LeBron James Watch really hits home for Cavaliers beat writer
Beat reporter Brian Windhorst has covered LeBron since his high school days
Editors at The Cleveland Plain Dealer meet daily to talk about LeBron coverage
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Brian Windhorst falls asleep next to his iPhone most nights, and when it's not snuggled up next to him, it sits five feet away on his nightstand. When you are ground zero for LeBron James news in Cleveland, a city at DEFCON 1 with the two-time NBA MVP poised to enter the land of free agency on July 1, you give up the luxury of a night of a restful sleep.
Windhorst has been the Cavaliers' beat reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer since 2008, and has covered James since he was a freshman in high school.
"Covering the Cavs and LeBron is like flying a 747," Windhorst said. "You get a lot of responsibility, a lot of people are relying on you, and you are constantly having to keep an eye out for the future. A lot of people can write stories based on whatever the hot topic is, but I have to cover LeBron long term so I have to be real careful what I report on. A lot of stories are written out of Chicago or New York and breathless about one particular subject. The challenge for me is to provide perspective. You cannot react to every one of the breathlessly written stories; at least you can't in Cleveland because otherwise you will become part of the noise."
The drumbeat of noise will come from everywhere over the next six weeks, most notably ESPN. John Skipper, the network's executive vice president for content, told SI.com this week that he recently met with ESPN Inc. president George Bodenheimer, executive editor John Walsh and executive vice president of production Norby Williamson to discuss how to cover the LeBron sweepstakes without bludgeoning the viewer.
"We spent some time on how we take care to cover what is probably the biggest non-game story of the next 40 days," Skipper said. "It's a huge story. We want to cover it. We want to be there. But we did talk about modulating what we do so that we don't overdo it. It is always a difficult matter for it. We have a lot of platforms and a lot of shows. We have to think about what the average fan watches and not beat it to death. Let's be cognizant of what we are doing. Let's pace ourselves."
The Plain Dealer's charter is different. James is a major story for the newspaper, and not just a sports story. The paper's top editors meet twice daily, including a 10:30 a.m. meeting where suggestions and story ideas are passed around. The paper's Cavs coverage consists of Windhorst and fellow Cavs beat reporter Mary Schmitt Boyer, with assistance from columnist Terry Pluto and reporter Jodie Valade. Sports editor Roy Hewitt said James comes up daily at the paper's main edit meetings. "Those discussions won't go away until he makes a decision," he said.
Windhorst said he goes through 300 e-mails daily from colleagues, fans and friends, an endless stream of LeBron rumors and ruminations. Among the daily e-mailers is deputy sports editor Mike Starkey, who checks in with Windhorst each morning after the newspaper's editorial meeting. Windhorst said he expects to write every day from now until July 1, especially with the team expected to part ways with coach Mike Brown. He does not expect LeBron to talk to the media before either re-signing with the Cavs or moving to another team.
"If someone else gets him, it will be a surprise to me," he said. "I think him walking off the podium in Boston [after Cleveland's second-round loss to the Celtics] will be the last we will see of him talking to the media until his signing."
But others will be talking, particularly those in New York, where one paper even started a Web site promoting James to come to the Big Apple. SI.com has also started a daily LeBron tracker.
"I always say when New York sneezes, I catch the cold," Windhorst said. "Stories come out of New York and some of them have merit but a lot of them don't. And they are not there asking LeBron about it. I am. A lot of media have fear of LeBron and they are afraid to ask him questions. Maybe LeBron does not like some of the questions I've asked him, but I'd like to think that he respects that I ask questions. In Boston [for the Cavs-Celtics series], there were maybe 12-14 reporters from New York there and not one of them asked LeBron whether he wanted to play for the Knicks. But I'm the one who has to ask him basically, 'Do you want your coach fired?' "
Windhorst first met James in 1999, when the player was a freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Akron. Like James, Windhorst also attended St. Mary's and the reporter's mother, Merrylou, taught health and religion there. "I like to joke that she taught LeBron sex ed, and she also taught that to me, too," he said. Windhorst was with the Akron Beacon-Journal for eight years before he moved to The Plain Dealer. He has co-written two books with Pluto about James.
"I think I can ask him questions others can't, or sometimes he can say things to me that he might not to others, but I have never enjoyed favoritism," Windhorst said. "I've said many times that I think LeBron will re-sign. People can say, 'You are the local guy, a hack, a local yokel,' and the way the season ended, I might be on the ledge because I could not have foreseen it ending like this. But I've tried my best to be 100 percent honest with my readership because that's all you can stand on."
Windhorst writes for his paper and its Web site, does podcasts and tweets to 15,000 followers. "There have been times I am holding a recorder in my left hand and in my right hand I am twittering what LeBron just said," he said. Because he covers the Cavs, Windhorst has more cache than most NBA beat writers. He has a regular gig on ESPN2's First Take and is a frequent guest of radio stations across the country. He's also a columnist for Titan Sports, a Chinese sports newspaper, and writes regularly for Dunk Shoot, a Japanese basketball magazine. That all changes if James leaves, and he knows it.
"I'd still be the Cavs' beat writer for The Plain Dealer, which is a top 20 market, and have a pro job and a lot of responsibility," he said. "I still think I would get a lot of readers, but you can be writing tremendously and doing great work covering the Sacramento Kings and you are not going to be writing for ESPN.com or on First Take."
If James leaves, The Plain Dealer will also take a hit. The paper's NBA coverage draws advertisers who want to be associated with a popular team.
"If you have LeBron in your town, it makes a big difference on your bottom line," Windhorst said. "That's the truth. And it makes a difference on the individual reporter's bottom line. I've written two books about LeBron and I would like to think they are objectively written books. But I'm not going to lie to you to say if LeBron leaves, it's going to be the best year of my career. If LeBron leaves, the paper would lose revenue. There are ads specifically targeted to the Cavs' coverage, and we expend a huge investment on the Cavs in bodies. There is a business aspect to it, but I also know I will be writing stories for a long time that do not involve LeBron and you want to protect and respect your long-term reputation."
Hewitt and Starkey admit that it would be tough losing James but said the paper would cover the Cavs next season just as they did this season, with or without the NBA star. Asked how the sports department balances between the paper's advocacy of wanting James to stay in the community versus covering him as a news subject, Hewitt said, "Brian and Mary and the other reporters are covering the news story, without expressing an opinion. We have three columnists [Pluto, Bill Livingston and Bud Shaw] who have a voice to express opinion. If they want to advocate that he should stay, that's fine, but it doesn't affect our news coverage. It's the same as having an editorial page expressing opinions independently of the metro or national news coverage."
As far as being the reporter to break the news of what James decides to do, Windhorst says he's more concerned about being accurate than first.
"I'd like to think if he is staying in Cleveland, I would have a fair shot of being close," he said. "But if he is leaving, I doubt I will be the one who finds out. You have huge media corps working on this -- New York, Chicago and ESPN. Every possible relationship LeBron has will be explored. The fans will react to every single one of them and I'll have to react to a lot of it as opposed to create a lot of it. You will see a whole lot of gray matter and supposition, and even when there are nuggets of truth, they will probably get lost in the buzz and won't be noticed until later."
Windhorst is scheduled to leave Aug. 14 for a 30-night, 27,000-mile around-the-world vacation that he's been planning for a year, though he remains a long way from Amsterdam, Berlin and Sydney with LeBron's decision weeks away.
"That's my light at the end of the tunnel," Windhorst said. "If LeBron is not done by Aug. 15, I'll probably be ready to commit a homicide."