Ten years ago, Tom Haberstroh was a 24-year-old reporter with an ESPN.com site called The Heat Index. Haberstroh’s specialty was analytics. One day, he created a graph showing how LeBron James almost never took shots in the first six minutes of games. Haberstroh printed the graph and brought it to practice. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was impressed—“Wow, did you do this?”—and waved Pat Riley over to have a look.
Holy shit, Haberstroh thought, as Riley walked toward him. Haberstroh had never met the Heat president. He handed him his research. “Pat doesn’t say a word,” Haberstroh told me. “He just looks at the piece of paper, folds it up, puts it in his pocket, and walks away.”
Today, there’s a model for covering an NBA superteam. A site surrounds the team with multiple reporters with different skill sets, treats the season like a 900-page pulp novel, and laps up the traffic.
But 10 years ago, when The Heat Index was created before James’s first season in South Beach, the model wasn’t standard-issue. It was controversial. The site’s four main reporters—Haberstroh, Brian Windhorst, Michael Wallace, and Kevin Arnovitz—found themselves in a vortex of LeBron-bashing, ESPN-bashing, analytics-bashing, and sportswriting turf wars. With James and the Heat in the Finals, it’s worth revisiting how the site created a template for modern NBA coverage. When you read huge chunks of basketball reporting today, you’re probably reading something that was tried in The Heat Index.
From the beginning, The Heat Index took a wrecking ball to conventional ideas about sports coverage. Newspapers covered all the major teams in a city. Even ESPN’s local sites, which launched in cities like Chicago and Boston in 2009, more or less hewed to the model.
With The Heat Index, ESPN unbundled the sports page. The site said: Our writers will cover the team everyone wants to read about—and to hell with the Marlins.
“There was this idea that ESPN.com was a public trust,” said Haberstroh. “Kevin always talked about this. He was like, ‘This ain’t no public trust. This is supply and demand.’”
If The Heat Index was going to nationalize a single team, it was also going to cover the team more vigorously. There would be gamers and features, for sure. But Haberstroh would also write a daily analytics piece. The site would assign James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh letter grades for every game. It aggregated the hate that rained down on James and Co. under the heading “Can’t Stand the Heat.” An early headline read: “Radio host hires witch doctor to curse LeBron.”
Of The Heat Index’s four writers, Windhorst, who was 32 years old, was the most well-known commodity. As a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, Windhorst could claim to have covered James for a decade. But by 2009, he was getting outmaneuvered. When James hit a buzzer-beater to win Game 2 of that year’s Eastern Conference finals, Windhorst had seven minutes to meet a newspaper deadline; his internet competitors had all the time in the world. “It became clear to me at that moment,” said Windhorst. “I cannot do my best work writing for a newspaper.”
ESPN began recruiting Wallace, who was 35, the morning after The Decision. After graduating from Grambling State, Wallace had taken a 14-year “scenic route” through Southeastern newspapers before landing a Heat beat job at the Miami Herald. The ESPN call was a culmination. “It was me reaching my career pinnacle, but it was also an entire family being lifted,” he said.
Arnovitz—a pal—worked for Slate and NPR’s Marketplace before joining ESPN in 2008. He is one of the few people on earth who could point out that Chris Bosh had committed a “Kinsley gaffe.” After helping start the TrueHoop Network, he became the Heat Index bureau chief, wrangling stories, feeding the modules in the site’s “carousel” design, and leading his colleagues to the right jerk chicken truck.
Haberstroh, a self-described “wide-eyed nerd,” was left out of The Heat Index’s initial press release. He thought he’d lost the job. When ESPN finalized his contract, Haberstroh became a new sort of beat writer: one who used analytics like his competitors used notebooks and recorders. He taught Windhorst about offensive efficiency; Windhorst gave him the phone number of a trainer he needed to interview.
Every writer but Wallace was new to Miami. Windhorst, who had never lived outside the state of Ohio, got a downtown apartment with a sweeping view of Biscayne Bay. But for a dyed-in-the-wool newspaper guy, the building had one drawback: mandatory valet parking. When Windhorst wanted to drive to Heat practice, he had to find someone to fetch his car.
With NBA writing still lurching into the modern era, Arnovitz and Haberstroh had clear lanes. Arnovitz, who had explored X’s and O’s on his ClipperBlog, wrote about how the Heat were running too few pick-and-rolls with James and Wade. When James melted in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, Haberstroh set out to determine whether—as talk radio hosts had it—“Michael Jordan would have never done that.”
As conventional beat writers, Windhorst and Wallace weren’t just competing with the other publications. They were competing with each other. “I said to my bosses, ‘I didn’t rip my life to shreds to come here to be a co-beat writer,’” said Windhorst. In the site’s early days, Windhorst used his experience covering James, while Wallace used his institutional knowledge of the Heat. “We used to think about it like, ‘OK, LeBron and D-Wade are basically going to do the same thing we’re going to have to do, so let’s figure this out,’” said Wallace.
There was more than enough news. In November, Spoelstra and James bumped into each other on the court during a timeout. “Neither one of those guys broke stride one bit,” said Wallace. Wallace asked Spoelstra about the bump after the game, then watched Spoelstra walk to the Heat locker room to find the door locked; the players had called a private meeting.
In February, in Detroit, a heckler in the stands behind Wallace made fun of James’s mother while his children sat nearby. James confronted the heckler—and won over fans who’d come to the game to boo him.
There were freighted moments: the night of a loss when Spoelstra revealed that Heat players were crying in the locker room. James calling a reporter’s question “retarded.” (Arnovitz wrote a column that was both personal and measured.) James tweeting “Karma is a b****” at his old Cavaliers teammates—then claiming, preposterously, that the Cavs weren’t his target.
At a game in New Orleans, Wallace pulled Windhorst aside and said they had to stop covering every moment like it was a Finals elimination game. But this was a feature of the dawning superteam era: Every moment would be plundered for meaning and the home page headlines—we were still reading home pages—would change several times a day.
The 2010-11 Heat season was like an endless First Take A block, featuring an ascendant star who was—to hear the opinionators tell it—mortally flawed, both on and off the court.
“If LeBron passed up the open shot and the Heat won, it was a signal that LeBron is feeble, that he’s not Michael Jordan, that he’s not clutch,” said Haberstroh. “If he hits the shot, it’s, ‘Here’s how many game-winners Michael and Kobe have—and he still won’t win the title.’” Haberstroh’s analytics pieces took on the mantle of truth-squadding.
“We would joke, what’s the lowest piece of news value that we could get on the front page of ESPN?” said Windhorst. “If they change the pregame meal …” The news hardly mattered. According to The Sporting News, The Heat Index “gobbled up half the NBA-related pageviews” on ESPN.com.
In Cleveland, Windhorst had watched in annoyance when his competitors used late deadlines to beat him. When he got to ESPN, email chains would circulate in the fourth quarter of Finals games so that the site’s biggest NBA writers—Marc Stein, Ric Bucher, J.A. Adande—could claim an angle. When asked what he was writing, Windhorst would inevitably demure: “I will declare my intentions after the locker room.” As Haberstroh told me: “It was Brian’s way of saying, ‘I got this.’”
The Heat Index wasn’t troll-y or incendiary. But it annoyed some sportswriters, who called it “off-the-charts silly” and a sign of “Western Civilization in decline.” The best way to understand these charges is that the writers were seeing a vision of the future of NBA writing.
In the broad sense, The Heat Index showed the media how to cover an NBA season minute-by-minute. At first, the very idea of such coverage seemed like a stunt. As Andrew Sharp wrote in SB Nation, “For the record, ESPN: We’re not gawking with you, we’re gawking at you.”
But today, just about every NBA writer is gawking with each other, at every meme and trade rumor. In comparison, The Heat Index looks pretty buttoned-down. Its stories were pitched as a tonic to hysteria. For the site that graded every James game, it churned out little that seems embarrassing in retrospect—no mean feat with 2010-11 Heat. “The thing about that team is you were just reacting,” said Arnovitz. “There wasn’t time to conceptualize.”
The Heat Index showed that NBA beats would become battlefields where local papers were pitted against national media companies. Indeed, part of the backlash to the site was that the Great Recession had taken a bite out of newspapers. Flush with cable money, ESPN was marching through the rubble. “I often went into work feeling like I had a target on my back,” said Haberstroh. In our current recession, newspapers are still warding off ESPN writers and the lusty battle cry of The Athletic.
The Heat Index pointed out something more basic about NBA writing, too. Writers sat at Michael Jordan’s locker and filled their notebooks for years. But when The Heat Index was founded, it was clear that this ritual was speeding up. A single superstar quote, profound or banal, was now a valuable commodity if posted instantly to the web. “LeBron Says” stories became traffic monsters, what Wallace calls “the beast for the day,” and they remain so a decade later.
“Kevin and I would have some real tough nights where we would write a newser off an off-hand comment from LeBron that was just benign,” said Haberstroh. “It was an innocuous comment from LeBron. It would generate millions and millions of pageviews. Then the smartest, most nuanced journalism that Kevin and I could come up with, we’d put it on the site and it would get one-tenth of the traffic.” It was a humbling lesson. When it comes to pageviews, a sportswriter is never more valuable than when he’s a wire service.
The Heat Index portended a stratified future. Whenever ESPN shrinks, less glamorous beats lose their writer. But for superteams, the future would be a bonanza. In 2018, ESPN assembled its Avengers in L.A. when James moved to the Lakers. The Athletic has a kind of Warriors Index. There are wide-eyed nerds everywhere. As Haberstroh said, “People were like, ‘Duh, why wouldn’t you hire four writers to cover one team?’”