David Cobb is the Memphis Grizzlies beat writer for Commercial Appeal. In the past, he covered the SEC and all things Tennessee for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He chatted with The Big Lead about the differences between college and professional media access, potential draft targets for the Grizzlies, and gives his immediate reaction to the Mike Conley trade.
Liam McKeone: Hi David, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions today. In your own words, describe your journey in sports media and how you became an NBA beat writer in Memphis.
David Cobb: I’m very fortunate, at age 26, to be an NBA beat writer in my hometown. It’s an opportunity that means a lot to me because this is the paper I grew up reading and the Grizz are the NBA team I grew up following. The opportunity has a lot of significance to me for those reasons. It’s a spot that, had you told me 10 years ago when I was in high school, that I would be there now, I would not have believed you. I’ve been fortunate and lucky to have a number of excellent opportunities along the way, and of course, numerous mentors, bosses, colleagues, etc.
It all started for me at the University of Tennessee, in August of 2011 when I started there. I chose journalism because it didn’t require calculus and it didn’t require advanced science. It resonated with me because I had grown up enjoying sports and writing was my academic strong suit. I wasn’t good at most other subjects, but I was good at English and writing. I was like, “You know what? This combines my one skill and one of my major passions. Why not give it a shot?”
My first opportunity to really write was for the UT student newspaper in 2011 covering the women’s volleyball beat, and I loved it. I could not believe I had a credential to sit courtside at Thompson-Boling Arena and document an NCAA, SEC sporting event for an actual publication. That just inspired me to really start studying the profession. It’s been an onward march up the ladder since then, and I just kept building up throughout college.
From the volleyball beat, I got the opportunity to cover the women’s basketball program, and that’s obviously a huge program. By the end of my freshman year, one of, still, the coolest moments of my journalism career is being courtside at the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville, and seeing Pat Summit hoist the SEC Tournament Championship trophy in what would be the final season she coached. I’m kind of getting goosebumps now talking about it. She was battling Alzheimer’s, quite courageously, and ended up coaching that season even while battling that disease. So as a freshman, to be there, it blew me away. It gave me a reverence, #RespectTheBiz, for the opportunity to do sports journalism.
After that, I was all in. All in. I got an internship at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in college. Ultimately that ended up leading to a job out of college, and I was there for three years. When I got the job in Memphis, I was the University of Tennessee athletics beat writer. I was stationed in Knoxville, but still working for the Chattanooga paper, sending back stories on all things Tennessee, and the Grizzlies job came open. My wife and I, we had just gotten married and were happy in Knoxville. We weren’t necessarily looking for a move. But I always said I might go back to Memphis if I got the opportunity to cover the Grizzlies.
It always kind of seemed like more of a crazy dream than a real possibility. Ron Tillery had been on the beat in Memphis for a long, long time and was very well-established. It seemed like something that would be a number of years off, if it ever happened. But the job came open and the timing was such that they needed to make a fairly quick hire. I knew some people in the network from just being in Tennessee already, and I just decided to jump at it. I wasn’t looking at it like I had to get it, but thinking, “Well, I don’t want to look back and wish I applied for this.” So I applied for it and went from there. I started six or seven games into the season, and it’s been a baptism by fire ever since.
McKeone: How has your experience as one of the younger beat writers in the league been so far?
Cobb: It’s been fine. The thing is, I got to a point in Knoxville where I understood the workflow as a college beat writer, and just how things work on any sort of level. Fortunately, here, I have people around me who let me ask dumb questions sometimes. For instance, this week is my first NBA Draft experience. Well, I called up the Grizzlies PR guy and said, “Okay. How does this work? What’s going to be available to us?” I’m not going to be in New York because the Grizzlies’ front office will be here in Memphis, but just very simple questions about how things work for an NBA beat writer. People have been kind and patient and willing to work with me on helping me understand and get a basic grasp of the workflow and everything like that.
I will say it’s been a challenge because we had two contributors on the Grizzlies beat at our paper for a number of years who have since started writing for other outlets. They’re kind of like competitors. They’re nice and friendly and cordial, but man would I love to have their knowledge of the CBA in-house or one text away or whatever. That would be a tremendous resource. But for the most part, I’ve tried to realize and acknowledge my youthfulness on the beat and not act like I know it all because I worked in the SEC. The SEC and the NBA are totally different worlds.
The access is tremendous in the NBA compared to college athletics. It’s NBA-mandated that players are made available essentially three times a day. That’s morning shoot-around, pre-game availability a little over an hour before the tip, and after the game. Typically you’re not going to talk to a guy all three times, and he’s only required to talk twice during the day. But that’s insane when you’ve been coming from the hyper-intense college football world where sports information departments and college coaches are limiting and limiting the access more so every year. It’s been refreshing.
The thing that’s cool, too, is you actually have the chance to strike up casual conversations with the key figures in NBA organizations. That’s just not the case in most college football environments. It’s awesome because you can actually establish a rapport, a little bit of trust, by making small talk with a guy about how his old college team is doing or about a former teammate of his who made a spectacular play the night before. There’s little ways you can actually have legitimate human interaction with players and coaches, sometimes even the front office. That’s something that doesn’t exist in college sports anymore. I’m a huge fan of that, and appreciative of the NBA for understanding and continuing to protect the importance of those interactions.
McKeone: Let’s talk Grizzlies. Rumors have swirled that New Orleans wants to move up to two and take R.J. Barrett. Do you see that as a legitimate possibility for Memphis?
Cobb: I see the Grizzlies taking the pick and taking Ja Morant. I know the report out there from the NY Post suggests New Orleans is looking to get the No. 2 pick, but I give no credence to that whatsoever. I have no doubt whoever reported that has a source that says there were internal discussions in New Orleans about it, but just because there were internal discussions in New Orleans about it doesn’t mean there were discussions that reached any level of legitimacy in Memphis. I have nothing and nobody telling me it’s a possibility the Grizzlies will move off this pick. I don’t think that is a possibility.
McKeone: Assuming they do end up with Morant, how do you see his fit with the Grizzlies’ other young star, Jaren Jackson Jr.?
Cobb: I think they’re a phenomenal pick-and-roll threat together. You think about Jaren’s explosiveness and ability to play above the rim offensively, and Ja’s ability to find passes that most people can never even fathom, I think it could be a very, very good dynamic. A few years down the road, once those guys are developed, if they have enough floor spacers around the two of those guys, I think they could be a really good team. You’re going to have to send help-side defenders to contain the two of them if they’ve got good chemistry together. That’s going to open up holes for other players to shoot, or slash, or just be ignored by the defense for the most part. They pair well together. They’re already building a relationship, even though the draft isn’t already official. I think it’s exciting and a very natural pairing.
[Editor’s note: The interview was interrupted at this point by reports of the Mike Conley trade. David resumed the interview in the hours after reporting on the news.]
McKeone: Well, how’s that for timing. What’s your evaluation of the return for Conley, and how do you feel about his departure after all these years?
Cobb: As a rookie NBA beat writer, covering Mike Conley was an absolute joy, and I’m so thankful he was a part of the first NBA locker room I covered. He is one of the most humble, professional, accommodating, courteous people that I’ve been around in sports. This is a guy who lives in a different stratosphere than most people in terms of financial wealth and athletic ability, but he carries himself like a great guy. I wish him well, and I can’t wait to see the reception Grizzlies fans give him whenever he comes back with Utah. It’ll be a little weird to see him in an opposing team’s uniform for everybody, but I think his place in Memphis lore is protected and I bet his jersey will be retired one day. I wish him nothing but the best, and it couldn’t have been better for me personally to cover him my first year on an NBA beat… I really appreciated the way he handled everything.