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The NBA’s Press Conference Theater

The postgame presser is our version of the Trump White House briefing. Here’s why some reporters are getting ‘roasted.’

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Reporters used to get mad when their stories were chopped up by the copy desk. But after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Houston Chronicle reporter Hunter Atkins had a more modern problem. “I’ve just been on such a hot streak of getting my ass fucking embarrassed on NBA TV,” Atkins told me.

The night before, Steve Kerr sat behind the podium after a Warriors loss. Atkins wanted someone to ask Kerr the obvious question: How hurt was Steph Curry? When the mic came to Atkins, he asked the question himself. Haltingly and stumblingly, he admits. “How much is Curry’s lingering injury responsible …?”

“His lingering injury?” Kerr asked. “How much is it responsible for …?”

“For some of his play tonight?” Atkins said.

When you’re asking questions on TV, even a small hiccup can feel like an enormous breach of etiquette. “The room turns,” Atkins said. “You feel this palpable awkwardness developing like a fog.”

To the question How much was Curry’s injury responsible for his play? Kerr replied, “Uh, 13.7 percent.”

“The whole room bursts into laughter,” Atkins told me. “Kerr—much to his credit, actually, because he really is so sweet and thoughtful—he looked right at me after that, and he said on microphone, ‘Sorry.’” But it was too late. Sports Illustrated harvested the video and tweeted that Kerr was “roasting” Atkins. (The tweet was later deleted.)

That wasn’t Atkins’s only humiliation. There were two other instances, he said, “where you could clearly see me sweating my tits off through my shirt on national television.”

The second—actually, first—instance came when Atkins asked James Harden a tough question. “Quote-unquote ‘tough,’” Atkins scoffed. “Jesus Christ. These are not tough questions. I asked Harden after Game 1—all I said was, ‘What effect did Draymond Green have on this game?’ ’Cause that was what my story was going to be about.”

“James just takes a beat and goes, ‘I don’t know.’” Atkins was able to salvage an answer after a follow-up.

“Last night,” Atkins continued, “I ask P.J. Tucker, ‘Was there a point in the season when you started to get really comfortable with corner 3s?’”

Tucker thought Atkins was asking about his shooting percentage from the corner, which has been stable, rather than the volume of shots he attempted, which has increased. “He turns to Harden off-mic,” Atkins said. “They look both look each other and share this very soft, private chuckle like, This motherfucker right here.

Atkins is the latest NBA reporter to be chucked into what he calls the “pointless ball pit of the press room on national television.” To accommodate a growing hoard of reporters, the NBA moved the postgame interviews from locker rooms to large media rooms. Sprawling postgame coverage from Inside the NBA to SportsCenter at the Mic got those interviews put on TV. What was already a hilariously awkward ritual has become a kind of national theater. The NBA press conference is our version of the Trump White House briefing.

After Game 5, Atkins was back in the media room quizzing Kerr. But he knew a “tough” question would only get him turned into a piece of content—“a pathetic coal shoved into the furnace of Twitter.” It was like he was playing a game he couldn’t win.

“It’s not like Twitter is hoping that Hunter Atkins of the Houston Chronicle will sack up and ask a question about was Steph Curry hurt,” he said. “Nobody really gives a shit. That’s the thing. I’m a martyr for what in the end? I’m not—I’m not a martyr. I’m a fucking court jester.”

The NBA press conference has one difference from the White House briefing, campaign veteran Sopan Deb noted: The White House cameras rarely offer such pitiless close-ups of the reporters. “My hair is a mess,” Atkins said. “My forehead is gigantic. I didn’t know it was that gigantic …”

But tight shots bring the gallery to life. There’s Yahoo’s Chris Mannix, his tie rakishly unfastened. And there’s Dieter Kurtenbach, of the San Jose Mercury News, who left out the tie altogether. At the press conferences after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Kenny “The Roadman” Roda, of Canton, Ohio’s WHBC, was the definition of a volume shooter. Heat check!

Athletes would find it beautifully ironic that the writers’ words have been harvested, taken out of context, and turned into news. After all, that’s what writers have been doing to athletes since the beginning of time.

But the televised postgame interview has done a specific violence to the reporter-athlete relationship. It has increased the (literal) distance between the parties and turned every question into a power struggle. “It becomes completely impersonal in terms of who’s asking the question,” Atkins said, “but it becomes completely personal in terms of the tone of the question. It’s totally fucked up.”

After the Warriors lost Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ann Killion asked Steph Curry, “Steve said he thought that blowing the 12-nothing lead, not capitalizing on that, was really maybe the key part of the game. Would you agree?”

It’s not a bad question. But in the stilted air of the media room, it can sound a bit like, “Would you agree that blowing a lead is bad?” Trying to stifle a smile, Curry responded, “When you give yourself a lead like that, it would help to sustain it. Um …”

During the conference finals, it felt like players were snatching clichés out of the reporters’ mouths and holding them up for public inspection. After the Rockets won Game 2, Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman asked Chris Paul if a loss would have effectively ended Houston’s season.

“Ain’t that what they always say in these series?” Paul replied. “I’m serious, man. If you lose Game 1, what does everybody say? It’s a ‘must-win.’”

Another time, Kevin Durant told reporters, “No matter what building we play in, we just want to play a good brand of basketball.” Realizing he had just served up the ultimate low-nutrient meal, Durant chuckled and said, “I always say the same thing.”

Because it’s so awkward, the podium is a dream for sports-media ethnographers. You discover all kinds of weird stuff. For instance, during the Western Conference finals, the Warriors looked happier after a loss than James Harden and Chris Paul did after a win. “They don’t like having conversations with us,” Atkins said.

When Harden and Paul were behind the podium, they gave short answers or drummed their fingers or whispered private jokes to each other. Occasionally, you could see one player’s funk enveloping the other. After Game 4, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon asked Paul how much explosiveness he’d gotten back since his foot injury:

Paul (happy to answer): Shoot, a huge difference …
Harden: He’s fine, man.
Paul (suddenly not so happy to answer): But I’m fine. So it’s cool.
Harden: He’s fine. He’ll be all right.
Paul: Right, right.

When the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Woike followed up with a question about fatigue, Harden stared down Woike and shot back, “What’s that?”

You can see the different ways coaches handle the press. Minus the Atkins run-in, Steve Kerr goes out of his way to be a mensch and to cultivate the idea he’s being a mensch. Mike D’Antoni flashes his white teeth and in quotability makes up for what he lacks in detail. The Celtics’ Brad Stevens is the face of smiling evasion. After losing Game 3, Stevens said he didn’t want to talk about the Celtics, because that would take the focus away from the Cavs. Imagine a coach refusing to talk about his team every time they lose.

Putting press conferences on TV can let the public share amazing moments. We saw LeBron James showing off his photographic memory; Nick Young revealing that Dennis Rodman had visited him in a dream; and Kerr saying that choosing a favorite Finals run would be like picking a favorite child—and then saying his favorite child was his daughter, Maddy.

More often, the public just gets an excruciating peek at how the feature-story sausage is made. Paul and his teammate P.J. Tucker met more than 20 years ago when they played against each other in AAU—a story the Houston Chronicle printed on May 10. After Paul and Tucker starred in Game 2, ESPN’s Mark Schwarz was taken with the story of a boyhood bond reformed.

First, Schwarz asked D’Antoni about Paul and Tucker’s relationship. D’Antoni said he knew nothing about it.

Then Schwarz tried with Paul. Paul completely ignored the biographical part of the question.

Finally, Schwarz, his soothingly curious TV-guy voice somehow still intact, asked Tucker to describe the chemistry he had with Paul.

“I had zero chemistry with Chris before this year,” Tucker said. “We have never played together.” Tucker looked at Harden. “I love everybody talking about this story.”

“[Paul and I] have great chemistry, though—now,” Tucker continued. He gave Schwarz a look. “He has good chemistry with everybody.” So you’re saying write something else, huh?

The Athletic Cleveland’s Jason Lloyd got turned into content after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. During the press conference, he asked Cavs coach Tyronn Lue why Rodney Hood, who was playing terribly, was still in the rotation.

“’Cause I want him there,” Lue replied.

Lloyd tried again. “What has [Hood] done to show you that he deserves those minutes?” he asked.

“I thought last game—Game 1—he really played well for us, going 5-for-12, getting in double figures,” Lue said. “So that’s why I went with him.”

His question asked and answered, Lloyd didn’t think much more about it. He wrote his story and in the wee hours of the morning posted it on Twitter. “That’s when you see it,” Lloyd said. “You’re like, Oh, shit, I have 100 and something mentions. What now?” The NBA on ESPN Twitter account had harvested the Lloyd-Lue exchange and given it the headline: “Ty Lue was not happy with this question.” The video has been viewed more than 125,000 times.

Whatever it takes to fill a Twitter feed. The problem is, the people running these accounts have no clue what they’re looking at. A “moment” like the Lue exchange is rarely spontaneous. It’s usually the latest in a series of microaggressions. One on one, Lloyd had been asking Lue about the lack production he was getting from the end of his bench. There was a reason he asked the question at that press conference: Earlier that day, the Cavs had gotten the eighth pick in the draft lottery, meaning all they had to show for the Kyrie Irving trade was a low pick and players like Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill and Hood. “I knew that night I was going to have to address the elephant in the room,” Lloyd said.

Framing the exchange as Lue being “not happy” subtly suggests that a reporter’s job is to make Lue happy. It’s the opposite. (After their run-in, Lloyd and Lue talked privately about it and moved on.) Web trawlers also rarely get around to mentioning whether the big, bad reporter was right or not. After Lue publicly stuck up for Hood, he played him for all of three minutes for the rest of the Eastern Conference finals.

“The podium is nonsense,” Lloyd said. “It’s all for show. People on Twitter say, ‘You better drill ’em and get to the truth.’ The podium setting is not the place to get anything.”

Lloyd has seen the strange effect the podium has had on LeBron James. Immediately after a game, Lloyd and ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon will often talk to James in the locker room. After James hit his game-winning bank shot against the Raptors, Lloyd told James he thought he had a path to go to the basket and dunk the ball. Then, both men went to the press conference. “I just got through talking to the guy in the locker room,” Lloyd said. “Do I ask the exact same thing or come up with something different?” In this case, he asked the same thing, and James started laughing in recognition.

The podium thus becomes the site of the player’s “official”—which is to say, unenlightening—answer. In the locker room after a 2016 Finals game, James was pissed about the refs missing a call against Steph Curry. Lloyd told James he was going to ask him about the call in the press conference. OK, James said, but by then I’m going to have settled down. Sure enough, when the camera phones were rolling, James was the face of diplomacy.

Such bogus comity is part of the reason any “roasting” stands out. After Cleveland no-showed Game 5 in Boston, Lloyd and Lue had this exchange:

Lloyd: “Do you know what you’re going to get from this team night to night or is it throwing a dart?”
Lue (laughing): “What kind of question is that, man?

As before, Lloyd repeated his question, and Lue answered it. “He wasn’t upset at that one at all,” Lloyd said. “We didn’t even have a discussion about that afterward.” But NESN harvested the exchange and gave it the headline: “Tyronn Lue Clearly Didn’t Like This Very Blunt Question About [the] Cavs.”

The podium interview is the sports media’s great leveler, erasing status distinctions that exist between reporters. Having a “side conversation” with a player is the privilege of a star reporter like Ramona Shelburne. But at the Houston podium, Kim Davis, whose Chalk Talk seminars seek to teach women the fine points of sports (“Avoid being a football widow on the weekends!”), got way more airtime.

“People you don’t see all year show up for the postseason and start hammering questions at the players,” said Lloyd, who was talking about no one in particular. “You have to wonder: Are they after their 15 minutes of fame?”

In the playoffs, the NBA press is further reinforced by reporters from foreign outlets. After Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals this year, ESPN Brasil’s Paulo Antunes told James he had always been clutch. James was so touched—he usually hears the opposite—that he stopped the presser to ask for Antunes’s name. After the Rockets lost Game 1, an Argentine reporter led off the postgame session by asking Harden and Paul if their style of basketball would have worked in the 1990s. (Kerr had earlier in the day admitted he couldn’t hack it in today’s NBA.) Harden refused to answer, and there were stifled chuckles across the media room.

“Let’s not go so far as to say it’s xenophobic—that would be totally outrageous,” said Atkins. “But there is that strange dusting of, ‘Oh, shit this person doesn’t speak English. They’re going to ask a really awkwardly worded question at a time when players hate talking.’” The media room is so filled with awkwardness it can’t accommodate any more.

During the games in Houston, I saw a Nigerian reporter asking questions of D’Antoni and Durant. I asked Atkins to get me his phone number.

Bode Oguntuyi is one of the most well-credentialed NBA reporters in Africa. He hosts a morning radio show in Lagos called Sports Express. During the playoffs, his recorded summary of the previous night’s game airs at 7:30 a.m., and he writes articles for the digital platform of Kwesé Sports. His Twitter feed is a mix of in-game reactions and Bible verses.

“I attended press conferences for 10 years, and I never asked a question,” Oguntuyi told me. “But I know if I don’t ask a question, nobody else will tell the African story. That’s why I’m here.”

I thought Oguntuyi could help me see the humiliations of the NBA’s press conference theater through fresh eyes. As it turns out, Oguntuyi has sat in so many media rooms—he has covered every Finals since 2008—that you could easily mistake him for Brian Windhorst.

“Harden can be very cheeky,” Oguntuyi said. “I’ve seen Harden toy with sportswriters. He gives you one line and then stares at you.”

When I mentioned Paul and Harden’s obvious disinterest in the media, Oguntuyi said, “Honestly, I don’t get that. The Warriors are funny and engaging, and the Rockets are like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”

Oguntuyi knows what it’s like to become content. When he asks a question on NBA TV, he gets screengrabs tweeted at him. Knowing you’re both a journalist and a TV star, I asked him, do you feel more pressure when you ask a question?

“Yeah, you do,” Oguntuyi said. “Two things. Usually before the players come in, you indicate if you want to ask a question. They ask you to stick up your hand. If there are six of you, you’re not sure if the second person is going to ask your question. You have to prepare multiple questions.”

Oguntuyi’s second point was about the cloud of awkwardness that hangs over the podium, the sense that any silence can turn into a diplomatic emergency. After the Warriors dropped games 4 and 5, Oguntuyi asked Durant what changed since their last win. Durant, trying to be helpful, asked for clarification: What changed on defense?

In the few seconds it took Oguntuyi to take back the mic, he could feel himself teetering on the edge of the same ball pit Hunter Atkins had been chucked into. With the wary voice of an NBA reporter, Oguntuyi told me, “You don’t want to look stupid on worldwide TV.”

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