The Boomers balance: On player access, stories and respect
Sunday night, Beijing. Evan Fournier holds the ball, and he’s staying well beyond the reach of any Australian defender. As the shot clock ticks its way down, Andrew Albicy jogs over to Fournier and wraps him in a fierce embrace; the France bench is understandably ecstatic. A hesitant first half deficit was overcome in the third quarter, culminating in a 67-59 victory and a bronze medal at the FIBA 2019 World Cup.
“… We gave it everything we had,” forward Mitch Creek shares in the post-game press conference, his voice cracking slightly. “To drop the last two on the tournament’s never what you want, but we come out of this with a demonstration of what Australians are about and we fought to the very end, and we fought with pride, with passion. I couldn’t have been prouder to have [Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis] and the team we had as coaching, leading us, the players and the guys beside us every day. Just a huge thank you to Dre and the rest of my teammates.”
Outside of Creek, the Boomers are wordless, their thoughts opaque. They stride past waiting media, and onto the team bus. The silence is no surprise. Given the way the night ended against France –fresh salt onto the festering wound that was the earlier Spain loss– it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of disappointment, and the bitter taste of defeat that resided within each of them that night.
A somber Lemanis summed the team’s emotions after the game, the only way he could.
“[Where] the biggest hurt comes from, is having a group of guys who are so committed, so passionate about playing for their country,” Lemanis voiced. “You certainly don’t do it for the money. They commit their offseasons, because they want to represent Australia on the world stage and do something special.
“To see the hurt in those guys – that’s the bit that’s hard to overcome.”
Just like the trend of turnovers that troubled the Boomers all tournament long, the team’s media silence isn’t new. During the first training camp in Melbourne, media sessions to the Boomers had been regulated. All media attended the same designated Boomers representatives, and used those same quotes to build their pieces.
Team USA’s training and media availability session was a startling contrast. One could quite possibly, walk up to assistant coach Steve Kerr if he was available, ask a few questions, move on to All-Star Kemba Walker, and maybe join a scrum for head coach Gregg Popovich. The structure (or lack thereof) allowed media the opportunity to obtain better quotes, weave unique narratives, and above all – share better stories about the team.
To be clear, the examples above aren’t definitions of right or wrong – they exist on two opposite ends of the spectrum, with their own pros and cons. There’s a little-mentioned casualty in this relentless quest for soundbites, where we feed an insatiable audience that’s constantly waiting for the next insider perspective – how exactly does media access impact the players?
Like USA Basketball, the NBA is often seen as an advocate of media accessibility, especially on game days. Morning shootaround, pregame, postgame presser, all the way to the locker room session – it sounds like a basketball writer’s utopia. It’s not all sunshine and roses however, when viewed from a player’s perspective. New Orleans Pelicans guard, JJ Redick, discussed the value of media availability with three-time NBA champion, Andre Iguodala on his podcast in July, and particularly on game day access.
“… [The media have] already seen you at shootaround, or in the morning –lots of teams don’t do shootaround at home, but they do it on the road– so they see you in the morning, then they see you before the game, nothing’s changed in those six hours. I promise you, I ate lunch and took a nap, that is it.
“And then, you got to talk to them post-game. And then, they do the one-offs. The one-offs are the worst part, because sometimes you get done with the scrum, and you’ve got like, two or three one-offs.
“One-offs are… you spend ten minutes speaking to a group of, let’s say 12-15 reporters. And as you walk away to either leave the locker room or leave the practice facility, one of the reporters will grab you and they’ll say, ‘Hey can I ask you a few questions? I’m writing an article about Steve Kerr, or Steph.’ Or whatever.”
“… I’m not begrudging the job [the media] do, I’m begrudging the point we’ve got now with access. It’s almost too much. It’s too much. I told the people in Philly this year, I’m only doing what is mandatory. It’s nothing against anyone else, it’s just too much.”
Iguodala chimed in with an anecdote about how Andrew Bogut would handle media, back when they were teammates. “Andrew Bogut –every game, pregame when they’re in there– would ask them, ‘Do any of you have any questions for anyone? Or are you just going to stand here today?’ And they’re all looking at him like, is he serious? And he’s like “No, are any of you going to ask a question?”
The former Golden State swingman also shared how the Warriors would often scramble into the training room, right when media availability began, and wait inside until it ended. Redick and Iguodala clearly highlight the flip side of the coin, when media access is freely available, but under-utilised – which makes the access pointless and a chore for the players. One could also argue that the media obligations of highly-paid NBA athletes differs from those of national team play, where the players’ passion to represent the country outweighed any monetary compensation.
Following through from the training camps, through exhibition games in Australia, and the recent World Cup, the Australian Boomers’ reticence has been consistent. Media obligations were met, but additional opportunities with individual players were far and few in between.
If the priority was to make sure the players focused on the campaign and a medal above all else, does it seem like the Boomers had their media policy right, by eliminating all potential distractions? Does the outcome of a fourth place change anything?
There’s more than one way to tell a story. In basketball, it could go in a variety of manners, ranging from statistical analysis to schematic dissection to play-by-play narrative, among others. We sometimes encapsulate games in frozen moments (Michael Jordan’s The Shot, LeBron James’ block on Iguodala, “Havlicek stole the ball!” and so on). But the one that often evokes the most resonance, the one that often engages us the most on an emotional level, is when we are able to hear about the player’s perspective, in the moment.
To quote a recent example – during the Boomers’ recent win over Team USA in Melbourne, Mitch Creek was asked about his thoughts, when tasked to guard Donovan Mitchell with the game winding down.
“I saw arguably one of the best guards in the NBA with the ball isolating, and I went, ‘Aw shit, yeah, this will be awesome.'”– Mitch Creek, Patty Mills closes out Team USA, secures historical moment for Australian basketball
One could watch Creek’s body language in that final possession, with 30 seconds to go, and imagine what went on inside his head. It’s another thing to actually hear him describe his thoughts and imagine the confidence that filled him. The competitive mental smirk, the exhilaration of proving himself against one of the best in the world, and coming out on top in a high-pressure situation.
Perspectives like these enrich the substance of a story so much more, and it’s one reason why The Players Tribune has established such a successful niche with its first-person perspective stories. Player perspective is a rich source in storytelling, that was unfortunately muted during the recent World Cup.
Media members that flew into China, hoping to gain exclusive insight into the team’s run at a potential historical medal run, received the same press conference access that were broadcast online, and easily available to all media at home in Australia. The lack of returns on sending staff onto the ground this year, could possibly result in repercussions that will be felt next year from mainstream media, when the Tokyo Olympics begin.
But beyond that, we can hope that the media boundaries will be more generously drawn in 2020, and fans will be able to enjoy the wellspring of stories around our reinvigorated Boomers, who will once again be on the path to that medal dream.