When LeBron James played his first high school basketball game, back in 1999, Brian Windhorst was there covering it.
At the time, Windhorst was in his early 20s and already had been working for the Akron Beacon Journal for years. Like James, Windhorst had attended St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, where James would transform from a good basketball player into a rolling national spectacle.
From there the relationship of Windhorst and James would become roughly that of the tail and the comet. In 2003, when James was drafted to play for the nearby Cleveland Cavaliers, the Journal tapped Windhorst to fill an open job and cover him, making the then-25-year-old the youngest traveling beat writer in the NBA, by his own reckoning. Later, Windhorst got the call from his own Cleveland organization, The Plain Dealer, for which he also covered the Cavs. Then, in 2010, when James announced on ESPN that he would be taking his talents to South Beach, ESPN, in turn, announced that it would be hiring Windhorst to pack his bags and head down there with him.
All told, Windhorst has been covering James for half his life now ― turning a stroke of good luck into a two-decade career. These days, Windhorst is a fixture on ESPN, and his words carry serious weight among NBA fanatics. When Brian Windhorst says there’s a 51 percent chance James signs with the Los Angeles Lakers, for example, you can bet the aggregators are going to kick it into high gear and get those blogs out into the world.
Windhorst did last month give James a 51 percent of ending up in Los Angeles, a prediction that turned prophetic on Sunday when James announced that he would be leaving Cleveland to sign with the Lakers following an obsessive second-by-second rumor and news blitz. As it happens, the “51 percent” was a sort of code; Windhorst, as he explained in an interview with HuffPost, was nearly certain LeBron was headed to the Lakers. “I was probably more at 91 percent,” he said. But the business is such now that Windhorst sometimes has to pretend on television that he knows less than he really does.
I talked to Windhorst not long after the news of James’ signing broke. During our conversation, he spoke frankly about what it’s like to have his career unfold in tandem with that of the greatest basketball player on the planet — all while the sports media ecosystem around him changed as dramatically as the NBA’s star system. He also spoke about the “miserable” loneliness he faced when he followed LeBron to Miami in 2010 and the spitballs and security that accompanied his returns to Cleveland.
The conversation has been edited and condensed a bit for clarity.
I was surprised when I got an email that said you had a couple hours to spare.
Well, maybe a couple is a little too generous. I gotta be back over there in about maybe an hour and a half. It’s just one long string of mindless hits.
When do you expect it to die down?
The thing about it is there’s not much going on in the sports world right now. We have Wimbledon, which takes up a lot of programming, but it’s kind of our responsibility to carry the ball until the NFL training camps start. So we’ll be breathless about it no matter what for another two, three weeks.
Yeah, I don’t think it made Paul George’s agent too happy.
When did you start to realize that the LeBron-to-LA murmur that seemed to start around the finals last year might be more than just a crazy rumor?
After his first year in Miami, I knew he was going back to Cleveland. I just didn’t know when. And I would say probably [after] the [Cleveland Cavaliers won the] championship, I don’t know if I was sure he was going to LA, but when I saw the moves that he was making off court it looked like he could go to LA.
Like the movie stuff?
They did the Warner Bros. deal and he has so many shows in production. They sort of restructured their off-court business from marketing into media, and they started putting those roots down in Los Angeles.
Then he bought the home here and he started spending time here. As soon as he moved from Miami, he started basically spending a lot of time here every summer. And then he bought a home, and then he upgraded his home because I think his wife didn’t like it; he also had racial epithets sprayed on his driveway. But I think it’s the same neighborhood. I don’t think it’s much of a difference.
One of the reasons I was interested is because we went to the same high school, and I maintain an interest in the high school’s basketball team. They’ve been a superpower ever since he was there, and I think they’ve won the last two state championships, two of the last three, and I was starting to think: His son is going to be a star, too, and they may not go there because they may not live in Akron.
“He insulted me. It wasn’t like “F-U, asshole.” But it was something along the lines of “Did you pack your soul in here as well?””
Did you also hear some murmurs from people around him that maybe there was reality there?
To reconstruct it, when he signed this last contract, it was a two-year contract, and it was strategically designed for him to be 33 years old and a free agent again, and then he would leave the door open to signing the five-year, 200-and-some-odd-million-dollar deal. So when I saw that that was structured in that way, I could tell that this was going to be a leverage point. He was either going to fully commit to Cleveland or maybe look elsewhere, and as this last year developed I was just like, well, I don’t think he can fully commit here [Cleveland].
One of the things I found out pretty quickly here was that the family was going to have a much bigger role in this decision than the other two. The first time he moved he did have two sons, but he wasn’t married and they were very young and he was pretty young. The second time they moved, I do think his wife wanted to come home. But again, his sons were young. In this move, I think his sons had a voice and the sons have lived in LA the last two summers.
I didn’t think that it was going to be Philadelphia or Houston because I don’t think his family was crazy about going to a place they weren’t familiar with at this stage of their lives.
When you put out that 51 percent number that everyone was focusing on, was that an actual guesstimate? Or is that the sort of thing where you know a little bit more than you’re allowed to let on at the moment you say it?
Oh, I knew he was going to LA by then.
Yeah. As a reporter you always hedge, especially in this environment. First off, to get a confirmation on something like that, really I’m only trusting maybe two people, and they’re not going to give it. So I told my boss at ESPN a couple days earlier, “He’s going to LA,” and naturally they’re like, “Well, can we get it on the air?” And I’m like, “We can’t.” Because with a situation like this you just can’t be wrong, and this is a volatile situation. People can change their minds. But frankly, when I said 51 percent, I was probably more at 91 percent.
“Frankly, when I said 51 percent, I was probably more at 91 percent.”
Why did you add in that 9 percent for Philadelphia. Was that just to throw people off?
No, because his agent really was interested in Philadelphia. Clearly, Philadelphia did get a meeting, but it was with the agent, so I think Philadelphia was on the board, and that is why I just put them on the board. And again, think about the decisions that you make in your life ― I mean to move to New York, at what point were you at 80 percent? And then you got to 100.
One of the difficulties about the age that we’re in, especially the social media age, is that things that are written in sentences tend to be black and white. But the reality tends to be shades of gray and I live in a world where I have to deal with shades of gray. But my comments are often taken black and white.
That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Yeah, if you’re a beat reporter writing newspaper copy, you would just sit on that [off-the-record information], but since you’re on television and people are asking you about it, you have to figure out a way to mix your reporting in with commentary. That must be a difficult balancing act.
So let me describe a little thing that happened this last week. So I knew that LeBron’s plan was to be out of the country when the announcement came down, or immediately leave the country after the announcement. I knew that to be true, which is actually what happened, and I also knew that right before he was going to make the announcement his guys were going to huddle together. Basically, they did this back in 2014, and we’re talking, like, four people here. We’re not talking about a constitutional convention. And they were going to make their decision in that moment, but I was not furnished with an itinerary.
So I know he’s going to be overseas or at least out of the country. I know that he’s going to make the decision fast. And I know he’s going to huddle with his guys. And, yeah, his guys, they do call it “The Decision Cave.” I knew certain things were true, but I didn’t know the exact order of things. So I do like seven or eight TV hits in that day [last Friday]. I think just because there’s an absence of information or whatever, people seize on that I said “Decision Cave in the Caribbean.” [Windhorst’s use of the term “Decision Cave” set off a predictable series of jokes, blogs and memes, which Windhorst’s own employer played into as well.]
And the truth is I didn’t know if that was the overseas location or not. Right? ’Cause it’s out of the country. So I was kind of just sort of hedging trying to give information. Well then, people seize on “Decision Cave in Anguilla,” and they leap to the conclusion that I’m saying that there’s some cave in Anguilla where they’re going to be. I requested for our newsdesk at ESPN to not go wild with this story because the story was showing up on the aggregation sites as, like, “Report: LeBron To Be In Decision Cave In Caribbean.”
It really pissed LeBron’s guys off. I just said that “The Decision Cave” ― I mean it wasn’t a joke, it was true, and it was what they called it. But it seemed like I was trying to like, you know — “I have this inside information. My sources tell me” ― and I was just sort of answering a question from [ESPN commentator] Stephen A. [Smith]. And so, it really pissed those dudes off.
It seems like you’ve gotten angrier with the aggregators, as you call them, over the last year or so.
I’ve been angry about it a long time. I’m just pushing back on it now.
What is it like covering something like free agency? I assume there is so much that you know that you can’t put out there.
I’ve backed off the transactional reporting in the last year because I’ll never be as good as Adrian Wojnarowski anyway, and I’m much more required in my job to explain and analyze decisions than I am to report the transactions. Back when Woj was working for Yahoo, I would work heavily with Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne and maybe over the course of a transaction season, I would report five signings and three trades or whatever, something like that. I would get a handful of scoops, but Marc would get 15 or 40, I don’t know, and Woj would get 57, you know. I was always running farther back in the standings. And the type of reporting you have to do to do that, I don’t enjoy. So I was never going to be that type of reporter.
Most of the big transactions I’m aware are going to happen, but I don’t have them confirmed in a way where it rises to the level where I can report it. But I have to prepare to do 11 television hits and four to five analysis pieces about it. Because that’s what we need at the company, and that more fits into my role anyway. I’m more comfortable looking at Paul George’s contract and saying this contract doesn’t make sense or this contract is good or bad than I am working the angles and contorting the angles that are required to finalize the information.
Going from beat writer to TV personality, for lack of a better word, how has that changed the way you cover the league?
It’s funny. It probably infuriates people because I didn’t have basic television training, and there’s a lot of really talented television people out there who are probably like, “What the hell is this fat asshole doing on television?” And I have to say, I’ve often thought the same thing. But the NBA has a fanbase that really embraces complexity. NBA fans love the collective bargaining agreement and the salary cap and stuff like that ― and you also have fans out there who don’t understand as much ― so what I try to do is take complex subjects and make them more understandable and also try to offer perspective on things.
“It probably infuriates people because I didn’t have basic television training, and there’s a lot of really talented television people out there who are probably like, “What the hell is this fat asshole doing on television?” And I have to say, I’ve often thought the same thing.”
Like one of the things that has been happening this week is that people are trying to analyze these Laker moves post-LeBron. We’ll be on a panel or something, and somebody will analyze Rondo’s game and someone will analyze Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game. “This is how Lance Stephenson will fit.” Because they’re trying to do what their job is, which is to really break down and be an analyst. But then I’m kind of cool with saying: I don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
I think you were the first to report out that that little one sentence that Klutch [the agency representing James] sent out was going to be all the people were going to get for a month. I wonder if you have any thoughts or knowledge about why they went that route, because I know the way that LeBron has announced this stuff has been so carefully crafted in the past.
I have had many, many, many, many conversations with LeBron and his very few representatives over the course of a year and part of that is just knowing how they’re feelings on that have evolved. They sort of set the market. They sort of created the concept of The Players’ Tribune essay. Now, I don’t know the history of The Players’ Tribune. For all I know, The Players’ Tribune was way down the tracks. It was going to happen no matter what.
But the reality was that these essays that came out came out after his Sports Illustrated essay. And a lot of the stuff that people do to announce decisions these days — it seems to be more with the high school basketball and football players committing — but a lot of the stuff about ballyhooing decisions came out of his “Decision” broadcast. He sort of set the market. And what they have seen is, for lack of a better way to put it, a bastardization of what they created, and I think they wanted to swing the other direction and just go very simplistic.
I think their motivation was “OK, we went elaborate and then we went sort of heartfelt. Now everybody is doing a mix of heartfelt and elaborate. So let’s just go the other direction and just do straight.” And I doubt this will start a trend because it’s not much fun. “My Next Chapter,” quote-unquote, is always more fun.
While LeBron’s celebrity grew over the last 20 years, has the way you cover him changed at all? Because I assume he has so many more people surrounding him than he did.
He’s changed a lot, and my role has changed a lot. So for a long time he was very difficult, very unapproachable. Not unapproachable — “unapproachable” is the wrong word. He looked at the media with a certain amount of ―
Well, of course. I would say disdain, but I don’t want to put words in his mouth. He constructed walls with the media because frankly, he didn’t like them. And to get around those walls took a little bit of gymnastics, and that’s what I did when I was a beat writer. But I haven’t covered him on a day-to-day basis for four-plus years now, and in those four-plus years, he has completely changed the way he manages the beat writers who cover his team. So the beat writers who have covered him the last couple years in Cleveland enjoy a relationship on a day-to-day basis that I never had with him.
It’s better? It’s improved?
Way improved. Dramatically improved. Those guys, while they are very good, they are the beneficiaries of LeBron spending 10 to 12 years learning and evolving his media strategy. And I’m not there every day. So I am not anywhere near as close to LeBron now as I was five years ago.
What is your relationship with him like now?
It’s fine. It’s totally professional. I can go up and ask him stuff if I want. I do a handful of LeBron-centric bigger pieces during the year. But I only do five, eight of those a year. Back when I was a beat writer, I was writing about him virtually every day. Obviously, I went to many press conferences and many press scrums, but as far as talking to him, getting unique information, it’s not that often. I talk way more to his agent and other people in his world than I do to him, which is the opposite of the way it used to be, because, again, early in his career, his agents, especially ― eh, I’m not going to say. Let’s just say I talk more with his surrounding world than I did previously and I talk less with him.
I know that for a while, you were worried or you said you wanted to divide yourself from him a bit because obviously you guys have been so closely connected for 20 years now. Was that a real frustration for you ― and how did you go about trying to divide yourself?
There’s no frustration. I mean, I have daily frustrations, but I don’t have any grand frustrations because the opportunity to cover him has been the opportunity of a lifetime. And I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate, and for the most part, he’s treated me incredibly well, so I have no full-scale frustrations.
After being a daily beat writer for 10 years ― ask people who have done it for four years what they think ― but when you cover him every single day as a daily beat writer for 10, 11 years, you kind of want to move on to bigger and better things, and it’s not like I made a declarative statement: All right I am done with LeBron every day now; I am going and moving on. I wanted to generally move away from that just to expand my horizons. But I want to be clear: A big part of my job is to continue to write those pieces and to continue to offer insight into him and that will remain the case for the rest of his career.
Have you guys ever talked about the parallels in your lives?
Not for a long time. When we were in Miami, a little bit.
I guess that was the most obvious moment.
See, the first year in Miami, he and I were both miserable.
“The first year in Miami, he and I were both miserable.”
He and I had never lived outside Ohio before, and it was completely different, it was completely different circumstances. I don’t want it to sound like I was dealing with it on the same plane as him. But he had his two sons and his girlfriend who he left back there. My fianceé at the time was in law school at Ohio State, and so that was a major move to move that far away. And he talked about not being happy down there the first year. I was miserable. I mean, I didn’t really know anybody in Miami. Funny thing is, I’ve given up golf now, but I was a golfer at the time. And it’s like, oh, you’re now in Florida, you can play golf year around, and oh my god, it’s 74 degrees. And I had no one ― I had no one to play with.
And when you went back to Cleveland, too, weren’t the fans heckling you, just like they were heckling him?
I had to have security the first game back, yeah.
You had to have security?
Yeah. I always tell the story that when I left the airport when I flew down to Miami to essentially move there, which happened like midway through the training camp, I had three giant suitcases, and the guy who’s checking me in knew what was happening, and I don’t remember the exact verbiage that he said. But he insulted me. It wasn’t like “F-U, asshole.” But it was something along the lines of: “Did you pack your soul in here as well?” He didn’t say it that cleanly, but that was the message that he was delivering.
What was the anger about? That you were moving on to greener pastures? You were making this big move to ESPN ― was that the basis of the anger?
I think it was a couple of things. I think one, ESPN announced the move kind of splashily with The Heat Index, and they announced it in October and so a period of time had passed, and it just reignited a small section of the fanbase. I mean I want to be clear here: It was not comparable to what LeBron felt. However, it was affecting my movements and daily life in Cleveland for the days before I physically left, and it also was affecting my family. I shut down my Facebook page, and I have not been on Facebook since. I have a professional Facebook page, but I don’t even manage it.
“I want to be clear here: It was not comparable to what LeBron felt. However, it was affecting my movements and daily life.”
But I have not had a Facebook page since 2010 because what was happening was people were able to target my family, and also my family was able to see what people were saying to me. So Facebook is not a part of my life because of that. I think the fanbase reacted because it was a way to lash out at LeBron. I was way more accessible. And I don’t think people planned to come after me, but when they saw me they certainly had their say, and I can remember sitting in the arena in Cleveland. The media sits in the middle of the fans. And I remember coming back for a game — and this wasn’t even the first game; this was like year two or year three — and my laptop was open in front of me and spitballs were flying and sticking to my laptop screen.
That is unbelievable.
Yeah, and the irony about it was, while it was great professionally, I was miserable there [in Miami].
Are you going to move to LA?
I don’t think people know this but I haven’t lived where LeBron’s lived for six years.
Where do you live now?
I live in Omaha, Nebraska.
Oh, yes, I vaguely remember reading that somewhere.
And I don’t hide it, but I don’t advertise it, and the funny thing is that nobody really knows where I live, but for a while, the bulk of our NBA programming was coming out of Los Angeles. Three years ago, we started this daily NBA show “The Jump,” which is now year round. So I’ve been coming to LA for three years for 50-plus nights a year, and I probably attended almost the same amount of Laker regular-season games as I did Cavs regular-season games last year.
I don’t really care because it doesn’t really affect me, but people are going to be like, “Oh, you’re going to be in LA now. Oh, guess you’re going to be Mr. Laker now.” And I’m like, “Well, I’ve kind of been in LA a lot the last three years, and I’ve kind of been going to a lot of Laker games, so I mean if that makes you feel better about yourself, go ahead and say it.”
Because I know people in Cleveland, they’re upset and everything, and they want to brand me as a certain guy and whatever. If that’s the way people want to go, I mean that’s fine. If they want to say that, it’s fine. I don’t really care. But the irony is, it hasn’t been true and even though I’m from the Cleveland area, I didn’t even move to Cleveland when he moved back there. I was living in New York at the time, and I moved to Omaha because that’s where my wife is from, and we started a family. And frankly, while people may make fun of Omaha ― which I really don’t care about ― it’s actually very well positioned to cover a lot of the NBA especially if you have to go to the East Coast and the West Coast.
I have a studio in my house, so I do TV from my house occasionally ― not occasionally, weekly ― and I move east and west effortlessly from there. I’ve done television in Bristol [Connecticut, where ESPN’s headquarters is located] as late as 5 o’clock and been in my bed that night in Omaha.
The other good thing is, very few people in Omaha care about the NBA. When I go out to dinner in Cleveland, everybody wants to talk about the Cavs, which is fine. Without the fans, I wouldn’t have a job, so it’s totally cool. But in Omaha, I move around the city and barely anybody notices who the hell I am.
If I walk three blocks in New York City, I’ll get noticed more times than I will in Omaha in a month.