The NBA Will Expose You: Tom Scharpling and the Lessons of Basketball

(Editor's note: Negative Dunkalectics contributor David Hill recently had the opportunity to go to a New Jersey Nets / Indiana Pacers game with "The Best Show On WFMU" host Tom Scharpling. Scharpling is currently developing a new Comedy Central series entitled "Evil Genius," with comedian Paul F. Tompkins.)

“I would sit right down there, right by the baseline.” Tom Scharpling is pointing at the media row behind the basket. We are about six rows up from the court in the Prudential Center watching the Nets take on the Pacers. “And the Mavs are in town, and I’m doing a story on Steve Nash. Anyway the Mavs are supposed to win that game, but in the fourth quarter its looking like its going to go to overtime. So during a timeout I go back into the tunnel to the media room to use the bathroom. And I bump into Fred Kerber. You see him over there?”

Tom gestures towards the media row again. “Right there, that blob in the brown sweater? He says to me, ‘Can you believe this might go into overtime?’ Like he’s annoyed. I’m like -- "No, you idiot, this is a good thing. This is a great game.” Tom looks over at Kerber again and sighs. “Is that how I was going to end up? I’d rather jump off a roof.”

Tom shares this anecdote with me not so much as an important turning point in his life as much as an amusing story about the veteran NBA beat writer sitting a few yards away from us. But its importance isn’t lost on me. Things could have been different.

At the time, Tom was sitting on media row waiting to interview Steve Nash, he was already two years into hosting his radio show “The Best Show on WFMU.” He was mere months away from being offered a job writing on the television show Monk. He was still years away from writing for Tim and Eric, directing music videos, and creating his own television show. But the path that would lead him there was already set.

“Before the Monk job, I was all in on basketball.” For the past few years before the run-in with Kerber, Tom had been paying the bills with writing for magazines like SLAM and Hoop Insider. But it wasn’t just work: Scharpling was passionate about professional basketball. “I got to a point in my life where I just drew a line and said, 'I’m going to be a writer,' and got serious about writing.

“I started out by faxing Pete Vescey jokes for his column. Every now and then he would use one. All in all he used about 30 of my jokes. I’d open the paper every day to find it, and I’d be over the moon when I’d see my name there in print.”

One-liners, like “Yinka Dare is now teaching the Nets to complain in two languages” or “the way John Salley defended Rik Smits in the fourth quarter, you’d think he was trying to win his next ring with the Pacers” may seem like fodder for Twitter today, but in the late 90s this was the kind of comedic gold that would earn you a byline or an attribution in the New York Post.

“Getting in the Post was important, though. It built my confidence,” Scharpling continued. “I started reading SLAM from basically the first issue. I would write the editor constantly and ask to write for them, to write anything for them. I would email them pitches. Eventually they asked me to write a 150-word sidebar on Jim McIlvaine, about how he was blocking lots of shots. It was going to be a sidebar to another piece.

“I took forever to write that thing. Then he got traded, so I had to rewrite it. I worked so hard on that thing. Then they gave me another assignment then another and another. But I was holding my own with them. Eventually I got the Reggie Miller feature, it was going to be the cover.”

The Reggie Miller cover was a big break for sure. But there was a significant problem: Tom Scharpling was (and is) a dyed-in-the-wool old-school Knicks fan. And while he was supposed to be writing a feature piece praising the tenacity of peak Reggie Miller, the Pacers were playing the Knicks in the playoffs and every night, Miller was sticking a dagger in the hearts of New York basketball fans, and twisting it. For Knicks fans, Reggie Miller represented the devil himself.

“This was the best thing that could happen to me in a way, though,” Tom explained. “Having to write a feature on Reggie, where I’m supposed to praise him, while he’s killing my team? I learned to appreciate players and the game outside of just being a fan of a team. Why should I be miserable just because the Knicks are terrible for a decade?”

I point out that this is what Bethlehem Shoals called "Liberated Fandom." Scharpling nods. “I recently saw a Clippers Bulls game, no big deal, nothing on the line, not a playoff game, but this dunk by Blake Griffin was the most exciting thing I may have ever seen in sports. That has nothing to do with rooting for a team.”

Eventually, Tom’s editor at SLAM left to go to NBA Inside Stuff, and Scharpling followed him. By this point when Tom thought about the future, he imagined himself a career beat writer, a sports journalist. He wondered whether or not he had the chops to make it. He knew he could write well, and he was passionate about the NBA, but he wasn’t sure if he fit in with the other sports writers he met. He had a secret: beyond the NBA, he didn’t really like sports.

“I got to meet Pete Vescey at a Knicks game. He was really encouraging. That guy was one of the biggest influences in my career, really. He read my stuff, he said ‘let me know if you want to pursue this.’ He was offering me a way in. He was opening up a door for me.

“But he also showed me something. I remember making a comment to him about football, it was something about a playoff game that just happened, and he said ‘I don’t care about football.’ That was a big deal to me, because it showed me that you can exist in this world and not be Joe Sports. You don’t have to be everything to everyone. You can focus on what you like. It's okay if you don’t like football, if you don’t like baseball, if you don’t know everything about everything. You can just focus on what you like. You don’t have to pretend you know everything. That was an important lesson for me for the rest of my career, even after I left basketball.”

I ask Tom if this meant he was just a fan of basketball, or just a fan of the NBA. Did he follow college hoops at all? He didn’t. “Maybe its because I went to a community college and never had that connection to a university or team or whatever.”

He asks me where I went to college. “The University of Texas,” I reply.

“Okay, so you probably like that team, right?”

“Actually I hate college basketball,” I respond. “But its interesting because a bunch of us that write on the blog have been debating this issue since the NCAA tournament started. And even among those of us who don’t like college ball, not everybody agrees on why.”

“Look, I’ll stop short of saying there is a racist element to the NCAA,” he begins, “but its tricky. Any sport that is structured so that shitty players (who are considered to be ‘all heart’) can shut down better players (who are just ‘all talent’), there’s a racial element.

“There is a certain amount of wish fulfillment when people call the NCAA ‘pure basketball.’ I think its as impure as it gets. You want a shitty white dude to hold his own? The more talented athelete is paying the price, smothered by the system.

“The standards in the NCAA and the NBA are different. In college the coach is the constant. The fan is bigger than the player in a weird way!

“In the NBA, the best is the best; heart isn’t enough. Starks had heart but he could play, too. He knew the game. Iverson was heart, but he also was a wizard with the basketball. The NBA will expose you. NCAA fans want to believe they are better than the players, that’s why they prefer college ball. ‘They are playing for the right reasons, for the love of the game.’ That’s horseshit. Where are these people when college baseball starts up? They don’t have any problem with the MLB. They probably think the MLB is plenty ‘pure.’ But that’s just because there are plenty of white players.

“Is it a coincidence that Obama is an NBA fan? Maybe the first president who is a fan of an NBA franchise rather than of his alma mater team? Harvard or whatever?”

Just then Brook Lopez gives up another rebound, allows Tyler Hansbrough to put in a second chance basket. The fans are turning on the Nets. “Brook Lopez, you gotta cash a guy like that in. Get what you can in a trade. He’s not getting any better.”

I ask Tom if he read Buzz Bissinger’s piece in the Daily Beast about white fans abandoning the NBA for college hoops and the NFL. He immediately grimaces. “He’s mentally ill. Why do people still listen to this guy? You can read his Twitter and see that he’s basically as nuts as Ann Coulter. But he admits he doesn’t even watch the NBA. People always want to tell you the status of the league but they never watch.”

The cheerleaders are out tossing t-shirts into the stands. Tom breaks off the conversation to stand and holler for a shirt. Twice he comes close to catching one, but both times he misses. The floppy haired rich kid sitting next to us sees his disappointment and offers Tom his shirt. “We’re season ticket holders, I’ve got tons of these. And this one isn’t even a good one.” Tom proudly accepts the white promotional shirt. He spreads it out in his lap and admires it. He says “Now I’ve got a shirt!” Slobs vs. snobs indeed.

At the start of the season Tom tweeted, “I cannot wait for the NBA to start. This is gonna be an absolute wonder of a season. So many storylines and a youth shift about to happen.” I ask him if the season has lived up to his expectations.

“Has the NBA ever been this exciting? There are heroes, villains. I can watch the Warriors and Monta Ellis makes it exciting. He’s a machine. For the Heat to be so flawed, for the Celtics to dig so deep, the Knicks to be so exciting. Even the Nets have an interesting storyline, on a macro level with the ownership and the move to Brooklyn. Kevin Durant? Is there anything more pure than watching that guy in the NBA? Blake Griffin? What more do people want?”

I wanted to talk to Tom about the Heat, about LeBron and The Decision. It was a topic Tom had commented about a lot, both on Twitter and on the show. He was a pretty tough critic of LeBron’s choice to go to Miami, and he took plenty of opportunities to rub the Heat’s failures in James’ face.

From time to time Tom threatens to quit hosting The Best Show on WFMU. This past fall he even took an extended break from the show, leaving fans to wonder when, or if, he was coming back. Its hard to tell how much of Tom’s frustration and ambivalence with doing the show is a bit and how much of it is real.

On one hand the three-hour weekly show is a tremendous amount of work and an insane output of material, none of which Tom gets paid for. In fact the show actually costs Tom money (and perhaps some of his sanity) to keep on the air.

On the other hand Tom is passionate, not only about the show, about the community of fans that it has created and fosters, about the number of talented musicians, comedians, and other artists who consider the show an inspiration, but also about WFMU and its mission of listener-supported free-form radio. The Best Show is the very definition of a labor of love.

Like most fans of The Best Show, I’ve come over the years to identify and empathize with Tom. When he says he needs a break from the show, as a fan I feel disappointed, but as an ethereal Friend Of Tom’s, I do my best to understand.

I share with Tom this thought that I had, that he had taught me that its important as a fan to also empathize with those we are fans of. That it isn’t just about us, that our heroes have lives, they have agency, they are still regular people. If the thing that makes us happy as fans is at the same time making them unhappy, shouldn’t they have the right to stop without us judging them too harshly?

I raise this in the context of LeBron James choosing to leave Cleveland and play in Miami, a decision that I, like most basketball fans, have also been critical of. Shouldn’t LeBron get to play wherever he’s happiest? Does LeBron owe it to the fans to stay?

At first he laughs at the comparison, rightly so. But then he says, “Miami in February is pretty awesome. I get the appeal. But I’m not saying he should have stayed in Cleveland because he owed it to the fans. I’m saying that his reasons for leaving were wrong.

“I can understand ‘I’m going to make this team better.’ That’s what Wade did by bringing LeBron to Miami. But if LeBron is the man, he should be bringing Wade to Cleveland. If LeBron wanted to win a title he probably should have gone to the Bulls. He obviously just didn’t want to be the man, but I don’t like that he still wants to be treated like he is the man.

“He’s the one throwing out the Christ imagery. Not other people. I don’t remember Jesus needing two other guys to be good. If you’re as good as you say you are, you don’t do it that way. He went to be a component. Congratulations on being the best Scottie Pippen ever.

“Pippen should have won in Portland. That was his team. That season, that meltdown in game 7 should have him stricken from the hall of fame lists. For a lot of guys, being the next Pippen is a good thing. It shouldn’t be for James.

“When the Heat lost to the Thunder the other day they said ‘we played hard.’ What are you talking about? This is your building. There was a point in that game that spoke volumes. Remember when Iverson broke down Jordan? It was a version of that.

“Durant was about eighteen feet out facing the basket. He did this little swing fake left.” Tom is drawing out the play on his new Nets t-shirt in his lap. He gets more and more animated as he remembers the play.

“LeBron took a step backwards. Durant then went right, pulled-up and put up an effortless jump shot. That shot killed the Heat’s final push. That’s one of those plays that says something larger than just two points or one game. Durant came to Miami right when the team was on a roll and he dominates them.”

Listening to Tom Scharpling describe this moment its easy to imagine things having gone in a different direction for him. That he could have stayed with covering the NBA, he could have kept at it, ‘holding his own,’ knocking out the prose with the same hard-hat dedication that has brought him success as a comedy writer. I could imagine him with his own column, or radio show, or book deal. Whatever the medallions of a successful sports writer are these days, I could imagine him having it. He was a talented writer, a talented storyteller, and that talent shines through when you are doing something you love.

I ask Tom if he thinks there will ever be an opportunity for these two passions, basketball and comedy, to intersect in his work. He thinks about it for what seemed to be a long while before he responds.

“Look, you have to be a fan of sports on its terms as well as your own. There’s this lowest common denominator to most sports fandom that is really just about getting off on violence. That’s what’s different and special about the NBA to me.

“The artist Dan Clowes once said something about how the form of the comic book allows it to work on two levels, the words and the pictures, the story you read and the story you see. The NBA is like that. Its this axis of the physical and cerebral. The coaches, the players, everyone is being creative.”

At around nine minutes to go in the four quarter, all looked hopeless for the New Jersey Nets. They were down by 12 and unable to rebound the ball or penetrate to the basket. But as time ticked down, Indiana started bricking, and Sasha Vujacic caught fire and started draining one 3-pointer after another. The next thing we know, the game comes down to the final possession, and the Nets have the ball, down by 3.

“Looks like we might get overtime after all,” I shout over the crowd. “I wonder if Fred Kerber’s gonna stick around.”

“They gotta let Vujacic take the shot,” says Tom. “Even if he misses, its ok. He’s the one that got you here.”

The horn blows, the time out is over. The clock starts, Vujacic gets the ball, as expected, and his high-arching heave from 30 feet out clangs against the back iron. Game over. We all shuffle out of the Prudential Center, not happy but not terribly disappointed, either.

“It's like with Kevin Garnett,” Tom offers one last reflection as we walk outside around the arena. “I give him a hard time but truthfully I like him. He works hard, he gives it everything he’s got. I just think he needs to cool it with the roars.

“It sounds trite but its true. You just gotta do what it is you love, and you keep doing it, you keep at it. You hang in long enough and good things will happen. But the key is that you have to really love it, because there’s no telling how long you’ll be hanging in there.”

Hard work is a central theme in the world of Tom Scharpling. It ought to be. Hard work, dedication, and believing in himself is what got him to where he is today. A radio program in its eleventh year, beloved by fans literally all over the world, a successful stint as a television writer and producer, two new television programs in development, directing music videos of artists he loves, Tom Scharpling is successful because he stays busy, and not the other way around.

David Hill is a card-carrying Friend of Tom, a dyed-in-the-wool old-school Knicks fan, and a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.  Follow him on twitter here.  


Kelly said...

Awesome interview!

Dennis G. Schmuck said...

ctrl f "yinka dare" found!

Anonymous said...

Tom is the man. The more I learn about him, the more I respect him. I hope he keeps doing The Best Show for years to come, and while I totally get his frustrations with it, the community he's built and the format he's invented are so unique that I don't think they will ever be duplicated.

Andrew Abides said...

That is a flat out phenomenal bit of writing.

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