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MCGRATH: Information tops ‘branding’ any day of the week

New York Knicks v Miami Heat

New York Knicks v Miami Heat

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:52AM

The airport waiting area
offered a television but no remote to change channels,
so ESPN was the choice and old pal Stephen A. Smith my companion during a recent flight delay. With the self-assured zeal of a revivalist preacher, Stephen A. assured us Kobe Bryant WILL COME BACK from his ruptured Achilles tendon. Let there be no doubt.

I have been accused, with some justification, of unleashing Stephen A. Smith on the world, but it’s more TV’s doing.

He was an ambitious, hard-working prep reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer when I met him in the mid-1990s. The Temple University beat was a logical next step in his development, in part because he’d be dealing with John Chaney, a gnarly, old basketball coach who delighted in puncturing inflated egos and who was of the belief that a butt-kicking was still the best way to get a point across. But Stephen A. held his own with him and did good work, especially on deadline.

What he really wanted was the 76ers beat, as though chronicling the NBA vicariously might extend a playing career that ended in college under coaching luminary Clarence ‘‘Big House’’ Gaines at Winston-Salem State. Stephen A.’s
ego was NBA-ready, and he thought he would bring a player’s sensibilities to his coverage.

Whether he did hardly matters. The NBA runs on gossip, and Stephen A.’s version of events combined outrageous delivery with outlandish opinions. TV fell all over him. He is a personality now, a one-name pop-culture phenom, like Beyonce or LeBron. We haven’t spoken in a while, but I hope the good-hearted, respectful kid I knew still exists within the blustery Stephen A. persona.

He is hardly the first newspaper scribe to venture into TV. Who can forget the endearingly cantankerous ‘‘Sportswriters on TV’’? Or Roger Ebert, for that matter. We all admired him for his writing and his thinking, but the obituaries made more of Ebert’s TV work than his Pulitzer Prize.

As the 24-hour news cycle changed TV, print reporters were in demand for their news-gathering expertise and knowledge. ESPN achieved instant credibility as a news source by hiring people who knew how to cover a story and could explain what it meant. ‘‘The Worldwide Leader’’ becomes more entertainment-driven by the day, but nearly all of its top-line reporters have a background in newspapers.

The Boston Globe has been a breeding ground for TV talent since the 1970s, when it started producing the gold standard of newspaper sports sections: Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, Will McDonough on the Patriots, columns by Ray Fitzgerald and Leigh Montville, features by Michael Madden and Lesley Visser. I couldn’t really afford it on a young sports editor’s salary, but I had a subscription to the Globe because it was a daily demonstration of how sports ought to be covered.

Not surprisingly, a panel of Globe staffers past and present — Montville, Mike Barnicle, Jackie MacMullan, Dan Shaughnessy — offered the smartest take on what sports means to Boston during TV’s wall-to-wall coverage of the marathon bombing. I wonder if they could have developed such insight if they’d been tweeting, blogging and performing all the other tasks involved with creating a journalist’s ‘‘brand’’ these days.

I know, it’s a geezer moment, like your Uncle Al advocating for the two-handed set shot or Hawk Harrelson railing against sabermetrics. But coverage of news and sports seemed better to me when reporters weren’t compelled to record and share their every observation and had time to pay attention and learn things.

Geezer moments are a consequence of being the oldest guy in almost any press box I enter. And I miss my fellow old-timers. I wonder what Don Pierson would have to say about it any time the Bears make a move. The most sensible interpretation of the Derrick Rose saga comes from Sam Smith, and it doesn’t involve sending Rose to Seattle (sic) in a three-way deal involving Shawn Kemp.

We lost another old-timer last week when Dave van Dyck hung ’em up after 30-plus years of skillfully crafting stories for two Chicago newspapers. Dave was best known for his baseball coverage, but he broke a lot of Bulls news in the pre-MJ years and was a top guy on the motorsports beat before Nascar became NASCAR.

Getting the story and getting it right was Dave’s muse. He wasn’t into self-promotion and wants no fuss over his retirement. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed. He was a great friend, a wonderful colleague and pro’s pro on every story he covered.

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