Wednesday November 7th, 2007

It is often said that the NBA has an image problem. If this is indeed the case -- and that's a debate that involves sticky discussions of race, class and economics -- how does one go about changing that image?

In the past, the answer has been, by and large, by league mandate. If the game seemed too slow and physical, the NBA simply changed the game. The three-point line was introduced, then shrunk, then unshrunk; hand checks and palming came in and out of fashion; zone defense was derided, then embraced. If the players seemed unprofessional, the league instituted a dress code. If they seemed too green, it was time for an age restriction; too volatile and it led to a crackdown on fighting (thou shall not leave the bench during a melee, thou shall not throw comically ineffective punches, etc.).

The advantages to this method were the same as any dictatorship: One voice spoke for all. But while the league could control the game, and to an extent the behavior of its players, it couldn't control how fans viewed those players. That was left to the interpreters and amplifiers of the sports world: the media and marketers. A player could be charming and funny, he could open orphanages in his spare time, he could be writing a doctoral thesis on -- well, it didn't matter on what, just so long as he was writing one -- but no one would know any of this soul-warming information if the Daily Gazettes and soda-pop peddlers of the world didn't see fit to publicize it.

Until now, that is. For years, NBA stars have had Web sites, but for the most part these were stale, bland promotional tools, invariably featuring "diary" entries that were either nine months old or read as if they'd been written by a PR flak. Today, though, an increasing number of players are writing regular blogs and -- glory of glories -- many of the players may be actually doing the writing themselves. How do we know? Well, for example, take this entry from Baron Davis' blog, which would have been nearly impossible for an intern to transcribe, much less understand: "FTB, def glad you respect my gridn and the old skool style, ya dig. I may rock a design in the beard this year... Let me know what I should do. Lol. Before I bounce out the yard I just wanna say that all of yall who heard I can spit, I will lace you with some bars soon! But for now, its back to camp." (If any of that didn't make sense, head to urbandictionary.com for a decode. As for 'FTB,' it refers to "Fear the Beard," an Oakland-based, pro-Baron blog.)

Davis' site is on the Yardbarker network, a centralizer of sorts for athlete blogs that includes those of Greg Oden, Hakim Warrick and Carmelo Anthony. Over at NBA.com, you'll find the king of NBA bloggers, Gilbert Arenas, as well as an assortment of other players, some of whom are -- how to put this? -- more suited to the written word than others. Here's an excerpt from a post last March by Clippers center Chris Kaman (who is, incidentally, a really interesting guy to talk to): "We were on the road for 10 days. We played San Antonio and lost. It was the first game we played well in a while. We played hard. It was a good thing and we were hoping it was going to carry over into the next game. We played Houston next in the back-to-back, and it did carry over. We played well against Houston ..." And, well, you get the idea.

That athletes are writing online isn't all that revolutionary. What may be, however, is the way in which these blogs are at times inverting the media cycle. In some cases, it is the players who are now setting the media agenda. When Anthony was recently quoted as saying he thought the Nuggets could win 60 games this season, it came not from his mouth but his blog. When Arenas boasted that the Wizards would beat the Celtics -- "You might as well cheer for me because Boston isn't winning in Boston for the season opener" -- he did it on his blog (it was a blatant, but quite effective, PR move; as Arenas told reporters after Boston crushed the Wizards, "My blog is powerful now. Everyone reads it.") When the San Francisco Chronicle's Scott Ostler wrote a column about how Davis has started a book club for the Warriors (first selection: The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, by John Maxwell), it came eight days after Davis had written a post on his blog titled "Warriors Book Club" in which he described the idea and added, by way of social commentary, "Take that haters. Ballers do read, write and count."

If athletes can plant the seeds for stories, they can also dispute them. This is what happened in a recent back-and-forth between Ivan Carter, a writer for the Washington Post, and Etan Thomas, a center for the Washington Wizards. The exact sequence of events is a bit confusing -- if you're interested, check out Thomas' comments here and Carter's here -- but it boils down to a disagreement about Carter's coverage of Thomas' heart condition. In the past, to make his point Thomas might have confronted Carter in person. Now he could do so on the Web (Thomas has his own blog here but posted his response on the RealGM site). By itself, Thomas' post wouldn't have made much of an impact, as the audience for it can't compare to that of the Post. But Thomas' version of events got picked up by HoopsHype, a Web site that prints nuggets from a wide array of NBA stories each day and is read by both those in the league and those who follow it (click here to read about the site's influence in the league).

Once on HoopsHype, Thomas' side of the story played out alongside Carter's, creating an unusual media parity between reporter and athlete. Because HoopsHype runs its items out of context, however, it left many with only a vague impression that the two men were disagreeing.

"I didn't even really know what happened," Cavs forward Donyell Marshall said. "The only thing I knew is that Etan Thomas had the heart surgery and then one day I just happened to go on HoopsHype and they had little snippets of" -- Marshall pauses, trying to piece it all together -- "I guess he must have said something on his blog coming back at some reporter or something. I was lost, because I was like, 'What happened?' I never saw the article, even to this day. I take it someone must have been talking trash about his heart situation."

That Marshall was confused was not surprising. That's the downside to the he-said, she-said format of blogging. Still, that a casual reader like Marshall knew about Thomas' blog at all, and that he considered it an equal source of information to that of a writer for the Washington Post -- that's a sign of change.

Marshall dealt with a similar situation last season, only his case highlights a different sort of media empowerment. Late in the 2006-07 season, Brian Windhorst, the Akron Beacon Journal's Cavaliers beat writer, put a post up on his Beacon Journal blog answering readers' questions. The first one involved Marshall, who was playing poorly down the stretch. The reader included a comment to the effect of, "I wish Donyell would hit the bong before the game instead of after."

For anyone who's spent much time in the world of sports blogs, where commenters often try to outdo each other in the realms of snark and profanity, this wasn't a particularly unusual comment. Marshall, however, thought differently. When Marshall saw Windhorst at that night's game, he told him he didn't like it.

"I remember it was about supposedly smoking weed, because of how my eyes look and how I look," Marshall said. "I said, 'You can't have it up there with people thinking this is something I'm doing. Then the NBA could see that and all of a sudden I'm getting drug-tested because of somebody's comment.' "

Windhorst was sympathetic, and took the post down immediately. "It wasn't my comment, but it's on my blog so I was responsible for it," said Windhorst, whose blog was so popular during the playoffs last season that it occasionally drew more traffic than the paper's regular sports stories. "I've been doing the blog for four years, but the form changes constantly. We're all trying to figure out the best way to go about it."

It's an interesting dynamic. If the "bong" commenter had posted his comment on an unaffiliated site -- say, Deadspin.com -- not the blog of a beat writer, chances are Marshall wouldn't have read it (but, Marshall would argue, neither would anyone else around the league). But Marshall did see it, and he had a choice. He could have responded on his own blog (of course he has one), at dmarsh24.com, or he could go to the source. He chose the latter. His logic: "If you read a story about an athlete, you don't know that this person goes on their blog to correct it."

This may still be true -- Thomas' case notwithstanding -- but for how long? All it takes is for one influential Web site to link to an athlete's blog, or one reporter to post the quotes, for the comments to go mainstream. And once they do, you can be sure traffic will follow, as few sports stories lend themselves to great theater like an electronic throwdown between a journalist and a power forward. Visibility is better too; at Yardbarker, for example, readers are exposed to athlete blogs they might never have thought to visit (go there for Oden, stay for Josh McRoberts).

The other side to this, as Marshall found out, is that just as blogs are empowering NBA players, they are empowering the common fan (and have been for years). True, the Carmelo Anthonys of the world can now bypass the media filter to get straight to the general public, but the general public can do the same. Call some bench warmer a crackhead on a blog and who knows who might read it (including the bench warmer himself). Which is to say, when it comes to who is shaping the image of the NBA these days, you might be more powerful than you think.

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