NEW ORLEANS — Kevin Armstrong, Chris Ballard, Shaun Powell and Ethan Skolnick have been named first-place winners in the 2016 PBWA Blumenthal Memorial Writing Contest, which honors the best work by members of the Professional Basketball Writers Association during the 2016 calendar year.
Armstrong, of the New York Daily News, won the Breaking News category for his story about the death of Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, a famed point guard who starred at Syracuse University but played only three seasons in the NBA.
Ballard, of Sports Illustrated, received first-place honors in the Features category for his moving article about Robert Swift, the 12th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, whose life descended into heroin addiction.
Powell, of NBA.com, won the Game Stories category for his account of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
Skolnick, formerly of the Miami Herald, won the Columns category for his retrospective about Dwyane Wade’s tenure with the Miami Heat and Wade’s impact on South Florida sports history.
Four independent judges evaluated the entries — one judge for each category. The authors’ names and the names of the authors’ news outlets were redacted before the judges received the entries.
More submissions were received in the four categories in this contest than any other contest in the PBWA’s history.
This year’s winners were announced at the PBWA’s annual All-Star Weekend meeting, which was held in New Orleans prior to the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.
The contest is named after Dan Blumenthal, who served as the organization’s secretary-treasurer from 1980 through 1983.
The PBWA consists of approximately 190 writers who cover the NBA on a regular basis for newspapers, Internet services and magazines.
Results of the 2016 PBWA Blumenthal Memorial Writing Contest
1st place: Kevin Armstrong, New York Daily News, “Pearl Washington, Syracuse star and Brooklyn basketball legend, dead at 52”
Judge’s comment: The author presents a compelling story about the life and death of New York City basketball legend Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who went from the streets of Brooklyn to star status in high school and college before his career flamed out in the NBA. Superbly written, the story details Washington’s declining health and contains numerous quotes from former teammates and coaches that bring depth and poignancy to the piece.
2nd place: Tim Reynolds, Associated Press, “Coming home: Dwyane Wade leaving Heat for Bulls”
Judge’s comment: This story about an NBA star’s decision to return home to Chicago and play for the Bulls shows the author’s resourcefulness and determination. The persistence finally paid off when Wade agreed to release an exclusive statement.
3rd place: Marc Stein, ESPN.com, “Sam Hinkie steps down as 76ers GM, head of basketball operations”
Judge’s comment: The writer was first to break the story of Hinkie’s unexpected departure and also managed to obtain the GM’s letter of resignation to Sixers’ management, a document no other outlet had.
Honorable mention: Jorge Castillo, The Washington Post, “Wizards fire Randy Wittman after disappointing season concludes without a playoff berth”
Judge’s comment: The entry has exclusivity and timeliness. The writer found out about the firing minutes after a season-ending victory by the Wizards and added a nice touch of irony by quoting Wittman saying immediately after the game he was “going to come to work until they tell me I can’t.” The coach was given the bad news minutes later.
Honorable mention: Adam Himmelsbach, The Boston Globe, “Celtics strike in free agency, agree to deal with Al Horford”
Judge’s comment: Although not an exclusive on the agreement, this story includes interesting details about the culmination of the deal, including a celebration by the Celtics brass, who got the good news aboard a private jet as it prepared to take off. Exclusive quotes from an interview with Horford’s father add depth and insight to the story.
1st place: Ethan Skolnick, Miami Herald, “Dwyane Wade: The greatest sports story Miami’s ever told”
Judge’s comment: This one has everything. The subject is large and important. The detail is extraordinary. The sentiment is clear. Most of all, the writing has that indefinable element known as rhythm. This writer knows how to construct a piece to keep you wanting more. Rhythm is crucial to good writing, and in this case the Gershwins would be proud. This is the one that most had me saying, “Man, I wish I’d written that.”
2nd place: Fran Blinebury, NBA.com, “Unspoken bond between Duncan, Popovich revealed during jersey retirement ceremony”
Judge’s comment: Who among us on the outside hasn’t wondered just exactly how it went down all those years between Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan? Sure, we heard this and that, but in this piece the writer makes it all clear. The carrot cake mention is the type of detail that makes a great column. The hardest thing in writing is to wrap it all up, and this ending does the job.
3rd place: Chris Ballard, SI.com, “Almost a champ: O’Neal on leaving the Warriors”
Judge’s comment: This is a great counterintuitive piece, a tale of “what-if?” that needed to be told. I barely remembered that Jermaine O’Neal had been a Warrior. He turns out to be a terrific subject, complete with the sadly common NBA tale artfully told: namely, growing up with a willingly absent father, and how that has affected his own approach to parenthood. Theoretically, anyone could have done this story. But not everyone would have done it this well.
Honorable mention: Jody Genessy, Deseret News, “Kobe, Jimmer, ketchup chips and other fun All-Star Weekend memories”
Judge’s comment: The NBA of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was full of mirth and merriment. You don’t get that feeling now. But this writer is both playful and insightful. He lightens things up in an era when the dreary recitation of semi-arcane statistics (Do I really care about PER?) is the currency. This writer deserves to be thanked. And honored.
Honorable mention: Chris Mannix, The Vertical, “There’s nothing healthy about Kings situation”
Judge’s comment: It was a universal NBA given that George Karl and the Kings were not exactly a match made in Hoop Heaven. Well, it’s all here. There is plenty of blame for the plight of a team that not so very long ago was very close to hoisting a championship banner. There’s lots to chew on here, and the cherry on the journalistic sundae is this writer’s analysis of NBA coaching, which has always been “One of 30 jobs in the world,” and which our writer frames as “. . . yet Ranadive has made it 29” and a “Well, if I have to” proposition. That’s some good writing.
1st place: Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated, “What happened to Robert Swift?”
Judge’s comment: “Entertaining” probably isn’t the word you would think about when dealing with a story on a heroin-addicted basketball player but this was an entertaining piece. It also was a sobering and thought-provoking one. It was well-researched and well-written — just a really great piece.
2nd place: Tim MacMahon, ESPN.com, “The Incredible Tale of Mark Cuban, Chandler Parsons and the friendship that threatened the Mavericks”
Judge’s comment: This piece featured sneaky good reporting. It doesn’t overwhelm you with minutiae, but it does have some excellent tidbits strewn throughout. Kudos for getting both sides to open up about what had to be a relatively sore subject. Again, this was another entertaining read. Truthfully, I wished it had been longer.
3rd place: Ken Berger, CBSSports.com, “In multibillion-dollar business of NBA, sleep is biggest debt”
Judge’s comment: I never would have thought about this as a story topic, which earns it some extra points. The writer and editor did a good job to identify this and make it easily understandable. It makes complete sense — but never have I seen it written about for any sport. Good reporting and a subject that could’ve put some people to sleep (oof — I apologize) instead was made almost fascinating.
Honorable mention: Yaron Weitzman, Bleacher Report, “Life as an NBA Draft Bust”
Judge’s comment: Most draft bust stories (like the winner in this category) are about people who are down-and-out. Well, Morrison isn’t down-and-out, and that makes this stand out. This piece featured excellent reporting and good use of the detail gathered during the reporting. It made you feel relatively good about the subject, and that’s rare when it’s about a bust of a player.
Honorable mention: Ramona Shelburne, The Undefeated, “Mamba Out”
Judge’s comment: This piece was enthralling whether you are a fan of Kobe Bryant or not. The writer did a great job of getting Bryant to talk about a wide variety of subjects — some I’m sure he didn’t necessarily want to discuss — and the writer did nice work getting comments about some of those issues from others (for instance, compiling Tracy McGrady’s take about the Bryant-McGrady shootout added a lot).
1st place: Shaun Powell, NBA.com, “Finally! LeBron brings joy to Cleveland with historic title”
Judge’s comment: The writer painted a poignant, vivid picture of all that this game, series and event entailed without over-flowering it. The imagery of champagne versus tears set the stage, and the rest of the story unfolded as it should have unfolded. The salient facts of the game were there, but so, too, were context and many meaningful details.
2nd place: Lee Jenkins, SI.com, “The Greatest Goodbye: Kobe scores 60 in last unforgettable show”
Judge’s comment: Similar to the winning entry, this writer folded in a game, a season and a career into one tale. Like a seven-course meal at a five-star restaurant, this story had so many lines to enjoy. Damn fine writing.
3rd place: Marc Stein, ESPN.com, “Argentina’s end of an era was emotional for the Americans, too”
Judge’s comment: This entry probably benefited from a kind deadline, given its length, but the angle of the piece set the stage for the breadth of it. In the end, this was just a fun piece to read, even now. Bravo.
Honorable Mention: Paul Flannery, SBNation.com, “The Warriors let the Spurs and everyone know who’s in control”
Judge’s comment: This piece is solid from start to finish. Candidly, it’s unusual to see a regular-season game with no real stakes attached (in any sport) generate this level of writing. Kudos to the writer for not building the game into something bigger than it was for the sake of the dramatic. The word “buzzkill,” which is in the lede, fits perfectly.
Honorable Mention: Tim Reynolds, Associated Press, “Dragic, Wade lead Heat past Raptors 103-91 — and into Game 7”
Judge’s comment: Down and dirty and right to the point. This gamer stuck with me because of its tone and style. Short sentences, quick yet easily understood context, all the facts and nothing overdone. If I could read this kind of game story in the paper every morning, I’d be happy.