By March 13, 2015 Read More →

The Write Way: An interview with PBWA member Howard Beck

Howard Beck is a senior writer at Bleacher Report.

He’s in his 18th year covering the NBA after stops at the Los Angeles Daily News and The New York Times.

Beck, a longtime member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, also appears regularly on NBA TV and co-hosts “NBA Sunday Tip” with fellow PBWA member Ethan Skolnick from 9-11 a.m. every Sunday on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio.

In the second installment of a recurring series called “The Write Way,” he took the time to speak with PBWA staff writer Andy Zunz about his career.

Andy Zunz

What does a typical week look like for you at Bleacher Report?

Howard Beck

It really depends on the week. I don’t know if there’s anything typical anymore. When I was a beat writer working for a newspaper covering a specific team, a week was fairly predictable because you had a pocket schedule that laid out the team’s home and road games, and that was your life. You followed the schedule. They’re on the road, you’re on the road. They’re at home and practicing, you’re at practice. It was a very strictly set agenda for me.

In this job, there are fewer absolutes. There’s less structure there because I’m picking my spots.

In any given week, I’m pursuing a couple of longer-term features I’m working on. I’m making the rounds on the phone with scouts and GMs and agents and checking in with folks around the league. And when I’m in New York — and I’m still based in New York — once a week I go in and shoot a bunch of video. Depending on what kind of news is happening that week, our video team at Bleacher Report is going to hit me up sometimes to do Skype video as well: quick-hit reactions to a trade or injury or sometimes just a discussion of the week’s events.

And I try to get to as many games as I can. Being based in New York, I have two teams that I can go drop in on at any time, whether I want to see the Nets or Knicks or to see whomever they’re playing. I’ve got that advantage of everyone coming through here a couple of times with two different teams. Some weeks I’m on the road. The travel schedule is also much less demanding doing this job than when I was covering a specific team.


Was the multimedia aspect something that appealed to you with the Bleacher Report gig?


All of that appealed. One of the things that intrigued me most was the chance to explore different aspects of media and try new things. I’ve been in newspapers for over 20 years and that’s all you’re doing every day: interview, transcribe, write. Wash, rinse, repeat. Cranking out 250-260 stories a year, that felt normal to me. That was routine and it was fine. But getting the chance to mix it up where some days I’m writing, some days I’m doing video and some days I’m doing radio — I have semi-regular appearances with NBA TV now —  doing a lot more in those other areas, that appealed. I never viewed myself as a TV guy. I never had the aspiration of moving away from being a writer — and I’m still primarily a writer — but getting the chance to dabble in those other areas, it was intriguing to consider, and since I’ve been doing it for the past year and a half, it’s been a lot of fun. I can see myself getting better. The progress that I’ve made is a gratifying thing. I recently began co-hosting a weekly show with my colleague Ethan Skolnick on the SiriusXM BR channel. That’s the kind of opportunity I didn’t have at the Times.


What is the potential for the future for a site like Bleacher Report?


That’s one of those questions that falls under the category of “above my pay grade.” I’m as fascinated as anyone to see where it goes. This is a site that didn’t exist eight years ago and now is one of the most heavily trafficked sports sites in the country. To go from an idea in someone’s head to a top-three sports site in America in this span of time is mind-blowing. They’ve done a fantastic job of growing this enterprise, expanding it and not just settling for saying, “OK, we’ve got the traffic let’s stop here.” I admire the fact that they’re constantly looking to see where they can take it next. They’ve hired reporters, NFL and NBA guys. They’ve moved ambitiously into video. There are so many directions this enterprise can go. I don’t pretend to know what the long-term plans are. But, absolutely, there is going to be more growth. They recently hired Lars Anderson from Sports Illustrated to be a long-form feature writer for us. He’s a phenomenal writer, and a great addition.


Did you hear any criticism from fellow writers for leaving the Times?


It was an excruciating decision. The toughest decision I’ve made in my career. I loved working at The New York Times. It’s the greatest newspaper on Earth. I had nine amazing years there, worked with some incredible people, great editors, people with a very firm vision and great ideals. Being part of that was incredibly meaningful for me as a guy who, since my high school years, knew he wanted to go into newspapers.

At the time I set out on a newspaper career, all of this other stuff didn’t exist, so I could never have anticipated this would have ever been coming. When I was in high school, there was no Internet. Who knew that the Internet would come along and change everything we knew about the media world, the way sports are covered?

The younger version of Howard Beck would have thought, “You’ve got The New York Times, you’re going to spend the rest of your career there. It’s a no-brainer. That’s the pinnacle.” So I never would have thought that if I got to The New York Times that anything would have taken me from there, but these are different times. . . .

When someone comes along from the new-media world and says, “Here’s a chance to be a part of something that’s growing,” that’s attractive when you’ve been a part of newspapers for a long time and year after year you see friends lose their jobs across the country.

It was a tough move because I was not looking to leave. I had never sent out a résumé in nine years at the Times. But it also hit me that at the stage of the career I’m in — 20-something years in and in my mid-40s — there may not be many more opportunities where someone is going to come along and present an opportunity like this, where I can make that leap and do it confidently. I thought if I didn’t take that risk I would regret it later and that the safe and easy thing would be to stay at the Times. In general, I usually take the safer route. So, making this kind of leap was very tough and there are a few friends in the business who will read this and laugh because I was wearing them out for about three or four weeks looking for advice.

There were no reservations whatsoever about going to Bleacher Report, I was just trying to convince myself that it was OK to leave The New York Times. I got nothing but positive reactions from friends in the business. There was obviously a lot of surprise. But that was because no one knew that Bleacher Report was hiring reporters at that point. Bleacher Report was not a place people went. Look, 10 years ago, Yahoo was just a search engine. It was not a place people went, and now they’ve built up a fantastic operation.


Another big transition involved moving to New York in the first place. As a native Californian, how was it transitioning to New York and from a Lakers to a Knicks beat?


I had a great time covering the Lakers for seven years. That was an incredible beat, especially during that period of time. I started covering that beat when Shaq and Kobe were starting their second season together. Watching those two, with all of the trials and tribulations they went through, go from disappointing postseason team to three-time champion all the way through to the breakup in 2004, it was an incredible ride as a sportswriter. The Lakers produced no end of great storylines. It was just a fascinating group from start to finish.

But, by the end of that seven-year run I was looking for a change of scenery, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I was working at the L.A. Daily News where they had a full-time Lakers job, but there was no NBA national job, so there wasn’t anywhere for me to go within those walls.

I knew about the opening at the Times, and the chance to go work for the greatest newspaper in the country covering the Knicks, that was enticing to say the least. But that was mostly about two things. I always felt that if I was going to leave the Lakers beat and I was going to leave California, having grown up there, it was going to have to be for a great job in a great city. If I was going to leave a great beat and living two blocks away from the beach, it had to be something spectacular. And working for The New York Times, and living in New York, that qualified. That was one of the most exciting moments in my adult life, making that jump. I already knew that I loved New York from coming in many times on the beat. My family has roots here; my parents are from the Bronx. I was born in California, and my parents have been living there since the ’60s, but I did have roots here. So there was something about it in my blood. It felt perfectly natural making that transition.


What do you think are the biggest differences between the Los Angeles and New York City media landscapes?


There is competition in L.A. among the various newspapers in Southern California and, to an extent, with other media there. But nothing — nothing — is as intense as the newspaper rivalries in New York and just the intensity of the coverage here. It’s just a different animal entirely. It’s not only a comparison of L.A. and New York, it’s New York and almost anywhere. And it’s not only the competition between media entities, it’s also the tone of coverage. Things are a lot more black and white in New York. Every day someone’s a hero and someone’s a goat and there is very little in-between. New York is not big on nuance. At least the New York media is not very big on nuance. That’s not to say that no one in the L.A. media ever flies off the handle or portrays things in extremes; it just never was the same intensity as the way I’ve seen in my 10 years here.


You wrote a great piece on Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. What are some of the biggest takeaways from your time spent in her hometown of Rapid City, S.D., and speaking with Gregg Popovich?


That story was a lot of fun to do. I’m really appreciative of my editors at Bleacher Report for giving me half the month of October to basically concentrate on nothing but that. I had the time to go to San Antonio to talk to Becky and Pop and the time to go to Rapid City to meet her parents and her high school coach and get a feel for where she grew up. It’s great to do that kind of story because everyone worth writing about has some sort of origin story. It’s fun digging into that and seeing what makes a person tick.

I think what you’ll find, especially with athletes, is that it’s a lot of the same things. What’s great about the Becky Hammon story to me is that she’s singled out because of the barrier she just broke: first female assistant coach in NBA history. But it’s how did she get here? What drove her? How did she become the person who was in position to break this barrier in the first place? And when you start exploring that, what you find, of course, is that she’s not different from any other great player in any sport, male or female. You start pulling all these strands of her story about this kid who was spending hours and hours shooting basketballs, often by herself. She’s practicing passes off the wall, mastering angles and all these other things. And you wouldn’t know if you were reading these stories without any names attached if she was a girl or a boy. That shouldn’t be that surprising to anybody, but what’s fun in the story is that, when you boil it down to how she got here, it’s because she has the same passion for the game as anyone else. She discovered early on that she had not only a skill and a feel for it, but a great passion that drove her to be better all the time. That, to me, is no different than stories about Kobe Bryant in his youth. Or LeBron James, or any other great player. They all have that.

But the most enjoyable thing about the Becky Hammon story was actually going to Rapid City and meeting her family. Her parents were just an absolute joy to talk to. I spent several hours at her home, and they could not have been warmer and more accommodating. They’re both natural storytellers. And when you’re a reporter, your job is to tell the story, but you need help. You need other great storytellers to give it that color, that vibrancy. And her parents were fantastic.


How did you get started as a sports reporter?


I can trace my sportswriting career back to a single moment, and that is Joe Montana hitting Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship game in 1982, the play we know as “The Catch.” I was 13 at the time and still getting into sports as a fan. That Niners season was obviously transformative for the franchise, and, if you’re a fan getting started rooting for a team, the greatest thrill ride. That moment, that was the first dramatic sports moment I can recall as a budding sports fan. That season, in general, that’s what hooked me.

So that hooked me as a fan, but it also got me reading the sports section every morning. I grew up in San Jose so we were getting the San Jose Mercury News every morning. I was devouring their Niners coverage. Then you transition from there. From the Niners coverage, I started reading the sports section in general and identifying the writers I really loved. Mark Purdy, who is still the sports columnist, was my big early role model.

When I got to college eventually, my first goal when I got on campus was to write for the student newspaper. My first day on campus at UC Davis, I walk to the campus newspaper, the California Aggie, and say, “I want to be a sportswriter!”

They said, “Yeah, go talk to the sports editor.”

I was assigned to the cross-country team and got my first byline a few days later. I thought it was the greatest thrill ever seeing my name in print, and it kind of evolved from there.


How does your experience covering local government for The Davis Enterprise affect you as a sportswriter?


I learned how to be a better reporter. When you’re covering political issues and things like campaign finance, tax measures and elections, you have to have a different mindset than when you’re simply going and talking to the starting quarterback a couple of times a week. You learn how to analyze complicated issues that have a lot of passions on many sides, how to take a complicated story and distill it and how to balance competing interests. It sharpens you as a reporter. I did that in college and when I got out of college, I went to The Davis Enterprise and did sports for a year and a half, and then moved to news again covering city hall as I did in college. All of that was incredibly valuable.

About the interviewer
Andy Zunz graduated from the University of Central Florida in December.

During his time at UCF, he served as the sports editor and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, the Central Florida Future. He also interned at the Orlando Sentinel and Field & Stream.

He works full time at Golfweek as an assistant editor, and he also is working as the Professional Basketball Writers Association’s staff writer during the 2014-15 NBA season.

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