columnist talks NBA, Big Ten

By Meghan Montemurro

Jemele Hill, an columnist and Michigan State alumna, took time during her busy schedule to talk via e-mail about the NBA, former Illini Deron Williams and Luther Head, and her experiences as a columnist.

Daily Illini: How have former Illini Deron Williams and Luther Head developed since their time at Illinois and during their past three years in the NBA?

Jemele Hill: Both of them wound up in near-perfect situations. Luther was a guy who needed to be in a place where he could showcase his shooting ability. To his credit, he’s been a little better than that, but he’s still got to make some improvements. As for Deron, playing under Jerry Sloan is an enormous plus. He coached John Stockton, one of the best guards in NBA history. Plus, Sloan is a stickler for fundamentals, which only will allow Deron’s development to surge.

DI: For Deron, are the comparisons to Chris Paul fair and when his career is all said and done, where will he stand in both Jazz and NBA history?

JH: In head-to-head matchups this year, Deron has out-played Chris Paul, but those two are as different as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd. I really think Deron has the potential to be the next Jason Kidd. He’s big, strong, and is a much better shooter than Kidd ever does. Now he doesn’t run the break like Kidd, but less than one percent of point guards can. But to be honest, I think people expected a lot more out of Deron this season because of the way he played in the playoffs. His numbers were still terrific, of course, but the team success should have been better. Winning head-to-head matchups is one thing, but Paul had a dominant, MVP season. One of these days, that’s going to be Deron.

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DI: For Luther, what will it take him to continuously crack the starting lineup, either with the Rockets or with another NBA team?

JH: Luther has got to get stronger, and prove that he’s more than just a spot-up shooter. He’s got to show he can handle the ball consistently and live in the lane. At this point, I can’t really see him being a full-time starter. He seems much more suited to coming off the bench.

DI: How do you see the Jazz/Rockets series playing out?

JH: I think Utah wins in seven. Houston deserves a lot of credit for being able to patch things together with Yao out, but it’s a series that Deron probably should dominate. Carlos Boozer presents some matchup issues and I’d give Utah a slight edge in team defense, and a big edge in coaching.

DI: You covered Michigan sports when you worked at the Detroit Free Press and were around for the horrendous Detroit Tigers days. With many calling their offense the best in baseball, what’s with the Tigers’ bad start? Are they going to be able to turn it around?

JH: Way to hit a sore spot. I’m originally from Detroit and am a huge, lifelong Tigers fan. It’s like the bottom fell out of the franchise for about 15-20 years and just when we’ve turned the corner, they get off to an awful start in a year filled with ridiculous expectations. Like a lot of fans, I got so caught up in the money they were spending on free agents that I didn’t objectively assess this team. I love Cabrera, but it wasn’t our hitting that was the issue. It was the bullpen. We need more arms. And given Joel Zumaya’s injury history, I’m not totally sold he’s going to be what Tigers fans expect. Everybody keeps telling me that it’s only April, but I’ve lived through too many Aprils where the Tigers have eliminated themselves from the playoffs. I’m sick with worry.

DI:What is your favorite professional sports team and how did you get introduced to it?

JH: I’m an obsessed Tigers fan. Baseball was my favorite sport growing up. I loved to play it and watch it. I would watch games all day on Saturday and imitate my favorite players’ swings. I was a seamhead to the core. Of course, it was easy to love the Tigers because they won the World Series when I was nine. Strangely enough, I was never a Lions fans. Guess that shows that even as a kid, I had taste.

DI: Is Skip Bayless as annoying and arrogant off the set as he seems to be when on the shows like First Take?

JH: I know most of America will find this shocking, but Skip’s a cool guy. OK, maybe cool isn’t the best description, because he isn’t the hippest person in the world. But he’s definitely extremely likable. He’ll tell you the same things he says on air, just a whole lot quieter. Skip really is a sweetheart.

DI: How well did your NCAA men’s bracket turn out? I know Bayless was making fun of you for your love of Georgetown and Roy Hibbert.

JH: Um, not well. My Final Four was Georgetown, UCLA, Stanford and UNC. Two out of four ain’t bad, I guess. Davidson really screwed me, almost as bad as Hibbert being a no-show in the tournament.

DI: A lot of people in comments about your columns on have called or labeled you the “black columnist” for tending to write about issues pertaining to race. How do you handle that?

JH: Well, I am black and I am a columnist, so that’s not inaccurate. I’m not ashamed of my background, ethnicity or gender and certainly don’t mind bringing those collective experiences to how I view and analyze sports. Besides, I’ve never been nor will I ever be the columnist afraid to address race. I’d like to think that I do it fairly and honestly. That I don’t always say what people like is the problem. But whether we like it or not, we’ve got to address race in a way that makes all of us uncomfortable. And for those who believe if I didn’t talk about it, it would simply go away … what problem ever went away without anyone talking about it?

DI: Back in October, you picked the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference in the preseason predictions. How much do you regret that choice now?

JH: About as much I do saying (Roy) Hibbert would be my go-to guy in the NCAAs. That’s what I get for trying to be different. I didn’t want to pick Boston because everyone was picking Boston, and I stupidly thought they might struggle a bit while trying to get used to one another. I didn’t want to pick Detroit because then I’d get accused of being a homer and I wasn’t sold they would win the East, anyway. So I picked Chicago, because I thought they’d pull it together. That’s the beauty of being a sports writer. You get a lot of opportunities to be wrong.

DI: Of the 18 ESPN experts (yourself included), no one picked Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul to win the MVP at the beginning of the season, both of whom are in contention for the award. You selected Kevin Garnett as your MVP. Are you sticking to your guns or is someone else more worthy?

JH:I’m waffling. But at least my KG pick was in the neighborhood, unlike everything else I said this year. KG will finish in the top-5, but Kobe will probably win it. If he doesn’t, he’ll be the greatest player to never win an MVP. And Steve Nash still has two. Criminal.

DI: You’re well known for your column and belief that Kobe is a better player than MJ. You had over 2,000 e-mails about that column with about 75% disagreeing with you. Care to defend your stance?

JH: OK, people, I’m going to say this once and for all. I’m not an idiot (sometimes). I realize Jordan has more titles, more MVPs, more adulation, better shoes, a balder head, etc. But I’m comparing their games. Kobe can do everything Jordan could do and there are a few things he did better, earlier. For example, Kobe polished his shot much earlier in his career than Jordan did. I’d also say Kobe was more versatile sooner than Jordan was. People forget that Kobe has three rings and could win a fourth this season. And if you take a closer look, Kobe dominated in those playoffs. Besides, if people are going to hold Shaq against Kobe, I’ll hold Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper against Jordan, in terms of defense. Jordan was a fine, individual defender, but he was helped significantly because he played on some amazing defensive teams. My other favorite argument is when people say that under today’s rules, which are geared toward offensive players, that Jordan would have dominated. Yes, he would have. But Kobe would have been a dominant player in Jordan’s era, too. Besides, I wonder if Jordan could win Defensive POY today because of the rules. The size of players has evolved so much. You got a guy like Lamar Odom playing the two and three at 6-foot-11. And, let’s be honest, what could Jordan have done with someone as big as LeBron James, who is 6-foot-8, 260 pounds?

DI: As for the Big Ten, is the conference really as bad as many analysts and fans of other conferences make it out to be when it comes to football and basketball?

JH: People do pile on the Big Ten. Their record against the SEC in bowl games is very respectable. And, the Big Ten leads all conferences with 15 BCS berths and their eight BCS victories are second. It’s like the Big Ten is the broccoli and the SEC is the steak and cookies. Broccoli’s good for you, but you don’t always like to admit it. In basketball, the Big Ten loses so much on eyeball factor. All the games seem to be in the 50s, and casual fans don’t find that appealing. But I don’t mind it. The Big Ten should be exactly what it is.

DI: What was your “welcome to the big leagues” moment?

JH: Maybe when Albert Belle treated me like dirt during the summer of ’96. Either that or having my boss rip me a new one for missing deadline.

DI: Who is the best interview you’ve ever had?

JH: The best interviews have been the ones by people who aren’t big names. I’ve had several of those. I really enjoy talking to high school athletes. They haven’t been over-coached. Most of them haven’t been corrupted yet.

DI: What challenges have you faced in a career and profession that tends to be dominated by men?

JH:You just have to have a tough skin. People are going assume you don’t know as much as the guys. And if you have strong opinions, like I do, it makes you that much more of a target. I’m past the point where it bothers me. If people want to take me less seriously because I’m a woman, or because I’m black, then that’s their problem. But I certainly hope they channel their dislike and click on my stories.