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Fending Off Unruly Fresno State Fans in the Grocery Store: an Interview with Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports

We usually reserve interviews for the end of the week, but there’s a special delight today: Yahoo sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski took some time out of his busy NBA Finals schedule and allowed us to badger him. He’s written a book or two and also previously wrote for big, bad, ESPN.

Q: You used to write for ESPN, and now are at Yahoo. Can you maybe pick out a few differences between both places? Such as readership, how you’re edited, or reaction from readers/agents?

Well, I was never a staff writer for ESPN.com, just a freelancer, so it’s tougher to compare. They were pretty open to most ideas, but I still didn’t have the clout that came with working full-time there.

Once I started writing books and did “The Miracle of St. Anthony,” in 2005, I cut down my contributions to the site. Once I started reporting my next book a year and a half ago (a biography on Jim Valvano) I realized quickly that I couldn’t continue to take a paycheck from ESPN. A very significant portion of his life took place there, and that just creates an inherent conflict when you have to report and write about it.
People like to take shots at ESPN because of how big they’ve become in the industry, but they’re kidding themselves if they don’t think there’s a ton of great work done there. You’re going to take your share of lumps going up against Marc Stein, Chris Sheridan, Chris Broussard, etc., covering the NBA.

While I did enjoy writing for them, do I think that a handful of columns through the years didn’t run, or really got buried, because I was especially hard on someone in a seat of power in the NCAA? Yeah, I do. But it was pretty rare.

I know ESPN.com has been more read far longer by the people we cover, and Initially, that’s tough to overcome. But I’ve already seen a lot of growth in that area through one basketball season with us. The more news you break on a league, the more sources you develop, the more people make Yahoo! Sports a part of their daily reading lineup.

In general, the younger executives, coaches and agents are more regular readers of Yahoo! Sports, and probably, the internet in general. That’s where I’ve worked to build up my sources in the league. But Yahoo had a ton of credibility when I arrived, because we have Dan Wetzel as a columnist, Charles Robinson and Jason Cole had been breaking the Reggie Bush stuff, and then, I thought the hiring of Tim Brown on baseball was immense for us. But there’s so much talent here – Jeff Passan, Josh Peter, etc. — that it’s tough to ignore the impact we’re having on the industry.

Here’s the thing, though: We aren’t trying to be ESPN.com. When I took the job, they told me, “Don’t worry about who’s going to get Memphis’ mid-level exception. Find great stories, have a strong takes and write well.€

One more thing: If you read our columnists, none of us are sitting on the couch, just taking shots without ever facing the people we write about. We all travel a lot. We report like crazy. We break news. We have strong, opinionated takes, but we don’t just makes reckless, uniformed and stupid stands on stuff. Also, you’ll never see the intramural squabbles among writers playing out on our site. We actually think it’s more interesting to write about sports, than each other.

Q: One of the papers that used to be a launching pad was the Fresno Bee. Andy Katz worked there, you worked there, and Eric Prisbell of the Washington Post did as well. What made the paper so great? Got any untold sketchy stories from your time in Sin City covering Tark the Shark?

Along the way, there were different editors who made those hires. Rick Vacek deserves a lot of credit for getting things started there. He had made a lot of great hires as sports editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, including Tim Brown and Marc Stein, before he moved to the Bee.

Tark had just been hired in 1995, and Andy Katz and I had interviewed for the beat job to cover Fresno State basketball. I was covering UConn and writing columns at the Waterbury Republican-American in Connecticut, and Andy was at the Albuquerque Journal. After I interviewed, Rick called me back and asked if I’d rather that they create a columnist position for me. At 25, that was like hitting the lottery; easily the biggest break of my career.

Fresno was a great place to learn to be a columnist, because with Tark, all hell was breaking loose every day. I was pretty relentless on him and the program, and eventually, I could barely go anywhere in public without some kind of a confrontation.

Once, a guy wanted to fight me at midnight at a supermarket, right in the middle of the canned vegetable aisle. I thought maybe I could lower a shoulder into him, and bury him into the waxed beans, but he was getting loud about me leaving Fresno and leaving Tark alone. He wasn’t a little guy, and seemed very determined to kick my ass, if I just gave him the opening. This was a lose-lose for me. I just had to leave my half-filled cart in the aisle and walk out of the store. Another time, when I was traveling at the height of the point shaving stuff, my wife had to stay in a hotel under an assumed name. Still, I loved that job, and wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
Tark and I had a bizarre relationship. I’d rip him but then I’d always be sure to show up the next day. Then he’d forget he was mad at me, would want to talk basketball, and everything would be fine. I’d rip him again the next day, I’d show up, he’d yell, and then we’d get through the same cycle again. It was his sychophants I had the most trouble with.

But now, we get along pretty well, which is easier when I don’t have to cover him anymore. Tark’s had enough adversaries in his life, and doesn’t hold too many grudges. I’ll say this about him With all the phonies in college sports, Tark (usually) never pretended to be anything other than what was. His thing wasn’t so much, “I’m innocent,” but “Everyone else is doing it too. So, why are you picking on me?”

Q: You can start a team from everyone currently in the NBA (excluding Oden). Do you go with Duncan, or one of the three studs – LeBron, Kobe, or Wade?

If it’s just about winning, it’s Duncan. No one dominates on both ends like him. Everyone talks about wanting to win championships in the NBA, but he is the ultimate, winning superstar. He doesn’t sell tickets, or push product, but he’ll be the greatest champion of his generation. He is the reason no one ever pops off in that Spurs locker room, bitches about playing time, or shots, or their role on the team. In his ten years, that’s never happened in San Antonio. And that’s amazing in this league.

Q: Having worked in New Jersey, you probably saw plenty of Vince Carter. He’s expected to be one of the biggest names that could move this summer. Can you give us a team you expect to take him, and a darkhorse?

Actually, I believe Carter will re-sign with the Nets. No one on the market can pay him more than the Nets are willing. I think Richard Jefferson will be the one who gets traded this summer.

Q: We’re spending an inordinate amount of time breaking down the NBA draft, but still aren’t sold on the Blazers drafting Greg Oden. What are you hearing? Is he a lock to go No. 1? Do the Blazers have to trade Zach Randolph to take Oden?

Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard did have a lot of local pressure to draft Adam Morrison a year ago, but knew enough to take LaMarcus Aldridge. He is willing to go against conventional wisdom, but he isn’t stupid. He has to take Greg Oden. That’s why he was already working on a way to trade up in the draft to get Mike Conley Jr. too. As much as anything, that tells you about Pritchard’s true intentions come draft day. As intriguing as Kevin Durant is, you can’t pass on Oden. You just can’t.

The Blazers don’t have to trade Zach Randolph, but they seemed fairly determined to do so. They want to build around the solid citizens of LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy and of course, Oden. Atlanta would probably give them the No. 3 overall pick for Aldridge, whom they see skills-wise as a young Rasheed Wallace. But Portland will try to get the Hawks – or maybe the Celtics at No. 5 — to take Conley.

Q: How difficult was it to leave newspapers for the net? Several writers at Yahoo and Sportsline have done so in recent years, and one wonders … just how bad is the sports newspapers business these days?

Moving to the ‘net now, especially Yahoo!, was a much easier proposition than it had probably been for others a few years ago. Guys were leaping to sites that were still losing money and hoping it worked out, but Yahoo! Sports was already very profitable when I joined in October. So far, I haven’t wrecked that. There’s no fear that Yahoo! just going to “pull the plug.€

I had turned down a few other newspaper offers in recent years, partly because I didn’t want to uproot my family. But also, deep down, I wanted my next move to be out of the newspaper business, where I’d have an easier time balancing book writing and columns. So, I’ve gone from a great regional paper (The Bergen Record) to a great national web site in Yahoo!

The Record treated me wonderfully, but it never crossed my mind that I could say “No,” to Dave Morgan when he offered me the NBA column last fall. Dan Wetzel had been in my ear for a long time about Yahoo! Sports, so I had long been sold on the place. What wore me out as a newspaper columnist, especially in the East, were the early event columns, the running filed at the buzzer, the write-thru’s with not nearly enough time to really work the locker room and craft something. You end up writing three versions for one space, and it’s just such a waste of time and energy.

There were so many nights that you leave an arena, or a stadium, feeling like you had little chance to really capture what happened. Now, you have time to work the locker room, get guys alone and really craft something. If I write something that really stinks at a big event now, I have no one to blame but myself. I kind of miss that built-in excuse when I write poorly, but I’m learning to take responsibility.

Here’s another thing that’s unique about Yahoo! Sports: There’s no jealousy, no back-stabbing, on staff. You hear about that all the time at the big print sections and web sites. They’re all staking out territory. Web guys are fighting for TV exposure. Co-workers sit on press row, and don’t speak to each other. But that just isn’t the culture at Yahoo. A big part of that comes from our top editors, Dave Morgan and Joe Lago, who have created a climate that would never tolerate that.

The rest of the websites will continue to lose people to competitors, but I would be shocked if any of us ever (willingly) left Yahoo! Sports.

Q: Most interesting NBA player you covered this season? Why? Anyone you think would be more interesting, but wasn’t?

I’d have to say Gilbert Arenas, who has the greatest capacity for self-promotion of any player in the league. Yet, he does so without making you resent him for it, and that’s a tough trick. He’s a star with the insecurities of a scrub, and it makes him fascinating. What’s more, Arenas understands that his is an entertainment industry, and doesn’t take the league, or himself, too seriously. It probably doesn’t make him the greatest teammate, but whatever, it makes my job easier.

Quick word association:

Q: We say choke, you think: My uninspired high school baseball career — always a key double-play, a ball thrown away, when it mattered most.
Did you collect sports cards? Have a favorite card?: My old baseball cards are still in a box at my parent’s house, but making me pick my favorite Carl Yastrzemski card is like asking me to choose my favorite child.
Q: Second favorite sport after the NBA? I have a love-hate thing with college hoops. I’ve got a lot of sources and friends in the industry, but I’m so glad that I don’t have to cover it on a regular basis anymore. There is more cheating than anyone wants to believe. The AAU culture is filled with so many sleaze-balls, it’s almost impossible to recruit at the highest level without getting dirty. Even the good guys do stuff they just hate themselves for, and yet they’ll tell you that they feel like they have no choice. At least in the NBA, it is what it is. The salaries are in the paper, and no one pretends that it’s about anything besides winning and getting paid. (Not necessarily in that order).
Q: Your favorite animal? Well, I’d have to say cats, because of my two at home: Salami and Go-go. (Yes, they were named for the White Shadow characters). In fact, I watched the episode when Curtis Jackson was shot before the city title game the other night. And like always do, I cried when his little brother, Willie, accepted the trophy from Coach Reeves.
Q: Favorite Reese Witherspoon movie? Why don’t you just ask me for my favorite wine cooler?
Q: Non-sports blog you read: Sweetjesusihatebilloreilly.com

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