In his first days in a Lakers jersey, LeBron James made an odd discovery. The Los Angeles sports media hadn’t spent the past decade hanging on his every word. How do you juggle basketball and entertainment? one reporter asked him. “How long have you been following me?” James replied. Another asked why James wears no. 6 at practice instead of his game number, 23. “I’m starting to figure out a lot of you guys are just now recognizing who I am, huh?” James said. What makes James feel pressure? “Nothing.” What about people who say … ? “I’m the last person to ask about what people say.”
Later, after dispensing an anecdote he’d told many times in Cleveland, James turned to his right and said, “Dave, you know that.”
In a sea of iPhone-toting strangers, Dave McMenamin was a familiar face. McMenamin covered James for the last four years in Cleveland. He was officially ESPN’s Cavs beat writer but practically speaking its chief correspondent to the most important athlete on the planet. “Dave is our frontline LeBron guy,” said his colleague Brian Windhorst. “That’s what his job is at the company.”
In July, when James announced he was signing with the Lakers, McMenamin messaged him: congrats, etc. A week and a half later, ESPN offered McMenamin a new, multiyear contract to move west with James. Now, it was James’s turn to message McMenamin: See you in L.A.
Thus began the next chapter in what McMenamin calls “the relationship.” He’s reluctant to talk about it lest he explain it wrong or seem to be taking it for granted. McMenamin moved to Cleveland in 2014, when he was 31 and just figuring out how to be a fully functional beat writer. James was entering a new period of media friendliness, and McMenamin and James—a year and a half apart in age—connected more or less as peers. James dished to McMenamin away from the scrums; James later referred affectionately to the Cleveland beat writers as his “wives.”
“I don’t want to be naive as a reporter and think that we’re some great friends like Ahmad Rashad and Michael Jordan or something like that,” McMenamin said. “But it seemed to be that we were on a similar wavelength.”
James gets credit for convincing NBA fans that players should be able to exercise their right to change teams whenever they want to. He has also changed our ideas about the agency of NBA reporters. Once, a reporter who followed a player out of a city was regarded as a traitor—Windhorst needed security after it was announced he was moving from Cleveland to Miami. Now, it’s seen as part of the game.
“LeBron took so much heat for going to Miami,” McMenamin said. “Brian Windhorst took so much heat for following LeBron to Miami.”
“Kevin Durant took less heat for going to the Warriors than LeBron did. Anthony Slater took less heat for going to cover Durant with the Warriors after the Thunder than Windhorst did.” This year, McMenamin mostly got compliments for moving to L.A.
McMenamin isn’t the only reporter who was drawn west by James’s gravitational pull. Allie Clifton, a Cavs sideline reporter who also enjoyed a close relationship with James, is now a host at Spectrum SportsNet, the L.A. cable station that shows Lakers games. “There’s a lot of questions being asked right now from media members that Dave and I feel like we could answer ourselves,” Clifton told me.
To see McMenamin and Clifton standing in scrums at Staples Center is to get but a small glimpse of James’s influence on the media. He pulls reporters across the country; he’s a journalistic job creator; he changes the very nature of what a city considers sports news. The question the L.A. media should be asking is: Now that LeBron has come to town, what happens to us?
The Los Angeles sports media is really two different things. On the one hand, you have the West Coast–based cable opiners: “The people who live in Los Angeles and don’t know how to pronounce Gardena,” said Petros Papadakis, the host of the radio show Petros and Money. These are the kind of people who’d be talking about James every day even if he played in Charlotte.
The second group is the actual L.A. media—the Los Angeles Times, a new branch of The Athletic, the TV stations—that are getting their first crack at James as a major subject. “We’re going to have a LeBron-a-thon,” said KNBC sportscaster Fred Roggin. “It’s going to be all LeBron, all the time.”
James’s move to L.A. has been compared to Shaquille O’Neal’s move in 1996. Bill Plaschke, the longtime Times columnist, waved away that idea. “Shaq was a budding star and he was looking for a home and a place in the world,” Plaschke said. “LeBron already has that.”
“I think that affects the way L.A. looks at [James] and affects the way the L.A. Times and the local media cover him,” Plaschke continued. He added: “Kobe grew up here. Shaq basically grew up here. ... He’s not one of us yet.”
Los Angeles has a unique sports hierarchy. If you measure by page views at the Times’ sports section, the Lakers and Dodgers are the city’s most popular teams. Next—most of the time—come the colleges, USC and UCLA. Below them are the other pro teams, fighting for oxygen. (People who think Mike Trout is invisible across America don’t realize that he’s often invisible in Southern California too.)
Last year, the Lakers won 35 games. They haven’t made the Western Conference finals since 2010. Tania Ganguli, the Times beat writer, said there were weekends when the print press corps consisted of her and two other beat writers—a tiny contingent for one of the country’s most famous sports franchises. “Occasionally, a national person would stop by,” Ganguli said, “but they wouldn’t stay for very long.”
When James arrives in a new city, the first thing that happens is the press corps restocks itself to cover him. Last year, Ohm Youngmisuk was the only ESPN reporter on the Lakers beat; now he’ll be joined by McMenamin. ESPN already has several reporters in L.A., like Rachel Nichols, Ramona Shelburne, and Baxter Holmes. Windhorst—who told me, “I’m going to be more detached from LeBron than I have ever been before, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing”—will continue to live in Omaha, Nebraska, but visit L.A. twice a month for The Jump.
Flush with nearly $100 million in investment from new owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Times has staffed up for James too. Sports editor Angel Rodriguez promoted Dan Woike to national NBA writer. The paper hired a new Clippers beat writer so that Broderick “BT” Turner could come off the road and help with both L.A. teams. When you add Ganguli and a columnist like Plaschke or Dylan Hernandez, the Times can easily send four writers to any home game. Rodriguez said it was part of a paper-wide effort to make the Times a destination job and not a way station to The New York Times or Washington Post.
This summer, The Athletic–Los Angeles came to life with four Lakers reporters, including beat man Bill Oram. Jason Lloyd, who covered James in Cleveland, turned down The Athletic’s offer to move across the country and stay on the beat, citing family roots in Ohio and the exhausting nature of following LeBron.
In July, Kyle Goon, who covered basketball for The Salt Lake Tribune, was considering an offer from the Southern California News Group—a consortium of papers that includes the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Daily News. When James announced he was coming to L.A., Goon accepted the job the next day. “I hope for the best and realize that there’s probably not going to be less than 15 reporters around him at any time,” Goon said of James. His editors plan to send him to every road game.
Once a local press corps has staffed up to cover James, its stories take on a particular character. “There’s a breathlessness to the coverage,” said Windhorst. “The media starts to feel pressure to deliver momentous coverage every day. I was laughing at this in 2014, but in 2010, I was absolutely as guilty as anybody.”
In L.A., the coverage began with a whimper. James signed with the Lakers … and then didn’t hold a press conference for nearly three months. “Yes, he’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest, basketball player of all time,” said Papadakis. “But who’s the last person to sign with the Lakers and not bother to do a press conference?” The media was left to talk to GM Rob Pelinka, who read them passages from a Paulo Coelho novel.
On September 24, James finally met the L.A. media. Like Helen Thomas at the old White House briefings, longtime local sportscaster Jim Hill asked the first question. What followed was a somber, 12-minute session. “When they had a press conference with Shaq announcing an MVP or Kobe getting a new contract, it was like a party,” said Plaschke. “This was like he was visiting the doctor or something.”
In his column, Plaschke allowed that James may have been sending an all-business message to his team like the one Kirk Gibson once gave the Dodgers. McMenamin agreed, and got confirmation when he tried to elicit a season prediction from forward Michael Beasley.
“Where should this Lakers team end up by the end of the year?” McMenamin asked Beasley.
“Exactly where we want to,” Beasley said.
“Which is … ?”
“Where we want to be.”
“Where do you want to be?”
“Taking it a day at a time.”
McMenamin tried a final time. “But if once you add up all those days, where can you end up?”
“The future,” Beasley said.
Last month, the editors of The Hollywood Reporter delivered their own message to Bob Iger. The Disney CEO had snagged the top spot on The Reporter’s annual Hollywood power list. But Iger wasn’t going to be on the magazine’s cover, the editors told him gently. That spot had gone to James.
“I wouldn’t do this if it was someone else randomly coming to the Lakers and, oh, they have a production company,” said Matthew Belloni, the Reporter’s editorial director. “I’m interested in him because this is for real and he has credibility and people in this town really want to work with him.”
On the opposite end of the journalistic universe from @LakerFilmRoom, James has become an obsession of the Hollywood trades. As James announced several TV projects this summer—a Muhammad Ali documentary, a series that resembles the Whoopi Goldberg movie Eddie—his name became a mainstay in Reporter headlines. “And he’s not just in the headlines,” Belloni said. “He’s usually first.” Asked to name someone whose producing muscle is comparable to James’s right now, Belloni suggested Reese Witherspoon.
That James gave his first L.A. interview to The Reporter—and not to Lee Jenkins for a farewell-to-journalism profile—was a kind of statement. (The Reporter timed the article to come out before the masses had their shot at LeBron at media day.) Moreover, Belloni said, James complied with The Reporter’s strict demands for cover subjects: He gave hours of interviews and consented to a full-blown photo shoot on the Warner Bros. lot. To the reporter, Marisa Guthrie, James offered up the holy trinity of the modern NBA player: “I’m going to continue to play basketball at a high level, continue to give back to my community, and make great content for people to fall in love with.”
L.A. has known athlete-entertainers before: Crazylegs Hirsh, Fred Dryer, O’Neal. James is something different. “When Shaq was here, sure, he rapped, if you want to call it that,” said Roggin. “Yes, he made a movie or two, if you want to call them that. But he was a basketball player. LeBron James is a corporation.”
Indeed, James now exists in parallel media universes, and his movements are tracked by two different kinds of insiders. One wants to know whether Kevin Durant will join the Lakers next year. Another wants to know whether James’s single-camera Ben Simmons sitcom will get a spot on NBC’s schedule. At training camp, Bleacher Report’s Dave Schilling asked Magic Johnson: “Magic, do you expect to be in Space Jam 2?”
Belloni said James doesn’t yet rate his own mini-beat at The Reporter, but that his name regularly comes up in the magazine’s film, TV, and digital story meetings. “Everybody in Hollywood is interested in figures from elsewhere that come into our world,” Belloni said. “I was at a pre-Emmys party and the biggest stars in the room were Don Lemon and Michael Avenatti.”
“There’s a cachet to LeBron,” Belloni continued, “because he’s not of this world. Yet he is now a credible figure in this world with a professional team around him and a very smart and strategic person at the center of it—him.”
A veteran LeBronologist like McMenamin knows that James plants clues in his public statements. Decoding them involves close textual analysis. For instance, in 2015 James published an odd, late-night tweet that included the phrase “FIT-OUT.” McMenamin recognized it as a quote Kevin Love had used earlier in the season. He pulled up Love’s quote on his phone and showed it to James in the locker room.
As McMenamin remembered: “He wouldn’t fully go in and say explicitly, ‘You’re right. That’s the story you should be writing.’ But when he walked out of the locker room, he pointed at me and gave me a nod. Which I viewed as, OK, you’re onto something. … It’s a rare occasion where there isn’t some subtext or some thread you can pull on that he’ll offer up in a scrum.”
For the past four years, McMenamin’s life has consisted of feeding such quotes into ESPN stories, then going on SportsCenter, then trudging back to the media room to grind out more words. He wears a suit to every shootaround, in case he’s summoned to TV, which he has sometimes been on at 8 a.m. and midnight on the same day. “You have to wear a suit every goddamn day,” Windhorst said. “Just that alone gets so old. Everybody else is wearing hats and shorts.”
Ganguli hardly needs to be told that James news is nonstop. When she was covering the Houston Texans for ESPN.com, she was once informed that her SportsCenter hit had been cancelled because there was James news. “What did LeBron do?” Ganguli asked.
“He talked,” she was told.
Ganguli has reached out to writers from Cleveland and Miami to ask about building a relationship with James. “The best piece of advice I’ve gotten is not to worry about rushing things,” she said. “He’s going to be here for four years. You don’t have to do everything at once. He doesn’t have to be your best friend on Day 2.”
In Cleveland, James’s beat writers were unusually collegial, splitting up the duties of transcribing James and his teammates’ interviews and then putting them in Google Docs that all the reporters could access. Ganguli said the Lakers beat writers were doing the same thing last season and that the practice was likely to continue. The Lakers beats have already taken a group photo.
James offers two final challenges to new beat writers. As much as any athlete, he changes what we think of as sports news. “If LeBron goes for a loose ball and winds up in Beyoncé’s lap, that’s going to be a thing,” said the Times’ Angel Rodriguez. He said the paper was still thinking about how to cover James as a cultural phenomenon.
At least in the realm of NBA Twitter, James also arrives in L.A. with something close to a 100 percent approval rating. He carried a terrible Cavs team to the Finals; he opened a school in Akron; he absorbed a cheap shot from Donald Trump. Some media members are concerned that he’s almost beyond criticism. “You’re going to have people who cover this with a sycophantish tone and people that won’t,” Papadakis said. “I don’t want to be in the group of the former.”
Plaschke told me: “I thought the most revealing thing that happened was when he was asked, ‘What does he have to do to earn the respect of L.A.?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m here.’ That doesn’t work here, especially with the Lakers.”
For now, much of the L.A. media is still in a giddy, LeBron-a-thon phase. After Tuesday night’s preseason game, the Lakers locker room was so crowded that several reporters couldn’t see James sitting at his locker and missed his postgame scrum completely.
Last month, McMenamin snagged a 10-minute on-camera interview with James at training camp. As they sat down, McMenamin noticed that he and James were surrounded by 40 or 50 media members, some of whom whipped out their phones to record the interview. Wait, McMenamin thought, are they going to tweet the interview before it airs on ESPN? It was the perfect L.A. media moment. Faced with covering a showbiz-curious athlete who has grown into a corporation, sportswriters had transformed into another local archetype: the paparazzi.