Anyone predicting a controversial Carmelo Anthony cover story in the recent issue of SLAM magazine was sadly mistaken once they read Ben Osborne’s article in its entirety. There were no questions raised to one of the NBA’s most popular and polarizing figures about his tumultuous relationship with Mike D’Antoni, the former head coach of the Knicks who abruptly resigned in March amid speculation that Anthony refused to run his offensive system. Osborne didn’t address why rumors of the superstar’s supposed infidelity became a focal point of his wife’s VH1 reality show, “La La’s Full Court Life,” around the same time he was getting acclimated with his team during their first full season. Anthony also wasn’t asked to explain why he called the Houston Rockets’ offer sheet to Jeremy Lin a “ridiculous contract” in July when there was still a strong possibility that they would remain teammates in New York. There was no need to discuss a rumored rift with Amar’e Stoudemire since the starting power forward contributes to the story and provides a positive outlook on their future together.
Osborne’s avoidance of scandal and primary focus on journalistic integrity is probably the core reason why the former intern, associate editor, senior editor, and freelancer to the magazine is now the editor in chief of the go-to guide for the basketball aficionado with a circulation of more than 150,000. I spoke to SLAM’s fearless leader on how he decides what’s relevant to his readers and how he managed to transform Carmelo Anthony into a towering monument on the front of the November issue.
I have a very long history with SLAM. I started as an intern out of George Washington University in August of 1997. I was part-time then worked full-time for a couple of years then I was back to part-time freelancing and then a contributing editor from 2000 to 2007. I’ve been in every issue since August of 1997 but for the first 10 years a lot of that was as a freelancer. Then I became editor-in-chief and my first issue came out in January of 2007 so it’s been almost six years now.
How did you decide on Carmelo Anthony for your cover story?
The Olympics were sort of a big part of it because obviously there was LeBron and Kevin Durant but Carmelo is the one guy where you watch the Olympics and he really is as valuable as those guys and he’s not thought of in the same way in the NBA. He’s thought of as a notch below them. I know why that is. He’s not quite at that level but you see him in the Olympics and playing a key role and it’s kind of a nice reminder of what he can do. We thought it was a neat way to acknowledge the Olympic team. He’s in New York. We’ve never shot him as a Knick. The timing hasn’t been right because frankly they haven’t been so great during the season. It was a way to honor what he did with the Olympics and look ahead to a Knicks season that hopefully for his sake goes better than the past year-and-a-half did. After talking to his agent, we realized that he would give us some time and he was willing to bring his gold medals and he was willing to climb on the roof of the Ace Hotel which is like a private roof. We were climbing up a little stairway with a low roof and we did that because we wanted to have the Empire State Building in the background.
Sometimes we have to shoot covers in 30 minutes but if we can have two or three hours with a guy and he’s willing to bring a prop or climb a roof to do something cool then we are going to make a cool cover out of it. He was a good idea as a cover because of the Olympics and the season and the fact that he was down to cooperate and do something cool with us just locked it up. I’m very proud of how it came out. I think it’s a beautiful cover. The photographer [Tom Medvedich] gets credit for the idea and the shoot but Carmelo gets credit for showing up and giving us time and doing what the photographer says and being willing to help make it a good cover. I’m very excited. I won’t know how it sold for another two months but the reaction to it from readers and fans was really positive.
When did the interview and photo shoot take place?
That was in the last week of August. Ultimately, the interview took place after but I was talking to him for the entire shoot.
If anyone was hoping for some type of controversy from this story it doesn’t exist. Amar’e Stoudemire gives a nice quote. Jim Boheim, his former coach at Syracuse, gives a nice quote. Carmelo also adds nice quotes. There’s absolutely no drama here.
We will dabble in controversy on the Web site for news. We are not going to shy away from it if the player wants it. Carmelo is a guy that people have a love-hate relationship with. If I wanted to find people to say something bad about him I certainly could but there’s so many outlets out there that do a negative. We’re player-friendly. We are not ashamed of that. If I lose my journalism card by the holier-than-thou people out there then so be it. I can do hard news. I’ve written for The New York Times and the New York Daily News but that’s not SLAM’s thing. There was no way if a guy is going to give us three hours of his time, an interview, and pose like that I am going to write a negative story about the guy. That wasn’t going to happen. Jim Boheim was a totally legit interview. I was so proud that I went after him and that I got him on the phone because he had just been with him at the Olympic team and Syracuse. I suppose that if Jim Boheim would have said something bad, well maybe that would have changed my thing. But he just cosigned the positive things about Carmelo and I was very happy about that. I wasn’t out to tear the guy down. I let him speak for himself. This is his first full season here without any interruptions. Let’s give him a chance.
Our average reader is 16 or 17. We have no liquor ads and no tobacco ads. There are magazines for adults. There are magazines for gossip hounds. We are a magazine for hardcore basketball fans and pretty much hardcore basketball players. We are fans of the game. We try to keep it pretty strict to the game. Yes, Carmelo and LaLa have a TV show. She is a beautiful woman. I’m sure our readers like her. They can read about her somewhere else.
You didn’t feel the need to address his Jeremy Lin comments, the resignation of Mike D’Antoni, and his rocky start with Amar’e?
Keep in mind that I didn’t run the entire transcript. Let’s just say that he didn’t want to delve into those topics in a big way. I’m trying to make a gorgeous cover. I’m trying to execute the whole thing. That was the priority. I asked him questions. I went with the answers that were true to his mood that day. To be honest, he didn’t really name anyone. He doesn’t really call anyone out, good or bad. If I’m speaking objectively, I think his approach to leadership leaves something to be desired so I think he does have a quote in there where he feels the Olympics are great because he is around guys that are as intense as him and as competitive as him and he hopes that rubs off on his teammates. What I wanted to do, I guess, if people were looking to find fault with Carmelo was kind of read it and make their own decision.
If I was a commentator, I would say that this guy does not take enough responsibility for that job. Like, you hope it rubs off on people? You’re the best player on the team. Tell them what to do. Tell them what these other guys are like. Kobe Bryant screams at his teammates. They may not like him but they respond to him because he is a domineering presence. LeBron James is more like one of the guys. He makes his teammates laugh. He includes all of them. That’s kind of an approach too. I don’t think Carmelo has an approach. He’s just the best player and hopes that rubs off. He doesn’t really speak about Amar’e specifically. He just talks about teammates. My impression of him is that he shows up every day, does his absolute best, plays his hardest, plays the way he thinks he should play, and like hopes that rubs off on guys as opposed to taking a proactive leadership approach. I wasn’t willing to literally spell out my personal feelings or why I think that’s wrong or do like 10 follow-up questions and really demand that he speak on Amar’e. I just kind of gave him a forum. He had the opportunity to say more about people and he chose not to.
He is a really chill dude. I’ve been around him before. If you catch Carmelo at a Knicks game or at a press conference he’s not showing much personality. He is pretty bland. I’m sure that part of that comes from knowing that words can get twisted. He says the slightest honest thing and it’s the back page of the New York Post so around us there was singing. There was cursing. The reason that he did that is because he knows we are not going to run with it. If I am going to go describe every moment that happened and every personal thing and every single quote that he said then there goes the relationship that let him act like that in the first place.
I’m the editor. I set up the shoot. I dealt with the photographer. I worked on the cover lines and I wrote the story. I think that we have people better equipped to bring that out in Carmelo as a writer but it was late in production. I see what you are getting at and we’ve had stories that I think do that. Carmelo’s also been in SLAM six or seven times. We had one cover story where we shot him in a director’s chair and he was launching a movie company and he wanted to talk about that. I agree I didn’t break huge ground with this but that was not my motivation. He didn’t want to get into anything that detailed. I didn’t press him terribly hard. With some issues the emphasis may be on the interview. In this case, given the setting and that we got up on that roof and he brought two stylists, the pictures were really the focus. I probably could have asked harder questions but he ended up very happy with it. They loved how it looked. SLAM is a very visual magazine. I haven’t heard anyone say they hated the story but you’re right, I’m not winning any awards for it. I’m proud of the whole presentation.
Let’s talk more about the magazine. There seems to be a new trend with former NBA All-Stars going overseas and trying to establish their brand internationally and make money. We’ve seen Iverson and Marbury play overseas after the NBA closed its doors on them. What’s your stance on the relevance of those stories?
I think China as a whole is a huge factor in this sport because of the population there, its size, its rabid support of the game, the fact that shoes are produced there, and the company wants to market there. We tried to do a Stephon feature last year. We have his e-mail. We’ve worked with Stephon for many years. He basically was like, “I’ll do a great interview with you if I get the cover.” He’s not quite at that level in my opinion. T-Mac is going over there now. Would I do a T-Mac China cover? Probably not but we’ve done little bits and pieces on basketball in China without a doubt. One of our writers lived over there for a few years. We covered every game of the 2008 Olympics there. We have our Chinese edition so I give writers for that. But the story you are talking about hasn’t warranted a cover yet but who knows.
There are little whispers of maybe Kobe goes there in two years when his contract is up. Would I do a Kobe Bryant in China cover? I would say 95 percent yes. There hasn’t been the guy to me that lets us tell that as a cover story. I don’t even think Iverson now would get one because you have to understand that if we show them in their uniform no one’s going to know the uniform. It has to be such a recognizable guy. Stephon Marbury at this point of his career is not that guy. Would I do for our five pages on him? Sure but am I going to risk putting him on the cover of American SLAM, probably not. When our brand is already making a Chinese edition that’s covering all these guys, I don’t feel like the world or China is lacking in that coverage even in the SLAM way. American SLAM obviously hasn’t gotten it to a huge degree. Kobe would be the biggest but look. Kevin Garnett wears the Chinese shoe company’s shoes. Dwayne Wade just signed with a Chinese shoe company. It’s definitely growing and we have to be aware of it. It has to be the right story.
Are there any stories over the years that you missed out on? For example, did you cover Linsanity in its early stages or after everyone had already jumped on the bandwagon?
We did a Linsanity cover but didn’t get a shoot from him. We just did an action shot but it was already towards the end. We have to choose a cover about six weeks before it actually gets to newsstands. That’s obviously a very 1990s thing to have to say in the Internet [age] but that’s still our reality so cover timing can be hugely challenging. We had a cover one year where we did a split cover of Shaq and Dirk Nowitzki and they both lost in the first round of the playoffs by the time both issues came out so that was a horrible miss. That was my fourth issue as editor and that was a disaster.
We did a big feature on LeBron when he was a sophomore in high school. We were the first national publication to cover him. We were very proud of that but Sports Illustrated gave him his first cover and that kind of irks us to no end. Shout out to them for doing it but we were the first national place to see him and recognize him but we didn’t pull the trigger of putting him on the cover. We’ve subsequently done 20 covers with him and he did a diary for us when he was in high school. We feel that we were the first magazine to really blow up LeBron but we can’t say we put him on the cover first because we didn’t. That’s kind of a shame.
What about the times when you were ahead of the curve?
I am proud of SLAM’s whole attitude and letting players be themselves. Look at the way we treated Iverson. This guy was shunned by the NBA when the NBA was airbrushing his cornrows into a flat top and airbrushing his tattoos at the time we were putting him on the cover scowling with chains on and we didn’t ask him to do that. We just let guys be how they want to be. The NBA is certainly overbearing as far as managing its image but we helped break down some barriers. We’ve seen our photographers go on to be used by ESPN The Magazine and by other places. SLAM’s style was looked down upon or seen as threatening or not appropriate in the way that guys are shot so that’s kind of bigger than a six-month trend. That’s a 10-year thing that happened that we were part of. Even though I can cite LeBron to you as the one we missed at the same time he’s also the one we got because we were consistent in supporting him and people turned on him so hard and he became so hated and we certainly never did that. I don’t know if you saw our cover of the champs of him with that “Hi Haters!” [cover line] and the response to that was huge. When we first posted it people were tweeting at us like, “That’s fucked up! That’s not how he thinks anymore. You shouldn’t put words in his mouth.” Then a day later he retweeted it himself and said: “Epic.” Then he Instagrammed pictures of himself holding the cover up and it just exploded. ESPN did a 10-minute segment on the cover and I felt that he can’t say it himself but that was his cosign of him thanking us for saying what he couldn’t say. There’s no way LeBron James would do that if he wasn’t working with us since he was 16-years old.
When a player is on a crazy run and dominating the league for months at a time how do you resist the temptation to put them on the cover consecutively?
Jordan definitely had a run where he got two in a row, maybe three out of five. LeBron was on the cover when we had a playoff preview issue that came out in April. We did four covers but he was on one of them. Then the next month in May we put LeBron on the cover again as the playoffs were heating up. Then for the draft we did Anthony Davis who was the No. 1 pick but then we always do the champs, kind of a look back at who won so that was LeBron. So he was on three out of four months just last spring and some people are like, “Get off his dick!” Other people are like, “Very smart!” Every month we just try to balance a lot of things. That was a lot. He hasn’t been on everything. On the cover of KICKS was Kyrie Irving. The last SLAM was Carmelo. The new SLAM that just dropped today was Dwight Howard. I want to give him a break now and it’s been very special cases but LeBron just had a run like that. Jordan had one. Guys like Iverson had a stretch where he was often there twice in a year. Kobe has been twice in a year.
There’s a lot of factors. We need to sell magazines. Those guys I just mentioned are the ones that were consistent sellers for us but obviously if you overdo it people are going to get bored and they are not going to sell. We are not trying every month to sell the most possible because then it would be the same four guys so it’s a mix. Anthony Davis was a really cool cover. I don’t think he’d ever had exposure like that. So we try to throw in some surprises. We did Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio last year. Is that going to sell? Probably not but they are two fun players. It’s just a balance. Make sure you get your big stars on but then give them a break and give someone else new a chance. A guy like Russell Westbrook is someone we are talking about now. He never had a solo SLAM cover. That would make sense. Is he going to sell like LeBron or Kobe? Probably not but he is a fun player. We like to mix it up. If a guy is just the dominant story and there is no logical cover story then we’ll do him.
What have been the biggest sellers thus far?
Player-wise it’s been LeBron and Kobe. We did Iverson when he was done playing last year but it was like an old picture from a classic cover. That did really well. Dwayne Wade just sold really well.
Our 150th issue which came out last summer touched on it completely. He was very frank about how bad he wants back in it and we’ve done stuff on the Web site. In general, I fault the teams. I think it’s ridiculous. A great team maybe doesn’t need to take a chance but there are teams out there. I really think its cowardice. They would probably say they don’t trust his ability to be a role player. He’s a guy that has always dominated the ball and he never played the way they would want him to but now with 15 minutes off the bench it would be instant offense. Why he didn’t get a chance I think is very small-minded. He doesn’t need $10 million to come back. I think you could give him the veteran’s minimum. I think it’s a shame. This year, I’m not sure what he has left but last year or the year before, I think that it would have been nice to see. He had that teenie stint with the Grizzlies and then the Sixers. I would have liked to see him get another chance even if he had a try-out and he was worthy but I think some GMs just have a bad taste in their mouth about the way he played. I would like to see him get another chance for sure.
Jay-Z is now an executive in the NBA and an executive producer on NBA 2K13. There’s been some controversy about how much he actually owns with the Brooklyn Nets but with that said is he someone you would consider for the cover of SLAM?
No, I would do it. We were just talking about that. I wouldn’t do him alone but I would put him with players on the Nets. We cover a hip-hop artist every month. There is a hip-hop heritage to SLAM. Everyone knows who Jay is. Whatever percentage he owns doesn’t matter. He is a part-owner and has obviously influenced that franchise dramatically. We’ve done some light outreach but getting time with Jay is very difficult for any outlet. We were just talking about it with him and Deron Williams or Joe Johnson. But would Jay do it? Probably not but we can revisit it especially if they play well. We’d be very interested if he wanted to take part. How can you deny his influence over the uniform, over the arena, over the franchise as a whole? That makes it a basketball story and that’s why would be happy to produce it.
In that one he spoke very freely. That was done by a writer named Aggrey Sam who’s known Dwight for a long time. It was made clear going into it that Dwight didn’t want a ton of controversy but he spoke very freely about his relationship with Stan Van Gundy. In the public it seemed like they were hating each other but Dwight tells a very different story. He talks about his relationship with Orlando fans and his excitement about this season. It’s not a Q & A but its quote-filled and again the images are not like Carmelo Anthony but we did a very nice photo shoot with him, very beautifully lit. We made it serious. Everyone knows he’s a fun loving guy. We’ve seen that before. I’d say it’s a very informative interview. If you want to compare the two I’d say Carmelo is a cooler photo shoot and Dwight is a more revealing interview.