Behind the Scenes at Sportscaster U., the Broadcasting Training Camp for NBA Players

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — This past weekend, six current and former NBA players with a strong interest in getting an on-air job one day went through the most complete broadcasting training camp in their young careers.

Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn, Brian Roberts and Tiago Splitter, along with former players Courtney Alexander and Acie Law, traded typical early June vacation and training time for nine-hour work days in the NBPA’s Sportscaster U. program. While Harris was the youngest participant ever at 23 years old, Splitter, who’s from Brazil, was the first international one.

They all learned what it takes to be on a studio show like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, while practicing debates, interviews, stand-ups, one-minute segments and calling games on the radio. Directing them was Matt Park, the longtime voice of the Syracuse Orange, and about 12 staff members at the university’s top-of-the-line Newhouse Studio and Innovation Center, which opened two years ago after an $18 million renovation.

The players were also granted access inside the Orange’s Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center to take their best talents to the court and mix them with on-camera commentating. The basis for the overall program’s content was the NBA Finals.

“They deserve a ton of credit for seeking this out,” Park said. “I’m sure it’s hard to ever think about not being a basketball player, not being above the rim. My two promises on the first night are: you’re never going to watch sports the same way again, and you’ll leave knowing whether you care to pursue this further. When we have this group of guys here, they feed off one another. There’s a little bit of a locker-room mentality, and there’s a lot of respect among the group.”

Since its inaugural year in 2008, around 60 players have attended Sportscaster U. Notables include O’Neal (Inside the NBA studio analyst), Tony Battie (Fox Sports Florida analyst for Magic games), Danny Granger and Richard Hamilton (NBA TV studio analysts), Casey Jacobson (Fox Sports 1 and Pac-12 Networks analyst) and Brevin Knight (Fox Sports Tennessee color commentator for Grizzlies games).

In addition, some Warriors players have a special connection to the program: former guard Kelenna Azubuike is now an analyst for the team’s games on CSN Bay Area, and current Dubs Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston have been to Syracuse.

Not only do the players leave the program with a demo tape for job placement, but they also develop mentor relationships with former players and significant broadcast connections. In this case, Alexander, 39, and Law, 31, rubbed off on the younger fellas with their basketball and business perspective. And Gerry Matalon, Playbook Inc.’s executive vice president of talent development, and Steve Infanti, NewsChannel 9’s Sports Director, offered their guidance beyond the program.

Here’s an inside look into Sportscaster U., highlighting the players’ thoughts, improvements and overall experiences during their three days in Syracuse:

 

DAY ONE

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

O’Quinn, a forward for the Knicks, gets help with his tie before going on air for the first time at Sportscaster U.

O’Quinn: “It was definitely an eye-opening experience, and it just gives you that different look of interviewing. Talking about sports in a different element, it definitely changes the dynamics of things.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Makeup artist Rosanne Main gets Harris ready before going on air. The Pistons forward was motivated to enroll in Sportscaster U. after getting his first taste of broadcasting last year doing sideline reporting at the NBA Draft Combine.

Harris: “I’m taking three days out of my life that are going to hopefully affect me 10, 15 years from now. You can’t just live as a player in this little basketball world where you feel like you’re just above everybody else. You have to really come to reality and understand that you’ll be really blessed and lucky to play 15 years, but you still have 40 to 50 years left of life to live. So that’s always how I look at things.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

O’Quinn gets set up with his audio device while receiving some coaching from Matalon on set, while Splitter (right) and Steve Infanti, NewsChannel 9’s sports director and Sportscaster U.’s studio host (left), prepare before going on air.

O’Quinn: “I was told to just be myself on camera and make sure you look at the right camera. Just that feedback alone was just enough for me to get comfortable sitting up there on the set with the other guys talking. After you get that down, it’s just really opening up and being yourself.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Infanti gives some coaching to Alexander (middle) and Law. Alexander, an NBA shooting guard from 2000-03, was a CBS commentator during this year’s Vegas 16 Tournament, and Law, an NBA point guard from 2007-2011, has made some radio appearances.

Alexander: “I just have a true appreciation for the work that goes into it all. I think overall in certain instances, you should talk less. I tend to overthink things sometimes and over analyze, where simplicity is what’s needed and just kind of getting right to the point. I think that may be the biggest takeaway for me.”

Law: “I know I wanted to be around the game of basketball. I tried out coaching last season voluntarily and I really didn’t like it too much. And I came here this weekend and it’s been great. It just blew my expectations out of the water. They want to teach us the ins and outs of everything that goes into being a broadcaster—the hard work, the studying, how you look at cameras, how to speak, how to sit, all these fine details. This is valuable information that you can’t get anywhere else.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Infanti directs Roberts, a guard for the Blazers (middle), and Harris on which camera to look at before going on air.

Roberts: “I’ve always had an interest in this side of work and just thinking what I want to do after basketball. I’ve learned a lot. They put a lot on us to push ourselves to be better at this, and it’s been a great experience—just learning, one, how difficult it really is to be a broadcaster. And it’s just learning to speak with enthusiasm, being more confident behind the camera and understanding that what you say and how you move—everything—people watch that and they can feed off of your energy.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Splitter, who appeared on the Atlanta-based Spanish-language radio station El Patron 105.3 FM for two Hawks games this season, starts to feel more comfortable on set with O’Quinn.

Splitter: “I like broadcasting. Also, I have an opportunity to call the Olympic Games for Brazilian national team games [this summer]. So everything came together and I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s study a little bit, let’s learn about it and let’s get better.’ I hope more [international] guys come to Sportscaster U. because English does not come natural for us, so it’s challenging and you don’t want to say anything wrong.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Mark Ballard, Sportscaster U.’s studio crew director (middle right, wearing glasses), gives some pointers to the players. “Be convincing and forceful,” he says. And when doing a stand-up, he points out, “Be in a position to take that hand off [from the anchor], so keep your hands up so you’re ready to make reference to something on screen.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

The players take a moment to catch up with each other before a presentation by Matalon, who provides them six keys for TV: 1) know your sport; 2) command your topic; 3) share it with strong energy and enthusiasm; 4) have personality and chemistry with others on set; 5) pay attention to how you sound; and 6) pay attention to how you look and move.

Harris: “We had a good nucleus of guys. It humbled me because you see two guys, [Alexander and Law], who want to do broadcasting, but you also get to hear stories about the NBA and the job. It makes you really respect your job and what you do, and makes you not want to take advantage of what’s going on. So I thought it was a great dynamic of guys. That was one of my highlights of being here.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

During their time together, the players discussed the broadcasting business and their different interests. Some of the hot topics were commentator salaries, next steps to get going and if travel was less to avoid the similar grind of the NBA schedule. Park recommended they network with their team’s broadcasters to explore opportunities.

Law: “I think it’s a great deal that the younger players are conscious of life after basketball, and understanding that this is a vehicle to the next chapter in your life. When I was 23, I’m vacationing in Miami right now. But I wish that I was more engaged and more thoughtful of life after basketball. It’s only a short period of time—seven, eight years if you’re lucky—and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you when it’s gone.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

During the weekend, Alexander, the oldest among the group, took on “a big brother role,” as Park described it. Alexander stressed the importance of protecting your family, money and career, crediting his peers for taking advantage of an opportunity like Sportscaster U. Nowadays, he collaborates with the Breakthrough Atlanta youth-based organization, and has helped 98 percent of their students go to college.

Alexander: “At the end of the day, I know that I’m here for a reason. It’s one thing to be a broadcaster and to be learning, but it’s another thing to pull aside a Tobias Harris and talk to him about some of my experiences. Tobias is a young star in waiting, but I think what we’ve got to understand is that are things outside of basketball that are actually more important. So for me, it’s more of helping prevent some of these guys from making some of the same mistakes that I made along the way.”

 

DAY TWO

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Park runs down the agenda for day two of Sportscaster U. During the weekend, he reminded them about the time constraints of being on air, saying, “Be as succinct as possible. Answer the question first and then get to the background. Have 20 to 25 seconds of good content.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

O’Quinn has some fun prepping up before going on air.

O’Quinn: “My style [on TV] is just showing my personality of being a jokester, throwing a joke in here and there. That’s what the people want. Just being myself got me over the hump.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

O’Quinn and Roberts (right) meet with Matalon and a crew member in the news room to over the show’s topics. During the weekend, Matalon noted that studies show that viewers’ attention spans have decreased from 12 to eight seconds. “It’s less than a goldfish, which is at nine seconds,” he says, stressing the importance of non-verbal communication to engage the viewer.

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Infanti goes over some discussion points with Splitter and Harris before the show starts.

Splitter: “I learned to have body language with attitude. So you’ve got to really show that you’re into it, but at the same time, you’ve got to be relaxed and you’ve got to talk well and you’ve got to express yourself. So that’s really challenging.”

Harris: “I learned to just be yourself when you’re on camera, and not to drag [your answers] along too much, but to get to your point and to give that backup knowledge of your point.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Alexander and Roberts apply their new broadcasting knowledge to prepare for the show.

Roberts: “I’ve learned how to move and don’t be so rigid and upright when you’re speaking. You can be fluid and you can speak with confidence and not feel like you’re in a box. And it’s just speaking with more conviction. I think as an announcer, you have to really say what you mean and mean what you say at the same time.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Harris and Law engage each other on a debate show.

Harris: “That was probably the most exciting and the funniest part of [Sportscaster U.]—just getting up there and being able to really argue, but at the same time, speak knowledge about the game. I have three brothers and two sisters, so I’ve been arguing my whole life and I’ve gotten pretty good at that.”

Law: “You watch Stephen A. and Jalen Rose, and they make it look so easy on TV. You feel good up there and then that red light comes on and it’s, like, “You’re on,” and then there’s no mistakes and you’ve got to deliver what you’re trying to say in such a short period of time. It’s not as easy as a person would think it was when you watch it.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Infanti, Roberts and O’Quinn share a fun moment together on set.

Infanti: “One of the things that amazes me about this program every year is how much the guys improve in such a short period of time. They’re shocked right off the bat about how hard it is, how much work goes into this, but when they start doing that work—they have a good work ethic being NBA athletes—that’s when we see the results. And that part of it is so rewarding for me.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Infanti stands on a platform to match the 6’11” height of Splitter, who worked on his Spanish and native Portuguese during his segments.

Splitter: “I think the first day, everybody was a little bit tight, everybody was anxious to start. But we started to look different, to feel different. We started to feel comfortable in front of the lights. Chemistry is really important.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

O’Quinn prepares for a stand-up as if he’s reporting live from Oracle Arena at the NBA Finals.

O’Quinn: “If I become the next Charles Barkley or Shaq on TNT, it will be great. But where I am now, it’s just being more comfortable behind the camera, and then we’ll see where it goes from that.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Harris takes his turn in front of the green screen, which is portrayed as being courtside at Oracle.

Harris: “I do see myself as kind of a natural [on camera]. I watch a lot of basketball and I talk basketball a lot. That’s like 90 percent of my conversations with people. I just try to go out and show my personality and be who I am and really just talk basketball.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Park instructs the players on what he’d like to see from them on the court, where each one will walk through and describe an offensive set that is important for the Cavaliers or Warriors to win the Finals. Park tells them to make sure to look at the camera, speak with enthusiasm, make their court movements pronounced, have a tight close to the segment and smile naturally at the end.

 

Splitter will be taking his on-court experiences to the Brazilian network Globo for the Olympics, where he’ll be working the sidelines with Hortencia Marcari, one of the best players ever from the country.

Splitter: “I’m excited to be part of the Olympic Games. I’m a little bit disappointed to be injured, but with this opportunity I had the option to be there and be part of a show, to be close with my [Brazilian] teammates and talk to them everyday and ask them about the game.”

 

Law has his sights set on becoming a broadcaster for the SEC Network or his alma mater, Texas A&M.

Law: “[Matt] told me he could see me doing it. That’s encouraging. I think [broadcasting] is the biggest thing that I can see myself having a future.”

 

Harris plans to pursue summer broadcasting opportunities, like on a panel for an ESPN show.

Harris: “[Broadcasting] is just like the game of basketball. It takes time to be a good shooter, it takes time to really get comfortable with learning what you need to do to improve.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

Park congratulates Harris after his on-court segment.

Park: “They’re so raw when they arrive. They don’t have any preconceived notions about what I should sound like. They may have some habits that you want to break, but they learn quickly, they want to excel, they’re used to being coached, so you can be constructive with them. I like seeing a guy have success and improve.”

 

DAY THREE

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

O’Quinn writes down some notes during the final production meeting of the weekend. “You really got to want to do [broadcasting],” says O’Quinn, who’s also passionate about becoming a guidance counselor after playing. “You can’t do it for the money.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Alexander and Harris listen in on the production meeting. Park complimented Alexander’s leadership during the group discussions.

Park: “In one of our meetings, he stopped and said, ‘Hey, guys, you’re going to want to pay attention to this because trust me, I’ve been away from [the NBA] for a long time. You’re going to have to have a real job and you’re going to appreciate your time as a player down the road once it’s gone.'”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Roberts gets his first radio experience at Sportscaster U.

Roberts: “I think this [past weekend] gives me confidence to maybe look to get more information from the different teams I’ve played on—and just speak with the video guys and the broadcasters and the analysts, and pick their brain a little bit and see if I can help in any way.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

O’Quinn takes his turn in the radio booth. For all of the players, Park advises them to avoid saying, “As you can see,” because it’s radio, and to ask themselves, “What can you add to the call? Don’t feel the need to chime in on every play.”

 

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

(Photo by Marilu Lopez-Fretts)

Matalon met with each player individually to break down their broadcasting abilities, and started by asking them, “How can I help you moving forward?” He says that the critical point of on-air growth is, “Be you.”

 

(Photo by John Dowling)

(Photo by John Dowling)

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