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Viewers weather Dwight Howard storm

If you’re not of the hardwood hardcore, you might have thought last week that “Howard” was an extreme weather system originating in Los Angeles and threatening to head east. ESPN pro basketball cognoscenti such as Stephen A. Smith and Chris Broussard tracked every free-agent movement of Dwight Howard, the then-Lakers center, as if he were a storm center.

Would he stay in Los Angeles, land in Houston, veer off elsewhere? Citing their sources, ESPN reporters had him changing his mind all day and night Friday, even citing at one point the “50-50” odds of his uncertainty. Had he been a real storm, I would have stocked up on water and batteries just to be safe.

Some of the Ombudsman’s mailbag correspondents – I’m beginning to think of them as my Ombuddies -- thought it was too much Howard, too much NBA and too many unnamed sources.

I checked in with Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, about the use of anonymous sources. He emailed: “With a story like this, breaking on live television, you either make some decisions to trust sources that have been good in the past, or sit on the sidelines. Pretty sure we'd be equally criticized for doing the latter.”

Good points justifying the process. What about the rationale for flooding the zone on the story?

On to Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights at ESPN, who wrote: “Dwight Howard did more than join the Rockets. He joined a club of folks like [Brett] Favre, LeBron [James], Peyton [Manning], etc. A big story with a big star and the question is did ESPN cover it thoroughly or too much?”

Blyn and fellow ESPN researcher Kaylin VanDusen tried to answer the question: According to their research, the NBA is a 12-month sport now, not only on the rise but skewing toward youth and diversity, both prize targets at ESPN. There’s intense interest in offseason personnel movement that can change the direction of a team.

All of this bears watching for recurrent patterns. How often does heavy coverage spike the ratings and thus justify the heavy coverage? And what about all those anonymous sources? In situations like this, I’ll give reporters the benefit of the doubt; they are protecting useful insiders rather than interviewing each other or floating rumors.

But it does keep one glued to ESPN just the way storm warnings keep you following weather reports.