The hardest part about blogging is having the time to write everything I want to write. It kills me when I have such a great time doing something but don't have a chance to put it all out there until days later or even weeks.
Such is the case with an interview I had with a man that I consider one of the hardest working broadcasters in sports: CJ Papa.
I first met CJ in January of 2006 when he interviewed me during a TV time-out, part of my 7th Man promo winnings. I told Islanders Game Ops Mike Sciortino (the poor man who was stuck with me for a day) that if I had a choice as to who would interview me on camera, I'd prefer in-arena announcer CJ.
At the time, I didn’t even know he worked for TV10/55. I thought he was just part of the Islanders organization.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sick. I'll try not to cough on you."
That was the first thing he said to me. But because he is a consummate professional, as soon as the camera was on, no one could tell he was at death's door. He's hardly ever rattled during a live feed. The only exception was one on-air giggle fest this summer that got the entire news crew of TV10/55 going while they were live. (Wonder if it will ever show up on ABC Bloopers.)
I've been trying to interview CJ since May. But his schedule is so hectic and changeable that we couldn’t make it work.
"Come by the station, and I'll show you around," he said on the phone. Hell! You don’t have to ask me twice! And how convenient since TV10/55 is less than two miles from my own office. I was there in a matter of minutes.
"Have a seat. You can tell which desk is mine. Just look for the photos."
I certainly could tell which desk was his, because it looked a hell of a lot like mine—cluttered with newspaper clippings taped to the wall. The only differences were the amazing amount of TV monitors throughout this large room crowded with people, technical hardware, and reference materials.
We walked into a small office behind a glass wall that had a desk crowded with awards. CJ is most proud of this year's award from the New York State Broadcasters Association for "Outstanding Sportscast" for WLNY’s coverage of the Giants at the Super Bowl. Producer Kurt Semder and freelance sports anchor Amy McGorry share this prestigious award. I will say, the amount of awards this local station has accumulated is indeed impressive.
Thinking it would be too noisy and crowded by his desk in the newsroom, CJ walked me into the empty studio. We sat at the news desk and I giggled at the phone books on the chairs. It seems they just don't go up high enough behind the beautiful wood and Formica desk. Being all of 5' tall, I certainly understand that dilemma.
I started by asking him how he got his start in broadcasting. Perhaps it was a lifelong dream, or maybe he was an aspiring athlete who knew he just wouldn’t make it in the big leagues. I was shocked and surprised at his first answer.
"I went to NYU to be a dentist." He was serious.
"I'm sorry. What?" I had to stop. I just didn't expect it.
“It's true. I took science classes my first year and did okay and realized I was at the radio station all the time. And after my freshman year, I said, 'I think I want to do this and become some sort of broadcaster.'
"At the time, it wasn't the way it is now, where everyone has a camera and puts themselves on YouTube. So I figured I'd just be a radio guy. I was taking the TV classes and I learned a lot about writing. We totally learned how to write. Whereas now, you can be on TV and you may not be the best writer, but you can still be a great broadcaster.
"After college I got an internship at SportsChannel, and I worked for a show called NY Sports Nightly and was a font coordinator intern."
That's where he met Josh Bernstein, Islanders VP of Communications. They were both working on NY Sports Nightly when they went national.
"It's so weird. It comes in a circle. The studio at Hofstra was our studio for a professional show: Dempster Hall. And directly across the street was a little house called Hamilton House, and that’s where we did the production. Then we'd run the tape across the street into the studio and play it.
"I didn't do as much of the running because I was already in the studio writing cards for the anchors. Back then, there was no Internet. You'd read the ticker and write a card about a game, and, when the score came up, the anchor would take the card and read it. It was OK. Sometimes they'd yell at you if they couldn't read your writing. But that's how I started."
He then started his own segment called "Future Star," where he'd take a cameraman out into the field and do a story on some outstanding athlete. SportsChannel saw the segments and liked them, so they let CJ do cut-ins for The World of International Sport. They weren't quite the X-Games, but it was good enough for him to be recognized as a possible anchor.
"When the NHL went to SportsChannel and it became SportsChannel America, I filled in for Bob Papa (any relation? Nope!). And I did some in between hockey cut-ins. Then I became an anchor for Sports Nightly. And that's how I started being on the air every night."
I asked CJ what his worst interview story was, and he mentioned how Bill Parcels snapped at him years ago when he asked him a question. In Parcels' defense, he treated all the media the same way…poorly. He said his best story was going to the Super Bowl this year.
"It was a tremendous week. I flew in Wednesday and shot a story. Wednesday night it was edited, and we got it on the air. Did a live wraparound on Wednesday night. Thursday I was with the Giants and interviewed seven or eight guys at the hotel. Edited that in the field and fed it back. Friday night Amy and I did a fan's piece, 'Does the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox equate to Giants versus Patriots?' We found tons of fans from both sides.
"And then working the Super Bowl. The best thing was being on the field when the Giants won. I'm a devout Jets fan, and I hate the Patriots, and I have no problem saying that, because if I didn't say that I'd be lying. But watching the Giants win the way they did was unbelievable. And being on the field and interviewing the players at the same time. It was tremendous."
Having seen him in action during the season, I asked him what a typical game day was like. I got dizzy.
He said he would usually go to the morning skate (in Uniondale), get the game notes, chat with Chris King and Steve Mears, then go work out the story lines for the night. He'd ask a player to be the pre-game interview victim (I mean subject) for the night so he would know to be ready immediately after the pre-game skate.
CJ then drives back to the station in Melville to look for footage to be edited before 3 p.m. He puts his rundown together and leaves by 4:30 to head back to Uniondale, bucking the L.I.E. traffic to arrive by 5:30.
"It depends on the story line of the game. The stat sheet from in-between periods. The stuff during the game is all ad-lib, off-the-cuff, based on what you've just seen. Hopefully you know what to watch for. The fans at the Coliseum are very knowledgeable. They listen to you and let you know if you're wrong. It's nice knowing you have fan feedback because you want to contribute to their experience.
"It's a long day on game days. But I'm lucky. I am so lucky. I work in sports, I work with athletes, I go to sporting events, and I work for a hockey team. People would trade places with me."
I asked him if he had a favorite Islander story, but he had to think about it. As we continued our conversation, CJ gave me a completely unprovoked opinion of the NYI Blog Box concept.
"I think the BlogBox is great because it gives the fans a chance to get a different perspective on what they see. You know, we're paid journalists, and some people don't have an attachment to the team like the bloggers do. The bloggers obviously have an attachment, and it's funny—the emotional aspect of the blogs is so different from the cold, hard sort of here-we-go-with the-game story. I think it's a nice outlet that the Islanders have. I don't know if other teams do that."
I explained that not many teams currently do, so I guess Chris Botta should start making the rounds and show them how it's done, but he seems to be quite busy 24/7 with his own blogging venture. At least we know the NHL said credentialing bloggers is perfectly fine, so why not!
Then something hit him almost mid-sentence on a different train of thought: the strangest Islanders story in his recollection. Halloween, two years ago, one of the more prominent fans, John Ballantyne from section 329 (Beaker), dressed up as CJ. They used a clip of it on TV10/55.
"He dressed up as me! He wore a jacket and tie and a press pass and made his hair salt and pepper, and he had a microphone. We put him on the board with the Islanders, and then they shot 10 seconds of the two of us standing together, and we used it in the highlights here."
CJ has been working with the Islanders for the last four years, and during that time he's been asked to do many things. One of his proudest recent moments was hosting the Scott Gordon press conference live on ITV.
"That was awesome!"
He's also been asked to do some voice work for the Islanders Illustrated MSG Plus show and several ITV features.
"I only do whatever Josh (Bernstein) asks me to do." Just like the rest of us, CJ.
I asked him what he sees for himself in the future.
"Working in sports, being a sportscaster, and seeing the Islanders raise a Stanley Cup. That would be a dream of mine. To be working for the team and to be standing by the ice when that happens."
That's every Islanders fan's dream, CJ, to see them raise the cup once again.
Thanks for the face time and good luck in your new gig! See ya 'round the rink!
CJ Papa will be moving up to MSG Plus to replace Deb Placey as the Islanders' correspondent. We wish both CJ and Deb much success in their new positions.