On Tuesday, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne dropped a big piece on New York Knicks team president Phil Jackson’s handling of the season. It mainly focused on Jackson’s relationships with Knicks coaches—first Derek Fisher and now Kurt Rambis. The Knicks have looked even worse under Jackson’s longtime friend Rambis than they did under Fisher, and Shelburne’s piece floated the idea that Jackson could move down to the bench and coach some next season:
Those close to him say Jackson seems more energized these days. He has lost about 20 pounds of the 30 he gained during his first two years on the job. Even Kobe Bryant noticed, remarking after Sunday’s game in Los Angeles that, “He looks great. Physically he looks good. I’m happy for him.”
There’s even talk Jackson could offer to coach home games next season, with Rambis coaching the road games. It’s an offer the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss once flatly rejected, but it could be an interesting compromise to hiring Rambis as the head coach next season.
During last night’s shellacking by the Warriors, Knicks announcers Mike Breen and Walt Frazier spent part of the second quarter discussing Shelburne’s report (though they didn’t name her). More specifically, Breen trashed it, saying there was “no basis whatsoever” for the idea that Jackson could coach home games, and that “it’s a non-story because it’s not true.”
There was a story last couple of days that talked about how there was a discussion that Phil Jackson was thinking of coaching the home games, and Rambis the away games. And there was no basis whatsoever, that’s not the case, it’s not something that Phil Jackson has ever thought of. He did back when he was with the Lakers years ago. But, it became such a story, and it’s a non-story because it’s not true, that it was all over the place. Back story of the paper, discussed on talk shows, and players had to respond to it.
Breen’s summary wasn’t exactly accurate, and stripped the report of its context. Shelburne attributed the idea of Jackson coaching home games to “talk,” coming right after a paragraph about what “those close to [Jackson]” have to say, implying pretty strongly that it’s Jackson’s friends and colleagues discussing this. (When somebody tweeted at Shelburne last night regarding Breen’s criticism, she requested that they “please read what I actually wrote.”)
What’s interesting about this is that it’s a rare example of ESPN on ESPN violence. (Breen was broadcasting on the MSG Network last night, but has been the lead play-by-play broadcaster for NBA on ABC for a decade—including the NBA Finals—and has regularly broadcast NBA games on ESPN for even longer.)
This isn’t the first time an ESPN NBA broadcaster has ripped an ESPN reporter’s reporting on-air this season. Back in January, Jeff Van Gundy (along with partner Mark Jackson) spent part of a Saturday night Cavaliers-Bulls broadcast criticizing the media for “one-sided hit jobs” on David Blatt’s firing. Most thought Van Gundy was referring to Adrian Wojnarowski’s column—and he probably was, in part—but the piece most critical of Blatt came from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, and was published the morning of the broadcast.
Van Gundy hinted at the fact that he was referring to ESPN reporters in his criticism when he told the Columbia Journalism Review that he had “wimped out” of calling out specific writers “because I know at our company you can face disciplinary action for that.”
Windhorst didn’t take the broadside against “the media” sitting down. Three days after Van Gundy’s comments, he went on fellow ESPNer Zach Lowe’s podcast and defended “the media”’s anonymously-sourced Blatt reporting as accurate (starting at 8:40):
Jeff has always been good to me ... But while Jeff is taking shots at the media, could I just ask him, because I assume he’ll listen, maybe I’ll ask him in person next time I see him, could I just get an acknowledgment that the reporting that we did over the last year about the issues David Blatt was having was at least accurate? Because for the last year every time the Cavs were on one of Jeff Van Gundy’s games he would go on at least a 45-second rant about how unfair the media is being. And I was just like “Jeff, we’re just reporting what’s happening.” I can understand why you may think it is ridiculous that LeBron doesn’t like this coach, but don’t get mad at the media for saying that LeBron has issues with his coach. It’s a classic shoot-the-messenger thing.
Windhorst went on to discuss his January 2015 report about Blatt having trouble managing time-outs—for which Windhorst was widely criticized—and how Blatt ended up completely blowing a timeout situation during the Eastern Conference Semifinals that should’ve cost the Cavaliers a win. Just another example of Van Gundy bashing print guys for reporting things that were borne out by what actually happened.
We are not reporting it because we are enjoying it, we are reporting it because that’s what is going on. I understand that Jeff is never going to do anything but support a coach, I get it, but at least while you are ripping the media for their alleged agendas or what not, at least acknowledge that the reports that were happening for the last year that you were ripping actually were accurate and relevant, and they explain why David had difficulties with the time outs when it mattered, and it explained why the Cavs would fire a coach that was in first place. That’s the only thing I would ask, just acknowledge that occasionally those things turn out to be accurate.
It’s easy to lambaste “the media” in part because there are wildly divergent roles within “the media”—nowhere more so than at ESPN, with its over 8,000 employees. Windhorst and Shelburne are national reporters and news breakers who come from a print tradition, while Breen gets paychecks signed by James Dolan and Van Gundy is still a coach through-and-through. They’re technically colleagues forbidden from criticizing each other; they also work together under a giant tent—one so big it makes ESPN-on-ESPN violence inevitable.
That said, the disagreements here serve to positively extend the life of ESPN’s stories. A few years back we wrote about how ESPN dominated a news cycle by manufacturing a bullshit story out of thin air. This is a much less cynical expression of the same dynamic, but it is the same—a heated but authentic debate over sourcing, accuracy, and the role of “the media.” The difference is that these days, ESPN doesn’t need to manufacture debate; it happens organically.