One of the most irritating aspects of the team formerly known as the Sonics playing in Oklahoma City this season was the coverage by the local newspaper, The Oklahoman.
Now, a certain level of enthusiasm is expected from any hometown paper, and perhaps more so in this case considering the circumstances. But the level to which The Oklahoman sunk this season could go down as an all-time low in the history of sports journalism. Frankly, it wasn't journalism. Most of the time it was like reading a cross between a high school newspaper and team press releases.
1. The never-ending positive spin was nauseating and embarrassing. After the team lost to the Cavs by 11 points in December, beat writer Mike Baldwin wrote in a game story – bizarrely headlined "Thunder makes progress," (progress? They lost by double-digits!) – that the game should be viewed positively because in the teams' earlier meeting, LeBron James only played 17 minutes in a blowout. "The Cavs needed him this time around." He went on to say, "Oklahoma City is 3-25, the worst record in the NBA, but James and the Cavs noticed the improvement since the first meeting."
It's like reading the Onion.
When the team lost 106-92 to Portland before the All-Star break, beat writer Darnell Mayberry wrote, "Guarding against an apathetic outing in the final game before the All-Star break is a tall order for any team. But when you consider the Thunder is young and already lottery-bound, Wednesday night's game at Portland could have turned out much differently than it did." What? They could have lost by 15 instead of 14? He said the team could walk "with heads held high after competing hard." That sounds like it came out of the mouth of a Little League coach.
In early April, an 11-point loss to San Antonio (without Manu Ginobili) was deemed a success because the team's previous two losses were by 35 and 27 points. Talk about setting the bar low!
2. The paper continually refused to shoot straight with its readers. When the team traded Johan Petro and a second-round pick to Denver for Chucky Atkins and a first-round pick, Mayberry wrote that GM Sam Presti was attracted to Atkins' "wisdom and leadership" and that it was a "low-risk, high-reward transaction" because of Atkins' contract and the team's "need for perimeter shooting." That trade had nothing to do with the players involved – bench warmer for bench warmer. The trade was all about swapping a second-round pick for a first-round pick. Atkins, as was obvious at the time, meant absolutely nothing. And, in fact, he did not get off the bench in 21 of his first 29 games with the new club.
Mayberry wrote similar ridiculousness about Joe Smith. He said Smith's "unwavering consistency and leadership" were "two qualities Thunder general manager Sam Presti couldn't pass up when he pulled the trigger on the deal this summer." Did that come straight off the press release? What the team couldn't pass up was Smith's expiring contract, which it happily took on in exchange for dumping Luke Ridnour's $13 million owed over two years.
After Joe Smith and the team both denied contract buyout negotiations, the paper dropped the story, despite "sources around the league" reporting on it for nearly a week before the buyout happened. Of course Smith and the team are going to deny everything. Neither side wants to burn bridges just in case a deal doesn't go through. A reporter, though, can't just stand pat on the surface-level explanation, especially when other outlets are advancing the story. It's like they didn't want to offend anyone. I won't list all of the examples, but the paper was continually following the news instead of breaking news.
4. There was also this weird need to build up the self-esteem of fans, as if the city had to convince itself it was worthy of an NBA team. Over and over again articles quoted ESPN and other national sources, extolling the virtues of the franchise, like it needed to sell the team to the fan base or blunt any disappointment that might creep in as losses mounted.
5. The coverage was incapable of providing a balanced view of fan support. All year the paper praised fan attendance and whenever a team came to town never failed to elicit positive feedback from opposing coaches and players. But when Phil Jackson criticized fans and said "they haven't quite figured out the NBA game," it was not reported in the paper. Likewise, readers had to go the New York Times to read comments from the Oklahoma City mayor, who said, "Our fan base is still really not in tune with the rest of the league and even our team on the road. I don't get the sense that if you walked into a restaurant and our team is playing a road game, that it's a given that they are going to be playing it on TV."
Poor local TV ratings were given short shrift by the paper's sports media writer and ignored by the team's beat writers. A January "estimated" crowd of just 5,000 was justified because of "icy roads," yet no mention that the Oklahoma-Oklahoma state basketball game that same night drew more than twice as many fans.
Columnist Jenni Carlson (you might remember her from the "I'm a man! I'm 40!!" episode) wrote a lengthy piece on "super fans" of the team. Fans who take "their fandom to a higher level" and who all "love the Thunder." Yet one "super fan" admits that his favorite team is the Warriors! Zeb Benbrook (who looks like everything you'd expect a Zeb Benbrook to look like) says he even wears his Golden State gear when the Warriors come to town. What?? Isn't that an automatic DQ for "super fan" status? Who let that guy into the story? And what does it say about the article's premise?
6. Even the photo department was low-quality.Check out this photo illustration and tell me what the teddy bear and Scotch tape underneath the guy's arm have to do with anything. How'd that photo ever get an editor's OK?
7. The absolute worst example, however, of see-no-evil-hear-no-evil had nothing to do with hoops. A "Houdini escape artist" appeared at halftime in January ... and almost died. Seriously. She couldn't escape from her water tank, blacked out in a hypoxic seizure and nearly drowned. Check out the video at about the 2:50 mark. Imagine explaining that one to your kid if she had drowned. It was so serious, CNN saw fit to do a story on it.
Now, here's the coverage that little incident got in The Oklahoman:
"Kristen Johnson, billed as the world's best female escape artist, performs [sic] the water torture cell made famous by Harry Houdini decades ago. The crowd became concerned when Johnson was in tank [sic] for about four minutes during her halftime act and seemed to struggle at the end. Thunder officials said the act didn't go as planned, but Johnson was fine."
Seemed to struggle? Didn't go as planned? I'll say. The team almost had a dead woman for it's halftime entertainment. Was there a follow-up story? Nope. How about an article concerning liability questions or team guidelines for halftime entertainment or whether it had ever crossed the team's mind that the act might not "go as planned"? Nothing. If we ignore it, it didn't happen.
(By the way, the editing errors in that copy were typical.)
The family of team owner Clay Bennett owns the newspaper, but I find it hard to believe an edict came down from on high for only "happy" stories or that any journalist worth his salt would comply with such demeaning dishonesty. I just think it's bad journalism.
I could go on with examples of malpractice, but suffice to say, the coverage in The Oklahoman needs to grow up. If you're going to be an NBA city, act like it for goodness sakes.