Monday, July 21, 2014
Grading the NBA Decision-Makers
A lot can change in four years. Two weeks ago, LeBron James doused a raging bonfire of speculation and told the basketball world he was "coming home" to Cleveland. The announcement, made and explained in a thousand-word essay posted to SI.com through writer Lee Jenkins, was a stark contrast to the hype and bombast of LeBron's 2010 Decision.
And yet, much of the sports media world looked very much the same this time around. Though the breathless reporting around this free agency lasted only a few weeks compared to the months of speculation in 2010, pre-identifying the playing destination of the world's best player is as big a feather as a reporter's hat can hold.
With L'affair LeBron in the books, let's review how well the key media players did (Note: all grades curved to reflect standard GPA inflation).
Chris Sheridan, SheridanHoops.com — When a few months or years separate us from July 2014, we should all remember the scoop belonged to Sheridan. On July 7, Sheridan began reporting a source was telling him James' return to Cleveland was probable, pegging it at 75%. Sheridan would later nudge the odds to 90%, and then on July 9, Sheridan reported it was happening. James announced his return on July 11, two days later.
To be fair, Sheridan did not nail the story completely. He also reported the announcement would come on James' personal site, and while the site did link to the announcement, it would be hard to argue anyone other than SI really had it. But that detail will likely be lost to history; for a reporter building his own independent brand after a reportedly acrimonious exit from ESPN, scooping the destination was all that really mattered.
Cleveland Insiders — One of the great guilty pleasures of local sports talk radio is when a random caller insists he has inside information. Most of the time the spurious report never plays out, and the faceless caller's non-existent credibility remains non-existent.
And yet, from time to time these reports are realized. ESPN Cleveland's Tony Rizzo recently recalled when a caller on his show in August 1995 claimed Art Modell's house was for sale. The Browns moved to Baltimore a few months later.
The prospect of James' return to Cleveland — a pipe dream held onto by every Northeast Ohioan if they were being honest — brought out plenty of local insiders. The national media picked up on the cupcake store and the personal trainer who called the return. But even weeks before that, Cleveland sports talk radio callers leveraged sources ranging from hairstylists to bodyguards to break the scoop.
Were these lay-reporters lucky? Quite possibly. But as star athletes fortress themselves in walls of handlers, non-threatening average Joes will be in increasingly better positions to break these stories. Or they might just be getting better at making things up.
Tim Jenkins, SI.com — When James was ready to announce his decision, he came to Jenkins. So how can another reporter rate slightly higher?
To some, Jenkins' scoop was merely an editing and posting job, and one without final approval at that. To others, Jenkins had the best inside source for the summer's biggest story.
By most accounts, Jenkins earned the scoop largely through his 2012 Sportsman of the Year feature on James, a piece that painted the star in a generous light. But this isn't necessarily a professional compliment.
For some reporters, there's an inherent antagonism between themselves and the subjects they cover. After all, it's the information stars don't want to disclose that the public is most interested in.
So the perception of Jenkins' role in the story as a conduit to distribute James agenda suffers in some parts of the profession. After all, that's what publicists are for. But at the same time, why would we have felt differently had James simply told Jenkins of his intent to return and the writer broke the news through a short story of Tweet?
In the final account, Jenkins deserves all of the credit for this story. The public's question was simply where James was going and why, and Jenkins served his readership as well as possible to that end. But for future stories, ones in which James or other subjects wouldn't be as willing to quench public curiosity, Jenkins' role in disseminating the information should be washed down with at least a few grains of salt.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com — To the casual observer, it would be easy to suggest Windhorst has made his career on the back of his high school's most famous alumnus. And while Windhorst's familiarity with James has helped, his even-tempered and dogged reporting deserves more credit.
In 2010, Windhorst found himself tightly orbiting the center of the James universe. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Cavs beat reporter, he had been tracking the lead-up to James' first decision for years. Windhorst followed that circus from the Cavs' season through the suitor meetings at Cleveland's IMG building, eventually covering the messy aftermath as both he and James wound up leaving their home market.
Four years later, Windhorst's approach to James' second decision showed the scars of 2010. While Windhorst reported stories like the Heat's internal discussion of adding Carmelo Anthony to its existing Big Three, he seemed disinterested in chasing the wild rumors many other reporters seemed hungry to track. Now as one of ESPN's top NBA reporters, Windhorst seemed content to let others burn themselves out on private plane records and menu choices. In a week of hype and recklessness, Windhorst's distanced dignity was refreshing.
ESPN — In Adage.com's story about how SI.com scooped the James decision, SI brass said James' camp was confident they wouldn't turn the story into a circus. Consider that a direct shot at Bristol, Conn.
True, James and his advisors were very willing architects of his own ill-fated Decision in 2010. But given the network's increasing sports-as-spectacle viewpoint, we can easily envision the hoopla with which ESPN would have surrounded this announcement.
For all of its purely journalistic work — and there is plenty — ESPN regularly adds more and more content channels which it needs to fill. It does so with slick production value and often-inventive content, but those core competencies didn't match James' needs this time.
We will move on to other stories, but let it be remembered: The industry's juggernaut was scooped by a former employee's independent site and sports journalism's old, gray lady.
Chris Broussard, ESPN.com — The Worldwide Leader has a dizzying array of insiders for each of the main sports. The NBA is a very broad landscape, and it makes sense the network would have different reporters essentially covering specific sub-beats within the league. Ramona Shelbourne seems plugged into the Los Angeles scene. Marc Stein is connected to the Texas teams, Dallas in particular. Windhorst, as mentioned, has cornered the All Things Lebron cottage industry.
Broussard, on the other hand, seems to be ESPN's NBA generalist. He's the equivalent of a high-volume shooter, sure to post some big scoring numbers but lacking sufficient precision.
Broussard's low moment this month came the morning of James' announcement, when he reported rumblings that Dan Gilbert's infamous Decision reaction letter was still an impediment to James' return to the Cleveland. A few hours later, James would not only warmly embrace the Cavs, but specifically mention he had forgiven Gilbert after meeting with him.
That alone, while disappointing, is excusable. Reporters, like everyone else, whiff occasionally. However, Broussard tripped most egregiously in that article by allowing a front office source to make a racially charged suggestion that we now know was a lie.
At the back end of the article, Broussard's source says James' return to play for Gilbert would look hypocritical, especially given his vocal disapproval of Donald Sterling's ownership.
"He condemned Sterling but he's going back to the [expletive] who nearly called him an uppity [expletive]," one league executive said. "Hypocrite."
The two redacted expletives seem to have narrow ranges of possible content. The first very likely is a general epithet about Dan Gilbert, and the second almost certainly is the most common racial slur for a black person. It's also worth noting this quote has been scrubbed from the latest version of Broussard's story, which was updated less than an hour before James announced his decision.
The journalist's dilemma is always in deciding when to use his or her own words to clarify a story and when to allow sources to speak directly for themselves. Broussard failed this challenge in two ways.
First, as hindsight shows, the source was clearly using Broussard to muddy the waters around James' decision. But even in real time, the source's motivation seems at least semi-transparent. Heck, reread the quote and try to find a more likely identify for Broussard's "league executive" than Pat Riley.
But perhaps more so, Broussard allowed the source to make a very personal challenge to James with the shield of anonymity. Considering the quoted information was purely subjective, publishing this quote without attribution was equivalent to giving the source a free pass to inject his agenda into the developing narrative. Remember, Peter King was excoriated in places for allowing NFL personnel sources to anonymously muse on the downside of Michael Sam's homosexuality.
Broussard is probably the most broadly connected insider at the world's largest sports news outlet. He will have better days in the future, but the first few weeks of July 2014 are ones he'll likely want to forget.