When I decided I had more to give — and, more importantly, a desire to give — than casual writing about the NBA, I felt totally justified in my reasoning for unnecessarily entering a volatile industry. I felt like I had observed enough of my friends, met enough of my parents’ friends’ kids, and talked to enough people with more years of experience than I had to know one thing with absolute certainty.
As dramatic as this will sound, it’s true: I had clarity about myself and comfort in who I was for the first time in my life.
Growing up, I had always tried to be the person that fit in with the popular kids in my class. It was social homogeneity. That isn’t me taking a dig at them — their personalities clicked, mine did not; they participated in many of the same extra-curricular activities, I played basketball and that was all. There was nothing wrong with it; as far as I know, we all turned out fine in our own rights. But, I never had any semblance of who I truly was because I was never comfortable in my skin. There was no calling card for what made Austin Krell, Austin Krell.
In college, I became a little more comfortable with who I was. But, I was too immature to embrace it and make myself stand out. That was, until the day I decided to dabble in writing for what was once known as Philly Front Office. I’ve told the story before. I already had a post-graduation job lined up. There was no risk, no responsibilities to which I had to tend. So, I decided to try something in which I had grown interested.
That interest intensified as I grew more experienced in a traditional workplace. A sizable portion of my college friends work at major investment firms. My parents’ friends’ kids are in the same field, are medical professionals, or are lawyers. Many of them make a lot of money. But, the answer I get when I pose this question makes me contemplate the purpose of that career homogeneity:
“Do you enjoy your work?”
The pause tells me more than the words do.
I cannot ignore the fact that some people grow up in circumstances that are less than desirable, and making a lot of money is the ticket to making their own families’ lives better than theirs was growing up. That’s the goal. That’s awesome. Maybe they don’t love their work. But, being able to build a better future makes the work worth it.
Some have overwhelming amounts of student loan debt and can only afford to work high-paying jobs. The work may not touch every note for them, but it’s helping them lift the weight off their shoulders. Great for them, they deserve the happiness that comes from alleviating that burden.
Some people quantify their happiness in dollars. Maybe they don’t love their work, but the checks clear and they’re able to wear Rolexes. If living lavishly is the goal, and your job helps you achieve that goal, more power to you.
But, maybe none of those situations applies to you.
Are you then working a job you don’t enjoy for a big salary that you don’t necessarily need? What’s the point?
Are you doing it because someone whose circumstances were different than yours told you that that was the right path for you? Is it to impress someone? Did you bind yourself to a decision you made as a sophomore in college — when you were 19 or 20 years old — and are now too invested to take a left when that career path tells you to go straight?
Maybe there’s another reason. I can’t tell anyone else’s story.
But, I took a look at many of the people around me and realized that there was significant career homogeneity. And the way that homogeneity manifested for some — limited interest in the day-to-day work, obscene hours, lacking in life away from work, conflating income with sense of self — made me realize that the career path down which I was traveling might not align with my own desires.
For the first time, I didn’t want to fit in with everyone around me. I was comfortable — and, more importantly, happy — with being different.
So, I took that revelation and re-assessed what I was doing.
I had what amounted to a hobby in writing about basketball and re-prioritized that as a more central focus in my life. I still had a day job that made up for the limited income that is basically a ritual of getting started in the journalism industry. Neglecting or completely dismissing that work wasn’t an option.
The pandemic was unimpeachably brutal for everyone. I’m not going to play up my mental health because many, many people fight more challenging battles with their minds on a day-to-day basis than I do, and those battles were worsened by the restrictions of the pandemic. I will tell you that I was much more outgoing and much less reclusive before the pandemic started. You spend enough time in your house without people outside of your closest circle, you develop a degree of social anxiety.
Given the prevalence of depression and mental health challenges amongst today’s youth, I’d venture to say I’m happier than the average American in their mid-20s. That’s not me rubbing my lack of such struggles in anyone’s faces. That’s me putting the things with which I do struggle in perspective and acknowledging I’m quite fortunate, even though it may not be absolutely perfect. Ask me to go out with family or my very closest friends for a couple hours, no problem. Propose that I go out until 3 in the morning with a secondary or tertiary friend group, and I’ll be more excited when it’s all over than I am to go out. Ask me to meet new people — and I don’t know in advance that I have something in common with them — and I’ll dread it for days.
No, I don’t need help. I don’t need to take up a doctor’s time when they could be tending to someone with far more inflammatory issues. I’ll resolve it on my own. Still, is it normal to have access to a major city and be, by and large, a 26-year-old recluse? I don’t know, probably not.
But, the pandemic did breed one extremely valuable opportunity for me; one that I might not’ve had otherwise. The NBA — and, as far as I know, all professional sports — moved its coverage to Zoom. A select few had credentials to cover games in-person for the 2020-21 NBA season. But, all media availabilities were conducted over Zoom. Perhaps as a result of that degree of control, some of the league’s PR teams felt comfortable loosening the selectivity with which they provided access. Getting in the door can be a barrier to entry in this industry. The pandemic made Zoom prevalent, and that paved the way for people in my position to get their feet in the door.
If my next opportunity wasn’t going to come directly from covering the Sixers over Zoom for the 2020-21 season, it wasn’t going to be for a lack of effort on my end.
Having grown up in the Bryn Mawr suburb of Philadelphia, I’d been to my fair share of Sixers games before. But, that first night as a beat writer — a Thursday preseason game in early October against the Raptors — was really weird. I’d never been to the media entrance. I’d never passed a briefcase and laptop through security at any door of The Center. Never had I picked up a laminated badge with my picture, name, and outlet on it. Never had I walked the bowels of The Center, 2 hours before or after a game.
The new sights and experiences of a very familiar territory weren’t the only oddities. The most underrated part of the 49 home games I covered had very little to do with the game of basketball.
The back hallway on the visitor’s side of the locker rooms is where the media office and cafeteria are. You can make your way to the pregame and postgame press conferences by taking a left from the media room, passing the bar and lounge that add life below the first level’s bleachers. Or, you can turn right and walk past the visitor’s locker room. The only way to get to the media room from there — at least, the only way that I know of — is by walking out to the court. That tunnel is also the away team’s entrance to the court.
It is typically covered by a black tent, which I assume is intended to prevent fans from identifying opposing players and throwing things at them. As long as I cover the Sixers, I will make my way to the media seats through that tunnel. Nothing compares to approaching the end of the tunnel. The light hits you in the face. Fans watch you as you wander wherever you’re going, whether it be towards the court to mingle with someone or to your assigned seat on press row. Sometimes, the youngest in attendance lurk near the railing of the bleachers, angling themselves for high-fives from anyone emerging from the dark tunnel.
For a brief moment, you feel as if you’re part of the entertainment. You feel like a star. All you need to do is wear that laminated credential around your neck and the seas sort of part in front of you. Those five to ten seconds feel like an eternity.
But before you come back down to earth, you step towards the court. The images that you’ve only seen through high-definition television screens or several rows back of the court are suddenly so much clearer.
Just take a look around.
If I get there early enough — well before the fans arrive — I’ll see Paul Reed work on screening, sealing, and finishing at the rim. If I don’t get there early enough — within an hour of game time, when families are taking their seats, their young children screaming players’ names in hopes of a simple head nod in their directions — that’s just fine. I can watch Georges Niang practice catch-and-shoot threes from the left corner, I can watch the assistant coaches talk amongst themselves. If I stick around long enough, I’ll catch James Harden singing 1942 Flows by Meek Mill as he warms up with Sam Cassell.
Whether it be The Center or any of the 29 other arenas around the NBA, it’s a basketball sanctuary. And in that sanctuary, I know total serenity, if only for 3 hours per day. And it occurs to me just how fortunate I am to be able to make that sanctuary a workplace. Forget about the moments of self-doubt and discomfort that plagued me as a teenager; I couldn’t care less about being in with the cool kids now, I’m as free and comfortable in my skin as ever before. This work has paved my identity, and it’s what makes me unlike anyone else I’d ever known prior to stepping into this industry.
Fans are there to wear jerseys, have a couple drinks, and cheer for their team. I’m there to cover the home team with neutrality and objectivity; credit and optimism when deserved, criticism and pessimism when deserved. And now, it’s almost time to get to work. But first, I have to grab two Otis Spunkmeyer Chocolate Chunk cookies from the media cafeteria.
Sitting in the media section when the torches behind each basket ignite for each member of the Sixers’ starting lineup before tip-off is the warmest you’ll ever feel in The Center. And speaking of pregame festivities, I would be lying if I said I didn’t record and re-listen to the mash-up of Right Back Where We Started From by Maxine Nightingale and You Make My Dreams by Hall & Oates that played before the Sixers were introduced for the Spectrum uniform games at least a dozen times outside of those games. I don’t know who handles crafting those remixes, but they’ve consistently been great listens over the years.
I’ve captured some of the imagery that makes this gig so special. I’ve touched upon what being a basketball writer has meant to me. But, the purpose of this annual story is to reflect on some moments from the past season and unearth some of the lessons I learned. I want to grow as a sports journalist and as a person. That’s all I can do in this world. We grow because we are taught by veterans; it’s our duty to pay those lessons and experiences forward. And without further ado, I’ve thought long enough about what I want to say.
I sat in the first row of the press room after Tyrese Maxey’s floater lodged in the crevice between the rim and the backboard at the buzzer. That miss capped a 24-point blown lead in a January defeat at the hands of the under-manned Los Angeles Clippers.
My goal was not — and never has or will be — to disrespect, condescend, patronize, or attack the head coach. The intention and thinking was simple: The team had a 24-point lead in the second half against an opponent down its two star players, the team lost the game; there’s blame to go around, and the coach shares in that.
“What part of this loss would you attribute to coaching?”, I asked.
Some pointed to the fact that three Sixers combined to shoot 6-for-22 in the game; therefore, my question had to be a cheap shot. While those box score numbers are factual, my retort to that criticism is that the Sixers had a 24-point lead in the game. They did something very well, and then they did not, and then they lost. I don’t believe that to be explainable by three players missing 16 of 22 field goal attempts.
What the audio doesn’t capture is that I quickly responded “Yes, I would,” when Doc Rivers asked if I’d pose the same question to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. The only reason I even reveal that now is because many have remarked to me that I should’ve said, “Yes, I would” — I did, the microphone on the feed just didn’t pick it up.
I wasn’t trying to puff my chest out then when I replied, and I don’t intend to do that here. The reason it matters is because my interpretation of Rivers’ answer is that he took the question as disrespect. To me, “Yes, I would” preserves journalistic integrity. I’m not asking that question because the coach is Doc Rivers. That would be disrespectful, and I’m not there to intentionally stir the pot. I’m asking it because it’s a question that must be asked of any head coach in those circumstances.
But if my interpretation is correct, and Rivers felt disrespected by the wording of my question, then I share some degree of responsibility for the way that interaction unfolded.
I am the first to admit that my phrasing of that question could’ve been smoother. Beating around the bush when asking questions almost never yields an answer to your intended question. Interviewees usually aren’t going to pick up on your intended question and, if it’s of an unsparing nature, bail you out by answering something you didn’t ask. Most people trend more towards being defensive than open when you ask sharp, critical questions. You’ll ruin your credibility if you only ask questions of a condemnatory nature.
The approach that I find yields honest, open answers is to be forthright, but not excessively blunt. That isn’t to say all questions should strike that balance. In order to yield productive answers to “hard-hitting” questions, the interviewer might need to have built some level of good will with the interviewee. That good will is developed by asking lighter questions at times when harsh questioning isn’t necessary.
My mistake on that night was leaning too far towards the “excessively blunt” end of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean that Rivers was right to approach the question the way in which he did. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that perhaps he was offended by the question. If so, I could’ve and should’ve worded it differently.
I have some regrets about the delivery of the question. I do not, however, regret the question’s underlying message. At the end of the day, part of the job is to anticipate what fans want to know and use the access I have to ask those questions.
And that’s exactly what I was trying to do.
If someone tells you they don’t have any regrets in life, it’s almost certainly not true. We all make bad decisions, make mistakes, and take things for granted in our lives. We all wish we could go back in time and do something differently. That’s what makes us humans, imperfect creatures. That’s why we have to learn from our mistakes. Life goes on. You can’t just lament your wrongdoings. You have to move on; but you’re not making progress if you don’t grow from your errors.
My earliest regret in life can be traced back to 2013. My grandfather passed away unexpectedly. We had much in common, but we couldn’t so easily access one another in person. I can’t really blame myself for not having much of an opportunity to see him one last time. But, I can blame myself for not picking up the phone on any given afternoon and calling him. I never said “Goodbye”.
It haunted me for quite some time. But, I learned from that regret. And instead of holding onto self-blame for years, I found positive value in the regret. That’s why, years later, I’m very open when I feel sentimental about something. I never want to leave anything unsaid because no one knows if there will be another conversation with that person.
My grandfather would love the work I get to do now. He was a legend on the high school basketball courts of New Jersey. He was a Philly fan, through and through. I know he’s gushing over me covering his hometown team, wherever he is now.
I’ve lived a very fortunate life and I’ve been guided by great parents and family. I can’t say I’ve had an abundance of opportunities to have regrets. But, the big regret of my early years in this industry is not holding myself to a higher standard on social platforms. I regret the comment I made about a Twitter user in a Discord chat during the Sixers’ playoff run. Some insist that my comment was a malignant threat towards that user. I regret what I said, and I think about that mistake all the time; but, the honest truth is that it was in no way an expression of a malignant urge. There was no intention of actually following through on the actions underlying the comment. It was a message sent in jest, and one into which I didn’t put nearly as much thought as I should’ve before typing it out.
I didn’t make anything better with the apology I issued once the comment was made public. I was reeling from the initial shock that it had been made public, and so I tried to do damage control by including a technicality in the apology. That decision, and the lack of thought behind it, was perhaps equal in magnitude to the mistake that was making the comment in the first place.
My actions were immature, unbecoming, and inexcusable. That’s why I left the apology up instead of deleting it when people pointed to the ridiculousness of the technicality I included. I deserved to be criticized and condemned for it.
But, before you make another joke about it, know that I have thought about that lapse in judgment for quite some time.
To the Twitter user, himself: I am sorry about what I said. It was a comment made in jest. No harm was ever intended. I am also sorry about the apology. While I was genuinely sorry in that apology, it did not read in a sincere tone. Maybe you won’t forgive me, and I don’t blame you if you don’t. I cannot take it back, but I can address the mistake and apologize for it.
To those of you who loyally follow my work and were disappointed by my judgment: I am sorry. I pride myself on being accessible and kind and always doing the right thing in this business. It still hurts that I compromised that.
As for those of you who may carry a similar public profile or be in the same industry as I am: Sometimes you’ll get frustrated by what you read on social platforms. Sometimes you’ll have thoughts, stemming from that frustration, that should stay within. I’m not going to try to implore you not to have them. That’s just being human. For your own sake, be guarded in what you say out loud. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard than do those who don’t use social media as a platform for their work. Even if you don’t mean the words you say — even if the tone in your brain is of a joking nature — you very well may offend someone. Many won’t know you well enough to grant you the benefit of the doubt or take what you’re saying in stride.
Exercising caution and thinking about how your words may be perceived goes a long way towards saving you from yourself and preventing undue disturbance for others, especially on social media.
I keep two reminders on my phone’s lock screen. One tells me to eat healthier. The other reads, “Slow down and think first”. That was advice given to me by someone with whom I work closely on the Sixers beat. I’m still working on the “think” part. But, I have made it a point to slow down. It’s not just about assessing decision-making on social media, nor is it just about being thorough and clear in your work.
Slowing down is also about looking away from your phone when you step down to the level of the court at The Center. It’s about looking around and taking in the sights of the building. It’s about appreciating the work you get to do. After all, you’re covering the highest level of professional basketball.
The purpose of this reflection was not to give you a picture of my life story. This was not intended to be some magnificent, touching story. This is me providing context about myself in hopes that it makes it easy to understand why I take my work seriously, why I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded.
Thanks to the staffs at all the local sports radio stations for inviting me onto their airwaves to talk about the Sixers and the rest of the NBA. It’s been a surreal experience going from a listener and, when I was younger, caller to an occasional guest. Thanks to the various other show hosts who invited me onto their programs to discuss the Sixers and the NBA, at large. Thanks to my colleagues on the Sixers beat. I appreciate everyone who was warm and open to the new guy on the job. I learned more from them than they know. And thanks to those with the Sixers responsible for deciding who gets full-season credentials. I don’t represent a major outlet. There wasn’t much to gain by affording me access. But, they left the door open enough for me to get my foot inside.
It was a great first in-person season on the beat. I look forward to the opportunities next season has in store.