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Rumor Has It: A Roundup of the Bizarre Media Circus That Surrounded Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency

Three reporters, a college student, and a Redditor walk into a bar

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kawhi Leonard made the biggest NBA news of the summer like only he could: Extremely quietly. The world learned that the reigning Finals MVP would leave Toronto after one championship-winning season to join the Los Angeles Clippers at roughly 2 a.m. Eastern time on a Saturday morning on a holiday weekend.

In a media environment filled with leaks, Leonard and his team used Flex Seal. We knew that the Clippers were one of the teams Leonard was considering, but before the news broke, it was generally expected that he would stay with the Raptors, where he’d just won a championship, or join forces with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Los Angeles Lakers. But most surprising of all was the news that Leonard was going to the Clippers and teaming up with Paul George—a player who had just signed a massive contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder last year and was not known to be on the trading block.

But the fact that no news broke until the news broke didn’t satiate our appetites for information. For a week, everybody from professionally trained journalists to anonymous Redditors hawked insider info about Leonard’s next moves. Some achieved fame from their Leonard scoops; some of that fame quickly turned into infamy. So, now that KawhiWatch is over, let’s take a look back at the different types of media coverage we received over the past month and see who gave us reasonable info and who was feeding the world random BS.

Not Saying Anything Until Kawhi Signed

It’s not particularly surprising who the most accurate reporter on the Kawhi-to-the-Clippers deal was: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported shortly after the NBA Finals ended that Leonard was leaning toward the Clippers. Lakers Internet quickly decided that Woj was a Clippers shill for repeatedly offering Clippers-friendly reports. Those reports, as it turned out, were accurate. (As we all know, ESPN is massively biased toward the Clippers, which explains why the Clippers had zero games on ESPN last season despite finishing with a better record than the Lakers for the seventh straight year.) Also unsurprising: Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, who said that Leonard was taking his time with his decision and eventually broke the news of Leonard’s signing.

The third contender for the accuracy title, though, is an odd one: NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter. Carter is in the sports media business now, but as cohost of sports debate morning show First Things First on Fox Sports 1. Chasing down NBA free-agency news doesn’t seem to fit Carter’s background or his job description, but Carter became a Kawhi whisperer. He was plugged into Leonard’s contentious exit from San Antonio last year and gave accurate updates about the where, when, and why of Leonard’s free-agency process this year. He was careful to repeatedly remind readers that Leonard was still considering the Clippers (although at one point, he did slip and say he “believed” Leonard was deciding between the Raptors and Lakers). Carter projected that Leonard would make his decision on Friday, which was correct, and tweeted news of Leonard’s signing simultaneously with Haynes, beating out Woj by a few minutes.

Woj, Haynes, and Carter won this round because they didn’t overplay their hands. They didn’t hypothesize or cloud their reports with stuff that didn’t matter. They generally avoided play-by-play of secret meetings and were fine with saying that Leonard was undecided when he was undecided. They did this weird thing where they just said what they knew was happening rather than filling in the blanks with conjecture. Weird.

Stalker Journalism

While some pros shared their behind-the-scenes knowledge of what was happening, some amateurs stumbled across behind-the-scenes info and decided to put their findings in the spotlight. One Toronto fan noticed Leonard’s name on a list of applicants for a program that makes it easier to travel between the United States and Canada. Another claimed to know that Leonard had enrolled his daughter in a school in Niagara. Others noticed Leonard buying moving boxes at Home Depot—was he moving to Los Angeles, or moving into a new house he’d bought in Toronto? My favorite analysis of Kawhi’s day-to-day life in the weeks ahead of his free-agency decision came when Leonard attended a Blue Jays game and was seen filming a Mike Trout at-bat on his phone—obviously, something he would only need to do if he was staying in Toronto, because if he went to Los Angeles he could go to Anaheim and watch Mike Trout play whenever he wanted. Honestly, this was such a good take that I still believe Kawhi is somehow going to end up on the Raptors.

The stalking came to a head when fans realized the private jet owned by the owners of the Raptors was flying from Los Angeles to Toronto—presumably with Leonard aboard. News helicopters filmed the plane landing, people deplaning, and followed a pair of black SUVs transporting the plane’s passengers.

In downtown Toronto, fans crowded outside a hotel where Raptors president Masai Ujiri had been spotted:

All this stalking supposedly gifted followers insight into Leonard’s decision. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, none of it meant anything. We don’t know whether Leonard’s daughter was really enrolled in that school; and we don’t know what Leonard did with those boxes, or whether Leonard ever met with the Raptors at that hotel.

Lost in the Source Sauce

Chris Broussard celebrated his Independence Day by tweeting something free from the tyranny of accuracy.

Rereading this masterpiece with 20/20 hindsight, it’s tough to definitively single out the funniest part. The obvious favorite is the dramatic, defiant, “Clippers out,” but I actually don’t think that’s as funny as the idea that Kawhi would stay in Toronto because Drake offered him a chance at rap superstardom. Does Kawhi even know what music is?

Earlier in June, Broussard had tabbed the Clippers as the favorites to sign Kawhi. But as free agency approached, he changed his tune, becoming adamant that Leonard was coming to the Lakers. On June 30, Leonard was the “Lakers’ to lose,” on July 2, Leonard was “Laker-bound,” and was planning on making things official within 48 hours barring a “last-second change of heart.”

Broussard’s strongest takes turned out to be the wrongest takes. Broussard filmed a video explaining that he actually wasn’t wrong, because at the time of his July 4 report, which was wrong, the Clippers were not strongly being considered.

Broussard was not alone. Jalen Rose was “99 percent” confident that Leonard would be signing a two-year contract with the Raptors. Rose, for his part, did not try to weasel out of his incorrect report by qualifying his wrongness.

But the worst scoopsman of all was not a TV talking head. It was Arye Abraham. Just 22 years old, Abraham is already an experienced driver of the NBA rumor mill. When he was 16, he camped out at a Beverly Hills hotel and broke news on which teams were meeting with Dwight Howard. That was a fun surprise for a bored high schooler on summer break. But now, Abraham is fully embedded in the grueling Twitter credit wars. He incessantly points out when he gets stories right and loudly complains if other people produce similar reports without crediting him.

Two things distinguish Abraham from the rest of the wannabe Wojs: For one, he’s not planning on becoming a full-time scoophound. He’s a law student at USC and plans on working for “a big law firm” when he graduates. And perhaps more germane to this conversation: Abraham is open and proud about his Lakers fandom. In fact, he didn’t go to that hotel six years ago looking for scoops. He went there hoping to convince Dwight Howard to sign with the Lakers.

Coincidentally, most of Abraham’s news is Lakers-related, and often centers on good things happening to the Lakers. On June 30, while all other reporters indicated that Leonard was going to take a while to make his decision, Abraham reported that Leonard would “surely be wrapped up by tomorrow.” Later that night, he reported dire news for the Clippers:

On July 1, Abraham sent a since-deleted tweet claiming the Clippers were “OUT.” Soon, the Clippers were “exploring other avenues.” On July 2, he reported Leonard had made up his mind, even before a highly publicized meeting with the Raptors. When the helicopters tracked down the SUVs in Toronto, Abraham claimed “a source close to the situation” said Leonard did not like “the fanfare.” Were the texts coming from inside the SUV?

An article on USC’s website celebrating its internet-famous student proudly claimed that Abraham had 38,000 Twitter followers, which means at least 7,000 people have unfollowed him since. Like Broussard, Abraham’s mea culpa for his inaccurate reporting was a huffy explanation that, actually, he was right at the time.

I’ll give these guys the benefit of the doubt and assume they really were burned by generally reliable sources. Maybe Leonard changed his mind a few times.

I think it’s fine to make incorrect sports predictions, or propose sports futures that never come to pass. That’s what makes sports fun! We don’t know what’s going to happen! But we’ve gotta roast the worst of the Scoops Era of NBA reporting. These reporters don’t claim to make predictions or projections: They claim to report facts that nobody else has access to. They would throw a corgi in a blender to tell the world the details of Ivica Zubac’s contract 47 seconds before anybody else, because their value is the ability to provide exclusive access to information. If you’re going to demand obsequious respect for being right marginally sooner than anybody else, you can’t also absolve yourself of responsibility when your facts turn out to be fiction.

QAnon, but for Basketball

Sometimes, people just want to hear that their team is winning. They’ll listen to anybody who says good things are happening to their team, even if the sourcing is questionable; they’ll decry anybody saying the opposite as fake news, even if that person is otherwise reputable. (This is not just a sports thing.)

This explains the meteoric rises and instantaneous downfalls of several accounts devoted to the idea that Kawhi Leonard wanted to play for the Lakers. Some of these accounts came highly recommended, having predicted prominent NBA players were going to join the Lakers in the past. But projecting players to the Lakers is often about as easy as being a weatherman in Los Angeles—even if you didn’t actually study meteorology, you can stand in front of a camera and say that it’s gonna be sunny and 85 on Friday and sound like you have inside info.

The king of Lakers insider hustle was user RDAmbition, whose KawhiWatch has now ended. RDAmbition made his name by accurately predicting—reporting? Leaking?—the details of the Anthony Davis trade, and news of Al Horford’s move to the 76ers. (He also wrote about the difficulties of supporting Donald Trump in Los Angeles, but that got swept aside.) Doxxers claimed the person behind the account was related to Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, which, true or not, boosted the anonymous account’s credentials. On June 28, RDAmbition posted in R/Lakers that Leonard had spoken to LeBron and Kobe Bryant and appreciated the loyalty the Lakers franchise showed its stars. (Any sentence involving the words “Kobe” and “loyalty” is obvious Laker-lover bait.) A few days later, RDAmbition had deleted his Reddit account—was he banned for knowing too much?!?—and taken to Twitter. On July 1, RDAmbition tweeted that Leonard had informed Clippers brass via conference call that the team was officially out of the running.

In a historic meeting of the minds, Abraham said he could “confirm” RDAmbition’s “report.” A few hours later, RDAmbition followed up by claiming that Kawhi to the Lakers was “officially done.”

The account picked up more than 30,000 followers in a matter of days. And then it vanished. As soon as Leonard was announced to the Clippers, the account, which had proudly ruled out the Clippers just a few days earlier, disappeared from Twitter, apparently deleted by its owner. What was the endgame? That this stuff actually turned out to be true, the follower count would go through the roof, and the owner could sell the account to a Macedonian meme farm? Dammit, Kawhi! You cost this guy THOUSANDS!

And let’s not forget @LakersInformant, an account that repeatedly claimed Leonard would sign with the Lakers on July 3:

The account told stories of Leonard’s contract demands and invented a salary cap loophole called the “bi-annual room exception,” which, for the record, is two actual salary cap loopholes combined into one fake salary cap loophole.

@LakersInformant didn’t delete the account, but it did change the handle to @BoogieCousinSZN and stop pretending to have insider info.

I’m ambivalent about the people who ended up providing accurate information, slightly weirded out by the ones who stalked Kawhi Leonard, and a little aggravated by the confident wrongness of Scoops Twitter. However, I am thrilled by the performances of these faux Lakers insiders who peddled nothing but fantasy before disappearing. It’s endlessly funny that one of the most successful franchises in basketball history feels so hard-up about its current collection of superstars that they fell for these attention-seeking hucksters. Nobody had ever read fanfic under the belief that it was actually happening in real life—until these Lakers fans.