Why Does the Internet Hate ESPN Reporter Brian "The LeBron Whisperer" Windhorst?

One of the finest, most informed voices covering the NBA, the man who rose to prominence with LeBron James gets more jeers than opponents at the free throw line.

The music blared loudly in Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, during a timeout. The crowd swayed in unison as Gwen Stefani and Akon’s “The Sweet Escape” rang from the surrounding speakers. They bellowed out the infectious “Weeehooooo!" from Akon’s hook as if they were being guided through some satanic ritual. Brian Windhorst usually couldn’t stand these in-game extracurriculars of the NBA. Most beat reporters can’t. It’s the same songs, the same in-game promotions, the same guy demanding the crowd “GET LOUD!!!” for 82 games plus the playoffs every year. But Windhorst, then covering the Cavs for the Akron Beacon Journal, enjoyed this particular pause in the action.

“What’s the name of this song?” Windhorst asked the gaggle of reporters sitting with him at a media table located a few hundred feet above the court. “I like it.”

That was Windhorst then, in 2007, without Twitter, relatively carefree, without television appearances under his belt and without an audience of millions. Windhorst’s schedule is now presidentially busy. On some days, his requirements for ESPN dictate that he works from 7 a.m. until 2 o’clock the next morning. A typical workday could look like this: A SportsCenter spot, a podcast appearance, a call in to an ESPN affiliate’s radio show, writing an article, and then flying off to another city to cover that night’s biggest game.

No longer just writing one article, maybe a blog, and calling it a night, Windhorst, 37, has fully saturated the market. And because of his newfound fame, he’s beginning to face the consequences of becoming one of ESPN’s most recognizable personalities: the wrath of the Internet.

Whether it’s because he’ll forever be tied to LeBron James, his sometimes-critical nature, or his status at the Worldwide Leader, Windhorst catches more flack than most reporters in his field.

Goodbye, sweet Gwen Stefani. Hello, sports fan culture in 2015.

Brian Windhorst has been covering LeBron James since the superstar's high school days / Left Image via USA Today Sports / Kirby Lee / Right Image via USA Today Sports / Brett Hansbauer

Windhorst’s connection to LeBron, and his start in journalism, goes back a long way. He and LeBron both grew up in Akron, Ohio, and both attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, though Brian is six years older than the basketball sensation. In 1999, when Windhorst was still in college at Kent State, he spent time working for the Akron Beacon Journal on weekends. LeBron was in eighth grade but Windhorst already knew about him from a press release on a local middle school basketball team that had finished second in a recent national tournament. He made it a point to write about the local phenom, who later graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as an 18-year-old, and covered him throughout his high school career. Brian ended up becoming the Cavs beat writer in 2003 for the same paper, the exact year LeBron was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Windhorst jumped to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2008, and when LeBron made his now infamous choice to join the Miami Heat in 2010, ESPN came calling. Brian headed down to South Beach to cover LeBron and the Heat for ESPN’s now-defunct “Heat Index,” and his profile rose meteorically.

What Adrian Wojnarowski is to Yahoo, Windhorst has become to ESPN. He’s one of the most well-connected NBA reporters in the game, consistently dropping knowledge about the league you won’t hear anywhere else, especially when it comes LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I believe in trying to execute your job every day and moving on to the next day without a lot of backslapping and congratulating.”
—Brian Windhorst

He was the first to report how the Cavs used former center Zydrunas Ilguaskas’s 2013 jersey retirement ceremony as one of the first steps in luring LeBron back to the Cavs in free agency. He spoke of a disconnect between LeBron and rookie head coach David Blatt before it was hip. And he knew Cavs general manager David Griffin was given permission to speak with J.R. Smith by the New York Knicks before setting up a trade to bring him to Cleveland, as if he was having a cup of coffee in the same room. He has become a major presence on all of ESPN’s mediums, though his journey to the top isn’t as ceremonious in his own mind as you might think.

“I believe in trying to execute your job every day and moving on to the next day without a lot of backslapping and congratulating,” says Windhorst. “So, I just kept my head down and tried to work hard and execute as best I could and not worry about my next job or where I felt I needed to be in five years. Now, I'm here.”

Now, with millions of eyes and ears pouring over every written and spoken word, Windhorst’s insights become news fodder almost instantly. His radio and podcast appearances are so juicy that websites like ESPN Cleveland and realcavsfans.com transcribe and post them as news. With that kind of attention comes an inordinate amount of criticism for a man who’s usually just relaying what sources have whispered to him in the gallows of arenas or dark corners of restaurants.

When he reported after an early season loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that Kyrie Irving and LeBron had words with each other in the locker room, fans blasted him for stirring up trouble.

When he reported that Cavs assistant coach Tyronn Lue had been seen calling timeouts from the bench instead of head coach David Blatt, he was called out by said coach and had his writing framed as “cheap.”

“That's a lot of nonsense and I think it’s kind of cheap, to be honest with you,” Blatt said of Windhorst’s report.

Yet Windhorst really rattled the cage this season not with reporting, but with voicing an opinion.

Brian Windhorst's comments on Riley Curry's press conference appearance set off a firestorm of criticism / Image via USA Today Sports / Kyle Terada

When Stephen Curry brought his gregarious daughter Riley Curry up to the podium with him following a second round playoff win against the Memphis Grizzlies, Windhorst complained of its unprofessionalism while attempting to make a greater point about reporter access to players. Awful Announcing called him “the Grinch.” Sports Grid wrote an article titled “Why Brian Windhorst’s Issue With Kids At Press Conferences Is Wrong.” Even fellow ESPN personality Bomani Jones chimed in.

And then Twitter had a field day.

Windhorst got such negative feedback that he was appearing on ESPN's First Take and Grantland writer Zach Lowe’s podcast in the next few days to defend himself and double down on his position. The backlash genuinely shocked him. “I have found the news cycles a challenge to understand at times despite trying to study and learn from them,” says Windhorst. “Sometimes you can write something or say something four or five times and there’s no reaction. But the sixth time it happens you hit a lull in the news cycle or someone with clout sees it for the first time and reacts and suddenly the reaction becomes a bigger story than the original point.”

Richard Deitsch, who covers the sports media for Sports Illustrated, believes the backlash Windhorst received was overblown, and it became a story simply because of its sexy headline that attracted clicks.

“Windhorst actually offered some context with his take,” says Deitsch. “He was arguing about access to players and that's a worthy fight, but he chose a non-issue to make that fight. Bringing kids to the podium is such a rarity—not to mention that it provides a cool human interest scene—that it's not worth the time of day.”

But it did get the time of day, and became just another opportunity for Windhorst detractors to take a shot at the man. The hate goes beyond a few angry fans getting all in their feelings because Windhorst reported something other than rainbows and unicorns about their favorite franchise. Though consulting Twitter for logical and sane opinions is akin to attending a Schvitz because you need to cool down, a quick search of Windy’s name on the social media platform yields results like this:

These comments wouldn’t be surprising if they were attached to Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith. And Windhorst will always be tied to LeBron James, whether he likes it or not. But with some of the responses Windy gets to his work, you’d think he’d just announced that Beyoncé was the ugliest woman he’d ever seen.

“I used to sit around and read his Sunday columns about the whole NBA,” says Vince Grzegorek, the Cleveland Scene editor who struck up a relationship with Windhorst when he was getting his start running his own sports blog in the early 2000s. “So it’s not surprising to look back now and think, yeah, he’s got a lot to say about the league in general, not just LeBron. It’s unfair for people to be like, ‘He rides LeBron’s coattails,’ because he’s got so much more to say than that.”

“Brian’s words tend to resonate more than most,” says Scott Sargent, editor and writer for the Cleveland sports blog Waiting for Next Year, who has featured Windhorst on past podcasts. “This is all merely a sign of how important he’s become in the NBA media landscape. But the way he’s treated by some fans, as if he’s supposed to be a cheerleader, is borderline insane.”

“I haven’t looked at my [Twitter] mentions since
late 2013.”
—Brian Windhorst

The cruelty of Twitter trolls is nothing new to the realm of NBA reporting. This meme of Chris Broussard probably graces your timeline at least once a week. But the attacks on Windhorst are vicious and personal.

“I haven’t looked at my mentions since late 2013,” says Windhorst, who nonetheless praises Twitter for the platform it gives him to share his content and ingest that of others. “It’s too bad because at one time I created relationships and got valuable things there. Unfortunately, in social media culture many people default to being vicious. It’s the exact opposite of real social culture, where most people default to being courteous.”

So, what gives? What makes Windhorst—a guy with multiple awards for his basketball reporting, including one from the United States Basketball Writers Association, for Best Game Story in 2009—a moving target dressed in a suit? Is it the sentiment that he chased LeBron to Miami to make more money, thereby selling his Ohio-shaped soul? Is it his on-camera demeanor and cadence that can sometimes be misconstrued as contrite and smug? Is he just not likeable, or has everyone on the Internet gone insane?

“He’s now a prominent, front-facing reporter for the biggest sports media brand in the world and his face and voice has been plastered across multiple platforms,” Deitsch says. “When you are asked repeatedly to have a take, people are going to react to you. Twitter, for as great as it is, provides easy access to people and there will always be people who, often anonymously, drop mega-vitriol on opinion-makers, which is what Windhorst is now asked to do much more at this stage of his career.”

Grzegorek chocks it up to the territorial nature of the NBA fan.

“You’re going to get parochial, territorial fans, especially in Cleveland,” he says. “But people are telling him this stuff. The whole Tyronn Lue stuff and LeBron calling plays are being told to him by advanced scouts for other teams. It’s not like he’s just making up bullshit.”

Maybe it is all just outside noise, and Windy can write “They hate us ’cause they ain’t us” a thousand times in his reporter notebook with full confidence. He appears to have the respect of his peers in the media, especially those at ESPN.

Stephen A. Smith and Brian Windhorst, the two biggest lightning rods in NBA media / Image via USA Today Sports / Brett Davis

“I’ve found that NBA media members generally have respect for one another and truly try to look out for one other,” Windhorst says. “I hope I’m considered part of that community. In the last month, I’ve had dinner with Tony Kornheiser, Stephen A. Smith, and Mark Schwarz. I’m probably one of the few people at ESPN who can talk or text with Bill Simmons, Adam Schefter, and Skip Bayless within the same half hour.”

Perhaps it’s the price of being a television personality in the social media age. Perhaps it’s the divisiveness of being associated with LeBron, a player who will define Windhorst’s career perhaps even after he’s retired. Hell, ’Bron said it himself this season when he fielded a question about the scrutiny that has hounded coach Blatt all season long.

“Whoever is associated with me catches heat,” he said.

Yet Deitsch, who has his finger on the pulse of the sports media landscape, will forever respect Windy for what it was he didn’t say.

“When ESPN was pushing every one of its staffers short of Jon Gruden to offer an opinion on what LeBron would do last July, Windhorst consistently declined to play that game,” he says. “He stuck with what he could confirm via his reporting—which had no conclusion at that time—and generally refused to offer a prediction. And Windhorst was on the air a ton, so it could not have been easy to tell producers he wasn’t going to go there. That’s something that stuck with me.”

Windhorst’s professionalism stuck with Deitsch like “Sweet Escape” stuck with Windhorst. ESPN’s biggest basketball reporter won’t be changing his tune anytime soon. It remains to be seen if the Internet will ever change its own opinions toward Windy.

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