After a normal scrimmage, Portland Trail Blazers staff writer, Casey Holdahl, would be bouncing around the locker room, talking to different players, and coming up with a unique story for Trailblazers.com.
But these aren’t normal times, and the Blazers’ midweek matchup against the Indiana Pacers was certainly anything but a normal scrimmage.
Instead of heading to the locker room after the game, Holdahl retreated to a quiet corner in the upstairs of his house and logged onto Zoom, where he was limited to talking to Jusuf Nurkic, Mario Hezonja, and Terry Stotts for just under 20 combined minutes.
And it’s not just Holdahl — anyone covering sports right now has had their job altered due to the wide-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic. For those who professionally cover the Trail Blazers and often get a closer glimpse into the day-to-day of the team than many others, they must now deal with the team being thousands of miles away.
There were signs during the March 10 game against the Phoenix Suns that led many within the organization to believe that things would not be the same after that night. Travis Demers, the radio voice of the Trail Blazers, recalls having to do his pregame interview with Terry Stotts on the court instead of in his office, using the same boom mic and camera that TV sideline reporter, Brooke Olzendam, used to film an in-game segment just seconds before. The traditional walk-off radio interview was scrapped due to players and coaches being prohibited from wearing headsets.
Lamar Hurd remembers the halftime conversations that night centered on the Golden State Warriors’ recent announcement that its next game would be played without fans. That’s when a concerning thought trickled into his head: the much-anticipated return of Nurkic that Sunday could very well be played in front of zero people.
”I left that game understanding that when I came back on Thursday night, there might not be any fans,” Hurd said. “That was my mindset then, which was already crazy to think about.”
143 days separated the team’s last two regular-season games. While Portland plays across the country in what has been described as a sound stage, members of Trail Blazers Broadcasting still make the commute to the Moda Center for a different type of gameday experience.
Before being allowed in the arena, visitors are required to submit an online health check and complete an on-site temperature reading. Floors around the building now display bright green arrows and partitions that dictate the flow of traffic while plexiglass barriers surround compact workspaces. Some even have their own locker rooms beneath the arena where they can go to change and relax while not on air.
In the past, Hurd would get to the arena and interact with coaches and broadcasters before preparing for a game. Against Phoenix, he talked to Suns assistant Steve Blake about his team and personal life. While still arriving hours early, those conversations are now gone, replaced with reporting straight to the Moda Center studios.
Unlike Hurd, Demers continues to broadcast from the same location on radio row. Demers, Michael Holton, and Jay Allen are all separated by six feet and given three monitors to work off of. One shows a locked view of the entire court, one shows the TV broadcast, and the other is a stats monitor. In the first scrimmage against the Pacers, the live audio from Orlando was seven seconds ahead of the television feed which gave Demers issues for about a half.
”We would hear a whistle or the ball going through the net or a buzzer before we would see it, and it kinda threw me off until I realized what was going on,” Demers said.
Overseeing everything on the broadcast side is Director of Broadcasting, Jeff Curtin. While some facets of his job have changed due to the coronavirus, he says that communication among the broadcasting side is not much worse, it’s just different.
“Dan [Hyatt], our producer, still talks to our announcers through their earpieces of what is coming up next and the stories,” Curtin said. “Probably what is the biggest change is that we are not there to get stories on-site from the team.”
After weeks of uncertainty, on-air talent started to return to their Moda Center offices two weeks before the league’s restart in Orlando. They used that time to re-design the facility so that it can bring in the multiple different visual and audio feeds from Florida. It also gave them the ability to run through a mock broadcast in preparation for the scrimmage games.
“Being able to have a rehearsal day was very helpful just for the talent to be able to see their workspaces and how they’re going to broadcast the games,” Curtin said. “So I think the rehearsal was very important for us technically to get everything all sounding and looking right.”
Someone like Holdahl, who doesn’t have to be at the Moda Center to do his job, has taken on a different routine to his day. He spends his mornings at home browsing through players’ social media feeds, looking for anything that could provide context for a story. What he puts out is dependent on that day’s Zoom call which has ranged from being as early as 8 a.m to as late as 6 p.m.
“For me, I try to do one good piece of content a day,” Holdahl said. “I obviously don’t accomplish that, but that is kind of my goal. If that is a story, great; if it’s social, great; if it’s a podcast, great. Whatever it is, I just try to keep the wheels greased every day. Sometimes I’m successful at it, sometimes I am not. It’s a struggle, but for the most part, it has gone fairly well.”
As someone who relies on access, the lack of it has been difficult at times. Oftentimes just one or two players and a coach will be made available to the media on a given day. With just a few minutes allotted for each player, knowing what to ask is critical, or else risk writing about the same angle as everybody else.
Holdahl cites recent stories about “Skinny Melo” as the perfect example. On one Zoom call, many noticed that Carmelo Anthony seemed to have lost weight over the break. During his next availability, almost every question surrounded the veteran’s weight loss.
“In that situation, you get Carmelo for maybe five minutes, and if four of the questions are about him being skinny, basically at that point you’re locked into what you have to do,” Holdahl said.
While someone like Hurd or Demers doesn’t have to deal with being in those Zoom calls, they still have plenty of obstacles to deal with.
The primary challenge for broadcasters like Demers, Hurd, Holton, and Kent is that they see what fans at home do. There are no additional angles, and that means that sometimes plays get cut away from, forcing them to wait a split-second longer before making a call or analyzing the action.
In Portland’s game against Oklahoma City, Hurd recalls struggling with calling a clear path foul. In a previous game, he would call out the violation with near-certainty. Instead, he had to wait a few seconds to see a replay before commenting with confidence.
“I had to see the replay just to see a wider view of the court,” Hurd said. “It did end up being a clear path foul, so I was right in the assumption of it, but just things like that, things I would know more definitively right away, might take an extra second or two to react to.”
Demers deals with the same issue, but listeners do not have the same ability to watch them play live. Often reliant on hearing a whistle and watching the referee, Demers now has to be careful so he doesn’t have to take back a call over the air.
“This is going to be the new normal for a while and we have no idea when it’s going to go back to what it used to be or if it’s going to go back to what it used to be,” Demers said. “Who knows, broadcasters may never travel again. [Broadcasting remotely] is something that we will have to get used to doing.”
For Curtin, the challenge has been in the lack of control over the broadcast. Used to pulling most of the strings, he is at the mercy of a league-supplied broadcast crew in Orlando. He gets a world-clean feed (no graphics or announcers) and one camera operator down in the bubble to work with.
While the setup has worked for the most part, it does result in some unique quirks for the broadcast crew to deal with.
“The local producer and director on-site, which we had last game [against Boston], would show Paul Pierce on the video wall and we had no idea that they were talking about it or why they were talking about it,” Curtin said. “That makes our broadcast feel a little bit disconnected because Jordan and Lamar weren’t talking about Paul Pierce; they were telling the story about our team.”
At the end of the day, many people don’t care about these struggles. Those who cover the team for the Blazers are all professionals and some of the best at what they do. They are all excited that basketball is back and acknowledge that they are lucky to get to do their jobs, even if it looks a lot different than it used to.
”People listening to the radio or watching Jordan and Lamar on TV, they don’t care that we’re not there,” Demers said. “They don’t care that we have challenges that we have to deal with. It shouldn’t affect the product. The fan at home shouldn’t notice or have the attention brought to the fact that we are not there. Yes, we all know what is going on, but we still have to do the job the same way and the product still has to be the same in the end.”
An offseason of questions and uncertainty may be on the horizon, but, just like the team in Orlando, they have work to do first.
“The next question is: ‘What does next season look like?’” Hurd said. “If the NBA is able to get this done correctly, does next season look like an extended bubble? If you ask me, do I think I will be traveling in January and February of 2021? I have no idea.”