Exclusive Interview: Rod Benson
January 16, 2011
by: Chuck Norton
The first thing I want you to do is take the stereotype that you might have of a professional basketball player and toss it out the window.
Yes, Rod Benson is a professional basketball player. But if you were to remove that title his bio, the rest of what makes up the resume for this 20-something would read: Writer, Entrepreneur, Social Media Expert, Graphic Designer, Marketer and Clothing Designer.
You see, Benson is a modern Renaissance man.
As a writer, he was a regular contributor to Yahoo! Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie section and was a guest-writer for SLAM Magazine. He has – with the exception of most of 2010 – been a blogger with a significant internet following. He was featured in ESPN the Magazine and in the E:60 television series.
The writing is only a scratch on the surface of who he is. Benson also created a lifestyle brand – you could also call it a marketing movement – called “Boom Tho!” in 2006. It was picked up by Pony, who produced a shoe and apparel, before Benson took back over control and design of his brand.
What exactly is Boom Tho? According to his Web site, it is defined as: “adv. 1: an occurrence of an uncommonly good thing. 2. an exclamation or show of excitement.” With apparel, a mascot dubbed “Mr. Boom Tho!” and videos, its foot-hold has grown beyond its California roots to resonate globally – helped in part by Benson’s travels as an athlete.
What of basketball? After spending the several years in pre-season camps with several different NBA teams and playing in the NBA’s D-League and in Europe, Benson – a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley – decided to head to Asia and play basketball professionally in South Korea. He’s playing this season for Wonju Dongbu Promy where he is having an All-Star season.
The success Benson has found as a blogger and underground media darling has actually been detrimental to his ability to grab a foothold in the NBA. Concerns by teams about his “other career” seems to have impacted him more negatively than if he had off-the-court issues.
It’s an ironic juxtaposition that someone who has the ability to connect to a generation of fans whose primary – if not only – source of news and marketing is based on social media has been penalized by his success in the social media arena.
Despite his ancillary endeavors, Benson’s primary focus – and his love – is still basketball. So much so that he gave up blogging and writing upon the request of a recent NBA suitor to show his seriousness about basketball.
But now, he’s back blogging. Benson is one of the more engaging people you will come across. He also seems to be coming to a new level of understanding about himself and his career.
As you’ll see in this interview, as much as Benson is an athlete, he’s actually an artist. He just happens to be an artist in a 6′ 10″ frame.
DeadJournalist.com brings you this exclusive interview with Rod Benson.
Outside of basketball, how have you enjoyed living in South Korea? Were the political tensions with North Korea cause for second thoughts?
RB: South Korea is a good place to live. There are plenty of Americans who decide to live here and enjoy the Asian ways. The North Korea thing always seems to get my friends back home more worried than the people here. You would think North Korea doesn’t exist if you talked to the locals.
What has been the biggest cultural differences you’ve experienced both on and off the court?
RB: The Korean culture is based on Confucianism so it carries a lot of weight both on and off the court. You have to be respectful of people by getting their attention the right way, bowing, shaking hands properly, even accepting gifts with both hands.
On the court, these traditions make it a little difficult to communicate with the referees. Let’s just say I lead the league in Technical fouls and I’m still not sure why.
Besides the physical separation from friends and family, what do you miss most about living outside of North America? What’s been the best part about South Korea?
RB: I’m a true Californian, so I miss almost everything. There’s nothing like Jamba Juice and In-N-Out for lunch, at the roof top pool, with absolutely no responsibilities. Everything about the previous sentence contradicts my Korean lifestyle.
The best part about Korea is how nice and helpful people are. People are willing to help you, smile, and see you through to the end of your task. You don’t have to worry about a-holes out here.
What’s been the toughest part of your professional career so far? Conversely, what has been the biggest highlight?
RB: The toughest part was my rookie season, right in the beginning. I didn’t know what my game was as a pro, so the time spent finding out was a low point. Basketball is all about confidence, if you don’t have it or can’t fake it, you’re not gonna be happy.
The highlight was playing in Beijing with the Indiana Pacers. I had my career best game and got the sell-out crowd super hyped, even though I was a bench player.
During the season, how do you keep your mind and body in shape to handle the day-to-day rigors of the game, travel and stress?
RB: The mind is easy, when I’m not on the court, I generally don’t think about it. I have a clothing line I’m trying to put together, that takes up the majority of my free time on a daily basis.
The body needs rest to be at it’s best, but part of that rest is light weight lifting. When you muscles get weak, they fatigue more quickly. This season I’ve done a good job of getting both.
There’s been a good bit written about some leagues – we won’t mention them by name – who may be concerned by your success and gift as a writer. Given what is often overlooked by leagues and organizations when it comes to the off-the-court behavior of athletes, I assume that has to frustrate you immensely?
RB: It did in the past, but I’m at peace with it now. Worrying is like a rocking chair, you go back and forth, but it’s not gonna get you anywhere. The writing has provided me a lot more than one year in the NBA ever would have.
You’ve been open about your love for the game of basketball. Was there a point, as a kid, where you realized that you might have a shot to play professionally? Whose game did you admire growing up?
RB: I’d be willing to bet that 80-percent of kids think they can play professionally. When I wasn’t even that good at any sport, my 5th grade teacher brought my mom in for a conference and told her that I should develop as an athlete. My mom still regards this as the worst meeting of all time.
I, like most of the “Space Jam” generation, admired Jordan. Still, as my game developed, I preferred to emulate Kevin Garnett. A skinny guy who could maximize his body? Just my style.
As a writer, you’ve been featured on/in numerous publications. Do you think, after you’ve hung up your kicks, that you’ll pursue a career in some form of media? Is there someone in the media whose skills you admire?
RB: I’ve been able to develop a lot of skills off the court. I figure I’ll end up doing something that makes good use of a lot of those skills.
I admire bloggers quite a bit, because they’re breaking into journalism the hard way. They have to be good, then they work their way up and become contributors and columnists. It’s kind of like the starving musician.
My company has actually decided that we’re going to sponsor bloggers as part of our marketing. Forget skaters and baseball players, we want the cool kids of the internet wearing our stuff. Haha, we’ll see if it works.
Have any other athletes turned writers – guys like Paul Shirley and Doug Glanville – reached out to you to offer advice?
RB: Paul Shirley emailed me a long time ago. I don’t exactly remember what he said. I think that I got started early enough to have developed along side these guys, rather than under their wing. Still, they’re some interesting reads, along with old school Gilbert Arenas.
You were one of the first professional athletes to embrace technology and social media as both a creative outlet and as a way to market yourself and your brand. Was this an intentional directive on your part or was it a positive outcome of the success of the “Boom Tho” movement?
RB: Man, I was embracing social media and tech way before all of this. I made a Web site to ask a girl to prom back in high school. In 2001, that was unheard of. She was already asked. Sucks.
Anyway, I think everything is just a natural outcome of being an early adapter. The first people to buy into the trends are usually the people who grow with the medium.
Now that everyone’s tweeting, the NBA says “go ahead, market yourself” but it feels forced. When I got in, it was just me and I always kept it real. So my brand was an outcome of that persona that I developed online.
How much pride you do have in the success of Boom Tho? Did you expect it to take hold like it did?
RB: I have a lot of pride in it. Most basketball players know all about it, which is a cool thing. In fact, I’d bet that there’s at least one guy on every NBA team that has had some direct contact with Boom Tho. It’s a blessing that a theme based on my lifestyle has become so popular. I want to go to my high school reunion and have a sign made that says “Boom Tho — Suck It.” That might show ‘em.
Are you working on any new promotions or enhancement to your Web site and Web store? How much of a hand to you have in the design of the site and products offered?
RB: Well we’re developing our summer and winter lines for 2011, which will include a lot more than just T-Shirts. In doing so, we will need to change around the Web site and make it more retailer friendly. I do personally handle 100-percent of what the people see.
I do the Web site, design the clothes, produce videos, all of it. It’s hard work right now, but I’ve got the time, and I’ve got the drive to take it beyond a novelty fan T-shirt store, to a full clothing line. Someone’s gotta do it, right? My business partners handle a lot of the sales and administrative stuff behind the scenes.
Athlete are rarely considered artists; but it wouldn’t be a far reach to describe you as an artist. Do you consider yourself an artist even in your athletic endeavors? Or are you just Rod Benson and let the people think what they will?
RB: I’m definitely an artist. Art is original creation. Art takes inspiration from sources in a persons life and transforms them into a medium that relates to a broader audience. I do both of those things.
I make funny music all the time. I do graphic design literally every day. I think of new and exciting ways to keep the crowd entertained on the court so that my value as a basketball player continues to grow. I do these things because I enjoy doing them, so at the end of the day it is just me.
Shifting to music; who have you been listening to in the last few months? Who are you go-to artists when you need some inspiration?
RB: I’m all over on the music game. My most listened to new CD’s I got were Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon II, Vampire Weekend – Contra, J. Cole – Friday Night Lights and Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart.
I also play a lot of Florence + The Machine. I met them on Halloween, 2009, at a Hollywood hotel while I was wearing my Mr. Boom Tho mascot costume. They invited me up to their room, where I shared drinks with Florence.
See, I didn’t know who there were, I was just hyped to go to an after-party with a cute girl. Then one of them handed me a CD and says they were on Jimmy Kimmel. I didn’t believe them because in Hollywood, everyone’s got a story.
Four days later I find the cracked CD case in my pocket while doing laundry, open it and play it. My life has been musically altered ever since.
Is there an artist that you have been recommending to your friends?
RB: I have a friend who only listens to Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman. He’s white, so it’s hilarious. I suggest all kinds of artists to him, and he always replies the same way: “That’s whack.”
Finally I told him he had to hear the La Roux “In For The Kill – Skream’s Let’s Get Ravey Remix”. He loved it. He’s been opening up a little ever since.
To whom were you listening to in 2001?
RB: In 2001 I was all about Dr. Dre, Eminem, Ludacris, Juvenile and Nelly. The thing was, I went to an all white school, so I always wanted to show how “black” I was by only listening to the most gangsta of the gangsta. Sixteen-year-old reasoning is not very strong.
What Web sites do you read on a regular basis?
RB: I follow CNN, Slate and HoopsHype on twitter, so they get a lot of my attention.
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