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Basketball's Biggest Reporter Is Waging War on ESPN—And He'll Do Anything to Win

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In June 2011, basketball fans who wanted to watch the NBA Draft did what they had done for years: They flipped on ESPN. The sports network had aired the event since 2003, and the 2011 version started like all the others, with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern announcing the first pick in his nasally New York accent: “The Cleveland Cavaliers select Kyrie Irving, from Duke University.”

But then a strange thing happened. At 7:43 p.m., Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted: “The Timberwolves have already alerted Derrick Williams' camp: They're drafting him with the No. 2 pick.” Two minutes later Stern walked out to the stage and repeated the same thing. At 7:56 p.m., Wojnarowski tweeted “The Cavs will draft Tristan Thompson with the fourth pick, a source says.” A minute later Stern made it official. Wojnarowski scooped half of the 30 first round picks, and his Yahoo Sports colleague Marc Spears racked up a few more.

At that time, Wojnarowski had 90,000 followers on Twitter. Today he has over 800,000. His owning of the 2011 draft “was the first time you saw the power of Twitter [in sports journalism],” says Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand. Wojnarowski now breaks news on Twitter so frequently that his fans have quit lumping his messages in with the millions of other “tweets” sent every day. Instead, basketball fans refer to them as #WojBombs. They are so essential to the functioning of the NBA that some league executives have turned on text notifications just for Wojnarowski’s tweets.

“I signed a player, and my staff didn’t know that we got the guy yet, and I heard the cheering outside the office because they had seen Woj tweet it,” one team executive said. “I was still on the phone with the agent, negotiating areas of the exhibit, and Woj already had it.” 

When Wojnarowski began at Yahoo Sports in 2006 the site wasn’t known for its sports reporting. Wojnarowski singlehandedly changed that. “He is the one who made Yahoo, it is not Yahoo that made him,” says ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Wojnarowski churns out reported columns at a furious pace and often publishes them in the middle of the night. “He is a complete freaking animal,” says New York Daily News Knicks reporter Frank Isola. “Adrian is basically a reporter on steroids.”

Wojnarowski has needed more than just a strong work ethic, though, to develop the best sources in basketball. If you look closely at his columns and talk to people in the NBA, you discover that he mixes his reporting and opinion writing in improper ways, rewarding sources with flattery and punishing the uncooperative with nastiness. In fact, it often appears as though Adrian Wojnarowski lets his sourcing dictate not just the topic but also the tone of his writing. In private, NBA reporters complain endlessly about Wojnarowski’s methods. Some of it is undoubtedly professional jealousy, but his body of work shows they also have a point.

Wojnarowski was born, of all places, in Bristol, Connecticut, a decade before the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network called the town home. He left Connecticut for St. Bonaventure University, then worked at a small paper before interviewing at the Fresno Bee to cover Fresno State basketball when he was 25. He didn’t get the job—current ESPN college basketball reporter Andy Katz did—but the Bee offered him a sports column, which he wrote for two years.

In 1997, Wojnarowski returned to the northeast as a sports columnist at The Record in Bergen County, New Jersey, where his in-depth profiles and critical coverage of New York City teams won numerous sportswriting awards. His work was better than your average columnist, but not materially different in subject or tone. Wojnarowski also had not yet developed his hostile rivalry with ESPN. In fact, he even worked for them. While employed by The Record, Wojnarowski wrote over 100 columns for ESPN between 1999 and 2006, mostly covering the NBA. As part of ESPN’s celebration of its 20th anniversary in 1999, Wojnarowski wrote the story “Growing up with ESPN” about his admiration for ESPN as a kid. 

Wojnarowski gave up the ESPN column when he left The Record for Yahoo Sports in 2006. And he made that move at a time when the wall between news and editorial sports writing was crumbling. The wrecking ball was, largely, ESPN and its imitators. With cable packages showing every game and highlights instantly available online, fans no longer had to read the paper the next morning. They began looking to basketball reporters for scoops. Basketball journalism entered what Grantland’s Bryan Curtis called the “Trade Rumor Era,” where “the chief method of putting points on the board … is to file a story that includes the words ‘league source.’” And in this new era, Wojnarowski thrived. He quickly realized that his position as an opinion columnist could be leveraged through favorable coverage into scoops. 

In his first year at Yahoo, Wojnarowski didn’t yet have the rolodex of sources to drop #WojBombs, and his work largely resembled what he had done at The Record. But he cultivated NBA sources, and news scoops began to appear alongside—and sometimes within—personal screeds. By the 2008 offseason he was fully invested in breaking news, citing “sources” in 14 articles in less than a month. By the most recent trade deadline, he broke so much news that most of it didn’t even end up on Yahoo Sports; he merely tweeted it out before he moved on to the next newsbreak. 

If you pay attention, you can draw the lines between Wojnarowski's stories and tweets to figure out how he reports. On July 2 at 10:31 p.m., Wojnarowski posted a piece about Los Angeles Clipper Jamal Crawford’s desire for a contract extension. It contains quotes from Crawford’s agent Andy Miller, blatantly attempting to negotiate for a new contract through the media. Less than 30 minutes later, Wojnarowski broke the news that Kyle Lowry—another Miller client—was going to re-sign with the Toronto Raptors. He even had time to get a quote from Lowry about re-signing, which almost never happens in the hyper-competitive breaking news world, where two minutes means the difference between first and irrelevant. Nine days later, after another Miller client signed a new contract, Wojnarowski tweeted “Great success story, great contract for agent Andy Miller.”

It was a classic Wojnarowski story: a news “scoop” of dubious value followed by a news scoop of real value, and a rare compliment given to the man involved in both. (Wojnarowski declined to comment on this episode, or anything else in the piece. A Yahoo spokesperson provided this statement: “The depth and quality of Adrian's coverage of the NBA for Yahoo Sports over the past eight years has been unparalleled. We are fortunate to have him on our team.”) But to truly understand how Wojnarowski and his sources operate, there is no better place to look than his relationship with Joe Dumars, who worked as the Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations from 2000 to 2014.

Dumars was very successful for the first half of his executive career, assembling teams that won an NBA Championship and reached six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. During his final six years in Detroit however—before he “stepped down” instead of being fired—the Pistons were one of the worst teams in the league, largely because of a series of disastrous decisions Dumars made. You would never know about it, though, if you read only Wojnarowski for your Pistons coverage.

With Detroit sliding down the standings, Wojnarowski broke nearly every significant—and insignificant—Pistons story for a half-decade: the Allen Iverson trade, the Amir Johnson trade, drafting Austin Daye, signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, hiring John Kuester, trading Aaron Afflalo, signing Chris Wilcox, signing Ben Wallace, drafting Greg Monroe, signing Tracy McGrady, Rip Hamilton arguing with John Kuester, drafting Brandon Knight, hiring Lawrence Frank, re-signing Tayshuan Prince, re-signing Rodney Stuckey, trading Ben Gordon, signing Josh Smith, signing Chauncey Billups, signing Brandon Jennings, signing Josh Harrellson, and firing Mo Cheeks. While Wojnarowski was busy breaking news about the team, he wasn’t busy analyzing it: Between 2008 and 2012, Wojnarowski didn’t write a negative piece about Dumars or the Pistons, despite the fact that they had transformed from a perennial contender to an also-ran. Instead, Wojnarowski penned several sympathetic profiles of Dumars, including ones that covered his completion of his college degree and another wholly about his defensive skills as a player in the 1980s.  

By 2012, Wojnarowski could no longer ignore how poorly Dumars was performing, so he wrote a piece on the Pistons’ rebuilding. It included heavy participation from Dumars and unearned optimism like “Slowly, surely, Dumars is regenerating the Pistons again.” In each of the two seasons after the piece ran, the Pistons went 29–53 and missed qualifying for the playoffs by nine games. It also emphasized Dumars’ strong relationship with coach Lawrence Frank, “who has returned accountability to the locker room.” Dumars would fire Frank six months later.

In 2010, the NBA fined Dumars $500,000 for leaking multiple confidential league memos to Wojnarowski, according to multiple sources. This matches the third largest publicly known fine the league has ever handed down. The NBA decided that too many memos were making it into the media, so they conducted a sting operation over several months. They would change a few words or numbers in different team’s copies of otherwise identical memos, so that when the memos leaked they could spot the small differences and trace them back to the leaker. This approach caught Dumars red-handed, as well as an executive from another team who was fined $12,500 for leaking to a draft-focused website. Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons, and the NBA all declined to comment on the fine.

You can at least say this for Wojnarowski’s Pistons coverage: His news scoops were accurate, however he procured them. On other subjects, though, his reporting has been consistently wrong, and he has lashed out with vicious opinion columns. His favorite targets include the New York Knicks management, the “Carolina way,” John Calipari, Larry Brown, college basketball coaches, former player’s union executive director Billy Hunter, agent David Falk, and Boston Celtics executive Danny Ainge. But Wojnarowski has saved his most lethal ammunition for the best player on the planet: LeBron James.

Wojnarowski’s problems with James are endless. He passes the ball to teammates and fails in the clutch (here and here and here). He had a me-first attitude during the 2004 Olympics (here and here and here). He doesn’t want “it” enough and is soft (here and here and here). He hangs out too much with his “sycophantic” high school buddies (here and here and here). “You can see something there that was very personal,” one team executive told me.  

When Wojnarowski wasn’t busy writing about James with “prose lifted from Travis Bickle’s diary,” as Tommy Craggs once described it at Slate, he was flailing around for James-related news. Between 2008 and mid-2010 Wojnarowski wrote ten columns about James’ impending free agency. He brought up nearly a quarter of the league as potential destinations—including devoting one column to the ludicrous idea that James would join the Dumars-led Pistons. It was only a little over a month before James’s ill-fated ESPN special “The Decision” that Wojnarowski mentioned James’ eventual destination, Miami, for the first time—and even then, he returned shortly to naming incorrect teams.

Wojnarowski would likely say that he was merely relaying what league sources told him, not definitively saying that James would or would not sign with a specific team. But that’s precisely the problem. Wojnarowski’s reporting is rife with opinion, conjecture, and speculation—whether his own or an anonymous league source’s—and it can be impossible to tell what he is actually reporting. When Wojnarowski wrote “the Chicago Bulls are still the team to beat, with Cleveland a close second and New Jersey the looming wild card” a week before James chose Miami, there was no indication whether that was sourced information, a guess, or something in-between. Four days before James left Cleveland, Wojnarowski wrote a similarly incorrect and murkily sourced sentence about James meeting with teams: “he needed the threat of leaving [Cleveland], even if there was never truly the intent.” As one beat writer described Wojnarowski’s writing in relation to his peers: “Most of those guys, [USA Today’s Sam] Amick and [Yahoo’s Marc] Spears and [ESPN’s Marc] Stein … just write straight news, and you don’t really get as confused by news and what is their opinion.” 

A week after “The Decision,” Wojnarowski wrote a 4,000 word ticktock assuredly describing how James came to choose Miami, a stunning act of hubris. His reporting on LeBron James was consistently sloppy and poorly sourced, yet Wojnarowski had the audacity to present his piece as the definitive account. With just two quotes from anonymous sources and a history of being wrong about James, it doesn’t deserve to be treated as reliable. NBA writer Ethan Sherwood Strauss summed it up well: “If all this was so telegraphed, then Wojnarowski missed multiple Morse [code] memos. Now Adrian claims retroactive omniscience? My temples throb at the thought. Insiders should prove their status with a hefty helping of named sources. I give leeway to those with impeccable track records, but Adrian just whiffed on a big one.” 

Four years later, Wojnarowski whiffed again. Last February he wrote a piece titled “How Cleveland lost its way, and lost a chance at LeBron's return.” LeBron James returned to Cleveland five months later.

Those within the league think Wojnarowski’s criticism of LeBron stems from reporting failures. “I don’t know if LeBron’s whole camp or just LeBron shafted [Wojnarowski], but [Wojnarowski] was having trouble getting to him,” a former team employee he tried to cultivate as a source told me. Somebody else familiar with Wojnarowski and James’ relationship said, “Adrian does not talk to LeBron, or people in LeBron’s camp. He doesn’t do any reporting with LeBron James or his people.” (Both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears that Wojnarowski would harm their careers.)

Most media outlets have strict guidelines detailing how judiciously anonymous sources should be used, but they continue to plague NBA reporting. ESPN requires “the information we are putting forth should always be substantive” when using anonymous sources, though it adds “that’s a subjective definition, of course.” Their guidelines were put to the test recently when an anonymous NBA executive was quoted in an ESPN story calling LeBron James a “hypocrite,” before the reference was pulled. Through a spokesperson, ESPN VP & Editorial Director Patrick Stiegman said “the quote should not have run in the first place.” 

In reporting this piece I pushed interviewees to include information on the record, but found it impossible not to use anonymous sources. The media culture surrounding the NBA assumes anonymity as default, often with a weak justification that goes something like “hey, this isn’t national security reporting, so who cares?” 

What makes Wojnarowski different from other reporters, and one of the reasons he privately draws such ire from them, is that he is allowed to write in a way they are not. Like Wojnarowski, ESPN’s Marc Stein—his biggest competitor—develops trusted relationships with sources that allow him to break a tremendous amount of news. The biggest difference between the two lies in Wojnarowski’s ability as a reporter-cum-columnist to impact league and public perception of the people involved. Stein’s archive consists almost entirely of news pieces. Because he so infrequently mixes reporting and opinion—in fact, a common criticism of Stein (and ESPN more generally) is that his work is stilted by so many words being spent on the boring work of detailing what information was learned when and from which anonymous source—Stein cannot promote an executive like Dumars or criticize a player like LeBron James quite the way Wojnarowski can.

Despite Wojnarowski’s past at ESPN—or perhaps because of it—his relationship with the network borders upon hatred as closely as anything in the sports media world. “I’ve had agents and executives tell me Woj has a jihad against ESPN,” said Bleacher Report’s (and formerly ESPN’s) Ric Bucher. “He has a mission to take ESPN down.” Bucher wasn’t the only person to use the word “jihad” to describe how Wojnarowski approaches competition with ESPN. Wojnarowski seizes every opportunity to take shots at ESPN, often referring to it as “that cheerleading network” or “a sports cable network” in his columns. 

Wojnarowski’s animus towards ESPN reached an embarrassing low in 2013, when the Memphis Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors. He called Grizzlies management “a front office of novices” while slamming the trade. But he really saved up his ammo for John Hollinger—the Grizzlies VP of Basketball Operations and former longtime ESPN writer—who he derided as “a statistician who worked for a cable company.” Wojnarowski’s analysis of the deal ran counter to most of the basketball media’s, which held that Gay was an inefficient player and trading him away would be a classic addition by subtraction maneuver. They were of course right, as the Grizzlies had their best season ever following the trade, and Gay only lasted 51 games in Toronto before he was traded yet again.

Everybody I talked to used a different colorful metaphor to describe Wojnarowski and ESPN’s relationship. They were like Nike and Adidas, or the Hatfields and McCoys, or David and Goliath. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch characterized it as an underdog complex: “I think Woj’s pathology is that ESPN has 25 guys, ‘I’m just one guy at Yahoo, I’m going to figure out a way to beat them.’” 

There does seem to be real animosity between Wojnarowski and ESPN’s reporters. During the 2011 NBA Finals, the entire basketball media was in Dallas to report on it. After one of the games Hollinger was driving out of the parking lot in his rental car. As he got close to Wojnarowski, Spears, and Yahoo Sports NBA editor Johnny Ludden, Hollinger rolled down his window and joked, “Oh man, I could’ve taken out the whole Yahoo operation!” As he began to drive away, Wojnarowski yelled after him, “And we’d still kick your ass from the grave!” (When asked to comment, Hollinger said tersely, “I don’t remember that” and hung up on me.) More recently an ESPN writer tweaked Wojnarowski over his refusal to use ESPN’s name, and Wojnarowski responded: “You have 75 guys there. You really should break every story. I'd be more worried about that than me.”

Still, multiple sources say in 2012 Yahoo mistakenly forgot to exercise an option in Wojnarowski’s contract, and he unexpectedly found himself a writing free agent. NBA reporters Chris Sheridan and Bucher had left ESPN within the past year, and editor-in-chief Rob King came calling. They had a 45-minute telephone conversation but discussions never progressed beyond that stage, and the two never met in person. Said King through a spokesperson: “As per usual business operations, we had an exploratory conversation with Adrian when his contract expired, but before we had a chance to follow up, his agent informed us that he was staying at Yahoo.” A Bristol homecoming wasn’t in the cards.

One national NBA reporter told of an important playoff game that everybody was covering. “It was 1:00 or 1:30 a.m. and I went to grab a beer with other writers at a bar across from the hotel. I said hello to Woj as I walked by. He had his phone and in my head I remember thinking, ‘he is still digging for something different on the game, and hasn’t even started writing about it’.” Long after other writers have gone to bed, Wojnarowski is trying to find the piece of information that will make his story the best. This is exemplified by one of his favorite phrases, which he frequently uses in interviews: “The guts of great writing is great reporting.”

But compromising your objectivity to score scoops is not great reporting. Relentlessly attacking a key subject and reporting incorrectly on him is not great journalism. Hating a rival so much it clouds your analysis of events is not great reporting. By Wojnarowski’s own standards, he is failing.