ESPN hosted its first-ever live Woj Podcast with the network’s Senior National Basketball Association Insider Adrian Wojnarowski on December 5 in Emerson’s Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker Gym. Woj’s guest was Emerson alumnus and Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti ’00. Before the podcast, Woj spoke with Emerson Today about his daughter attending Emerson, his path to ESPN, and dispensed advice for aspiring journalists. Below is an edited version of the conversation Woj had with David Ertischek ’01.
ET: Your daughter is an undergraduate at Emerson College. What did you think when she said she wanted to go to Emerson and how did that come about?
Woj: We had visited a lot of schools, and I had had nothing but positive interactions with Emerson people my whole career. My neighbor is George Roy (’63), who’s one of the great sports documentary makers, maybe the best of his time, just a great filmmaker and our backyards are adjacent. So I knew he was an Emerson guy, and certainly knew Sam Presti (’00) and [Oklahoma City Thunder Assistant General Manager] Rob Hennigan (’04) and [New Orleans Pelicans Assistant Coach/Player Development] Joe Boylan (’08), and how they felt about it. Also, Rob Tobias (’81) who just passed away and his son, Zach, who’s a student here.
When I was an intern at ESPN in ’89, Rob [Tobias] was starting out in PR there. I interned in the office with him. Our cubicles were right there. He was just a really funny, kind, really smart, innovative guy. And then I reconnected with him.
There was nothing but people who reflected on the school really well. I was excited she was visiting and the first time she came up was just with my wife, and then I came up a second time when she was closer to a decision and saw it. She seemed pretty excited. She applied to a lot of schools and seemed pretty sold when she came back after the first time, and that this felt like a really good fit for her. It’s been that and more.
ET: You’re regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest of current NBA reporters. How did you get to the point that you’re at?
Woj: I think a lot of good fortune — going to Yahoo at a time when the NBA’s popularity was starting to exponentially grow. It was a sport that really fit the Internet model because it was about writing about stars, and Yahoo had a great platform. [Yahoo] hadn’t done much in original content, but was starting to… I was a 35-year-old general columnist at a suburban paper … at the Bergen Record.
I just think I had really good fortune, and Yahoo really allowed me at the time to just go out and gave me the resources to go try to do the job a different way than maybe others were doing it, and get on a plane and get in front of people. [I got to] go meet a young assistant GM in San Antonio named Sam Presti who I kept hearing was going to be a GM. I got to know a lot of the younger executives, the younger coaches, the younger agents in the league as they grew up in the league. I had some of those relationships and just tried to come at it with a lot of enthusiasm and determination, tenacity, and I put the work in.
More than anything else in this profession, there is no greater talent than a willingness to work. I always tell young people that if you could imagine doing something else for a living, you should probably do something else. If you can’t imagine any other life, then this is the job for you, because it’s hard and the climb is hard.
Like I said, I worked in Waterbury, Connecticut, for four years. I worked in Fresno, you know, back at the Bergen Record, and they were all good papers and all great opportunities. But it’s a craft and you have to approach it as a craft and not worry so much about where you’re doing it or how big the audiences are. It’s impacting the audience you have and getting better at what you do. I think those are all the most important elements to it. I’ve had great opportunities and great colleagues and bosses that allowed me to attack the job the way I thought we should attack it and so for that I’m lucky, really lucky.
ET: You seem to know about every trade, every signing before everyone else. Players will talk about rumors and they’ll say, ‘Well it’s right – Woj is saying it.’ When watching the NBA draft and before NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announces it, you’ve tweeted who’s getting drafted by each team. How are you finding out about all this information? Is it players, agents, press secretaries, concession stand workers?
Woj: I’ve never gotten anything from a concession stand worker. It’s all that and more. There’s information at every level of the league — ownership, front office, coaches, players, agents… There’s information everywhere. There’s a lot of accurate information. There’s probably even more inaccurate information.
You learn through time who you can trust and who to believe and hopefully you build relationships that people are going to be honest with you. It’s a very competitive environment. There’s a lot of people competing for news more than ever. You’re not going to get everything. But more importantly, you got to get it right. You can break 100 stories or 200 stories or 500 stories in a row. But if you get one wrong — that’s what people are going to remember. It’s going to stick to you, especially in the social media age where information is instantaneously global and you’re going to have to try to pull something back. It’s hard to do, and you don’t want to put yourself in that position. I just think the fundamentals that I learned from the beginning still apply to getting it right.
ET: How do you get your information? Is it texts, emails, phone calls? Is it all of the above?
Woj: All of the above. It’s important to talk to people. In this day and age, the mobile phone, texting, and I guess email to an extent, has accelerated reporting in a way. I’m old enough that I was in the business when you sat by your landline in your office and waited for someone to call you back. If you didn’t get them by five o’clock, you’d probably have to wait until nine the next morning.
There’s no question technology impacted it, but technology can be really impersonal. There’s a GM who – and it stays with me all the time, he said, ‘I have a three-text rule. If I have to text back the third time we need to be on the phone, and not text.’ I said that’s a good rule. If the conversation has to go past three texts, you should be on the phone.
Oklahoma City is trading All-Star Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers for a record-setting collection of draft choices, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 6, 2019
I think that it’s getting in front of people, spending time, calling people you don’t need anything from and when there’s nothing going on. It’s easy to call Sam Presti on the night they’re trading for Paul George, or to call the Clippers GM the night they’re trading for Paul George. You better be talking to them, hopefully, when that’s happening. But you better be talking to them the 364 other days of the year, just checking in, talking, connecting, and staying on point.
I think in this job, more than anything else, it’s being able to rule things out. Especially when you get around trade deadline or a free agency. I can use those relationships to rule out things that people are saying. There’s this rumor, that rumor. When they can tell me that this is what’s not happening saves me a lot of time, and in the end, you need to know what’s happening.
ET: What [stories] are you most proud of?
Woj: The next one? That’s how I really view it. They’re all important. I really believe this.
Owen Canfield was a clerk columnist at the Hartford Courant. He just passed away. Owen was a legendary local columnist and I used to sit by his desk and pick his brain when I was a clerk there. And what I learned from him was… he would go do a Red Sox game, he would do UConn basketball, which was a big story there… he would also go do the state championship high school game… what I remember learning from him or appreciating about him was there are no small stories. They’re all important to somebody.
There are different ones that you’re certainly proud of and have an impact… the big ones will come when you’re invested in the small ones, and the big ones come out of the small ones and come out of the relationships you make doing the small stories that lead to when the big ones come down the road.
This past year, like Anthony Davis getting traded to the Lakers, or Anthony Davis asking for a trade, or Paul George [asking for a trade]… I know those are the ones that people like [to see] from ESPN. They’re important for me. I spend a lot of time chasing them… I just think it was a good lesson I learned at a young age. I think it’s important for students and anybody in the profession is that they’re all important. It’s not any more important to be working on an NBA MVP moving in a deal than it is covering a town council meeting.
There’s a responsibility to professionalism that you’ve got to bring to everything you do. That’s what I love about the job… I’ve done all of those. I’ve covered nothing-to-nothing girls soccer games when it’s snowing out, and covered high school football games in the mud and sleet where I can’t keep my notes dry. I always say if you can cover high school football, you can do anything. You can cover anything. You can cover the White House. Covering high school football on deadline in the weather and the elements, getting your interviews, getting your stats, writing a coherent story, finding somewhere to send it… there’s nothing harder… It is not more difficult than NBA free agency.
ET: If you had to pick one player to get a defensive stop, who would it be?
Woj: Bill Russell.
ET: How many people do you have saved in your cell phone?
Woj: I don’t know the answer to that.
ET: Is it Jarrett Jack level?
Woj: How many does Jarrett Jack have?
ET: Several years ago, he had something like 3,000-plus.
Woj: There may be a lot saved that are just somebody sends you an email once or a text or a call once that just are in there, but you’re not connecting with them. So it’s definitely not 3,000. We should hire Jarrett Jack.
ET: How have you adapted to the modern landscape of reporting?
Woj: I saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of the interest, and the ability to deliver news instantaneously. To me it was a benefit for me. It helped my career along, but it’s still changing. The platforms change and they shift, whether it’s on social media, or how we deliver information and television, or ESPN’s YouTube channel.
To me, you can figure that out, but the fundamentals of it don’t change. The fundamentals of how you report, how you do your job, how you interact with people, they transcend whatever mechanism you’re using. And that to me is more important. You’ll keep moving with the technology, but you can’t shortcut it. That to me is the most important thing. You’ll figure the technology out.