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On the dance between players and media, as the 2016-17 NBA Media Days approach

The players need the media. The media need the players. So why is there so much angst over media scrums?

Media-Day-Len-scrum

As the final weekend before Phoenix Suns Media Day approaches to kick off another season, NBA players and head coaches are reluctantly forced to dust off their interview game for another grueling 6-7 months of answering the same questions over and over again.

Players have this final weekend out of the spotlight, where they can go to the gym, work out, play a little ball and go home without having to explain to anyone why they had a good shooting day or a bad shooting day.

Media Day on Monday ends all that. After Media Day, there’s post-practice or post-game interview sessions on 90% of the days between September 26 and the mid-April (or later, if you’re any good) exit interviews.

The players’ gloriously quiet summer is over.

Today and tomorrow, a small handful of Suns players are helping Jared Dudley out with his shooting clinic for teens. Don’t be surprised to see some snippet quotes come out of there if Paul Coro or Craig Grialou have a hankering to hang around the clinic. But more likely, you won’t hear a peep from the Suns this weekend as they rest their vocal chords for Monday.

It’s not like the media are bad people, or that the players are anti-social. It’s just that, generally, media and players have little in common outside the interview forum. No matter how hard the media try to get the players to lower their natural defenses, the barrier is real.

The media have an agenda - to get the news - and the players have an agenda - to not unintentionally create negative news - that often are at odds after a tough game.

Players are athletes, not orators. They didn’t spend their free time on the debate team in high school, and because they were actually playing the games they didn’t spend time interacting with the average fan or media member in a non-threatening environment all through their formative years.

Most professional players are just a little bit skeptical of the media because more than once someone in the media has twisted their own words against them. And the more they worry about being misquoted or misinterpreted, the worse their answers get.

Most players devolve into platitudes designed specifically to say nothing:

  • “I’m working on all aspects of my game, not just one thing” means “I don’t want to say the one thing I really worked on because you’ll throw it back in my face every time I have a bad day”
  • “I don’t know why we didn’t have any energy tonight” means “If I admit the real reason we were flat, you’ll use it against us”
  • “Guys are playing hard, mistakes just happen” means “If I break down every mistake the team made, it will look like I’m pointing fingers which will hurt my image in public and hurt my teammates feelings when they see my finger-pointing in print”
  • “They’re a good team, give them all the credit for winning the game” means “We know we’re better than that other team, but we just played like crap because we took them for granted. But I can’t say that or I’ll be called arrogant or worse.”

Players have every right to distrust the media overall. Life is a lot easier when they don’t have to explain their every move to a reporter and hope that reporter doesn’t cherry-pick their bad quotes or twist their words into something they didn’t mean.

Imagine adding a media scrum to the end of each work day. “Why did you surf the net for 20 minutes from 10:00-10:20, and then again from 2-2:30, 2:45-3:30 and 4-5?” “Why didn’t you speak up in that meeting more often when they talked about your project?” and “What were you thinking when your boss gave that plum assignment to your coworker instead of you?”

Media aren’t bad people, though. We don’t go in there trying to make stuff up. We don’t ask questions just to generate the gotcha answers we can twist and take out of context. Specifically, Suns media is quite forgiving. Local media don’t antagonize the players or coaches, and generally avoid the gotcha questions.

But it can still happen that a player says something juicy and everyone runs with it. That’s the media’s job. The media’s job is to report on the team in an independent, objective fashion that shows the good and the bad. The key, in my opinion, is to be as balanced as possible. It’s okay to post the juicy quote as long as the quote is put in context of the entire conversation and their words are not embellished with one-sided editorial comments.

Why do players even put up with media, then?

Why not just shut out the media, and control messaging through their own social media and team spokespeople?

Because fans want more than that, and fans are the ones who buy tickets and merchandise to fund the team’s payroll. Without fans, there is no revenue. Without revenue, there is no team.

Fans want more than the box score of the game, or the replay. They want to know what the coach was thinking, and what the players were thinking as the game unfolded. And the best time to ask that is right after it happened.

Between games, fans want to emotionally connect with the players on their favorite team. The want to root for that player through thick and thin. The only way to do that is make the players available to fans. But to get the message out to enough fans to fund the expenses of the franchise, you need a megaphone.

The media is that megaphone.

Hence, there’s Media Day and post-practice and post-game scrums. And exclusive interview request after exclusive interview request.

The dance resumes on Monday.

Some players are good dancers, but only some. In my four years covering the team as a media member, I can count on one hand the players who didn’t treat the media with skepticism and were fun to interview.

Marcin Gortat had a blast doing interviews. He didn’t care what he said or how he said it. He was open and honest about himself, about his teammates and about the opponents. He told us when he “hit the wall” and just didn’t have the energy. He told us when his teammates (without specific names) didn’t play team ball. And he told us when he thought the opponent got bullied by him.

Goran Dragic was a great interview too. He was conversational and open about how the game went, how he played (good or bad), how tired he was, the good or bad decisions he made at any one time. He shared the flavor of the game.

Luis Scola was a good interview for a couple of months, anyway. He didn’t hold back when the Suns played like crap. He told the truth.

Devin Booker is a good interview. He’s articulate and conversational. I hope that continues.

And finally, there’s Jared Dudley. I’m so glad he’s back in purple and orange. He can articulate a mile a minute and never once stumble and say something he will regret. He has kept up the interviews all summer long, including one with me last weekend. Dudley knows the Suns need to rebuild their relationship with the community, and re-ignite fandom. He’s doing his best by being accessible and open.

With me, he talked about his shortcomings as a player (post defense, rebounding), his modest dunk prediction (7), and the new twist he’s added to his game this summer (the side-step three-pointer, like Klay Thompson).

Here’s hoping Booker takes Dudley’s cue and remains open and forthcoming about the game. And that other players in that locker room embrace the media’s role as a conduit to the fans.

More likely, though, our interviews on Monday will have a lot of “I worked on everything this summer” and “we love each other” and “we are fighting to win as many games as possible”. Because those are safe quotes that won’t get anyone in trouble.

Enjoy your weekend, Suns players!

See you Monday.

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