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The (Hated) Silver and Black and the Media Message

Andrea Duke's piece for PTR was extremely interesting and thought-provoking. And I wanted to discuss the idea from that piece that the media "filters and shapes reality". It's appropriate that she didn't make a distinction between the media at large and the sports media, but I don't want to get into politics or social issues. That would make my comments here even more boring and disagreeable.

The question is: Why does the media shape reality? Do they not have a responsibility to simply report events in a platonic, unbiased way? That sounds good in theory, but in practice we are not neutral people. We all have our rooting interests, even those of us who describe ourselves as centrists or moderates.

Even so, this is only an explanation of human behavior; it doesn't justify irresponsible journalism, does it? Well, the other principle at work is that we constantly look for cause and effect relationships. We need answers, the fewer answers the better, and we need those answers to make sense.

Consider a basketball game in which Our Team lost by two points. Why did we lose? There are a million valid, plausible answers, and I'll just list six:

a) "If we had just hit our average percentage, we'd have made four more free throws"
b) "Johnson blew a wide-open layup in the second quarter. WIDE OPEN!!"
c) "Our best three-point shooter missed all five of his threes"
d) "I can't remember the last time we turned it over seventeen times"
e) "Lewis' three with a minute left was halfway down! How did that NOT go in?"
f) "That stupid and-one in the third quarter...I'll give that guy $100 to make that garbage again"

If journalism is the first draft of history, it won't look good in tomorrow's history books if we try to account for everything that could have happened, every possible reason for a win or a loss. No, we need a Grand Explanation for all of this; therefore, the media reduces all of that into a single, palatable headline: "Kobe Scores 29, Lakers Outlast Spurs, 98-96" With that single sentence, the message is clear: Kobe is the reason the Lakers beat the Spurs.

And now we see one reason the media shapes reality.

Then comes along Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan - two guys that are about process, about discipline, about a full-time committment to excellence. And in that shared approach, there is no place for media grandstanding. Or abandoning the system in favor of more shot attempts. There is no place for publicly complaining about private matters. Jealousy over minutes, touches, shots, endorsements...all of that detracts from the bottom line. This player-coach partnership, in its uniquely long duration, would not have worked as long as it has without both parties believing in it so strongly. And this partnership has established a long-lasting, positive, winning culture. This presents a problem to the media: How do we sell this? They don't have a super-athlete on the team. They don't run a lot of isolations, and the ones they do are post-ups for Tim. They don't have guys who make waves off the floor. Hell, their leading scorer might be Tiago Splitter or Danny Green some nights.

For the media, it's hard to encapsulate the Spurs experience in one word. It's hard to bridge that gap between all the things that enter into winning and losing on the one side and reducing all of that complexity to one or two factors on the other side. So the media assign the Spurs with the one word that figures to resonate with the casual fan: "Boring". After all, it's the casual fan that drives up ratings. It's the casual fan who buys merchandise. The die-hards are going to watch no matter what; we're not going to sell the casual fans on fewer dunks, more screens, and zero drama.

The media can't sell Duncan; he doesn't let them in and he plays an orthodox style . They can't sell Ginobili; he's foreign and doesn't have eye-popping (basic) stats. They only bothered with Tony when he married a TV star, and he's not throwing down on people either. They can't sell Popovich. (I'm guessing they're a little scared to try) They can't sell a city from a small TV market. Without any obvious angles to use, the media turn to discrediting (asterisks, anyone?) and insults (boring, dirty), all while crossing their fingers that the Spurs don't make the Finals again.

The best part of all this, as far as the media is concerned? The Spurs themselves aren't going to care.

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