A couple of weeks ago, my dad emailed me an article from Syracuse.com by Brent Axe. Axe proposed a series on his blog called, “Almost Famous,” featuring Syracuse Alumni with success in the sports journalism field.
Although Axe only ended up doing one profile, I love the concept. His first and only interview was with Dave McMenamin, whom, after reading the feature, I was compelled to reach out to.
I was lucky enough to get to speak to McMenamin on the phone about his time at Syracuse, and his progression in the sports journalism field.
McMenamin at the time of Almost Famous was working as a writer for NBA.com, but is now a Cleveland Cavaliers beat reporter for ESPN.
He credits his love for reading to the Pizza Hut BOOK IT Program from elementary school. I took part in this reading challenge myself. The concept was that every time you read a book, you would log it with your teacher and at the end of the month, if you read enough books, you would earn a free personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.
McMenamin has always looked up to his older sister and adopted his love of basketball through her.
His best friends were also “hoop heads” that played on the team. “I was never the most athletic kid,” he claims, “I hit my growth spurt late.” He worked hard enough to make his high school varsity team, but never got a ton of playing time.”
In order to stay involved in the sport, he combined his love of reading with his love of basketball and started writing about his schools’ basketball team with one of his friends.
“My buddy and I sent out newsletters, and by that I mean we typed up stories, Xeroxed copies, and leave them on the lunch tables.”
McMenamin followed Michael Jordan’s career in the NBA closely when he was younger.
But as a middle schooler growing up in the Philadelphia area at the same time Kobe Bryant was a high school prospect, avoiding the bug was impossible for McMenamin.
Bryant’s father played for the Philadelphia Sixers, so when Kobe emerged as a high school stud, all the attention was on him. He was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets straight out of high school.
“I knew basketball, I knew how to write, and it became more than a hobby, it became everything I did.” He said.
The Main Line Times was a paper in McMenamin’s hometown that covered local sports. His friend’s mother was their sports editor and he decided to approach her asking if they needed any writers.
“I got to cover big-time stuff when I was certainly certainly small time,” McMenamin said about writing for The Main Line Times. Villanova University’s campus was within walking distance from where he grew up and he got to cover a lot of their sports.
Contrary to my first interview with Tom Martin of WIVB4, McMenamin felt that he had more command telling stories in the written form. In high school, he was involved in a sports show, where he described the broadcast-oriented students as being “too broadcasty.”
In his time at Syracuse, McMenamin studied Newspaper Print Journalism which is no longer offered at the university. “Newspaper is written on my diploma, and I don’t think I’ve written for one since,” he laughed.
There were two professors at Syracuse that stood out to him. The first is Sean Kirst, a highly-esteemed columnist at The Post Standard. While McMenamin was a student, Kirst served as an adjunct professor and years later helped him get in touch with Earl Lloyd, the first African American NBA player. McMenamin got to speak to Lloyd on the phone and write a feature on him for Black History Month.
The second professor is Earl Lissit. “He was the most thought-provoking professor I had at S.U.” McMenamin said.
For four years, McMenamin managed the Syracuse Varsity Men’s Basketball team.
“In four years, and this is not an exaggeration, we maybe had like five direct conversations.”
McMenamin said about Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim. “Boeheim is not a micromanager” He added, to explain the limited interaction with the Hall of Famer.
He also explained that Boeheim really appreciates broadcast media and is a huge consumer of sports talk media. During the NBA finals a few years ago McMenamin was involved in a segment of “Behind the Lines” in which the other personality he was paired with was Boeheim. “Now he treats me more like a peer, I was more like a college kid to him at the time,” McMenamin said.
He worked much more closely with Assistant Coach Mike Hopkins, so he had very little interaction with Boeheim while managing.
“I worked with guard groups when they needed a sixth man or if someone wanted to stay late and shoot free-throws, I’d rebound for them.” He said.
McMenamin got to spend a lot of time working with one of my favorite Orangemen, Gerry McNamara. G-Mac played a large role in Syracuse’s only NCAA Tournament victory in 2003.
“Gerry used to say ‘I could never see myself as a coach.'” McMenamin said when I shared my love for McNamara. Since his days in uniform ended, McNamara now serves as an assistant coach at his alma mater. “I like to give him s**t when I see him,” McMenamin laughed.
“When you’re an athlete, and you’re competing it’s hard to imagine yourself in any other way.”
While managing, there were other players that stood out to McMenamin. Hakim Warrick grew up in the same area and their families know each other. “We try to see each other once a year,” he said.
McMenamin noted that since he covers the NBA he get’s to see a lot of the players that he saw when he was managing.
Covering a team does not make you a fan of the team necessarily. McMenamin, despite serving as a Cavaliers beat reporter, explained that in order to assure the least bias in your reporting is to cover a team that you aren’t a fan of. He said that he likes the Sixers, but at the end of the day he is a fan of Syracuse Basketball.
His Syracuse connections have been some of his most important. For example, knowing Dion Waiters from when he played for Syracuse, allows for an easy interview when the Cavs play the Heat.
McMenamin urged me to lean on my own connections. “You’ll find that people who actually know you as a person want to help you succeed,” he said.
With this piece of advice I pushed for more. He emphasized to read…a lot. Other people’s work teaches you other approaches. Different jobs and editors will want and expect different things too.
McMenamin describes it as being phase-oriented.
When he worked for NBA.com, he did a segment called, “Rookie Ratings” where he got to be heavily opinionated. He could take risks on what he said about players. He described one of his posts where he took lyrics to Kanye West’s “Good Life” and replaced them with rookies in the NBA.
Now being at ESPN is “pure news.” The thing about this is that now it’s a matter of distinguishing yourself from the other countless people on air with mics.
With the reporting he’s been doing on ESPN, he tries to veer away from opinions as much as possible. Instead, he forms his opinions based on what can be backed up with evidence. For example, “LeBron’s shooting is better this year,” can be supported by stats and therefore not a controversial report.
When it comes to interviews, it’s McMenamin’s responsibility to get the voices no fan would be able to get his or herself.
“You have to find your voice, but not only that, you need to find the ability to do all the functions of your job.”
This is crucial to anyone trying to enter the journalism field. It’s more than being great on air. McMenamin explained that it’s not rare for him to have to set up his own tripod, set the white balance, etc.
“The demands never stop, and you want to become your best at delivering anything your employer wants.” He said.
According to McMenamin, in today’s world specialists are more valuable than generalists. “There are very few columnists whose voice matters across all sports,” he said.
Although he has been seeing a lot more time on air these days, he cannot forget his print background. On April 11, McMenamin with co-author Brian Windhorst will be releasing his first book; Return of the King: LeBron James, The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Greatest Comeback in NBA History. This is Windhorst’s second time co-authoring a book about LeBron and the Cavs.
“The book chronicles from when LeBron left Cleveland, when he came back, and when he beat the Warriors in June,” he explained. The two pitched their idea in June and had the deal in place by July.
McMenamin said that being on the ground with the Cavs, there’s just story after story which makes for a good book.
In terms of getting a foot in the door in this industry, McMenamin had this to say:
“If you put yourself out there, and people see that you don’t have some hidden agenda, and you have talent that can be polished, and you’re willing to learn, people tend to gravitate to those kinds of people.”
With that in mind, I feel more confident than ever looking into the future.