Lazenby expands on his touching, uphill journey to becoming a writer, provides fascinating insights from his coverage of both Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant, and beautifully explains why we should put an end to comparing the all-time greats. You won’t want to miss what he had to say.
For those who may not be familiar with his work, Roland Lazenby is a multi-generational sports author who has covered many athletes whom we continue to idolize to this day. Though he has written books about football legends like Johnny Unitas and Tom Brady, Lazenby’s wheelhouse was, is, and will always be professional basketball.
From covering Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers to the Bad Boy Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Bulls to the 2000s Lakers during the Shaq and Kobe era, one thing is certain of Lazenby’s relationship with the National Basketball Association:
He has seen it all.
Throughout his career, Lazenby has authored well over 30 biographies and memoirs.
His most famous pieces—including, but not limited to, The Lakers: A Basketball Journey (1993), Bull Run! The Story of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (1996), Blood on the Horns: The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls (1998), Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant (2000), Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey (2001), Michael Jordan: The Life (2014), and Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant (2016)—feature vivid, first-person accounts between Lazenby and the player or team in which the book is focused.
Fortunately, Lazenby never took any of those moments for granted. He absorbed as much information as he could sponge and built great relationships along the way, and the only thing stronger than his beliefs is his infinite admiration for those very athletes that gave him his platform.
Because of Lazenby’s many experiences with some of the most influential basketball players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers, we reached out to the award-winning author in hopes of scoring an interview.
After a brief back and forth, he generously granted our request. We discussed the beginning of his career, touched on his progression as a writer, dug into his accounts of players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and unearthed his wise, introspective philosophy when comparing the game’s greats. For his detailed answers, continue reading below.
Craig Cochran (FW): Dating back to your younger years, had you always wanted to get involved in sports writing? Was there a particular moment that pointed you down the path that your acclaimed life has followed?
Roland Lazenby (RL): I had dabbled in writing, but had no serious plans about it. In 1977, I was a 24-year-old varsity head coach and English teacher at Blacksburg High School in Virginia. [Soon after] I was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and informed by my doctor that I was about to experience my first bleed, which, in those days, had a 30 percent mortality rate. He then advised me to get my affairs in order in case I passed. After I spent ten days in the hospital undergoing tests and evaluations, my doctor came to me and admitted he and the other physicians had no idea if I had an aneurysm or not. My wife drove to the hospital and picked me up after my discharge, with no questions answered. I told her I had to know if I was healthy—I was in tremendous physical condition at the time.
When we got home, I ran five miles to see if I was going to be OK. I was, and within three months, I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make a serious effort at being a writer and started working on it ferociously. After another year of teaching and coaching, I left that job to become the sports editor at the small weekly newspaper in Blacksburg. I did that job for four months and was hired by a daily as a feature writer. It wasn't until 1981, after the painful cancer death of my father, that I focused on basketball. Basketball was my father's sport. He loved it, dearly. After his death, I began playing it constantly because it allowed me to feel close to him. Soon after, I began writing a book about basketball. Here I am years later, having written many of them. Still honoring him.
FW: As you just mentioned, you have written many books. However, we imagine that covering those storied Chicago Bulls during their golden age was one of your fondest memories of being in the sports writing industry.
RL: Oh, yes. Many wonderful memories. But being in Chicago changed my life. It's where I met the great Tex Winter, who became one of my most powerful mentors and friends.
FW: So what was it like on a night-to-night basis to witness greatness? Was it anything similar to what the early 2000s Lakers or this decade’s Warriors achieved, or did Jordan’s Bulls transcend those teams? If so, what do you think is the most significant difference between that Bulls team and the Championship contending teams of today?
RL: [Before covering the Bulls] I covered the Celtics in Boston during the Bird era, then the Pistons in Detroit with the Bad Boys, and then the Lakers in LA with Magic at the end of his career. Those were all great teams, populated by much more mature players than the teams of the 21st century. That's not a slam against the younger teams. It's just a fact.
The teams of the new century are perhaps more athletic. Those old teams were smarter, fabulously unspoiled, and free from the great cynicism that all the huge money would bring to basketball. They weren't perfect. They were just very good, and the basketball they played was at a different level. Of course, the rules today are different. The game has changed very much. Mostly, they are simply entirely different eras, different rules, different people, in an entirely different world.
FW: To touch on that, after looking through your catalog, we naturally noticed that there were parallels between your coverage of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. After years of ruminating on their two careers, and now with Kobe’s unfortunate passing, have you begun to consider their careers in comparison to one another? Everyone knows how similar they are, but we are curious as to what you believe was their most significant difference? In other words, what made Mike, Mike? What made Kobe, Kobe?
RL: You can see my previous answer for some explanation… Jordan influenced Kobe tremendously. They both had uniquely competitive personalities but weren't the warmest of people. For instance, Magic was the warmest of people. He passed the ball. Coaches had to devise systems to get Michael and Kobe to be more giving passers.
FW: Through both of their careers, Kobe and Michael faced all-time adversaries, but infrequently were their talents ever surpassed by their opposition. In your own opinion, which individual player do you think was the biggest threat to the legacies of both Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan? Which team was each players’ strongest adversary?
RL: For Kobe, the adversary seemed to be himself. His greatest competitor was probably his teammate, Shaquille O’Neal. For Jordan, it was always the very physical Pistons.
FW: This is a purely hypothetical question, but do you think Kobe and Michael could have co-existed on the same team? You obviously knew both of them very well, and their bond is well-documented, but between those two, there would have been a lot of testosterone in that locker room!
RL: Maybe for the length of an All-Star game, perhaps (laughter). Actually… Maybe for an Olympic endeavor. But they certainly would have crowded each other's style!
FW: (Laughter) As you alluded to, distinct eras have played an enormous role in styles of play, so this is always a challenging question for any basketball fan. Do you think a prime Michael Jordan, who had the same game as he had back in the mid-90s, would be worse off or better off if he were playing in this current era? Since he was so ahead of his time, what do you think his game would look like today?
RL: Great question! I tend to think Michael would be dominant in any era. But today's game—with its myopic focus on numbers and three-point shooting—often produces terrible play. Some fantastic, but mostly terrible. Fortunately, I don't have to watch Michael play in today's game.
FW: After Mike came Kobe, and during Kobe came LeBron James, who has seemingly remained the greatest player in the world for over a decade now. His reign has been incredible to behold just like Mike’s, so do you see many similarities between LeBron, Kobe, and Michael? Many people wish to tear LeBron down and talk about what he isn’t, but we’re interested in what you believe the three have in common that has put them in the pantheon of basketball lore?
RL: LeBron is a fantastic human being and a great, great player. However, I don't see many similarities with MJ or Kobe. He's closer to Magic in that he is more generous than either Kobe or MJ.
FW: Having brought up LeBron, I feel the need to ask this: What do you think the younger generation of fans (like myself—I am 23 years old) who have grown up idolizing LeBron will come away with upon viewing Jordan's highly-anticipated documentary series that airs on ESPN this month?
RL: Well, I think context always helps people understand things. It's why I wrote about Jordan in the first place… To provide context to the events of his life. This series will be great for all those who love basketball. It's not about LeBron vs. MJ, though. They're two very different players and have to be appreciated as individuals. I wrote a 700-page book about Mike and never called him the greatest, because that's not my job. Those guys go out and play every night of their careers. It's not up to me—a writer—to declare which one is the greatest. Their greatness speaks for itself. In April, though, all eyes will be on Jordan.
FW: Due to you being around so many all-time great teams, we’re interested in an opinion of yours that you have never spoken on. Which team do you think is the greatest team of all time? We know this is difficult to elaborate on based on how eras so drastically affect the style of the play, but if you were to put every championship-winning team of the past four decades into a big bracket with rules leaning toward the rules of today, which team do you think would come out on top?
RL: Probably, the Showtime Lakers of Magic and Kareem were the greatest. As to the second part of the question, I simply can’t do it. Those teams in the 60s, 80s, and 90s were great teams that advanced the sport tremendously. I can’t disrespect them by putting them in today's hyped-up, ginned-up game. Maybe others can do it.
FW: Totally understandable! Based on that answer, we probably won’t get a concrete answer for this question, but again, it is one we have to ask: Who would be on your Mount Rushmore of basketball players?
RL: I'm just a basketball writer. I can't rank them. They played the game every night, and the great ones always laid their hearts on the line every damned night. I'm not going to disrespect them by trying to rank them. I'm not qualified to do that, and I don't know any other writers who are. I don’t even know any players [who are qualified to answer the question] for that matter. Each of these great players' careers is a thing of beauty to be appreciated for what it currently is and what it was in the past. I cherish them all!
Throughout the interview, as many would expect, Lazenby exudes nothing but class and respect in his answers. He exudes a palpable love for the game of basketball that is as pure as it gets.
As I am sure many readers will, we found a handful of his answers to be incredibly insightful. When detailing how he made his decision to get involved in sports writing, I felt a genuine connection to Lazenby by proxy of his unyielding honesty regarding the trials and tribulations he faced.
When mentioning that the late Kobe Bryant's greatest adversary was no one but himself, a motivational chill rushed down my spine. And finally, when he insinuated that we, as a society of crazy sports fans, need to slow down with comparisons and instead focus simply on appreciation, I felt strangely refreshed. In a time where every single thing—whether it be in sports or life in general—is compared to something else, it was invigorating to hear such a wise perspective from a true legend in our field.
Lazenby is also in the process of writing a new book about the life and career of Magic Johnson, so be sure to give him a follow on Twitter (@lazenby) to stay up-to-date on his future projects. As for us at Fadeaway World, we will be sure to pump out as much content from this gem of an interview as humanly possible.