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When NBA News Breakers Start Breaking Teams
Mentorship, Ambition and the Unexpected Cost of "First"
There’s a story out there that deserves more attention, in my opinion. It’s about the NBA deliberating over a team’s future, but it involves the media itself, which might be why public discussion is muted. You see, there’s been a heightening in an epic battle of NBA reporting titans, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Shams Charania of The Athletic, and it’s spilling over into tangible consequences.
The two men stare at one another across a digital divide, while aggressively trying to outdo the other. They were once allies, but that designation wouldn’t properly indicate the depth of their dynamic. One was a prodigy student and one was the master teacher. The latter insisted that the former would one day rule an industry he dominated. Shortly thereafter, the two broke up, going their separate ways, and the teacher still hasn’t quite relinquished his grip on power. Now, Wojnarowski and Charania are both highly motivated to beat one another in a battle for speed, conducted over Twitter, a medium built for it. It’s a contest that’s reached a pace that’s not just difficult for other media members to keep up with, but one that’s now breaking pieces off the teams they report on.
The league is currently deciding whether the Chicago Bulls, one of the sport’s biggest brands, will lose a first-round pick or face some other form of punishment. It’s been reported on, but only to a degree, in my opinion.
According to my sources, the NBA’s possibly punitive investigation was triggered by this news-breaking Shams Charania tweet:
Well, what’s wrong with that tweet? Nothing. The information is good, and the details are correct. Shams got it right. The Bulls indeed signed point guard Lonzo Ball for four years, $85 million. The problem is one of timing. The Ball deal was announced at 6 p.m. ET exactly on August 2, 2021, the precise start of free agency. The issue is its timing can be taken as proof of tampering, which isn’t allowed under NBA rules. On August 7, ESPN reported that the NBA was indeed investigating the signing on those grounds, along with another, involving the Raptors and Heat.
The non-sports fan cohort of the readership might be wondering just what the hell “tampering” is. Well, it’s an NBA rule stating that an owner, executive, coach, player or any other member of the organization cannot speak to a player under contract with another franchise in the hopes of persuading him to join their team. The rule is in place to maintain a sense of normalcy, versus having a league where all the superstar players are publicly taking meetings with opposing teams in the middle of a season. The rule is there to protect team cohesion and to preserve the noble lie of fidelity to franchise.
Of course, everybody breaks this rule all the time, but the key is to not make a public display of the flouting. It’s another instance of Bunny Colvin’s paper bag speech: Break the convention all you want, so long as you demonstrate deference to its existence.
How do you demonstrate deference? By not making your free agency signings public — via reporters on Twitter, that is — until the exact moment when it’s legal to. Everybody knows that some of these free agency deals are set up weeks if not months in advance, but this year nothing could be revealed to the masses until free agency kicks off at 6 p.m. Eastern on August 2nd, the exact time of Charania’s tweet.
By the way, the NBA in recent years shifted the start of free agency forward from midnight to 6 p.m. (on June 30 in a typical year) because they want all that prior tampering to officially blossom into news coverage while Americans are awake. The league is all in on Twitterization, remember. They want an up-to-the-second showcase of tampering’s fruits on your timeline. They just can’t tolerate tampering’s revelation.
This system should work well enough, absurd as it is, but there was a wrinkle to the Lonzo Ball deal that made its announcement troublesome. The signing could be accomplished only through a slightly complicated “sign and trade” mechanism that involved the participation of Ball’s (now former) team, the New Orleans Pelicans. The details of this complexity aren’t relevant to this story. What’s relevant is that they are, indeed, details, the kind of details that take a lot longer than one minute to figure out. See, there’s no universe in which the Ball deal could have been realized without tampering and the NBA likely intends to harshly punish the Bulls for their transgression.
It’s a ridiculous scenario, when you step back from it. The Chicago Bulls, recently valued at $3.3 billion by Forbes, have their future possibly derailed because a tweet wasn’t shared 10 minutes later. Or is 10 minutes also too soon? It’s been the Wild West in this sphere for some time. It’s not clear that the actual rules are well known, or at least well internalized. Even in the cases where the rules are clear, they aren’t necessarily well respected.
In 2020 free agency, the NBA saw another tampering-related situation, wherein the NBA punished the Milwaukee Bucks for a way-too-early report by Wojnarowski. The Bucks would be forced to give up on their apparent acquisition of the player Woj had reported they were trading for, plus sacrifice a 2022 second-round pick. Wojnarowski jumped the gun right after Charania broke the Jrue Holiday deal and, well, make of that what you will.
In general, though, why the hell is this happening? How did up-to-the-second media coverage of transactions start materially hurting franchises?
The news-breaking profession is a never-ending grind, but it’s at least quite remunerative. I’m not sure what Shams makes, but it’s a lot, and Woj earns millions over at ESPN. As someone who could never pull off being a high-level news breaker even if I wanted to, I’d say they earn that money. This is one of those classic high-stress white-collar jobs, where you have no life but make enough for several lifetimes.
But I’m not sure that pure greed motivates the kings of this micro-industry. These are some competitive motherfuckers. Break a story and it’s a highly public win that puts a pit in your opponent’s stomach.
There’s a broader question to be asked about what the hell the point of all this is. These scoops are previews of what we’ll all learn in greater and more accurate detail, anyway, eventually, often from the teams themselves. While that’s true, there’s something magnetic about the ability to broadcast relevant information first, thus it’s a value to somebody. Former ESPN president John Skipper was incensed that Wojnarowski kept tweeting out draft picks before anyone at ESPN had the goods, which led to ESPN’s wooing of Woj. Enough people care about the broken news that Wojnarowski and Charania have over six million Twitter followers combined.
Charania is 27 years old, and was mentored by Wojnarowski over at The Vertical on Yahoo! before ESPN paid Woj a lot of money to join up. For a long stretch, Wojnarowski spoke publicly about his young employee with a sort of awe, similar to how a coach might discuss his hyped number-one draft pick:
If we’re doing our job, it’s to develop him in a full way. He will be the news breaker in the NBA — whether it’s tomorrow or next year or five years from now. He’s going to be that. But he could be a lot more, and that’s my job, to help him in all those facets.
While almost everyone in and outside the industry refers to Wojnarowski as “Woj,” Charania invariably refers to his old sensei as “Adrian,” speaking of his foe in the wistful tone of George Smiley discussing Karla. It’s a reference that conveys a kind of differentiating familiarity, not that the two are close nowadays. When Wojnarowski left The Vertical for ESPN in 2017, Shams was not part of the move. The once-close dynamic had turned distant, after Shams’ ambitions ran into Woj’s more circumscribed conception of his protégé’s role. It’s a tale as old as humanity and it’s inspired some great works. As I write this, I’m looking at a San Francisco skyline that was shaped by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s alleged betrayal of now Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, once Ellison’s loyal understudy, now competitor and king of the city’s tallest tower. But I digress.
Charania’s rise is practically a Horatio Alger story; he’s an insanely motivated grinder who got his start as a teenager, cold-calling agents. He’s nice, polite, but quite self-assured. One of the more amusing sights I witnessed at a Warriors practice was the time Shams showed up to interview spacey Warriors All-Star Klay Thompson, camera crew in tow. Klay had left practice early that day, and nobody on site could reach him. So Warriors PR head honcho Raymond Ridder ran around the gym, feverishly recruiting other player interviews to placate Shams, yelling out the possible replacements (“Ummm, um, Shaun Livingston??! Andre Iguodala!??”). Charania just kept shaking his head and saying no. (“Klay. You bring me Klay. I came here for Klay.”) A sit-down with Klay was eventually arranged the next day at Oracle Arena, on game day, a rarity of a get for a reporter.
Wojnarowski is more Nixonian, all-powerful, but forever fueled by an energizing spite. Not that Woj is without his warm side. While he can be implacably vicious towards enemies, he also displays a depth of humanity that can inspire great loyalty from friends. One of the reasons he ingratiates himself with team sources is because he’s good at recalling the names of family members and having the occasional chat that strays from industry talk. Shams is more all business.
As the two men wage a war, they do so with a granular knowledge of one another’s tactics, networks, strengths and weaknesses. It makes some sense that the Chicagoland region brought out a tampering level of competition. We’re not quite seeing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre here, but it’s indeed a classic territorial battle in the Midwest. Chicago is Shams’ hometown, and he built up his original network out of trips to the annual Chicago draft combine. Nearby Milwaukee, the source of Woj’s tamper-level news in 2020, was a frequent stop for Charania (indeed, it’s the first place I met him).
Around the league, there are known Shams teams and there are known Woj teams. If one can get a story in the other’s territory, it’s quite a win. When it comes to Bulls news, Shams should have a literal home-court advantage. He films his dispatches for Stadium from a studio set that’s inside the Bulls’ United Center. That positioning doesn’t guarantee much, though. Artūras Karnišovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, is known as a Woj guy. What does that mean, precisely? Well, industry insiders believe that the Karnišovas hiring might have even been facilitated by Wojnarowski introducing him to the right people in Bulls ownership.
Karnišovas replaced John Paxson, a stubborn man who wasn’t exactly a Woj guy during the end of his lengthy Bulls reign. So this is a changing of the guard, from unpopular team runner to a fresh face, but also from a perceived Shams guy to a perceived Woj guy. But nothing is ever so clear in Chicago, where the Bulls are always half a mess. Theoretically, Paxson has been deposed from power, but he still retains an intensely close relationship with 85-year-old Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who’s reputed to love Paxson like a son. Can Paxson still wield his influence, despite the nominal role change? Perhaps. Then you have Reinsdorf’s actual son, team president and chief operating officer Michael, using a heavy hand in operations as well.
If you’re a news breaker looking to head off emerging Woj sources in Chicago, you can, of course, leapfrog this mess by relying on a player agent. In the case of Lonzo Ball, his player agent is the ever-ambitious Rich Paul of Klutch, star of this New Yorker profile. Caveats abound here, because I’m not sure why the scoop got out too fast. However, I’ll say that some around the thing believe it was Rich Paul who jumped the gun because he wanted his client’s lavish contract to lead free agency.
Well, it’s done that and more, much to Chicago’s chagrin. Overall, it’s hard to know whom to blame for the consequences, if anyone. It’s not Shams’ job to avoid tampering charges; it’s his job to break a story first. It’s not even necessarily Rich Paul’s job to avoid tampering. That onus falls on the Bulls, except they have to tamper because the rest of the league is eagerly doing so.
What we are seeing is that the intense competition to be first happens to have downsides and not necessarily to the competitors. The agent and the news breaker are following powerful, logical incentives that are at cross-purposes with those of the Bulls. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has employed a laissez-faire approach in his reign, which has allowed agencies, top players and allied news breakers to accrue more and more power. But power can be a zero-sum game, and it appears the teams are losing out. This Bulls situation is just one more indignity for the team side. They can make moves, but can’t quite control the process.
In another time, teams — at their own discretion — would give reporters the news. Now, teams just pray that hungry, competitive reporters don’t make them collateral damage in a media battle. Sports reporting over Twitter happens with a sort of brutal efficiency. It’s not uncommon to lose a scoop battle by seconds if not milliseconds. That’s the difference between earning millions and struggling to make ends meet. As teams now suffer for the race to be first, many inside the industry are asking what’s the point? Honestly, who knows?
But this much is certain on a myopic microlevel: The point is to beat your mentor and the point is to never get beaten by your protégé. The point is to win. And, for those addicted to winning, little else matters.