View from the Homefront Part 4: Interview with Paul Coro

At long last, the final chapter (for now) in my View from the Homefront series is here. Back in November when I was in Phoenix for a few days, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Paul Coro, the Arizona Republic's beat writer for the Suns. I thought it might be nice to learn a little about the man whose work I quote and link to almost daily. As I mentioned in Part 3 yesterday, it wasn't my original intent to wait three months to post this, but that's how it worked out. (Lesson learned: Don't do lengthy, voice-recorded interviews in noisy restaurants right before the busiest time of the year).

I really enjoyed talking to Paul. I definitely came away with a whole new respect for what he does for a living, and I was very appreciative of him taking time to speak with me. In his eyes, I imagine this was a little like a National Geographic photographer sitting down with an amateur to discuss the tricks of the trade. So, many thanks to Paul for fitting me in on his way to the airport. (Makes me feel even more guilty about not finding time to finish transcribing this off of the recorder sooner).

This is kind of long, so I'm going to break with tradition and add a "jump".

Bright Side of the Sun: Where are you from originally and how did you end up writing about the Suns for a living?

Paul Coro: I grew up in the west part of Phoenix, and went to college here. I'm a rare native who left and came back. I worked in San Antonio originally, started out in news. I came back here when the paper folded there, and worked at the East Valley Tribune, still in news, but always set out in the business to do sports. So I kind of started over, and went to Kansas City. I had a connection there to start out, and just worked my way up. I did high schools for a long time. Did a lot of other things, but the Republic was always kind of a destination paper for me. My family's here; my wife's family's here. So once I got back... Every move I made I kind of started over. I had done some NBA stuff in Kansas City, obviously no NBA team there, but I had always wanted to cover the NBA, so I would do some things. That got me to the position where I got an offer to cover the Sonics for a Tacoma paper, and at the same time there was a job open at the Republic for a community high school writer. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I knew it was where I wanted to be. So it was more important for me to get to where I wanted to be, and I figured I could work my way up from there. So I did high school for a few years, then did Arizona State, covered ASU for a few years, and now it's been four years on the Suns.

Bright Side of the Sun: How long did it take to get from doing high schools to the Suns?

Paul Coro: Gosh, I've been at the paper 10 plus years now. I guess I must have done high schools for about four years. I was in a bureau for awhile, and then I came downtown as the main high school writer. I really liked covering high schools. I almost hope to do it again some day. It almost seems like a civic duty in a way. You're not going to get a lot of people saying "thank you for that story you wrote about me" in the NBA. Every time you write a story on somebody in high school, it's somebody's kids, it's going in somebody's scrapbook, it's probably the first time they've ever had something written about them in a newspaper. So, every story was important, at least to them and me.

I always felt like I was a work ethic person. There are a lot of people who have similar writing ability. Work ethic kind of separates people. I just hung around and was in the right places at the right time I guess. I started covering ASU. I was really happy covering ASU. My boss gave me the Suns beat. He just knew I was interested in doing it at some point, but I hadn't requested it or anything. He just switched me over to it in the middle of the 29-win season. It was not long after Frank had gotten fired and Stephon got traded. We just made the switch on the fly. It was actually good. It was a good transition year for me to do it. Starting the beat right about when Mike became head coach was good to build a relationship there. People always say how great it is to cover a winning team, but that 29-win team was a great bunch of guys. Maybe it was because expectations were low, and they weren't on the defensive about it or anything. LB was the point guard on that team, and he was barely learning English at the time, so that was always interesting.

Every once in a while they would hang around, and they would play hard. They were trying to play this way then. Mike was trying to open it up. He just didn't have Steve to do it. He had LB, who come to find out, isn't ever going to be the quintessential point guard. And he was extremely raw at the time too. But they were fun. They were loose on the court and stuff. They just needed a little help.

Bright Side of the Sun: What is it that made you decide you wanted to cover the NBA?

Paul Coro: Basketball was always my passion when I was a kid. Once I realized I wasn't going to grow to be 6'7" or 6'8", I figured if I really had dreams of doing something involving the NBA, it was probably going to have to be another route. I remember in eighth grade I made up my mind that I wanted to be an NBA writer and cover the Suns someday. I'm blessed that it came true. A lot of things had to fall into place, had to be lucky probably in a few regards. But it was what I wanted to do. Even going into high school, I got on the high school paper. College, I did the college paper. I was determined. Maybe I should have picked something to get a little richer off of. But this is pretty fulfilling. I have a lot of friends who have done better maybe in the business world, but I always think it's funny, because they're jealous of what I do. They think I have the cool job. It's been rewarding. It's nice to do it in your home town too.

Bright Side of the Sun: So you grew up as a Suns fan?

Paul Coro: I did when I was a kid. You definitely get that fan stuff out of you in a hurry once you go into journalism. We obviously don't root for teams. We're not fans of the team or anything. Because you have relationships with people, you want to see them fare well. You don't wish ill upon them or anything. But I'm not "root, root, root for the home team" either, because that's not what readers or fans want. They want unbiased coverage. They don't want "homer" coverage. The worst thing we can ever be accused of is being a homer. You can really lose a lot of respect from, not only readers, but the people you cover if you're a fan or seem in awe, or that you're doing it to take advantage of the role. I'm a fan of serving fans. I think the one good thing from being a fan as a kid is that I know what people want to know. I know what I would have wanted to read about my team. I always say I can't really be a fan of things around here, so I kind of have North Carolina basketball off to the side. Walt Davis was my idol when I was a kid. So I've always kept North Carolina as my fan thing.

Bright Side of the Sun: What is the day-to-day job like?

Paul Coro: In general it's busy and stressful. You feel a lot of responsibility. A lot of people with their jobs, they can take a long lunch, or have a day off, or spend a day in the office on the phone, and nobody notices. I'm pretty much on check all the time, on guard about what I do. Being in public is a nice check and balance. I just feel responsible to it. The workload is pretty heavy. From the start of training camp to the game where they get eliminated, or should they ever win that last game, you almost work just about every day.

We're not the deepest staff anymore. We don't really have a lot of extra people around. Every once in a while a guy might fill in and cover a practice for me just so I can have a recoup day. But it's a day and night job. Just for instance, on a game day, I would go down for the morning shootaround, do interviews after that. A lot of times I'll be writing a notebook early. A lot of our material needs to be in early, because there are different editions of the paper. Some of that stuff has to be turned in early. Sometimes there are online updates to do for breaking news. Online has really changed a lot of what we do. We're expected to blog daily too. That's strictly supplemental. It's on top of coverage; it's more non-traditional.

Bright Side of the Sun: So, it wasn't your idea to start the blog?

Paul Coro: It's obviously the way we're going. Online is where we're branching out. I embrace that. I think it's great. But it's really almost like two jobs sometimes. On top of the job I've always done for the newspaper, now there's this other online element. I'm always filing a story at the buzzer of the game so that there's a story for online right away. A lot of people think you just go to the games and write about the games, but it's so much more than that. Those games days are so long. There are so many different things to write. We have different editions. So, even after I file a game, then I'm going to the locker room trying to do interviews. I've got 20-30 minutes to write a different story for the chase edition of the newspaper. And then maybe after I'm finally done writing everything I write--a lot of which I have to do during the game while I'm trying to keep notes of every play-by-play and not miss anything--then maybe I blog at the end of the game. Or maybe I blog in the middle of the afternoon. Before it's over, you realize the whole day's gone.

Practice days are a little bit different. I go to practice, cover it, write a story for the next day, and maybe it stops. But on top of that, I also do an NBA column too that comes out on Sundays and Mondays. So, with all the Suns coverage, I'm also trying to do the national stuff, which requires that I file a download of Suns notes for other writers. So, that's just another thing on top of it. So in between you do radio shows, return calls, handle e-mails, on and on and on. So, there's not much downtime during the season.

People always say, "What do you do during the offseason?" Well, it's become a year-round monster. The Suns play until June usually every year, then that roles into draft workouts, then they're having draft workouts all of June, then the draft's at the end of June. Then, free-agency starts at the beginning of July. The free-agency period goes strong for a couple of weeks. Then, there's summer league in the middle of July. So really the only dead month of the NBA year is August, because then the guys start coming back in September. So, somewhere in there I have to go on vacation. The family has to go back to school in August. So, I have to slip in a vacation in July, at least a week with the family.

Bright Side of the Sun: Do they let you in to see the practices, or do you just have to kind of hang around outside the door?

Paul Coro: There will usually be me and some radio or TV people too sometimes. We'll just kind of hang in the hallway. Technically, the league rule is that we're supposed to be able to watch the last 30 minutes of the practice. It doesn't always work out like that, but they're good. They're one of the better organizations as far as being media-friendly, if not the best. That really started with Jerry Colangelo a long time ago. He really understood the role of the media, and how we're not there to serve ourselves, we're there to serve the fans. We're the conduit of how the team and the players and the coaches talk to fans. It's not for our benefit. It's for the fans and readers, to keep their interest level. It benefits the team. Maybe they don't need it when they've got 62 wins, but they might want it when they have 29.

So we watch the last half-hour or whatever it may be, and then when the practice ends, we go down and generally D'Antoni will talk first. Players are still getting in their shots as he talks. Then, they come off all at different times, and you just try to grab who you need on that day. People are available, but you try not to abuse it too. If I can see a day where Steve's not going to be stopped by other people and he can sneak out and get home a little earlier that day, I'm going to say "go ahead". I'm not going to just stop Steve every day because Steve's available and required to talk. You try to be professional, respect their time. And they respect that too. That way they know you mean it when you need them.

So game days, they're available after shootaround. Before the game, the locker room opens an hour and a half before tipoff, and it's open for 45 minutes. But usually the locker room's a ghost town at that point, because they're either on the practice court, on the main court shooting, or in the training room getting treatment. So, there's usually not that many guys in the locker room. Then we go into D'Antoni's office a little too. Those are important for us, because like I was saying before, everything can't be filed late at night for the newspaper because its design and layout, editing and all that has to be done. Usually the Suns game is literally the last thing to go in the newspaper. The rest of the paper is pretty much done by then. They'll hold, maybe not all editions, but at least the final edition. A game like the 8:30 games that end up starting actually at 8:50 and end at probably 11:10. Games like that, I literally send the story before the buzzer and then have them update the final score.

Bright Side of the Sun: What happens if there's a last-second shot that changes the outcome?

Paul Coro: It's scary sometime. I might be writing a story along the theme of a win, and then you see the other team start to come back and you're like "Oh, don't do this", not because I want the Suns to win, but because I don't want to have to rewrite my story in about two minutes. Sometimes you walk the line when it's close. Those are the hardest ones to write on deadline.

Sometimes it's great going to East coast games as hard as the road trips are. We don't fly with the team. They fly charter and we fly commercial, so those East road trips can be draining. But sometimes they're better, because of the time difference. I'm not on as tight a deadline. So, it gives you more time to spend in the locker room after the game, and report a little bit more, have a little more time to think and write. I always feel like those are better stories than when I'm writing on the fly without the perspective of talking to people, because fans want to hear from the Suns. As much as I'd like to think people read the stories because I write them, that's not true. They're reading them because it's about the Suns.

Bright Side of the Sun: When you approach the players for an interview, do you get the "oh no, not again" look, or do they just say "Hi, Paul, whatever you need"?

Paul Coro: Like I said before, I don't abuse it. I can tell sometimes when a guy isn't into it, and he's not going to be a good interview if he's not into it. There are those days when the answers are shorter, or their eyes are on the door, and you realize, if it's not a pressing thing, "have a good one".

I think with me, being a beat writer, because I'm always there daily and stuff, it's different. I'm the one they see on the road too. So they're accustomed to me being part of the fabric of their lives I guess. A lot of times there's some media that comes in with some off-the-wall stuff. I think sometimes I might be a relief. Like "hey, do you got any questions, Paul, because I really want to get off this thing".

Like anything in life it's about building relationships, trust. When things are difficult and I have to ask a hard question that maybe they aren't crazy about addressing, they respect how I'm going to handle it, or trust that it's going to be done in a good way. Not that I'm going to spin it or anything, but I'm going to be asking about it respectfully and straightforward.

The thing I found too is that they're way harder on themselves when things go wrong. We don't necessarily need to pound them, because they'll pound themselves when they're disappointed in how they played. Steve can be critical of losses, Mike's critical of losses sometimes. Sometimes they want to vent. Like when Amare gets four fouls in three minutes in the fourth quarter, I think he wanted to vent about how he feels like he's being penalized for being aggressive. He kind of gets his message out there publicly, and hopes that falls on somebody's ears. It's not for me. It's maybe not even for fans. Maybe he wants the fans to understand, but maybe he also wants officials to understand.

Bright Side of the Sun: Do you have a favorite player, coach or otherwise you like to interview?

Paul Coro: When Steve is interested or engaged in a topic, he's really great to talk to because he's so bright. The problem is, most things bore him. The day-to-day minutia kind of bores him. But if you find a topic that stimulates him, he's a great interview. He's always accommodating and always gives you a thoughtful answer, but when his eyes light up on a topic, it's totally different. Everybody's good in their own way. Shawn is actually a really good guy. He'll be one of the only guys that will ask you how your family's doing, and ask you questions about you, and he's actually interested. Raja's a real good interview to talk to. He's a very enlightened guy as far as personality of the team. I like talking to LB because he's always so happy and honest. He just says the funniest things sometime. It's amazing how strong his English is. Amare, for a superstar, has always been very available for me.

Bright Side of the Sun: How much of what you write makes it to the paper verbatim and how much gets edited?

Paul Coro: The vast majority of what I write stays intact. There are some things that get changed. Things that get cut because of space in the paper. Sometimes they save my butt. I try to think on the fly, write stories under the gun, it's definitely a formula to make an error. I like to write with some color sometimes, but editors are more "vanilla". So sometimes I'm like "oh, man I like that line!" I might try to write something that's colorful or funny, so sometimes I'm like, "aw, I wish people could have seen that".

Bright Side of the Sun: Do they edit the blog too?

Paul Coro: No, the blog is pretty much free reign. You've got to be careful with the blog too, especially because there's no editing. It's kind of like when I go and do a radio show. The blog's definitely more casual, and it's kind of just "extra". I hope it becomes a thing for everybody that can't get enough with the usual coverage. I guess I'm still kind of feeling out what that is. Sometimes I get a little surprised by the negative reactions to it. I guess negative people are more vocal than the positive ones.

Bright Side of the Sun: How do you handle the negative posters?

Paul Coro: Up until this, I always got the e-mails and the voice mails, which is more of a one-to-one private thing. Now with this whole new phenomenon, people with anonymous signons get real brave and just rip you. That was a little bit shocking at first to get used to. I try to respond to people as much as I can. I try to fit it in where I can without working with no sleep.

Bright Side of the Sun: Do you read the comments daily?

Paul Coro: Yeah, I love to hear what readers have to say, because readers have great ideas, sometimes. They think of things that maybe I wouldn't think of. I'm interested in what they have to say. I'd just like it to be a little bit more civil than some of them are. But that's fine. However they want to get their point across. Hopefully being communicative with them helps them understand that I'm doing this stuff for them.

Bright Side of the Sun: What has been your favorite season to cover?

Paul Coro: I've never really thought about it. That 04-05 team was probably the most fun year because they just caught everybody by storm. Since then, there's been such a level of expectation that I don't think even the team has enjoyed itself as much. I always thought "Q" was a pretty infectious guy. You might not have wanted to talk, but he was going to talk anyway. Guys in the locker-room, he was almost like the bridge between everybody. The on-court stuff he did to rile up the crowd and be outwardly emotional. Sometimes you watch this team recently, and they go on big runs and the other team calls time-out, and it's like a big moment where the crowd's fired up and everything, and there's Boris, Steve, everybody's just walking off the court. There's no jersey-pops or arms waving to the crowd. That team definitely had a lot of personality that year, but they've all been enjoyable in their own way. Since then, LB's kind of come out of his shell. That's a whole different thing too because he's a really neat guy to be around.

Bright Side of the Sun: Anything else you want to add? Anything you're just dying for people to know?

Paul Coro: I realize I have a great job, and I'm in a rare company. I set out to be an NBA beat writer, and there's only 30 or so in the world. So I'm blessed and lucky to do what I do, but I always wish that people had a better understanding of how difficult it is and how much it takes. It's a lot of work. I always tell journalism students when I talk to them about it, "it's a great job, but be careful what you wish for because there's a lot more to it than you would ever imagine." Workload, pressure, It's a very competitive business. It's rewarding too. It's a lot of short nights of sleep, tired days, a lot of projects at home that get put off for months because you never have time to do them. A lot of things that you wish you didn't have to miss with your kids that you end up missing.

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