At this moment, tens thousands of kids in high-school journalism classes and college seminars dream of becoming famed sportswriters. They imagine themselves rubbing elbows with world-class athletes, trafficking in insider gossip, winning bylines at major publications. All that stands in their way? An opaque industry that’s constantly changing and seemingly shrinking by the day. With the traditional journalism career path — college newspaper to small newspaper to bigger newspaper, etc. — largely blockaded by budget cuts and layoffs, it’s more difficult than ever for aspiring reporters to figure out the route to success.
And that’s what makes the story of Shams Charania so incredible. Charania is only 23 years old and just a few months out of college, but he is already one of the two most prolific news-breakers in the NBA and an essential part of Yahoo’s pro basketball coverage. He writes features, anchors video coverage, tweets to his 225,000 followers and, of course, snags scoops from veteran reporters such as his former colleague and mentor Adrian Wojnarowski.
Charania decided in high school he wanted to become a sportswriter, and not only did he accomplish that goal with startling speed, he reached a level by his early 20s that some reporters spend their entire careers trying and failing to attain.
“It’s just something you don’t see,” says Yahoo Sports editor-in-chief Johnny Ludden. “There are other young reporters in different sports who have done [well], but I had not seen this in the NBA and certainly not with that ability to break news.”
So how did he do it? How did Charania, who declined to be quoted for this story, rise so quickly to a level that industry veterans only dream of reaching? It took some combination of talent, maturity, determination and a willingness to put himself out there that anyone in any field can learn from.
Jimmy Greenfield had only one question when 17-year-old Shams pitched him on a Chicago Bulls blog for Greenfield’s ChicagoNow site: “I remember asking if he had permission from his parents,” Greenfield says.
After receiving assurance from Charania’s folks, Greenfield gave the kid from Wilmette, Illinois the green light. Then he left Shams alone as the high school senior wrote and wrote and wrote, often more than one post a day. Greenfield didn’t see Charania as a prodigy, per se, just a capable young blogger who was unusually consistent for an unpaid teenager writing for a relatively small audience.
“When I started seeing his name pop up all over [years later], I was pretty amazed that his was the same guy,” Greenfield recalls now.
Charania’s rise from teenage blogger to news-breaking stalwart may have been quick, but it was neither sudden nor accidental. After accumulating clips at ChicagoNow, Charania reached out to Chris Reina at RealGM and talked his way into a writing gig. His first article for the site, in April 2012, was a short profile of reserve Bulls guard Mike James. Most of his subsequent posts were the type of at-a-distance analysis you’ll find across the internet.
Charania soon began writing about teams beyond the Bulls and showing up at NBA-related events around Chicago, as he matriculated at Loyola. He wasn’t interested in spending his college years toiling at a student paper, covering sparsely attended Missouri Valley Conference games. Instead he had, as Reina puts it, “a prep-to-pro type of mentality.” In August, Charania interviewed Dwyane Wade at a charity event. That fall he attended Bulls media day. But even as things came quickly, Charania encountered one substantial roadblock. The Bulls would not credential a reporter so young to cover games.
Charania could have taken the Bulls’ rejection as a signal to wait his turn. Instead, he devised a back-up plan: He would apply for Milwaukee Bucks credentials and drive 90 minutes to the Bradley Center whenever he could. As it happened, the fact Milwaukee was a small media market with an under-covered team worked in Charania’s favor. He quickly began scoring one-on-one interviews with players and building relationships with people in the game.
By that winter, Charania was breaking minor NBA transactions, beginning with Mike James signing a 10-day contract with the Mavericks. No move was too small for Shams to report. From Jannero Pargo’s 10-day contract with the Hawks to Kammron Taylor’s invite to Celtics training camp to Monta Ellis’ change of agents to Quincy Douby’s deal with the Shanghai Sharks, he mined the basketball world for information and posted it dutifully to RealGM, where it often landed like a tree in a proverbial forest. But mixed among the agate-font minutiae was some news of real interest. He broke the terms of DeMarre Carroll’s contract, then the free-agent signings of legitimate NBA players like Anthony Morrow, Robert Sacre, and Ronny Turiaf.
In April 2013, Charania introduced himself to Sports Illustrated lead NBA writer Lee Jenkins, on assignment in Milwaukee for a profile on Bucks center Larry Sanders. In the following months, Jenkins watched with curiosity, bordering on admiration, as Charania broke stories no one else was chasing.
“Clearly you can see what he was doing. Those [smaller stories] were building blocks for him,” Jenkins says. “Being there for all those incremental stories, it helps you develop the relationships, develop the trust and get yourself into that cycle.”
In December 2013, Charania broke the Clippers’ signing of Stephen Jackson. The next month he scored his biggest scoop yet, reporting the trade that sent All-Star Luol Deng from the Bulls to the Cavs. It was Charania’s work on that story that led Wojnarowski, the king of NBA breaking news, to proclaim him “a [Jabari] Parker-[Andrew] Wiggins combo,” in reference to the biggest NBA Draft prospects of the moment.
Big-time story break by the best young reporter in business, @ShamsCharania. This kid is still in school. He's a Parker-Wiggins combo.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 7, 2014
By the time Charania joined Woj in September 2015 at Yahoo’s new basketball site, The Vertical, he was already a bona fide NBA news-breaker, at an age when most kids his age were applying to summer internships. He was still at Loyola, but reporting was consuming a larger and larger part of his life, swamping his college experience. Whenever Jenkins saw Woj, he would ask, half-joking, “Has the kid graduated yet?”
“He felt like one of these college basketball players that never graduates, that’s there for eight years, like J.J. Redick or something,” Jenkins says.
Though Jenkins and others raised the idea of Charania leaving school early to commit full-time to reporting, Charania stuck around to get his diploma. After five years at Loyola, he graduated in May 2017 with a degree in communications. It turned out he had finished school at just the right time. Seven weeks after the graduation ceremony, ESPN officially announced it had hired Woj away from Yahoo.
Suddenly, the NBA’s two biggest news-breakers were no longer teammates — they were rivals. As the summer’s frantic NBA news mill churned, Woj and Shams competed fiercely for scoops, while the NBA internet picked favorites. Sporting News wondered, “Has Adrian Wojnarowski lost his title as king of NBA Twitter? Uproxx declared that, “The future of NBA news is Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania battling for scoops.” When Charania broke the news of Paul Millsap signing with Denver, Twitter created a “moment” featuring tweets about the pupil upstaging the master.
This been Sham over Woj with these Bombs pic.twitter.com/itiHGUI8jb
— isaac(#FreeMonta) (@Stat4Stat) July 3, 2017
Shams ouchea breaking stories like Woj never signed out of his iMessages on his office computer.
— Andrew Ungvari (@DrewUnga) July 3, 2017
What if Shams was Woj's plug this whole time? pic.twitter.com/zKPMXdqqxs
— BBBeke (@BekeGSW) July 3, 2017
Though the friendly rivalry between Charania and Wojnarowski makes for a fun subplot in the NBA’s unending soap opera, whether Shams can match Woj scoop for scoop is ultimately beside the point. Woj is a 48-year-old veteran at the top of his craft, maybe the most prolific and trustworthy breaking news reporter in sports. The fact Charania can compete with him, and often beat him, at age 23 is the greatest possible testament to his rise.
In an industry that can be confusing even for seasoned vets, Charania seems to have made the perfect move every step of the way. He parlayed his blogging experience into a role at RealGM and used that position to gain access to players, agents and executives. He turned that access into small scoops, which begat bigger scoops, which led to even bigger scoops, which earned him a job at Yahoo and a reputation as one of the NBA’s most reliable reporters.
The question is, how did some regular kid from the Chicago suburbs, with no special connections or insider knowledge, navigate an ever-changing industry and wind up on top by his college graduation?
Much of Charania’s wisdom seems to have come from a pedigreed network of mentors, including Wojnarowski. But Charania deserves immense credit for seeking out that help. He worked his way into the right rooms, then introduced himself to the right people and asked the right questions. Jenkins recalls that whereas most kids quiz him on how to get a job in sports media, Shams inquired about the art of putting together a story. Clearly, a knack for networking and a willingness to reach out to accomplished pros went a long way for Charania.
Beyond that, those who have worked with Charania cite a few traits that allowed him to find such huge success sooner than just about any sports reporter in memory. His maturity. His ambition. His people skills. His poise. But above all, what seems to have separated Shams was his eagerness to go all-out in pursuit of his dream, even if that meant texting sources instead of studying for midterms or driving to Milwaukee when he could have been playing video games.
“There’s obviously a talent level there, but it’s also just his willingness to work hard,” says Ludden, who first met Charania at the 2014 NBA Finals, when he and Woj gave the young reporter a ride back to his hotel. “When you look around the media rooms after the Finals games at 3:30 in the morning, there are only a few people left, and he is usually one of them.”
Charania understood, in a way few young reporters do, that reaching the top level of the profession takes much more than just talent. You don’t start blogging one day and earn a national gig the next. Even in the internet age, advancement is a many-step process.
As Jenkins sees it, Charania didn’t blaze a new path to success or rewrite the rules of journalistic succession. He simply recognized at an exceptionally young age how to climb the ladder.
“It’s just being willing to take the small steps,” Jenkins says. “Being willing to immerse yourself in those small pieces of news that other people maybe feel a little above. It’s also meeting a ton of people, introducing yourself to a ton of people. It’s also networking, it’s work, it’s talent. I think it’s all the usual stuff, it was just so fast-tracked.”
Reina, Charania’s former editor at RealGM, says ambitious young writers often try to rush their careers but Shams realized early on that shortcuts don’t exist. The lesson of Charania’s rise, Reina believes, is that “If you have a clear vision of what you want your career to look like and you can figure out the steps it takes to get there and stick to that, you can be successful.”
From here, Charania’s career will only grow. He has begun focusing beyond breaking news, sharpening his profile- and feature-writing skills and appearing frequently on camera. Ludden says Shams’ role at Yahoo will expand however the 23-year-old wants it to. Maybe he’ll seek to combine Woj’s breaking news prowess with Jenkins’ profile artistry. Maybe he’ll hone his screen presence to prepare for an eventual jump to television. Given how quickly his career has reached this point, his ceiling resembles that of Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kristaps Porzingis: limitless.
At initial glance, Charania’s path appears literally unbelievable. In just five years, he has risen from a high-school blogger to one of the premier reporters in one of America’s favorite leagues, securing a dream job and positioning himself to remain a sports-media staple for as long as he wants. But as much as it seems Shams must have a magic bullet, by all accounts there is none. Charania achieved his current position because he wrote, he worked, he networked, he questioned, and he realized that age is in an impediment only if you make it one.