Movin' On: A Place in the SBNation

. Thursday, September 17, 2009
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Full disclosure: yesterday's post about how could influence women's sports coverage (and probably the post before that) was foreshadowing some exciting news.

The exciting news is that as of today, I will be writing for Swish Appeal, a new women's basketball site at, one of the largest and fastest growing fan-centric sports communities full of innovative social media goodies that I'm still figuring out.

Perhaps most interesting, is that Swish Appeal will be the first dedicated women's sports blog on the site.

As someone interested in the expansion of women's sports coverage, I find this to be a pretty exciting development and look forward to continuing to develop as a writer and WNBA observer. For more insight into what we are planning for Swish Appeal, please see our welcome message.

Of course, that means the less exciting news (for me, at least) is that Rethinking Basketball - a relatively small corner of the WNBA blogosphere - is coming to an end. Content from the site will remain in this domain for a week, but then be moved to Swish Appeal.

If you have subscribed to Rethinking Basketball or followed it closely, I recommend subscribing to Swish Appeal today and continuing to follow me there. Blogger has been fun (and I spent way too much time with code on this site), but is an even cooler place to be.

This is a good time to say that I appreciate all of the critique, encouragement, and support (linkage) from people to this point -- that of course is what makes blogging exciting and fulfilling, in addition to the fact that I love writing about basketball.

I hope we can extend the interaction into the SBN community.

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On Writing (Part 2): How Might Advances in Social Media Influence Women's Sports Coverage?

. Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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I ended yesterday’s post about “good journalism” as follows and figure it would be a good way to start today’s post:

“Last Thursday, SBNation’s launch of its redesigned website, which includes an innovative “StoryStream” feature, struck me as an interesting lens through which to explore all of these questions.

What strikes me as most significant about SBNation’s approach to sports journalism is that it represents a convergence of the best principles of “traditional” journalism and “fan journalism”. Although SBNation has not previously covered women's sports, their model of journalism has potential to enhance the way women's sports is covered.”

With that I borrow a pair of questions from an upcoming panel at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for today’s post:

1. Will this technological paradigm shift challenge or reproduce the ways in which female athletes are traditionally portrayed in mainstream sport media?

2. Will the unprecedented popularity of social media—and the alternative “ways of knowing” it provides to traditional media—fundamentally alter how we view women’s sports?
Since SBNation has not previously covered women’s sports, it probably seems odd to use that site as a lens to think about social media and women’s sports. However, consider this comment from a post on the One Sport Voice blog:
The ultimate strategy (for women's sports) then it to is push for more integration of women’s sports into mainstream media, while continuing to carve out a space in social media. That way we ensure women’s sports are not ghettoized in the “opt-in” exclusive space (not everyone has access to the WWW) of social media.
I would suggest that the combination of SBNation’s redesign in addition to its size, readership, and partnerships with major outlets like Google, Yahoo, and CBSSports, is the perfect platform with which to begin the integration of women’s sports into mainstream media.

The infrastructure exists in a site like SBN to accomplish the task of elevating women's sports coverage.

Embedded in SBNation’s redesign is the use of social media to enhance, rather than diverge from, the “excavation” process (as phrased by Stephen King and described in yesterday’s post) that characterizes the activity of good “traditional” journalism. In addition to shifting what is covered as “news”, it also has the potential to shift how news about women’s sports is consumed.

As stated in the first paragraph of SBN's statement about the revamped site, it is all about encouraging and facilitating dialogue among fans about things they care about rather than dictating the agenda to follow. Bankoff compares the revamped site to a sports version of Huffington post, complementing rather than conflicting with major media outlets like or CNN/

However, the structure of its SportsStream which is a consolidated stream of “the latest news feeds, Tweets, videos, comments that move a major sports story along,” according to CEO Jim Bankoff also represents a shift even from traditional online journalism.

Rather than an emphasis on reporting the story of the day, the focus is on multiple perspectives on a given situation that the readership cares about, commentary on those perspectives, and comments on the commentary.

By hypothetically consolidating the voice of the athlete with the voice of the media with the voice of the fan, readers should be able to get a far richer perspective on any given sporting event than they would have by reading any one of those sources in isolation. It is at the cutting edge of how any news is covered, even beyond the sports world. So could it help women's sports?

Can the technological advances of SBN “fundamentally alter how we see women’s sports”?

On one hand, comparing a sports fan-site to a left-leaning political site might seem like a stretch. On the other hand, maybe it’s appropriate for a sports site to be seen in the same light.

Reading Helen Wheelock’s article about Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Michelle V. Agins, I was reminded of an excerpt from Raquel Cepeda’s introduction to her book, “And It Don’t Stop”, a collection of seminal hip-hop journalism:
Hip-hop journalism built on the tradition of hip-hop as a societal reflector. The hip-hop journalists not only understood, but were themselves participants also aching to be understood…Today would be hip-hop journalists are faced with a challenge to explore the substance beneath the surface. While the writings about hip-hop in the alternative press legitimized the music because it helped identify it to the masses of eighties, and helped our generation define itself within its social and political paradigms in the nineties, we are now being faced with the task of covering more interesting aspects than what the mainstream predicates. And while we’re ushering in the new millennium, writing about hip-hop still has the potential to be used as a conduit for change.
I would argue that women's sports does function as a social reflector with plenty of rich substance beneath the surface of the game.

However, the question is what it means for women's sports writers to see themselves as "responsible for history", like Akins or early hip-hop writers did. I am not suggesting they do not...but seeing oneself as a journalist responsible for excavating a historical story is much different than a journalist seeing oneself as merely relaying facts.

Furthermore, if you believe Hoopsworld writer Steve Kyler that ESPN influences who is popular and who is not in sports and Huffington Post contributer Casey Gane-McCalla that, “Sports stereotypes have a real effect in the real world,” then the way major traditional sports news institutions cover women’s sports has a real effect on women.

Sports journalism – both how it is covered and how it is consumed – matters, especially when it comes to covering women’s sports which have been unapologetically demeaned by the mainstream media.

If you’re like me, this is a sobering commentary on the state of affairs in the U.S. – the free flow of ideas that seems central to a democracy is not necessarily supported by our media outlets in any domain.

Hence the exuberance about social media, mine included.

However, as Nicole Lavoi wrote in her post about social media back in May, there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that social media will single-handedly change the way women’s sports are covered. However, the technological infrastructure of sites like SBN have the capacity to shift the way the women’s sports are covered. The question is how to best take advantage of that.

After all, there is at least one thing that we do have empirical evidence to support: the mainstream “traditional” media is probably not going to shift the way they cover women’s sports any time soon.

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On Writing (Part 1): What is Good Journalism?

. Tuesday, September 15, 2009
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Since blogging has become an extended writing exercise for me that unites academic, professional, and personal interests, I’ve been focusing a lot more on journalism lately, both reading more widely and reading books about writing.

Most of us have the ability to identify countless examples of problematic (or flat-out bad) journalism and criticize it, especially when it comes to the coverage of women’s sports.

However, the much more difficult challenge that I constantly struggle with is actually identifying specific characteristics “good” journalism beyond broad abstractions like “intellectual journalism” or technocratic guidelines for reporting on women’s sports.

What exactly do good journalists do? And how might we apply it to writing about women’s sports? More importantly, how does that influence digital media outlets?

While it may feel tempting to say that there is no universal standard of “good” traditional journalism, patterns have emerged in the reading I’ve done about journalism over time.

Journalism as excavation

As I’ve been reading about journalism it occurred to me that whether it be the hip-hop journalism of the early 1980’s, I.F. Stone’s political journalism throughout the 20th century, or even Stephen King’s description of his brief career as a sports reporter (yes, the horror writer began his career covering high school basketball), there seem to be common characteristics of “high-quality” journalism.

Last Wednesday, I stumbled upon Andy Rooney’s video essay shown at Walter Cronkite’s memorial, which coincidentally echoed what I had already been reading.

[Walter Cronkite] was a great anchorman in the news business because his greatest contribution was not his knowledge or his expertise, as great as those were; it was his steady holding to what was most important. Every writer, every news man or woman who’s worth anything, secretly hopes that he or she will have some good influence on the world. It’s a preposterous wish, of course, but he had it. If it can be said about any individual in our business that he’s been a force for good in the world, Walter Cronkite was that person.
As alluded to in Rooney’s comments, “quality” journalism – whether broadcast, digital, or print – is predicated on the writer’s ability to identify the most important angles of a situation to create a story and present insights that help us reflect on our own perception of the world. That probably strikes most people as obvious at some level, but how one goes about that is much more difficult…at least if you’ve actually tried to do it.

Perhaps more concretely, in his New York Times bestseller On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King provides a vivid metaphor for writing stories to illuminate the difference between plot-driven and situation-driven writing. Given that journalism is generally situation driven, his description is instructive for journalists as well.

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small, a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer.

I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do so because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau…The situation comes first.
In reflecting on the journalists or writing that I most admire, this attention to the situation during the “excavation” process is exactly what makes their writing great.

Last Thursday, SBNation’s launch of its redesigned website, which includes an innovative “StoryStream” feature, struck me as an interesting lens through which to explore all of these questions.

What strikes me as most significant about SBNation’s approach to sports journalism is that it represents a convergence of the best principles of “traditional” journalism and “fan journalism”. Although SBNation has not previously covered women's sports, their model of journalism has potential to enhance the way women's sports is covered.

Next: How social media can enhance traditional media...and the connection of all of that to women's sports...

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Seattle Storm: “Absolutely Nothing to Play for Other Than Pride”

. Friday, September 11, 2009
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As a WNBA fan who has just completed his first (near) full season watching Storm basketball at Key Arena, last night’s overtime loss against the Mercury will stand out as one of the most memorable because it demonstrated something about their character.

The reason is simple: there was absolutely no reason for anyone to believe that the Seattle Storm would compete in last night’s game. That the Storm made it to overtime almost boggles the mind.

The game itself was meaningless, expectations were low, and they limped into the game with four players injured and two replacement players aboard just to field a full rotation.

Taking a loss and looking ahead to the playoffs would have been a perfectly respectable outcome given the circumstances. A blow out might have been justifiable.

Yet it never seemed to occur to the Storm that they were supposed to lose.

It’s as though there is nothing about playing in Key Arena that even begins to imply that they might lose a game, despite home losses this year that serve as objective disconfirming evidence.

And I love that.

But before you dismiss this as fluff, consider that not every team responds to this type of situation in the way the Storm did. Many teams – not only in the WNBA, but also in professional sports more broadly – would just mail it in. I will let you use your imagination to think of concrete examples of that occurring, but I think you get the point.

Really, gutsy performances like that – competing for the sake of it or having fun – is what I love about sports. It’s part of what I love about watching people compete and competing myself. It’s a trait that I admire in people – the willingness to set a goal and pursue it even if there seem to be insurmountable barriers ahead.

And honestly, I normally detest the notion of a “moral victory” because so often it’s used to connote finding the silver lining of a hurricane rather than actually speaking to the illumination of a team’s character. But the fact that the Storm even pushed that game to overtime last night says a ton about the Storm’s character.

It was enough to make me put off meeting a friend to finish watching the game. Enough for me to spend time writing about a game I promised myself not to write about. Of course that may be more indicative of a basketball obsession turned pathological more than anything else, but that’s neither here nor there.

That game was the epitome of what people might call a “moral victory”.

Not just because it shows that the Storm can play with playoff intensity or that a consistently struggling bench has the capacity to play ball against the league’s best. The game showed that the Storm have heart. That they’re more mentally tough that I had previously given them credit for. And that losing is not an option they care to explore, even when it’s the justifiable path of least resistance.

Win or lose, I can watch a team like that every single day of the week.

Brief Statistical Update:

In contrast to the limping Storm who had to play their guts out to even keep pace, the Mercury played about five minutes of disciplined basketball to pull this out.

The Mercury's best period was arguably the overtime period when they shot 71% from the field, had a game low turnover percentage of 11% committing only one turnover, and controlled the boards. After going 0-6 from the three point line in the fourth quarter and shooting no more than 5 per quarter during the game, guard Diana Taurasi shot the only one in the overtime period. And suddenly, it looked like they were starting to play defense.

Transition Points:

I made the grave mistake of discussing my basketball fantasy of Storm forward Lauren Jackson playing with the Mercury with Storm fans. I was appropriately shamed. Forgive me Storm fans for I know not what I do.

After watching Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner up close
, I'm more firmly on the Bonner for Sixth Woman bandwagon. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, in fact, because it's an award earned relative to a larger pool of players, it should be the *more* prestigious award.

Again, I'm relatively new to the WNBA. But has there ever been a better *regular season* experience in Key Arena? The combination of five overtime games and the amazing parity around the league means that almost every single game at Key Arena this summer was exciting. I am making that claim without any sort of first hand please do educate me.

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Defense Defines Sparks Victory Over Silver Stars

. Wednesday, September 9, 2009
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If what you like about basketball is high-octane offense, elegantly executed offensive sets, and great scoring performances from stars, then the Los Angeles Sparks’ 76-68 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars was probably agonizing.

However, there is something equally compelling about the level of defensive intensity that both teams played with last night that seems to add to the drama of transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs.

The type of defense played last night is not only indicative of a level of aggression, grittiness, and tenacity not normally associated with women’s sports, but also makes the anxiety and sense of urgency of the playoffs start to become tangible.

It’s easy to write off last night’s game as merely an example of poor basketball by pointing to the 16-16 first quarter or the Sparks’ abysmal second quarter in which they shot 28.6%. And as with any game there were missed assignments or mental lapses.

Instead, I suggest that the defining element of both halves was the defensive tone that was established early and particularly caught my eye on a play in which Silver Stars center Ann Wauters made a stop on Sparks forward Candace Parker.

It’s rare to see a Rethinking Basketball post focused on defense, which is somewhat ironic considering that I was a defensive specialist for most of my non-descript organized basketball career. As such, this season I’ve been keeping track of defensive statistics, no matter how futile a cause it may seem.

Defense is probably the most difficult thing to analyze in basketball because there really is no reasonable way to assess it without knowing a) the team’s scheme, b) the overall strategy that the scheme is part of, and c) what is expected of each individual within that strategy.

For example, there are times when a team will live with giving up one thing in hopes of shutting down another. Play to play it might look like “bad defense” on the part of a player when it reality it’s a reasonable strategy to win a game given the personnel. What might seem like a lapse in one situation, may be a stroke of brilliance in another.

The Silver Stars used a creative defensive scheme in the first quarter to keep the Sparks off balance, playing a man defense that functioned something like a zone when players switched.

For example, with 8:55 left in the first, Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn set up the offense for the Sparks and initiated the play by dribbling around a Parker screen on the right wing. Normally on a screen such as that against a man-to-man defense, one would expect a simple exchange of defensive assignments in which Becky Hammon who was guarding Quinn would stick with Parker and Sophia Young would switch from Parker to Quinn.

Instead the Silver Stars made a much more complicated move. Young did step up and stop Quinn, who was clearly setting up a play to Parker, who was rolling to the basket. But rather than Hammon picking up Parker, Ann Wauters – who was sagging way off Lisa Leslie -- picked up Parker and Hammon picked up Leslie who was at the top of the key.

Confusing? Yes, and it’s just as confusing if you have to play against it. That’s the point.

And the Silver Stars did it all game to great effect. It wasn’t until halftime adjustments were made that the Sparks were able to really turn a corner.

Of course, part of the Sparks second-half turnaround was a matter of running more of a fluid motion offense rather than standing around trying to merely exploit their size advantage in the post. Nevertheless, what stifled the Sparks repeatedly in the first half was the Silver Stars defense.

But what actually got my attention is when the uber-athletic Parker actually went to make a move against Wauters on the same play.

Parker took two dribbles with her back to Wauters, subtly giving shoulder fakes to try to catch Wauters off balance and make a spin and drop step. When Parker finally did turn and make a drop step, Wauters did not budge and was able to bother Parker’s shot and send it off the far side of the rim strong.

Obviously, this was a combination of good scouting and good defensive strategy that made that entire sequence happen. But the reason it grabbed my attention is that those are the type of defensive plays that don’t show up in the box score and often go unnoticed.

In the second half, it was the Sparks’ defensive intensity that defined the game flow as the Sparks just used their size and physical advantages to prevent the Silver Stars from doing much of anything – finding scoring opportunities, making interior passes, or even cutting through the lane.

Moreover, the Silver Stars didn’t get to the free throw line once in the third quarter, which was a result of the Sparks defense, regardless of whether the game was called perfectly (no basketball game in history ever has been to my knowledge).

Both sides played physical in the post throughout the game and most of the time it was simply a matter of being disciplined enough to hold one’s position, resist the temptation to bite on fakes or wilt at the sign of any potential contact, and being willing to take a hit and not back down.

And despite the obviously strong defensive play exhibited by both teams, the Silver Stars finished the game shooting 44.6%, while the Sparks shot 50%, including 70% in the second half on 19-29 shooting from the field.

When you combine that type of gritty play with strong offensive play you get what I consider the best of basketball.

It’s not just about the pretty highlight reel plays that excite us on the most basic level. It’s the ongoing chess match from play to play of each team trying to one up the other – on both sides of the ball – and constantly making adjustments, forcing their opponents out of their comfort zone, and improvising as a unit to try to tough out a win.

It’s not the prettiest thing for fans to watch, but it’s good all-around basketball that I have great appreciation for. It seems to give the game an edge that draws you into the competition and helps the player’s passion come alive.

And for a junkie like me, that’s beautiful.

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