Flintstones carving a new path to NBA — as writers

It was NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte in February. As often happens when large groups of sports media are assembled, a debate broke out: Which player in franchise history is the most quintessential Charlotte Hornet?

Dan Feldman, a Flint native and Carman-Ainsworth graduate and currently an NBA reporter for NBC Sports, had the obvious answer: Flint Northwestern legend and former Hornets All-Star Glen Rice. Because of course the correct answer is Glen Rice.

When others in the group pushed back on Feldman’s answer, he also had reinforcements — he called over Eric Woodyard, a Flint Southwestern graduate who now covers the NBA for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah. Woodyard was asked the same question and, without hesitation, said Rice. 

Flint has a long and proud history of producing NBA-caliber basketball talent that is on par with any major city in the United States. Currently, four Flint natives are playing in the NBA. (Kyle Kuzma just finished his second season with the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging 18.7 points per game and was named the MVP of the NBA’s 2019 Rising Stars game during All-Star Weekend. Miles Bridges just completed his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets after being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft out of Michigan State. Monte Morris, who won three state championships and Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award while at Beecher High School, was an important rotation guard for the Denver Nuggets during his second season. JaVale McGee, who won two NBA championships with the Golden State Warriors, just completed his 13th NBA season, most recently playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Plus, Flint native Courtney Kirkland is in his 18th season as an NBA referee.)  

Producing on-court basketball talent is nothing new for Flint. Woodyard, Feldman and James Edwards III, a Flint native and Carman-Ainsworth graduate who covers the NBA for The Athletic, are a new connection to basketball — three credentialed journalists from Flint who write about the league for national media outlets.

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Eric Woodyard with Flint native Monte Morris, who just finished his second season with the Denver Nuggets.For decades, summers in Flint revolved around basketball, featuring a who’s who of NBA stars in the summer pro-am. Flint natives who played collegiately or professionally in the NBA and overseas routinely came home and participated in pro-am games. The city’s talent level also attracted NBA players who had no connection to Flint, including Isiah Thomas, Jason Richardson, Mark Macon, Zach Randolph, Chucky Atkins, and many others, to pro-am games.

Those games helped foster Woodyard’s love for basketball and his ability to see sports journalism as a possible career path.

“I would go (to the pro-am) every weekend,” Woodyard said. “You never knew who would be there playing. I remember in 2000, I was there with my family and I got interviewed by a Flint Journal reporter. When the story came out, I thought it was cool seeing my name in the paper.”

Woodyard grew up reading the Journal sports section, including longtime columnist Rickey Hampton. He also read basketball magazines like SLAM. During his senior year at Southwestern, his English teacher, Ms. Herman, told him he was a good writer. When he went to college at Western Michigan University, he pursued journalism as a way to combine his passion for basketball and his interest in writing.

“College helped me see it as a career,” Woodyard said. “Just being in Flint, we put so much emphasis on basketball. All the cool people played basketball, and everyone told stories about the different eras. I had uncles who played against some of Flint’s great players. I’ve maintained my love for the game by writing.”

After graduating from Western, Woodyard worked as a sports reporter for the Flint Journal, covering — among other things — the rise of boxer Claressa Shields from an unknown teenage prodigy into an Olympic gold medalist and successful professional. He also covered Kuzma, Bridges, and Morris while they were high school players.

Woodyard has covered the Utah Jazz for the Deseret News for the past two seasons.

“I had never seen mountains before,” Woodyard said. “I knew who (Utah Jazz legends and NBA Hall of Famers) (John) Stockton and (Karl) Malone were, but that’s all I knew about Utah. I just approached it like a fresh start.”

Eric Woodyard with NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone outside of Legends Cigar and Vape, owned by Malone and his daughter, in Ruston, Louisiana.Woodyard began covering the Jazz right as they began a rise as one of the league’s most exciting young teams. His rookie year on the beat coincided with the rookie season of star player Donovan Mitchell. Woodyard has been able to cover his ascension to NBA stardom.

“Some of the plays he was making by midseason his rookie year, some of us in the media were like, ‘Damn, he’s gonna be good,’” Woodyard said. “But Flint prepared me for the moment, some of my best work was in Flint and it has helped prepare me to cover big stories.”

Woodyard is an award-winning features writer who has been able to write powerful and outside-the-box stories. He worked with Jazz player Jae Crowder on a story about Crowder’s mother, who died of cancer on the same day he was traded from Boston to Cleveland in 2017. Crowder had never discussed it publicly, and Woodyard told the story with Crowder as a first-person letter based on interviews they did. 

“Jae busted out in tears when he read it,” Woodyard said. “It was a non-traditional way of writing something, but it made it more powerful coming from him.”

Woodyard also did a feature on Malone — who is famously reclusive from media attention — that entailed visiting him at his home in Louisiana and spending three days getting to know him and his family.

“We were supposed to talk for about an hour,” Woodyard said. “Then we got to talking, he knew about Flint and just felt my energy, so he invited me to his house.”

Woodyard’s experiences growing up in Flint and working as a journalist in Flint have served as a great proving ground for his professional career.

“I learned so much from MLive and the Flint Journal and the responsibility I had there,” Woodyard said. “It set me up for the position I’m in now. I’m just a kid from Avenue B in Flint. I never knew any of this would be possible.”

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James Edwards III, who covers the Detroit Pistons for The Athletic, tried out for the Grand Rapids Drive for a story during the 2017-18 season.“I went to high school with Glen Rice’s niece,” Edwards said, highlighting the well-known fact that in Flint, you always “know somebody who knows somebody.”

Edwards is from a Flint family — his mom is eastside and his dad is northside. His grandma taught at Flint Northwestern. He lived in the city as a child before moving to Jackson and Ypsilanti, then moved back as a teenager and graduated high school at Carman-Ainsworth. Throughout his childhood, sports, in particular basketball, were prominent.

“My dad played at Southwestern and played JUCO basketball,” Edwards said. “SportsCenter was always on at our house, there were always newspapers and magazines around. I played high school and AAU basketball, but always knew I wanted to do sports journalism. My dad always said to have a Plan B, and (sports journalism) is the next best way to get into professional sports.”

Flint’s basketball history — and the seemingly endless stories of different generations of basketball talent — helped shape Edwards’ love of the game. 

“Everyone knows about Flint and MSU, that the only team to bring (Tom) Izzo a title is the Flintstones,” Edwards said. “But there are also the obscure guys like Eddie Robinson, who never even played high school basketball but still made it to the NBA.”

Edwards studied journalism at Michigan State and, while in college, was able to begin working with the Lansing State Journal, first as a stringer answering phones and posting scores from high school games, then moving into part-time and full-time roles after graduating.

That newsroom experience — including working with veteran reporters and columnists like Joe Rexrode, Graham Coach, Chris Solari, and others — gave him a significant head start in his career. 

“I got a foot in the door at the LSJ,” Edwards said. “Working hard and making the most out of any opportunity goes a long way.”

Edwards just completed his second season covering the Detroit Pistons for The Athletic, a subscription-based network of websites that covers sports nationally and locally in 47 markets across the country. 

In his first season on the beat, he had to acclimate quickly to the 24-7 nature of pro sports coverage. In January of 2018, Edwards had just returned home after a Pistons roadtrip that ended in Cleveland and was going to hang out with a friend. As he was putting gas in the car, he got what in NBA parlance is known as a “Woj Bomb” — a tweet from massively plugged-in ESPN writer Adrian Wojnarowski that the Pistons had shockingly just traded for All-Star Blake Griffin.

“I had to tell my friend we couldn’t hang out. I spent all night writing,” Edwards said.

The Athletic, because it isn’t a daily newspaper, has also allowed Edwards the time to do unique features, including a first-person account of trying out for the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ G League affiliate team, and an in-depth look at the extensive science Griffin uses in his workouts. His goal is simple — to make his writing stand out.

“When I write a feature, I want it to be definitive,” he said. “I want my story to be the place you go when you want to know about that player or topic.”

* * *

Dan Feldman (top center, green shirt), who covers the NBA for NBC Sports, sitting on press row at Little Caesar’s Arena during a Detroit Pistons game.When Feldman was growing up, reading the Flint Journal sports section, he didn’t just consume the feature stories or columns. He read everything.

“I would read it cover to cover when I was a kid,” he said. “Even the agate.”

(Agate is newspaper lingo for the smaller font used to display in-depth statistical information often used in the Sports section.)

That combination — a passion for sports and for statistics and research — are themes that have shaped Feldman’s writing career. 

Feldman began taking journalism courses in Carman-Ainsworth Schools in junior high and continued in high school. When he went to the University of Michigan, he was a sports reporter for The Michigan Daily. He also founded the ESPN TrueHoop Network’s Detroit Pistons blog, PistonPowered, while in college.

“The newspaper advisor at C-A when I did it, Miss Matthews, was so great at keeping it fun and teaching us,” Feldman said. “I enjoy sports, but also research and interviews. I learned to combine them. At Michigan, I took a history of college athletics class, I took a statistics class, and I still apply things I learned in those classes.”

Feldman has worked as a sports reporter for the Flint Journal and The Gazette in suburban Maryland. He’s also freelanced for the Associated Press prior to his position with NBC Sports. Much of his writing for NBC is focused on finding obscure or overlooked angles and then using his access to NBA locker rooms to ask players about the statistical quirks he finds. He wrote early on about the importance of Draymond Green’s passing to the Golden State Warriors offense in 2016, before it had become a national storyline. He also wrote about the impact Russell Westbrook’s volume rebounding had on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s center, Steven Adams, whose rebounding lagged behind other top centers as a result of Westbrook’s rebound-hunting tendencies.

“Covering the NBA nationally from Detroit, I can usually get one-on-ones with players because there isn’t much media here,” Feldman said. “When I was in Boston, it was a madhouse in the locker room. I do a lot of research beforehand, and I don’t have deadlines like the (print) beat writers. I can wait if players are taking a long time after the game. I’ve been lucky to have jobs to have the freedom to write what I want to.”

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James Edwards III interviewing Luke Kennard of the Detroit Pistons.Woodyard, Edwards, and Feldman all have different writing styles and find angles that pique their personal creativity and interests. But — like all of the NBA players who have come from the city — there is still something uniquely and identifiably “Flint” about how they go about their jobs.

“Growing up in Flint, I knew people across the spectrum of race, class, religion, politics, education — everything,” Feldman said. “That experience has helped me better connect with and understand people of all backgrounds, highly important aspects of this job. Everything I've learned about statistics says we too often see patterns where it's just random occurrence. So I cynically think it's mostly coincidence three of us from Flint are covering the NBA. But if there's a reason, I think this is it.”

Seeking out diverse experiences has helped Edwards throughout his career, and he encourages everyone to venture out of comfort zones.

“I moved when I was a kid and had to make new friends,” he said. “Diversify who you hang out with, what you do in your everyday life. That gives you the opportunity to learn more and garner other interests.”

Kids throughout Flint have long seen basketball and sports in general as a way to escape poverty or difficult circumstances in their lives. Woodyard is proud that he’s helped show another viable path.

“I want to inspire kids and let them know they can be whatever they want,” he said. “Flint is so unique, we have so much soul, culture, and history for a small town, I still feel it whenever I’m home. I want to continue to represent on my end and want the next generation of Flint kids to come along and be even bigger and better.”
Family and friends of Eric Woodyard, who covers the Utah Jazz for the Deseret News, pose for a photo with Woodyard after a Detroit Pistons game at Little Caesars Arena.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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