It’s not every day you tune in to Fox Sports Net’s “Southern California Sports Report” and a journalism seminar breaks out.
But there it was Tuesday night, after the Lakers’ opener, with Van Earl Wright, Carolyn Hughes and Jack Haley debating journalistic standards and practices -- no kidding; it has been captured on videotape -- on the local sports channel where the working motto has long been, “No Cheering In The Press Box. But If You Want To Do It In The Locker Room Or On The Studio Set, Have At It.”
Haley, who carries the title of Fox Sports Net “NBA analyst” when he’s not moonlighting as Laker valet, was predictably blathering on about the latest Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal spat being a product of “reporters sensationalizing everything.”
Wright listened for a while before finally deciding he had heard enough.
“I heard all of the quotes were pretty much verified and confirmed with both players,” Wright accurately acknowledged to Haley. “How did the media sensationalize what they did? They were both wrong by in what they did having this conversation in public. They should have it behind closed doors.”
Haley started to bristle. His nostrils began flaring. He turned toward the camera and began shouting at it.
“I’ll tell you how,” Haley said, “and I’m talking to the media right now, all you guys that are out there running around. I am not a member of the media, first of all.”
Wright and Hughes in unison: “Oh really?”
Haley: “I don’t do gossip, OK? I don’t do gossip.”
Hughes, laughing: “Neither do we.”
Haley: “Here’s what they did. Shaq made a comment. And Shaq was absolutely correct. Shaq said if Kobe Bryant is not 100% he should take it easy, let myself and Gary [Payton] and the other guys handle the offense. Everybody ran from the [interview] huddle, they ran over to Kobe and one of those sleazy reporters said, ‘Hey, this is what Shaq is saying about you.’
“Kobe took it personal. The guy is under a tremendous amount of stress. And then he made a comment. And then it exploded.
“But believe me, if Kobe would have heard the way Shaq said it the first time, his tone, his inflection and everything, it would have never happened.”
Wright wasn’t buying it. He noted, accurately again, that O’Neal’s comments essentially echoed what Payton had said a few days earlier -- “that ‘when Kobe gets back to 100% we’re going to work everything in.’ He’s just stating facts, that Kobe is not at 100% physically. And he told you that the night before the game.”
Haley: “And I agree with it. And then Shaq’s comment was absolutely correct. There is nothing wrong with that. It was the way Shaq’s words were portrayed [by reporters] to Kobe Bryant.”
Later in the program, the trio discussed footage of Bryant being interviewed after the game by a group of reporters pressed around his locker. Bryant spent much of the session dodging questions, tossing up “No comments” as if they were open three-pointers.
Sounding disgusted, Haley said, “Did you see the way the media just started prodding and prodding and prodding him? Just going at him.”
Wright shot back with, “What do you expect us to do? We’re there to get the questions asked that the fans want answered. We’re not doing our job if we don’t ask him questions.”
Journalism 101, now in session. In a perfect setting, Haley would have been schooled in the basics before signing on as a TV basketball analyst, which does, in fact, make him (shudder) “a member of the media.” But this is Fox Sports Net. If Wright were forced to provide Haley some emergency on-the-job training well, better late than never.
Haley was a reluctant student. As Wright concluded a somewhat fiery lesson, Haley jokingly reached to unclip his microphone and said, “I’m opting out of my contract. I’m leaving. I’m out, man.”
Sorry, Fox Sports Net viewers. He was just kidding.
Haley stayed on camera and summed up the Lakers’ night with, “Winning will cure everything. It’s nice to see them put this behind them. I hope we don’t have to hear them discuss it again for the next couple of years.”
Wright couldn’t resist getting in the last word. He told Haley:
“Well said, fellow media member.”
Everyone’s a media critic.
After Tuesday night’s Laker opener, O’Neal was asked by TNT’s Cheryl Miller whether he and Bryant had been able to “resolve the issues.”
“We don’t really have issues,” O’Neal replied. “I think the problem is bums like [TNT analyst] Kenny Smith running their mouth when they really don’t know what’s going on. [Bryant] said something that was misconstrued. I said something that was misconstrued. We’re just trying to win.”
Miller asked O’Neal whether he had any regrets about the dispute becoming so public.
“Not at all,” he answered, “because we really didn’t let it get public.... It was just a couple guys, you know, trying to get the extra story.
“We were told not to say anything, but Mr. Jim Gray, trying to be Mr. Enquirer, like he always does, he got something that probably wasn’t supposed to be repeated. He wanted to be a hero. And you know he printed it ....
“Nobody’s going to break me. I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I do. Right now we’re 1-0. We just want to stay focused as a team to win.”
TNT decided to have some fun with O’Neal’s attack. The network’s postgame show began with a laughing Smith tugging on the lapels of his designer suit and announcing, “I’m not a bum. I look good, Shaq. What are you talking about?”
Charles Barkley assured Smith, “You ain’t got to worry about the Diesel .... I got your back.”
A few minutes later, the screen was filled with footage of Barkley’s infamous on-court fight with O’Neal when Barkley played for the Houston Rockets. While Barkley the player bounced a basketball off O’Neal’s head and wrestled him to the floor, Barkley the analyst could be heard shouting, “Don’t you call Kenny no bum! Don’t you call Kenny no bum!”
“Get him, Chuck! Get him, Chuck!” Smith yelled from the set.
Before Smith knew it, TNT’s graphics department had gotten him. Smith’s face was superimposed onto the black-and-white image of a bum, complete with ski cap and tattered overcoat, with Smith holding a sign that read, “Will Watch Basketball For Food.”
Crying out above the laughter in mock despair, Smith protested, “I’m not a bum! I’m not a bum!”
Final stat line for LeBron James in his NBA regular-season debut Wednesday night:
Points: 25. Assists: 9. Rebounds: 6. Steals: 4. Rating on ESPN: 2.8
That last number made James’ debut a higher rated telecast than 68 of the 69 regular-season games carried by ESPN during the 2002-03 season. The only game with a higher rating last season was Lakers-Rockets -- O’Neal versus Yao Ming -- on Jan. 17, which drew a 3.8 rating.
According to ESPN, Wednesday’s 2.8 was 65% higher than the figure for last year’s opener, Lakers at Portland (1.7).
That answers one pressing question. Now we know what relentless, embarrassing round-the-clock hype for an 18-year-old’s first professional game means to the network: a 1.1 bump in the ratings.
Can we all now take a deep breath and let the kid get through his first NBA weekend?