On Court to On Air: How NBA Players Become Broadcasters at Sportscaster U., Now in Its 10th Year

L to R: Steve Infanti, Sportscaster U.'s studio host who's regularly NewsChannel 9's Sports Director, Kyle O'Quinn and Tiago Splitter last year at Syracuse University for the NBPA's broadcasting program for players. (NBPA)

As Cavaliers and Warriors players undertake their most extensive assignment of the season out west, out east in Syracuse, N.Y., seven current and former NBA players are underway in their own comprehensive environment—but it’s not on the court.

Current players Langston Galloway, Danny Green, Gerald Henderson, Steve Novak and Willie Reed, and former players Earl Barron and Loren Woods are embarking on their first-ever professional training ground in on-air broadcasting at the NBPA’s 10th annual Sportscaster U. It’s in partnership with Syracuse University, with the program director being Matt Park, the voice of the Orange.

Over the course of the next four days at Syracuse, this year’s seven players will go through the program’s core components: appear on multiple TV and radio segments; learn about and then lead production meetings; understand the business side of the industry; and hear from guest speakers, including former player Antonio Daniels, who’s a FOX Sports Oklahoma analyst for Thunder games, and Gerry Matalon of Matalon Media, one of the sports industry’s top evaluators and coaches of media talent.

Matt Park (far right) with some of last year’s group, including (L to R) Acie Law, Tiago Splitter and Tobias Harris, at the Orange’s Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. (NBPA)

“My two promises on the first night are one, you’re never going to watch sports the same way again,” Park said. “And two, you’ll leave knowing whether you care to pursue this further. The Players Association created something that doesn’t exist. It’s a reasonable laboratory for the real world. I’ve kept in touch with a handful of guys and they felt it was an appropriate warmup of what they got in the industry.”

Since its inaugural year in 2008, around 60 players have attended Sportscaster U. Notables include Shaquille O’Neal (NBA on TNT analyst), Richard Hamilton (NBA TV analyst), Kelenna Azubuike (CSN Bay Area analyst for Warriors games), Tony Battie (Fox Sports Florida analyst for Magic games), Casey Jacobsen (FOX Sports Arizona analyst for Suns games and college analyst for FOX Sports 1, Spectrum Sports and Pac-12 TV Networks) and Brevin Knight (Fox Sports Southeast analyst for Grizzlies games).

Donyell Marshall and Brevin Knight in 2009. (NBPA)

Also, three players currently in the NBA Finals, Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson and Shaun Livingston, participated in 2011. Park noted that Iguodala talked like a GM on air. “He’s got a scouting report on every player in the league,” he said. “Without much research, he could talk ball.” And Park pointed out that Livingston was good on camera and Jefferson was strong in only one take. “He was probably the smoothest guy we’ve had on the first day,” he said.

When the NBPA started Sportscaster U. in 2008—as part of the union’s mission to faciliate players’ careers beyond basketball, knowing that many want to stay around the game—the first four to sign up were Jacobsen, Adrian Griffin, Eric Snow and Samaki Walker. Not only is Jacobsen a unique two-time participant of Sportscaster U. (also 2014), but he also attended SU’s first graduate program in 2015 at the NBPA’s Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va., where players call games and do sideline interviews.

L to R: Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Matt Carroll and Ryan Hollins in 2011. (NBPA)

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do post-career and I wanted to become a broadcaster,” said Jacobsen, who made 60 work appearances this season, 44 of them for college games in studio. “The first time I did [Sportscaster U.], I didn’t know what the business was all about and how much preparation is involved. The second time I did it was just as beneficial as the first time because I’ve learned that reps are key. I don’t know of any other educational programs that allow you to get the practice repetitions that Sportscaster U. allows. And you work alongside professional play-by-play guys in a professional studio.”

While Jacobsen didn’t get a chance to experience it, the professional studio since 2015 has been Syracuse’s Newhouse Studio and Innovation Center, which re-opened that year after an $18 million renovation. With the multiple sets and bigger newsroom came advanced equipment, including robotic cameras, and next year there are plans to install a touch screen for play and analytical breakdowns, resembling ESPN’s technology.

Casey Jacobsen doing a walk-and-talk segment in 2014 at the basketball center. (NBPA)

“It is state of the art. That whole facility has transformed into a modern facility,” said Mark Ballard, Sportscaster U.’s studio director who regularly teaches television production at Onondaga Community College, about four miles south of Syracuse. “We have a large screen panel for analysis and a 4K camera inside a green room screen where we can simulate an off-site interaction.”

For example, last year’s group—including current players Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn, Brian Roberts and Tiago Splitter, and former players Courtney Alexander and Acie Law—did stand-ups in front of a green screen as if they were live at Oracle Arena for the Finals. They also practiced interviews, studio shows, debate shows, one-minute segments and calling games on the radio, working alongside Park in the booth or Steve Infanti, NewsChannel 9’s Sports Director, in the studio. In addition, the players did walk-and-talks discussing plays and strategy on the court at Orange’s Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.

L to R: Last year’s group featured Splitter, Law, Kyle O’Quinn, Courtney Alexander, Harris and Brian Roberts. (NBPA)

This year, the players will have a special surprise on set in Marc Zumoff, the 76ers’ play-by-play man for Comcast SportsNet, and Park might experiment with a “Players Only” exercise, as a nod to the TNT platform.

Jacobsen, who eventually gravitated towards TV because of the recent growth of networks and the fun he had on camera, described the value in learning all of the different formats at Sportscaster U.

“Just like playing, the more versatile you are, the more desirable you are,” he said. “The more versatile you are, whether it’d be a sideline reporter or interviewer, whether it’d be studio analyst or game analyst, or a radio personality, the more experience you can get. And all those disciplines require you to show off your personality, be personable and to connect with the audience. So Sportscaster U. allows you to get experience at each one.”

Last year also featured a presentation by Matalon, who has spent nearly 30 years developing on-air talent (previously at ESPN). Six keys were outlined: 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. He also provided one-on-one consultation on the final day of the program.

Splitter meets with Gerry Matalon last year. (NBPA)

Some of the popular questions from the players were about salaries, next steps to get going and if travel was less to avoid the similar grind of the NBA schedule.

“You really got to want to do [broadcasting],” O’Quinn said. “You can’t do it for the money.”

In general, Park said most players arrive at Syracuse very raw. “They don’t have any preconceived notions about what I should sound like, they may have some habits that you want to break,” he said. “But they learn quickly. They’re used to being coached.”

Ballard said the players’ biggest struggles early on entail delivering off of simply instinct, but not researching a topic enough to concisely communicate it. While Ballard sits in the control room during takes, he makes it a point of coming on set during breaks to offer advice.

“I want them to have the experience of what they will say in the professional sense,” he said. “In a production, they are in charge, they are in control of the show. I’ve always said, and I use this in my teaching, ‘people watch people.’ Coming into [the program], they’re almost immediately humbled because it’s unfamiliar territory. They might have watched Jalen Rose or somebody like that and say, ‘Hey, that looks easy.’ And they’ll quickly realize that it’s just a lot harder than it looks.”

Mark Ballard (right, sitting with glasses) instructs last year’s group inside Sportscaster U.’s control room. (NBPA)

On the first day of the program, Park gets the players thinking two main things. One, this is not you being interviewed by a reporter. This involves you calling the shots, knowing how to sit, learning who and which camera to look at, interacting with the producer through a IFB audio device in your ear and talking over highlights. And two, do you have something interesting to say, and can you say it in the most efficient and effective way possible?

By the third day, the players are running their own production meetings—handling the replays, graphics and the call to break. “That is getting closer to what the expectation would be if you had a job,” Park said. “You’d be expected to do that day one.”

During their experiences, Jacobsen learned to “speak with enthusiasm,” for Knight it was “annunciate my words and slow down,” for Roberts “don’t be so rigid and upright when you’re speaking,” for O’Quinn it was “just be myself on camera and make sure you look at the right camera,” and for Splitter, the first-ever international player in the program last year, it was “just to feel relaxed, get used to the lights and get used to the cameras.”

“I feel more comfortable and how you answer the questions. It’s first answer the question and then always use the word why,” said Splitter, who was a commentator on his hometown Brazilian TV network called Globo during the Olympics last year, on the final day of the program. “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.”

Last year’s group get to know each other during lunch. (NBPA)

Referring to chemistry, Roberts said the program is akin to joining an NBA team with a few other new guys.

“Just like in the locker room, we were all basically new to the team for those three days, so it’s an adjustment period,” he said. “We were all in the same boat, we were kind of just adjusting and getting to know one another a little bit more so outside of the jerseys. And it was cool just to get more comfortable with each other on camera in the studio throughout the three days.”

Through the program, the players are also exposed to the different skills of Sportscaster U.’s roughly 12-person team.

“I learned that there is a production process,” Knight said. “There’s a behind-the-scenes crew that, number one, does a lot more work than us on air does. So it was just cool to see the inner workings of the entire situation.”

One crew member, Mike Kaminski, the program’s video operator, creates a resume tape for each player of their best clips that they can show to potential employers. When Roberts got his, he said, laughing, “It was kind of weird to watch myself do that.” But by studying himself, he now has a better handle on his strengths and weaknesses.

L to R: Steve Infanti, Roberts and O’Quinn. (NBPA)

“I definitely can see where I had some improvement for sure,” he said. “The segment where I felt like I did pretty well was just being engaging with the other people in the conversation, throwing different viewpoints and different opinions. I wasn’t necessarily talking like there was a camera in front of me. And just to improve on, I felt like speaking with more emotion, more energy.”

Another takeaway when the program ends is Park’s recommendation for the players to network with one of their NBA team’s broadcasters. “Take him to lunch and express your interest,” he said. “Sit next to him on a long flight and pick his brain.”

For this year’s 10th annual group, Knight and Jacobsen offered similar advice. Knight said “be open-minded” and Jacobsen said “step out of your comfort zone.” Take it from Jacobsen, especially, who had to take the college route to become a broadcaster. Players need to know the realities of getting hired in the industry, because it’s not easy even with NBA experience. That’s why Sportscaster U. has been critical for many players.

“There’s 99 percent of NBA players who are not 15-year vets, they’re not All-Stars, and they can’t just walk into a job. And I was one of those people,” Jacobsen said. “NBA TV wasn’t knocking down my door. I have to go a different route, and that route is get as much experience as you can and get better, and then people will hire you. The ultimate goal for me would be to get one NBA gig. It’s more competitive than it’s ever been, but I’m on the grind.”

Here are other thoughts on Sportscaster U. from O’Neal, Hamilton, Daniels, Azubuike and Knight (each from their respective network):

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