ESPN writer Baxter Holmes speaks at CSUF’s Society of Professional Journalists meeting

In Sports, Top Stories
Baxter Holmes interviewing Kobe Bryant
(Courtesy of Andrew D. Bernstein)

Writing a story on certain aspects about an athlete or sport that are unknown to most people — such as a hydrogen bomb that miraculously didn’t detonate during 1961 in a city known for producing the most NBA players in America — requires more than putting a pen to paper.

From the NBA’s addiction to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell’s profound relationship with dogs, Baxter Holmes wasn’t fatigued by any storytelling when he spoke to the Society of Professional Journalists chapter at Cal State Fullerton.

A week after signing a multi-year contract with ESPN, the NBA national-feature writer shared his words of wisdom with college journalists about finding a story and how to tell it.

Harrison Faigen, president of Fullerton’s SPJ chapter, invited Holmes to the biweekly meeting for students to learn about his personal journey and how to write daily beat coverage.

“He finds these angles that no one else finds and tells these stories that no one else is telling, and I think that’s what makes him such a unique and talented writer,” Faigen said.

Holmes didn’t start his reporting career in the most traditional way.

As a teenager in Oklahoma, Holmes was a member of his high school’s basketball team. At some point, a teacher asked him to cover the team for the local newspaper.

The days of game previews and recaps are now long gone for Holmes, as behind-the-scenes stories of the NBA and even a James Beard Foundation media award are stacked underneath Holmes’ byline.

Holmes has fixated himself in the nooks and crannies of the NBA’s on-and-off the court stories.

From tales of the league’s brightest stars frequenting the grapevines of a Napa Valley winery, to the chaos of Los Angeles Lakers’ legend Kobe Bryant’s farewell season, the smallest details  are always noticed by Holmes.

There’s a human element to basketball that is more than just filling a notebook with stats and play-by-plays of the athletes on the court.  

“I think people sense that I have a genuine curiosity about something that I am really trying to understand. I will commit the time. I will commit weeks, months and sometimes years just trying to understand one thing to a degree where I can explain it,” Holmes said.

Before anchoring himself to the Lakers for ESPN, Holmes joined the Boston Celtics beat with The Boston Globe. At the age of 25, Holmes was competing with reporters who had been on the Celtics beat longer than he’d been alive.  

“I thought ‘Man, they’re going to wipe the floors with me,’” Holmes said.

To set himself apart from the pack of veteran reporters, Holmes focused on feature stories within the realm of the Celtics.

“I didn’t have the connections or what not, but I had a passion for feature stories and for enterprise reporting, so I thought the best way to help my coverage to stand out was to work on my coverage of those stories,” Holmes said.

After immersing himself in the city of Boston for 22 months, Holmes made the move from one city with a storied rivalry to another: Los Angeles.  

“I’m probably a unique reporter in that I covered both the Lakers and the Celtics. I don’t have allegiances either way. I’m not from either of those cities; I’m from a small town in like the poorest county in the state of Oklahoma,” Holmes said.

A standout season for Holmes was the complexity of Bryant’s last season of his illustrious career. The tired body of a 37-year-old led to longer nights for the writer, who waited for Bryant to finish extensive physical therapy treatments and receptions of celebrities.

“Basically every night almost felt like a double or triple overtime game. The nights were very, very, very long,” Holmes said.

Hailing from Oklahoma, Holmes said he wasn’t exactly raised in the extravaganza that surrounded Bryant’s career. The strenuous hours and days exposed Holmes to a different side of the basketball player, particularly in the last few days that led up to Bryant’s last game.

The 20-season career was catching up to Bryant, even more so when he ruptured his achilles during the 2013 season.

Holmes detailed the few days leading up to the turning point in Bryant’s career. The dedication to winning on the court led him to watching the Lakers from the bench.

“I hadn’t covered him for many years. I didn’t have a great and long time to get to know him, but during that final year I think I got to know him probably as much as I could,” Holmes said.

Holmes said fire for writing and information still burns within him, despite the long nights he endured with Bryant and the thousands of words he’s written since then.

“It feels like Christmas morning almost every time getting great information, and I go back to the computer and I know I have a great story at my fingertips,” Holmes said.

Jesse Lima contributed to this article.

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