ESPN’s Rowe, Spears receive Curt Gowdy award

SALT LAKE CITY — The recipients of the 2023 Naismith Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award, Andscape’s Marc J. Spears (print) and ESPN’s Holly Rowe (electronic), didn’t know each other well before sharing the stage at Vivint Arena on Friday afternoon. But through their decades of stellar coverage of basketball, they’ve been united in their consistent insistence on shining a light on topics outside the spotlight.

For Spears, it has been telling stories from behind the scenes and away from the court, as well as pushing to increase diversity in hiring practices for teams. For Rowe, it has been keeping a spotlight on women’s sports — even as she was told, at different times, to consider giving them up to focus on higher-profile men’s sports instead. And it’s led them both to the sport’s highest media honor.

“When I got the job at Andscape [in 2016], that was before the social justice movement hit,” Spears said after Friday’s ceremony. “It was before there was turmoil at the White House. It was before George Floyd, right? So when we started writing at Andscape, a lot of people kind of scoffed at it like, ‘Why is this important?’ But I loved it, and I think I’ve written stories that have helped Black coaches that weren’t getting looked at get opportunities and ultimately get jobs. Same with general managers.

“Whether it was coaches, front office people, whether it was women in sports … I felt like I wanted to write something that had an impact beyond that day. There have been many, many people who have said thank you to me, because they felt like I impacted them having an opportunity, and that, to me, makes this worth it. Trying to tell stories that inspire, maybe bring change, bring a spotlight to something people don’t know about and also talk about the uncomfortable. Why not have a conversation. People are so scared to have conversations about the uncomfortable when education and knowledge can make the world a better place for everybody.”

Rowe, meanwhile, said staying with women’s sports throughout her career was always a top priority. And while she’s been thrilled to see the growth of women’s sports in recent years, she said that isn’t why she believes sticking with them is an important thing to do.

“I think it’s really special what we’re seeing with women’s basketball,” Rowe said. “And if you think of it, they were just behind. Women’s sports started later than men. I think this is a natural trajectory. But I think it’s also really important for me. At the start of my career, I remember doing a Division III college football game between Pacific Lutheran and Mount Union. But this particular coach was a guy named Frosty Westering with Pacific Lutheran, and he had this philosophy of ‘Making The Big Time Where You Are.’ So, instead of chasing your whole life to make the big time, whatever you’re doing, make that the big time. And I think that’s how I’ve approached my women’s sports coverage, but pretty much everything I’ve done.

“Whatever game I’m working, that’s my Super Bowl, that’s my biggest thing. I think it’s really cool because I started out covering games that nobody cared about, nobody wrote about, nobody was paying attention to, and I’ve plugged away at it for a really long time and now people are watching and paying attention and I do think the big time is where I’m at right now. Which is women’s sports, and we’re on this verge of this tipping point in women’s sports. So I’m really, really proud of that. I think there’s a lot of people who start their career doing women’s sports, and then they get too big and go on and do men’s sports, and I’ve never done that. I’ve stuck with my passion. I’m covering the biggest men’s sports right now, but I’ve never given up my women’s and I’m really proud of that.”

Spears began his career covering college basketball at various stops, including the University of Arkansas, University of Louisville, the University of Kentucky and Cal State Northridge. In 1999, he began an NBA beat covering the Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post. Spears said his career changed forever when, in 2007, he took over the Boston Celtics beat at The Boston Globe in the wake of Kevin Garnett being traded there.

“When I got that job, in 2007, or when I was up for it, I remember in the midst of me, the week before I interviewed, they got Garnett,” Spears said. “And I was like, ‘I’ve got to get this job.’ I got that job, and I remember [NBA journalist] Ric Bucher telling me, ‘People are going to see your work differently now.’ Not that they didn’t think it was good in Denver. But it’s the Celtics, and Boston.”

From there, Spears spent several years at Yahoo! Sports, working alongside current ESPN Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski, before joining Andscape in March 2016. Along the way, he’s covered more than 20 All-Star Games and NBA Finals and cemented himself as one of the sport’s premier writers. And while he took a circuitous route to ESPN, Spears is pleased how it worked out.

“It took me a long time to get to ESPN, but I’m glad the way I did because I’m writing about a lot of social justice issues, I’m writing a lot about behind the scenes, players lives as people, coaches as people. Their trials, their successes, their pains and their triumphs, and I really, really enjoy telling these stories. And I’m very thankful to the players and coaches and general managers and PR people for having the confidence in me to tell those stories, because they don’t let everybody behind the curtain, and I’ve been able to get behind the curtain, and the ability to get behind the curtain with players and talk about things people don’t really want to talk about, between race and culture and things that are painful to talk about, I’ve embraced that.”

For Rowe, who has been with ESPN on a full-time basis since August 1998, Friday was special for her on a couple of levels — most notably that she was back in her hometown. From the very beginning of her career, which started after graduating from the University of Utah in 1992, Rowe has blazed her own trail, including literally creating the first women’s radio broadcast in Utah.

“When I was getting out of college, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women in sports,” Rowe said. “I got the University of Utah women’s radio games on the radio, so I could announce them. I had to go do a time buy for the radio station, get the games on. So I did the first women’s basketball games ever on the radio in Utah.”

That was the beginning of what a prolific career. Rowe has become ESPN’s lead men’s and women’s college basketball reporter, in addition to holding the same role with the WNBA. She also works on the Utah Jazz broadcast.

Juggling all of those responsibilities leads to a wild schedule — like the one Rowe went through over the past week:

  • Jazz-Timberwolves on Wednesday

  • Stanford-Arizona women’s basketball on Thursday

  • Alabama-Auburn men’s basketball on Saturday

  • South Carolina-LSU women’s basketball on Sunday

  • Jazz-Pacers on Monday

  • A visit to Baylor for a feature on Tuesday

  • Jazz-Grizzlies on Wednesday

“I don’t know how many hours of nonstop basketball that is,” Rowe said with a laugh, “but it’s all levels — men’s, women’s, college, pro — and I’m proud of that.”

And, while Spears and Rowe never met before Friday, they both respected each other from afar and thrilled to share the honor.

“I have strong respect for her, man,” Spears said. “She’s a legend. She’s opened a ton of doors for women. Brought spotlight to women. She’s one of the greatest — not just women journalists, but journalists, ever. I didn’t even know if she knew who I was. She’s a legend. I just assumed she was in here already. That was my first time really meeting her and I feel like I’ve known her my whole life now. She’s a really great person.”

“I still don’t know that I have processed it,” Rowe said with a laugh. “I’m really honored to be going in with Marc Spears. He’s someone who I admire his work tremendously. He’s so well-respected in the NBA. I read his work religiously. I retweet him religiously. I’m really honored to be going in with him.”

They both shared an appreciation for being honored this way — something both said would take time to process.

“You dream about this as a kid, but the thing kids need to understand is there’s a lot of other ways to get in here,” Spears said. “Yeah, I would have loved to play in the NBA. But I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve probably seen more NBA games than all NBA players have played. Just be around the greatest players on a daily basis, be close to the game, and not hurt my knees in the process. To get in the Hall of Fame? Dude, they can put my name in a closet somewhere, but I’m in there. Just the fact that I’m in there, I don’t know that there’s a greater honor on this planet that I could get than to be in this Hall. I don’t know how I can express how much of an honor it is to be there, journalists that are there before me, players, just to simply have my name in there. It could be upside down, but I don’t care. I’m in there. It feels amazing.”

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