I spent nearly 20 years in newsrooms, and every year in late March, we received a staff-wide email warning us of April Fool’s jokes masquerading as news releases. At a later point in my career, I became the one writing these emails, cautioning the staff.
Be careful. Don’t assume, no matter how innocuous the release may be. Make a phone call. If something sounds hinky, it probably is.
It didn’t always work. On one occasion, a veteran staffer received a short release from a CFL team saying it had signed a pair of sumo wrestlers – both weighing 400-plus pounds – to play on the offensive line. Without questioning its validity or making a phone call, he wrote it up and either ran it past a less experienced staffer or fired it right to the wire.
And 20 minutes later, he was sheepishly writing a “disregard” notice that had the rest of the newsroom shaking their heads.
I never was a victim of one of these pranks, probably because very early in my career I had good mentors who tought me (a) it often is more important what a news release doesn’t say than what it does say and (b) make a phone call because at the very least you may be able to add something to the story that the dozens of other outlets receiving the release won’t have.
The industry is a little trickier these days. News arrives via email, not by fax machine. It is available immediately, not in tomorrow’s paper. It comes in bursts of 140 characters, not full-fledged stories. The reporter can be anyone with a cell phone and a social media account, not someone with a journalism degree. And almost every news item is accompanied by pictures or video, because apparently our entire country either cannot read or has ADD.
So when my boss asked me what I was writing for the Rookie Rankings this week, I replied, “Elfrid Payton. Did you see that he cut his hair?” He also has been playing extremely well, which made for an easy write.
I had seen a headline or a tease tweet or something, claiming that the Orlando Magic rookie point guard – whom Dwight Howard affectionately calls “the guy with the hair” – had actually taken clippers to his unique look. So I clicked on the link and saw the picture, which seemed to show that Payton had in fact cut his hair.
But I wasn’t careful. I assumed. I didn’t make a phone call or dig a little deeper on my own. And worst of all, I didn’t scroll to the bottom of the post, where Magic staffer Dan Savage – a former colleague of mine and just the sort of guy to combine his wry sense of humor and Photoshop skills – explained that the post was a joke and Payton was still “the guy with the hair.”
Good one, Dan.
So as long as we’re talking about April Fool’s Day jokes in sports journalism, here’s one of the best ever, perpetrated by yours truly.
It was 25 years ago this week, Final Four Weekend. I was drinking like a fish and gambling on sports, and a colleague of mine and I had a rare night off on a Saturday, the night of the national semifinals. So we planned to spend the night drinking like fish and gambling on sports.
Our supervisor cautioned us that the next day – April 1 – would be a busy one. We worked in the agate department, and in addition to the statistical package for the national championship game, there were nine NBA games, several starting in the afternoon; a handful of NHL games; a full slate of games on the last day of exhibition baseball that required boxscores, linescores and short write-ups, to be immediately followed by finalizing 25-man rosters for every team; and other drudgery such as standings for these sports, golf scores, auto racing results and the like.
None of this was automated; it was all keystrokes and very detail-sensitive. You had to know how to spell Sarunas Marciulionis. You had to know that Dick Trickle was really a NASCAR driver. And you had to do things quickly. Our supervisor was justifiably concerned that our desire to drink like fish and gamble on sports would impact our ability to do our jobs the next afternoon. “Be on time and be ready to work as soon as you get here,” he said.
I went light on Arkansas against Duke and heavy on UNLV vs. Georgia Tech – two separate bets, no parlays – so I was up for the night. (I went even heavier on UNLV two nights later, so it was a good Final Four.) We bar-hopped Manhattan’s Upper East Side until last call at 4 a.m. and were pretty lit up when we headed to his apartment. I crashed on his couch and we got up around 1 p.m., plenty of time to shower, load up on caffeine and make our way to midtown for shifts starting at 3 p.m.
What we didn’t know was that one of the biggest stories in sports was potentially unfolding. There were rumors swirling that Brent Musburger – the face of CBS Sports who had play-by-play duty for the Final Four – was being let go. Because it was April Fool’s Day, the news desk was approaching the story with extreme caution and had yet to confirm it. Brent Musburger? Fired? Come on. So everyone on the desk was a little edgy.
We arrived at the office at 2:45 and entered the lobby, which was unstaffed on weekends. There was a house phone that food delivery folks used to call employees at their extensions. I turned to my colleague and said, “Hey, watch this.”
I dialed our supervisor’s extension, put on a gravelly, out-of-it voice and said, “Hey, it’s Chris. Adam and I just woke up. We’re hung over. Adam is throwing up in his bathroom and I doubt he can work today. And I’m not gonna be there until about 4, so … ”
Our supervisor lost it. “You gotta be bleepin’ kidding me!” he said. “I got four NBA games ending in a half-hour! I can’t believe you guys! Tell Adam he’s gotta come in – I don’t care how sick he is – and both of you get in here as fast as you can!”
He hung up in anger, which was our cue. The sports department was about 30 feet from the lobby entrance, so we could hear him as we approached, loudly ranting to a room full of staffers already wound tighter than a garage door spring. “Those motherbleepers! I knew I shouldn’t have given them Saturday off! They’re not getting a Saturday off for a bleepin’ year!”
He was still ranting when Adam and I turned the corner into the department and shouted, “April Fool!”
The rest of the sports desk – mostly middle-aged men – all laughed or smiled broadly as the palpable tension of the room – which we knew nothing about – had been broken.
But nothing will ever beat the the look on my speechless supervisor’s face, which is an indelible part of my memory and still makes me laugh.
On to the rankings.
1. ANDREW WIGGINS, F, MINNESOTA: Remember when Wiggins felt like he wasn’t getting a fair shake from the referees and picked up his first technical foul? In his last five games, Wiggins has attempted 54 free throws. While it is a small sample, it is more than the season averages of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. And there was also this duel at the rim with Utah’s Rudy Gobert. LAST WEEK: 1
2. NERLENS NOEL, F-C, PHILADELPHIA: Now playing power forward, he has become a double-double machine with five in his last six games, averaging 16.5 points and 12.3 rebounds and pushing his season scoring average into double digits. For the season, Noel has 18 double-doubles, more than the next two rookies combined. Only Noel and DeMarcus Cousins are in the top 25 in rebounds, blocks and steals. LAST WEEK: 3
3. NIKOLA MIROTIC, F, CHICAGO: He gets a lot of attention because he plays for a playoff team in a big market, and some of it is deserved: Mirotic scored 23 points or more eight times in March, and the Bulls went 6-2. But for all of those outbursts, his scoring average still is in the single digits and both his overall shooting and 3-point shooting percentages are below those of Wiggins. LAST WEEK: 2
4. ELFRID PAYTON, G, ORLANDO: In his last five games, “the guy with the hair” is averaging 15.0 points, 9.0 assists, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals while shooting 50 percent from the field. He recalls both Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd, both point guards who had shooting troubles early in their careers. And he may finally have shaken his free-throw phobia, making 11 of his last 13 foul shots. LAST WEEK: 4
5. JORDAN CLARKSON, G, LA LAKERS: His latest run of games in double figures is up to six, averaging a strong 21.3 points on 54 percent shooting with 6.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds during that stretch. “He knows how to put the ball in the hole and we are trying to get him to be a facilitator,” Lakers assistant Paul Pressey said. Just one question: Where’s Jeremy Lin playing next season? LAST WEEK: 6
6. MARCUS SMART, G, BOSTON: He had a lame excuse for his shot to the groin of Spurs forward Matt Bonner – “a freak accident” – that drew a one-game suspension and a share of the league lead with four flagrant foul points. Coach Brad Stevens had a better explanation: “an unacceptable play.” That also describes Smart’s 5.0 points, 10-of-35 overall shooting and 3-of-15 arc shooting in six games since. LAST WEEK: 5
7. ZACH LAVINE, G, MINNESOTA: Who cares that he has no clue? LaVine is trying like heck and so much fun to watch because you don’t know what the Slam Dunk champion is going to do next. He is up to eight straight games in double figures, averaging 18.4 points with 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He also is averaging 4.8 turnovers and shooting 40 percent. Scariest number? 40.1 minutes. LAST WEEK: 8
8. LANGSTON GALLOWAY, G, NEW YORK: He has clearly benefited from the Knicks having packed it in, using a rotation that includes two rookies and three scrap-heap signings. To wit, he is averaging 13.4 points in his last five games – all losses – but shooting just 25-of-66 overall and 7-of-24 from the arc over the same span. If he is starting again next season, Phil Jackson should be fired. LAST WEEK: 7
9. T.J. WARREN, F, PHOENIX: The Suns aren’t going to make the playoffs. Maybe they would have if they had given more minutes to Warren, whose ability to score the ball is what made him a lottery pick. In his last three games, Warren is averaging 16.0 points on spectacular 71 percent shooting (22-of-31) in 26.3 minutes. He moves very well without the ball but needs to get to the line more. LAST WEEK: NR
10. MITCH MCGARY, F, OKLAHOMA CITY: The bruiser barely stays in the table this week, only holding off Brooklyn’s Markel Brown because he has been doing his thing a little longer. McGary usually finds a way to contribute, either by scoring or hitting the boards. But he still has disappearing acts here and there – which the banged-up Thunder cannot afford – and fouls way too much. LAST WEEK: 9
DROPOUTS: Bojan Bogdanovic, G, Brooklyn (10).
FIVE TO WATCH: Jabari Brown, G, LA Lakers; Markel Brown, G, Brooklyn; P.J. Hairston, G, Charlotte; Tyler Johnson, G, Miami; JaKarr Sampson, F, Philadelphia.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Follow him on Twitter.