Iwas always going to be a sportswriter.
Works by Adrian Wojnarowski
“The final days of the Butler saga, and why it could cost Thibodeau his job,” ESPN, November, 2018
“Celtics ‘really the danger’ to sign Blake Griffin from Clippers,” Yahoo! Sports, June, 2017
“Ex-Louisville coach Rick Pitino hoping to become NBA coaching candidate,” ESPN, October, 2018
In my mind there’s never anything else I imagined being. I would sit with a sheet of paper and a pencil and watch those Big East games and I would write stories about them. I would put them on the refrigerator with a magnet, and those are the first things I remember writing. That was as a pretty young kid. It’s all I ever really dreamed of doing.
Maybe the biggest break I ever got was in high school. My Spanish teacher knew I had an interest in writing and sports and her husband was sportswriter at the Hartford Courant. She said they were looking for young people to work in the office there -- answer phones, run errands -- and would I be interested? Of course I was. So I was hired at the Courant in high school and I would drive in in the evenings and on weekends and do what a clerk does at a newspaper. You could see the little round ups you wrote like on Central Connecticut Conference South girls’ soccer -- those little things. There was no byline but you’d pick up the paper the next day and be like, “Hey I wrote that paragraph.” That was awesome. Early in my senior year of high school I started getting bylines; it was unbelievable.
That opportunity at the Courant, and the writers I was around were just incredible. You could sit in the office and read the stories that came in and you could look and see how the editors edited them. So I learned more about how to write for a newspaper by looking at what they wrote, and then what was edited. It was a great lesson to sit and read those every night. I’d sit after my shift was over and sometimes not leave there until 1 a.m. reading through stories.
There were a couple people like Alexander Wolff from Sports Illustrated [I looked up to]. I remember writing him a letter and getting a note back in my mailbox. He wrote me a three-page letter back with some advice and encouragement.
One of the greatest thrills of my career was when I wrote “The Miracle of St. Anthony,” and I went into the library one day, and I went to the bookshelf and there was my book right next to “Raw Recruits.” Alex Wolff and Armen Keteyian had written a book that was really the first look into college basketball recruiting, with the shoe companies and all that. I remember reading that book in my college dorm, getting in a chair at three in the afternoon and getting out at 11 at night. I read the book in one sitting and thought, “Wow, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do this.” So going in the library after “The Miracle of St. Anthony” was out and it was on the shelf right next to “Raw Recruits,” I just stood and stared at it for a while. Like wow, I’m on this shelf. Someone could’ve moved it there, I guess I could’ve -- but I didn’t -- and it was there next to “Raw Recruits.” That high school team I spent a year with was very special, it was as much fun as I’ve ever had in the business.
The opportunities I had to write and report and go anywhere and do anything for no money were the greatest. I don’t think there’s anything more challenging in the business than covering a high school football game on a Friday night. It might be raining, you might be walking through the mud on the sidelines. You’re trying to keep stats on your notebook, and your stats have to add up because you have to come up with a box score as well as write a story. Where are you writing your story? The athletic director’s office? How are you sending your story? Maybe you’re lying on the floor plugging your phone into the fax machine or maybe you’re going to the 7/11 payphone and dictating it on the phone. The NBA finals is easy to cover, it’s all there for you, but that’s hard. I wish every young person got the experience like I did of having to do that because it never stopped serving me.
When I was at St. Bonaventure, I was part time at the Olean Times Herald. My first full time job was at the Waterbury Republican-American in Connecticut. That’s where I met Les Carpenter. He worked at the Bridgeport paper covering UConn, and I would say of all the people I’ve ever competed with in my career, including now, Les was the most difficult person I ever had to compete with. We were both young guys just out of college, and he was so much better than me. He was a better writer, he was a better interviewer, he saw stories in three-dimensional ways that I didn’t. Every day was a challenge. That experience covering UConn shaped everything I did forever. It just made me a better reporter, a better writer, just competing against him every day.
I went from Waterbury to The Fresno Bee. Andy Katz and I got hired together there. Andy came in as the beat writer, I came in as a columnist, and we were writing a lot of Fresno State basketball. That place taught me how you are accountable for what you write. People were rabid fans so you had to be very accountable, there was no hiding over there. It reminded you that it was important to be accurate, to be able to own everything you did and to be able to defend anything you did. It reinforced to me the importance of not giving anybody anything to unravel on your reporting.
At that point I thought I was on the columnist track -- the columnists were the big stars in the business. Ian O’Connor was someone I was reading a lot, and I got to know Ian a little bit. He was one of the first and one of the best columnists at really reporting in his columns. It wasn’t just here’s my opinion, it was I’m going to get an interview with somebody, I’m going to get information that reinforces my position. That became a model for me when I was at Fresno.
Then I came back east and went to the Record in New Jersey as a columnist. Walking into the New York market, you’re going up against the best of the best and you would be embarrassed if you weren’t on top of your game every day. You just had to work at it every day. If you took a day where you weren’t at your best, you were embarrassed. That really helped teach me about the consistency of your work and to be fighting every day to be at the top of your game.
I went to Yahoo after that, and that’s where things changed. I started getting the sense later in my tenure at the Record that general columnist route was probably not going to be as impactful for the next 10 to 15 years of my career. I felt it was harder to be a general columnist and maybe the good jobs and the impact in the industry were directed at specialization. Dan Wetzel was at Yahoo! and David Morgan was the editor. When they called me about the NBA job I didn’t have to think about it for very long. I wanted a national job and I knew Yahoo! had a tremendous reach, and that they were going to invest in the sports. It felt like absolutely the right thing to do. Did I imagine that I would grow that job into what we grew it into? I did not. But I just knew that I wanted to compete and figure out how to break stories on the NBA.
What Yahoo! allowed me to do was get on a plane and go anywhere I needed to go to meet people and build relationships. That changed my career. I had done “The Miracle of St. Anthony,” and that had gotten on The New York Times Best Sellers list, and I was really proud of that book. I was proud I could even write a book, never mind a book anyone was reading. People started to know a little bit who I was because of that, but I was still pretty anonymous when I went to Yahoo!. It was hard to get the establishment NBA guys to even know what Yahoo! was, but the younger guys all knew what it was. So I focused my time on the younger executives and agents in the league.
Yahoo! was willing to let me go out and compete, and I put a premium on breaking news. There was no one doing it at a really, really high level, so I said I’m going to prioritize this. Nothing got you attention faster and got people in the league to know who you were than you were breaking stories. Then when you’d call them and introduce yourself they started to be familiar with who I was and that opened the door to be able to build those relationships.
[Building relationships] is a 365-day process. Every day you were connecting with people -- spending time with people, being available to them when they had questions or information they might be trying to make sense of, and building trust. If somebody feels like you were less than honest with them, you haven’t just lost that person, you’ve lost everybody they know, because they’re going to go tell people, “Hey don’t trust that guy he burned me. He lied to me, he didn’t honor his word.” The opposite is if you have good experiences with people and if people find you to be trustworthy, accurate and fair they’re also going to share that with other people. It’s probably the one thing that isn’t taught in journalism school very much, but I think it’s as important as anything you do in this industry. The best ideas I get for stories are always the people I cover. Things come up in conversation and you realize that would be a really interesting story. That’s what keeps you ahead the game -- you’re not reacting to what just happened, you’re getting out ahead of things.
For young reporters, especially in this age and into the future, the ability to give people information they can’t get anywhere else, to give something that’s unique and different, that’s what will separate you. I don’t know that there’s anything more important than that right now. That’s always the message I try to get through -- get out of the office, get out with people. Don’t watch television, don’t sit around on Twitter, you’re not getting ideas there. For me it’s off the beaten path. It’s away from where everybody else is. Sometimes when I look around and I see the people I compete with, I feel like I’m in the wrong place. I always felt like I was in the right place when I looked around and I didn’t see anyone else that I compete with.
It takes an incredible amount of time. There are stories you plan a year out. Are you willing to put 50, 60, 100, 150 hours in a year to get one or two stories? And then you may not, dumb luck may keep you from getting it. Whether you get it or you don’t get it you go back and do it again next year. There’s a tremendous investment of time, so much goes into one story. I always tell people if you have hobbies I don’t think this is the business for you. I can have two things. I can balance work and I can balance my family. If I had a third thing, I don’t think I’d be very good at the other two.
I remember at Yahoo! the first big NBA story I broke was Greg Oden in Portland was going to be out for the season. We got it up on Yahoo!, and I didn’t know who saw it, I wasn’t on Twitter yet. I bet it was up for a half hour or forty minutes until anyone noticed it. What Twitter did was provided an immediacy. The 2009 NBA Draft was the day I got on Twitter. I was doing the draft and I was getting information on where guys are going to get picked and where they’re going to go in the draft and trades that are happening. By the time we put it up on the site, we realized that wasn’t working. So I created a Twitter!, and I started to report picks and trades and it grew from there. That did provide an immediacy where people could know who broke a story. It wasn’t always as clear in the past who had something first, but now I think the scoreboard is a little bit more evident.
Kobe Bryant has been the most interesting guy I’ve covered. He knew his craft better than anyone else and he knew my craft very well. He was always very curious about a lot of things in the league and he was curious about things in our industry. His level of curiosity and his desire to gather knowledge was always very interesting to me. His understanding of the impact of his words in a story how they would be perceived was really unparalleled in anyone I’ve covered. His obsessiveness with his craft was fascinating to me. I always felt like I got a little better at what I did after I spent time with him just by how important what he did was to him. I learned from his competitive drive.
I’m competitive, I want to break everything, but I’m never going to break everything -- no one breaks everything. I really have a process that I follow. I believe that there will be ebbs and flows. I like to believe that someone can have a better day than me or a better week than me, but I want to believe over a month, six months, a year, that I can win out. Someone’s always going to have a better short window than you, but what keeps you grounded is the process. Being relentless in your reporting and your source building and your relationships pays off. The business is always shifting, the league is shifting, and you've got to shift with it. You’ve got to make sure you’re always getting to know new people, that you continue to be current and in constant communication with the people you always have been. Never take anyone for granted. None of us are owed anything in this business, you have to work at it every day, no one’s just giving you anything.
I think people respect when they see you work at it all the time, people who saw me go from Yahoo! to ESPN know I’m working just as hard, maybe even harder. My job might look a little different because ESPN is a different entity than Yahoo!, but how I work and how I interact with others is unchanged. You don’t want to ride the roller coaster of the ups and downs, you have to try to stay steady. The only thing you can really control is how you’re working at it. What I’ve always found is when I have a plan, when I’m fully engaged, which I feel like is always, I’m going to get my share. So, that’s how I try to approach it and not think about pressure.
It’s more competitive than it’s ever been, and there are fewer great jobs than there’s ever been, so you’ve got to obviously work incredibly hard. But I know it’s as fulfilling as it’s ever been. It’s a lot of fun, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Doing this to me is still a thrill. Every day I get up excited about who I’m going to talk to, what I might find out, and I think you have to feel that to have the enthusiasm to do it.