Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gutter: Who do you think you are? Nickelback? (part 1)

Let me set the scene:

It was Tuesday, March 13th, and the Pitt men’s basketball team was preparing to leave for its bus trip to Buffalo, where the Panthers play Wright State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. A small gathering, probably numbering somewhere around 12 or 13, of media had assembled on the loading dock outside the Petersen Events Center, waiting for the Pitt players and coaches to emerge from the building. The idea here was that the media would interview players and coaches on their way from the loading dock to the team bus.

It wasn’t the ideal setup, but it was serviceable. After all, it worked last year, when it was about 11 degrees outside. At the very least, the weather was mild on Tuesday.

So we, the media, waited. The announced time for this informal press conference was 3 P.M., but few things happen on time, particularly with this team, so we waited. No big deal: the weather was warm and there was a rather interesting air that afternoon. To elaborate: Nickelback was playing a concert at the Petersen Events Center Tuesday night, so the loading dock area not only served as parking for Pitt’s team bus, but also nearly a dozen buses for the band. There were buses everywhere, creating a virtual wall of touring coaches.

It was an interesting scene, but since the assembled media (representing three television stations, several newspapers, a radio station, and at least one website) were reporters of sports, not music, the Nickelback entourage (which truly was grand in its scale) was of only passing interest.

And we continued to wait.

Sometime after 3:30 or so, the team started to emerge. First came shooting guard Ronald Ramon. As the soft-spoken Ramon walked from the building to the bus, the media group gathered around him, and he gamely stopped and took questions. While the majority of the media was interviewing Ramon, sophomore point guard Levance Fields and several of his teammates came out of the Petersen Events Center and headed to the bus.

Here is where it got interesting.

Knowing that Fields would have more to say than the normally-reserved Ramon, one or two media members broke off and approached him for an interview. It was a slow approach, and one reporter pulled ahead of the others and got to Fields first. Standing back, I watched the reporter talk to Fields but I couldn’t hear what was said over the sound of the buses. What I do know is that only a few words were exchanged before Fields headed for the bus and the reporter came walking back with a bewildered look on his face.

“I just got big-timed,” the reporter said.

Turns out Fields didn’t want to talk that day. No particular reason. He just didn’t want to talk.

The point guard of the No. 10 Pitt men’s basketball team didn’t want to talk.

The floor general of a three seed in the NCAA Tournament didn’t want to talk.

He didn’t want to talk, so a reporter trying to do his job “got big-timed” by a sophomore in college.

Time and again this season, various members of the Pitt men’s basketball team have refused to talk to the media, whether it’s after a game or during mid-week media availabilities. And usually the players who refuse to take questions are the same ones who would have the most to talk about, such as Fields, on the brink of his first NCAA Tournament as a starting point guard, or sophomore forward Sam Young, who declared a moratorium on speaking to the media mid-season just as he was becoming a frequent topic of discussion on sports talk radio and Pitt message boards for his inconsistent play that was, at times, brilliant, but was also hampered by knee tendonitis.

And then there was Aaron Gray, the pre-season All-American, pre-season Big East Player of the Year, the team leader in scoring and rebounds, and the reason that Pitt earned a lot of early recognition, since his decision to not enter the NBA draft made Pitt a likely Final Four team.

But as he was racking up double-doubles on a nightly basis, for a time it became difficult to track down the 7’0” Gray for an interview. A premier nationally-recognized player on a premier nationally-recognized team, and he didn’t want to talk to the media. This isn’t a 2 points in 12 minutes per night player: this is the player who is widely considered to be the source of Pitt’s success this season, and he didn’t want to talk to the media. If Pitt won a game this season, it was probably because of Aaron Gray, and if they lost a game, that was probably because of him, too. But he didn’t want to talk to the media.

And for several mid-season games this year, Gray did not talk. His silence was broken when Pitt played at Villanova, as a reporter from Gray’s hometown paper got an interview. Following the Panthers’ return from that trip, Gray appeared to have lifted his blanket refusal, and he addressed the media several times throughout the remainder of the season. It can be noted, however, that he was among the Pitt players who avoided the media en route to the team bus on Tuesday.

Of course, on Wednesday, Gray and two of his teammates were at the podium in Buffalo, taking questions from the media who were present for the NCAA Tournament. Apparently when the national stage is calling, it’s not so troubling to do interviews.

I know there are other topics that should be addressed in this blog, such as what the obligations of players should be, but this is pretty long, so I’ll start a separate entry to look at some of that stuff.

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