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School of Hardwood Knocks #3 - Alex Kennedy
The cream of the crop show their best crossover moves as roles are reversed and interviewer becomes interviewee.
"When I was 14 years old, I emailed the Orlando Magic PR department and requested a credential. I figured the worst they could say is no. They let me cover a game and I’ve been doing it ever since. Don’t let your age limit you and don’t be afraid of rejection." - Alex Kennedy, NBA chat with Alex Kennedy 8/23/13 on HOOPSWORLD
Thus began the career of Alex Kennedy, who at the tender age of 22 has a resume any grizzled veteran journalist would be proud of. In sharp contrast to his Twitter photo --which could easily be mistaken for that of someone posing for their high school yearbook-- Kennedy did well to take his previously quoted advice, as he might be the youngest, most successful NBA journalist who nearly never was. Self-doubt, criticism and even harassment led him to the verge of a career change, to "find a less stressful job and step out of the spotlight".
Luckily for all of us, he persevered and has since gone on to become one of the industry's most popular and respected basketball writers. Kennedy makes himself accessible to his legion of fans on a weekly basis, via a HOOPSWORLD-hosted chat segment known as the 'NBA Chat With Alex Kennedy', where questions range from whether Kyle Lowry or Jeff Teague is a better fantasy option to the similarities between Seth and Steph Curry.
However, coaxing the modest Kennedy to talk about himself is a much harder proposition, so all of us at The Pick and Roll were excited when he agreed to be interviewed, as we knew he would approach it with his usual level of professionalism. The answers we received exceeded even the loftiest expectations as Kennedy adds the next installment of 'The School of Hardwood Knocks'. As the full interview will show, there are a lot of parts of Alex's job that are thrilling enough to keep even the most casual of NBA fans interested.
1. In your Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), you talked about how you knew you wanted to be a sportswriter from a young age. Was there anything specifically that helped you reach your dream?
I’ve always loved sports so as I was growing up I knew that I wanted my career to be related to sports in some way. When I was younger, I obviously dreamed of being a professional athlete, but I quickly realized that I was too small and slow to be a point guard or wide receiver. Becoming a sportswriter and covering the games that I loved seemed like the next best job if I couldn’t get paid to play.
I loved writing at a young age so I started posting on message boards and contributing to blogs when I was a teenager. At 14 years old, I emailed the Orlando Magic’s PR director and asked if I could cover a game. The Magic were kind enough to credential me for multiple games, with the one rule being that I had to bring an adult chaperone with me. My chaperone was usually my father, who never complained about being able to attend games for free and get behind-the-scenes access. Once I started covering games and interviewing players, it confirmed my suspicions that this is my dream job. I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. To this day, it still blows my mind that I get paid to watch sports, talk to celebrity athletes and write about my experiences. It feels like I should be paying someone else for these experiences - that’s how much I love my job. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my journey. A lot of people have opened doors for me, given me great advice and offered me wonderful opportunities.
2. Are there any elements of your job that the average fan might not realize are part of your duties?
I write three times a week, but I’m also the evening editor at HOOPSWORLD so I run the site each day from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. I edit most of the content that goes onto the site during this time and I also prepare all of the videos, pictures and galleries that you see in our articles. Most fans don’t realize all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into running a site like HOOPSWORLD.
In terms of my duties as a writer and reporter, there are a lot of things that people don’t realize. For one, I’m basically on call 24/7. I never know when I’m going to get a call or text with news. Sometimes, it’s at 3 a.m. because a player or agent or executive is in a different time zone and doesn’t realize that they’re waking me up. Sometimes it’s when I’m at a movie theater with my girlfriend. I never know when I’m going to have a breaking story on my hands, which leads to a pretty hectic schedule.
3. How much of an impact has advanced statistics and analytics had on your job as a journalist?
Advanced analytics have a huge impact on my job as a journalist. Today, the numbers are so widely available and popular among fans that a journalist has to understand them and incorporate them into their work. There are some older journalists who choose to ignore the advanced analytics movement, but it just makes them come off as uninformed and behind the times. At the end of the day, I view advanced analytics as a resource that helps me do my job. It allows me to know more about the players and teams that I cover, which is great. These numbers, and tools like Synergy Sports, are valuable because they help me become more knowledgeable and improve the quality of my content.
4. Is it fair to say that Twitter has revolutionized the way that stories are “broken”? What major changes have occurred as a result of Twitter, Facebook and other social media?
Twitter has definitely revolutionized the way that stories are broken. Not that long ago, a reporter that was breaking a story would have to call their editor, write their article, have it reviewed by the sports desk and then wait for it get published either online or in print. Now, a reporter can send out a tweet in five seconds as soon as he has the breaking news. It has completely changed things. It has also made things more competitive among reporters because everyone wants their tweet to be first. Before Twitter, it was less of a race. Now, everyone wants the recognition, retweets and follows that come with being the first one to put out a story. It has certainly made things interesting.
There are also some negative things that come with the advancement of social media. There are fake accounts that try to trick people with false news. There are also amateur, unreliable accounts that steal news. We also see things as they develop in real time. Take Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets. Ten years ago, we would’ve learned about Howard’s decision the next morning when the newspaper was delivered. Today, we get play-by-play as Howard is meeting with teams and weighing his options. It makes fans much more knowledgeable, but sometimes it can get crazy. Information changes all of the time when dealing with such fluid situations so something can be 100 percent accurate at one moment and completely false seconds later. As a reporter, that can be exhilarating, but it can also be stressful.
Twitter is an amazing tool for journalists and I love it, but there’s no question that it has its positives and negatives, and that it has forever changed the way events are covered. It has made events like free agency and the trade deadline so much fun though. It’s hard to imagine going back and covering those without social media.
5. Progression is a large part of every career. At this stage of yours, is there much more you can achieve or different levels you can progress to?
I really hope that this is just the start of a long, successful career. I’m still very young and I hope to achieve a lot more before all is said and done. I want to continue to improve as a writer and reporter. I think I have a lot of untapped potential and that my best years are still ahead of me. I love the position that I’m currently in, working for a respected outlet like USA TODAY Sports. It’s a dream come true to be employed by them at 22 years old. I don’t know what the future holds, but hopefully it’s just as bright.
6. Obviously, professionalism is extremely important in your job, but have there been any players that made you feel a little overwhelmed or starstruck? What would you advise to our readers who might find themselves in this position?
If you’re a basketball fan, you’re going to be somewhat starstruck when you’re talking to guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James at first. It’s going to happen. The key is to remain professional and don’t let it affect your job. It gets easier the longer you’ve been covering the league and the more you talk to the players. The first time I talked to LeBron, it was a bit overwhelming. Now, I’ve interviewed him enough times that I don’t get starstruck at all. It helps if you have a personal relationship with a player. When you are friends with these guys, or at least acquaintances, you realize that they’re just like everybody else and you don’t view as some superhuman or celebrity.
7. Having connections is undoubtedly an important part of your job. How hard is it to build these connections initially? Is it something that, provided the journalist is good at their job, is simply reliant on time or are there things a young journalist can do to hasten the process?
Initially, it can be very difficult to build connections and develop sources. It gets easier once you’ve developed a name for yourself, but there is still a lot of work involved. Making connections isn’t simply reliant on time. You can’t just sit back and expect the sources to come to you. You have to cover events and network. You have to start and maintain relationships with many people, from players to agents to executives to coaches. As a young journalist, the best thing to do is just form as many relationships as you can by covering events and communicating with people. The more people you know, the better. Also, you must be persistent. Sometimes it takes multiple calls or texts to get the information you need.
8. While you've stated in interviews that there isn't a particular team you support now, who did you support when you were growing up? Did it, at any point, make it hard for you stay objective when writing articles that focused on this team?
I was an Orlando Magic fan when I was growing up, but I stopped supporting a specific team once I started covering the league. It was never hard for me to stay objective. It’s really hard to root for a team when you’re a member of the media. Usually, I’m rooting for certain outcomes. I’m hoping that a certain team wins so that their players will be a better mood after the game and give me better quotes since I’m working on an article about them. I’m rooting for a game to end quickly so that I can file my story on time and get home. At times, I do find myself rooting for specific players because I have close relationships with them and want to see them do well, but that’s about the extent of my rooting or bias.
9. As the NBA has more player movement than any other league, do you think this presents any extra challenges for you as a writer, or simply provides more to write about?
I love it. It definitely presents more of a challenge because covering free agency can be extremely chaotic, but it’s my favorite time of year and the best part of the job, in my opinion. There is never a shortage of storylines thanks to all of the player movement in the NBA. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
10. Speaking of player movement, Eric Bledsoe has quite a lot of hype surrounding him for his first year as a starter. What do you expect to see from him in the upcoming season?
I think Eric Bledsoe is going to be a star in this league. He is an incredible athlete with unlimited potential, and I’m excited to see what he does in Phoenix this year. For the first time since his high school days, he’s going to get the opportunity to be the man and it’ll be interesting to see if he takes full advantage of it. On the Kentucky Wildcats, he was in John Wall’s shadow. On the L.A. Clippers, he was in Chris Paul’s shadow. Now, it’s time for him to break out and show that he’s capable of being a star.
11. In your reddit AMA you also talked about how much you respect and idolize Adrian Wojnarowski. What are some of the attributes that make him so good at his job which up-and-coming writers should be aware of?
I have a lot of respect for Adrian Wojnarowski. I have had nothing but positive interactions with Adrian and he has been very friendly and helpful as I’ve learned the ropes in recent years. He’s an extremely hard worker with more connections than anyone. He knows everyone and puts in hours and hours of work, which is why he’s able to break so many stories. Not only is he an exceptional reporter, he’s a terrific writer. His columns are outstanding. I think Adrian is currently the best NBA journalist in the industry and we can all learn a lot from him. I hope to someday get to his level, but that’s not easy.
12. It’s hard for fans to gain a reasonable idea of how good an assistant coach truly is. As someone that is closer to a lot of teams, do you find it’s easier to recognize which assistants will go on to be head coaches?
Yes, it’s easier to recognize which assistants will go on to become head coaches because you’re interacting with them and seeing who really knows their stuff and who doesn’t. Also, you’re also talking with executives, who are usually pretty open when discussing what they think of coaches. There are still times where I’m surprised by a particular hire, but for the most part I have a good idea of which assistant coaches have the potential to someday to lead a team of their own.
13. Is there a particular team that you think will drastically surpass expectations this season?
I think the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to surprise a lot of people. Not only will they see significant improvement from their youngsters like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters, they may have one of the best frontcourts in the NBA with Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao. Remember, the last time we saw Bynum and Varejao in action, they were each playing at an All-Star-caliber level. Cleveland had a very strong offseason and I think they’re going to sneak into the playoffs as one of the final seeds in the Eastern Conference. Their best basketball is still a few years away, once their young core reaches its collective prime, but they may exceed expectations and make some noise this year.
14. What are some of the particularly memorable or enjoyable games and events that you've covered?
It’s always fun to cover the Finals, the Draft and All-Star Weekend. Those are the events that I really look forward to each year. I also like traveling the country in May as players are going through the pre-draft process. I make stops at training sites in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and Tampa to see the top prospects in the draft. That’s always a fun trip that produces some great content and relationships.
15. How do you generally spend the offseason? Is it as a time to recharge your batteries and relax or do you almost immediately miss the adrenalin filled atmosphere?
The offseason is the busiest time of year for me since I’m covering the draft, free agency period and NBA Summer League among other events. I do a lot more traveling during the summer than I do during the season, when I’m just covering the league out of Orlando. There’s really no time to recharge my batteries and relax because the offseason is really our website’s most important time of the year.
16. The idea behind this series is to help passionate, up-and-coming NBA writers learn from the best. Any suggestions, tips or ideas you could provide would be very much appreciated.
My advice would be to study the game so that you're knowledgeable about the league, players, coaches, executives, etc. Read great writers like Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com and Zach Lowe of Grantland, to name a few, because we can all learn a lot from them.
Also, write as much as possible to gain experience and build your resume. The more you write, the better you will get at it. You'll have a larger portfolio to show to potential employers when you start searching for a job. Before I started writing for HOOPSWORLD and USA TODAY, I was writing for free at small websites just to get exposure. While freelancing is frustrating, that work is what allowed me to improve and land the job I have now. And don't be afraid of rejection. Ask to cover an event. Ask to interview everybody. Ask if outlets are hiring. The worst thing that someone can tell you is no, so you might as well ask.
I never would’ve been able to cover my first NBA game at 14 years old if I didn’t send that email asking for a credential. If I had been afraid of rejection and not asked, who knows where I would be today? Covering those games years ago is how I was able to conduct my first interviews and start developing relationships with people around the league. That leads me to my next piece of advice: Build relationships and contacts with players/executives/coaches/agents because that's how you'll be able to break news and separate yourself from the pack. My work didn't start getting noticed until I started breaking news and getting exclusive interviews. Strong relationships make those things possible.
And obviously, work, work, work. If you outwork all of your peers, you'll do just fine.
17. Since most of your time is dedicated to covering the NBA, does this present a challenge when you have to cover the draft and know everything about the potential draftees? Is there anything in particular you do to overcome this challenge?
I watch some college basketball games during the season and I study the prospects on Synergy Sports, which allows you to watch every play of a kid’s college career. I also talk to a lot of executives, coaches and players to see what they think of prospects. I’ll ask players what they thought of the guy when they were playing against him in college. I’ll ask executives what they think of his game. It never hurts to hear their opinions as I’m trying to form my own. As I mentioned, every May I travel the country and visit with prospects as they’re training for the draft, so that definitely helps me become more informed as well. By the time the draft rolls around, I feel that I’m knowledgeable when it comes to the prospects.
18.The fact that you're one of the most established, respected and trusted NBA writers with a host of achievements to your name makes it easy to forget you're still very young compared to most journalists who have reached your level of prominence in the industry. Back when you were freelancing as a teenager, or starting out at HOOPSWORLD four years ago, were there times when you doubted your ability or that you were ready to make that jump? Was there a specific point, whether it was a story you broke or interview/article that you felt especially proud of, that made you feel your industry colleagues had begun taking you seriously?
First of all, thanks for the kinds words. I really appreciate it.
Early on, there were definitely times that I doubted my abilities and wondered if this was the right career for me. Because I was so young, I faced a lot of criticism and name calling. I had yet to develop the thick skin that I have today, so there were times when I wondered if it was all worth it. Should I just find a less stressful job and step out of the spotlight? Fortunately, I have a very supportive girlfriend who would always talk me through those times of doubt.
As far as when my colleagues started taking me seriously, I think it’s when I first started breaking free agency news and landing exclusive interviews. That’s when I noticed that they were starting to treat me like a peer. Prior to that, I was just some kid in the media room and I rarely talked to any of the national journalists or beat writers. After that, the respected journalists would interact with me and basically welcomed me into their little clique. I definitely had to prove myself and earn their respect because of my age, and I was able to do that once I started breaking news and landing big interviews.
19. Thanks once again for taking part in our interview. Is there anything I left out which you’d like to add?
Thanks for reaching out to me and asking such great questions! It was my pleasure. I’m always open to helping up-and-coming journalists so if there’s ever anything I can do to help one of you, don’t hesitate to send me an email or tweet me. Best of luck to all of you.
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