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Vol. 49, No. 3 • March 2012 • .pdf version
Change a common denominator among writers of all ages
By LENOX RAWLINGS / Winston-Salem Journal
John Wooden's zone press and Dean Smith's Four Corners became fixtures on the strategy map, but times and distances changed the map.
In an age of shot clocks and 3-pointers, the driveway bomber and summer league dunker rule the talent pool. Some nights, the toughest strategic call is choosing whether to go over or under picks against certain shooters at the 3-point line.
The sportswriting game has also changed, the rate calculated by squaring each writer's hyperbole level and multiplying 2X for each wireless crisis.
Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the New York Daily News remembers the College Park, Md., practices during his first Final Four in 1970. Wooden walked over to the stands and held court with about 25 reporters – no blue curtain, no moderator, no microphone caddie, no briefing book of interview rules, no restrictions on locker rooms.
"You didn't feel like you were at the Super Bowl," Weiss said. "Coaches were making the same money as writers. Everybody felt like they were on the same page. People did it because they liked it. Players stayed four years, so you'd have intelligent kids who could make some life observations that today you don't have the luxury of, because they don't have many life experiences before they leave. It's an AAU generation, and I think if you're going to cover this sport, you'd better know the players when they come because they're going to be gone in two years."
Over the past decade, the digital revolution altered the media approach even faster, flooding the profession with devices, platforms and insatiable info appetites. The evolution of event coverage accelerated. The mix seems wildly different on the other side of Print Street and online, cackling with tweets (some quite antisocial) and crackling with fresh numbers from novel angles.
Luke Winn, who began covering college basketball for SI.com in 2005, can measure a coach's touts about his alleged stopper by studying game tapes and using Microsoft Excel database to quantify defensive prowess. Winn considers advanced stats a natural extension of the similar baseball movement.
"I've really tried to push this stuff over the past five years, not because I hate the old forms of reporting but because I think there's a lot of truth in analytics," Winn said. "Tempo-free stats help us understand why certain teams excel or struggle. While I know there are some writers who mock the overuse of this stuff, I think it's a means for us to be smarter as journalists. If a coach says his team is playing up-tempo, rather than just taking his word for it, we can now check exactly how fast they play in comparison to their peers."
Winn balances the stat-freak change-up with traditional long-feature fastballs in Sports Illustrated. He considers sites such as grantland.com and longreads.com evidence of hunger for extensive narratives.
"The classic gamer is fading, being replaced by analysis pieces or hybrid features/columns, but there's still demand for good storytelling," Winn said.
In the newspaper world, the emergence of social-media opinion tracks even engulfed Weiss, the master of East Coach shuttles long before NASA got into the business. "I'm doing twice the work for the same money," Weiss estimates, "but I'm not saying that's a bad thing in the here and now."
The texture of basketball coverage has changed because new media convey the details immediately.
"I think intelligent opinion can overcome a lot of that," Weiss said. "A lot more people want to know what you think of the event as opposed to just reporting the score. If you reiterate what people just saw on television, they're going to lose interest."
In every seismic change, especially during economic convulsions, unintended consequences bury treasures along with outmoded trash. ESPN and other cable companies made college basketball a national sport from early November to early April, increasing the emphasis on elite teams.
Winn sees the impact at the coverage level, with ESPN.com and other top web sites "almost carpet-bombing the nation with coverage. Whereas I feel like once you drop down from the major teams, coverage is thinning out at the local level, probably because newspapers don't have the resources to commit to, say, a full-time beat guy for a decent mid-major."
Weiss suspects that schedule front-loading and cable saturation could turn NCAA basketball into a tournament-only sport.
"Maybe college fans in other parts of the country feel differently, but with sports editors in the Northeast corridor, it is rapidly becoming a six-week sport, and not in a good way," Weiss said. "The way college football now ends Jan. 10 with the BCS game, if you're in the Northeast and, God forbid, you have an NFL team in the playoffs, there is no space. I'm worried that the sports editors are going to say this is not a three-month sport."
That concern fits the pattern. Lost somewhere in the past four decades is the precise moment when "Hoops" Weiss first worried that basketball was anything less than a 12-month sport.
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