It was the spring of 2004
I was in my final few months as a sports reporter covering St. Bonaventure basketball for The Times Herald in Olean, N.Y., about to be hired in Binghamton.
A Bona player announced he was transferring. I wrote a short story, quoting a press release that then-coach Anthony Solomon was out of town recruiting and unavailable for comment.
The day that story ran, I got an email from Adrian Wojnarowski, shredding me for my lazy reporting.
My job, Woj told me, was to get the story no matter what. Call the coach’s cell phone. Then call it again. Then keep calling it. If I wanted to get a job at a place like the Fresno Bee (where I had recently applied) and play in the big leagues, I couldn’t do work like that.
It was a deserved evisceration. I had been lazy in my reporting. I had slacked off. I hadn’t done the job right.
I hadn’t done the job the way Woj would do it.
Today, Woj announced that he would be leaving Yahoo for ESPN as an NBA Insider.
I can’t talk about what this means about sports media and online sports journalism, because I can’t talk objectively about Woj. I’ve been fortunate to call him a friend and mentor for close to 20 years.
Woj was the kind of mentor every young journalist should have. He pushed you. He holds you to the same standards he holds himself. If you slacked off, or weren’t pursing the right story the right way, he’d let you know. Praise from Woj was to be savored, because it meant you did a good job.
I got to know Woj when he was a general sports columnist at the Bergen Record, the kind of columnist who could throw all four pitches for strikes. His reporting on the St. Bonaventure scandal for ESPN helped push the story national. His book on St. Anthony basketball is one of the finest sports books you’ll ever read.
I don’t need to talk about the way he revolutionized NBA beat reporting. I don’t need to tell you he’s the best breaking news reporter in sports journalism, if not all of journalism.
But a few stories to tell you the kind of person Woj is.
First story: A few years ago, in my first year at SUNY Oswego, I asked Woj if he would be willing to guest speak to my sports writing class. I have a lot of guest speakers and figured he (like most) would Skype into class.
Woj didn’t Skype in. He flew from Florida (where he was on assignment) to Syracuse and drove to Oswego, on his own dime, to spend the day with my students.
At one point in my sports journalism class, he got a call on from a source with the Memphis Grizzlies. Not breaking news, just the kind of check ins that make Woj the best reporter on the beat. He answered the call in class, told him where he was. “Tell them we’re trading Gasol,” he said his source told him. My students learned more from Woj that one day then they probably did the rest of the semester from me.
Second story: The week the St. Bonaventure scandal hit, after all the breaking news stories were done, I sat down to write a column. It was my chance to write about and process this story as a St. Bonaventure graduate, not as a reporter scrambling for the next scoop.
I wrote the column on a Wednesday night. That night, both Woj and Mike Vaccaro (the two are forever friends) sent me the columns they were writing for the Record and the New York Post, respectively. I read them both as I was writing mine, and felt that sinking feeling when more talented people write the column you set out to write but do it better.
On AOL Instant Messenger, I joked about this to Woj.
Forget about that, he told me. How do you think I feel when I’m writing of a Knicks game and Harvey Araton, and Mike Lupica are writing the same game?
Your own standards have to be the goal, he said. Meet them, and push yourself to be better.
No one is better than Woj. And no one pushed me to be better than he did.