After nearly 15 years covering college basketball at The News-Gazette in Illinois, The Courier-Journal in Kentucky and for Yahoo/Rivals, Brett Dawson was given a chance to fulfill his dream of writing for the NBA.
He made his debut as a freelance writer, covering the New Orleans Pelicans for The Advocate. One year later, Dawson was hired by The Oklahoman to cover the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the start of the current NBA season, Dawson was recruited by The Athletic to come on as a Staff Writer covering the Thunder.
For The Athletic, Dawson is able to focus more on big feature stories, such as his feature on Dennis Schröder’s childhood, his journey in basketball and fresh start with the Thunder.
CW: In your note to The Athletic readers, you wrote that you hope to inform and entertain, so what does that look like when writing a feature? How do you dive into the feature?
BD: I think the main thing is you just want to do as much research as you can. I’ve got a couple people who really help me on the way and give me guidance. A guy named Chuck Culpepper, who is at The Washington Post now but has worked in a million different places, told me the best features are the ones where you have a ton left over and have way more stuff that you don’t use. That’s the thing – you just want to have so much stuff so you can pick and choose where you want to go. You can pick the best stuff for now, and you save the rest for a story down the road because you never know when you can use it.
CW: Did you experience that with the Dennis Schröder story?
BD: Yes, so I talked to him for like 35 minutes, which is the longest I’ve ever spent with an NBA player. There’s all kinds of stuff about his fiancé that I didn’t use but may use down the road for another story…Hopefully you come across some anecdotes. Like, with this story, Dennis told me about him jumping off those 11 stone steps in Germany, and the minute he said it I knew I’d probably be using it.
CW: So what made you want to talk to Dennis Schröder so much? Did you get assigned that or seek out that story for yourself?
BD: Pretty much we do everything on our own. We coordinate with our editors, so I’ll call, email or slack an editor and just say what idea I have, then it goes from there. One thing that I’ve carried with me from my time with The Oklahoman is that whenever you’re writing a story, I ask what the central question is. What’s the question of the story you are trying to answer? For me, the question of this was, “Who is this guy?” I really wanted to write about Schröder because he was new, and I was pretty confident I could get time with him…Also, I felt like nobody had really written anything on him since he got traded. Nobody had really written a big story about him in the market. The access and the desire led me to want to write this.
CW: How did you prepare going into the interview?
BD: It was kind of weird because I had never talked to him before, so I did a ton of research. I wanted to learn as much about his life as I could. Some stuff had already been written about him, so it wasn’t all going to be new, but that’s always going to happen, so you’re trying find something different. I knew a lot about him going into it, but I also did not read the big Bleacher Report story about him. I skimmed it, but I didn’t want it to inform my own writing, so I steered clear, but I got the basics.
CW: So how did the interview happen the way it did?
BD: It was a good setting. We were the only people there, which is kind of nice because you’re often off to the side with a lot of activity happening, or there is a PR person hanging out, but there wasn’t. Actually, it was beneficial that he took a long time. He took a shower, he got a smoothie, all these things were going on, so everyone had cleared out of the gym. We were literally the only two people in the gym, so that helped to make it feel more comfortable and conversational. He was in sweats and a t-shirt, drinking a smoothie, so he wasn’t trying to leave or go shower and get away.
CW: He seemed like he shared a lot and was open to conversation. How did you build that level of comfort, or respect, where he felt he could share with you openly and have good conversation?
BD: He had some stuff he really wanted to get across. He wanted me to know he was a guy who was going to adapt well and could be part of a winning team. He had some things in Atlanta that he felt bad about, like the way it ended, so that helped. Then, a weird thing, but I took German in college, and I don’t remember a ton of it, but when I got introduced to him, I told him in German, “I studied a little German, but I don’t remember a ton of it.” He thought it was good German, and he laughed and got a kick out of it, and that, right away, put him a little at ease.
CW: Yeah, it was something a little personal and light-hearted.
BD: Yeah, exactly. It was a little something to connect with. Just having a lot of knowledge about a guy then a little bit of a way to connect.
CW: Last question, but what are you really excited about covering this season with the Thunder? What stories or elements are you most excited for?
BD: I like the human element of things, and with this job there’s some time to do things. I’m writing off most games but not every game. I’m not going to every game or every away game, but I am in D.C. now for the game tonight. But I’ve got time to dig in and find some stuff. Trying to find ways to help people connect with players as people is always the thing I like the most because players are people, and we don’t think of them in the same way. The most exciting thing for me right now is that I have more time to try and do this.