Here’s a fun post to get you through the doldrums of a Wednesday – an interview with the journalist who has covered LeBron James closer than anyone else: Brian Windhorst of the Akron-Beacon Journal. He covered LeBron’s first high school game and recently co-authored The Franchise, a book about LeBron’s larger impact on the city. Windhorst also shared with us his dim view on the future of newspapers, tales of athletes fighting and baseball’s lack of a level playing field.
Q: You actually went to LeBron’s high school, and now you cover him. What was your path like to the Akron Beacon Journal?
Let me just say that my senior year our boys basketball team was 3-17. Things changed a little after LeBron arrived. I started at the Beacon Journal when I was 16, my junior year. I had an interest in journalism and got hired as an agate clerk/food fun boy. Six weeks on the job I got mugged while getting food at Mr. Hero. It was all glamour and taking cross country meets over the phone, it really impressed the girls. I mean, who else could get his hands on first editions of the paper to bring to high school parties at 12:30 a.m.? That was about the earliest I could do things on Friday and Saturday nights. Maybe against my better judgment I gave up college options to go to nearby Kent State. I could’ve gone to Northwestern but thought working in the field during college would have value. I’m still blasted by people in the business for that decision. I also turned down tripling my salary to go do agate at the Plain Dealer as a junior in college because I able to write as a correspondent at the Beacon Journal. I never wrote a single sports story for my college newspaper, so the whole path was a little unconventional. But by the time I graduated in 2000, I’d had several hundred bylines and six years experience working on a sports desk. In 1999, I covered LeBron’s first high school game and instantly started to push for more coverage of him. My bosses thought I was being biased toward my alma mater. I got the last laugh on that one. From there, I just advanced from part time to full time, from high schools to colleges. I was very, very lucky that in 2003 the Cavs beat at our paper was open when they landed LeBron. And lucky they gave me a chance. I was 25, and at the time was the youngest traveling beat writer in the NBA.
Q: We talk to a lot of columnists, but not many beat writers – tell us what “being on the beat” is like. Do you have any time for a social life? How are you dealing with the sacrifices?
On pro beat with no backup (doesn’t that just get the sympathy going?) every day from Oct. 1 to the end of the season, which last year was like June 15, is a workday for me. I cover on average about 79 of the 82 games. This year I’m headed for 80 including all 41 road trips. Christmas was just a Tuesday, the Cavs had a game. I see my dry cleaner more than I see my loved ones. And people really get sick of me using the phrase â€œwait until the offseason.€ But it’s a high-profile job with pretty good pay for our business. Professionally it can be extremely rewarding even if personally it is very taxing. At the end you have lots of frequent flyer miles and Marriott points to spend in the summer. So you take your understanding girlfriend, who lucky for me is also a sportswriter, first class to a nice resort on an island and hope it makes up for it. It’s those July days you spend on the beach or playing golf that makes the 5 a.m. wakeup calls in Milwaukee worthwhile. At least for me.
Q: Did you read any particular writers growing up? Was there a particular subject you envisioned yourself writing about?
I always loved sports and stats. When I was a kid, in the days before the Internet and having batting averages in the box scores, I used to keep the Cleveland Indians offensive stats on my own. I read SI and the Sporting News and used to cut out everything about my favorite baseball player, Darryl Strawberry, and my favorite basketball player, Danny Ferry. Boy, I got let down on both of those, eh? Once a father of a friend who knew Danny brought him over to my house to pick up my friend. Of course, the crazy irony of life is that I now cover Danny as general manager of the Cavs. And, as he’ll tell you openly, the fan days are over. If I’m not annoying him by writing rumors and checking up on little things, I’m ripping Duke. But I didn’t really have someone I felt was a must read, but I read Terry Pluto’s Cavs coverage and Sheldon Ocker’s Indians coverage in the Beacon Journal every day. Later to have them as co-workers and now as a co-author with Terry is sort of ironic, too. I think it just makes them feel old.
Q: When you see cutbacks happening throughout newspapers, seemingly on a monthly basis, do you wonder about what a newspaper might look like in 10 years, or how newspapers writers’ lives will be different in a decade?
I am an extreme realist and I think the decay of print newspapers is going to happen faster than most people think. In 10 years, my guess is they will print only a small fraction of copies they do now, mostly for commuters and diehards. What I don’t see, though, is a waning in interest in sports. Fans will want information on their teams and their eyeballs will continue to drive our business. How it shakes out threatens all of our security, which sucks for us. It means you better be on your toes and be willing to be progressive or you’ll get left behind. It sounds clichÃ© but it’s just damn true. I think the development of blogs is fascinating and I also think how most newspapers do blogs is comical. Four years ago when I went to my bosses and talked about doing a blog they had no idea what I was talking about. Now, many papers are just reactionary. Editor tells reporter: â€œhey, do a blogâ€ and most of the time the writer doesn’t want to do it and neither of them know what a blog truly is. You hear all these beat writers bitching about it all the time. I have a piece of cyberspace they call a blog but it isn’t, it’s a journal about the Cavs and it has its own large and growing audience. And many of the talented bloggers react and comment on my stories and journals to their audiences. Some of the most talented writers today are bloggers and their role often is to comment on news that I and many other reporters provide. I think the news media and bloggers are heading for years of being married, they are both going to need each other.
Q: When Michael Jordan rose to stardom in the 80s, a few journalists were able to make their “name” covering him. Your success on the LeBron beat – among other things, obviously – has you now writing for ESPN.com. How did you pull that off?
I really hope I can move past just being â€œthe LeBron guyâ€ in my career but there’s no doubt it’s been a massive stepping stone for me. I started writing for ESPN when I failed at getting a job there. After the interview they must not have thought I was a total hack because I was able to start a relationship with them. Obviously LeBron is a major NBA story and nobody in the media is around him or knows him better than me so hopefully it has been beneficial for both ESPN and me. I know ESPN takes a considerable beating in the industry for everything they aren’t, but people forget what they are. From the .com side, I can tell you that most of the time they put the content first and allow the money to follow. You know, how newspapers used to be before they started trying to impress Wall Street more than their customers.
Q: We kind of thought the story about LeBron’s mom getting arrested and kicking out a police car window was downplayed. Was it a big deal in Cleveland? How was LeBron with the media after it went down? Did you get a sense he had read what the media had written?
It got a lot of coverage but I don’t think it really was a lasting story with the public. LeBron having two children out of wedlock or wearing a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game got 10 times the reaction. Sort of the nature of the market. LeBron has a lot of capital built up and he knows it, so he’s always handled any negative issues with total ease. His mother has not always made the best decisions and he figured that out years ago and is used to dealing with it. When he was in high school he got suspended for taking two free throwback jerseys from a store in exchange for autographs. He laughed; his family had already taken tens of thousands in cash from agents. When he was a boy, his mother got involved in a lot of things worse than kicking out a car window. He’s got a different perspective on things than your average reader. But he does read, two or three times a year he’ll say something to me about a story.
Q: In an interview, you said you grew up loving baseball, but that’s not the case anymore. Is it just because you life is consumed with basketball, or for other reasons?
Because the league is unfair. The Brewers, Royals and Pirates of the world do not compete on a level playing field with the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers. There is something to be said for having successful teams in the major markets, the NBA is struggling with that right now. But the San Antonio Spurs or Pittsburgh Steelers, organizations that make excellent decisions and spend money wisely, could not exist in Major League Baseball. Their reward for drafting and developing well would not be championships. Baseball is hugely popular and doing pretty well financially right now, but eventually there will be a blood letting. At some point the weakest links will break. It is only a matter of time, just ask the NHL. When that happens, maybe I’ll come back.
Q: Our all-time favorite off-the-court NBA story is the Charles Oakley-Tyrone Hill incident. It had it all – brutal honesty, gambling, and fighting. What’s yours?
So many ones I can’t tell, even here. Overhearing players talk about having foursomes the night before and the like. But I’ll tell two quick ones. First one was after game in Atlanta. Ira Newble, who lived in ATL and had just signed with the Cavs from the Hawks, only got a few minutes with all sorts of friends and family there. He got up in coach Paul Silas’ face in the locker room after the game. While we’re waiting to get in, Newble busts out of the locker room only half dressed. Silas follows him into the hallway and yells: â€œGet back here you hip hop muther——, I’m not done with you!â€ Newble stops and glares him and Silas gets into a stance like he’s ready to take a swing. I’m standing there in the middle, seven inches shorter than both, looking at the fire in their eyes. Ira leans like he’s going to come back but then goes the other direction. Silas just sniffled and said â€œS—â€ and walked back into the locker room with a swagger. Wild stuff.
Second, I wasn’t there, but the story is legend. During a game in Dallas two years ago, Jerry Stackhouse got pissed at Kirk Snyder, who was playing for the Utah Jazz. Stackhouse told Snyder during the game he was going to kick his ass. Then, just as the game ended Stack warned that he’d be waiting for Snyder at the bus. So Stack goes into the locker room, takes off his uniform and asks the equipment manager to get him some workout clothes. He puts those on, walks out to the Jazz bus and when Snyder shows up he indeed whips him as promised. Snyder gets taken to the bus, bleeding, by security guards. Stack goes back to the locker room and puts on his suit. He didn’t want to get blood on it. Classic! Sort of like the scene in Goodfellas when Pesci and DeNiro beat the guy to death and then Pesci says he sorry for getting blood on Henry Hill’s floor.
Does Larry Hughes know about the website telling him to stop shooting, and if so, what’s his reaction been? Larry is completely oblivious to the media or anything written on the web about him. It is not part of his world. But he gets booed regularly at home when he takes jumpers so I think he gets the point.
Worst part about covering the NBA? Spending hours waiting to talk to people that have no interest in talking to you. That and regional jets.
Gut feeling – does LeBron play out his career in Cleveland? I think he wants to, I don’t think there is a grand plan for him to bolt to NYC like many think. But he
is all about business, so I believe at some point he’ll probably be elsewhere.
Will the Celtics win 70 games? No, their schedule has been soft so far. They will not keep up this pace.
Are you at all geeked about Cloverfield? Dude, I had to Google that just to find out what you were talking about. I am still recovering from No Country For Old Men. That and the DVD I caught last night, Eastern Promises, which Zydrunas Ilgauskas recommended to me.