With the NBA season tipping off last week, I paneled seven respected NBA media voices this week for a roundtable discussion.
• Howard Beck, NBA writer, Bleacher Report
• Candace Buckner, Wizards reporter, Washington Post
• Tania Ganguli, Lakers reporter, L.A. Times
• Adam Himmelsbach, Celtics reporter, Boston Globe
• Frank Isola, NBA columnist, New York Daily News, SiriusXM NBA Radio host, Around The Horn panelist.
• Michael Lee, senior NBA writer, Yahoo! Sports
• Marcus Thompson, columnist, The Athletic Bay Area
(Editor's note: The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.)
Who is the single toughest player to interview and why?
Beck: Among prominent players, it’s Russell Westbrook—by a mile. But I think that’s obvious, even to the casual fan. You can see it in every press conference or post-practice scrum. He just oozes contempt for the media, or at least for the interview process. His answers are often clipped and condescending, frequently defensive, and occasionally hostile.
I feel bad for the Oklahoma reporters who cover him every day. And honestly, I don’t get it. Though his playing style has drawn some criticism, he’s enjoyed mostly positive coverage during his career. He’s not a particularly controversial figure, he’s never been in trouble off the court and he hasn’t been subjected to nearly the scrutiny and criticism endured by, say, LeBron James. Or Kevin Durant. Or Kobe Bryant. Or Draymond Green. Or Shaquille O’Neal. Or dozens of other superstars, past and present, who nevertheless handled interviews with much more grace and comity.
It’s a shame, really, because Westbrook is an incredible talent and, from everything I’ve heard, an outstanding teammate/friend/family man. He’s just chosen not to show that side when reporters are in front of him. But hey, that’s his prerogative. There are rules obligating players speak with the media. But you can’t mandate congeniality.
Buckner: While there have been some, I can’t think of any good anecdotes.
Ganguli: That’s a little hard to answer having not had that much time around a lot of teams. I know Russell Westbrook makes you work for it. Lonzo Ball is a man of few words, which means you have to come in extra prepared to an interview setting. He can be thoughtful and has interesting things to say but you won’t get to them with lazy or unclear questions. You’ll need lots of follow-ups.
Himmelsbach: I’ve only covered the NBA for three years and have just covered the Celtics, so there are a lot of players I haven’t even met yet. And honestly none immediately come to mind as being tough to interview. I’d heard Rajon Rondo was a handful, but he was actually traded from Boston on the same day the Globe offered me this job. So I’m going to flip this around if that’s OK. I’ve been a sports journalist for 15 years, and have never interviewed someone quite like Blazers guard Evan Turner, a former Celtic. I’ve never come across an athlete with his combination of humor, humility, honesty and accessibility. Everyone should interview Evan Turner.
Isola: He's hard to get to and unless it's in a group interview, LeBron, at this stage in his career, is only going to grant interviews with those whom he trusts. He doesn't respect opposing views. The older he gets the more of a control freak he becomes. Go ask his teammates. And on some level he wants to control the media as well.
I spent a lot of time with him during his second year in the league and I found him to be a nice and confident teenager. But over the years he's grown to distrust the media which on some level is understandable. I feel as if he puts the media in one of two categories—those who are with me and those who are against me. He has the power, in a very Donald Trump being a bully kind of way, to go on the offensive. He did it with Charles Barkley and he did it with me last year. All I wrote was that he was pushing Cleveland to trade for Carmelo Anthony, which is 100 percent accurate. Once LeBron lashes out you're essentially fighting City Hall. But in the spirit of Rick Pitino taking a lie detector test, I'd be willing to do the same if LeBron is up for it.
Lee: That's tough. But I’d probably have to go with Kyrie Irving. I get the impression that he speaks to us because he has to, not necessarily because he wants to. I’m sure that’s the case for a lot of athletes but Kyrie isn’t trying to hide it. He is certainly a compelling figure (he left LeBron) with some interesting opinions (is he really a flat-earth believer?) and an electrifying game. He knows what we want as reporters but would rather not play along. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love watching him play, I’ve had some cool conversations with him in the past and his willingness to gamble on his career and embrace the barbs that came with leaving Cleveland makes it hard for me not to root for him. But I believe there is so much more that he’s leaving out. And he doesn’t care how we fill the gaps.
Thompson: Russell Westbrook. I’m too grown for all that enmity and contention. To be sure, I’ve never sat down with him so he may not be so tough—just presuming based on a couple of throng interactions and how I see him treat other interviewers.
How much on-court activism/protest do you expect from players this season and why?
Beck: Probably none. (To clarify, I don’t consider linking arms to be a form of protest/activism.) If any NBA players were going to take a knee during the anthem, or engage in any other public protest, I think they would have done it by now. They haven’t, so I don’t know why that would change. I’m also not sure it matters. NBA players have been using their platform—frequently and effectively—to speak out against police brutality, gun violence, inequality, racial discrimination, Trumpism, and any number of other issues for some time now, and well before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem.
Think back to 2012, when LeBron James and his Miami teammates all posed in hoodies for a team photo, to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. Or 2014, when LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and others wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts during warmups, in response to police killing an unarmed man in Staten Island. Or the 2016 ESPYs, when LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony gave a moving speech addressing police brutality, racial profiling, gun violence and a “broken” criminal justice system.
Protesting during the anthem, as NFL players have, is a powerful gesture. But it’s not the only way to raise consciousness. The NBA as an institution, from the commissioner’s office on down, has embraced and supported the players’ activism. No one was sanctioned for wearing the “I can’t breathe” shirts, though it violated league rules. No one was hushed or told to stand down when players and coaches began speaking out on police killings of unarmed black men, or when they took a stand against Donald Trump. There are team owners whose politics would clash with those stances, but no one has tried to dissuade LeBron or David West or Gregg Popovich or Stan Van Gundy from speaking out.
The NFL culture is not nearly as supportive of player activism, or individualism in general. And maybe that accounts for the difference between how the athletes in each league have responded—with NFL players choosing silent protest and NBA players using their voices. Both can be effective.
We’ve also seen how easily the silent protest can be cynically distorted for political purposes. Are NFL players protesting the anthem itself, the flag, the military? No, but Fox News, Donald Trump and his minions are peddling that distortion to marginalize the players, and to distract from the real issues they’re raising. That said, some people are truly offended by any appearance of protest during the anthem. So the players’ message quickly gets lost amid arguments over patriotism.
You could argue that the NBA players’ approach is more direct, perhaps more effective, and with less risk of alienating the fans you’re trying to reach. The NBA does have a policy that players stand during the anthem. Would Commissioner Adam Silver actually sanction a player who kneeled? I’m curious about that, too. My guess is he would not, because Silver has strongly supported players expressing and acting on their beliefs. Is the anthem policy the reason that players haven’t kneeled so far? Maybe. But I think, to my earlier point, the players have simply recognized the potential drawbacks of that action, and chosen a different strategy.
Buckner: Little to none, unless people actually count ‘linking arms’ during the national anthem as a protest—which it isn’t. Unlike their NFL peers, NBA players actually have a voice (for a variety of reasons) and they also have a more willing audience to listen to their message. So I think NBA players will mostly use their access to the media and their even more far-reaching social media platforms to express any activism.
Ganguli: I think we’ll see it, but it will be incident based. The discussion keeps getting framed around the national anthem because that’s when NFL players have chosen to protest. Football’s regular season starts a few weeks before basketball training camps begin, so that starts the conversation. But the protests themselves are about racial injustice especially in law enforcement, a subject NBA players have never shied away from. So while I don’t see anthem protests turning into a big movement in the NBA, I do think its players will speak and act when something happens that compels them to do so.
Himmelsbach: Of course new issues can certainly pop up or old issues can be reignited, but as it stands, not much. When Colin Kaepernick really sparked his anthem movement last season, there was almost an expectation that the NBA would follow. During the preseason last year the Celtics took the middle ground by locking arms during the anthem as a way to promote unity. But if someone just attended the game without prior awareness of their actions, nothing about that moment would have stood out. After a few games, the Celtics just stopped doing it, and no one really noticed that, either. But NBA players do have a unique platform to be heard, and I think it’s good that individual players like LeBron James have used it. When they talk, people do listen.
Isola: The same. Out of the major sports the NBA is the most progressive league and because they have a commissioner who encourages players, coaches and executives to be socially active, you don't see players kneeling during the anthem. LeBron James has a strong voice and countless platforms to express his views. If he were to kneel, the story becomes which players are and aren't protesting as opposed to what issue/issues are they protesting. Also, I think the NBA is careful not to alienate its fan base and hurt the bottom line. For years, David Stern had to fight the perception that the NBA was too black and that it had too many drug issues. That narrative changed with Michael Jordan. Now its best African American players are some of the most famous athletes in the world. However, a vast majority of season ticket holders are white. Some, not all, may resist having the sports arena becoming a place where players want to protest. I think Adam Silver is aware of that as well as some of the top players and leaders among the union's rank and file, i.e. LeBron and Chris Paul.
Lee: Not much. Unless there is another high-profile situation in which a police officer murders an unarmed person of color without being held accountable, I don’t expect to see any sustained, controversial protest from NBA players.
From the beginning, from the moment Colin Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the national anthem, the movement has belonged to him and his NFL brethren. Any chance that activism would extend from the football field to the basketball court was neutered last season when the NBA and the player’s union put out a joint statement declaring that the players would stand for the anthem and seek other ways to engage police and leaders in their local communities to have a dialogue about their concerns.
Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins, among others, hosted workshops meant to serve as a bridge. I asked Cousins what he learned from his interactions with the police last season and told me, “they’re scared, too.” I think Adam Silver nearly created a problem when he stated that he expects players to stand and reminded them of the NBA rule prohibiting otherwise.
Some players were upset that it came immediately after a board of governors meeting and only a few days after Donald Trump hijacked the debate with a stupid dog-whistle that turned a serious issue for some of America’s most vulnerable communities into a ridiculous patriotism litmus test.
Players were upset by Silver’s comments and felt challenged but not compelled join in, primarily because the call for justice and racial equality has been bastardized in such a way that the original meaning has been lost on a group of people who have no interest in listening anyway.
This is a league in which the champion Warriors had their White House invitation rescinded, in which its biggest star had a racial slur spray painted on his house, and where Thabo Sefolosha had a season cut short because of a reckless, baton-swinging officer. As for a response to the current climate, what you’ll see this season is continued blistering commentary on social media or other platforms. You’ll see LeBron wear shoes that read, “Equality.” You’ll see locked arms, whatever that is. You’ll see programs between teams and local communities to address the problems. These players aren't afraid to express themselves but I don't think you'll see anything resembling a knee, or raised fists. But if there is another Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling or Eric Garner, I'd expect that to change.
Thompson: Not very much at all. A couple of people may do something, but it’s probably going to take another event to stir passions. Generally, NBA players, specifically stars, don’t need to protest to draw attention. They have plenty attention. They just need to say what they want to say and it will get attention.
How much pressure do you feel writing about stars your bosses know will generate traffic versus pursuing other stories about lesser-known players?
Beck: Put it this way: If I pitched 100 stories about LeBron, or Kevin Durant or Steph Curry, my editors probably would approve them all. That’s not necessarily wrong. Readers have a massive appetite for stories on NBA superstars. You’d be foolish not to cater to it. But there has to be a balance. Fortunately, I work for editors who understand that and embrace stories that are off the beaten path.
I wrote a 4,000-word piece on Bucks rookie Thon Maker last season, at a time when he was hardly playing and was virtually anonymous to all but the most hardcore fans. But I thought there was an interesting story to tell there, and my editors recognized it. During my time at BR, I’ve profiled Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay—unglamorous stars in small markets—and written features about a 75-year-old NBA schedule maker and an 11-year-old Thunder fan. I wrote at length about the decline in black head coaches. All of those pieces did well, traffic-wise. (The story on schedule-maker Matt Winick did 150,000 reads—eclipsing some columns I’ve written about LeBron.)
I’ve written about labor issues, competitive balance and the salary cap. And yes, I’ve also done a bunch of stories about KD and Kobe and Carmelo and even Michael Jordan. As I say, you need a mix—not only to best serve the reader, but to keep your sanity as a writer.
Buckner: I wouldn’t call it pressure, but obviously there’s a greater desire for anything that John Wall and Bradley Beal might say rather than the 15th man. I ran into this situation during training camp. Second-year player Sheldon Mac attended the University of Miami, which happened to be under investigation in that whole NCAA men’s basketball brouhaha. So of course, I wanted to get Mac’s reaction to this. I wrote the story leading with Mac and focused on him, then at the end I included Wall’s comments from a day earlier about his own recruiting journey. After I turned it in, it was decided that the story should lead with Wall, and not Mac. So basically, the headline and lead reflected Wall’s comments and Mac was pushed to the later grafs.
Ganguli: Iam lucky that I now work at a place that doesn’t chase clickbait. My editors want good, unique stories that are written and reported well. We’ve found that our readers respond to that. Lesser known players sometimes have tremendous stories to tell, and I’m never pushed away from those at The Times. That said, when you cover a team with a star, there’s naturally a lot of interest in that player. It’s important to take notice of that. So while I’m not asked to chase every viral video of the Ball family, I do want to want to add to the conversation about Ball in an interesting way. The Lakers have had two games this season and both of my game stories have been about Ball. Part of the fun is in trying to find something new to say each time.
Himmelsbach: I honestly don’t feel any pressure from my editors about this. I think readers would rather dive into a fresh, unique story than read one of 10 stories written from, say, Kyrie Irving’s group media session that day. In fact, I just checked a real-time example of this. On Friday night Irving was recorded yelling an expletive at a fan who had yelled to him asking where LeBron James was. He talked about it on Saturday, and I wrote about it, and I just looked and it’s not doing all that well online, probably because 20 people have written the same story today. I once worked at a newspaper where live metrics were broadcast throughout the office on huge flat screen televisions throughout the day, and it turned into a kind of click “Hunger Games.” Metrics can be extremely useful, but I also think chasing them can go wrong.
Isola: It's a star driven league. The fans want to read about stars but readers also want good human interest stories. That's still part of the job. It's not just hot takes. The challenge is to find an interesting story that a lot of people don't know about and tell it in an entertaining and informative way.
Lee: I don’t feel any pressure to write about stars. I feel pressure to write something that’s interesting or compelling enough to draw eyeballs to my work. The NBA, like no other sports league, is driven by its stars—their personalities, quirks, interests and drives. You won’t get traffic simply by writing about LeBron James or Steph Curry, you have to find that unique angle or unexpected voice to separate yourself from the pack. I try to find good stories, regardless of the subject but I treat what I do the way a movie producer approaches his job. You need to have a few blockbusters (superstar profiles) that generate big money (clicks) to fund those pet, indie film projects (lesser-known player profile).
Thompson: When I was at a newspaper, quite a bit. Driving traffic was of utmost importance. The truth is writing about Steph Curry—anything about him, no matter how great or small, thorough or simple—drives more traffic than the most well-thought out piece about a reserve. That is still true, but at The Athletic the emphasis is not on driving traffic with individual stories. It’s about providing excellent overall coverage and proving worthy of the fee to subscribe. No doubt, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson stories work towards that end, too. But our target audience also wants that piece on Patrick McCaw’s development and a profile on Jordan Bell.
What do you consider the most interesting storyline in 2017-18 and why?
Beck: I don’t think there’s one dominant storyline. In theory, it should be, “Can anyone beat the Warriors?” Except no one—media, fans, GMs, Vegas—believes that’s plausible, so the angle is DOA. But there are a bunch of secondary storylines that bear watching between now and the Warriors’ next Champagne shower: How good is the Thunder’s new Big 3 (Westbrook-Carmelo-Paul George) — and will they make the necessary sacrifices to maximize their talent? How will the James Harden-Chris Paul partnership evolve? Can Kyrie Irving lead the Celtics to the conference finals without the injured Gordon Hayward? Does the addition of Jimmy Butler make the Timberwolves a second-tier contender in the West? Will Isaiah Thomas play for the Cavs this season, and if so at what level? Are the revamped Cavs (without Irving) good enough to make a fourth straight Finals? And maybe the biggest question of all: Is this LeBron’s last run with the Cavaliers?
Buckner: The 2017-18 NBA season is like ‘This is Us.’ You know that “Jack” dies, but you have no clue how he ends up six feet under. Pretty morbid comparison, but we all know the Warriors will win but what we don’t know how the NBA will get to that June moment. Since we all know what happens at the end, I’m way more curious about those details and special moments that fill in the six months of the unknown—like Giannis Antetokounmpo stepping into the MVP conversation, the Sixers becoming like a real life team and how [Celtics coach] Brad Stevens will coach his way out of the Hayward conundrum. Really, there’s no one storyline that piques my interest, I just want to keep my eyes wide open and experience those moments that build to the anti-climatic finish. Besides, the storyline about Jack and Rebecca’s rocky marriage is carrying the show.
Ganguli: NBA coaches and players vs. The White House. You know that’s not over.
Himmelsbach: I’m not totally sure when or how it happened, but the NBA at some point turned into the most storyline-rich place in sports. It’s not even close. Of course I’m curious to see if any of these reconstructed mini-powers can challenge the Warriors, but I don’t think they can. So I’ll be most curious to see how LeBron’s season in Cleveland plays out.
Isola: Can the Warriors repeat is an obvious one? Will the Knicks stink again is an annual one? But LeBron James runs the sport to a certain degree. I felt as if last summer was about him and LeBron wasn't even a free agent. That's how powerful he is. The story all season will be about LeBron's pending free agent on July 1 and which day he and SI senior writer Lee Jenkins intend on co-writing a letter to the city of Cleveland.
Lee: The Thunder. This is an incredible experiment. The anti-Thunder-as-we-knew-it experiment. For its entire nine-year run in Oklahoma, the Thunder has drafted and developed homegrown talent and acquired ancillary pieces from other organizations to supplement the core. But with the addition of established stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, the Thunder has players who were made elsewhere and asked them to share the marquee with reigning MVP in Russell Westbrook.
George and Anthony will have to find a way to mesh with Westbrook, who has been criticized for his inability to subjugate his game to let his teammates shine. Anthony has been panned as someone who can’t win, or share the ball. George is a phenomenal talent who hasn’t been able to step up in big moments. Together, they have a chance to change their reputations and perceptions of Oklahoma City. Golden State is expected to win the whole thing again this year but Thunder is the most exciting challenger given the franchise’s history with Finals MVP Kevin Durant (and his summertime blunder on Twitter in which Durant spoke in third person to say he couldn’t win with “those cats”).
Thompson: The Big Three in Oklahoma City. The potential for excellence and drama is riveting. The personalities, the context, possibilities of a playoff matchup against the Warriors. If that trio works well, we are heading for something potentially amazing. And we’re going to learn a lot about Russell Westbrook, too. Once you get to the elite level, there is a trying that tends to happen, another layer of scrutiny. I am very interested to see how he manages that.
What NBA person do you want to interview that you have yet to interview, and why?
Beck: Bill Russell. For all the obvious reasons.
Buckner: I skipped this question and came back to it later. I couldn’t think of a name and still can’t because—and I don’t want to sound pretentious—while I absolutely adore the game of basketball, there’s not one basketball luminary that moves me so much that I must interview him or her. I just want to interview the person with the best untold story. Whoever that is, please sign me up.
Ganguli: The people I’d like to interview that I haven’t yet are people I’m still trying to get. So without tipping my hand, I’ll answer this by looking backward. The NBA person that I most wish I could have interviewed, and now will never have the chance, is Jerry Buss. He lived such a fascinating life and created something so unique in the sports world. Laker games aren’t like anything else I’ve seen. I’d love to delve into all of that. I also would have loved the chance to talk to him about what his vision was for his kids and in what ways he wanted to see them involved with the team. I have so many questions.
Himmelsbach: I’d love to sit down with Gregg Popovich with no television cameras and no other reporters around. He’s such a fascinating individual and one of the brightest basketball minds ever, and his loud, honest thoughts about the current political climate have been powerful. Someone may have done this, but I’d love to do the interview at his house. Like, what is Gregg Popovich’s house like? I’d read a story just about that.
Isola: Joel Embiid and Lonzo Ball. Entering this season Embiid had appeared in 31 games and I feel fortunate to have covered one of those games. It was a treat. He's extremely talented and his personality is larger than life. He's an entertainer in the mold of Shaquille O'Neal. I am not saying this to kiss up to the league office, but if you have the chance to see Embiid play, buy a ticket. (Just make sure he's playing beforehand.) The fact that he's from Africa, attended college in the States, missed two seasons due to injury and is openly flirting with Rihanna makes him an interesting story in my eyes.
I love Ball as a player and I think he's handled his sudden fame and his obnoxious father very well up to this point. I really wonder what he thinks about having the world's most famous helicopter parent as a dad. My kids were also angry with me when they played youth sports right through high school and I don't think I was nearly as nuts as LaVar Ball. At least I don't think I was.
Lee: Jerry West. It’s kind of unbelievable that we’ve never really crossed paths, considering I’ve covered the league for almost 16 years and he’s had a hand in some of the greatest teams in NBA history. West has led an interesting life on and off the court. I’d love to spend some time with him to discuss the secrets to successful organizations and the perseverance it took to keep coming back after all of those disappointing Finals losses to Boston when he played.
Thompson: John Wall. I’ve interviewed him in group contexts, but never a sit down type. I think he has an excellent mix of ability and personality and a willingness to speak his mind.
What player has the highest ceiling in the league and why?
Beck: Fascinating question. Tough to answer with any accuracy, and it sort of depends on where you draw the age/experience line. There’s an incredible group of young talents in the NBA right now—from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Joel Embiid to Karl-Anthony Towns to Kristaps Porzingis to Ben Simmons to Lonzo Ball. But it’s possible—even likely—that none of them will ever approach what LeBron’s already achieved. In that sense, his ceiling is still the highest. You could argue that Kevin Durant, even at age 29, is still evolving and might have the highest ceiling of anyone not named LeBron. Of the younger group, I’d go with Giannis. He’s a virtual 7-footer with point guard skills, elite athleticism and a phenomenal feel for the game. He’s smart, he’s dedicated, he works his tail off and he’s grounded. He’s already a legit MVP candidate. And he’s still just 22 years old.
Buckner: Anthony Davis. I still think he’s the best big man in the NBA although the hype machine has moved on to guys like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Davis has been a victim of circumstance—playing in a market and for a franchise that doesn’t make waves around the league unless an All-Star game is held there—but he’s still only 24 years old and is so, so very good.
Himmelsbach: Giannis Antetokounmpo. There has never been a player with his collection of skill, size, speed, athleticism, length and court awareness. He’s truly a freak. Thank goodness he’s Greek. What other country could have given us such an easy nickname?
Ganguli: Definitely Giannis Antetokounmpo. His length makes him such a unique player and he’s still learning and growing. The other night the Bucks were playing before the Lakers and that game was on in the Lakers locker room. It was so interesting to watch them watch that game. Even NBA players are amazed at what Antetokounmpo can do.
Isola: LeBron is still dominating the league and at some point he will slow down...and that might not happen for another five years. But for now, the player with the highest ceiling is The Greek Freak. His body is one of a kind. He has the skill and the work ethic to be an all-time great. He needs a more consistent jump shot but he's one of the more unique players I've ever seen.
Lee: I wanted to say Joel Embiid because I think it’s amazing why he’s so good when you consider he didn’t start playing basketball until six years ago and he has missed at least three of those years because of major injuries. And that is the problem. Embiid could be a new age Hakeem Olajuwon with three-point range, but he hasn’t proven he can stay healthy and the Sixers continue to wrap him in bubble wrap with minutes restrictions and no games on consecutive nights. But if he’s healthy…? Man. I also really like Karl-Anthony Towns but I think it’s really hard to pick anyone except Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jason Kidd told me Giannis has a ways to go to reach his ceiling. But maybe Giannis doesn’t have one since Kevin Durant has already declared that he could go down as the G.O.A.T. The scariest part about Giannis is that he’s only 22—nine months younger than Embiid.
Thompson: Giannis. He has a leg up on Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony Towns because he is not a big. He doesn’t have to rely on a guard.
What owner would you most want to have a cup of coffee or beer with and why?
Beck: So many fascinating choices. I mean, I’d start with the Hornets owner, because it’s really rare to get a sitdown with Hornets owner Michael Jeffrey Jordan, and I’ve never had the chance to interview him. He’s still a fascinating figure. I love Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s contagious enthusiasm. Seems like a great guy to have a drink with. Spurs owner Peter Holt has quietly run the NBA’s most successful franchise for the last two decades. No doubt he’d have great insights to share. Mark Cuban is always a lively conversationalist.
But since we’re in hypothetical-land here, lets get crazy: I’d like to get coffee with James Dolan. I’d like to know what really drives him, why he’s made the decisions he’s made, whether he understands the extent of Knicks’ fans anger and angst. I’d like a chance to convince him that the environment he’s cultivated at Madison Square Garden—oppressive, paranoid, political—has tangible, negative impacts on the court. I’d like the chance to persuade him that his media policies have backfired—badly—and that it might be time to consider a new approach.
Buckner: Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf with Jeannie Buss. She has had the most intriguing life—the daughter (!) of a playboy millionaire who becomes the heir to his kingdom. Then, she has to fight off insurrection from her older brothers… ummm, yeah. I want to know everything there is about her, not to mention to whole Phil Jackson chapter. I’d bet there are layers upon layers to her life that we don’t even know about. (First vanilla ice blended on me, Jeannie.)
Ganguli: Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to find out how much better life is without so many gadgets.
Himmelsbach: I’d have a cup of coffee with Blazers owner Paul Allen and talk to him about everything in the world besides basketball. I mean, he created his own institute for artificial intelligence! That’s amazing. It’s still wild to me that there are people who basically own NBA teams as hobbies. Then I’d skip out and try to go have a beer with MJ.
Isola: Since I've already had a non-alcoholic beverage with James Dolan, I'd want to hang with Michael Jordan. For me, he's the greatest player of all time and I'd love to talk to him about his career and about today's players, from LeBron to Lonzo Ball. You know, just a couple of guys from Brooklyn hanging out, talking sports.
Lee: Michael Jordan. There isn’t much about him that we don’t already know but I’d love to hear him talk unfiltered about players today, in his era and previous generations. I’d love to understand how his competitiveness translates in this billionaire boys club of NBA owners. I’d like to get his honest thoughts on the political or social environment and how he was able to break barriers during his playing career. There is so much that I’d love to discuss. But what do I do if I don’t drink coffee or beer?
Thompson: Steve Ballmer. I got some business ideas he can fund! Seriously, I’d say Jeannie Buss. She has been around the league a long time, she seems like a great conversation.
How much do players having major social media channels and individual outlets impact you and your work/access on a day to day basis?
Beck: On a day-to-day basis? Not much. It has more of an impact on individual team beat writers, who have to track every last Twitter, Instagram and Facebook channel for every player on the roster, just in case someone blasts the coach or throws shade at their co-star. (I’m glad I don’t cover a team anymore.) But in general, player use of social media is a benefit to reporters, just as it is to fans. Yes, the messages can be managed and filtered (sometimes by PR people), but you do get the occasional revealing look into someone’s workout routine, or their family life, or their affinity for banana boats. Or, you know, a live look into the greatest free-agency flip-flop of all time.
Buckner: It doesn’t. Every now and then, if they post something interesting, then it might become newsworthy and someone on staff will write about it. But their first-person blogs, Insta-stories, or tweets won’t “scoop” my work, if that makes sense. I love that they’re so open and give fans a window into their lives that they only can do, but I’m here to illuminate the parts of their world that they won’t, or don’t know how to show. I believe readers are savvy enough to know that unbiased news, in-depth analysis and revealing profiles will come from the beat reporter and not a site with the sole purpose of giving players good PR.
Ganguli: It means I have to keep track of their social media and sometimes the accounts of their friends and family members too, just in case. It can also lend a look into their lives we otherwise wouldn’t have. That humanizes them in ways that make casual conversations and developing relationships easier.
Himmelsbach: It’s become a huge part of the job. I spend so many idle moments just flipping through players’ Instagram stories that sometimes I stop and ask myself what the hell I’m doing. But in most cases these are their unfiltered lives. I’ve found some really cool features from random things players posted on social media. The coolest example was in the summer of 2016, when Isaiah Thomas’s wife posted on Instagram about Isaiah stopping and shooting baskets with a young boy when they were on their way to parent-teacher night at their son’s school. It turned into a warm offseason story that went viral.
Isola: They still create content. Most recently, Carmelo Anthony compared his last year in New York to Hell. (Thank you, Carmelo.) I understand the players wanting direct access to the fans but I feel that sometimes their words sound like a typical press release. For example, when Kevin Durant signed with Golden State he wrote on The Players Tribune that he wanted to evolve as a man. Really, joining the best team and taking an easier path to a championship is evolving as a man? If you say so. Also, some of the things player don't say speaks volumes. In LeBron's letter to Cleveland he omitted one significant name; Andrew Wiggins, whom the Cavs had just drafted. And wouldn't you know it, Wiggins was eventually traded before the season. Crazy coincidence, no?
Lee: This has been the way of the world for so long that it feels normal to check Twitter and Instagram to see what players are thinking or doing. Those outlets have been helpful because they provide more launching pads to engage in conversations. It’s hard to learn a player’s taste in music or movies when you have to deal with a five-minute scrum after practice or a game. Social media, personal websites or other avenues that provide a direct line to fans have proven to be more helpful than anything.
Thompson : Sometimes they can operate as media agencies by putting out their own information and not need me to do it. It takes away a bartering chip. I remember in 2012 when I got word of Curry’s contract extension. I went to him to confirm and he didn’t want to because his media team had planned to announce his extension. I ended up racing against his team, who was going to push out the scoop. I knew things would be different then. As it turns out, many use it more as an branding arm than a place to reveal the kind of information we want, so it’s not that bad.
Which players are more forthcoming: Starters or bench players and why?
Beck: In general, the most candid and thoughtful interviews are the supporting players—whether they’re starters or reserves. During my seven years on the Laker beat, we practically wore out guys like Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry and Horace Grant.
When you needed perspective and locker-room insight, you knew who to ask. It’s not that Kobe and Shaq were bad interviews (it depended on the day, their moods, the state of the Lakers, the position of the moon); it’s just that being in the brightest spotlight takes a toll. The superstars are the most scrutinized, so they tend to watch their words more carefully—and even moreso now, in the social media era. Also, when you’ve done a zillion interviews, it’s easy to become numb to the process, and slip into clichés. It’s different for role players, who might appreciate the interest more and aren’t as fatigued by the daily demands.
In recent years, I’ve really appreciated guys like Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson, Jared Jeffries, J.J. Redick, Shaun Livingston, Jason Terry, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Jameer Nelson and countless others who have helped fill in the blanks and provided key insights along the way.
Buckner: Really depends on the locker room. Here in Washington, the team’s biggest star (John Wall) is the most forthcoming. I had almost a similar situation in Indiana when Paul George would speak his mind and drop all filters when complaining about referees. However, I’d say if I need true insight, I’ve found role players to be the most forthcoming. They’re at every practice. They see every set. If the team botches a late-game execution, they know exactly how the play was supposed to be run. Also, I think they appreciate having someone ask them for their thoughts and so they respond with good info.
Ganguli: I covered the NFL for six years so everyone seems pretty forthcoming to me in the NBA. I honestly don't notice a huge difference between starters and bench players as a whole. Different guys have different levels of comfort with speaking their mind, and I haven’t noticed that to depend on whether or not they’re starting.
Himmelsbach: I don’t think there’s a distinct difference in general. But I do think the most forthcoming players are the older veterans who were once starters and are now bench players and have seen and been through it all.
Isola: I think it depends on the player.
Lee: I remember when I first started covering the Atlanta Hawks. I reached out to all of the beat writers who respected for advice. Michael Holley, the famed scribe and radio host in Boston, told me to find the two guys at the end of the bench and become their best friend because they can tell you so much more about what’s going on the locker room and what should be happening on the court. Starters and stars are often on the court, making decisions on instinct, so they might not care about how a play was drawn up. That proved to be some good advice but I’ve discovered that you want to talk the most intelligent and interesting guys—and sometimes, they start.
Thompson: On the record? Stars. They know they aren’t expendable. Bench players I find don’t want to say the wrong thing. Off the record, bench players have the goods!
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Episode 142 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features a sports media roundtable with Chad Finn, the sports media writer and general columnist for the Boston Globe and Boston.com; Jon Lewis, the creator and editor of Sports Media Watch, and Kyle Koster, a writer for The Big Lead.
In this podcast, the roundtable discusses truths and lies when it comes to the NFL ratings; what trends can be gleaned from the first six weeks of the 2017 NFL season; NFL viewer trends in relation to other sports; ratings for potential World Series matchups; whether the NBA can rebound from last year’s regular season declines; Al Michaels referencing Harvey Weinstein on Sunday Night Football; Jemele Hill’s future with ESPN; whether SportsCenter can work in 2017; ESPN’s deal with Barstool; why Barstool might have more leverage than ESPN; how much due diligence ESPN management did or did not do on old Barstool posts; how ESPN management will react to some employees being upset that the alliance; Sam Ponder’s social media comments on the eve of Barstool Van Talk debut on ESPN2, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.
2. Some college football overnight ratings:
Michigan at Penn State: 4.2 overnight (8:00 p.m. ET, ABC — top rated CFB game of the weekend).
Oklahoma State at Texas (noon ET, ABC): 2.9.
Notre Dame at USC (8:00 p.m. ET, NBC): 2.14.
Louisville at Florida State (noon ET window, ESPN): 2.0.
Indiana at Michigan State (3:30 p.m., ABC): 2.3.
Kansas at TCU (8:00 p.m. ET, Fox): 0.9.
2a. Crazy sports sequence at 8:09 p.m. ET on Saturday night. At the same time you had: The first pitch of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. USC-Notre Dame on NBC and Michigan-Penn State on ABC in the first quarter, and Fox airing the game-winning touchdown with seven seconds left in Oklahoma’s 42-35 win over Kansas State.
2a. CBS said Thursday Night Football has averaged 14.786 million viewers across Weeks 5, 6, and 7, up +9% versus last year’s comparable three games (13.599 million).
2b. Fox said Game 7 of the ALCS between the Astros and Yankees averaged 9.924 million viewers, the most-watched telecast in FS1’s history. The game peaked at 11,758,000 viewers on FS1 from 11:00 to 11:15 PM ET. Fox said the game was the most-watched LCS telecast on any network since 2010 (Giants-Phillies on Fox: 11,639,000). The game averaged 445,000 on Fox Deportes.
2c. NLCS viewership average on TBS:
2017: 6.2 million viewers (Dodgers-Cubs)
2016: 3.3M (Indians-Blue Jays)
2015: 7.9M (Cubs-Mets)
3. Jemele Hill’s two-week suspension is scheduled to end on Monday. She will be back on air that day. The likelihood is Hill will continue to co-anchor the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter for the foreseeable future, but I believe her tenure as a SportsCenter anchor is effectively over. I also think her time as an ESPN employee is down to months rather than years. Hill cannot feel that she has management’s unwavering support given the events of the last month—and ESPN management clearly has limits to the speech it will allow from front-facing talent on social media, and particularly those representing the SportsCenter brand. Here’s my latest piece on Hill.
3a.Barstool Van Talk averaged 88,000 viewers on ESPN2 last Tuesday night, the debut episode in the partnership between ESPN and Barstool Sports. Going inside the numbers: 53,000 of the 88,000 were Men 18-49; 13,000 of the 88,000 were Women 18-49. The lead-in the show drew 61,000 viewers. Lead out was 39,000 viewers. Given the ratings were tweeted out by ESPN senior management and the whole point of this relationship is to attract 18-40 year-olds that might not watch ESPN otherwise at that hour, you can presume the company was happy with the numbers. The reality is whatever this show is ultimately is ratings-wise won’t be known until five or six episodes in and will also depend on how much ESPN promotes this externally. The partnership received heavy and public criticism from ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder. ESPN called Barstool’s 2014 comments about Ponder “offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction” but it did not derail the partnership. The podcast in Item No. 1 discusses the partnership in detail and I’ll also discuss the relationship next week with my next podcast guest—Washington Post reporter and former Buffalo News columnist Kimberley A. Martin.
4.Non sports pieces of note:
• The Washington Post and 60 Minutes teamed up for an investigation on Congress weakening the DEA’s ability to go after drug distributors. Incredible reporting.
• The Atlantic’s Jeff Maysh has one of the craziest stories you will ever read on catfishing
• Molly Ringwald, for the New Yorker, on her Harvey Weinstein experience and all the other Harveys in Hollywood
• The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer wrote the most comprehensive piece on Mike Pence I’ve read
• This might be the best single podcast episode I’ve ever heard
• Via ProPublica: Racist, Violent, Unpunished: A White Hate Group’s Campaign of Menace
• Very disturbing story by The Intercept’s Natasha Lennard on rape allegations and two NYPD officers
• The L.A. Times gets 31 women to speak on the record against director James Toback
• Disturbing, detailed report from Brett Anderson of The New Orleans Times-Picayune on allegations of John Besh restaurants fostering culture of sexual harassment
• Via ProPublica: Drug Companies Make Eyedrops Too Big—And You Pay for the Waste
• Via Christopher Glazek of Esquire: The secretive family making billions from the opioid crisis
• From Eric Lipton of the New York Times: Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots
• Via Toronto Star: How every investor lost money on Trump Tower Toronto (but Donald Trump made millions anyway)
• From The New York Times: High school students on why they stand or sit for the national anthem:
• Rolling Stone on The Tragically Hip’s essential songs
• By Mathew Ingram of CJR: Social media crackdowns at TheTimes and Journal will backfire
• Hockey NightIn Canada host Ron MacLean on the importance of Gord Downie
• Via Fast Company’s David Zax : The War To Sell You A Mattress Is An Internet Nightmare
• Via The Atlantic’s Loren DeJonge Schulman: The Necessity of Questioning the Military
Sports pieces of note:
• GQ’s Mark Anthony Green interviewed LeBron James
• ESPN's Zach Lowe had 32 crazy predictions
• Sportsnet’s Dave Zrum on the 30 NBA figures who will define the 2017-18 season
• Via Ozy.com: Is women’s wrestling heading back to the NCAAs?
• Yahoo’s Jeff Passan on how the Astros put together the team that beat the Yankees for the American League pennant
5. Company promo: SI has a big holiday coffee table book coming out on Oct. 24 titled “Football’s Greatest Revised and Updated.” It’s a ranking of a myriad of NFL lists, from Top 10s at each position to the greatest franchises of all-time (Steelers are No. 1). The book featuring an SI panel of NFL judges including Peter King, Greg Bishop and Tim Layden. Here’s the order link.
5a. Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck welcomed himself to October
5b.Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg spoke with former ESPN anchor Lindsay Czarniak on leaving the network and Jemele Hill’s suspension:
5c. Fun interview by MLB Network with Kiké Hernandez, following his three homer game on Oct. 19 during the Leagie Championship series.
5d. UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma is starting a podcast
5e. Quality work by producer Lauren Gaffney and reporter Andrea Kremer on Galynn Brady’s (mother of Tom) fight with cancer. This is the first time she has spoken in long form.