J.A. Adande has been a trusted voice in sports for over two decades. He has covered major events such as 20 NBA Finals, the Olympics, Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four and Wimbledon. He has shared his insider views on the NBA with the Chicago-Sun Times, Washington Post and LA Times, breaking stories with ESPN.com and covering key sporting moments from the sidelines and in the press box as well as regular appearances on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption.” He has also co-hosted the “Beyond the Last Dance” podcast on the Jordan era. Today, he shapes the future of sports media as the Director of Sports Journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School and is curator of “The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2022” book. On this episode of Legends Of Sport, J.A. meets with fellow sports insider, Andy Bernstein, to discuss their early inspirations, the Showtime Lakers and Shaq & Kobe era, defining moments on the sidelines, highlights of this year in sports and advice for the next generation of reporters.
This past summer, J.A. celebrated a milestone birthday in Maui with family and loved ones. Ironically, his trip coincided with a special reunion of his early idols: the Showtime Lakers.
“I’m walking along Wailea Beach…He calls my name out. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, it’s Magic Johnson.’ And he says that they’re there for a reunion of the Showtime Lakers from the 80s,” said J.A. who suddenly found himself invited to dinner that evening. “One of my media buddies told me, ‘Hey, you’re never going to see these guys in such a relaxed setting again, of course…You gotta do it’…And so I came down to the opening reception…Magic, and Michael Cooper, and Bob McAdoo and Pat Riley…It was great…I extended my hotel stay for a day and I would have done it longer.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, J.A. fell in love with the sport of basketball from watching Magic play and attending his local basketball camps. When he realized he wouldn’t have a career as an NBA player, J.A. found another idol in legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, the first broadcaster inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.
“Arguably the reason I was even in Maui at that point… the course of my [career] life is because [of] Magic… The reason I got into sports media, the reason I cared about professional sports… I spent a lot of time thanking him,” JA said. “I realized early on, I wasn’t going to be playing in the NBA… I used to go to the games at the Forum. And I said, ‘I want to be here somehow, someway.’ And I’d look and see Chick Hearn in his spot… I thought, okay, through… either being in broadcast or being a writer, that will enable me to be a part of it. And ultimately it did.”
J.A. and Andy crossed paths throughout their careers. J.A. even experienced what it was like shooting on the baseline during an NBA game with Andy.
“I had seen your work over the years and then I got to know you once I started work at the LA Times… I really had an appreciation for what you did… for what you produced… I said it would be cool to shoot a game with Andy Bernstein… just try to become an NBA photographer for a day… I learned… you have to know the sport and be aware of when something’s about to happen.”
In 2016, J.A. stepped away from full-time sports coverage and transitioned into journalism education at his alma mater. In his first year back at Northwestern, J.A. balanced live coverage with ESPN with the demands of his new role.
“I was back for my 20 year reunion in 2012… The new dean… Brad Hamm, I met him for the first time and we started talking… Me, him and Christine Brennan did a panel on the [Tokyo] Olympics…. We got closer through that… And then about a year later, he made it happen… At first, I wasn’t ready to leave ESPN…So I did one more year…Close to full time. I did a lot of games, I covered the whole NBA Finals. I was traveling just about every week during the season… After the end of that first year, I said… ‘I can only do one of these and it’s time to make that move in it a bit’… The 2017 NBA Finals was my 20th NBA Finals… That’s a nice round 20 and I said… ‘I can step away now. I feel like I’ve told all the stories I want to tell.’”
J.A.’s career coincided with the rise of internet news and social media. He continues to tell students that sports journalists’ role is irreplaceable.
“[Though] athletes and coaches… have direct access… to speak unfiltered… through social media, their own podcasts or what have you, there’s still a need for that verification, sometimes filtering is a good thing. The journalist can weed out what is spin or fluff and get to what the truth is… There are some things that you cannot come out and say, but you can feed it to a media member and have them report on it. If you’re interested in trading a player and you want to let people know that this player is available, and you want to maybe put some public pressure out there… Adam Silver has really been adamant about players not making trade demands publicly… But there’s nothing stopping that player’s agent from telling the media that this player would like to be traded,” J.A. said. “It’s important to have the media to ask questions to hold people accountable… If your team isn’t performing well, if you don’t like the direction it’s going, and holding them accountable is one of the things that we do, there’s still a need for that… Fans still want that.”
Both Andy and J.A. had a front row seat to Kobe Bryant’s rise to fame. Today, they reflect on all that changed over the years.
“Back then he’s a teenager and he’s excited… He loved the attention… He was very enthusiastic about doing the media at that [early] point. And then you start getting into the battle for control of the team between him and Shaq and there’s some tension in the locker room. And then, there’s the media starting to get divided into the Shaq camp and the Kobe camp. And I tried to, you know, walk the line in between two of them, because to me, you had to have access… you had to have a relationship with both of them. They were both vitally important to the team, so you couldn’t shut one out….Shaq was friendlier and more accessible… And he should be the focal point based on the league and the way the league was then… But also Kobe was the one that should have the ball in the fourth quarter, because he was more likely to make his free throws and things like that…. People thought it was dysfunctional. Obviously they made it work well enough to win three championships.”
In 2004, J.A. questioned Kobe’s character in one of his articles, and upon attempting to apologize, Kobe “cursed him out.” Despite this incident, J.A. appreciated Kobe for always “giving us something to write about.”
“We got closer, we kind of had our ups and downs…. Those last couple years, as they were no longer really championship contenders, and he was the wise old man…. That was actually the most I enjoyed being around him and talking to him… He was someone that could talk about what it was like to play against Michael Jordan.”
J.A. was selected to compile “The Year’s Best Sports Writing 2022,” and to curate the collection, he worked with series editor Glenn Stout and sports writers, editors and educators around the country in search of the best reads.
“I had a panel of colleagues… I asked them for like 20 selections each… And then I was reading myself and I created a file. As I came across outstanding works of sportswriting, I saved it and reviewed it all at the end of the year. And so as I talked about in the foreword… I want this to be about writing, not sports journalism. I want this to really be about writing.”
J.A. ensured that the volume had diverse perspectives, from Simone Biles’ up-close story of perseverance in the 2020 Olympics to the more distanced story of Naomi Osaka’s standout year with little media contact.
“I just want people, no matter what your background is, where you’re coming from, to be able to identify somehow with either the stories or the storytellers,” J.A. said.
Andy and J.A. talked about one of the book’s stories by Marcus Thompson: “Steph Curry is not the MVP, He’s Something Much More.” Andy and J.A. reflected on their favorite athletes that were “so much more” than MVPs, and unforgettable athletic moments witnessed from the sidelines.
“As journalists, time didn’t pass quickly or slowly, because every day, all that matters is that story. And you do have these moments… [when] you realize, okay, this is significant in the history of the league, right, that 2016 NBA Finals… This is one of the significant moments in the history of the league one way or the other.”
Hear Andy and J.A. reminisce on the Lakers’ best eras and share wisdom on the complex world of sports media, player-reporter relationships, player secrets and the future of sports in this episode of Legends Of Sport with J.A. Adande.