One morning this week, when I call the Pelicans beat writer for Louisiana’s largest newspaper, he asks if he can call me back. “Sorry,” Scott Kushner says a few minutes later. “People just pop into my office.” Kushner isn’t talking about his newspaper office. He’s talking about the consulting firm where he works a full-time job, 9-to-5. The NBA reporting stuff happens only at night.
The New Orleans Pelicans press corps is unique in the NBA. It is small and resource-strapped and often finds itself fighting the city’s overwhelming disinterest in the product. But to explain what makes it different, it’s probably best to start here, with the reporter who’s covering the team as his side hustle.
“It’s a very odd set of circumstances,” Kushner admits. Since 2012, he has been writing for The Advocate, the only paper offering home delivery in New Orleans seven days a week. (The venerable Times-Picayune is down to thrice-weekly.) Kushner really likes being a beat writer. “I want to tell people when they ask what my job is that I cover the Pelicans for The Advocate,” he says.
It’s the rest of journalism—the layoffs, the daily existential crises—that Kushner wants to keep at arm’s length. He watches Advocate writers like LSU beat man Ross Dellenger pour every fiber of their being into their jobs. “Look at the hours and what they’re getting paid,” Kushner says. “I respect the hell out of ’em, but it’s not sustainable.” (The consulting firm pays about 75 percent of Kushner’s annual earnings.)
So Kushner, who’s 33, lives a professional double life: pillar of a business-casual office by day, wiseacre on NBA Twitter by night. April 19, the day the Pelicans played Game 3 of their first-round series against the Trail Blazers, was typical. Early that morning, Kushner cut the figure of a New Orleans dad, dropping off his 5-month-old son at daycare and checking in at his firm. A few hours later, he ducked out to cover the Pelicans’ shootaround. He was back at the firm till the close of business, but when he was sitting in the daycare parking lot, waiting to pick up his son, he filed his first story of the day to The Advocate. That night, he went to the Smoothie King Center and covered the Pelicans’ big win. Kushner didn’t get home till nearly 1:30 a.m. His game story was in the paper when he returned to the firm bright and early the next morning.
When we hang up, Kushner is going to join the firm’s 11 a.m. staff meeting. He needs to sneak out 45 minutes later so he can make Pelicans practice. He’ll be watching the clock the whole time. “They know and they don’t know,” Kushner says of his day-job colleagues. “It all fills in. As long as I’m getting my stuff done, nobody seems to care.”
It was thanks to the lousiness of the Pelicans that New Orleans became a distant outpost on the NBA circuit, only rarely visited by big-footing national reporters. But as a huge series with the Warriors nears, things are starting to change. Marc Stein was sighted at practice Wednesday and Thursday. “Blue checkmarks have started flocking to this city,” says Will Guillory, who covers the Pelicans for NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune.
Guillory, who’s 29, is finishing his first full season on the beat. Being a New Orleans native gives him special insight into the city’s tortured basketball psyche. When Chris Paul asked for a trade in 2011, fans didn’t treat it like Kevin Durant’s defection from Oklahoma City. “We all looked at the organization like, I don’t know why you would want to stay here,” Guillory says. “Please, CP, go somewhere where you can win.”
Guillory found that Anthony Davis inspires altogether different feelings. When Guillory so much as mentions a Davis-to-the-Celtics trade rumor, he tells me, “I get the meanest messages in my email I can imagine.”
The Pelicans press corps is on the small side for an NBA franchise, or any professional franchise. At home games, you can usually find three conventional (i.e., non-bloggy) reporters: Kushner, Guillory, and the team’s web guy, Jim Eichenhofer. Perhaps because the group is so tiny, the locker room is usually a genial place.
Despite his ferocious reputation, Boogie Cousins can be an accommodating and even funny interview. “The guy you see on the court is nothing like the guy you see in the locker room,” Guillory says. When asked what the team should do at a particular point in the season, Cousins offers such level-headed advice that the beat writers often think, Why doesn’t Boogie follow it himself?
This year Cousins joked that Anthony Davis was smooth-talking the media like a veteran politician. “AD’s a coach-speakish, one-day-at-a-time kind of guy,” Guillory says. Davis doesn’t like it when the beats ask questions about trade rumors. He really doesn’t like it when they ask about his frequent injuries, and will often reject the premise of the question. As Guillory tells me: “We’ll say, ‘AD, it looks like your shoulder is bothering you.’ He’ll say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Jrue Holiday’s interest in engaging with reporters is like his injury status: he is day-to-day.
On the Pelicans beat, you can see signs of the enormous strain that newspapers are under. Three years ago, according to former beat writer John Reid, NOLA.com and the Times-Picayune stopped letting their writers cover the Pelicans full-time on the road. This season Guillory took sporadic road trips until Cousins ruptured his Achilles on January 26. Then the paper halted his travel, figuring the Pelicans might go in the tank. Plus, the Saints had just made a playoff run, and there were only so many resources to go around. “We’re picking our spots, really,” Guillory says. When he’s not on the road, he writes his gamer off of television.
Kushner doesn’t travel to road games, which The Advocate assigns to an out-of-town stringer. But Kushner will often slip questions to Eichenhofer to ask on his behalf at the postgame press conference. Kushner will then harvest the quotes for his “advance” story the next day. This is a somewhat extreme version of NBA newspaper beat writing today, where writers are occasionally yanked from the road if their team is out of contention.
The New Orleans beat has almost been as star-crossed as the franchise itself. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced the then-Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City for two years. Despite the fact the Times-Picayune was fighting to stay in business after the storm, the paper kept two writers on the beat and even rented an apartment in Oklahoma City for them to live in. Reid and Benjamin Hochman spent alternating months there: the OKC-based writer covering “home” games and the New Orleans–based writer working the road. “We were required to drive our own cars from New Orleans to Oklahoma City, because they couldn’t afford rental cars,” Reid says.
“Another problem of covering that team,” says Reid, who’s now on the Jacksonville Jaguars beat, “was the threat they may not be in New Orleans.” Covering the Pelicans is like covering a startup forever on the verge of going under. When Paul was traded away, the beats had to deal with the fact the franchise was operating as a client state of the Clippers. There was the cash-poor reign of owner George Shinn, and the nightmare 18-win team of 2004-05 which boasted the likes of Lee Nailon and Dan Dickau.
The feeling that the Pelicans aren’t a real franchise hasn’t totally dissipated, even after a thrilling first-round sweep. Earlier this month, Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim got a standing ovation inside the arena that bears his company’s name. A few days later, Kushner notes, Kim announced a move he’d been plotting for months: that he was moving his company out of Louisiana.
But the biggest problem for the beats—one well-known to writers from Dallas to Atlanta—is that it’s incredibly hard to get a football town to pay attention to the NBA. If New Orleans has a sports pecking order, the Pelicans finish behind the Saints, LSU, and probably the SEC game of the week. (In The Advocate’s April 22 Baton Rouge edition, the Pelicans’ Game 4 win competed for space on the sports page front with LSU gymnastics.)
In the fall, when the Saints and Pelicans practice on the same day, the two press corps and a handful of local TV crews pack into the same small media workroom in Metairie, Louisiana. A voice will come on the PA to announce that Pelicans practice is starting and … no one but the Pelicans writers makes a move. “No one from the TV stations walks the 500 steps to the practice facility,” Kushner says. “That’s how little interest there is.”
“People lament that the team is not covered properly,” says Jake Madison, who writes and podcasts for the site Locked on Pelicans. “I always say that TV and radio are just playing to what the fan base wants, and it’s not the Pelicans most of the time.”
But as just about any NBA writer will tell you, a journalistic vacuum can inspire enormous creativity. Madison started blogging about the team eight years ago and is now part of a blogosphere that boasts both good writers (Oleh Kosel, the gang at Bourbon Street Shots) and some of the most groan-inducing site names in the genre (Pelican Debrief, The Bird Writes). Madison, who by day is a fundraiser for Tulane, has been fully credentialed by the team for three years. But for games 3 and 4 of the Portland series, he used his season tickets because they offer a better view of the court.
As Kushner has proved, covering the Pelicans isn’t a great way to get rich. During the 2015-16 season, he shared the Advocate beat with Brett Dawson, another part-timer. Dawson ran so low on cash that he got rid of his apartment and started looking for a single room to rent.
Two years ago, when Dawson left to cover the Thunder for The Oklahoman, The Advocate didn’t replace him. Neither did ESPN replace Justin Verrier (who’s now with The Ringer) when he was laid off in 2017. When ESPN needed a story about the Pelicans–Trail Blazers series, it turned to its Saints writer, Mike Triplett.
Pelicans writers look upon a giant, heaving press corps like the one in Oakland with wonder. If we count only standard, non-bloggy beat writers, there are as many people covering Golden State for The Athletic as there are covering the Pelicans, period. “They’ve got someone there just to cover what Kevin Durant is saying on Twitter,” Guillory says. “They’ve got someone to cover Klay’s dog. I’m over here writing every story by myself.”
Still, after the Round 1 sweep and monster performances by Davis and Holiday, things began to look up. The Warriors series offers a rich batch of stories for Pelicans writers, from the rematch of the 2014-15 playoffs to the question of whether Holiday can continue to improbably own the best guards in the Western Conference. Last week Kushner overheard two fans at a sushi restaurant gushing that they had Pelicans playoff tickets—though they claimed they were sitting on the “50-yard line.”
This week, Kushner will travel to Oakland to cover games 1 and 2—his first Pelicans road trip of the year. More good news figures to follow when the series moves back home. Game 3 will be one of the biggest basketball games in New Orleans history, a showcase for not only the Pelicans but the hardy band of writers who cover them. If Game 3 takes place on a Friday or Saturday night, even better. It means Kushner can sleep in the next day.