In the NBA, and sports in general, there are all different types of journalists. There are normal writers, who may live in a city with an NBA team, but will mostly write from their home about news and generally lead the coverage. Then you have columnists, who will take a subject and put their spin on it, and it’s not always about one sport either. The mysterious ones are the insiders, who have multiple sources, and will bring you leaked information. Last, but not least, there are beat writers. If journalism was a war, beat writers would be the front line. They will travel with the team, bring you the latest from every practice, shoot around, and post-game interviews. There can be multiple beat writers for multiple outlets on every team.
One of the most covered teams in all of sports is the Los Angeles Lakers. Even in a “down year”, the Lakers are set for 29 nationally televised games. I interviewed one of the best beat writers out there, Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosangeles.com–a Lakers beat writer.
Donoho: I’m sure you get countless tweets from people who say they want your job, and are aspiring writers, etc. How annoying does that get? Do you have any advice for people who want to be in your field?
McMenamin: I guess I am in a privileged situation to be answering tweets, and emails, and Facebook messages and things of that nature, so I wouldn’t say it’s annoying, a lot of people, they say it’s the Lakers and you’re covering sports for a living, and they don’t see it as a job. Of course, there are other jobs out there that are more job-like I guess you can say. I don’t have to be at a desk 9-5 and things of that nature, but there’s a lot of work that goes into it, and I think there’s a lot of pressure in this type of job than you wouldn’t have in a regular job, I guess you could say. You’re on the road up to 100 days a year, you are in strict competition with the other people doing your job and in close quarters. With the Lakers, we have, I think there’s 5 traveling beat writers, and other cities in the NBA, you might have only 1 or 2 beat writers covering a team, and so a lot of the work you’re doing to get the story, to break those stories, you have less people to compete with. With the Lakers, not only do you have 5 local market people, but just about every national writer from ESPN, from Yahoo, Fox Sports, SB Nation, run them down the list, they all are looking for a piece of the Lakers pie because that’s where the eyeballs go, there’s a lot of interest in them.
That said, to get to where I am, I think you have to be prepared to work hard, you have to be working at the right things, writing is at the top of that list. You have to be capable, you have to be talented, you have to be able to do it in tight turnarounds. Beyond that, you could be the greatest writer ever, but you have to be able to [pause] say you don’t have good reporting skills, and in today’s media, I think it’s kind of going back to that being a valuable skill, because of the nature of the 24/7 news cycle. You’re going to make your mark if you are passionately breaking news, and maybe it’s easier, I wouldn’t say easier, it’s very hard to do that, but it’s easier to get noticed that way, to move up that way, then to write 5 excellent columns, because we all love to read a really good column, don’t get me wrong, but the same that reverberates across the sports world is news, and if you’re capable of doing that, that’s where you’ll be able to establish yourself. And then, in today’s sports media world you have to be able to not just write, not just report, but it really helps to be able to do radio, do television, to be comfortable in the different medias that are out there, because you have to wear a lot of hats these days.
Donoho: You aren’t on the beat for just any team, this is the Lakers, they are one of the most famous franchises in all of sports. Do you feel any added pressure being on the beat for a team like this?
McMenamin: I’m not so sure, I guess my unique experience is, the way my career kind of went, I wrote for NBA.com before I was with ESPN, and covering specifically the Lakers. So, I was kind of used to having the big stage and big stakes from the start. I think in some sense, the things that you think about, when I was covering the championship runs for the Lakers, just the amount of people who care about this team, and also the fact that your work in some small slither, maybe just a link on a Wikipedia article, your work is gonna reverberate throughout the course of basketball history and that’s something that I take to heart, and think about and kind of let sit with me on purpose. I want my work to be worthy, to hold that distinction, to hold that place in basketball history, no matter how small that might be. In terms of competing for news, you don’t want to think this way, but you’re not gonna break every story, it’s literally impossible to do that on a team like the Lakers. So, make sure that you have proper sources, but if someone else does break the story, you’re able to get cooperation and able to independently report it on your outlet, and of course giving credit to the initial people who broke it. It’s also making sure that you’re bringing something to the table, in that mix, that sets you apart, that keeps you worthwhile to care about what you work is.
Donoho: I’m sure you see things that coaches and players will do in private, that they wouldn’t want being public. Where do you draw the line as far as what you put into an article?
McMenamin: Right, I think that the value of being on the road and seeing these guys in the capacity where it becomes color or extra information for your stories that you can provide something to the reader they’re not gonna get just from watching the game on TV, but there are lines between being a human being and the ticket has been punched, and you’re off the clock and you don’t have to be so and so, NBA Superstar, and it’s a balancing act because you don’t wanna be necessarily having to feel the need to throw down the ‘ok this is the specifically I’m saying this is off the record, this is on the record.’ Now, that happens a lot where you have to do that, that’s the nature of the job, but you want it to be a a point where you and the people around you on the team, certainly the ones you grow better relationships with, you both kind of have a understanding of what’s appropriate and what’s not. There’s a value in holding some stuff back, and keeping it out of your notebook and out of your stories, and you can establish trust, and that pays off where when it’s time where you need these coaches, or these players, or front office people, for a story on the record or you need them to give you background in the future, they’ll be someone that you’ll be able to rely on. If I write about a player that I saw at a bar the night before a game then he went 3 for 18, that’s hypothetical, but if I did that, I don’t see where it’d really be the long term advantage there. I’ve heard stories about guys, Allen Iverson,that were out all night, then played a matinee at Madison Square Garden, and then score 40. So if I was to write that, that the other player, I saw them out, whether that was the reason that effected their performance or not.
Donoho: You wrote a fantastic piece on Lamar Odom, and you touched on a time when Lamar reached out to you after a difficult time. What’s the relationship like between a player and a beat writer?
McMenamin: First of all, thanks for saying that. It varies from player to player, I was at Johnathon Abram’s wedding a couple of years ago and I sat with one of his former editors, and he told me that he would always tell his beat writers: 33% of the guys are going to love you, 33% are going hate you, and 33% of the guys won’t even give a shit about what you do, you’re oblivious to them. I don’t think that’s exactly right, but in my experience, it’s pretty accurate. It’s just human nature, you’ll have people that you gravitate towards, and the people you’ll end up establishing better relationships with than someone you only cared to talk about in the small vacuum of the NBA world. [There are] people who have common interests with and you can talk about things outside of what the location looks like, and what record you wanna go on this upcoming road trip. Myself, basketball carries outside of my work life, I play [basketball] as much as I can, I’ve coached it before, I’ve done a lot with the game of basketball in my life, so I tend to really get along with people who really devote their life to the game. There are guys who enjoy basketball, they’re in it, they like it, and they make a living off of it, but there’s a different level of love with it. You establish relationships, and you get to know these people. You see how people treat people, and some are way better than others at it, and you are more towards them as people you lean on in the future, and also, there are people who understand the game of the media better, they understand how, almost in a way trading favors. Now, not necessarily, not to question ethics here, it’s not actually favors, you know that, they know that if they came to you with information at some point, you would be able to put it out there in a manner in the way they were hoping, whether it’s giving someone information and requesting to be a source instead of on the record, you trust their information, but they also trust you protect their amenity, things of that nature. So, there’s no formula to developing sources, I guess, but I found to be yourself and you let people know what you’re about.
Donoho: Do you keep in touch with any players after they’re tenure with the Lakers?
McMenamin: You mentioned that Lamar story, that story is interesting to me because they’re all former Lakers basically, at one point Jordan Farmar rejoined the team. Jordan is a guy I kept up with here and there, exchanging texts, and I had a friend that was working for the Nets, and I told them to look out for him and things of that nature. Josh Powell, thanks to social media now, Josh left the Lakers a couple of years ago, but I still follow him on twitter, and we’re friends on Facebook. You become oddly part of someone’s life, in that format they don’t leave you. Shannon Brown comes through town a couple times a year, and I wrote a profile piece on him back when he was with the Lakers, and you just kind of keep in touch. The Lakers are such, as I mentioned before, such a high interest beat, where you go on the road and leave the Lakers’ locker room to go to the visiting locker room, and you just never know what you could miss, but there are exceptions. If we’re in Phoenix, maybe I won’t go join the locker room availability time, I’ll make sure I stay in the Lakers’ locker room, but maybe when it’s over I may loop a little more down the tunnel just to see if I can catch Shannon Brown coming off the court after his pre-game warmups and just to say a quick hello, nothing to in depth or anything like that. It’s just showing that your time together meant something, and you care about that person, you’re definitely not rooting for them, they know that if you had to write something critical of them that would be fair game, but it allows them to know it’s not just cut and dry. In a way you’re colleagues, we’re all on the same boat together, we just have different roles in the grand scheme of basketball and entertainment.
Donoho:You mentioned your time at NBA.com, do you ever wish you were just a writer sometimes, like maybe a Kurt Helin or Matt Moore?
McMenamin: Sometimes it gets overwhelming. My first and foremost responsibility for ESPN is to write, and write my stories and break news, but as ESPN has other parts than just ESPN.com, my contract has different parts that require radio, and require television appearances, it’s a balancing act you’ve got to get used too. During the Dwight Howard saga, I was reporting, mostly through texting as those days were playing out, and the ESPN Sportscenter format. I think that there’s 5 or 6 live Sportscenters everyday, and a couple in the day and a couple at night.If they have you on as a guest analyst, say at 9 AM, rather than re-air that same spot, they’ll have you call back an hour later and do the similar line of questioning, maybe it’ll be a different anchor at that point. During the Dwight Howard days, the news was changing within that hour, somedays I might just do that about a story I wrote about Kobe breaking some scoring milestone the night before, the information doesn’t change, but in the Dwight Howard stuff, I was literally on my house line in one hand, while I’m speaking on live television doing an interview, while texting on my cell phone in my other hand. I was able to kind of almost correct, not correct, but inform the anchor that the information has changed in a live interview based on the text I just received. It’s gets wild sometimes.
Donoho: Let’s talk some Lakers, obviously this will be an interesting year with all that’s happened, what are your realistic expectations of what they can be?
McMenamin: I think if health is on their side, I believe they can be a playoff team, now I understand the Western Conference is really top heavy, kind of the first 5 seeds, unless something catastrophic injury wise to the Clippers, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Grizzlies, and the Warriors, I think that’s pretty much set. After that, there’s a door that can be open. I think what they have going for them this year is they have people who to be in Los Angeles, guys like Farmar who are taking a major paycut to come here, Chris Kaman could have got more money on the open market, he wants to be in Los Angeles, Nick Young could have got more money. I think you have guys like Kobe, Nash and Pau who all are prideful winners who want to make up for what went wrong last year, and kind of give it a better go of things. Essentially I picked them at 44 wins, I think will right squeeze them into the 8th seed perhaps. I think there’s gonna be a more refreshing tone to the season then there was even in the last several seasons, ever since that Celtics championship.
Donoho: Kobe has battled through broken fingers, messed up ligaments, and basically a sprained everything. This time is different. Do you think he can come back from this injury to a level near where he was? Do you see him back opening night?
McMenamin: Let’s start with opening night, I have been back and forth on this, I think that it’s close, or there’s any doubt I guess I should say, I think he’ll take his time and push it back, as much as a machine he is, and we do know that is he is that. Look at last year when he had that really bad ankle sprain against the Hawks and played against the Pacers the next game. This at least gives him a chance to step back and reflect a bit and realize going full force is admirable, and that’s what makes him a warrior, it’s done him well, you can still be a little bit smarter about things, and at 35 , you’re different then you were at 25 years old. So I think right now, I would be surprised if he’s playing opening night, but in a couple of weeks when training camp opens up I could change my tune. As far as him returning, I think he’s certainly going to be an effective player. I think last year, he had been the best he has been in maybe 3 or 4 years. I don’t say this as a slight against him, I don’t think he’s going to reach the level he was hitting last year. I think he’ll be able to be a guy defenses always have to be aware of, a guy who is still able to operate in the post; he was one of the better post up guards in the league. He is an excellent passer, if he’s a willing passer, he has the court vision and the skill to be effective in that realm as well. I think if he can get his body right, I think he’ll be able to adjust his game to a top 20 player in the league.
Dave does great job on the Lakers beat. Beat writers really do hard work, and when you see what they do, you really respect their craft.