Brian Windhorst Is A Trusted Source Off The Court
“We are sharing information, sharing sourcing and, as a result, sometimes when there’s a news break, it’s actually like 3-4 people who are involved in the production.”
Oct. 29, 2003 – LeBron James makes his National Basketball League debut for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Sacramento Kings. As the No. 1 overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft and a consensus superstar, James took the court in front of a national audience on the back half of an ESPN Wednesday doubleheader. Even though the Cavaliers lost the game 106-92, James compiled 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds in four steals while playing all but six minutes of the game, a load quite uncommon for most rookies today. Brian Windhorst was there, and he had to file a story mere moments after the final buzzer.
“They started the season on the West Coast,” Windhorst said of the Cavaliers. “That doesn’t happen anymore; they don’t have teams start the season on long road trips, but they did that year. I remember at the end of that road trip – coming back going, ‘I don’t know if I’m good enough. I don’t know if I have what it takes.’”
20 seasons and 38,363 additional points later, James is the NBA’s all-time scoring leader and recognized as one of the best players to ever step on the harwood. A four-time NBA champion with three different franchises, he has been one of the defining stars of the league since his debut, and a compelling personality for journalists to report on.
Oftentimes, Windhorst has been associated with James not only because of his time as a Cleveland Cavaliers beat writer, but also since their backgrounds are somewhat intertwined. Through it all, endurance and perseverance has propelled James and Windhorst as respected figures in their industries; ones who have made an inextricable impact on basketball in different ways.
“I remember sitting in the studio at the lottery in Secaucus, N.J. in May 2003, and they did the lottery and went to commercial break,” Windhorst said. “Denver, Memphis and Cleveland were in the last three, and I remember sitting there… thinking, ‘Well, it’s possible my life is going to radically change here in this next five minutes.’”
James’ initial tenure in Cleveland may have been at the mercy of an entropic selection process based on odds and the logo displayed on one ping-pong ball – but it took talent, hard work and determination for him to even reach that point. The same can be said for Windhorst, a reporter who spent years developing versatility and fostering professional relationships to become a bonafide source of information.
The softball field was a familiar setting for Windhorst in his youth. As a native of Akron, Ohio, he was well within driving distance of Cleveland, a metropolis with a bevy of professional sports teams. One of his earliest experiences working in sports media came in keeping the scorebook for the high school softball team at St. Vincent-St. Mary, coached by his mother Merrylou.
Windhorst was no stranger to athletics and competed in golf as a high school student, yet he found enjoyment in being around the environment rather than playing in the games themselves. As a result, he landed a part-time job as a clerk with the Akron Beacon-Journal where he was responsible for documenting scores and assisting reporters in compiling statistics for their stories.
“I was working 5:00 to 11:00 PM shifts… sort of sitting on the periphery but watching the newspaper get put together on deadline three or four nights a week,” Windhorst explained. “That’s where I got my start.”
When it was time to apply for college, Windhorst received admissions offers at journalism schools around the country. Being in the industry through high school and having no desire to leave his job at the Akron Beacon-Journal, he decided to remain close to home and enrolled at Kent State University.
His prudentiality paid dividends when he was afforded the chance to cover games and write 300-word recaps in college for high school basketball, wrestling and other sports. It altered his perspective on working in the industry, divulging changing trends and means of coverage that may have gone unnoticed had his formative application of journalism been solely focused in the classroom.
“I was in these classes with these professors teaching me about the alleged newspaper industry and I was going, ‘Maybe that’s the way it was when you worked in it 10 years ago, but it’s not like the way it is now,’” Windhorst recalls. “I was way real-world-ing it over the school.”
By the end of his college career, Windhorst had six years experience at the newspaper, but unfortunately had to sacrifice his social life in the process. The first Kent State football game he attended was as a reporter, and he never had the chance to engage in regular college activities because of his stringent work schedule and unrelenting inclination to succeed. The newspaper also represented an external outlet to hone his craft, especially since Windhorst struggled to get opportunities elsewhere, applying for over 80 internships and receiving none of them.
“I’m sad to say that I didn’t make any lifelong friends in college,” Windhorst said. “I definitely traded that because I would come back to Akron three or four nights a week to work on the desk and cover games.”
Through repetitions came invaluable experience and a trial run at the age of 25 as a traveling beat reporter covering the Cavaliers. Windhorst worked on a provisional basis, approaching his bosses when there was an upcoming road trip to ask permission to book plane tickets. Over his early days in this role, the newspaper was interviewing established reporters to eventually take over; however, once some time passed, management told him he had the job.
To begin the 2003 regular season, the Cavaliers had a three-game road trip with stops in Sacramento, Phoenix and Portland before their home opener against the Indiana Pacers. The buzz around the team was centered on James though, and as a reporter, Windhorst had to appeal to his audience insofar as properly covering the rookie phenom.
“I was, to a certain extent, paralleling LeBron,” Windhorst said. “My main job was to cover LeBron – and I covered the whole team – but he was going through all of the learning curves too. In a strange way, there was a parallel track there.”
Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Paul Silas, as any coach would, conducted regular media availability to update reporters on the state of the team. Yet Silas went out of his way for Windhorst, imparting wisdom and knowledge about the league and helping to catalyze his development. He continues to implement lessons Silas taught him and affirms that he learned more from him than he did in four years of college, by no fault of the school itself.
“Very often in the NBA – and I think even more so now than 20 years ago – there’s very much of an adversarial relationship between the coach and the beat writers,” Windhorst said. “It’s either adversarial or it’s too cozy. In this case, he was literally teaching me.”
Over his time with the Akron Beacon Journal, Windhorst traveled with the Cavaliers on its beat and excelled as a journalist. While he and James attended the same high school and knew each other’s mothers, he always ensured to maintain professionalism and covered him fairly. Conversely, Windhorst affirms that James never exhibited favoritism towards him but rather possessed an understanding of their shared backgrounds.
The advantage Windhorst held in their mutual understanding of one another, however, was a level of heightened trust. For example, Windhorst spoke to James on the night his son Bronny was born in 2004, and watched as his professional basketball career quickly evolved. Moreover, he covered his negotiations to land a shoe deal, which has since turned into a historical lifetime contract with Nike.
“It wasn’t like he was handing me sit-down one-on-one interviews four times a year,” Windhorst expressed. “I wasn’t going over to his house on Thanksgiving, nor did I want to. I always covered him straight, and a lot of what he did was very positive. The guy had a pretty spectacular career, and so I was writing about a lot of positive stuff.”
In 2008, Windhorst continued to cover the Cavaliers, albeit for The Plain Dealer, and the team where they continued a stretch of finishing first or second in the division for five consecutive seasons. James went on to capture back-to-back MVP awards for his regular season performances in 2008-09 and 2009-10 and proceeded to embark on a memorable, free agency tour.
It led up to “The Decision,” a televised special on ESPN where James famously revealed he was “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” By joining guard Dwayne Wade and forward-center Chris Bosh, James cemented a formidable “Big 3” and, in turn, took much of the national spotlight off of the Cavaliers.
By the start of the 2010-11 season, Windhorst had been hired by ESPN and relocated to Miami to cover the Heat as its beat reporter. The decision to leave Cleveland was difficult for Windhorst just as it was for James; however, it was a chance to join a national outlet and report on a team with the potential to make history.
Despite joining a network with extensive content and programming based on linear television at the time, Windhorst strictly reported in the written word. He affirms there was no sense of animus towards him, but rather negligence regarding his role since it was relatively experimental at that scale.
“It was a new concept to have a team-based reporter at ESPN,” Windhorst said. “We just didn’t have much of it, especially for our really high-profile teams. ESPN reporters or the television reporters and crews would be coming through Miami, and they would never say a word to me. There would be plenty of SportsCenters going on and they never even knew my name.”
Once the Heat proved they were the team to beat in the NBA, Windhorst began occasionally appearing on television – but always alongside an experienced ESPN reporter, such as Rachel Nichols and Mark Schwartz. Direct talkbacks were prohibited, but eventually, the network began putting Windhorst on SportsCenter and other programming regularly. In fact, he was appearing on television every half hour on the hour during the team’s series against the Pacers, having received little to no formal training.
“I only had one suit jacket with me on the trip – it’s like a four-day trip – and I had to wear it 3-4 days in a row,” Windhorst said. “….I remember Rachel Nichols went over to Walgreens next to the arena and brought me my first makeup compact and said, ‘Here, you need to put this on your face; your face is red.’”
Windhorst was not initially hired to be on television, but as time went on his role began to gradually transition in that direction. Two years into his time at the network, he met with executives and asked for chances to demonstrate his versatility. The conversation resulted in his move to New York City where he worked on studio television programming and covering a larger scope of the NBA.
Moreover, he still covered the Heat during the team’s northeast and west coast road trips, along with attending select homestands in Miami, Fla. He also received proper coaching about how to appear on television from ESPN’s company headquarters in Bristol, Conn.
Four years and two championships later, James was once again a free agent and drawing interest from nearly all corners of the NBA. Windhorst, having covered the Cavaliers and Heat during James’ time, was assigned to work from Bristol, Conn. to give viewers inside information about the process.
“I had obviously been there to start doing some TV stuff, but I was there for so long that I ran out of ties,” Windhorst said. “The only place I could get a tie anywhere near there was a Target down the street from the campus. I went in there and I think they had four ties, and I brought all four of them because I was that desperate.”
The insatiable desire for information led to frequent on-air appearances by Windhorst, even amid the network broadcasting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which received a 2.8 share in the ratings. During gaps between matchups, ESPN presented special editions of SportsCenter and maintained a large audience, helping augment the reach of his reporting.
“They would bring me on to those SportsCenters for LeBron updates because it was one of the most important things going on in the world of sports other than the World Cup,” Windhorst said. “I think some people who had never heard of me before or weren’t familiar with me before at the company saw me perform on those SportsCenters.”
Although James ended up returning to Cleveland, Windhorst remained at ESPN where he continued to report and write about the NBA. Additionally, he started to explore the audio space as a contributor to the TrueHoop podcast and member of the weekly ESPN Radio show, NBA Lockdown Insiders. Today, he contributes to a wide variety of network programming, including SportsCenter, Get Up, First Take and NBA Today, lending his analysis and expertise for viewers worldwide.
On any given day, Windhorst may wake up and attend a production meeting for a studio show, appear on the show and then move to prepare for the next television program later that day. Furthermore, he has written video essays specific to SportsCenter and will collaborate with its features unit to create an end product he narrates from a podcast studio. Additionally, he continues to podcast with his show, Brian Windhorst & The Hoop Collective, where he is joined by ESPN personalities and reporters to discuss the latest NBA news.
Aside from audiovisual work, Windhorst continues to write columns for ESPN’s website both independently and with colleagues. Some of the stories require more comprehensive reporting, while others, such as during the trading deadline or free agency, are more focused on breaking news. For Windhorst, it helps having a team of skilled reporters to accumulate information and quickly make sense of it all.
“Our reporters work together a lot,” he said. “We are sharing information, sharing sourcing and, as a result, sometimes when there’s a news break, it’s actually like 3-4 people who are involved in the production. Sometimes they get credit; sometimes they don’t, and none of us care about it.”
During the week before the NBA All-Star Game, for example, now-Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record. Less than 48 hours later, the league endured a particularly active trade deadline, highlighted by blockbuster deals that sent Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out of Brooklyn.
Windhorst and his colleague Ramona Shelburne had been working for approximately six to eight weeks on a story about James breaking the scoring record. On the other hand, the duo spent 12 hours amassing an in-depth piece on what led to Durant being dealt to the Phoenix Suns. As a multifaceted journalist in high demand, Windhorst only slept for three hours per night – and he estimates many of his colleagues received even less reprieve. It is in their relentless work ethic and passion for their work that Windhorst and his team are able to excel on multiple platforms of dissemination.
In essence, advances in technology and changes in consumption have rendered the NBA into a true, 24/7 entity. News could break at any given moment, meaning those who cover the league must stay ready to work and remain informed. It demands self-motivation, maintaining a high standard of work and finding opportunities to grow and never becoming complacent just because of prestige realized or merely inferred.
“When you get hired at ESPN, there’s a temptation to believe that you’ve made it because it’s high-profile and a lot of people get paid very well and you’re going to be maybe recognized – and everything like that – and get instant respect,” Windhorst said. “The real challenge is not getting to ESPN; it’s being able to succeed within ESPN.”
Early in Windhorst’s tenure with the network, some of its television reporters would garner general assignments, meaning that they could be covering both football and basketball in a week. Although they performed at a high level, the network began to transition towards specializing its personnel to cover varying sectors in the sports landscape, recognizing their value and ability to uncover specific information and convey it to viewers.
In utilizing its personnel to report in detail about specific teams and personnel to best appeal to its viewers, the network adopted new technology to provide coast-to-coast coverage. Windhorst was one of the first ESPN personalities to have TVU installed at his home in Omaha, a streaming solution that transmitted HD video back to the network to put over the air.
Initially, he had to contend with a three-second delay, but as the technology evolved, the process was streamlined and made more efficient. It gives Windhorst the ability to appear on several shows per day whether they be linear or nonlinear, along with recording his podcast and writing from home.
“It’s all just about content,” he said. “My job is to find and tell interesting stories, and to have an understanding of what’s going on around the NBA…. On any day, I can be working with multiple legs of the company and multiple platforms.”
Windhorst has covered the league for over two decades and continues to have an earnest desire to work hard and bring basketball fans unparalleled coverage of the sport. Over the years, things have not always worked out his way, but he has consistently found a way to appeal to his audience.
Leaving Cleveland was hardly facile, but it ultimately helped launch his career at the national level and across different means of communication. Being within a company as ubiquitous in professional sports as ESPN, there are only so many roles to fill and an ostensibly immense talent pool, meaning that standing out and persistently advocating for oneself is essential for growth. Part of growing, though, is recognizing that there are many talented people and demonstrating value to executives in areas outside of the craft.
In some ways, it is similar to LeBron James, who is often criticized for losing six of the 10 NBA Finals he played in. Windhorst saw him in tears of joy and tears of sorrow – in jubilation and lamentation – but observed that he always kept going. It is a mindset Windhorst applies in his own career, and one that has resulted in his rapid evolution as a media professional through adaptability and synergy.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a loss,” Windhorst said. “Sometimes, something doesn’t go your way and you don’t understand it or it’s unfortunate and maybe you even think it’s not fair, but like LeBron, you keep going because you know there’s another game [and] there’s another season.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he interns in video production with the New York Islanders and formerly worked as production manager for the team’s radio broadcasts. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.
Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at email@example.com.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.