As some folks predicted some time ago, Brian Windhorst will leave the Plain Dealer’s Cavs beat to follow LeBron to Miami where he’ll cover the Miami Heat for ESPN. Many in town are understandably sad to see Windhorst go, and some like Cleveland radio personality Bob Frantz have responded with anger to Windhorst’s decision (lowercase “d”). The anger seems easy enough to understand as well, at least at its source, since we might never stop wondering how much differently things might have gone with LeBron James in Cleveland if Windhorst or any of the others on the beat that he dominated would have asked some different questions while LeBron was still a Cavalier.
If it’s fine for folks to think that LeBron is the biggest jerk on Earth, then it’s only right to ask questions about why it took so long for so many of them to come to that conclusion after having worshipped the superstar for seven-plus years.
It’s so much easier to do with hindsight, of course, but when a disaster on the order of The Decision goes down, it’s impossible not to wonder about those who were in the best position to shed light on what went wrong. Especially the ones who end up getting promoted for their efforts. LeBron and Windhorst are gone, but we’re still here with the Cavs and Dan Gilbert. The same Dan Gilbert who’s essentially admitted to Windhorst’s charge, repeated last night in an interview Windhorst gamely gave to Frantz, that the Cavs organization “put up barriers to protect LeBron.” We can mostly just guess at what these barriers protected, but we know that whatever was behind them, they didn’t serve their intended purpose of preserving the organization’s relationship with LeBron, a relationship that really couldn’t have had an uglier ending. From this perspective, breaking these barriers, like with penetrating journalism, could only have helped.
Because these barriers might have been usefully attacked from different sides, we also have to question the inability of Windhorst (and apparently everybody else on the local beat) to penetrate LeBron’s inner circle, or even stake out a useful position on its periphery.
“LeBron’s people never trusted me,” [said Windhorst to Frantz, last night]. “They still don’t trust me. They’re not happy that I’m going to Miami .. They don’t want me there because they know they can’t control me. If you notice at the big stories that are done on LeBron … they’re done by GQ or from Vogue … people they can control.”
Could this be true? That Team LeBron would only suffer reporters whom it could control? If so, why wasn’t this truth worth bringing to light much sooner? If not, one has to assume that a more productive relationship between LeBron and the press was possible. Case in point, Windhorst explained to Frantz (at the 27:10 mark here) that his alienation from LeBron’s people was due in part to his having reported on the Cavaliers having hired a member of Team LeBron and allowing him travel with the team on its private jet. Windhorst was presumably referring here to Randy Mims, who was hired by the Cavs as a “player liason” in the fall of 2005, and who, as Windhorst told Frantz, “scowled at [Windhorst] and cursed [him] out behind [his] back and to [his] face for well over a year” in response to Windhorst’s report.
There’s plenty of reason to suspect that the Cavs’ front office lost credibility with Team LeBron for failing to hold it accountable for behavior like this, and there’s no reason to think the same wouldn’t go for the press. Think of how many different ways this might have gone. Windhorst reports on an objective fact of obvious interest with respect to the organization, the hiring of Mims, and it earns him “well over” a year’s worth of curses and scowls from Mims. Assuming Windhorst’s report on the subject was fair (and there’s no reason not to), that’s really wrong, and, really, it’s scary. It’s bad on LeBron, it’s bad on the Cavs, and it’s strongly indicative of more systemic trouble for both. An attempt on the part of Windhorst to reach a man-to-man understanding with Mims as to where he was wrong here might have gone a long way to help form a better relationship with Team LeBron, not just for himself, but for the Cavs as well. Three’s a magic number, and the potential for a dynamic relationship here was theoretically endless.
Maybe Windhorst tried here with Mims as much as anyone would have, but to the extent that reaching a useful level of understanding was an impossibility, what else was there for him to do but ramp up the reporting on the organization’s enabling of Team LeBron’s sociopathic tendencies? Why wasn’t this something worth pressing? The anecdote about Mims is just one concrete example, and one from five long years ago. The crippling effect of LeBron’s impending free agency on the Cavaliers ability to improve the roster, Team LeBron’s amazingly tone deaf PR, and other obvious manifestations of a god complex were other seemingly intimately-related places to push.
We heard from Andy Baskin about “seven-years of looking the other way,” and it’s impossible not to connect Windhorst with this, the “don’t rock the boat” ethos employed by the Cavs’ front office, and LeBron having wound up in the arms of a credible father figure like Pat Riley. Stand for something or fall for nothing. If LeBron was going to leave anyway, we might as well have at least known that he surrounded himself with folks who scowled and cursed at perfectly reasonable reporters, and who knows what else? Then maybe the god pose on the billboard doesn’t fly, and who knows what else? This has to explain at least some of the anger directed Windhorst’s way by folks like Frantz. Maybe Gilbert really didn’t want us to think about LeBron when he tweeted about poor “A-Holes” becoming rich ones, but when Windhorst and the rest of the local Cavs press will ignore not just the tweets but reports from respected national outlets to avoid the question, the inference of complicity (even if not necessarily intentional) just grows stronger. As it does when reports of a well-attended preseason scrimmage omit reference to season-ticket holders having been put on the hook before LeBron’s Decision.
It’s not really at all about Windhorst’s integrity, and it’s much less about his talent as a reporter than it is about the power of the pen and diverse human relations. It’s hard to think it all wouldn’t have gone better if Windhorst had shared more of his leads — like those “lots of dirty stories,” he told Frantz, that he “couldn’t confirm 100%” back when LeBron was a Cav — with someone who might have been better positioned to chase them down or otherwise more usefully communicate about them with LeBron, the Cavaliers, or whomever. It’s even harder to think it wouldn’t have gone better if Cleveland’s press outlets would have devoted more resources to put more (and diverse) talent on the Cavaliers beat. Maybe the next time a once-in-a-generation athlete is native to Northeast Ohio and plays professionally here, we’ll get it right. Looking at the way ESPN is smothering the Heat beat with its “historical committment,” at least we can think that someone is learning from mistakes somewhere.
We have to assume that Windhorst will have a better go of it in Miami, as well, and hope that he does. It’s understood that it all might have been so complicated and unprecedented that nobody would have done any better than he did here with LeBron. It’s also understood that there’s a tension between day-to-day beat reporting and deeply-penetrating journalism. Windhorst says he stands by his reporting. Of course, one guy can only do so much, and Windhorst did a lot. Still, he was paid more than anybody was paid to cover the Cavs. The Decision was a disaster (even Maverick admits it now), and one that essentially floored the most voracious consumers of Windhorst’s work. Now he’s followed LeBron to Miami for even more money, and those readers are left in the rubble. For them, no matter what questions were, weren’t, couldn’t have been, or shouldn’t have been asked, his time on the beat here really couldn’t have ended any worse. It’s only right by those readers (by us) to acknowledge that, and to ask about how it might have ended differently.