Even by the standards of media days, the Lakers’ 2019 edition was a disembodied wall of sound. Minders with printed schedules escorted Lakers players to the set of The Jump; to a Los Angeles Times photographer; to a radio booth where they read promos for The Stephen A. Smith Show; to a curtained-off area where the players’ screams were videotaped for the Staples Center Jumbotron. Hearing wails from behind the curtain, Danny Green smiled and said, “Shut up, LeBron.”
“Ten seconds … five seconds … ” a stage manager counted as James sat before reporters. James and the reporters paused while the Spectrum live telecast came back on the air. It’s often said that the 2019 Lakers have the potential to be a TV show. I got news for you: They are one.
From his seat, James could see a superteam. Not the Lakers, but a team of media all-stars. In various spots around the room were Rachel Nichols, Zach Lowe, Chris Mannix, Chris Haynes, and Ramona Shelburne. (Combined Twitter followers: more than 2.5 million.) Four writers from the Los Angeles Times were seated down front.
When noting the arrival of Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George, James said, “Staples Center is the biggest winner of the summer.” He could have been referring to the Chick Hearn Press Room. Los Angeles has replaced New York as the capital of NBA media. It’s where striving media types are at their striviest, where highly wrought NBA Twitter gags are composed in real time. L.A., said the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay, has become the “Hemingway’s Paris of NBA media dorks.”
Take Haynes, who seemed to know every player at media day. (As we were chatting, he introduced me to Quinn Cook.) Haynes lives in Oakland. But he estimated he now spends as much as 70 percent of his time in L.A. “Everything’s going to run through the city this year,” Haynes said. “As a national writer, how can you not have a footprint on it?”
Haynes isn’t alone. Both The New York Times (Scott Cacciola) and The Washington Post (Ben Golliver) have NBA writers stationed in L.A. This fall, The Athletic’s Brett Dawson left the Thunder beat to move here, which brings that network’s total number of L.A.-based NBA writers and podcasters to a half-dozen.
L.A. is ESPN’s de facto NBA headquarters. Heavy-minutes types like Nichols, Shelburne, Kevin Arnovitz, Baxter Holmes, and Dave McMenamin live here. Last year, the network moved its preseason NBA meetings from Bristol to L.A. This year, ESPN made Ohm Youngmisuk its first full-time Clippers correspondent in years.
Nichols’s The Jump—which James media adviser Adam Mendelsohn calls “the Morning Joe of the NBA”—is already responsible for putting an army of writers and former players on westward flights. Beginning this month, Nichols will host ESPN’s pregame show for Saturday-night games and the NBA Finals.
That roster doesn’t count the dozen NBA content makers at The Ringer, including the chief himself, and various social-media irregulars. Last year, a media barbecue hosted by coach Nick Hauselman, who tweets from @bballbreakdown, drew 50 people.
L.A.’s media buildup is best understood as a belated reaction to a larger transformation within the league. Twenty years ago, many NBA players spent their offseasons in Atlanta or Orlando. “That has completely shifted,” said ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. “The capital of the players in the NBA has been L.A. for more than a decade.”
These days, almost every shoe meeting happens in L.A. Nearly every free-agent courtship is conducted in L.A., whether the team is based here or not. In June, the Timberwolves’ unsuccessful wooing of D’Angelo Russell included a helicopter flight over the city.
In L.A., a sportswriter has the same arm’s-length proximity to NBA stars as they do with sitcom actors. Last week, The Athletic’s Wosny “Big Wos” Lambre was at a restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was a faux-speakeasy where everyone acts rich and a no-camera policy is enforced. “Right in front of me walks LeBron James,” Lambre said. “Right behind him is AD. It’s crazy. That’s L.A.”
L.A. is the home of offseason runs and workouts conducted by the likes of Rico Hines or Kobe Bryant. Last summer, The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie was watching hoops at UCLA when he saw a player he didn’t immediately recognize dominating Buddy Hield and Dante Exum. Vecenie glanced at his phone and realized the player was Pascal Siakam. “Those are the only experiences you can only get in L.A. in the summer,” he said.
Other, more subtle forces have conspired to make L.A. the NBA’s media capital. A few years ago, Windhorst noted, the NBA tweaked its schedule so that visiting teams play the Lakers and Clippers on the same road trip. That means players get to spend consecutive days in L.A., which allows them to do a media tour or make the mandatory appearance on The Jump.
“Part of this story is the decline of the East, which is pretty much two decades old,” said Mark Heisler, the longtime Los Angeles NBA writer.
Another part is the decline—or at least dispersal—of East Coast media. National NBA writers can live in L.A. as easily as they can New York. Players have their own West Coast media shops. Last month, when California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing NCAA athletes to profit off their images, he did it sitting in a barber’s chair next to James on The Shop.
As James peered at the media, it was clear L.A. now has three superteams. All three would have to learn to coexist. “You just have to get used to it, you have to adapt to it,” said The Athletic’s Zach Harper. “It’s not going to be Charlotte.”
The players at Lakers media day gave off a strange vibe. “It felt like they were playing a part, playing a character,” Harper said. It was like title-contender cosplay, with the Lakers trying to convince reporters, and maybe themselves, that they were “back.”
James was the first player to address the media. “Do you still feel like you have something to prove or show to the L.A. Laker fans?” asked Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times.
“We need to get the Lakers back to what they’ve been accustomed to over the years,” James said.
That was about as much vintage Lakers swagger as we got. Coach Frank Vogel said the Lakers “have the ability to achieve the ultimate prize.” (Last year, James refused to name any goals.) General manager Rob Pelinka declined to dignify the “across the pond” rivalry with the Clippers. What pond is that—the L.A. River?
It was up to forward Kyle Kuzma to remind reporters that “this organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in years.” The Athletic’s Bill Oram is starting his seventh year on the beat and has never covered a Lakers playoff team—an unthinkable drought for a premier beat.
The Lakers beat has become a laboratory of modern NBA journalism, where how a team plays isn’t as interesting as what superstar players do or what free agent the team might sign at some indistinct point in the future. “Even if the product doesn’t mesh well on the court, there’s still going to be drama,” said Haynes. “And drama—that’s the NBA! I love it.”
Consider the content that last year’s 37-win Lakers presented to their beats. Rob Pelinka read a Paulo Coelho novel at a press conference. James brought wine to a Clippers game. There was a meeting between Magic Johnson and Luke Walton. Another meeting between Johnson and the team. A failed attempt to trade away the whole team before the deadline. Walton’s ouster. Johnson’s operatic, almost hour-long resignation in the bowels of Staples Center, during which he seemed to search out more journalists to spill his guts to. “I just remember he wouldn’t leave,” said Oram.
There was Johnson slagging Pelinka on ESPN. Johnson trying to do the same to Baxter Holmes after his forensic report—the kind of story Holmes was put on this earth to write. There was the Lakers being bailed out by the Pelicans and their own luck in the draft lottery. The Lakers being stiffed by Leonard in free agency. And, almost as an afterthought, the Lakers trading for Davis, the coveted second superstar.
James had a strange media arc last year. It’s easy to forget that, between dragging the Cavs to the Finals and opening a school in Akron, Ohio, he began the season with a massive amount of media goodwill. Yet something seemed off. Before the season, Plaschke wrote a column noting that James wasn’t much acting like he wanted to be a Laker. Plaschke wasn’t the only one who noticed. As McMenamin noted in his season wrap-up, Lakers players confronted James about his slouching shoulders and side-eye during a team meeting in Memphis.
In terms of media interest, it hardly mattered. “You go to Lakers practice and you get boxed out in the scrum if you’re not sprinting to a position,” said Mirjam Swanson of the Southern California News Group. The Lakers issued around 300 credentials for media day. On Monday night, James told reporters that Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet was “misinformed,” guaranteeing an avalanche of takes. “As good as the Clippers are,” asked Mannix, “who wouldn’t want to write about the Lakers every day?”
This spring, Andrew Greif was getting his teeth cleaned when his dentist asked him what he did for a living. Greif said he was the Clippers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times.
“Ah, well,” the dentist said. “I’m a Lakers fan.”
To be a Clippers writer is to know these sorts of slights. In the dark days before Lob City, the Clippers beat was “the bastard beat,” writers said, or “pariah-ville.” “To the extent anybody knew that the Clippers were around,” said Heisler, “they were basically just an object of contempt.” When ESPN moved Arash Markazi from the Lakers to the Clippers, in 2011, he lost Twitter followers.
For the Clippers’ part, they weren’t always thrilled with their media contingent, either. They thought publications often stashed their lousiest writers on the Clippers beat. A former team employee told this story: Once, the Clippers won a big game, and one of the papers buried the story inside the sports section. When the employee called to complain, he was told the story was too poorly written to run on Page 1.
During the early Donald Sterling years, the Clippers deserved every bit of their journalistic neglect. The team was so lightly managed that a beat writer was once allowed to make a draft choice. Who could blame the Times for pulling its Clippers writer off the road in December to write stories people might actually read?
Starting in 2012, the Clippers took alpha dog status away from the Lakers. They won 50 or more games in five consecutive seasons. But the Clippers thought writers weaned on Shaq and Kobe were treating them like a questing franchise that couldn’t handle its first real taste of success (which, in fairness, the Clippers often could not).
In 2013, Doc Rivers decided to cover up the Lakers’ championship banners during home games at Staples Center. It was treated like a crime against a great franchise. “You would have thought Doc Rivers walked in and murdered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at midcourt,” said the former team employee.
Another time, Blake Griffin was sent to do an interview with a local sports radio show. The hosts asked him when he was going to leave the Clippers and join the big boys. “Think about that,” the former employee said. “What other team would that ever happen to?”
The Clippers’ journalistic state is different, and stranger, than that of the Mets or Jets or other “second” teams. As the Times’ Dan Woike noted, the Clippers are often a huge story nationally but rarely a huge story in L.A. Swanson told me she would see a player like Pat Beverley being interviewed on The Jump, then flip to sports radio and hear the hosts talking about the Lakers’ hypothetical free-agent moves.
Last year, the Clippers were clearly the best on-court story in town. They traded Tobias Harris, still made the playoffs, and came back to beat the Warriors in that miraculous Game 2. “They kept running the same pick-and-roll with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, and the Warriors couldn’t stop it,” Windhorst said. “Steve Ballmer was celebrating like a little girl on the baseline. Even though I knew the Clippers wouldn’t win the series, I loved watching that game.”
Yet the beat remained small. Last year, there were two Clippers writers on the road, Greif and The Athletic’s Jovan Buha. At home games, they were joined by Swanson.
Last fall, the Clippers held their media day a few hours before the Lakers’ session. A lot of writers listened to Rivers and then split, leaving a pile of Chick-fil-A sandwiches the team had laid out uneaten. This almost never happens with sportswriters.
At media day last month, the Clippers felt like a team that was beginning to flex its content muscles. They had reserved their own day for media day. Shelburne and Haynes attended, and the tacos from Home State were decimated. When I asked Swanson the biggest difference between this year and last year’s edition, she said, “People—there were so many more people.”
Lakers media day was doomy and portentous. Clippers media day was happy-go-lucky. “The vibe of the Clippers is a little like a high school basketball team,” said Wosny Lambre. “People clapped when the rookies got off the podium.”
At home or across the nation, Kawhi Leonard is an undeniable object of interest. On July 4, the day before news broke that Leonard had chosen the Clippers, Greif published a story about Leonard’s college recruitment. He said it was probably the most-read Clippers story he wrote all year.
At media day, Leonard sat on stage next to Lou Williams. The Q&A was almost newsless—without even the awkward laugh Leonard unveiled last year in Toronto. When a writer asked about off-court chemistry, Leonard pointed his right pinkie at Williams, directing him to answer.
The Clippers’ in-house video team got more memorable stuff on the team’s fishing trip. Until Leonard morphs into Kevin Durant, there might be something about his essence that’s better captured on video than in print. After media day, Markazi was contemplating giving Leonard the full Anthony Slater–at-the-locker treatment. “Shoot, if he thinks something’s funny and laughs, that’s probably important to capture,” Markazi said.
Just about all the Clippers writers were interested to see how much the 2019 team would break through as an L.A. story. The challenge isn’t the Clippers’ overcoming their rotten history. It’s overcoming the peculiar state of being the Clippers. After media day, Leonard went to the Coliseum to watch the Rams. When his image was shown on the Jumbotron, he was booed.
The NBA’s media capital has a final group of residents. They are the international expats who have been hanging around Staples Center for years. Sometimes, the American beats struggle to remember their names. (“There’s a guy who’s bald—I think he’s Spanish.”) They watch them produce content but have no idea where the content appears. The foreign writers are often consigned to the upper press box at Staples. They exist in a parallel journalistic universe.
At Clippers media day, I found Italian journalist Zeno Pisani wearing a gold necklace and a V-neck T-shirt. Pisani, who is 44, came of age in the mid-’80s, when Italy was seeing its first NBA games on television and the country was taken with the Lakers, Celtics, and 76ers. He first came to Los Angeles in 1996. He has had full credentials to the Clippers and Lakers for 15 years.
Pisani’s job is far from a languorous foreign posting. Lakers and Clippers home games end when it’s about 7 a.m. in Rome. Pisani files a gamer that is immediately plopped onto the website of the venerable journal La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Like most foreign reporters, Pisani is good at coming up with local angles. Two years ago, when Danilo Gallinari came to the Clippers, Pisani was in heaven. After Pisani filed his gamer, he and his wife, Sheyla, filmed an interview with Gallinari at his locker. This went to Sky Italia, Italy’s NBA rights holder. Pisani and Gallinari are close friends and paddleboarded at various spots around L.A. until Gallinari was sent to Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade. “He will miss L.A.,” said Pisani.
Pisani can still scrounge up angles. When visiting teams come through L.A., he can hit up Mike D’Antoni, who played and coached in Italy, or Gianluca Pascucci, the new assistant GM of the Timberwolves. Pisani spoke Italian with Kobe Bryant, who spent part of his childhood in Italy. They formed a relationship, and Pisani and Sheyla married on the 24th of the month—“Mamba Day,” they called it.
Pisani is impressed with the access he gets at Staples Center, which is far better than the access offered by most European teams. “For you, maybe it’s normal,” he said. “You grew up with this culture. For me, at the beginning, it was like a kid in a candy shop.”
The American beat writers told me there was a Polish standup comedian who doubled as an NBA writer. This sounds like most people on NBA Twitter, so I had to meet the guy.
Marcin Harasimowicz was a big deal in Warsaw. He developed a taste for basketball after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Poland was experiencing Bulls fever (owing both to Michael Jordan’s rise and the Polish character of Chicago, Harasimowicz explained). Harasimowicz wrote for the newspaper Przegląd Sportowy and flew to America to wrangle NBA stars for TV interviews. One time, he asked Dikembe Mutombo to say something in Polish, and Mutombo mumbled some nonsense words into the microphone. The blooper is still in rotation on Polish TV, apparently.
In 2007, Harasimowicz was on a trip to Los Angeles when he found himself in conversation with Kobe Bryant. Harasimowicz told Bryant he was thinking of leaving his career in Poland, moving to L.A., and trying his hand at acting.
“What is your heart telling you?” asked Bryant.
“My heart is telling me to try,” said Harasimowicz.
“Then go for it!” said Bryant. Harasimowicz moved here the next year.
Harasimowicz, who is 43, is still very much a basketball writer, producing books on LeBron James and the Lakers—both of which he said sold well in Poland, despite the country’s waning interest in the NBA.
But Harasimowicz has also worked as a comedy host and actor who is credited as “Martin Harris.” When we met at a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard, Harasimowicz had just auditioned for a part opposite Michael B. Jordan in a movie. He played a Russian in NCIS: Los Angeles. Harasimowicz has a part in the canceled movie The Hunt, which was portrayed as a liberal-elites-versus-the-deplorables exploitation flick. (Harasimowicz says the critics misunderstood the movie’s dark humor.)
When I asked what it was like to be a basketball writer in L.A., Harasimowicz was more glum than Pisani. “Right now, it’s all PR,” he said. “You can’t even make really good, insightful stories anymore. It’s just all cliché, clichéd quotes. It’s very controlled by PR departments.”
“I don’t like the new style of journalism,” Harasimowicz continued, “which is pretty much kissing the athlete’s ass. ‘Just give me something, just give me something—please, please, please, please.’ Where it used to be like, ‘Hey, I’m here to ask you questions. You better answer them.’
“I don’t like the buddy-buddy thing that is so fake. Like, c’mon. We are friends here—what are you talking about?”
Media observers will recognize that as a solid critique of the perils of NBA reporting circa 2019. It’s also a reminder that for its status as media capital, L.A. has very ordinary journalistic problems. It may not be Charlotte, but nobody said it was Eden, either.