It was a Saturday afternoon just after All-Star weekend, when Toronto Star reporter Doug Smith asked the Raptors’ PR staff for a word with DeMar DeRozan at their practice facility. He didn’t explain why.
Smith’s reputation after covering the team since its start in 1995, was enough to get him alone into the facility’s backroom with DeRozan. When he saw the four-time All-Star, “First thing I asked him, ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’” Smith says, referring to the tweet DeRozan had sent out that weekend. It read:
Smith had been covering DeRozan since the day he turned pro, when he was drafted by the Raptors in 2009 as a lottery pick out of Compton, Calif. at the age of 19. “He knew that I wasn’t going to sensationalize it. That, it was me… We were going to have a one-on-one conversation.”
In the following week, Smith’s piece went viral. When the next opportunity for post-game interviews came around, DeRozan found himself swarmed by reporters, at least a bit more than usual. Amid the frenzy was Smith, who in the background asked DeRozan once again, if he was okay. This time, the all-star shooting guard responded, “Doug, you’re the fucking man,” with a smile.
“I was a bit nervous to hear his reaction,” Smith says. “But [DeRozan] knew what the story was about… that it was big.”
DeRozan’s willingness to share his story with Smith opened a taboo conversation in the NBA and in professional sports: mental health issues. “Depression, general human feelings… athletes have usually kept them to themselves,” Smith says. “It’s been a bigger conversation since that day.”
DeRozan’s courage spread league wide and across professional sports. It led other players to speak about their own battles, such as Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who—speaking at a New York Times Live event in November 2018—revealed that talking about his own struggles with depression and panic attacks is the biggest thing he has done in his career.
Smith believes the same to be true for DeRozan, while still noting the personal achievements he’s earned as he’s helped guide the Raptors to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2016, and a franchise-best 59-win season.
Behind Smith’s reporting, the public received critical information. It’s what reporters strive to do every day, hoping to find stories like Smith’s, which have the potential to make a resounding impact. For journalists, the challenge is to negotiate a fine line in telling an important story: respect their sources’ personal space as human beings, not just athletes.
In a high-pressure, results-driven industry, DeRozan’s time with the Raptors came to an end after nine years, when he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in a package that was focused on Toronto acquiring Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs didn’t make DeRozan available for comment.
A former NBA Champion, Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the Raptors have never had a player quite like Leonard. To go along with his talent, he’s also a notoriously quiet guy, to the point that the rarity of a smile creates news stories.
For the price of trading their franchise piece in DeRozan, the Raptors got a year-one rental in Leonard, who wanted out of San Antonio because of the way management, coaching staff, and his teammates handled his injuries. By free agency in the summer, the Raptors need to sell Leonard on staying in Toronto, instead of choosing any other NBA market.
As journalists covering the sport, their goals and motives don’t change with player trades, regardless of a superstar’s presence.
“It’s in the team’s hands,” says Alex Wong, an NBA features writer for theScore, on the decision to withhold access to a player. “They need to take the precautions to make sure that all things go right by Kawhi.”
At Leonard’s introductory press conference as a Raptor, he was asked by Smith, “What would you want people to know about you?” Leonard gave a funny response, but it was his laugh that went viral.
Leonard’s awkward laugh took over the Internet. It’s what any Laker fan would have hoped for. But unfortunately for them, Kawhi wasn’t bothered.
“I don’t think he cared,” Wong says. “Everyone around the league made him out to be real quiet. But he doesn’t care about how he’s depicted in media… a lot of these guys don’t… if anything it’s the team that cares.”
The Raptors’ communications team keeps tabs on when players are made available to speak to the media, either in scrums or in one-on-one interviews.
Wong says when he used to work as a freelancer, writing for publications like The New Yorker, GQ and Slam, he noticed that with certain teams there’s a difference in availability depending on the publication he was representing. “There’s a bit of a media hierarchy,” Wong says.
Opportunities for scrums are usually a daily occasion for beat reporters, who follow the team at home and on the road, speaking with them any chance they get, such as after practices or games. In the Raptors’ locker room, reporters know that players like Fred VanVleet and Danny Green make for a better quote. While others like Kyle Lowry, the longest tenured Raptor, will hold themselves, and others, to a higher standard.
Of all the professional sports leagues, Smith says that the NBA has the best reputation for allowing its players to express themselves, especially on social issues. But they, like all other leagues, make it a responsibility for players to speak to media. If players or team’s PR staff, don’t follow, reporters have the assurance than they can report and find support from the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
Smith, who acted as the president of the Toronto chapter for four years, says that’s never been the case since he started covering the Raptors, Canada’s only professional basketball team. In terms of a reporter being banned from the locker room, that’s never happened either as far as he can remember.
“[Athletes] know they have a power and a responsibility…We’re just doing our job,” Smith says. The veteran reporter says that it’s about picking your spots. If a player like Leonard occasionally takes extra time after a game for his cool down, reporters will compromise, making sure to get ahold of him the next day, knowing they have a deadline to follow that night.
When I tried to organize an opportunity to speak to Raptors’ players in an open scrum about their experience with the media, I was denied. In an email response, a Raptors PR spokesperson informed me of their reason: “We are unable to provide access to our practices or games to student journalists.”
Although I was disappointed, I discovered a podcast episode where some of my questions were answered. Earlier this month on Inside the Green Room, co-hosted by Raptors guard Danny Green, Serge Ibaka spoke on his experience with the media. Green believes that “70 to 80 per cent” of reporters are after good stories, because of their love for the game.
But there are reporters who are after scoops, to the point that they will twist the words of players in order to get stories, according to both Green and Ibaka.
When Ibaka was in Oklahoma City, he said he was frustrated by the media. Then one day, he asked some journalists how much they make. “When I heard how much they make, I said, ‘You know what, they need to do what they do to pay their bills…So I understand that some of them need to dig a bit more, to get people’s attention.”
With access to the players, reporters are able to do their job: gather information for their publications. But, the quality of their stories depend largely on who they are as a reporter. “Players keep tabs, they know what you’re about after a while,” says Wong. “You need to make the decision of what type of reporter you want to be.”
Wong notes that the reporters share a workspace with the players. “You’re going to have small exchanges, because you get to know them as people… It’s all about building relationships.” To Wong, that means you don’t record every conversation, but that you also keep your professional space by not striking up a conversation as if you’re friends.
“Players are trained from a young age, they’re pros at dealing with the media,” says Sean Fitz-Gerald, the managing editor of Athletic Toronto. With professional sports becoming more and more profitable, players understand how they can increase their perception in the public through the media.
Their ability to control their brand comes from their power of being able to spread their message, whether commercial or personal, over different platforms, says, Fitz-Gerald. “It adds another sense of competition for reporters, because [athletes] can easily turn to Twitter.”
It’s no secret that athletes are involved on Twitter, and it comes as no surprise that they stumble upon the articles and jokes that are written about them. Whether they care about it or not, it brings up a golden rule from Wong:
“One of the things I like to tell young writers: If you’re going to criticize a player on Twitter, you need to be comfortable standing next to them the next time you’re in the locker room.”
About the author
Bryan Meler is a chief-of-research at the RRJ.
You can follow him on Twitter @BryanMeler