What the Kawhi Leonard media circus revealed about the broken state of NBA journalism.
By Jake Bittle
Post-season reporting on the National Basketball Association is a second-by-second affair. Even before the confetti has been cleared off the floor of the last game of the Finals, a small group of “insider” reporters at ESPN and publications like The Athletic begin competing to break news about where the biggest stars are headed, and about the complex trade-math that will shape their decisions. As often as not, these scoops are delivered in the form of a single tweet.
This year’s NBA offseason featured more bombshell free-agency moving pieces than any in recent memory. The big name NBA reporters worked at a commensurately feverish pace to become the first to announce each league-shattering decision: Anthony Davis to the Lakers, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the Nets, Jimmy Butler to the Heat, D’Angelo Russell to the Warriors.
As the June 30 deadline came near, the league’s superstar players were all accounted for, except one: Kawhi Leonard, the powerhouse forward who had just led the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever championship with a record-breaking playoff performance. Leonard is from Southern California, and it has long been speculated that he wants to sign with a Los Angeles team. But he’s also an infamously quiet and media-shy player, known for his robotic laugh and his tendency to rebuff reporters’ questions. Everyone had an opinion about where Leonard would or should go, but no one knew for sure. [Disclosure: the author is a diehard Raptors fan.]
The first day of free agency went by without any news about Leonard. So did the next day, and the next day, and the three days after that. Finally, at 2 a.m. on the following Saturday, two reporters (first Chris Haynes, and then Adrian Wojnarowski, one minute later) broke the news of Leonard’s signing with the Los Angeles Clippers. The announcement said a lot about the future of the NBA, but the preceding week showed just as much about how journalists cover the league. As the sports world waited for the notoriously leak-averse star to make his decision, commenters from all corners — from anonymous Reddit trolls to paid pundits — created news cycles of their own by essentially making things up. This chatter demonstrated that only a very few people covering the NBA have any incentive to get the facts right before they talk.
The first of the Kawhi “reports” came on July 1, when an anonymous Reddit user named “RDAmbition” claimed that Leonard had signed to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would build a superteam with LeBron James. The move, according to RDAmbition, was “officially done,” and both sides were “working out minor details.” The user, who had a history of posting on pro-Trump and pro-masturbation subreddits, was later alleged to be a nephew of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. Arye Abraham, a teenage Twitter celebrity who also claims to be an “insider,” soon announced something similar. Taking advantage of the fact that most major NBA stories are anonymously sourced, Abraham tweeted, “sources say” Kawhi had “ruled the Clippers OUT.” Social media swarmed with speculation about whether these reports were credible, but the news didn’t stop there. Twitter soon lent the claims legitimacy by giving them a featured Moment, resulting in coverage by numerous NBA and Lakers blogs.
In their desperation to find something to report, a few blue-checkmarked sports pundits began to make statements echoing RDAmbition’s prediction. ESPN pundit Chris Broussard, who followed RDAmbition on Twitter, said that “barring a change of heart, Kawhi is Laker-bound”; Kendrick Perkins, a former NBA champion who comments for ESPN, claimed that “it’s looking very strong that Kawhi will be in Purple and Gold.” Stephen A. Smith, the famously meme-able host of ESPN’s flagship show, First Take, said he wanted Kawhi to go to the Clippers, but was hearing from “a couple of reliable sources” that he would go to the Lakers.
As the week of #KawhiWatch stretched on, it became painfully clear that the mainstream media were as clueless about Leonard’s zipped-shut decision-making process as the random fan-gossip on social media. In the absence of any real inside knowledge, a news station tracked Leonard via helicopter as he drove out of Toronto’s airport in a black SUV. Sure enough, an hour later, former Indiana Pacers forward Jalen Rose said he was “99 percent hearing” that Leonard would stay with the Raptors, and sportscaster Mark Jones said he’d heard the same thing from an NBA agent. Then a plane was tracked leaving Toronto to return to San Diego and a Reddit user claimed to have spotted Leonard at a California gas station, and the whole process started all over again. The longer Leonard stayed silent, the more obvious it became that “legitimate” NBA reporting celebrities were just throwing things at a wall and hoping something stuck.
Tellingly, not one of them correctly predicted the outcome. The stoic superstar convinced the Clippers to make an unprecedented trade offer for defensive juggernaut Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who will join Leonard on what is now perhaps the world’s best basketball team. Leonard outmaneuvered not only the Lakers and the Raptors, but also the media, who spent the weekend processing the complex set of (unreported) chess moves he had made.
By quietly masterminding George’s move as well as his own, Leonard highlighted the fact that most “coverage” of the NBA, whether from anonymous sources or trusted former players, is really just guesswork, speculation designed to drive clicks and foster heated discussion until the facts come out. Usually these facts come out on a timeline that suits cable news as well as online sports media. Kevin Durant, for instance, is well-known for courting the interest of journalists. But when players like Leonard sideline the media, they reveal how divorced from reality and ridiculous the entire 24-hour sports media spectacle has become.
The most cautious of the “real” reporters —the likes of Haynes, Wojnarowski, and The Athletic’s Shams Charania—eventually step in, but if 2019 proved anything, it’s that we must start to question the volume and quality of the noise that precedes the real news. At stake is the time-worn journalistic value of accountability. Anyone can send a tweet to Perkins calling him out for bungling #KawhiWatch, but NBA pundits rarely if ever face any more consequences than anonymous Redditors for getting it wrong. Their job isn’t to get the facts right, but to make entertainment out of facts they have (or their lack of facts). Regardless of a journalist or pundit’s stature — including former players new to the profession — there should be consequences to trading in baseless rumor and hearsay, just as there would have been for someone like Wojnarowski if he’d said he was “99 percent hearing” Kawhi was staying with the Raptors. Until that begins to happen, fans and readers should evaluate claims on the basis of how much the person making the claim has to lose.
Jake Bittle is a reporter and researcher who lives in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter @jake_bittle
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: July 10, 2019
Author: Jake Bittle
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: ESPN screen shot / via YouTube