Days after J.R. Smith’s epic blunder in the final seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the last thing LeBron James wanted to do was revisit the moment.
But for Chris Haynes, an NBA reporter born, raised and educated in Fresno, LeBron opened up.
“It went viral? Damn cameras,” James replied to Haynes’ question, asked at a news conference prior to Game 3, about a video clip that showed his emotional reaction after learning the Cavaliers had a timeout remaining when Smith inexplicably dribbled out the clock.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Haynes said from the audience.
“I haven’t seen it. I’m not on social media right now,” James said.
“Could you elaborate a little more?” Haynes asked.
“You’re taking me back to Game 1?” James responded with a grin. “I finally got Game 1 out of my head and you’re taking me back, Chris? … Hold on, let me put myself back there.”
With that, James launched into a lengthy, detailed response that gave NBA fans around the world keen insight into the thought process of arguably the greatest basketball ever during one of the most difficult moments of his career.
That exchange also illustrated how Haynes, in a short time and by an unconventional path, vaulted to the top of his profession.
The Fresno native’s rise from unpaid freelancer, one who relied on food stamps to feed his wife and family, to highly paid and sought-after NBA reporter — all in less than a decade — took another step Wednesday when news broke that Haynes will be departing ESPN after his two-year contract expires in October to join Yahoo Sports.
In a clever reversal of the norm, Haynes’ move to Yahoo was announced on Twitter by Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers guard and three-time NBA All-Star.
How someone who graduated from Fresno State in his late 20s intending to become a coach and PE teacher, and lacking formal journalism training, can come so far so fast in the media business speaks to Haynes’ drive, work ethic and natural reporting skills.
“Chris isn’t your normal NBA reporter,” said Quincy Pondexter, the Fresno native and seven-year NBA veteran.
“He’s someone that you can sit down and hang out with, talk about hoops. He’s not really over the top with his being biased. He’s just real in everything that he does.”
That realness, which Haynes acquired growing up in southwest Fresno, helps him relate to NBA players, many of whom also come from tough urban environments, as well as their agents, family members and team executives.
“A huge part of this business is relationships, and how you interact with the people you’re talking to,” Haynes said during a visit home over Labor Day weekend to celebrate his 37th birthday. Chris, wife Charlotte and their four daughters live in Fremont.
“A lot of people don’t have those relationship skills where they can hold a conversation. They just want to throw a mic in someone’s face and ask a question. But it doesn’t work like that. In the business of breaking news, you can’t only be asking, asking, asking.”
While Haynes breaks a lot of NBA news (he was the first to report on Luol Deng’s buyout with the Lakers), he also gets exclusive interviews.
When DeMar DeRozan got traded from the Raptors to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, DeRozan broke his silence in a revealing sit-down with Haynes televised by ESPN. The network also gave Haynes a “dinner series” platform. Guests have included longtime friends Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley, plus Blazers teammates Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Haynes has certainly been in the thick it. After four years at Comcast SportsNet Northwest (now NBC Sports Northwest) in Portland, where he made a name for himself and began to break league-wide news, Haynes spent two years at the Cleveland Plain Dealer chronicling James’ return to the Cavs. Then in 2016, ESPN hired Haynes and moved him back to California to cover the NBA-champion Warriors.
At Yahoo, Haynes will serve as the website’s senior NBA insider while being allowed to build his own reporting team. He also received a sizable bump in pay.
Haynes’ move is the latest involving the three preeminent NBA news breakers. Earlier this year Adrian Wojnarowski departed Yahoo for ESPN, while Shams Charania (a Woj protege) recently left Yahoo for The Athletic.
With the NBA’s popularity soaring, reporters with the sources to break news are in high demand. ESPN made an offer to retain Haynes. He was also pursued by NBC, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic.
“In this business you’re only as good as your last story, and people quickly forget what you did in the past,” Haynes said. “So it’s been a little bit surreal, if you know my history, to be sought after. It’s surreal because seven years ago I was a security guard at a high school.”
In 2010, Haynes moved his family from Fresno to Portland to get his foot in the door as a freelance NBA writer. The “job” gave him a credential to games but not a paycheck, and working for minimum wage as a security guard, despite a kinesiology degree, left him frustrated and depressed.
But Haynes didn’t give up on his dream, and neither did his wife. The couple met in 1998 at Roosevelt High, where Chris transferred following three years at Edison. (Haynes admits he got “terrible” grades. His high school diploma is from Fresno Adult School.)
“She is the biggest reason why I was able to summon the strength and get the resources to make it in this business,” he said.
“He’s been very bold about his path,” father Bruce Haynes added, “but he didn’t do it all by himself.”
While Haynes’ ascent has been rapid, he never lost sight of his roots. He celebrated his birthday on Friday night at Luxs, a nightclub/restaurant in northeast Fresno, and spent the weekend visiting the Clovis home of longtime friend Terrence Hall.
“Everything happened so fast,” Haynes said while turning over a slab of ribs on the barbecue. “It’s been fun. It’s been a whirlwind.”
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee