When All Men Doubt You

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The Trade Rumor Era

Sources: The NBA’s offseason has swallowed the actual season

Look, everyone knew LeBron James was opting out. Carmelo Anthony was no surprise, either. There has been only one truly brain-melting piece of news to come out of this NBA offseason, and Tim Bontemps had it. He just had to tweet it.

Bontemps is a 29-year-old reporter with the New York Post. On June 28 at around 9 p.m., he sat at a desk in the News Corp Building staring nervously at his Twitter notifications. A bunch of his followers were talking about Andray Blatche’s civic protest art. Which was fine. What worried Bontemps was that someone in the NBA’s Twitter piranha tank — Woj, Stein, Amick, Shelburne, Broussard, Windhorst — knew what he knew: that Jason Kidd was engineering his exit from Brooklyn.

It was more important than any story Bontemps had written all year. That’s because the trade rumor — shorthand here for any offseason transaction news — has become the dominant form of NBA journalism. “For everybody in my line of work,” Bontemps said, “the offseason has really become bigger than the regular season.” The fate of Kidd and LeBron and Melo is now more important, in media terms, than the San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title.

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The chief method of putting points on the board in the Trade Rumor Era is to file a story that includes the words “league source.” Inserting the phrases “I’m told” or “I’m hearing” into otherwise anodyne sentences adds a further layer of mystery. Bontemps stuck with the former. He tweeted the Kidd news. If Twitter could have made a sound that night, it would have been that of a dozen well-connected NBA reporters suddenly crying out in terror. To quote David Aldridge: “Whaaa?”

“This story comes out and it’s like — boom — there are 50 people making calls on it all of a sudden,” Bontemps said. When a big piece of news escapes in the NBA, all the piranhas in the tank start nipping away: They confirm the news, they dispute it, they add details. (A few tweets later, they give credit to the guy who got the scoop.) Stein said the Bucks and Nets were already talking compensation. Shelburne added that the Lakers weren’t interested in Kidd. Woj nodded.

“I can’t comprehend how big this has been,” Bontemps said. “When I got it, I thought it was going to be a big story. I had no idea. I didn’t expect it would be the lead story in sports for three days. It’s been stunning.” In the only game that counts, Bontemps had nailed a 3 on the opening possession.

The trade rumor has long been a part of NBA writing. Twenty years ago, you could pick up the Post, turn to Peter Vecsey’s “Hoop du Jour” column, and feast on a buffet laid out by league sources. From July 1994: “Georgetown coach John Thompson [was] contacted by the Clippers regarding his interest in the coaching job.”

But even in Vecsey’s scenery-chewing prime, when he doubled as a reporter for NBC, he was treated as an outlier on the sports page. “Rumor was always a dirty word,” said Chris Sheridan, who covers the NBA for Sheridan Hoops. Indeed, maybe the most remarkable thing about the Trade Rumor Era is how the rumormonger, repackaged as an “insider,” has moved from the periphery of sportswriting to its center. Today, if you tell someone a reporter traffics in rumor and innuendo, that person’s response will be “How can I follow him on Twitter?”

For decades, baseball and the NFL have maintained scoop-friendly “hot stove” leagues in the offseason. For the NBA, the phenomenon is relatively new. “I started covering the league when it was deader than crap during the summer,” said former Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum.

“The idea we’re interested in covering the NBA in July never happened before,” said Ric Bucher, who writes for Bleacher Report and is the CSN Bay Area sideline reporter for the Golden State Warriors. “It was Finals, draft, and then sometime around September, when guys were getting ready to come to camp, that’s when you started paying attention again.”

Before asking how we got here, it’s worth studying the Trade Rumor Era. It has acquired its own language, its own high-PER reporters, and an ever-expanding schedule. “It’s not just the offseason,” said ESPN’s Marc Stein. “It’s transactions, period. People love transactions.” The strangeness of Stein’s new world began to dawn on him in January 2007, when he got massive traffic for reporting a trade. Earl Boykins had been shipped to Milwaukee.

The NBA offseason no longer begins when a team wins the title. This year, the offseason began on May 18 — the day Roy Hibbert scored 19 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. That’s when a “rival executive” told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Minnesota was making noises about trading Kevin Love. Woj — who has mastered the Trade Rumor Era better than anybody — then posted two tweets, holding out Boston and Houston as possible destinations for Love. They were retweeted nearly 2,000 times combined. By comparison, Woj’s column about Hibbert’s Game 1 performance was retweeted 72 times.

The Trade Rumor Era doesn’t much reward insight into what happens on an NBA court. It’s about the possibility of what might happen on a court in the future, provided a player is willing to sign for the midlevel exception. Oddly, that’s what makes it fun. “The Finals are about the Heat and the Spurs, LeBron James and Tim Duncan,” said Henry Abbott, ESPN.com’s NBA editor. “But LeBron James’s free agency is about everybody’s imagination. Now your team may get LeBron. You can project your dreams onto it.”

We haven’t lost adventurous basketball writers. There are several on the books at ESPN and Grantland, Chris Ballard and others at Sports Illustrated, the lovably crackpot team that blogs under the SBNation banner, and the scattered remnants of the FreeDarko army.

But even those wordsmiths write with a new lexicon. An NBA player is no longer an NBA player. A player is (in descending order of desirability) an “asset,” a “piece,” a “trade chip,” a “salary dump,” or an “amnesty case.” A side effect of the new basketball writing is that “young piece,” like “outstanding length,” has been desexualized.

“They cease to be basketball players and they cease to be human beings,” Bucher said. “Owners look at players and coaches as acquisitions and goods. We fall into doing the same thing.”

The Trade Rumor Era can’t produce enough actual transactions to appease the masses. (Case in point: The big name on Day 1 of free agency was Wizards center Marcin Gortat.) So scoops are broken into their component parts. It’s news of a sort when an NBA team expresses interest in a free agent via phone call. Then through a meeting. A big meeting is a “face-to-face meeting.” Insiders score points by revealing where a face-to-face meeting took place (“an L.A. office building,” the “house of Mavs owner Mark Cuban”); its length (six hours versus two); the swag on offer (Jeremy Lin’s uniform number, a Tobey Maguire–narrated movie trailer); who else was at the meeting (or in Derrick Rose’s case, who wasn’t); the players’ mood at the meeting (“Carmelo was ‘truly engaged in the conversation’”); and, finally, when the meeting has ended (“Carmelo meeting over”). If a contract offer was extended at a face-to-face meeting, it is inevitably being mulled.

On Sunday, reporters who delight in this small ball seemed to finally have had their fill. Twitter reported that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert may have dispatched a plane to Miami; Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony may have played a pickup game; and Pau Gasol may have joined them (that is, everyone but Gilbert) for dinner. “[T]his can’t be what happens in a society that isn’t heading into oncoming traffic,” CBS’s Zach Harper tweeted. Yet it was a sign of the preeminence of trade rumors that even “meta” writers couldn’t afford to log off.

The Trade Rumor Era is powered by a network of anonymous sources. A few years ago, the piranha tank seemed to adopt the policy of overexplanation from the news pages of the New York Times (e.g., “officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk on the record”). But the NBA writers’ ornate descriptors — “a source familiar with the team’s thinking” — didn’t help much. I’m familiar with a team’s thinking. Recently, more writers have opted for minimalism: “league source.”

On June 26, a source told Bucher that Kyle Lowry and Chris Bosh were switching teams. After 3,500 retweets, Bucher withdrew the scoop and apologized. With the enormous demand for scoops on Twitter, readers would have quickly forgiven him anyway. What was interesting in this case, Bucher told me, is that his source sent him dozens of texts and even mimicked the language of an NBA front office — telling Bucher, for instance, that his team was waiting for the second round to end. It was as if the source had inhaled the fumes of the Trade Rumor Era. An even stranger case was that of Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who reported on July 1 that Bosh and Dwyane Wade would return to Miami. Canzano even supplied the contract terms. The piranha tank barely twitched.

In the Trade Rumor Era, the premium currency isn’t really a rumor at all. It’s a genuine scoop, like Stephen A. Smith’s called shot of James, Wade, and Bosh to the Heat in 2010. “That’s better than ‘so and so is interested in Player X,’” said Sheridan. “Everybody’s interested in good players.” According to Sheridan, so many rumors sluice around on Twitter that NBA front offices have more or less made their peace with them. Everyone is talking, gossiping, peddling info. When someone like Sixers GM Sam Hinkie enforces an omertà with the press, insiders ask, “What’s his problem?”

How did we get here? Partly it’s a quirk of history. When LeBron James becomes a free agent twice in four years, he’s bound to launch a new form of media. “I remember when Charles Barkley went to Phoenix during the summer of ’92,” said Jack McCallum. “But Charles had wanted out of Philly for seven or eight years. And it still was done via a trade. It wasn’t done with the seduction of free agency you could write about.”

What has changed is that the seduction is now baked into the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. The 2011 CBA resulted in shorter contracts for the owners; it capped star salaries far below their real market value. Zach Lowe has reported that NBA bigwigs call the new reality “player-sharing.” If you turn your league into the NBA Trade Machine, it’s no surprise the rumor guy would become the league’s most valuable Twitter celebrity.

“The other key factor is that transactions equate to hope,” said Marc Stein. Tanking teams like the 76ers have essentially turned into one big hypothetical trade rumor, scheduled to be enacted months or even years into the future. For their fans, the season is beside the point; the offseason is where the action is.

Fans, by the way, don’t much mind the Trade Rumor Era. Gone is the old lament that you can’t get attached to players because they’re always changing teams. Fantasy sports have rewired our brains so that deals interest us almost as much as wins and losses. “When the season’s going along,” Tim Bontemps said, “it’s ‘why can’t this guy get traded, why can’t this coach get fired, why isn’t this happening?’ There’s never any satisfaction with ‘this is the team we’ve got.’”

And it’s not just fans who think this way. New-breed NBA owners like Marc Lasry and Mikhail Prokhorov demand constant roster churn to justify their exorbitant buy-ins. “If you spend $400 or $500 million on a franchise,” Ric Bucher said, “you approach it a little bit differently than if you spent $10 million [30 years ago] because your buddy David Stern said, ‘Hey, you’ll have fun with this.’” The moves, in turn, lead to more stories.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Trade Rumor Era has been enjoyed, if not perpetrated, by the insiders themselves. A reporter is never more useless than when his sport is out of season. But what if the season never ends?

The last five offseasons have made the NBA insider indispensable. He reported on James’s free agency; the James Harden trade; the Dwight Howard sweepstakes; and now James, Anthony, Love, and Kidd. Combine that with an uptick in interest in the league and it’s safe to say the NBA writer is a bigger star vis-à-vis his peers than he has ever been in the history of sportswriting. In retrospect, “The Decision” seems less like a commercial pact between player and network than a collusive agreement that the news cycle would never end.

Twenty years ago, battles between NBA beat writers were fairly opaque. You might see a scoop a few days later in your local paper, by which time the original scooper’s name had disappeared and the story was attributed to “press reports.”

In the Trade Rumor Era, everyone is a national basketball writer. Woj competes with Stein. Stein competes with the personal trainer in Cleveland who’s guaranteeing LeBron will come home. The trainer competes with message-board prophet “Carl2680,” who beat even Bontemps to the Kidd scoop. Twitter is their Thunderdome. The old penalty for getting beat on a story was that your editor called. The new penalty is that your Twitter followers remind you that Woj, Stein, Sam Amick, and the rest are outhustling you. “It’s not just that they get credit,” said Bucher. “But then you get ridiculed for being late, as if you somehow didn’t know it was going on.” And then your editor calls.

NBA writing isn’t the only journalistic beat that has come to be defined by its hot stove. If every basketball writer has started to sound like Adrian Wojnarowski, then every Hollywood reporter has begun to sound like Nikki Finke. Finke’s rise is instructive. She became a player by scooping the hiring and firing of executives that 99 percent of the public had never heard of — the Earl Boykinses of show business. It wasn’t the transactions per se that made people perk up. It was the idea that Finke purloined info from inside a closed system. Finke acquired the air of an antiestablishment hero. Today’s basketball writers — Woj, Stein, the whole piranha tank — serve the same purpose with the NBA.

The Post’s Tim Bontemps was almost bred for the Trade Rumor Era. He went to college at St. Bonaventure. During his freshman year, he began a mentorship with a Bonnie alum who was rising in sports media. The mentor was Adrian Wojnarowski. Now they go at each other on Twitter, vying for scraps of intel about pieces and trade chips, trying to find a league source who will illuminate the world. “People know if they go to Woj, he’s going to give ’em something nobody else has,” Bontemps said. “That’s the goal for me and everybody to catch up to.”

Filed Under: NBA, Sports Media, NBA Offseason, NBA Rumors, Adrian Wojnarowski, Jason Kidd, Marc Stein, LeBron James, 2014 NBA Free Agency

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast