No one willingly becomes obsessed with the prose stylings of NBA scoop-hunters. If given a choice, a healthy person would prefer to dwell on more compelling aspects of basketball, like dunks or blocks. But this life chooses you. Whether it’s Adrian Wojnarowski strip-mining a thesaurus for its lurid treasures on draft night or Brian Windhorst going on podcasts to brag about all the stuff he knows but can’t talk about until he gets some rich guy’s permission, I simply can’t get enough of the way these well-compensated gossips deliver updates on unremarkable league happenings. Lately I have been fixated on the word choice and syntax of The Athletic’s Shams Charania, once-protégé and now-competitor of Woj.
Where Charania outclasses the rest is not so much his content—he has recently bungled scoops on Jeremy Lin’s return to the NBA and Karl-Anthony Towns’s health—but rather the form it takes. The task of the NBA access merchant is to maintain relationships with people working in or close to the NBA, extract information that those people want circulated in public, and dutifully tweet or write those facts into plain view, with timing and framing that pleases the information providers. This involves some 550 calls, texts, and emails a day and sounds miserable to actually do, but in theory, the writing should be the least complicated part of it. Just relay the facts clearly. In most cases, there’s only so much to even convey. Only a special mind can take, say, a Lonzo Ball trade rumor and render it as cryptic as a Sphinx’s riddle. For Shams Charania, paraphrasing a CAA agent’s text messages is a radical literary act.
Charania tends to work in one of two modes, which could be classified as “stoned teen trying to keep it together while talking to a friend’s parents” or “police officer writing up an incident report after some highly dubious conduct in the field.” Any given sentence might only contain one simple idea but still end up larded with interfering clauses, incorrect words, misfit prepositions, and extraneous facts. The bong-teen spirit is what animates a helpful parenthetical listing the exact years that Barack Obama occupied the presidency in a story written in 2020, or earnest, penetrating social-studies paper insights:
As witnessed during the NFL and MLB season starts during the pandemic, it is a rocky beginning that everyone must become accustomed to. This is a new time, a unique period in our history.
Sometimes the thread is lost completely.
In anxious-cop mode, Charania strains for absolute objectivity but arrives at disembodied, almost subject-free sentences because he has to scrub away the identifying fingerprints of his sources. At times he veers beyond passive voice into something that might be called “passive conception.” Whenever possible, he opts for the more stilted, procedural verb. There is perhaps no more police-flavored language in contemporary sports reporting than “calming him down with his arms.”
It’s the spirit of the incident report that produces this bit of exposition from an article about Danuel House Jr.’s bubble breach last season:
Cited as being for “personal reasons,” House missed the Rockets’ Game 3 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Due to an abundance of caution toward the medical health and safety protocols inside the league’s bubble, the NBA began looking into potential improper proximity with either House or Chandler.
But let’s focus on Charania’s report from Tuesday about the Toronto Raptors fining Pascal Siakam for chewing out head coach Nick Nurse—more specifically, the part of the article that attempts to describe what Siakam said to Nurse. Here’s how it read at 1:13 p.m. Eastern. It implied some hierarchy of “heated” words and “choice” words, like a pleasant hot sauce gradient:
Stemming from the frustration amid what is now a nine-game losing streak, Siakam had heated words toward Nurse, sources said. Several choice words were issued, according to multiple sources.
As of 1:17 p.m., someone had rephrased the sentences. Gone were the “heated words.” In their stead was “a verbal exchange,” which typically involves two participants but in this case is being unilaterally “directed” by Siakam “toward” Nurse. A conversation is now swung like a baton.
Stemming from the frustration amid what is now a nine-game losing streak, Siakam directed a verbal exchange toward Nurse, sources said. Several choice words were issued, according to multiple sources.
By 2:31 p.m., the two sentences had been collapsed together. This was a relief for discerning readers haunted by the prospect that the sources who had the insider info on the “verbal exchange” were different from the sources who were acquainted with the “choice words.” They may now rest easy, knowing that these sources are one and the same:
Stemming from the frustration amid what is now a nine-game losing streak, Siakam directed a verbal exchange that included several choice words toward Nurse, multiple sources confirmed.
As for the substance of the report, the Raptors have denied that Siakam was fined $50,000, which was the same bill James Harden and Kyrie Irving each paid for pandemic-partying. A Raptors spokesperson told Defector on Tuesday evening: “We are discussing the situation internally and no decision on any action, including fines, has been made.” When visited again at 9:03 p.m., Charania’s article began with a disclaimer: “Editor’s note: Several hours after the initial report, a source close to the situation offered clarification that Siakam had not been officially fined yet. The team maintains that they are still mulling disciplinary action.” Sources will be consulted and articles will be viewed, as tabs are kept by Defector on this developing news story, which provides insight into how national outlet The Athletic (2016–present) real-time line-edits its highest-profile NBA reporter.