Gordon Hayward’s much-anticipated answer regarding where he would spend the next several years of his flourishing NBA career was simple enough:
“After seven years in Utah, I have decided to join the Boston Celtics.”
But the modern-media drama of getting to those 13 words — which came approximately 300 words into a 2,000-plus-word post on the Players’ Tribune Tuesday evening — requires many more words in the telling.
It’s a story of the impact of social media, the trustworthiness of reporters and their sources, an athlete’s desire to control his own message, and the chaos that can ensue when agendas collide.
A brief timeline: At 2:17 p.m. on the Fourth of July, Chris Haynes, an ESPN NBA reporter who primarily covers the Cavaliers, tweeted the news Celtics fans wanted to hear: “Free-agent Gordon Hayward plans to sign with the Boston Celtics, league sources tell ESPN.”
Several highly regarded NBA writers — among them Yahoo! Sports’s Chris Mannix, ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and the Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach — confirmed Haynes’s report.
Cue the early fireworks in Boston — well, for roughly 15 minutes, anyway.
At 2:34 p.m., ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski brought some unexpected clouds to the forecast, tweeting: “Gordon Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, tells ESPN: ‘Gordon hasn’t made a decision yet. We are still working through it.’ ”
Wojnarowski’s reputation for being plugged in is such that even though several respected reporters confirmed it, his caution led to significant skepticism that Hayward was indeed Boston-bound.
Haynes stuck to his story but didn’t offer updates. There were other reports – via Twitter, of course — that said the Celtics and Jazz hadn’t been informed of Hayward’s plans. Another report suggested that the Heat, Hayward’s third suitor, were back in contention for his services. It was difficult to know what to believe.
Then, at 7:48 p.m., more than 5½ hours after Haynes’s initial report, a new post popped up on the Players’ Tribune. The headline: “Thank you, Utah.” The author: Gordon Hayward.
In a perfectly meta kind of way, rather than immediately revealing the team he would play for — as Kevin Durant did on the site almost a year ago to the day when he joined the Warriors — Hayward instead led by discussing the tension of that particular day.
“This has been the toughest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life,’’ he wrote. “This weekend has probably been the longest weekend of my life. And today . . . well, today has definitely been one of the craziest days of my life. But I wanted to make sure that I got this right.”
It seemed he also wanted to make sure that he didn’t directly confirm Haynes’s report all those hours earlier, emphasizing that the decision was one that was finalized over the course of that particular day.
It certainly appeared, even if it wasn’t the case that the Hayward camp was jarred by the news getting out. It was no surprise that he used the Players’ Tribune as his venue to get the message out; he’s had a couple of other pieces on the site before, including one on his love of gaming. The surprise was that, in essence, his own scoop appeared to be scooped.
Bartelstein denied a theory popular with the cynics among us: that Hayward had made up his mind before Tuesday and was writing his blog announcing his decision when Haynes beat him to the punch.
“That,’’ Bartelstein said in an interview with the Deseret News in Utah, “is complete nonsense.
“It caused chaos. It was really unfair to Gordon and to us. We are in the middle of going through this when all of a sudden this report came out that he’d made a decision. Obviously, we were flabbergasted this could come out.”
Bartelstein revealed some interesting details about the process in his how-it-all-went-down interview with the Utah paper. He said Hayward had three versions of his story 90 percent ready (written with an unnamed ghostwriter), one for each of the three teams he was considering. The final 10 percent would be written, he said, after Hayward made the decision. After he finished writing — or sorting through his thoughts with his ghostwriter, a Players’ Tribune editor — Bartelstein was to inform the three teams of the final decision.
Then the post would be published and the Players’ Tribune — which when it launched in October 2014 intended to be a storytelling outlet for athletes rather than a breaking news source — would be the vehicle for Hayward to control the news and the narrative.
Bartelstein’s account somewhat jibes with the word-count breakdown of how the story turned out. Hayward spent more than 1,300 words talking about his time with the Jazz, all of the friends he’d made and good times he’d had — anecdotes that would have worked whether he was staying or leaving. He spent fewer than 500 words on the Celtics and his relationship with coach Brad Stevens. In an e-mail, Players’ Tribune executive editor Sean Conboy said Hayward, who reached out to the site about documenting the free agency process before it began, had the intention of “saying a proper thank you to a place that he called home for a long time.”
The Players’ Tribune is often interesting reading. It does tell stories well, and they are well-read.
“While stuff like free agency decisions get a lot of media attention, anyone who reads our site on a regular basis knows that we’re most interested in telling personal stories,’’ said Conboy. “Our most popular stories in the last three months have been Scott Darling talking about overcoming alcoholism, Dani Alves talking about his struggle through poverty in rural Brazil, and Dion Waiters opening up about the murder of his close friend, and how his childhood in Philly shaped his worldview. These stories are 4,000-plus words and broke no news.”
But this won’t be the last time an athlete goes to the Players’ Tribune to reveal news. (It’s uncertain whether Hayward is an investor in the site, founded by Derek Jeter.) Here’s to it not being the last time a respected reporter beats the athlete to the scoop, even if that means a tense hiatus before the athlete confirms it himself.
The Players’ Tribune is often interesting reading, but it’s designed as a path for the athlete to cut out the middle man media. Yet the Players’ Tribune has been revealed as a middle man too, as the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala inadvertently proved when he took the most straightforward path imaginable in revealing his own free agent decision on July 1.
“Sources close to Andre Iguodala,’’ he tweeted from his @andre account, “reporting [he] agreed to terms to return to the bay.”
Now there’s a concise and trustworthy scoop.