One of the most common questions I’m asked when I tell people I wrote a book about the 1990s Knicks is: “How did you contact all of those sources?” I’m a lawyer by trade. I don’t have a journalism degree. I covered the Knicks for a couple of years for Bleacher Report but from a distance. I’ve never stepped foot in a locker room or cultivated sources and I don’t have any industry connections.
I knew I needed original content in order to make the book interesting. Given my lack of experience and connections, I thought it would be great if I could talk to 15-20 people who were associated with those Knicks teams. I ended up speaking with close to 100 sources, including players, coaches, executives, ball boys and journalists who covered the team.
I quickly learned the key to tracking down sources is persistence. I decided I wouldn’t stop chasing down an individual until I spoke to him or received an explicit refusal to talk from him or his representative. That determination often led me down numerous paths in pursuit of one player or coach.
In some cases, I began with a solid lead. For example, I knew former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy is an announcer for ESPN so I contacted ESPN’s public relations representative who provided me with Van Gundy’s phone number. Similarly, I reached former point guard and current Mavericks commentator Derek Harper through the Mavs’ public relations department. NBA teams or other organizations may also be willing to help you contact their former, as well as current, employees.
More often than not, I needed to do some digging. My first step was typically to google my target. A person’s Wikipedia page may include useful biographical information, such as the college they attended, where they live, the name of their business, current employer or a charitable organization they’re involved with. A google search may also reveal articles written about the potential source or his or her website. Within 10 minutes, I googled Patrick Ewing’s high school coach, Mike Jarvis, filled out a contact form on his website, received an email from Jarvis and connected with him over the phone.
Social media is another way to contact potential sources. I reached out to former players, coaches and executives via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. LinkedIn was the most fruitful, connecting me with former Knick Rick Brunson, one-time Madison Square Garden president, Bob Gutkowski, and movie producer Stanley Jaffe, to name a few. Even if you’re unable to connect with a source through social media, his or her Facebook page, Twitter account or LinkedIn profile may provide helpful clues.
Another way to obtain contact information is through search websites such as Whitepages.com, Spokeo or Been Verified. These type of sites typically provide various subscription options and many offer cheap trial periods. This approach leads to a lot of dead ends so you must be patient. It can be difficult to identify the right person, especially with a common name like former Knick forward Larry Johnson. Once you do, you’ll often find numerous numbers and emails listed, many of which you will discover are no longer in service, belong to family members or are simply incorrect. Additionally, people are less likely to talk when their personal information is made available by others as opposed to on their website or social media accounts. When I called Scottie Pippen at a number I received from one such site, the Hall of Famer was not happy to learn that his phone number was publicly listed.
One more potential means of connection is through a person’s college. Athletic departments often maintain contact with alumni, especially those who go on to coach or play professionally. I connected with five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway through the University of Texas at El Paso athletic department. Colleges may also be able to put you in touch a subject’s former teammates or coaches, who can be valuable sources themselves. Paul Evans, who coached Charles Smith and David Robinson in college, Leonard Hamilton, John Starks’ coach at Oklahoma State, Wimp Sanderson, who recruited Latrell Sprewell to the University of Alabama, and Dave Robbins, the former coach at Charles Oakley’s alma mater, Virginia Union, all provided insight into their former players.
My conversation with Coach Robbins was particularly productive because after checking with Oakley he provided me with the Knick legend’s phone number. It was the culmination of a years long, multi-pronged approach to landing one of the most important subjects of my book. I had attempted to contact Oakley through; a prolonged email exchange with his publicist, the Virginia Union athletic department, the Big 3 basketball league, a contact form on his website, various social media sites, his former agent, his booking agent, the attorney who represented him when he was arrested at Madison Square Garden, former teammates, teams he played for and others. Ultimately, Virginia Union’s current coach provided me with contact information for Coach Robbins, who delivered me Oakley’s number.
The Oakley connection is an example of an ideal way to contact a potential source: through another source. Chris Childs was likely more inclined to talk to me because I told him I’d received his number from his old teammate, John Starks. Understandably, sources are often reluctant to share their friends’ contact information, especially when that friend is famous, but it never hurts to ask. You may want to phrase your request as, “Can you please ask “so and so” if he would be willing to talk to me?” That way you provide the source with an opportunity to assist you without violating his friend’s privacy.
If all of the above approaches fail, be creative. Think of anybody who may be associated with the man or woman you’re attempting to contact. I reached former Miami Heat coach Stan Van Gundy through his agent and obtained the email address of former Knicks president Dave Checketts from a journalist who covered the team. Tim Frank, the NBA’s Sr. VP of Basketball Communications, put me in touch with long-time NBA executive Rod Thorn, and I tracked down All-Star turned minister Terry Cummings through his church.
Of course, once you obtain a source’s contact information, you must convince him or her to talk to you, but that’s a topic for another article. Be creative. Be persistent. And always make the extra call. If I can contact this many sources, so can you.