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Hoop Heroes and Other Tales
a Q&A with interview master Michael D. McClellan
Michael D. McClellan is a lot of things. He’s a husband and a father. He’s a professional with experience in energy and health care. He’s a tennis player, a patron of the arts and a total basketball nut.He’s also a prolific interviewer and writer, and his combination of experience and interests makes for some of the most insightful interviews you’ll ever read.
Michael grew up in Montgomery, West Virginia in the ’70s and ’80s. The state had a well-developed basketball fever by then– and Michael was raised a stone’s throw from the home of Jerry West. He naturally grew to love the sport.
He attended college at then West Virginia Tech as a business major. Before graduating in 1987, he met his future wife Melanie there. After college, Michael put his degree to work at Columbia Natural Resources, a company founded and run by Tech grad and 1990 alumnus of the year, Henry Harmon. He and Melanie, a commercial real estate broker at Real Estate Resources, put down roots in Charleston and started a family. He put in 15 years with CNR until the company sold its Mountain State business to Chesapeake Energy in 2005.
It was then he published his first book: “The Boston Celtics – Where Have You Gone?” At the time, the work was a culmination of his fascination with basketball and the Celtics. A fascination that had, two years earlier, driven him to put together a series of interviews with notable players, coaches and staff. It was a high point, and it turned out to be the first entry in what would become a massive and varied body of work.
Michael spent a decade with Chesapeake, which took him to places all over the country. He lived in Oklahoma City for a few years. He dug into that community with the same passion and enthusiasm he had for his home. A lifelong fan of the performing arts, he served as president of the Oklahoma City Theater Company and was a member of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic Associate Board.
He put together another set of interviews during that period for the second volume of “Where Have You Gone,” and published the work in 2012. He launched a new website a year later – FifteenMinutesWith – that would explore his other loves: art, music, dance, literature and film.
In 2015, Michael returned to West Virginia. He began a new job as the Manager of Desktop and Telecommunications at the Charleston Area Medical Center. He also continued his passion for supporting athletes, mentoring at schools in Charleston, staying active in tennis and serving as a Charleston Area Tennis Association delegate. He put out another book on the Celtics, which debuted at number one in Amazon’s basketball category (he was up against renowned coaches Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheimand John Calipari).
FifteenMinutesWith took off, too. In addition to spending time with legendary players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley, he chased the opportunity to sit down with the likes of Sophie Matisse – artist and great granddaughter of Henri Matisse – rapper Biz Markie, comedian Ben Gleib, R&B artist Ne-Yo and Pharell Williams, who doesn’t need an introduction and has a list of awards so long it has its own Wikipedia page.
Through all this, Michael has been a close ally and supporter of WVU Tech basketball. Anyone who’s met Michael recognizes right away that the man’s got heart. His friendliness is contagious. He speaks with enthusiasm for the sport and the people in it, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s caught him without a smile on his face. His nickname is “Mentor Mike” for a reason, and basketball players still keep in touch with him years later.
Now it’s our chance to spend fifteen minutes with this multi-talented Golden Bear.
Let’s start with the sport. You’re a Celtics fanatic. Where did that begin?
McClellan with Celtics legend, Bill Russell.
My older brother was a Bill Russell fan, and as a young boy I would hear him tell stories of how great a player he was, and more importantly, what Bill Russell meant to the Civil Rights Movement. It fascinated me at an early age, so when I finally got to meet him I was very nervous and intimidated. Not because he played in the NBA and is one of the greatest players in history, but because of what he has meant in terms of civil rights.
You’ve published three books on the team. Run us through them.
My first book was titled “The Boston Celtics – Where Have You Gone?” and it was published in 2005. It is a collection of player interviews that I did for the team. Jeff Twiss, the VP of Media Relations, has become a great and dear friend, and he was very helpful in getting me started.
My second book was a second volume of interviews, “The Boston Celtics – Where Have You Gone?” published in 2012.
The third book, “The Boston Celtics: Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, Red Auerbach, and Other Legends Recall Great Moments in Celtics History” tells the history of the team through the player interviews, arranged chronologically. Essentially, the Celtic legends tell the history of this great franchise through their interviews. It includes everyone mentioned in the title, and also includes Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Bill Walton, among others.
That’s a lot of history from a legendary era in the sport. Between the books, you’re still gathering all you can from players. You developed the popular Celtic Nation blog. How did that come about?
Celtic Nation is home to my interviews with Boston Celtics players and coaches. It came about in 2003 with one interview, which was with Hall of Famer KC Jones, and it just mushroomed from there. I started Celtic Nation because I wanted a place to share the stories of these amazing athletes. I’ve been posting the interviews there ever since. At some point I plan to hand these over to the Boston Celtics organization, so that they can maintain the content for future generations of basketball fans.
You’ve interviewed hundreds of players and published multiple books on the team. That’s passion. So why the Celtics? What drives you to dig so deep into that historic team?
Legends like Bill Russell and Larry Bird. When I was going to Tech, Larry Bird was in his prime. I fell in love with his work ethic, his leadership and the way that he did so much with not a lot of natural athletic talent. When I think about Larry Bird, I immediately think about growing up in Montgomery, and going to class at Tech. There is great association of memories in that respect.
In the years you’ve been working on this, you’ve been sitting down with people you really admire. What’s it like to spend time with some heroes in the sport?
It’s always exciting, even after all of these years. They are just people, too, so I try to keep that in mind and treat them like anyone else. My parents raised me to be respectful and courteous, so I think I’m able to make them feel comfortable talking to me.
And you got to hit the court with some of these giants in the sport, right?
Michael got a chance to shoots hoops in Vegas with Magic Johnson.
Yes. In 2007, Bill Russell held a fantasy basketball camp in Las Vegas. Melanie reached out to Bill Russell’s management, and the next thing you know I’m embedded in the camp and writing about these great basketball legends. It was a great experience. I’m very thankful to have been able to play basketball with people like Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was a great experience, and one that I don’t take for granted.
You’re in demand when it comes to Celtics history. Where have you shared your expertise on the subject? I know you’ve been featured on Celtic Talk Radio quite a few times.
I was in Boston in November 2018 for a series of book signings and was a guest of the Celtics at a game while I was up there. I was able to share this experience with Melanie, and I’m very thankful for that. She is an amazing person who has supported my writing from day one, and to have her there with me made it very special. I’ve also been featured on several radio broadcasts out of the Boston area over the years, the big stations being The Sports Hub and WEEI.
What’s your fondest memory from your work on these projects?
Being able to give my mother a copy of my latest book. She passed away in August, and I dedicated the book to her. She was a very special person who always supported my writing, so to be able to hand her a copy of the book and give her a hug was a special moment.
What’s the craziest thing to happen during your meeting with athletes, coaches and others?
Getting trash talked by Larry Bird! He’s the “Hick from French Lick,” and the first time he called me the cell phone reception was really bad. He could tell by my Appalachian accent that I wasn’t from Boston. He asked me where I was calling from, and when I told him I was calling from West Virginia, he said he understood why the reception was bad – because there is only one cell phone tower in the whole state! He was kidding, of course. I think he liked the fact that I was something of a hick like him.
What’s your next big project?
I’m working on an outline for a documentary. I would like to get into film, and I would like to bring some of this material to life in video form. The power unleashed by smartphones and social media levels the playing field and allows independent artists to create and share a wide range of content. I can see opportunities for both Celtic-Nation and FifteenMinutesWith. That’s the next frontier for me, as far as creating content.
Who’s your all-time favorite baller?
A tie between Russell and Bird! Russell because he’s Russell, and Bird because of the part he played in helping to resuscitate an NBA that was on life support in the early ’80s. People forget this now, but the 1970s NBA was battling a drug problem, which hurt the league from a marketing standpoint. Fans didn’t want to go to NBA games. Dr. J kept people interested, and then Bird and Magic came along. Then Michael Jordan comes in behind them, and the league explodes. Today it’s a global brand with fans all over the world. Bird played a huge part in that.
Let’s talk about your blog FifteenMinutesWith. How did you come up with the idea?
It was 2013, Melanie and I had just dropped off our son at Marshall University, and on the way back we collaborated on the concept. She is my best friend, so we naturally started talking about doing a project that was fresh and different. We came up with the name, and by the time we got home I’d started leveraging my Boston Celtics connections to reach interesting people outside of basketball.
Your subjects run the gamut from athletes to artists and just about everything in between. How do you land on an interviewee?
It depends. Melanie and I frequently brainstorm together. She is very well-versed when it comes to music, film and theatre, so there are a lot of times when she will suggest a subject to interview, or she’ll help validate my thinking on a topic that interests me. It could be someone very well known, like my interview with Pharell Williams, or someone not well-known at all, but who has an extraordinary story. Johnny Staats is a great example of that. He’s from Ripley, West Virginia, drives a UPS delivery truck, and yet he’s very much in demand because he’s a world class mandolin player. He’s friends with everyone from Huey Lewis to Brad Paisley. And he’s self-taught, which makes his story even more extraordinary.
You’ve spent time with some heavy hitters in music, art, theater and film.
Michael with country music superstar, Vince Gill.
I love interviewing interesting people. Pharell Williams is one of those, and not because he’s a big star. He’s extremely eclectic. He’s into music – in 2003 he was responsible for approximately 43% of the music on pop radio – but he’s also into fashion and art. Doing interviews with people like Pharrell challenge you to learn something new.
The way you structure your interviews is a powerful way to capture the spirit and personality of these folks. Why capture these moments and reflections in this way?
I love long-form format writing. Anyone can write a paragraph and say, “Okay, let me welcome you to the Mario Andretti interview,” and then finish it off with a series of questions and answers. That really isn’t storytelling. I enjoy my method because I’m a storyteller at heart, and this gives me the chance to write in a way that isn’t straight cookie-cutter.
What’s your process for coming up with questions? You have one shot at capturing these stories, so how do you decide what makes the cut?
Lots of research, because it usually involves a person that I’m not very familiar with. I’ll be interviewing racing legend Mario Andretti and Nobel Prize Winner Art McDonald this fall, so I have to read a lot. Andretti is sports-related, but I wasn’t big into NASCAR or Formula One growing up, and he is a giant in his field. I’m currently doing a lot of homework on him. McDonald won the Nobel Prize for Physics, which is an entirely different sphere, and will require an entirely different thought process. I’ll not ask a lot of questions about the inner-workings of quantum mechanics, but I’ll try to pull out the human side of what makes him so special. Even geniuses have friends, mentors, favorite stories about what led them on their journey.
Do you get nervous?
A little bit, but I like the rush. Once you get started it’s not so bad, as long as you’ve done your homework and you know your subject and subject matter. It’s like being an investigative journalist.
You have to have some stories from these interviews that stand out to you.
I was able to interview a gentleman name Shaul Ladany. He has the most amazing story, and I was humbled to speak to him. He was a world class speed walker, and he set a speed walking record in the 1970s that has never been broken. That is interesting, but the thing that makes it truly interesting is that he survived a Nazi concentration camp as a child, and later was a member of the Israeli Olympic Team in Munich. He was able to escape when the terrorists attacked. I can’t begin to imagine what he when through, and I’m very nervous about telling his story. I don’t want to mess this up.
Any favorite interviews?
Pharell, Bill Walton, Ne-Yo and Jim Kelly were all great because they made you feel good about being there. I’m sure it isn’t easy to make every interview feel like it’s their first. Those four were very friendly and accommodating.
Who’s your dream interview?
I would like to interview Rafael Nadal. He is my favorite tennis player, and he is someone that would top the list. Not sure how I’m going to break through to him, though!
Let’s talk about the craft. You’re a great writer. How did you hone such a clean and concise voice in your writing?
I try to listen to the voice in my head, and depending on the subject I get a feel for how to write the feature. The feel dictates how I write the piece. If it’s someone from the hip-hop community, like Big Daddy Kane, I might go against type. By that I mean, the reader might expect something written with a looser vibe. But just because Kane made his name in hip-hop doesn’t mean he’s not interesting in other ways. Kane’s a guy with a lot of talents, and that’s how I wanted to write his feature. It’s those decisions that keep it fun.
Many great writers are also voracious readers. What are you reading these days?
I do like to read. I enjoy non-fiction, books like “It’s Your Ship,” which is a management book written about a captain who takes over the worst-performing ship in the Navy and completely transforms it by empowering his crew.
Last question. Is there anything else you want folks to know?
I’m excited about Tech’s future! I want to get involved and help make a difference. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to connect with my Tech fam!
You can pick up all three of Michael’s books on Amazon.