Distant Thunder: What Did Oklahoma City’s Media Do to Piss Off Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant?
On the night of January 16, Berry Tramel thought he’d left the Thunder locker room unscathed. Sure, Russell Westbrook, one of the best basketball players on the planet, had snapped at him: “I just don’t like you.” In Oklahoma City, you get a merit badge the first time that happens; by the fifth time, nobody cares. Tramel ignored it. He didn’t call his editor. He didn’t mention it in the column he wrote for the Oklahoman’s morning edition.
When Tramel got home, after midnight, he got a text message from his niece’s husband. It was then he realized that his encounter with Westbrook was a “thing,” in the new-media sense. “Hey, Berry, just texted you to see if you’re OK,” the message read. “Just know that I still love you.” It was as if Tramel had been in a terrible accident or charged with a crime.
A great locker-room showdown used to be a samizdat good that sports radio would play maybe once a year to fill a segment. Now, a locker-room showdown is basically a dunk highlight, with the sportswriter standing in for the hapless big man who wandered into the way. Berry Tramel just got posterized!
As the weeks went by, Tramel began to feel like it wasn’t just Westbrook but the whole world snapping at him. “You guys really don’t know shit,” Kevin Durant told the media. Michele Roberts, the players’ association chief, called the act of locker-room reporting “an incredible invasion of privacy.” Even Paul Pierce tried a tongue-in-cheek Westbrook impression. It was left to Sam Hinkie, the 76ers’ sphinxlike GM, to text Tramel, “Hope you and Russ make up.”
A few weeks ago, I met Tramel in a diner in downtown Oklahoma City. A tall, thin, gray-haired man, Tramel has covered sports in the city for 37 years. “I’m a lifer,” he said with happy resignation. He was looking at me over the rims of his glasses. Anyone who has shared a press box with Tramel can tell you this is his signature gesture.
That was the funny thing about Tramel’s conflict with Westbrook. He and Westbrook weren’t mad at each other. Never had been, really. They didn’t even know each other, despite sharing a locker room for seven years. “I could have been from Syracuse for the way he acted,” Tramel said. “[But] that’s not really Russ’s fault, I don’t think. I think the culture created that.” By “culture,” he meant the invisible handcheck that pushes reporters away from athletes. The disconnect that permeates monthly YouTube clips starring Westbrook or Marshawn Lynch or Phil Kessel. What created such a culture? Follow me, if you will, into the Thunder locker room …
On the night of January 16, the Thunder press corps gathered around Westbrook’s locker. Oklahoma City had just beaten Golden State. After multiple injuries to Westbrook and Durant, it was as if the whole team had finally limped off the DL together. Durant scored 36 and Westbrook laid down a line of 17-15-16. The press corps figured Westbrook would be in a good mood.
Westbrook was in a bad mood. He answered every question with “We did a good job of executing.” Or: “good job of execution.” Or: “good.” It was a continuation of an homage to Lynch that Westbrook had begun on New Year’s Eve, when the Thunder guard answered most questions with versions of “Good win for us.”
“I was curious,” Tramel said. “They’d just beaten the Warriors and he’d played great. Did his grandmother die?”
Tramel asked Westbrook: “Are you upset with something?”
Westbrook’s eyes darted back and forth. Then they met Tramel’s — for one of the few times in their seven years together, according to Tramel. Westbrook said, “I just don’t like you.”
It gave the encounter the feel of a highly personal, Deion vs. McCarver grudge. But Andrew Gilman, who writes for FoxSportsSouthwest.com, said Tramel wasn’t the target. After all, the first reporter Westbrook stiffed that night was Nick Gallo, who writes for the team’s website and whose business card says “Web Content Manager.”
“When people ask, ‘Why doesn’t Westbrook like you?’ I have two standard answers,” Tramel said. “My joke is: He really does, he just doesn’t know it yet. My true answer is: He really doesn’t dislike me anymore than he dislikes somebody else. He couldn’t pick me out of a crowd.”
Royce Young, who writes for ESPN and DailyThunder.com, also noticed something strange that night. Durant was watching Westbrook from two lockers over. And Durant was laughing.
None of the Thunder writers dislike Westbrook. In fact, they make a parlor game of figuring out why he doesn’t like them. There’s Westbrook’s penchant for manufacturing enemies, on the court and off; the proverbial “chip on his shoulder”; and the Thunder’s disastrous run of bad luck (e.g., Serge Ibaka), which would turn anyone into a grump. Sometimes, Westbrook is right to be annoyed. This week, a reporter asked him who he thought was the front-runner in the MVP race. Westbrook replied, “Uh, you.”
But Westbrook can also be unnecessarily harsh on reporters. One night, a game ran late. Darnell Mayberry, the Oklahoman’s senior Thunder reporter, was up against deadline. He brought his laptop into the locker room to move quotes directly from the players’ lips to his copy. Mayberry sat in a chair in front of an empty locker. Westbrook saw him and told him the chairs were for players only.
Mayberry got up. But then a funny thing happened. Backup point guard Reggie Jackson took his chair, wheeled it across the locker room, and offered it to Mayberry. Remember that when you wonder why Jackson now plays for the Pistons.
In January, one of Westbrook’s postgame interviews lasted four questions and 16 words in response. In December 2013, there was a small incident after a game against the Bulls. Joakim Noah was brought into the Thunder locker room by his old teammate, Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins considered it a breach of etiquette. He told Noah: “Get your ass up outta here.”
At the next press availability, the Thunder PR staff asked the press not to quiz players about the incident. Tramel ignored the omertà. He talked to Westbrook. Then he moved to Sefolosha, telling him what Westbrook had just said.
Westbrook overheard that and said, “Don’t be quoting me!”
Then, realizing that his reaction could itself become a story, Westbrook turned to Young and said, “Don’t you start tweeting about this!”
Tramel didn’t mention any of this in his column.
Courtesy of Berry Tramel
At All-Star Weekend, Durant said, “To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends.” The Thunder press corps noted a certain irony. Durant wasn’t addressing them. He was talking to an Australian reporter named Brad Graham (@BackpackBaller on Twitter), who is writing a coffee-table-style book about Durant. And Graham had thrown Durant a softball.
Durant and Westbrook present different faces to the press corps. Westbrook is all storm windows and vinyl siding; Durant cultivates his image as a mensch. Westbrook claims to ignore what’s written; Durant may say that (“I don’t read the newspaper,” he declared after the Oklahoman’s notorious “Mr. Unreliable” headline), but no one especially believes it. More than once, Durant has accused Mayberry, the toughest of the Thunder reporters, of angling for a job in a bigger market.
Durant is sophisticated about the media, but he’s not above the old trick of using a perceived slight for motivation. On December 8, 2013, Paul George visited Oklahoma City. It was the high-water mark of Pacersmania; George was being hailed as the league’s third-best player. The press corps could see Durant getting testy as they asked about George. That night, Durant dropped 36. “As he’s doing it,” Mayberry said, “he looks over at me sitting at the scorer’s table and says, ‘Write about that.’”
On March 4, I followed the Thunder press corps into the locker room. Five days after breaking his cheekbone, Westbrook had donned a face mask, notched his fourth straight triple-double, and fended off a Philly team that forgot it was supposed to be tanking. With Durant sidelined by foot problems (again), 1 Westbrook was single-handedly saving the Thunder’s season. We assumed he’d be in a good mood.
The reporters gathered around Westbrook’s locker. It brought to mind the gripe of Roberts, the union chief, who accused the media of “just standing there, just staring at [the players].”
“She’s right in Russell Westbrook’s wheelhouse,” Tramel said. “He looks upon the media as invading his workspace. He doesn’t like it that we’re there. And, frankly, I don’t blame him. It’s a goofy custom.” If the locker-room scrums were doomed to be terminally awkward, Tramel thought, stars like Westbrook and Durant should use podiums in the media room, like they do in the postseason.
We were just standing around. After a few minutes, Westbrook emerged from the showers in a towel. He began to get dressed. The mostly male group looked up at the ceiling, then down at the carpet. They tried to look at anything but the famous, partially naked athlete before them.
Westbrook was half-dressed now. He took a step toward the reporters. A few of us jumped to the side, like a golf gallery making room for an errant tee shot. “Nah, you ain’t got to get out of the way,” Westbrook said. “Foot cramp.” He stretched his leg.
We now watched Westbrook slip on a gray hoodie. Two gold chains. When he began to apply lip balm, the people holding TV cameras began to switch on their lights and raise the cameras to their shoulders. But Westbrook wasn’t finished — it was as if he enjoyed making the press wait. He looked at himself in the mirror in his locker. Then he put on his jacket. The footage would look like we were interviewing a classic “man on the street” — someone stopped inconveniently when they were on their way someplace important.
“Here’s Russ!” said Matt Tumbleson, the Thunder’s head of communications. The interview had begun.
Gallo, of the official Thunder website, typically speaks first. He described the game-clinching stretch of overtime. “What was the key or why were you able to seal the deal there?” Westbrook looked Gallo in the eye as he answered.
Cliff Brunt of the Associated Press spoke next: “Does your mind-set change at all with the injuries you guys are going through right now?” The next two questions were Talk Abouts, and one question was asked twice: What did it mean to Westbook to hear the fans chanting “M-V-P”? The best question Westbrook was asked was probably: “What was it like playing with that mask?”
There was nothing awkward or threatening about the scrum. It was merely a bunch of writers staying at a respectable distance from Westbrook and gathering enough quotes to fill their stories. And that’s exactly what Westbrook and the Thunder wanted them to do. A couple of reporters didn’t even join the group, because they had given up asking Westbrook questions months ago.
“Anyone else?” Tumbleson asked. A little more than two minutes after it began, the interview was over.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
“Durant at the All-Star Game said, ‘The media’s not our friends,’” Tramel explained. “Well, he’s right. Nobody on a serious journalism level pretends to be. But with the Thunder, there’s not even an acquaintance. There’s no relationship.”
It was a gripe I heard again and again from the Thunder press corps. Nobody held a grudge against Durant or Westbrook. They knew the locker-room scrums would produce a poor harvest. What frustrated the press corps was that the players — especially Durant and Westbrook — remained largely out of reach. While complying with the league’s minimum standards for access, the Thunder carefully proscribed their availability. As Bob Barry Jr. put it, “We can never be mad at people we never have access to.”
Barry is local royalty: the sports anchor at the NBC affiliate, a host on the Thunder’s flagship radio station, and the son of the “voice of the Sooners.” Yet even he has a hard time securing one-on-one interviews. “I’ve made 100 requests over two years,” Barry told me. “I say, ‘Give me anybody, anybody for five minutes. The no. 15 guy on the roster. The trainer. The chaplain.’ They always have a smile on their face when they say, ‘I’ll run it up the flagpole.’ But you never hear back.” Before the season, the team offered him seven minutes each with Perry Jones and Serge Ibaka.
I asked Mayberry, the Oklahoman beat writer, how many one-on-ones he gets with Durant and Westbrook in a given year.
“Zero,” Mayberry said.
His last interview with Durant was 10 months ago, after Durant won the MVP. Mayberry got another one with Durant before the 2013-14 season. The last time he remembered interviewing Westbrook one-on-one was in 2012, when Westbrook signed with Jordan Brand.
“When it comes to getting a one-on-one interview, it would be easier to get access to the leader of ISIS,” said Fox Sports’s Andrew Gilman.
The ’80s golden age of access is long gone. LeBron James and Steph Curry aren’t sitting on folding chairs in their arena pressrooms, waiting to be downloaded of their deepest thoughts. Local writers have to find other ways to connect. After Durant’s outburst, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne advised reporters to approach players outside the scrum and establish something like a human rapport.
But in the Thunder locker room, there’s a watchfulness that prevents all but the most formal interactions. Reporters said that nearly every time they approach a player, even with tape recorders holstered, a Thunder PR rep sidles up to listen. “If you have a conversation with a player about parenting, someone is going to be standing right there hovering and trying to steer it whichever way they think it should go,” Mayberry said. “That’s the kind of culture they’ve created here. No one has a personal relationship with any of these guys.”
As the NBA writer at Durant’s hometown paper, the Washington Post’s Michael Lee got closer to a relationship than most. Starting in 2009, he began parachuting into Oklahoma City, waiting out the postgame scrums, and then speaking to Durant afterward. Durant was usually happy to give him a few minutes’ worth of material. Lee even slipped behind the curtain and talked to Durant after a press conference at the 2012 Finals. It was a coup for the Post.
But then the access began to ebb — not because of Durant, but because of the Thunder. A few years ago, Lee and Durant walked out of the locker room after a scrum and headed toward the court. Lee asked Durant if he could pull out his tape recorder. Durant said OK. Then they heard a strange noise, the sound of a man running down the hall toward them. It was Tumbleson, the head of communications. Tumbleson asked Lee, “Did you not get all you needed?”
According to Lee, the situation was awkward enough that he told Durant he had everything he needed, after all. After one post-practice scrum, Lee asked Durant about his new tattoo. It was precisely the kind of chitchat Shelburne prescribed. Durant made a move to show Lee the ink, but was pulled away by Thunder personnel. It was as if Durant could no longer make decisions about whom he wanted to talk to.
There’s a chicken-and-egg argument about locker-room access. Did the sportswriters become such unrepentant muckrakers that PR men had to step in and save the athletes? Or did the athletes withdraw first and turn reporters into Pinkerton detectives?
The answer is probably both. But no one on the Thunder beat is predicting Boogie Cousins will get arrested. As Young noted, no reporter even asked Durant about his canceled engagement to WNBA player Monica Wright. “We just want to tell these people’s stories,” Mayberry said. “The harder they make it to tell the stories, the worse it is for everyone.” Stinginess with access widens the inevitable chasm between reporter and athlete — it turns a problem into a policy.
We’re in a boom time for resistance to media rituals. “For lack of a better tag, it’s the Marshawn Lynch effect,” said Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. “There’s a growing dissatisfaction or resentment.” After Lynch’s stonewalling at the Super Bowl, one common response was: Why bother players after a game? I don’t care what they say, anyway … “Yes, you do,” said Young. “There’s a reason NBA TV runs every playoff postgame press conference.”
Ironically, the longtime rap on the Thunder press corps (including around these parts) was that they were “homers” — small-towners who were thrilled to have a pro team and reluctant to express full-throated critiques of the James Harden trade or Scott Brooks’s coaching. The Thunder writers pointed to another culprit. It was the mob of team employees — the “friendly media,” Tramel called it — who are filling up the locker room. At a shootaround in Cleveland last March, Mayberry was there for the Oklahoman. The other media members he saw were Gallo of the Thunder website; Lesley McCaslin, the team’s sideline reporter; and three game announcers. It was five to one.
This poisons the locker-room atmosphere in much the same way as limited access. “Any question I ask that’s perceived as threatening is going to look worse when these guys are asking softball questions,” Mayberry said. It turns the basic work of journalism into enemy activity. The in-house media has another effect. If Durant and Westbrook talk for tightly controlled amounts of time, questions from team employees can run out the clock.
“The Thunder players, they don’t think we’re homers,” Tramel said. “Some of them think we don’t want ’em to win.” There are a number of changes that could be made to improve interactions between players and the press. Keep the PR staff away from small talk. Create more unstructured time so reporter and athlete don’t feel like they’re in a terrarium. And if Durant wants to talk to someone, Jesus, let him follow his muse.
A couple of weeks ago, the Thunder PR staff called Tramel. They liked a column he’d written and wanted to offer him a kind of reward. A one-on-one interview! Access! It turned out to be an interview with Nick Collison. Fine, Tramel said. He did it. He even got a column out of it.
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
When he was young, Tramel dreamed of working in a big league town. Maybe Dallas, like his hero Blackie Sherrod. But Tramel and his wife were lifers; they were surrounded by family in Oklahoma. He let the dream slip away. It came as a wonderful surprise when the Thunder arrived in 2008. “All of a sudden, the pro market came to me,” he said. “I couldn’t be more blessed.”
But the Thunder changed something important about Tramel’s job. For decades, the biggest sports figure in Oklahoma City was the head football coach at the University of Oklahoma. It would be absurd for Tramel and the coach not to have a relationship. A few years ago, Bob Stoops got angry about something Tramel wrote. Tramel went to Stoops’s office to sort things out. The two men aren’t friends, exactly, but their shared history and mutual need to get along won out. These days, Stoops holds a briefing every Wednesday after practice. The coach sits in the same seat in the team meeting room each time. Tramel sits immediately to his right.
When Westbrook and Durant arrived in Oklahoma City, they knocked Stoops off the top rung. They were international celebrities. While Westbrook had no special urge to piss off the local paper’s lead columnist, neither did he have a reason to acknowledge the Oklahoman or Tramel’s existence.
We sportswriters like to imagine ourselves as power brokers, heirs to the New York Daily News’s Dick Young, whose tendentious 1977 columns got Tom Seaver shipped to Cincinnati. And maybe a few national writers — Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski, for example — still carry the same nuclear briefcase.
But newspaper writers are different. As their papers’ circulations have receded, so has their standing inside the locker room. A line atop the front page of the Oklahoman boasts that the paper reaches “more than 475,000 people each day.” Durant and Westbrook have nearly 12 million combined Twitter followers.
The Oklahoman’s “Mr. Unreliable” headline, which was printed May 1, 2014, was symbolic of the changing dynamics. The Thunder were trailing the Grizzlies 3-2 in the first round of the playoffs. Durant had scored 26 in Game 5 but missed a game-winning shot. Tramel filed his column from a car on I-40, as — and here is a tale of newspaper economics — he and fellow reporters drove to Memphis to save on airfare. Tramel saw the editor-written headline pop up on Twitter and winced a little, but figured it would run only on the web. The next day, it ran in the paper. Everyone freaked out.
Once, the paper’s editors would have merely shrugged. In 2007, when a Jenni Carlson column caused Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy to self-immolate (“I’m a man! I’m 40!”), the paper felt no need to retract anything. “We can’t do that anymore,” Tramel said. “We’ve got to worry about our customers, and our customers were mad.” With “Mr. Unreliable” still on newsstands, the paper admitted the headline was “unduly harsh.”
You could see the Westbrook-Tramel incident not as a battle between reporter and player but between civic institutions: an NBA franchise that’s printing money and a daily newspaper that’s fending off decline. Tramel and I were eating breakfast a few blocks away from the Oklahoman’s new Main Street headquarters, which the paper picked because it was right in the middle of town. The Oklahoman is loaded with house ads hawking its roster of sportswriters. Tramel can be seen looking over his glasses and clutching his six Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year trophies.
And looming like a rain cloud was the bogus idea that if Durant leaves when his contract expires after next season, it will be because of “Mr. Unreliable.” “I’m actually pretty optimistic he’s going to stay,” Tramel said. “Our publisher, our president, they’re on pins and needles. They believe we might get blamed if Durant leaves, because of the headline.”
Tramel said he likes Tumbleson and Thunder GM Sam Presti. He sees the media strategy as a simple calculation. “They got a plan,” Tramel said.
“What the Thunder’s doing is, within league policies, ‘Let’s make everything as good as it can be for the players.’” The team can use the available procedural measures to all but eliminate the inconvenience of dealing with the media. “[Players] will want to come here, they’ll want to stay. We don’t have a beach. We don’t have Hollywood. But we sure can make things easy on them.”
In a strange way, Tramel was impressed. “You can’t argue with it,” he said. “It’s just not really convenient for me. But why do I matter?”
The most telling moment of the Tramel-Westbrook incident came the next day. The Thunder PR staff was unhappy such a clip was circling the globe. Even if they were keeping reporters at bay, there was little upside in having the reporters posterized in front of the world. Tumbleson called Tramel to try to straighten things out.
But there was no framework for a peace accord. Tramel and Westbrook didn’t have a bad relationship. They had no relationship. The only thing they could do was resume their locker-room Kabuki — with Tramel in the role of interrogator and Westbrook playing the reluctant, occasionally surly interviewee. “That was the only step available to either one of us,” Tramel said.
The next time they met, Tramel asked Westbrook a question. Westbrook answered it with something other than a Lynchian catchphrase. No one remembers what was said. They simply moved on.
“I’m actually more encouraged about our relationship now than I was before,” Tramel said. “Because it’s literally the first time he ever acknowledged that he knew who I was.”
For years, Tramel has been telling Tumbleson he’d like to have lunch with Westbrook. Get away from the postgame scrums and the rabbit-eared PR staff and talk man-to-man. Only connect! Tumbleson has made promising noises and said he’d run the request up the flagpole.
“That will never happen,” Mayberry said. “I told Berry that. That will never, ever happen.”
By the time we met, Tramel seemed resigned, too. There would be no lunch summit with Westbrook. Thirty-odd nights a year, Tramel would stand feet away yet miles apart from his supposed antagonist, waiting for the resumption of a feud neither one of them understood.
“I don’t want him to go anywhere,” Tramel said. “I hope he re-ups in ’17. I hope he stays forever. But unfortunately, it’s not going to be any kind of relationship-based situation. I’m just going to be writing about how great he is. I’m never going to be writing about who he is.”