Legendary Hoops Writer, Scoop Jackson, Talks NBA Finals Predictions, Jordan vs. LeBron, Chicago Hip-Hop and More

Scoop also unveils his daily Essentials, tools of the trade for a modern storyteller.

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Through 20-plus years of unapologetic and distinctive storytelling within the pages of SLAM, XXL and Hoop, to name a few, there is an entire generation of basketball and hip-hop fans that have grown up reading the words of Scoop Jackson. Even if you’ve never picked up any of those publications, Scoop’s unique ways of telling stories have found you. He was the writer behind Nike’s “Coming Out of Nowhere,” “Champions Mentality,” and “Equality” campaigns. He’s currently working on a follow-up to Sole Provider: 30 Years of Nike Basketball and that’s not even getting into what he’s currently creating as Senior Writer for ESPN’s SportsCenter.

Just like his pen to pad when an idea hits, Jackson is always in motion.

We caught up with Scoop at his home during some downtime to discuss the storylines centered around the NBA Finals, what LeBron has to do to be able to claim GOAT status, his Finals predictions, music, his undying love for magazines and of course his Essentials.

At this point in his career, do you feel we can have a conversation about LeBron being better than Jordan?

I think it’s fair in this moment to start talking about having that conversation because let’s be honest, if something crazy had happened and they somehow would have lost to the Boston Celtics, he would be out of the conversation. If he beats this Warriors team, and is the centerpiece of them beating them, then I think the conversation is official. I say that to say that it’s so on edge right now in what direction it can go. If the Cavs lose, he can still be in the possible conversation but if they beat the Warriors, to me, there’s no question about him being in that conversation. For me personally, and I might say this even if they lose, I think the way he’s played, right now, he’s in my Mount Rushmore. I said this to my friend not too long ago; if LeBron wins, someone is coming off Mount Rushmore. He asked me who is it going to be and I didn’t know. He told me that that’s a story I should write and that’s one of the things I miss in writing stories and columns for ESPN.com. That would be something I would do.

To me, right now, at this point and watching what he’s done, the level he has played at, he’s earned that spot for me. It’s Mike, Magic, Bill Russell and I think he’s there now. I say that with the thinking that he’s not going to fade out anytime soon. He’s still got two more years of playing at this MVP level and that’s going to further enhance that. He would have to have an epic falloff in order to not be on there and I think he cares about the game and himself too much for that to happen.

Why do you think there has been this rush to either anoint him as TBE or discredit his achievements when he still has years remaining?

To automatically be in the Jordan conversation to me, I just think the argument to a certain extent is invalid because I’ve heard nobody speak about what’s happening on the defensive end. The one thing that LeBron hasn’t done is won Defensive Player of the Year. That’s big because if you look at the list of those that have won that award, none of them have been scoring champs. So when people say that LeBron is a more complete player, ya’ll are only talking about on the offensive end. It’s like defense doesn’t mean anything. With that being said, I want people to go look back at the voting of where LeBron has finished in voting for Defensive Player of the Year, particularly in his MVP years and look at where Jordan ranked during his MVP years. That’s a fair assessment because LeBron has never won it but look at where he finished in voting in years he won the league MVP.

There were very few times Michael finished out of the top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting. You start looking at that and you use that as a matrix of how we’re going to judge these players. Yes, Jordan was a scorer, so LeBron’s scoring isn’t going to be there. Don’t act like Jordan didn’t rebound but he’s just not 6’8”. He did get assists but he wasn’t a playmaker like LeBron is. Don’t just start making the comparisons between these two and leave out the defensive side, where I think LeBron is not even close. As great as he is defensively, he’s not close to being as dangerous as Michael was. He doesn’t have Michael’s defensive acumen and defense is 50 percent of the game.

That’s always one area where I feel LeBron has always felt slighted in and the overall consistent focus isn’t there anymore because of that.

For those people that love numbers, let’s look at the voting for Defensive Player of the Year because that’s not subjective. I haven’t done it but I might after bringing it up. I can see where LeBron finished and where Jordan finished and see what those numbers look like. I know for certain that Michael very rarely came under fifth throughout his career and this is in the era where you had Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Dennis Rodman and Gary Payton. I don’t mind LeBron being in that poll conversation because I think it’s a good time to start right now, but if you’re going to start making straight up blasphemous comments that he’s better than Jordan, and these are the numbers they’re using, to just dismiss the defensive side of the game shows they don’t know basketball. All these “experts” are looking at one part of Jordan’s game and saying that LeBron does more things than him.

I think LeBron maybe hasn’t gotten his fair share of respect defensively but you have to force that and Jordan forced that. Kobe, at times, could have been as good defensively as Michael was but he stopped caring about defense. For Jordan to have the defensive career that he had, it shows you that he never stopped caring about it. He took as much pride in that as he did his scoring and I don’t think LeBron takes as much pride in that, and it shows by the eye test and the voting. If you’re going to make a final assessment on where you place these two, look at that and then make your comment. If you can look at that and still say he’s better than Jordan, I’ll be cool with that. But don’t just forget what Michael did defensively and how he was respected by everyone on that side of the court.

When it’s all said and done, do you think LeBron will be able to say that he was better?

LeBron’s argument for being considered the greatest of all time is not with us [media], it’s his conversation with Mike. You need to be able to have a conversation with Mike and know what he’s going to say to you. I’m not saying it’s going to happen but if they’re somewhere and the conversation happens, Mike is serious about stuff. Mike always said that his free throw line dunk was better than Dr. J’s because he dribbled the ball and it was natural. He literally broke it down like that. I say this to LeBron, if you’re going to have a conversation with Michael on who is the greatest of all time, the first thing Mike is going to bring up is that he’s never lost in the Finals. That’s automatic and the second thing he’s going to throw at him is he’s never won Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll say the closest you came is second and he probably finished second about four or five times.

My thing with LeBron, he needs to be like “I need to get that Defensive Player of the Year award so he can’t say that.” My thing is if the conversation existed between these two, what’s that person who holds that title going to say back to you? What can you defend? You have to put yourself in position to defend. If you’re LeBron, you can say, “I have five titles and you have six but I went to more Finals than you did. I beat the Golden State Warriors, a team that beat your team’s regular season record. You never played a team that good.” You have to be able to fire back. It doesn’t take much to trump the other. It can be a one-point game, but a win is a win. It’s like playing cards. You can have a 20 but if I have 21, I win. If Michael’s one point in this game is I got a Defensive Player of the Year award in that era, that’s his blackjack and LeBron has two queens, he loses [laughs]. Until he gets that, Mike will always have that and he’ll pull that anytime.

LeBron’s argument for being considered the greatest of all time is not with us [media], it’s his conversation with Mike. You need to be able to have a conversation with Mike and know what he’s going to say to you.

Is this Finals more meaningful for LeBron or Kevin Durant?

KD. We’re doing a piece called “Doubt” on KD. We spent the last week working on this huge KD piece focusing on that specific question. He is, right now, the living embodiment of the basketball version of All or Nothing. If he wins it next year, so what? He’s supposed to be the one that came in to take them over the top. If they lose and win next year, it’s going to be like how Miami won it their second year rather than their first after they all talked so much shit about winning not one, not two. That’s kind of where KD is at now. I think he has much more to lose from a career standpoint than anyone else.

To be honest, Cleveland is supposed to lose. It’s much harder to repeat, harder when you have that target on your back and the way the Warriors have played, they almost look unbeatable. With them looking that way, I think Kevin has so much more to lose. The way I like to think of things are not just the moment but the aftermath. If Cleveland gets defeated, what’s going to be the conversation? No one is going to be bashing them. You ran up against a team that was built to beat you. Golden State gets beat? It’s an entire year of failure conversation much bigger than last year because of Kevin Durant and a lot of it will be directed at him. He’s going to have to deal with that all year long.

How much pressure do you see falling on Stephen Curry, especially with having two straight subpar Finals showings?

I’ll try to make this as quick as possible because I think there are layers to this. I think year one, that was his first time in the Finals and that moment was big. As great as Steph is, I think in his own mind, he came out of nowhere because that first year, he didn’t do a Derrick Rose and tell you he wanted to win MVP. Him winning MVP and that team being successful after a coaching change, they didn’t know what to expect and I’m sure he caught himself by surprise. You get into the Finals for the first time and it’s not like they went into the season thinking Finals. Being that guy and now being in the Finals? Sometimes that moment is just too big and it takes awhile to get used to it, especially when you’re a guy that kind of shot up there and not eased into it.

Last year, I think two things unfolded. One, he wasn’t 100 percent but he also went up against a guy that was hell-bent on making sure that he was in that conversation. The worst and best thing for Steph was that Kyrie went down in Game One of the first Finals. In Kyrie’s mind, he’s still that dude and he was going to use that Finals to prove that against the MVP. The next year, Curry is the unanimous MVP and everyone is talking about he’s the best thing they’ve ever seen and Kyrie is just sitting back saying “What the Fuck? I’m just as good as him.” So not only is Steph not 100 percent but he runs up against a guy who has waited all year to get back to that point to prove himself. There was nothing Steph was going to be able to do to stop Kyrie from proving that he needs to be in that conversation and he proved it.

Nothing against LeBron, but Kyrie should have been the MVP. He came to ball all seven games. He came with the same type of vengeance that San Antonio came back with against the Miami Heat in 2014. I’ve never seen any basketball played like that in my life. That beating that Miami took was basketball perfection. If Steph would have played Steph Curry basketball in both Finals, I would have been extremely surprised because I think in both he had things working against him; the moment in the first and Kyrie being hell-bent on revenge last year. It’s going to be interesting to see how Steph performs because he hears the talk. I think he’s hell-bent – probably not to the extent Kyrie is – on proving himself.

Who do you see winning this series?

I’m going with the Warriors. I think at the end of the day the Warriors defense is much better than the Cavs. The Cavs have to tell themselves to play defense and with the Warriors, it comes naturally, and it’s so systematic and controlled by Draymond that everything they weren’t able to do last year, they’ll be able to figure out this year. I don’t think the Cavs have anything to match that. I look at Draymond Green as being the Steph Curry of defense. I think he sees the game and plays defense at that type of prodigious level. I think sometimes he can get in his own way but with what he went through last year and feeling like he cost them the Finals, that’s not going to happen this year.

I also think that because of Kevin Durant, and because of the Cavs non-consistent commitment to defense, it’s going to be impossible for them to stop the ball movement. Golden State tried to make it a point to average 30 assists per game this year. If they average over 25 assists per game in the Finals, there’s no way the Cavaliers defense is going to be able to stop that because that’s too many open looks. Thirdly, if you look at them defensively in the frontcourt, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson can’t mess with KD. LeBron is going to spend most of his time guarding KD and it’s going to affect his offense because they’re going to run Kevin to death.

That’s why Kevin is playing basketball so well this year, especially in these playoffs. The game has never come this easy for him before. In Oklahoma, you could put three people on Kevin and two people on Russ. He’s used to getting tripled teamed and things being done to take away clean looks. You can’t do that now because you’re still worried about Klay erupting for whatever is coming. You can’t leave Steph on an island because you’re always worried about him. Kevin is getting single coverage and these shots are easy. That’s going to be all LeBron now and maybe someone to help but help defense is leaving Klay open. So unless Tyronn Lue comes up with some scheme, that’s going to be LeBron’s assignment and it’s going to kill his offense to have to lock into guarding that dude with how they’re getting him the ball.

How big do you think Steve Kerr’s absence is?

That’s why my prediction has a caveat. If Steve Kerr does not come back to coach them, they might not win. I think he’s that big. When you’re going to war — which is what they look at it as with the stakes involved — it’s not always about what you’re doing on the court but when you’re in timeouts, and you’re in the huddle, you need to see the eyes of guys that have been there with you. [Steve’s] words in the locker room aren’t always going to ring true like they would in that moment. I think Cleveland has the ability to push Golden State and I think we’re going to see some good, hard-fought games. It’s going to be like Fraser vs. Ali III. That being said, if the guy who has got you there is not there, I think it’s going to have a great effect.

No disrespect to Mike Brown, but they don’t know him like that. He’s only been there one year. Steve Kerr isn’t a day-to-day, X’s and O’s coach. He’s a teammate-type coach and they feed off that. I don’t know if Mike can make the in-game adjustments that work for this team. Draymond being there might help with that. He kind of backs off when Steve is there but he can make the difference vocally and emotionally that can help. I just don’t know if that would be enough. There’s something about Steve. He changed that whole culture. It wasn’t Steph, Klay or Draymond. Steve changed that and to not have that culture changer there at this point, that can play a role. I’m not saying throw everything off the table but I’m not as affirmative in my answer of Golden State winning because that’s big.

Stepping away from the Finals, I’m always curious to hear what current artists you’re listening to.

Joey Badass. His last album is actually just as good as DAMN, totally different but just as good. I’m bumping the new Big Boi and Killer Mike, “Kill Jill.” Lacrae, Injury Reserve, Nick Grant, Tory Lanez, A. Noyd, Young M.A, 3D Na’Tee. I definitely mess with the whole Run the Jewels project and lately I’ve been trying to vibe off the local cats; Saba, Noname, Joey Purp, Taylor Bennett, Paris Michael and trying to see what Chicago is bringing to the table. They’re the offshoots of Chance, and I’m just really trying to get into what they’re doing. Some others would be Jon Connor from Detroit. Rhapsody, whenever she puts out something, I’m vibing to it. I’m still listening to Tribe from last year, De La Soul and Ghostface. Anything that Eminem or Royce Da 5’9” is jumping on, I’m messing with it. [Comedian/Radio Personality] Leon Rogers asked me a question that I want to pose to everyone. He asked if you could do a “Stop the Violence Movement” with all current MC’s right now, what MC’s would you pick?

You mentioned the new school being offshoots of Chance. Even with it still being early in his career, do you think he can shift the sound of Chicago away from drill music?

He has the power to do it but it depends on what he decides he wants to do creatively from a music standpoint. The thing that’s interesting, and good and bad with Chance is that he hasn’t settled on one particular sound. It’s hard to define what Chicago music would be if it’s always different with him leading it on. We kind of saw it back in the day with Common and No I.D. — they were creating a soulful sound that kind of signified that Chicago sound. Lupe kind of came in and did a little something different but it was no different from being an extension of what All Natural was doing and all these other cats. Then came Chief Keef, Lil Durk and all these other cats that have signified Chicago sound.

I think Kanye, to a certain degree, had the position to create a non-drill Chicago sound that everyone could follow but he’s so hell-bent on trying to be different from the last thing that he did that he never found consistency with doing that. I do think that those offshoots, if you listen to them, sonically, they all sound the same. They’re a little different than Chance but I think they have the collective power to create a sound that signifies and defines Chicago sound than Chance could by himself.

With what you’re doing at ESPN now, it’s less long form writing and more creating scripts and a lot of production. Is your creative approach the same?

It’s all storytelling. You have to have a foundation. That’s the one thing I’ve taken with me from going to Howard and getting my masters degree in human communication studies. All aspects of human beings and how we communicate with one another is storytelling. Essential to all of that is that we all tell stories. Life is basically storytelling. You’re living life by telling your own story. I always approached this craft through the auspice of telling stories. It could be visually, long form, common form, books, scripts; it’s all been about my responsibility to tell stories. As different as they all are, it’s still rooted in one thing as far as I’m concerned and I approach it that way.

All aspects of human beings and how we communicate with one another is storytelling. Essential to all of that is that we all tell stories. Life is basically storytelling. You’re living life by telling your own story.

All the times that I’ve visited, the one thing I’m always amazed at is the amount of magazines you go through.

I’m a magazine guy. As a kid, I always wanted to have my own magazine. I’ve had my own magazine. I really only read one newspaper and that’s the Washington Post. I mess with the New York Times every now and then but I’m still a magazine guy. I still read about 10-15 magazines a week. I still like long-form writing. I still like the fact that with magazines they are so specified that you know what subject matter you’re getting when you get into it for the most part. I love the design and layout of magazines that you can’t do in books, newspapers or pull off online. It’s like vinyl to a certain degree and there’s something about it.

If you look at that TIME cover, it says it all. That’s just so dope and if you look at it at an angle, it looks like it says “Trump.” Little stuff like that I know about from working in magazines, those are things you think about. The beauty and the devil are in the details. If you go back and look at old TIME magazines, they spell “Trump” in the same font. That’s that secret subliminal stuff that you get as a magazine guy. You know that they’re talking about Trump. It’s hard to pull that off online or in a newspaper.

I’m still that guy that when I read things, I make sure I know everyone who is writing the story. I look at the spine to see who the photographer is. I still look at masthead’s to see who is working on what. I’m going to die being a magazine guy. As crazy as it sounds, if ever there comes a time where there’s an impasse, I have to do another magazine. Even if the game is done, I still want to do another meaningful magazine that speaks to us, for us and about us. I still want to be at the helm of that. I miss it because I think I’ve written a handful of long form stories in the last two years because I’ve been doing scripts. I think I’ve only done two pieces that were over 4,000 words and I used to do that all the time. I miss it because I’m reading other people’s work and I’m like “they should have taken this angle.” So for me, it’s more to just stay up in the game because I want to see what everyone else is doing. Once you’re part of a certain culture, you’re still a fan of that culture to a certain degree. To some degree, I feel like I’m a retired NBA players sitting back and watching the game now.

You’ve been able to transition and adapt very well from print to digital. Can you see where things will be in the next 5-10 years?

What’s the old saying? “Man plans and God laughs.” One thing I’ve learned is not to try to predict something like that because if you try to do that and go that route, God will throw that Dwight Gooden/Pedro Martinez curveball and will strike you out looking. I’ve learned to live by the policy of “be ready.” The harder you work, the more luck is going to come your way and with luck comes opportunity. Your job is to be in position to answer that door when there is a knock or the doorbell rings. My father had a saying and I tell it to my kids all the time, “Always keep a dollar in your pocket because you never know when the city is going to go for sale.”

As crazy as it sounds, they could mess around and sell this city for a dollar and you’re just ass out without a dollar. He told me this as a kid. Basically, that was his way of saying always be prepared for anything. Don’t try to guess what’s next, just try to be prepared for what’s next. In our industry, we watched many people fall victim to not be prepared for what was coming next, especially in the print business. They weren’t prepared for the Internet. They didn’t know how to adapt to it when it came. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of those journalists that has been able to transition from print to digital because in my mind, I’m prepared and it all goes back to craftsmanship.

One of the most important things in life to me is craftsmanship. Anytime there’s a level of craftsmanship that is taken seriously, I tend to gravitate towards that. That goes to all areas of art, fashion, furniture, etc. The craftsmanship that Tumi puts in their bags, I know what the fuck I’m getting. Tiffany’s has been around for hundreds of years. You can mess around and get whatever bullshit people are wearing now but you don’t know what the hell you’re getting. You listen to the work of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Oscar Peterson, James Brown and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. You look at the work of Lin Manual Miranda, The Wire, Breaking Bad and Samurai Jack. The craftsmanship that Genndy (Tartakovsky) puts into Samurai Jack is amazing. He can do a 30-minute episode with not a word being spoken and there’s just sounds and noise to tell a story. That’s craftsmanship.

I’m a big proponent of those that are putting time into their craft because you can get away without doing it but when you do it, it shows. I’ve always tried to do that in everything I’ve done, especially with writing, where you can go back and read something I wrote 10 years ago and be like “Damn, I didn’t catch that the first time.” We go back to Kendrick Lamar and the layers of what he’s saying when he is spitting. The craftsmanship of Rakim, Ray Butts at Nike; that means something to me. It speaks to who you are and whom you’re trying to be as a human being and I’ve always held that as my foundation and have tried to surround myself with people who are serious in the craftsmanship of what they do. At the end of the day, that’s the one thing that is going to stand true. I don’t know where any of this is heading but the one thing that I know we can hold as true is that craftsmanship will still have value. If we stay true to the craft of what we do, we don’t ever have to worry about what is coming next because we will be prepared for it.

Be sure to follow Scoop Instagram and Twitter.

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