LOS ANGELES — If I have learned one lesson in four years covering the NBA, it’s to always be prepared with a phone charger and a wireless connection. You just never know where you’ll be standing when the next big story breaks.
I thought of that recently while reading Ethan Skolnick’s column about the night he missed LeBron James scoring 61 points. Skolnick, a terrific writer/reporter who covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report, spent the evening instead shopping in Costco with his pregnant wife while LeBron made history.
Indians radio broadcaster Tom Hamilton once told me the most valuable lesson he learned from the late Herb Score was to always be prepared, because on any random night he could see something truly remarkable he’d never seen before. How true.
The same applies to life as a beat reporter, when news can break at any random moment.
I was standing on a golf course when I learned the Cavaliers were trading J.J. Hickson. I was at Panera trying to have lunch with my wife when Chris Grant was fired.
I was standing in a pet store last summer trying to replace the family goldfish when news broke Andrew Bynum would join the Cavaliers. When I had a story that was critical of Kyrie Irving a few weeks back, my boss edited it from the frozen-food aisle of Giant Eagle.
Ah, technology. More on that in a minute.
I was trying to meet an old college friend for a drink a few years ago the night Mo Williams was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Cavaliers had played that night and I received a text well after midnight that something was going on. With the trade deadline less than 24 hours away, I drove home and finally confirmed the deal after 2 a.m. I didn’t go to bed until well after 5 a.m. on a night I otherwise would’ve been asleep by midnight had I not been meeting that friend.
After talking to a few colleagues in recent days, however, it’s clear my stories aren’t nearly as compelling as those who have done this much longer.
Sheldon Ocker, who recently retired after a magnificent career at the Akron Beacon Journal, was 40 miles away from Little Lake Nellie the night Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident.
Ocker was meeting friends at the Sheraton Hotel at Sea World in Orlando. Televisions around the bar showed the Indians’ logo, but the volume was down. Ocker joked they probably sold the team.
“Little did I know there was a boating accident,” he said.
He left the hotel around midnight and called his wife, who was crying over the news.
“I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ She didn’t understand I didn’t know about it,” he said. “She’s the one who told me.”
Olin was staying in the same apartment complex as Ocker and his place was right down the hall. Police and others were in and out of the room all night.
Most of our stories aren’t nearly as devastating, but they can still be life changing.
Bruce Hooley, now the afternoon drive host for the ESPN radio affiliate in Cleveland, spent 17 years covering Ohio State for the Plain Dealer. He was standing on the 11th green at Hickory Hills Golf Club in 2001 when he received a call that senior quarterback Steve Bellisari was arrested overnight and was going to be suspended for what was essentially the Big Ten championship game the next day at Illinois.
He was covered in grease and dirt scraping grass off the bottom of his riding lawn mower when he got a call to be at Ohio State in 30 minutes for a news conference. Hooley lived 30 minutes from campus, but made it in time to hear that Jim O’Brien had been fired for paying a recruit. He was on vacation in Tahoe when Maurice Clarett was caught filing a false police report.
“Everybody else was jet skiing, fishing and going to the beach while I was sitting in a rented house trying to play catch-up,” Hooley recalled. “Being the Plain Dealer reporter in Columbus was like being a doctor on call.”
In other words, there is no backup and no one else to cover.
That was evident in December 2004, when Hooley was holding his newborn daughter on the jetway preparing to board a plane for Phoenix to spend Christmas with his in-laws. He received a call from an Ohio State source who told him the school was announcing in 10 minutes that Troy Smith was going to be suspended for taking cash from a booster. Hooley sat on the plane and looked at his wife, wondering if he should call the editors or let the plane take off, rendering him unreachable for the next three hours. His wife pleaded with him to put the phone away, but he called the office and told them, then explained he couldn’t write the story because the plane was taking off within minutes.
When he returned from vacation, one of the editors told him he needed to take his job more seriously.
“At that very moment, for the first time in my 17 years at the Plain Dealer, I realized that I was not going to retire as a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer,” Hooley said. “Six months later, I was the afternoon talk show host at WBNS radio in Columbus and I’ve never looked back.”
Twitter has dramatically changed the way reporters write the news. Even six years ago, when the Cavaliers acquired Williams from the Milwaukee Bucks, Brian Windhorst didn’t face the immediacy of news the media do now.
Windhorst was covering the Cavaliers for the Beacon Journal when an illness led to a two-month hospital stay. On the day he was discharged, he received a call the Cavaliers had acquired Williams.
“I was in the lobby sitting in a wheelchair waiting for my ride. They just called everybody and told them. I was the first call that day. They were just doing me a favor,” Windhorst said. “Back in those days, when they made trades, they would just call and tell you. It happened all the time.
“Danny Ferry would call and say, ‘We traded for Flip Murray’ and it wouldn’t matter,” Windhorst said. “You’d write it in the next 20 minutes or whenever. There was no rush to be first then.”
Now every minute matters, at least among reporters. The quest to be first has eroded the product and diluted the truth.
When my wife wanted to go to lunch two years ago on the NBA’s trade deadline day, I initially resisted, but conceded only after calling ahead and choosing a spot with stable Wi-Fi. Sure enough, while I picked over a plate of wings, the Cavaliers traded Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers. But I was ready — my phone was charged and the Wi-Fi was working. In this new world of journalism, that constitutes a good day.