To avoid anonymous sources, NBA should start talking
Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love (42) is pressured by Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Minnesota Timberwolves won in 2 overtimes 122-121.
Nobody gets in the basketball business to write about rumors.
Actually, I take that back. Some folks actually do enjoy covering the NBA as if it’s their own personal fantasy league. For some folks, gossip and the dream of daily trades make their existence pure heaven.
I am not one of them. I love basketball. I hate rumors. I hate using unnamed sources. I’d much rather everyone go on record with everything they say. I also know that’s not reality.
I also know that the Internet, particularly Twitter, help to keep the NBA highly relevant — especially in the offseason. Without the Internet, the NBA wouldn’t be nearly as hot of a topic. You know it, I know it, and the NBA knows it.
No sports league anywhere benefits as much as the NBA in this Age of (Too Much) Information. That cannot be debated.
A lot of people ask why that is, and truth is, I have no idea. I don’t even care why. I just know that’s the way it is, and that covering the NBA in July is part of my job. Again, it’s a part I enjoy a lot less than the other part — which consists of watching and analyzing the best in the world play and talk about basketball.
It’s a meaningless gig, for sure. But I also know it’s needed. People who love the NBA take it very seriously. I take my job seriously. I understand it’s not as important as many of my fine colleagues sometimes make it out to be — but I also know it impacts people’s lives. I’ve seen it. I read it every day in my Twitter notifications. Basketball matters.
How else do you explain the entire sports world coming to a halt as it waited for LeBron James to tell us where he’d play basketball next?
Why couldn’t James just come out and say it? Did he not know until the last minute? Did he want to give teams the chance to persuade him to change his mind? Did he want to say goodbye to the right people properly?
I don’t know. I’m certainly not judging LeBron. He has every right to handle his business in the way he sees fit. It’s the rest of us that probably could’ve used a chill pill.
Back to those ever-present unnamed sources. It’s a problem with today’s NBA coverage — and yes, guilty as charged. But the NBA can work on changing that. I don’t know how. I’m not running the league. I’m just some dude who writes and occasionally goes on TV. But I do have a few ideas:
1. Let beat reporters watch practice.
Maybe not every day, but most days. What is there to hide? You’re practicing basketball. You want the media to write and talk about basketball, right? Well, the league and its teams aren’t doing anyone any favors by removing basketball — real basketball, basketball that can be seen — from the equation. Instead, everyone is left to speculate on what the coach says.
This isn’t earth-shattering. There was a time, and not long ago, when all beat reporters attended practice. I would even say coverage of the league and its teams was considerably more fair and more professionally done back then. People didn’t have to guess what was going on. It was right there in front of them. If there was a fight at practice, big deal. It happens. But today, we’re all left to wonder how bad the fight was, who it involved, and if it even mattered.
Not seeing practice can lead to speculation and rumors, and some of it can get downright viscous. Mostly, reporting on what you haven’t seen is always less accurate than reporting on what you have.
2. Be more selective about credentialing.
Now, I have nothing against bloggers or those who launched their own websites. In fact, being a blogger is how I got my start. I got my start in pro basketball writing by leaving the newspaper business, where I primarily covered high school and college sports, to run my own NBA site. It turned into a writing job at NBA.com, and now, FOXSports.com. I could even be considered "non-traditional" media myself. I don’t know if there’s a true definition.
But my point is this: Give the folks who are there to do some actual reporting, some actual watching of basketball, more time with the folks who make the game work. If it’s a blogger, so be it. If it’s a newspaper reporter, so be it.
Nearly every interview today is held in a "scrum" setting, where there are 23 media members to one player/coach.
That setup almost totally eliminates quality feature writing, or even nuts-and-bolts newsy stuff. It almost totally eliminates telling the real story of the team and the men behind it. Interestingly, I have yet to meet a real jerk involved in the NBA — whether it be a coach, player, whatever. When these guys are available to talk, they’re usually pretty great. But everything is so guarded that it can be hard to convey people in the proper light. It’s gotten to the point where everyone is little more than a robot in baggy shorts and high tops.
I don’t blame teams from shying away from allowing too many one-on-one interviews. They rarely know who to trust. That’s why they need to be more selective in who they credential. Public relations staffs should do their homework. That doesn’t mean axing bloggers. Waiting For Next Year in Cleveland and Nets Daily in Brooklyn are good examples of independent sites/blogs that are well-written, thought-provoking and informative. But there are a lot of others that aren’t.
Teams need to determine which reporters are which, and allow varying levels of access accordingly. Bottom line: You can cut out a lot of the garbage coverage by identifying ahead of time the media members who are serious and dedicated to getting the story right. Those who don’t make the cut receive very limited access.
3. Encourage members of the front office and coaching staff to go on record — even if it means simply saying, "No comment."
I still have copies of basketball magazines from the early 1990s when every coach from every organization "wrote" a preview of their team. It wasn’t overly long, and it likely consisted of just the coach talking to a writer, who then transcribed what the coach said. Still, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preview was written by former coach Lenny Wilkens, the Los Angeles Lakers’ by former coach Mike Dunleavy, and so on and so on.
Nowadays, if I ask to interview a coach one-on-one for a preview of the team, it’s occasionally met with utter astonishment and panic. That’s actually the opposite of the way it should be. It’s when I’m not allowed to interview the coach and then must ask what other people are "hearing" about the team that should be of concern.
I always trust my sources, but I’ll be the first to admit: They don’t know as much about a team as the general manager or coach of a team. So organizations should trust their coaches and front-office members to talk openly. I get that it’s a huge business. But it’s also just basketball. And I can tell you, as a guy who’s interviewed hundreds of coaches, there’s nothing more they like to discuss. They’ll talk basketball all day. So will most reporters. At least, most of the good ones.
So these basketball conversations ought to be made a priority. They can promote your team way more than stories about Player X supposedly wanting out.
4. Finally, this one has to come from the league offices: But NBA officials should sit down with players or coaches at the center of some of the biggest rumors and encourage them to say something, anything.
I was impressed with how free-agent guard Eric Bledsoe came out and addressed his situation with the Suns over the weekend. Bledsoe made his feelings known on a Birmingham TV station: He feels like the Suns "are using restricted free agency against me, but I understand that."
Agree or disagree, at least Bledsoe expressed his feelings. Bledsoe didn’t allow his agent, acting as a "league source," to describe how Bledsoe feels. He didn’t let the rumor mill spin out of control. Bledsoe just said what he had to say. Yes, it takes guts. But quite frankly, more people in today’s NBA could use some of those.
Worse than talking?
This is not to suggest the rumor mill is out of control (although I believe, for the most part, it is). It’s not even to suggest it’s such a horrible thing. Fabricated rumors are bad. Real information that drives attention to the NBA in July is only good for the NBA.
What isn’t good is that Kevin Love felt the need to walk away from Team USA because of rumors. At least, that’s the rumor.
Or maybe it’s because Love really believes he’ll be traded — or maybe because he actually knows for a fact that a trade is coming.
We don’t know. Love isn’t saying. And maybe he shouldn’t say. Maybe it would be bad for business. Maybe he should let the rest of us do the talking, then figure out the truth only when the time comes.
It’s hard to say which approach is better. I’m not a PR expert. (Obviously, as a PR expert likely would’ve advised me not to write this column.)
But what would it really hurt for Love to talk on record? It might actually hush some of this stuff. How about: "I really want to play, but my head is spinning. So I may not be much of a help to the national team." I don’t know if that’s the case — but by Love keeping quiet, I sure am left to wonder. And when I say "I am left to wonder," what I really mean is, "Man, this is gonna be all over the Internet, and who knows what part of it will actually be true?"
That, to me, is the part of pro basketball that stinks.
Granted, as long as there are reporters, there will be agents and GMs and owners and coaches who have agendas to push. Reporters, myself included, probably could do a better job of pressuring sources and explaining how removing the "anonymous" label actually does more to get everyone’s message across. It makes things authentic.
It always cracks me up (read: gets under my skin) when a player or GM gets on the media about using "inside sources," but knows as well as I do that he once refused to go on the record about something. It happens more than you’d think.
You don’t want to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves? Fine, come out and say it. Or just keep it quiet until you ask for a trade. But don’t drop breadcrumbs of hints to the Timberwolves via the media. I don’t know if that’s what Love and his representatives are doing, but it sure feels like it.
Know why it feels like it? It feels like it because Kevin Love isn’t talking.
Basketball will sell
Again, there is no one way to change how the league is covered. To be honest, I think the league is just fine with it. I know fans sure are. Unless, of course, you write a report that portrays their team in an unfavorable light.
Write something fans want to hear, and they’ll love you. Write something they don’t like, and true or not, they’ll shred you.
But that’s OK. That’s why they’re called fans. It’s short for "fanatical," which is basically another way of saying "highly reactionary" and "fairly unreasonable." Not really, but you get the idea.
Still, fans crave information, and fans are the heartbeat of the NBA. Without fans, the NBA would be pro badminton. It wouldn’t exist. Nor would I. Well, I’d exist, but I’d probably have to put that psychology degree to use. And what fun would that be?
Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is, this has been an intense offseason of free agency, trade rumors, coaching changes and so on. As Cavs guard Kyrie Irving put it (for the record), this summer has been "a whirlwind."
Irving also said: "So many rumors, so many inside sources."
Man, he’s got that one right.
How does the NBA tone it down? I’d say some sort of summit involving commissioner Adam Silver, league officials, league PR staffs and the Pro Basketball Writers Association is in order. That is, if the league doesn’t like how it’s being covered.
Some anonymous sources have indicated that, honestly, the NBA is just fine with anonymous sources. After all, even rumors that aggravate the league’s subjects help sell the league.
But so does actual basketball, and the NBA should figure out a better way to sell that, too.