Media Circus: What's it like to cover LeBron James?

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Sunday May 14th, 2017

ESPN NBA reporters Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst are the co-authors of the new book, “Return of the King: LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History.” Both reporters have covered James for years and this week I asked McMenamin and Windhorst some Qs specific to covering James.

How would you define your current access to LeBron James?

McMenamin: The Cavs are in the midst of a nine-day layoff in between playoff series, the longest such break of James' time in Cleveland. James informed Cleveland's PR department that he will not be talking to the press until the Cavs have an Eastern Conference opponent to discuss. Which means we won't get him as a group media corps until Day No. 9 of their nine days off after the Celtics and Wizards settle their Game 7. So currently, my access to LeBron is nonexistent. But to complain about him taking a break from media responsibilities in between series would be extremely short sighted. In the Eastern Conference semifinals I was able to get a couple minutes with him 1-on-1 to talk about Kyrie Irving's development—he told me of Kyrie, "He's going to be in the position to carry the franchise on his own in his prime"—and to explain his ball roll against Serge Ibaka. LeBron has been very generous with his time with me, but also with the two other guys that are with the team full time—Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com and Jason Lloyd of The Athletic. All three of us have been on the ground with the team day in and day out since LeBron came back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 and he has made himself very approachable when it comes to covering him.

Windhorst: LeBron is one of the most available superstar athletes in the world. He speaks almost every day, often twice, which is remarkable because he knows that every sentence can become a headline that leads a news cycle. He's also more willing to speak 1-on-1 than at any other time in his career, though he will generally only do so with people he has a trust level with. That said, in recent years I've pulled back on talking privately with him. I've interviewed him so many times over the years and he's got such massive demands on his time that I think he's earned space, at least from me. Unless it's something very important.

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How easy or difficult is LeBron James as an interview subject and why?

McMenamin: It's easy because anything he says is news. Or just about anything he says. He is one of the top five most important athletes in the world. And that might be selling him short. So that always makes our media scrums with him a worthwhile venture. It's difficult because so much about his life is already known from being in the spotlight since he was 14 and so that rug is a little threadbare when it comes to earning big reveals from our questions to him. But for the most part, he is engaging, he understands the influence his voice carries and he knows what he can bring to a story when he gives you "the juice," as one of the members of his inner circle likes to call it.

Windhorst: LeBron can be moody. There are times when he's fully engaged in the interview and you can get answers that you know you'll be referring to for years. Other times he's absolutely going through the motions and he falls into rote answers and you can turn your recorder off. This is understandable with how often he is asked to speak. He's attuned to possible "trap" questions and, although not perfect, if he suspects something nefarious or even sniffs you may be trying to bait him then he'll shut you down. There are other times when he wants the bait because he knows he can deliver a crushing blow. This was frequently the case when David Blatt was the Cavs coach. Some of the most remarkable answers of his career took place when the door was opened for him to comment on Blatt. Most of them are covered in the book. 

An issue is many of his comments are carved into stone and treated as proclamations. But he can feel differently on different days. One day he may say "I'm chasing Jordan" and another day he may say "I'm not chasing anyone and I'm satisfied with my legacy." The news cycle does not care; it eats it alive either way. I try to have more perspective when he talks like this because I've interviewed him thousands of times. But I also know that the news cycle has almost no perspective and nearly no memory.

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When one of your opinionist colleagues, past or present, makes a negative comment about LeBron James, how much does that impact your job and why?

McMenamin: I am a team player. I recognize the good fortune I have to be able to say that I am living out the dream career I targeted when I was a kid. But nowhere in that dream did I ever think I would have to manage my relationships with the athletes I cover against the decorum of my colleagues, while simultaneously maintaining some semblance of a team player attitude towards those colleagues. It just makes for an uncomfortable dynamic. Inevitably, there are conversations that occur where those opinions come up and I've been left as an outlet to discuss them whether I agree with them or not. But over the years, to LeBron's credit, he certainly has been able to distinguish my work from my colleagues' and form a separate opinion of me rather than put me under an umbrella with every person that gets a check with Mickey Mouse printed on it twice a month.

Windhorst: It used to be more problematic because there was a time when LeBron could be affected by something written or said. Now, for the most part, he is impenetrable. Occasionally, he's irritated of course, but in general he's above it all. There are times, though, where he'll make a surgical retaliatory strike. By now, he and his team are savvy and patient. His response to Phil Jackson's "posse" comment is a classic recent example.   

 

What part of the book was the toughest to report and why?

McMenamin: The part about LeBron leaving Miami and all the inner workings behind that. No one in the world knew all that stuff. Or certainly no journalist did. That is why I was so fortunate to work with Brian on this book. He is the only person with the sources in both Miami and Cleveland, combined with the excellent reporting and writing chops, to be able to properly tell that part of the story at this point in time. I guess it wasn't as tough on me, because I got to benefit from Brian's masterful work putting it all together. 

Windhorst: I don't know if there's any one part. What I will say is it's a challenge to write in depth about a subject with the reality that you have to continue to cover the subject on a daily basis. The challenge here is to provide inside information, never before told stories etc., but not devastate the relationships. There's a balancing act there that is easy to overlook.

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