ESPN’s Dave McMenamin On Covering High-Profile Beats, Ghostwriting for Agent Zero, and More | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin On Covering High-Profile Beats, Ghostwriting for Agent Zero, and More

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Updated: November 9, 2017

 

If you’ve been following the NBA over the last few years, chances are you’ve seen ESPN’s Dave McMenamin on your television screen discussing the comings and goings of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James. McMenamin was gracious enough to sit down and conduct this interview with Truth About It just before LeBron James destroyed the hearts of Wizards faithful (once again) with a masterful 57-point performance in Capital One Arena.

Here, the suburban Philadelphia native discusses growing up a Kobe Bryant fan before covering the Lakers beat, the unique Wizards connection that helped propel his career, as well as the awkwardness that can arise from sticking a cellphone camera in an athlete’s face.

Truth About It: When you were a student at Syracuse, did you always know that you wanted to be a sports journalist, or did you fall into this career?

Dave McMenamin: I was fortunate and a little bit crazy to know that I wanted to do since I was 14. I wrote for a couple local county newspapers in the Philadelphia suburbs, where I grew up, and one of my classmate’s mom was actually the sports editor at The Suburban and Wayne Times, so that helped. I covered high school sports for her, and then Villanova University was basically in my backyard, so I got to get credentials and cover their football [team]—Brian Westbrook was there at the time, and he was killing it. The basketball team wasn’t that great yet, but still it was high-level D-1 basketball. So in high school I was writing for multiple publications, I started a basketball newsletter with one of my best friends, I got an internship with NBC in Philly doing a high school sports show, and my high school had a TV station, too. I had what I thought to be a sterling resume by the time I got to campus.

I marched into The Daily Orange with my clip book of work, and they were like, “You can cover girls volleyball,” and I’m like “What?!”

The biggest advantage for me was the network at Syracuse. The professors were really good because a lot of them had been in the field for a long time and I was very enraptured by what they were teaching us. My senior year at Syracuse, I took a class—I believe it was Comm 400 or something—where the entire class is an internship with the city paper (The Post Standard). That was as invaluable experience as any. So my senior year of college when everyone one else was going out and partying on Friday nights, I was covering high school football, “Friday Night Lights” style. One, it taught me the dedication that it would take make it in this industry, and two, it allowed me to meet some really great people.

TAI: Interesting that you got into the industry, working your way up, just before the internet changed the publishing industry.

DM: The funny part about that, my degree says newspaper journalism, but I’ve only written online. My first job out of school was at NBA.com, and I never went the newspaper route—and I’m glad I didn’t at this point.

TAI: How important is formal journalism training? And how many sources do you need for a story before you can feel comfortable breaking it?

DM: Well, it depends on the story. For a transaction, there is no turning back on that and no wiggle room. You have to have those hard facts laid out and confirmed on both sides. If it’s something different, like covering LeBron and his opinions on things, or his mood or reaction, I have certain people in his camp that I would speak to and, generally, I wouldn’t have to go to another source because they are usually speaking on behalf of LeBron. When I’m writing a piece that has some depth to it, I try to get as many sources as possible. Not to be absurd, I’m not waiting for 20 sources until I write, but I’m writing a Koby Altman piece that will publish in a few weeks and I talked to him for about an hour and then I asked him for a few more people that I could talk to about him. He gave me a list of six names and I talked to each of them for another two hours to get the piece done.

TAI: What was it like being in L.A, writing for ESPN and covering the Lakers beat during Kobe’s twilight years?

DM: So my high school was right outside of Philly and we went to rival high schools. He went to Lower Merion and I went to Radnor, so I saw him play high school ball when he was a senior and I was in eighth grade. I had followed his career and decision to jump straight from high school to the NBA very closely, but mind you, during his first few years in the league, I’m still in high school so I was very much a Kobe fan. Like, straight up fan. Me and my buddy Mike would watch Kobe games and then go out into the driveway and try to recreate those moves. So when I finally got a chance to cover him, it was surreal at first.

TAI: Was it intimidating covering Kobe and Phil Jackson?

DM: It was. At that time, Phil had just gotten back—he had his whole coaching staff, and training staff, and then Derek [Fisher] was there, and all of these people that were entrenched with the Lakers, even beat reporters Mike Bresnahan and Kevin Ding, had been there for awhile . . . and here I was, this 25-year-old kid with no experience on a beat, just figuring it out how to run a beat, let alone the beat. Honestly, I look back on it at this point and feel fortunate that I had that experience, but I wish I could do it over again because I know that there was so much more that I could have done with it.

TAI: To the main event now: You were a ghostwriter for Gilbert Arenas’s blog back in the day.

DM: NBA.com had player blogs that they’d run before, but nothing ever really popped. They had Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman and guys like that treating it like an obligation. You’d call the team PR person and they would hand the phone to the player, you conduct an interview and then write the blog post in that person’s voice as if they wrote it. So my first time doing it with Gilbert, I wanted to build up a rapport, so I took the train down from New York to D.C. and I’m supposed to get 10 minutes with him and we ended up chatting for 45 minutes. First good initial meeting. At the time, the Wizards’ PR director was Zack Bolno, and we were supposed to just check in with the player every few weeks, but I’d say that very quickly Gilbert cut out the middle man and gave me his number and I would text him when we’d do a post. That was the process for a couple of months, and then at one point I’d get texts on my phone from Gilbert that would just say “blog.” So at the time I had this recording device that I would use on landlines, so when he’d hit me up, I would have to scramble to the office in Secaucus from my place in Jersey, or my girlfriend’s place in New York, since I didn’t have a landline.

At first it was two guys around the same age who loved hoops and would just talk about basketball—that was the basic way we got along. At some point, I felt like it became a form of therapy for Gilbert and we would just talk for hours, and not always just about the blog. It was a wild time for his career, when we started the blog he was at the highest of the high, and hitting game-winners, and then the injuries started happening. The blog had already dissipated by the time the gun incident happened, but we’re still in touch a lot. Actually, he messaged me about a week ago in reference to this new project that he’s doing with Mia Khalifa over at Complex. He basically wanted tips on how to be better on TV.

Looking back on it, it’s kinda neat to have been innovative in that way. This was way before Players’ Tribune existed, and when we started the blog, Twitter didn’t exist. There was this other site called “Yardbarker” that athletes would sometimes use to get out their messages, but it was kind of jumbled. I was definitely very fortunate to be a part of something that caught on and kind of changed the way sports were being covered. We won a a national blog award—it was a very wild time, and I’m proud of that.


The Cavs bring a lot of extra media attention to D.C. normally, but especially after a historic 57-point performance. The most points scored in the MCI Center/Verizon Center/Capitol One arena history.


TAI: Speaking of basketball Twitter, how do you feel about the aggregation of content? How do you deal with being misquoted or misrepresented in certain stories?

DM: I was misquoted twice last off season, and it’s upsetting because if someone picks it up, it takes off like wildfire. It was something that I said like, ‘The team wasn’t so upset with Kevin Love and Iman Shumpert that they would look to trade them,’ and that turned into, ‘They were so upset with Shumpert and Love that they want to trade them.’ Two totally different phrases with totally different meanings, and then that ended up on HoopsHype, and a lot of general managers and front office types read that for their daily information. That’s the downside. But to go back to Gilbert in this aggregation discussion, Dan Steinberg and the DC Sports Bog was getting popular around that time and we had a great symbiotic relationship. I would see that he would often feature the blog posts so I would sometimes send them to him early, because he gave a new legitimate platform to what I was doing. NBA.com is NBA.com, sure, but it’s kind of a PR extension of the league, whereas The Washington Post is literally one of the best newspapers in the world. Ideally, there should be some type of symbiotic relationship between the blogosphere and the reporting at mainstream media outlets. You’ve got to get it right, obviously, because I get very aggravated when I’m being misquoted.

TAI: On a related note, how do you feel about what happened with Mark Cuban and banning ESPN reporters last year? 

DM: I want more jobs for people covering the league. At ESPN we have a diverse collection of NBA reporters and I appreciate the people who have skill sets of things that I don’t necessarily do well, but I think it’s hard to completely understand a team if you’re not around them often. Some people are excellent interviewers and pulse-takers and can pop in for a week and write a really good piece. We have people like that, and Sports Illustrated has people like that who are excellent at what they do, but as a fan I’d probably want daily content on my team since you’re so heavily invested in that as a fan. I think the real way to do that is to have someone on the ground and reporting on the team.

TAI: Where do you see the future of sports journalism heading?

DM: I like the Athletic model. It’s affordable and I pay for it. It’s something like $4 a month and in this world where we live in of people paying over-the-top fees for HBO just so they can watch “Game of Thrones,” or paying for Netflix, why wouldn’t people pay for good content about their favorite team? I think it all started with a lot of newspapers that weren’t covering the NHL and you have this fervent fan base who is need of content—of course they’ll pay $4 a month. I hope it succeeds and they seem to be picking smart markets. I wish the newspaper industry would have seen the future better and tried to do this 10 years ago. Everyone would be a lot better off at this point, because the consumer would be used to that model at this point.

TAI: I noticed that the last time you were here, you used your cellphone to record videos interviews with coaches and players. How long have you been doing that, and are you consciously trying to produce video content?

DM: Last December, that basically became a new job responsibility at ESPN for basketball writers. You won’t necessarily see me post it, but I record it and send it back to Bristol and they’ll use it on “The Jump,” or “SportCenter,” or “Outside the Lines.” So it’s going somewhere. I was very resistant to it at first—and still am somewhat—because of just how limited media access is becoming at this point. If we only get a few interactions with players, it now becomes another barrier to getting people to open up to you, and my competitors don’t necessarily have to worry about that.

Ty Lue gave me some guff about it, and I actually went to LeBron with it and kind of explained to him that I’d be doing that. He was OK with it because he expects cameras to be in his face when he speaks. He actually enjoys the fact that you can’t cut up the quotes and convey a certain message because there is video to give full context. That was kind of the thought process behind LeBron’s “Uninterrupted”: it gives him a platform to get his full words out there.

I remember one time I had a 1-on-1 conversation with someone and sent in the quotes to ESPN, and there was an editor that asked, “Where’s the video?” I was just like, That’s the quote right there—people aren’t going to open up to you about everything when there are always cameras in their face. All that being said, I want to work in this industry for a long time, so I obviously have to adjust to the times.

TAI: This is a Wizards site, so I’m obliged to get in a Wizards question. Which Eastern Conference team has the best chance of stopping LeBron’s Finals streak?

DM: I actually think it’s the Wizards. John Wall is probably the most underrated superstar in this league and he performed so well last year in the playoffs, even though they lost to Boston. They have Kelly Oubre, who we are watching shoot right now. He’s gotten better than I expected him to be. I’m a believer in Scott Brooks as a coach. I think they have a nice collection of bigs that can give teams without much size some problems. The continuity is a legit factor. I believe that the Wizards have chance in a seven-game series against the Cavs, because of their roster flexibility. Similar to how the Bulls gave them problems a few years back. Everyone forgets how close that series was now, but Lebron had to hit a game-winner to prevent them from going down 3-1.

TAI: Last question. Where did you stand on Otto Porter as a max-player? 

DM: I think that you have to hold on to your assets in this league, and even if it is a slight overpay in the moment, you have to do it. It allowed the Wizards to keep their core together, while still keeping their window of seeking a championship very much open. Otto has a much-needed skill set in this market, and he got paid what the market dictated. I saw him play when he was in college at— Actually, here’s a personal story: I was the manager for the Syracuse national title team in ’03 and we had the 10-year anniversary, and I went back to campus to celebrate that. They retired Melo’s jersey, had a bunch of the old players there, a nice team dinner—overall it was just an awesome weekend that was capped by a Georgetown vs. Syracuse basketball game. Otto Porter destroys the Orange and scores, like, 36. So I got a chance to see firsthand how good of a player that he can be.

To keep up with all of McMenamin’s fantastic work over at ESPN, give him a follow on twitter @Mcten. Also, check out the book he co-authored with Brian Windshorst: Return of the King.

Troy Haliburton on Twitter
Troy Haliburton
Writer
Troy Haliburton is a native Washingtonian, and graduate of Gonzaga College High School and Morehouse College. He is going into his second season writing for Truth About It, and also writes for sports analytics website numberfire.com. You can find him in a district bike lane in the Northwest neighborhood of Bloomingdale.