Imagine you’re at a dinner party and the guy next to you—let’s call him Bob—asks you a question. Chances are you’d answer, because that’s what people do.
But what if, instead of beginning a conversation, Bob just kept pelting you with questions of all types—probing, hypothetical, inane, antagonizing. And what if everyone else at the table then got up, crowded around, and joined in—Why are you wearing that shirt? Why didn’t you get promoted? Do you really think you should be having a third beer?—and by the end the whole group was shouting and jostling and interrupting each other, all the while snapping pictures of you and tweeting even your lamest responses.
Welcome to the life of an NBA player in the postseason.
When the Warriors and Cavs tip off Game 1 tomorrow, it will be David West’s first time in the NBA Finals. Only two players, Joe Johnson and Kyle Korver, have appeared in more playoff games without getting a shot at a ring (Korver is also making his Finals debut).
West has played for four franchises during his 14 seasons in the NBA, and spent four years before that at Xavier. He’s been an up-and-comer, an All-Star and, now, a veteran role player. He’s played for very good teams (last season’s Spurs; this year’s Warriors) and very bad ones (the 2004 Hornets). At 36, he’s spent pretty much his entire adult life answering questions. From beat guys, national guys, bloggers, podcasters, TV talking heads, campus reporters. On game days, he might talk to reporters up to three times—at shootaround, then before the game, then after the game.
Like most athletes, West understands that dealing with the media is part of the job—a job that, not incidentally, also allows him to play basketball for a living and be financially secure for life. Still, that doesn’t mean it is easy, or comes naturally.
On the eve of the Finals, as hundreds of media from around the world descend on Oakland and Cleveland for a two-week frenzy of micro-analysis, insta-reaction, and redundant questions, West talked about what he’s learned about co-existing with the fourth estate over the years.
It doesn’t have to be oppositional
As a young man, West was smart, proud, and independent. In high school, he quit the basketball team, frustrated by his coach. At Xavier, he had "LIVE FREE" tattooed on his wrist, then chose to stay for his senior year rather than jump to the NBA, in order to get his degree (in communications).
At first, West says his relationship with the media was “maybe a little bit adversarial,” but he eventually learned it has to be “a give and take”.
The key, he said, is knowing who he is talking to. “I’ve had the experience of the type of guy who’s just looking to scoop everything…scoop scoop scoop scoop.” Then there are reporters who, “take their time and get to know guys.” He uses the example of playing for the Pacers, later in his career. “When I first got there, they didn’t write about me right away, they got a feel for me first,” he says of the beat writers. “They spoke to the guys in the organization first, then created a personal relationship and built up a little bit of trust.”
That trust, says West, is the currency of the realm.
'Don’t ever assume you know the intelligence of an athlete'
This is West’s advice to young reporters. “Don’t think that your question is too nuanced for a guy,” says West. “Don’t feel like you’ve got to dumb down a question. If you’re seeking an answer, ask the question that you think will get to that answer as opposed to, ‘I don’t think this guy is that intelligent’, so you throw softballs.” Says West: “Some guys can articulate themselves plain as Jane, so don’t assume that they can’t.”
West is among them. When I interviewed him for a recent story on Monty Williams, he spoke eloquently and thoughtfully, and I found myself trying to find reasons to insert more of his quotes into the piece. When I brought a Cal graduate school journalism class to Warriors practice a few months ago, West not only agreed to speak to them, but did so for 10 minutes, openly and honestly, in the process changing some of their preconceptions about athletes.
Still, outsiders may only see his demeanor: the scowl, the imposing physicality, an introverted nature. But West is a man who reads philosophy and social history and can speak at length about any number of subjects, a worldliness that makes him a good fit with Steve Kerr’s Warriors.
Early in his career, West played for a struggling Hornets team. The roster was full of young players—Chris Paul in his rookie season, a 20-year-old J.R. Smith—and struggled. “We didn’t know how to win yet and were making some mistakes that young teams make.”
Then, as West tells it, a reporter singled out the team, “writing that we may not be worth the ticket prices.” The players felt it wasn’t a critique of their play but rather, “a personal attack.” Says West: “We felt like we were playing hard. We just couldn’t beat the Spurs and Pistons and Lakers in 2006. We just weren’t of their caliber. But we were trying and in this guy’s eyes this wasn’t good enough. Because we were professionals, we took it hard.”
So he says the team had a meeting and a team captain spoke up, after which they made a group decision: They froze out the reporter. “We didn’t answer any questions he asked and when he came into the group, we shut up. Eventually the other reporters realized that for them to get their answers, he had to go away.” The result: “The reporter was reassigned and the paper brought in a different day-to-day guy.”
Take from this what you will. West sees it simply: Be fair with us and we’ll be fair with you.
While West doesn’t consider himself particularly adept at dealing with the media, he’s played with teammates he believes are. In particular, he singles out two.
The first is Chris Paul, who even as a young player struck West as able to parry, maintain his calm, and think big picture. Says West: “Chris handles questions and people being in his side and sticking it to him but he’s always able to stay above it and he always answers.” (And when he doesn’t, well, watch this withering Paul response.)
Another is Draymond Green, a current teammate. Says West: “I feel like people are always trying to bait him into an explosive answer, and he’s a highly intelligent guy, so he figures that out, and he does a good job of getting his point across and maintaining his edge and then also giving guys what they need. That’s another thing I learned. Guys have a job. Reporters have a job. They need bits and pieces.”
What not to say
No bulletin board material, nothing the other coach can use to motivate a player, and never, ever dog a teammate (“Though that should be natural”). As a player, West says you’re “pretty much trained” in this, though perhaps he does a better job than most. (Green recently called him, “One of the best teammates I’ve ever had”)
Sometimes, though, it is a coach who protects the players. This is what happened in Indiana, when West played for Frank Vogel. In 2014, when the Pacers went to the conference finals, West recalls Vogel stressing the importance of keeping everything internal. “He talked to us every day about staying tight, keeping things between us and then when he went to talk to the media, he was the example. There were days when the players weren’t talking at all and he stood there and took it. He’d say ‘I’ll take the heat’ and then lead in messaging. He’d say, ‘Listen to what I’m saying and throw it right back at them.’ West laughs. “So we literally all sounded like him.”
There are, of course, other strategies to this end. Raymond Ridder, the Warriors PR guru, will occasionally advise young players that, when all else fails, they should mimic politicians. When Golden State rookie Patrick McCaw went through a slump earlier this season and had to face a group of reporters, he was dreading being asked about his shooting. Attempting to ease McCaw’s mind, Ridder told him beforehand: Remember, you don’t have to answer the question they ask. Just answer the one you want asked.
What the average fan/viewer doesn’t understand
Context. Specifically, West says, that when you see a player standing in front of a camera after a game, you never know what’s going on behind the scenes.
He provides an example, from 2006. “We were in Oklahoma, playing against the Wizards I think, and it was literally the night before our daughter's going to be born and I know my wife is at home, contracting, and we’re getting our butts kicked by Washington and we come all the way back and I think I hit like a game winner at the end of the game and I remember being like so, all over the place and then someone is like"—and here West pantomimes a microphone stuck in his face—"and you’re like 'Man, we won.' My focus was all over the place. I didn’t know how to answer questions. How was the comeback? I don’t know. I really didn’t remember anything about the game. I was thinking about becoming a dad.”
West’s memory is spot-on. It was Washington, and he sank a 21-footer with 0.1 seconds left to lift the team to a 97-96 victory. His daughter was born the following day. “Those are the times where you’re like, media people don’t know that there are so many things going on and the game is over and you just want to leave and maybe it’s a bad game and it’s hard.”
Then West tries to sum it up. NBA players may act tough, and make millions of dollars, and seem larger than life, but when you see them on TV, fumbling around or saying mundane stuff, sometimes the reason is a very simple one: They’re just people. “And sometimes,” says West, “we get emotional.”