It has been over a week since the New York Times leaked the Rachel Nichols “hot mic” phone call. If you missed some of the hottest extracurricular NBA news last week, take 10-15 minutes to read the NYT piece. Soak it in. Recognize that this mindset expressed by Nichols is not an isolated incident.
The supposed allyship with which Nichols has curated an entire career is washing away. This specific brand of performative activism has roots in nearly every facet of white corporate America. It is on the back of this two-faced pandering that the continued lack of diversity in major media still has a firm grasp on the product.
Though reminiscent of Thom Brenneman’s iconic call of a drive into deep left field by Castellanos to make it a 4-0 ballgame, Nichols had her metaphorical headset back on not even a day after the Times article was published. Her half-hearted apology was so flagrantly ingenuine that the subsequent outrage even forced poor Kendrick Perkins to defend his on-air defense of Nichols. The whole ordeal is certifiably a mess.
This report challenges any modicum of credibility that Nichols has accrued in the past. It is with this information that a unique interest is piqued for Minnesota Timberwolves fans. The Wolves organization and fanbase have had a unique relationship with Nichols over the last few years, stemming largely from the Jimmy Butler saga.
We’ve all heard the story. Butler had Nichols on speed dial after making a grandiose scene at an offseason practice with the “third stringers.” This entire story was the talk of the season before a disgruntled Tom Thibodeau eventually traded Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers. Butler would then proceed to decimate the Timberwolves with his new team. Nichols, as expected, then fanned the flames (skip to 0:40):
This disparaging portrayal has helped perpetuate a narrative of inferiority and weakness that has not only haunted the Timberwolves franchise but has almost destroyed the reputation of Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite being an All-NBA-caliber player nearly every year of his career, Towns has not been able to shake the “soft” depiction that has followed him since Butler went on his tirade in his interview with Nichols.
Thanks to the Nichols interview, Butler helped shape the idea that he is synonymous with the definition of toughness and grit. Because many things in the sports entertainment industry tend to be cast upon a binary spectrum, Towns was (perhaps unfairly) cast as the foil character to protagonist Butler.
While this narrative was running wild in the minds of NBA fans, former Wolves point guard Derrick Rose recounted an experience different than the one that many fans came to know:
If we believe Rose’s recollection, then you have to wonder about the true severity of what went down that day. It also calls into question the ensuing media frenzy and public relations fallout that the Timberwolves franchise went through and still endures. At the end of it, the lowly Wolves were seen as a tarnished footnote amongst a league of other organizations that could never do things as poorly as they do them in Minnesota.
The wound was reopened this last season when Gersson Rosas and the Timberwolves decided to move on from head coach Ryan Saunders and bring in Chris Finch on a multi-year deal mid-season.
The Timberwolves were highly criticized for hiring Saunders as the head coach in the first place. After wallowing around the bottom of the West for most of Saunders’ tenure as head coach, the Timberwolves were then eviscerated for firing him and replacing him with Finch. Nichols rightfully called into question the ethics of the hire, specifically as they pertain to race and giving assistant head coach David Vanterpool a shot. In the wake of the Times article on Nichols, however, one has to question the sincerity in Nichols’ claims and story.
At the end of this back-and-forth between Nichols and a beleaguered Timberwolves fanbase, it is clear that the media is not doing any favors for Minnesota basketball. Recency bias would show that this comes at the expense of the Wolves, but the reality is that many small-market teams are subjugated to treatment in this manner. It’s easy to rag on the little guy, and unsuccessful franchises make easy punching bags for the bourgeoisie of the NBA.
Narratives such as the ones mentioned above come as active detriments to small-market teams. In an era where super-teams are prevalent, and the rich franchises are getting richer, the proletariat franchises (you know the ones) are fighting
hammer and sickle tooth and nail to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive league. It would be ignorant to say that the media does not play a role in player decisions and outlook, and players’ perceptions of situations are often at stake based on the press they receive.
The recent Nichols news, paired with her past relationship with the Timberwolves, amplifies that notion even more. This journalism helps create a culture of hot-takes and reality-TV-like drama that encapsulates the attention of the lowest common denominator of viewers. This is great for clicks and, therefore, revenue but otherwise harmful to entire markets with a slim margin for error.
It is a great respite that we happen to be blessed with a small-market Finals for the ages this year between the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks. Ratings, whatever they are, are not a metric for good television and good competition. NBA fans should be thankful for this breath of fresh air and that we can watch two young, new, talented teams compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Despite some disappointing coverage of the superstars in the finals not named Chris Paul, one has to think that the coverage of the non-coastal franchises will shift towards the positive in future seasons.
Rachel Nichols used to have the following quote in her Twitter bio:
“If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
This quote has since been deleted.
Let’s hope that if any news is manufactured henceforth from journalists, it does not come at the expense of struggling small-market franchises. The NBA as a whole will be better for it.