In a radio interview on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Clippers’ newest front-office hire described his qualifications as follows: “You have the analytical side, which I know absolutely nothing about. There’s the collective-bargaining agreement, which I know nothing about. As far as evaluating players and their talent level, I know nothing about that, either, O.K.? If I went into a gym, I couldn’t tell you who’s good, who’s bad—anything.” The speaker was Lee Jenkins, a longtime basketball writer for Sports Illustrated, who never played the sport as a child and who is known for writing observant features about the lives of star players like Jimmy Butler (“His favorite time of year is ‘grimy season,’ an unspecified stretch of summer and fall when he braids his hair, grows his beard and works out twice a day, hot yoga in between”) and Kawhi Leonard (“He is 24 but looks significantly older, like a man with a mortgage heading to the graveyard shift”). Jenkins is a profile artist, possessing an eye for detail and a facility for winning the trust of people who have little in common with him. When LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland, in 2014, he gave the scoop to Jenkins, who wrote an as-told-to that read, at times, like a Nike commercial. The Clippers surprised many people in both the basketball and journalism communities this week by making Jenkins their executive director of research and identity, a job title without precedent, to say nothing of comprehensibility.
The research part, at least, isn’t hard to imagine. Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, told the Los Angeles Times that he envisions Jenkins meeting with prospects in advance of the draft, for instance, and, essentially, interviewing them. Call it reportorial scouting, or, as Jenkins told me on Thursday, focussing “on the ‘who,’ instead of on the ‘what.’ ” Consider this passage from Jenkins’s Kawhi Leonard profile:
When Leonard arrived in San Antonio almost five years ago, the Spurs did not know much about him personally. Even scouts, who conduct famously comprehensive background checks, found him difficult to pin down. They were aware he was a physical marvel, 6’7″ with a 7’3″ wingspan and 11-inch hands, too strong to screen and too long to elude. He was a worker who took his own lamps to 6:30 a.m. sessions at San Diego State’s Viejas Arena, when the lights were off. He lost his dad at 16—Mark Leonard was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton—but Kawhi’s self-effacing manner goes back much further. He never even liked celebrating his birthday.
In this post-“Moneyball” era, many sports franchises have gone to great lengths to maximize their statistical focus, in some cases hiring journalists with a quantitative bent. Just last year, to much less fanfare, Jenkins’s friend Luke Winn left Sports Illustrated, where he’d covered college basketball, to fill a new position created by the Toronto Raptors—director of prospect strategy—that seems to combine old-fashioned scouting with the contemporary vogue for analytics. (“I probably picked up the phone ten times during this process, like, ‘I should call Luke right now,’ ” Jenkins told me. “But I didn’t. I didn’t want to seem like I was at the N.B.A. job fair.”) It stands to reason that there may now be comparative advantages, however small, to be gained from concentrated efforts to assess the intangibles with an outsider’s eyes: about the extent to which boys from chaotic households may become men who crave order in their daily routines, say, or about the predictive nature of automobile preferences.
I raised this notion with Bill James, who is often thought of as the intellectual godfather of the “Moneyball” movement, and who still works as a senior adviser to the Red Sox, having long since surrendered some of his independence as a critic in pursuit of the purer glory of wins over losses. He wrote back, “The money that you pay to players is SO big, hundreds of millions a year in the case of the Red Sox, that anything you do to reduce the chance of a mistake can reasonably pay for itself. If Jenkins could interview the player/candidates, get a sense of their motivations and focus, it doesn’t seem improbable that his sense of where their career is going might be valuable to the organization.” He also mentioned that Michael Lewis, the author of “Moneyball,” once proposed to him that, given their dependence on the habits and personalities of nineteen- and twenty-year-old males, the asset that professional teams could most stand to benefit from is “a bunch of college girls” with the skills of reporters: “people who would find out everything there is to find out about an athlete,” as James put it.
When I asked Lewis about this, he told me that he’d gone so far as to suggest the idea to Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, when he was working on the book. The scouts in the A’s organization, he said, “made a fetish of going to games and sitting behind home plate. They had weird taboos about interacting with the players in any way. But the players’ stats spoke for themselves. On the other hand, all this information that the team actually wants is something that a really crafty female reporter is ideally suited to getting out of young men. It has to do with their habits: Do they work hard? Are they comfortable away from home?” Beane dismissed the idea, Lewis said. “But all of the sports leagues do experiments with psychological testing,” he went on. “Daryl Morey”—the G.M. of the Houston Rockets and a founder of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, at M.I.T.—“has gone through every charlatan there is, and found no value in it. With a journalist, you just get to know the players. It’s not complicated.”
It’s also not very expensive, given the disparity between journalists’ wages and athletes’ millions. Jenkins, for his part, downplayed the applicability of Lewis’s theory, perhaps realizing that being implicated as a spy or a therapist would diminish his effectiveness in the role. “It’s not sports psychology,” he said, of his new gig, adding that talking to players who are already under contract with other teams is considered “tampering,” and punishable by fines or worse. Neither, he said, does the job involve “P.R.” He won’t be writing copy for the team’s Web site. The only kind of externally directed writing he could imagine possibly engaging in was helping to craft letters to players’ representatives, or agents, not so much as a primary element of the job but in the collaborative sense of “looking for ways that I can add value.”
Talking to Jenkins put me in mind of an important difference between baseball, where the rosters are large and the farm systems are deep, and basketball, where a star system reigns and free agency plays a much larger role in determining the fate of franchises, especially given the recent dynastic examples, in Miami and Golden State, where players have successfully recruited one another. “They’re trying to create a destination for players,” Jenkins said, of the Clippers, maintaining, for now, a journalist’s third-person detachment from his new employer. The fact that the team is owned by Steve Ballmer, the ebullient and super-rich ex-Microsoft C.E.O., is “an incredible carrot,” for players and employees alike, Jenkins said. Also, “they play in Los Angeles. That’s extremely alluring. Then, on top of that, there’s an opportunity to build an identity.”
There lies the other, more mysterious component of Jenkins’s job description. “When it comes to identity, they’re trying to figure out where they’re headed,” he continued, slipping gradually into the language of corporate branding. “They’re building something new, coming out of the ‘Lob City’ era,” an allusion to a quote by the former Clippers forward Blake Griffin that became a shorthand for the team’s showy style of play: heavy on alley-oops, light on postseason results. The current roster, by contrast, “is a tough team,” Jenkins said. “There’s a culture to build around that, and there are elements of the organization at large that will dovetail with that. It won’t all be player-based. There are ways to help build a story.”
By emphasizing the role of this kind of unwritten storytelling, he may have been avoiding mentioning the obvious—that the Clippers have been preparing for next summer’s free agency for some time now, and expect to have enough room beneath the salary cap to spend on a couple of so-called maximum contracts, in the vicinity of twenty-five million or thirty million dollars a year. It is not an accident that, of the seventy cover stories Jenkins has written for Sports Illustrated, I quoted from his profiles of Butler and Leonard above. Both men are due for new contracts at the end of the coming season, and both, since the news of Jenkins’s hiring, have been reported to be favoring the Clippers as their next destination. The timing could well be a coincidence, though both players fit the “tough” mold Jenkins described. What’s a few hundred thousand dollars, or whatever the Clippers are paying Jenkins, in the context of such a potential upside?
The broader media-industry dynamics bear mentioning as well, of course, when considering whether the Jenkins crossover may be a harbinger of more creative job descriptions to come. As Michael Lewis put it, referring to the Clippers and their new executive position, “The sad thing isn’t that they want to offer it, the sad thing is how quickly journalists will abandon journalism.”
Sports Illustrated is currently for sale, and now publishes only bi-weekly. In recent years, amid shrinking budgets and pivoting to video, some of the biggest names in sports writing have already shown themselves open to receiving checks from the leagues they cover, an arrangement that would once have been lamentable, if not unthinkable. (Will Leitch, who founded Deadspin as an outsider voice to provide “sports news without favor, access, or discretion,” is now a columnist for, among other places, MLB.com.) Jenkins is believably adamant that the looming sale of the magazine he’d dreamed of writing for since he was fifteen had “absolutely nothing” to do with his seizing an unusual opportunity. He said that he’d always expected to be “the last guy before they turn the lights out,” and that he intends to return to full-time writing, only with a deeper base of knowledge about how the league operates from inside, in the future. He hopes he’ll last in the new job for more than a year, but sounded skeptical of my alternative suggestion that he could remain with the Clippers for as many as five years, let alone the fifteen that Bill James has been with the Red Sox. When I asked if he’d considered writing a book about the experience, he said that he didn’t anticipate doing so.
“He’s a liar!” Lewis said, laughing, when I told him this. “But I also love it.”