Gatekeeper Jackson: "these guys are students and that comes first"
Basketball appears simple enough: bounce, bounce, pass. But making basketball appear on television sets and in magazines and newspapers across the nation is not so simple. You have to court the press.
Jon Jackson, director of sports information, manages the day-to-day publicity for Mike Krzyzewski and team. For the most part, P.R. people tend to be overly exuberant sorts, cheerleaders who croon and gush over their clients and parade them in front of the press. Not Jackson: "It's not like I have to be out there pitching stories." The P.R. job at Duke, he says, isn't what it is elsewhere. When you're the highest-profile program with the highest-profile coach, the promotional side of things is pretty much taken care of.
Ironically, the one time Jackson did make a concerted effort to promote a player was for perhaps the greatest face man, head wrinkles and all, in Duke basketball history. Shane Battier had been in the running for Player of the Year before his senior season began. "But," says Jackson, "with Jason [Williams] playing so well, there were some doubts as to whether or not he was the best guy on the team. So, we felt we really needed to push him. We tried to do some strategic things with him and one day a guy from The New York Times called up wanting to do a big article on Jason during Shane's senior year. I said, 'Well, you know Jason's a great kid, but let me tell you about Battier.' The guy ended up changing it to Shane, front-page, [sports], New York Times."
Duke's standing doesn't make Jackson's job any easier. The calls he doesn't have to make are the same calls he screens, from journalists asking for interviews or photo shoots to fans wanting autographs. (Krzyzewski signs more than a hundred items every week.) "I guess you would say I'm the gatekeeper." During the 2001 season, Jackson set up a special arrangement to handle media requests for Battier. "There were so many that we decided to designate one day a week for him as 'press day.' After practice, we would put him on the phone with eight or ten reporters and they would shoot questions at him. Then we'd put the next eight on."
As gatekeeper, Jackson has to be a good defender. His clients have classes, practice, girlfriends, moms, and just a few minutes for everything else. The Office of Sports Information is all that stands between them and the press. And though the media could contact a player without Jackson's consent--and on occasion do--it behooves a reporter to play by the rules.
The press doesn't like to hear that Chris Duhon has a test--neither does Duhon--"but these guys are students and that comes first, always. We don't want to burden them. We tell them, look, we're on your side, if you've got too much going on, let us know."
Jackson explains that with N.C. State and UNC in the backyard, Duke is in a unique position. "It's strange," he says, "but we're bigger nationally than we are locally, so there's a sensitivity among our local media about getting trumped all the time, especially since we have guys with ties here who are big in the national media."
According to sports reporter Bryan Strickland of Durham's Herald-Sun, with so much competition for interviews, "access to the team can be tough to get." After his back surgery in October '94, Krzyzewski himself scaled back on the number of media requests he meets. "It's rare that you'll get him nowadays." That isn't always the case with the team, says Strickland, "but when you do get an interview, you get the feeling, talking to the guy, that he's sticking to Krzyzewski's line. Except for Duhon. He'll tell you what's on his mind."
Duhon, a junior, is from Slidell, Louisiana. He is six-foot-one, lithe and sinewy, with light brown, almost hazel eyes and the musculature of a gazelle. Melanie McCullough, Jackson's assistant, arranged a meeting and an empty office to sit in. Duhon joked with her. "I better shut this door, I'm gonna have to give him all the dirt on you people." McCullough laughed and shook her head. Duhon's way with the press is the same as his way with McCullough. "I just have fun with them." He says that it doesn't bother him when reporters dig around for information and ask questions to try to draw him out, "because they're just doing their job and looking for the story, and I respect that."
Coming to Duke, he recalls, was sort of a shock. ESPN had never made it down to Slidell. "So I got here and it was, you know, cameras everywhere." In the first few weeks, he says, the team was briefed on how to conduct an interview: The sports information staff "fired questions at us that they said a reporter might ask, and then they told us what we should have said or what would be bad to say. Coming out of high school, you know, most guys don't have a lot of experience with this, and they know that. They don't want you getting thrown to the wolves."
That Duke takes an active interest in how, and in how often, a basketball player presents himself or herself to the press should come as no surprise. After all, when Chris Duhon smiles, Duke smiles. When the team wins, Duke wins. And as long as basketball players are the university's most prominent representatives, Coach K notwithstanding, basketball players will be an entity apart. Their inaccessibility, their guarded reserve, is essential to their allure. Their boundaries are ever present and their separation is clearly defined. Jackson put it in household terms: "It's like being in a fishbowl." Duke plays inside the paint, inside the Indoor Stadium, and most importantly, inside your television.