s recent stuff--Ralph would have had really, really intellectual things to say about all of those situations. As a fan of his and of great work and of just commentary on the world in general, I feel that we are at a great loss by not having his opinion out there.”

Friedman: “Real quickly, I’ll mention one other thing. You brought up Kobe. I noticed that in your write-ups about Kobe and his game seven performances and just how he plays in general that your take on Kobe is a lot more balanced and a lot more nuanced than most people’s. I don’t know how much you follow what happens at 20 Second Timeout, but I write about Kobe frequently, simply because he is the best player in the game. I’m sure that you know that if you talk to most people who are in the NBA, they will say that. Many fans get so involved with the players that they like that they are blinded to reality and they just don’t want to accept or believe or understand that. I thought that your take, both on how he played in various game sevens and some of the things that happened between him and Shaq, was, like I said, more nuanced and balanced--which is to say, more fair--than what a lot of other people say, including some people who are more famous than either of us, including some who have been covering the NBA longer but whose take I don’t think is correct.”

Woten: “Thank you. I appreciate that. I really enjoy Kobe. I like following him a lot. I think that he is an extremely intriguing person, just how he came into the league and his background (and) for right or wrong, all of the comparisons (to Michael Jordan). In a lot of ways, Kobe is one guy in the league who is in a lot of no win situations. He elicits a lot of hatred from a lot of people. He got grilled for the Phoenix game (game seven in the Lakers-Suns 2006 first round series), when he took three shots in the second half and was accused of quitting. His numbers that year were almost mirror images of Jordan’s and I don’t remember Jordan ever being labeled as a selfish player during that time frame--it was always, ‘Well, he didn’t have very good teammates and he did what he could.’ Nobody looked at the Bulls being swept by the Celtics (in 1986) as an indictment of Jordan--it was more just that the Celtics were better. In the Phoenix series in particular, if Tim Thomas did not hit that three pointer (to force overtime in game six), Kobe had a 50 point game going and the Lakers would have won the series. We would look at that whole situation completely differently: Kobe got his teammates involved early in the series, he had the two clutch shots in game four (including the game-winner), he had the great game six and he led them to victory. All because of one shot by Tim Thomas, Kobe is (supposedly) a bum.”

Friedman: “There was a game seven in 2006 involving LeBron in Detroit and his numbers almost mirrored Kobe’s: LeBron scored a lot of points in the first half but his team fell behind big in the second half and LeBron did not score a lot in the second half. Nobody suggested that LeBron ‘quit.’ I don’t think that LeBron quit and I don’t think that Kobe quit, either. If you watched the games then you could see the rhythm and the pace of what was happening and why they attempted the shots that they did. The phrase that you used is perfect and I have used the same phrase: Kobe is in a no-win situation, because if he goes out and scores a lot of points he gets criticized but if he doesn’t score a lot of points then he gets criticized for ‘quitting’ or ‘trying to prove a point.’”

Woten: “Right.”

posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 AM



At Tuesday, September 04, 2007 1:25:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I cant believe no one has commented on this topic. Seems like a very very interesting book.

I definitely miss Schaap and Wiley. Definitely substance over style but they had style.

At Tuesday, September 04, 2007 3:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It is a great book.

I've never been able to figure out why some topics elicit more comments than others, with the exception that just about anything written about Kobe usually generates responses.

For whatever reason, my interviews for 20 Second Timeout (including Woten, Gus Aflieri and Filip Bondy) have not brought forth many comments.

Schaap and Wiley were two of the very best and I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet either one of them.

At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 1:44:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I definitely wanted to meet them two. I remember watching PTI and finding out about Wiley. Wow it ruined my month.

I just ordered Game 7 yesterday and Im already thinking about the game sevens that I remember. Its like people dont read books anymore. Ive read some of Bondys book but Woten's looks a lot more interesting. I need to get Aflieri's too.

At Wednesday, September 05, 2007 1:51:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Everyone either loves or hates Bryant. I can understand hating him but do it for the right reasons. People hate him for his arrogance and off the court things. Who cares? Enjoy his game.
You are a basketball junkie so I know you read. But I like to read interesting NBA books like the Auerbach book, or the Pro Game by Bob Ryan, or something like Game 7. Thanks for interviewing him because I probably wouldnt know about it. As you know he is the only way you can buy the book. Good lookin, David.


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