Darnell Mayberry, the lead beat writer for the Thunder, was gracious enough to take some time to answer a few questions about his experiences covering the team. It may be on the long side, but every answer is definitely worth reading.
Daily Thunder: With the Sooners and the Cowboys, people are really touchy about The Oklahoman remaining unbiased and objective. But with the Thunder, this is the state’s team. Do you find it harder to try and stay objective or is it easy to get caught up being a fan?
Darnell Mayberry: I’m not a fan. That’s the first thing I think it’s important to realize. I am a fan of the NBA, sure. It’s my favorite league. But I don’t root for the Thunder specifically or have a team bumper sticker on my car or foam fingers in my house or Kevin Durant autographed pictures hanging on my wall. And so I haven’t found my job as the Thunder beat writer any more or less difficult than any other beat in terms of remaining objective. It’s a professional obligation in my eyes. An awesomely fun and enjoyable one, but one that I take seriously and work very hard at.
Having said that, it’s human nature to want to see people do well. Working closely with so many classy people in the Thunder organization, from players to coaches to front office execs, you want to see them do well. But I’m not happy or heartbroken after every win or loss. My approach to my job remains the same whether the Thunder has a 3-29 record through its first 32 games or goes 20-30 over its final 50. I don’t, however, know any sports journalist, myself included, that doesn’t want to cover a good team. It’s both a pleasure and a professional challenge to chronicle the biggest sporting events of the year. So I’m like every other professional sports journalist I know who wants to continually be in that position. But I don’t let my desire cloud my judgment or show up in my work. The one challenge about this being Oklahoma’s team, and the state’s first major-league franchise, is that there is a ton of excitement about the Thunder. And what I’ve found sort of ironic is while many sports journalists live in fear of being labeled a homer, I’m in a position where fans are upset when I’m too critical.
DT: You’ve had the unique experience of covering two NBA franchises in the same city – how would you compare the two?
DM: Similar but strangely different. The Hornets were much more open in terms of access. George Shinn and his wife, Denise, often ate in the media room, for example. You wanted an interview, go grab a plate of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans and pull up a seat. He’d tell you want you wanted to know. Want an interview with Clay Bennett, call, schedule an appointment and get in line. And maybe he’ll take time for your request. Similar examples can be stated about the two organizations at every level. That variance has taken a year to adjust to.
But it’s one the Thunder views as a small step in conducting business that ultimately will produce a more structured and professional environment that sets an example that will lead to positive results on and off the basketball court. I think we all know about the similarities and differences from a basketball standpoint as far as the product, players and results. But in terms of overall excitement, I’ve see much more of a vested interest in the Thunder by a larger segment of the state. And in my opinion the Hornets’ first season felt more like they belonged to Oklahoma City rather than a franchise on loan. Even though everyone knew the latter was the case.
I’d often hear the most elementary basketball questions coming from fans in the stands during the Hornets’ first season. But I’ve witnessed NBA fans here slowly become much more knowledgeable now that the Thunder is here to stay. They’re not as uninformed on the rules of the game and more and more are learning the personalities of the players, coaches and even referees. That continued growth in the fans allows me to write more in-depth pieces rather than explaining basic things, which we were forced to do a lot of while the Hornets were here.
DT: Do you think the Thunder have established their “brand” yet with this state? Or is the team still kind of a novelty act?
DM: I don’t think so. I could be wrong but I would think that if you asked 10 random people within walking distance of the Ford Center what is the team’s mascot, maybe three would stumble upon the right answer. Ask them what the logo is and they’d struggle as well. Much of that can be attributed to the mascot being unveiled so late into the season and the logo being ambiguous and atrocious. But small things like that must seep into the psyche of a fan before a franchise has established its brand. I do, however, think the Thunder has made incredible strides to have been in this city for just more than one full calendar year. It seems fans already expect and identify high-character players, community involvement and a commitment to a fun and family-friendly environment for 41 nights inside the Ford Center as main tenets of the Thunder.
But I doubt anyone with the Thunder would want to be viewed as a 23-win outfit. So while I do think the Thunder has made great strides in only one season, the franchise is very much still a novelty in many ways. In a way, everything the Thunder does, from a player transaction to a player appearance, is the first time most fans in Oklahoma are experiencing those things. While the Hornets did several NBA-specific things, I’m not sure the majority of people paid attention to much of anything outside of their 41 game nights. The microscope is now a lot more intense. Folks are catching on, but I think the Thunder executives would be the first to admit the organization has a long way to go.
DT: Likewise, do you think Oklahoma City people get the NBA yet? I don’t think the Thunder could ever catch the monster that is OU football, but do you think they could get close?
DM: If by get the NBA you mean the games, how the league works and the ebb and flow of the season, I think people are slowly beginning to understand things. I think by this time next year many more people will have a much firmer handle on what to expect, why things happen and what to make of things when they happen. If by get the NBA you mean are converted college fans who previously had no interest in professional basketball, I think that segment is growing as well and will continue to grow. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard, dating back to the Hornets’ days, about a friend bringing a friend to a game and the first-time NBA friend immediately becoming hooked. The action and athleticism, the pace and style and the excitement and entertainment of NBA basketball is contagious in that sense. It’s why basketball has long been my favorite sport and the NBA my favorite league.
Maybe for that reason I think the Thunder can without a doubt compete with OU football. It won’t be easy. But in my opinion and experiences there are thousands of people, sports fans even, in this state who aren’t interested in OU football. Or OSU sports for that matter. I grew up as one of them and know for a fact that those types are eager for something else. Combine that with the OU, OSU and Tulsa fans who have become rabid Thunder fans and I think the Thunder does have a chance to rival the interest in OU football. But it won’t happen before deep playoff runs and one or two championships.
DT: Who is the best interview on the team? Who’s the one guy that you know you can go to and get at least one quote worthwhile?
DM: Nick Collison and it’s not even close. A lot of these guys, perhaps because they’re young, give a lot of clichés but are good in general once they get going. But Collison has a way of breaking down the game that both informs the casual fan and interests the hardcore reader. And just for good measure, he’ll throw in a gem in the middle of it all. “This is the most miserable season I’ve ever been a part of.” Said following a six-point loss to Memphis in mid-December that dropped the Thunder to 2-21. A sports writer’s dream.
DT: Were you surprised when OKC bought out Earl Watson and do you think that was a better move than holding on to him to use as trade bait? And how would you rate the Thunder’s offseason so far?
DM: Not surprised they waived him. I think we all knew something would happen at some point but didn’t know what or when. A trade, it seemed, would have been the first choice. It’s debatable whether waiving him was a better move. But the fact that they did indicates the team knew it couldn’t get anything for him. And if you did try to use him as trade bait this season you’d run the risk of his attitude becoming a problem while hoping something decent comes along. That’s a big hope.
The Thunder took calls and made calls last year to gauge what was out there. Again, the fact that he didn’t get moved indicates there wasn’t an attractive deal for him. Five things to keep in mind regarding Earl Watson: 1) You have to take something back in a trade. 2) That incoming chip has to be something you like. 3) That chip likely could have been a high-dollar contract or a bad attitude. 4) His value wasn’t high. No one wanted him last year. And this goes back to what you can get for him. He was only trade bait because his contract was expiring. Expiring contracts are valuable to teams that are looking to dump salary. The Thunder is not going to trade him to help a team dump salary and take on their dead weight. Trade opportunities like the rescinded Tyson Chandler for Chris Wilcox-Joe Smith-DeVon Hardin deal don’t come along very often. And now that Chandler is limping around on one good foot we see why it was on the table in the first place and eventually rescinded by the Thunder. It would have been wishful thinking to think the Thunder could have gotten a dream deal (a player they like and one that fits) during the season for Watson’s expiring deal. 5) While waiting on that dream deal to present itself, Watson could have become a cancer.
You have to ask yourself if that’s a risk you’re willing to take while waiting on an improbable trade opportunity. As far as the off-season goes I think the Thunder has done a great job so far. You don’t always have to make a big splash and throw away the flexibility that you worked to create and is so hard to get back once gone. Look at it this way. The Thunder got a great complementary player in James Harden, a promising young center in Byron Mullens and have brought over a promising power forward in Serge Ibaka. But the team also will have a full season with Thabo Sefolosha, Nenad Krstic, Shaun Livingston and D.J. White. That’s essentially like seven new players. Krstic’s 46 games were the most played of that bunch. Sefolosha played 23. D.J. White played seven. The importance of that can’t be taken for granted.
DT: You recently had a tweet that mentioned how you thought it was interesting how some “Joe Blow bloggers” have gained locker room access. What’s your take on that and really the evolving world of sports journalism?
DM: There is no doubt sports journalism is changing. I’m sure you and your readers don’t just read my articles in the paper on the Thunder. You’ve seen my mug on NewsOK.com videos (my apologies), read my blog, listened to our podcasts and even seen us break down the Thunder during pre-game on the jumbotron inside the Ford Center (early in the season before we got canned). I even signed up for Twitter last month with the sole purpose of staying with the times and getting information about the Thunder out there much faster. So we live in a different age. The growth of the Internet is largely responsible for changing the way we do things.
Fortunately, The Oklahoman has understood this change and has been one of the few newspapers at the forefront of the gravitation to new mediums, allowing us an opportunity to challenge ourselves by telling stories in a variety of ways and across several platforms. It’s been a learning experience for me. Sadly, in spite of it all, I’m still not convinced newspapers have found the answer that will keep the industry relevant 10 years from now. People, younger ones especially, are simply going to the Web for information. And that has created an opportunity for anyone and everyone to have their voice heard, whether through a self-made blog or YouTube. There are a lot of talented people out there with great ideas and great stories to tell. But that doesn’t mean all of them should be granted access into NBA locker rooms. Unfortunately we’re starting to see things head in that direction, with no real checks and balancing system in place of determining whether someone deserves a credential. There is a difference between blogging and professional writing, ethical journalists and fortunate fans.
I respect, appreciate even, the bloggers who have substance, style and, most importantly, standards. It’s the basement-dwelling, jobless, inexperienced, inconsiderate “Joe Blow Blogger” with no integrity or proper training that I don’t think has any place in or around a professional locker room or clubhouse. Because a fan has an audience we should give him or her a press pass? I don’t agree with that. We wouldn’t let a political enthusiast cover the White House. Making matters worse, some of these bloggers don’t even use their real name. They’re nameless, faceless people who are fans of the league and want to be close to the action because they have a vehicle for delivering “information.” That’s what I meant by “Joe Blow Blogger.” They aren’t held accountable for anything they write. I’ve even heard about bloggers who will have access but aren’t allowed to ask questions, only stand around the interviews and listen. That means I’m doing Joe Blow’s work for him. Thanks, but no thanks.
DT: You haven’t been an NBA beat writer for that long, so who are some guys that you look up to or are your favorites?
DM: There are so many great NBA beat writers, and I’ve been fortunate to have many of them take me under their wing or simply pull me aside and offer insight into how I can be a better NBA reporter. I worked with Cavs writer Brian Windhorst at the Akron Beacon Journal before I came to The Oklahoman and before he moved on to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He’s a great writer and an even better reporter. I’ll never forget walking out of the tunnel of the Ford Center just before tip-off on opening night of the Hornets’ first game back in 2005 and being nervous as can be. Marc Spears, then of the Denver Post and most recently of the Boston Globe but headed to Yahoo! Sports gave me some much-needed words of encouragement. He’s also considered one of the best reporters in the industry. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle does great work both in his paper and on his blog. Other beat guys include: Jason Quick at The Oregonian, Michael Lee at The Washington Post, Ron Tillery at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Ira Winderman at the Sun-Sentinel, Sam Amick of the Sacramento Bee, Mike Wells at the Indianapolis Star and Sekou Smith at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
DT: How do you think the Thunder was received on the road? Do you think Oklahoma City has gained more respect nationally as a viable major league market?
DM: People still ask me if Oklahoma City can support the NBA long term. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “But what are they going to do when the honeymoon is over?” My response generally is the city doesn’t have to worry about the end of the honeymoon for a long time because there is only going to be more and more interest for the foreseeable future. The Thunder is getting better not worse. Fans support winners, and I, along with a lot of other writers, think the Thunder is developing into a winner.
But I think the ultimate respect will come through winning. Oklahoma City, however, already has impressed those who cover the league by the way the city passed a tax to improve the Ford Center and build a separate practice facility. The city’s support of the Hornets, and now Thunder, has also impressed outsiders who are observing us from afar. I think Oklahoma City’s previous void of professional sports once opened the door for folks to question the market’s viability. But as time has elapsed people are now seeing the benefits of this one-team town thing. On the road, especially early in the season, people didn’t know what the Thunder was. I’d go to the restroom and one guy would be explaining to a buddy that the team moved from Seattle. While I still ran into that as the season went by, I’d hear less and less as April approached. Amazingly, I began seeing a lot of Thunder jerseys in road cities.
DT: The offseason can’t be fun for a beat writer. What do you do with yourself for these next few months?
DM: Take time off. August and September are usually the quietest months so beat writers typically lay low before the grind starts up again from October through July. There will be the occasional story on a free-agent signing or a trade or some other sort of news. But other than that, and perhaps a Main Event or enterprise piece, I generally get away.
DT: So what is it officially at The Oklahoman – is “Thunder” plural or singular? I still haven’t figured it out.
DM: We deem it as singular. Rather than the Thunder are off to a 3-29 start, we write the Thunder is off to a 3-29 start. The Atlanta Hawks traded their star forward, but the Thunder traded its star forward. The Blazers have more than $8 million in salary cap space, but the Thunder has more than $14 million. Weird. I still haven’t gotten used to it. And there are several times a week where I have to catch it in my copy. Sometimes it slips by and makes the paper.