Six Sports Interviews That Taught Me Life & Business Lessons

I’m a firm believer that people learn from their interactions with others. From there, it’s a matter of how you convert those learnings (good or bad) into the way you treat others.

But those interactions aren’t always about what’s said. Instead, as the saying goes: people often forget what you say, but always remember how you made them feel.

In my previous career (15+ years ago!) as a sports writer, I had the opportunity to interview over a thousand professional athletes. This means one-on-one interactions with some of the most well-known athletes across baseball, basketball and football, among others.

By no means is this an opportunity to name-drop (even though names will be dropped). Instead, as I sit sheltered in my home, I wanted to write about what I learned from these interactions.

Why now? Recently, my eight-year-old son, Evan, was asking me about some of the people I’ve met. He followed up each question — as most people do — with the follow-up, “were they nice?”

The simple answer is 99% were. (The stories about the other 1% will have to wait for another day.) But it’s not just that most offered respectful responses. It’s that most were genuinely interested in talking and didn’t draw a line in the sand between athlete and reporter.

It comes down to how they treated me. And, as you’ll see, this was at times after a devastating loss. Let’s just say it’s nothing like my kids react after losing a game of Candy Land.

Here are six sports interviews and what I learned from each:

Tom Brady: I interviewed Brady multiple times, but the first was after a loss to the New York Jets. If you’re a football fan, especially one from New York, then you know how unhappy he must have been. After speaking, we shook hands. His handshake was firm as he looked me dead in the eye. I thanked him for our chat, to which he responded, “No, thank you.”

What I Learned: Being genuine and appreciative of someone’s time carries a lot of weight. People remember that.

LeBron James: In my previous two-plus years working for the NBA in the late 2000s, I had a number of run-ins with James. One of the most memorable though was his first trip to Madison Square Garden after “The Decision” in 2010. Most fans thought James was headed to play for the Knicks when he became a free agent, only to choose Miami.

The atmosphere was completely against James that night, with every touch of the ball inducing a chorus of boos. After the game, James wasn’t arrogant or dismissive of the media. He took the time to answer all questions with honesty and sincerity.

What I Learned: Don’t big time. No matter how successful you are, or how others treat you, don’t let it get into your head.

Tiger Woods: There’s no question that Woods is a larger than life athlete, known as much for his golfing abilities as his off-the-course exploits. After doing an interview with Woods following a round at The Barclays a few years back, I shook the golfer’s hand to thank him for answering my questions. He had the hardest handshake I’ve ever received in return. But he, like Brady, also acknowledged my appreciation. When we chatted a few days later, I could tell he remembered me.

What I Learned: Saying thank you sometimes catches people off guard, in a good way. Believe it or not, not every reporter thank athletes after interviews. When you show appreciation, it helps build a rapport for the future.

Reggie Bush: Bush was the hottest name in football in 2004. He was a highly touted prospect out of USC and also dating some famous person who shall remain nameless. It was Christmas Eve 2004 and the New Orleans Saints crushed the New York Giants, 30-7. Bush contributed with a career-best 126 yards and a touchdown (to which he sailed the ball deep into the Giants Stadium stands after scoring).

ESPN would later write: “The only thing he did wrong was bolt out of the locker room after the game without talking to the media.” The thing is, that was not true. I actually followed Bush out of the locker room as he wheeled two suitcases to the team bus. He answered my questions about the game as I walked alongside him.

What I Learned: You never know when opportunities will be present, but you have to be looking for them to capitalize.

Derek Jeter: There are few athletes, let alone ones that play for the New York Yankees, who fans of both teams love. Jeter is one of them. Whether it was speaking to the Hall of Famer during his rehab stint in the minor leagues in 2011 or discussing George Steinbrenner in the team’s first game after the owner’s death in 2010, Jeter always brought it back to the fans. He is someone who completely understands that fan support is what has contributed to his success on and off the field.

What I Learned: Care about your fans (and users or consumers). They are the ones who can make or break your business.

Robert Griffin III: My one-on-one interview with Griffin was after the Redskins loss to the New York Giants in the last game of the 2015 season. The quarterback hadn’t talked much in recent weeks after being benched by his head coach earlier in the year. That move didn’t sit well with RGIII, who did his best to not show his disappointment through the media.

After the game, not one reporter approached Griffin — a report earlier that day described how sheltered from the media Griffin is. All except for me. Griffin was soft-spoken, but took the time to answer all of my questions. We chatted for about a minute as he expressed his disappointment in the season but always threw a positive in after a negative.

What I Learned: I learned two things in this situation: 1) Take chances. You never know how things may turn out unless you try. 2) Don’t let the tough times get you down. Always look towards the future.

That’s exactly what we all need to do right now. We need to look forward to the future when sports will be played again, we will be able to roam freely within the aisles at Trader Joe’s and actually spend face-to-face time with people other than those we’ve been quarantined with. This too shall pass.

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