'You'd Laugh If You Were There': NBA Broadcasters Bring Bubble to Life from Afar

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2020

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Walking into an NBA arena during a pandemic is a surreal experience. The loading-dock entrance at the Moda Center hasn't changed, but now you have to pass a temperature check and sign a liability waiver before entering. The murals of the most important moments in Portland Trail Blazers history are still up, but missing are the crowds of team staffers and media members milling around.

The floor of the arena bowl hasn't been touched since the rock band Tool performed there on the night of March 11, as the news was getting out about Rudy Gobert's positive COVID-19 test in Oklahoma City and the NBA's suspension. But tucked into a backroom studio, Blazers director of broadcasting Jeff Curtin oversees a crew putting on game telecasts that are trying to simulate normalcy as much as possible from thousands of miles away from the action in central Florida.

At a normal home game, the team would have several of its own cameras. For the NBA's restart, during which local networks will continue to broadcast games in-market through the first round of the playoffs, every team is working with the same set of camera feeds provided by the league from inside the Orlando-area bubble.

It took some trial and error, and months of planning with the league, for the Blazers and other teams to figure out how they could safely broadcast games from outside the bubble. Plexiglass dividers now separate producers, all of whom are in masks and seated as distantly as they can be in a small room with a wall of monitors showing different angles of the action. Some staffers were forced to move out of the control room and into cubicles. Curtin estimates the 12 to 15 people at the Moda Center producing these games represent a group that's a good 40 percent smaller than he typically had on hand for a home game before the hiatus.

In a studio near the control room, play-by-play announcer Jordan Kent and color commentator Lamar Hurd sit at a desk, socially distanced, calling the game off a set of monitors showing the same angles the production team gets from the league's feeds. Out on the concourse, sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam is pulling double duty as the pre- and postgame studio host while interviewing players and coaches over Zoom.

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"I'm pretty much at the desk [by myself] for four hours," Olzendam says. "You'd laugh if you were there. In the fourth quarter, I'm jumping out of my seat, I'm pounding the table, I'm high-fiving myself at times. But I'm watching the game, and any trends I'm noticing, I'm on a talkback with my producers. It feels as close as it could to what it was before, just without the atmosphere and the bells and whistles."

Throughout the league, local broadcasters have been forced to rethink how they do their jobs.

"I'm understanding how much I feel like I miss in the nuance of the game," says Brooklyn Nets color analyst Sarah Kustok. "The detail that I would be trying to deliver to the viewer that you get when you're seeing guys live as opposed to just watching it like everyone else off the TV monitor. … You see something developing on the floor and you want to look at the bench or watch a guy off the ball or out of the play. Those are the types of things that I feel like I don't see on a consistent basis not seeing real live action. You miss a lot of that stuff just calling it off a monitor."

Courtesy of YES Network

The NBA has pulled out all the stops to make these fanless games at the Disney World resort feel as regular as possible. There's piped-in crowd noise, virtual fans on video boards and music playing over the PA. To most people watching at home, the television broadcasts have been shockingly close to normal. But there's no way to effectively simulate the adrenaline rush that comes with being in the middle of a crowd of 20,000 fans in crunch time. Commentators have to make a conscious effort to hype themselves up from the detachment of their remote studios.

"[You're] trying to put yourself as a broadcaster in tight games or exciting situations," Hurd says. "But the atmosphere that you're actually in, in the studio that's silent, that doesn't facilitate that. There are a few times during games that I kind of catch myself falling into the environment where it's just me and one other person in the studio and we're just hanging out. But then it's a tight game, and maybe an exciting play just happened, so you kind of snap back into it."

The feeds the broadcasters get to see on their monitors are the same ones the NBA provides to all teams for their broadcasts. The league puts out six camera angles of each game, including a clean feed of the full court and several alternate angles for producers in the local markets to do with as they wish. This is mostly enough to make the final TV product indistinguishable from a regular game, but the reduced number of views is extremely limiting for broadcasters.

"I personally feel so disconnected," says Los Angeles Clippers play-by-play announcer Brian Sieman. "It's mentally very uncomfortable. I almost feel like I'm looking at a game through a knothole 100 yards away, and I'm trying to interpret what's going on without any communication. To go around the block just to go next door."

Most of the teams' regional networks use some variation on the Blazers' setup, with the on-air talent working out of studios inside their home arenas. The Milwaukee Bucks took a unique approach, setting up their broadcast booth in the team's locker room at Fiserv Forum.

"It's something novel, it's something different and it's something consistent that fans see," says Bucks color analyst Marques Johnson. "'Coming at you live from the Bucks locker room!' I just fell in love with that concept. It works out well for a lot of things. For me as an older guy, the bathroom is right there. The space in there is beautiful. The distancing works out well for Jim [Paschke, the Bucks' play-by-play announcer] and I; we're 10-12 feet apart at all times."

Courtesy of Milwaukee Bucks

Kustok has faced an unusual challenge during the restart. She's worked some games with Ryan Ruocco, who has been in the YES Network studio with her. But Ian Eagle, the team's primary play-by-play man, also calls games nationally for TNT, so he's been in the bubble since the start of the seeding games in late July. When he and Kustok are calling Nets games together, they're stuck with FaceTime for the visual cues that come naturally when they're in the same room.

"It's wild," Kustok says. "You just keep reminding yourself that the things you're saying in this room by yourself are actually being televised. … You truly are just going off the sound. I kind of know when I think Ian's going to speak, based on the rhythm of the game. But it was definitely one of the most unique experiences broadcasting a game that I've had."

Hurd had called a few games remotely in his previous job at the Pac-12 Network, mostly as a backup plan when there were technical issues at the arena. But for most broadcasters, this is a new experience.

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"I've never done that before," Sieman says. "When you do auditions for jobs, sometimes that happens. But you're calling a quarter, and most of the time you already know what happens. Most of the time you're not calling a game where you have no idea how the event unfolds."

The ramped-up safety measures have also been an adjustment. Broadcasters are required to wear a mask at all times, except when they're doing on-camera work. This includes while they're calling the game. Early on, Johnson wore his mask below his nose a few times for the sake of comfort—but he was quickly reprimanded by the league office.

"I was like, 'How did they know?'" he recalls. "But that's a good thing that they're on top of it like that. They're really strict about these protocols. That's another kind of new normal, but it's a good thing."

In a pre-pandemic world, a broadcaster's game prep involved not only going over stats and research but also having off-the-record conversations with players and coaches to get more insight into what's going on with the team. Had Hurd been with the Blazers following their Aug. 8 loss to the Clippers, he would have been able to have a private conversation with Damian Lillard to get the full backstory on his feud with Paul George and Patrick Beverley, which spilled onto Instagram, in case he needed to talk about it on the air.

Without that access, analysts rely solely on their own institutional knowledge of the teams they cover to come up with story angles and shape the narrative of their broadcasts.

"If you were to start a brand-new season with a different team, what separates me from the fans?" Sieman says. "Their willingness to look up statistics would be the only difference. The access we have is one of the things that separates us and gives us the opportunity to tell the story to the fans of whatever team they're following."

Not being in the building can also cause announcers to miss the stories developing on the court, which are crucial to put bigger events into context when they happen.

"I don't see Giannis and Moe Wagner getting tangled up in a play they might have had two possessions before the head-butt," says Johnson of the moment that got the Bucks superstar ejected and suspended last week. "I would have said, 'Uh-oh, you'd better watch Giannis and Moe. These two got tangled up, and there were some words being said. That's a hot spot. You'd better keep an eye on that.' I could do that before. But now all I see is the finished product. I can look at some replays to try to recreate it, but I miss out on the story. I don't see what led up to it. I hate that as a broadcaster."

No one knows when the NBA will return to home arenas. So many details about the 2020-21 season are up in the air, still to be dictated by the eventual development of a COVID-19 vaccine. It's highly unlikely next season will start on time and even more of a long shot that fans will be allowed back in arenas anytime soon.

NBA broadcasters have no choice but to adapt to the realities of the pandemic, but none of them are happy about it. Until they can be in the same room as the players they're covering, they're finding ways to make it work.

"This might be the new normal," Johnson says. "This might just be how we do things for the next year or two years. Who knows?"


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.