Event Previews

NBA Voices will call games under bizarre settings most have never faced; 20+ share their mental prep

And we’re back!

After almost four months without NBA basketball, the 2019-2020 regular season is set to resume on July 30th. The NBA has invited 22 teams to travel to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL to play seeding games for playoff positions. There will be nine teams from the Eastern Conference and thirteen from the Western Conference.

The seven teams with the highest winning percentages, including regular season and seeding games, will automatically qualify for the playoffs. The 8th seed must be four games ahead of the 9th seed to earn an unchallenged spot in the playoffs. If not, it will participate in a play-in tournament against the 9th seed where it must win one game against the 9th seed to advance to the playoffs. If the 8th seed loses two games in the play-in tournament, the 9th seed will advance to the playoffs. 

Broadcasters, particularly local voices, will likely not be in Orlando for the games, which presents an unprecedented challenge for most of them. The usual roaring crowd and fan-filled arenas might be replaced with simulated crowd noise and an empty arena.

In the ’50s and through the early ’60s, radio broadcasters recreated NBA road games from their studios. Those announcers got no more than bits and pieces of information over the phone. They had no crowd noise and there was no video feed because rarely were road games televised. Now that’s making a steak from chopped liver!

We asked NBA broadcasters two questions as they prepare to call games under unprecedented conditions:

  • How difficult will it be broadcasting games with no fans?
  • What it will be like calling games remotely, from outside the arena, at home studios?

These are the answers we got:

Craig Ackerman, (Houston Rockets Radio and TV)

I feed off the energy in the building big time…both at home and on the road. In fact, I think there’s no better feeling when you are calling road games and the home crowd’s energy goes from jubilation to disappointment. And frankly, quite the opposite if the home team is playing well.

Without a doubt, I think being in the arena (among many other advantages) gives you a greater sense of the moment and unfortunately that is lost when you are working from a studio. Even though calling games from a studio is not ideal nor preferable, it’s doable and I have no doubt that my colleagues and I around the league will still turn in top-notch professional broadcasts. I’m frankly just excited to get back to work at this point and under these circumstances I’ll take the return of the NBA anyway that I can get it.

Marv Albert (Turner)

I don’t like (fake crowd noise), I don’t know what TNT or ESPN is going to do, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s so phony. Some teams pump crowd noise into their arenas now, but it blends with the crowd they have. That’s different. They still have the live crowd reacting. (Editor: This was Marv’s quote in the New York Post, before it was determined that he won’t be working the broadcasts. At 79 and a spike in virus cases in Florida, Marv will skip the assignment.)

Mark Boyle (Indiana Pacers Radio)

Crowd noise is part of it. Your energy is directly impacted by crowd noise. But more than that we are fueled by being on-site. It’s just easier. You can see so many things that you can’t see from a monitor. I’ve only done a few games in a remote location, and it’s really hard to get a proper mindset and energy if you don’t have that crowd noise.

We used to broadcast from the floor just about everywhere we went. Then the floor space was turned into premium seating. So, they moved us upstairs. In some arenas, we have better views than at others. The one thing that I had to deal with then, which I think I can avoid dealing with now, is just being angry about it.

Not that I felt that we were entitled to sit on the floor, but the further away you get from the action, the harder it is to do the job, and you want to do it the best you can. It’s hard to come to grips with those kinds of things.

Now we’ll be situated in a studio, calling games completely off of a monitor. The pictures on those monitors are entirely at the discretion of directors. We won’t see everything that we see when we’re on site. Sometimes for example, I’ll take my eyes off of the ball to look somewhere else to see what’s going on. There’s just so much I can see on a monitor.

It is what it is and there’s no sense complaining about it. You have to function with the circumstances, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we’ll do the best we can.

Kevin Calabro (Trail Blazers TV)

Having done about a dozen games from studios, primarily for the PAC 12 Network, I can tell you it can be done well but it is difficult. Crowd noise gives not only the players a boost but the broadcasters as well. Sometimes the best way to tell a story on TV or radio is simply to shut up and let the ambient crowd roar or sigh fill the air. In this case you just continue to be as emotional as you would ordinarily be.

The biggest difficulty is not being able to see what the camera is not showing you. Watching the coach or the bench tells you what might be about to happen. There will be a difference in the sound of the game no doubt. I think a key will be to acknowledge it to the audience. I think we may be could be doing games outside arenas for some time. (Editor: Shortly after his response Kevin announced that he’s leaving the Blazers after four seasons. He won’t be calling the games remaining in Portland’s season. Host Jordan Kent picks up the play-by-play slack for now.)

Chuck Cooperstein Dallas Mavericks (Radio)

It will be very hard to broadcast without a proper crowd response. There is no doubt that we ride the wave of emotion created in the building. Calling a big moment that likely will have no reaction other than from the benches is going to be surreal.

It’s difficult, but doable. I did our preseason games from China in October 2018 remotely setting up in the Mavericks locker room. The most important thing is space. You have to have enough space to be comfortable, and a monitor that is big enough to approximate what you see live with your own eyes. We can get real time stats from the NBA Courtside system; you just have to hope that there are no tech glitches like the one we had in China when the stat system went down at the end of the third quarter and never returned. But even with that, the lack of external adrenaline beyond what we’ll see from the players is what will make this different and more difficult than anything I’ve experienced.

Ted Davis (Milwaukee Bucks Radio)

I think you have to work on your energy level. You have a certain level of your voice that is required to get above the crowd noise at a game. I think you’re going to have to get used to that. We will have an ambient sound feed from the arena, so we’ll hear the squeaks of the sneakers, the bounce of the ball, and guys talking. There’s no question that your energy comes from the crowd noise, so that’ll be completely different. It will be something that all of us will have to adjust to.

I’ve never done it before, and I’ve done 3,000 games, so this will be a first. This is where your professionalism and your experience have to come into play. As long as you’ve got a reliable video feed, stat monitor and some sound from the arena, I think we can make it sound as much like a normal broadcast as possible. That’s going to be the goal.

Chris Denari (Indiana Pacers TV)

Having no crowd noise is definitely a challenge because as broadcasters, you tend to feed off its energy.  For me, it will be very important to have as much “nat sound” in my headsets as possible. But as I look back on my broadcast career, I have done plenty of college or high school games that have had very small crowds.  So it’s not like I have never done a game that lacked atmosphere. Prior to the NBA, that happened a number of times in my career.

I broadcast two Pacers pre-season games this season from a studio in St. Louis.  We did not travel to India for the two exhibition games against the Sacramento Kings.  I have also done WNBA telecasts from the studio as well.  Again, the disadvantage is lacking the environment and access to players, coaches, officials etc.  I’m excited to be back broadcasting games no matter how we do it. I know all of us will adapt and deliver the best possible product to our fans.

Ian Eagle (Brooklyn Nets TV and Turner)

It will definitely be an adjustment. Crowd noise helps create the atmosphere for an event and provides broadcasters with a guide to the energy level required in the moment, but your job doesn’t change- you still have to tell the story. A great highlight should be called as such, the difference is our voices won’t be blending with the sounds we’ve grown accustomed to. It will be a unique experience for play by play announcers and viewers/listeners, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the NBA provides a track from Orlando with simulated sound to make the audience feel more comfortable.

During my career I’ve called basketball games off of a monitor from a studio (the 2013 NBA Finals, FIBA World Championships, etc) and it’s certainly challenging. The biggest hurdle is that feeling of detachment, all of the nuances that you pick up on being at the venue are more difficult to articulate from a TV screen. You may need to take a beat when identifying players or situations that would normally be second nature to you. Like anything else once you find a rhythm your instincts kick in and you get used to the fact that these are abnormal circumstances.

Noah Eagle (LA Clippers Radio)

It will certainly be an adjustment, but like anything else, a challenge I’m looking forward to facing. I think a lot of it will be trial and error, and the hope is the Clippers continue to advance and give me plenty of time to find the correct blend of excitement and storytelling.

I’ve been fortunate to have some experience with this exercise, both in college and since entering the professional world. However, potentially, it’ll be the first time doing a live basketball game remotely. It won’t change my approach going in. I’m still going to prepare as I always do and make sure all my bases are covered for any situation that might arise. Most importantly, I’m just excited to be calling NBA basketball again, no matter the capacity!

Chris Fisher (Oklahoma City Thunder TV)

By no means is any of this burdensome. The reality is we all have to adapt and adjust to the circumstances. To a degree, each broadcast is fueled by the emotion of fans and it’s our responsibility to still try to match these moments the best we can in order to provide the best viewing experience possible. It’s not easy manufacturing emotion in a vacuum but at the same time these are critical games and it will become the postseason which creates leverage situations. The fans watching will know, so I have to recognize the importance of each situation and convey them the proper way even without the supplemental energy.

Michael Cage and I will be broadcasting from inside our arena at center court and not a studio which I prefer because otherwise it can feel a bit like a phone booth. Maybe it’s psychological but being in the arena in open space gives my mind a greener light to elevate. That opportunity seems pretty cool to me. Our organization and I realize what a unique experience this will be and we fully embrace it with excitement.

The Thunder fully hope to responsibly incorporate fans into these broadcasts through various avenues like virtual engagement and socially distanced watch parties which should benefit everyone.

Mark Followill (Dallas Mavericks TV)

I guess years of covering Rick Carlisle have rubbed off on me. He’d never use the word hardship, he’d say this is an opportunity to grow. So that’s my feeling on it. Ideally you would have crowd noise of course, but that’s not the reality. Maybe there are some things we can do to enhance the noise of the game on the broadcast. We’ll see. But whatever we do, it’s my job to make the best of it.

I’m used to it. I’ve done many, many soccer games from the studio for FC Dallas and Fox and we’ve even done a couple of overseas Mavs preseason games from the studio. You do your preparation as you would for a normal broadcast, create your energy, focus on the game and off you go.

Todd Graffagnini (New Orleans Pelicans Radio)

I’m not sure not having crowd noise is going to make much of a difference to me. I broadcast college athletics for over 25 years and many times over the years the crowds in the arenas or stadiums weren’t much to feed off. To me, it’s all about your own passion and enthusiasm about the game you’re broadcasting, and that will convey to the listener no matter how many people are in the seats.

Calling games remotely is an entirely different matter. Honestly I won’t know until the first game, because I’ve never done it before. I know we’ll have some trial runs before July 30th, but this will definitely be a challenge because I’m doing a radio broadcast and I’ll be at the mercy of whatever feed is going to be on my monitor. You have to paint a picture on radio and not just supplement the video feed on the monitors. It will definitely take some getting used to, but everyone is in the same boat, so you just do it and your preparation will take over.

Sean Grande (Boston Celtics Radio)

One word: Acapella. The best analogy I can come up with would be signing without music. There are natural pauses in certain calls, where you allow the crowd to come in as a bridge. That’s gone. I’ve been watching some of the events that came back without fans, UFC, WWE, etc., to see how they sound and how to minimize the oddness. The hope is that some of it is mitigated by the fact that fans will be hearing their familiar voices again.

It’s as unnatural as you can imagine, and counter to the basic concept of play-by-play and reporting in general. But a lot of us have some experience with it, some teams haven’t traveled broadcasters for international games, I’ve done some international games/fights for ESPN and Spike, etc.  It’s disorienting, as many of your cues are gone.  We’ll be relying more on our laptops and devices for information, that’s for sure. It’s going to be, as play-by-play always is, about immersing yourself into the game and its story.  The regular season games, which a lot of us weren’t expecting, will be a help heading into the playoffs.

But above everything, given the world we’re in, I’m not sure “hardship” really fits.  Our goal as a league is to finish this season, somehow, some way.  And that means all doing our parts, adjusting to this new, strange world around us right now.  Players will have to play in it at a high level, coaches will have to coach at a high level in it, and broadcasters will have to broadcast at a high level in it.  We all pride ourselves in being elite in the world at what we do….this is just another opportunity to prove it.

Kevin Harlan (Turner)

I think we will all miss fans in the stands and the live reaction, the “real” crowd noise.  It is the orchestra for every game. Our calls of plays and players are always better having all the vocal emotions and presence of the crowd as that orchestra.

Players feed off it, and we do, too, as broadcasters. Will we have taped crowd noise playing in our games, or in our headsets? That is still being decided by the NBA and its broadcast partners, but there is no doubt fans make a difference on many levels. We may now have to drum up our calls to fill in where the crowd usually took us. Perhaps show greater emotion or let the sounds of the game play out. Out of every challenge comes a different answer.

Players and coaches may be heard more clearly during game broadcasts and thus give us an inside look to listen live, at what was largely before an unheard part of the game. And I would add this, broadcasters, after perhaps an initial feeling out process, will adapt, just as the players do. The focus for each of us when broadcasting an NBA game is pretty strong. After a while you’re so locked in that you lose yourself in the game and perhaps to a degree are unaffected by the absence of fans.

We won’t know until we put on the headsets, either in arena or in studio. Atmosphere, the electricity of a loud building for an NBA playoff game is an experience unto itself. It is so special and compelling. Everyone feels that, the players, coaches and broadcasters. A lot of unknowns and adjustments by everyone, but if all parties can use these challenges in the best way, it could shape up as one of the most unique and memorable NBA playoffs we’ve ever seen. And heard.

Eric Hasseltine (Memphis Grizzlies Radio)

As far as the broadcasts go, you are correct, we broadcasters love the crowd energy and it helps bring the feel of the game to the audience (especially radio). It does make it a little tougher on us to get the audience to feel the momentum swings of the game but this is what we are trained to do. Most, if not all of us, at one time or another have either practiced at home off a TV feed.

It will be tougher for those teams that only have a single broadcaster handling the game. I am fortunate to have two great analysts who can add to our games every night. I am excited just to get to see our team play again. I’d love to be there, but I totally understand why the league would have us in studio rather than in the arena.

Dave Johnson (Washington Wizards Radio)

Naturally, as broadcaster we feed off of a crowd, but the game is the thing. Once the competition starts, like players, broadcasters get in zones. That is not to say it won’t be different, but if we still have sounds of the game –squeaking tennis shoes, the grunts and groans of the players etc. will help compensate.

I have called games off a monitor for NBA TV. In short, it is an exercise in concentration. You really can’t look away. You’re always dependent on another person’s eyes–the TV director’s. From a radio perspective this is the challenge because there is not a producer in your ear telling you what shot to expect. Bottom line it is just important to concentrate and to be well prepared… Because you really can’t look down at your notes.

Justin Kutcher (Washington Wizards TV)

First things first, I’m ecstatic that basketball is back, and that we’ll be able to call games! I’ve actually had the experience of calling games remotely from a studio and it’s not close to calling them in person at the arena. It’s a different experience because you’re at the mercy of what’s being shown on camera. When you’re at the stadium or the arena, your eyes are constantly scanning. You can see what’s happening on the bench, can see who’s going to the scorer’s table, maybe see some players talking trash where you give the truck a “heads up” in order to show it on screen and talk about it. But when you call off a monitor, you can only talk about what is being shown, and while you try your best, I don’t think it’s as good of an experience for the viewers as being there at the arena/stadium.

I will be very curious to see how we handle the lack of crowd noise. One of my favorite things to do as a play-by-play announcer is to lay out when the crowd is going crazy and let them tell the “story.” With that said, one of my jobs is to be able to adjust on the fly, and I believe that will be tested when it comes to this. It may take a couple of minutes, or a quarter, but ultimately we’ll figure it out how to give the viewer the best experience possible.

Bill Land (San Antonio Spurs TV)

This is totally unusual. There is a possibility of having a crowd in the AT&T Center, which is where we’re tentatively scheduled to broadcast the games. The Spurs are hopeful to have pockets of fans there who can be socially distanced. So, we may have fans in the arena! Those plans are not set in stone yet, so it will be interesting to see what happens with that. If it ends up that we are in a quiet studio, then I guess the decision needs to be made whether they want to feed us some crowd noise. I think I would like to have that.

It’s difficult, but the NBA is making everything available to us. The big concern is not only that you have a big screen and clean feed from Orlando, but hopefully you have other camera shots available on side screens, so you can see some things that people at home are not able to see. It can be as simple as people sitting at the scorer’s table waiting to check in.  I think they’ll do whatever they can to make it the best possible. I’ve watched some of the NBA broadcasts this year that were done from the studios in Atlanta. I give everybody credit, from the technical people to the announcers, you couldn’t know if they were on site or not. I guess that’s the whole objective. Make it as normal as possible.

Al McCoy (Phoenix Suns Radio)

I would prefer to have some type of crowd noise to be under the broadcast….mixed with sound from the arena….just would make it sound more “normal”.

Having done recreation baseball…just another challenge!!

It would require real concentration…but I would approach it just like a normal play by play…staying on top of the game…as always preparation and concentration the key…..certainly would prefer to be in the arena….but let’s have FUN!!

Kevin Ray (Phoenix Suns TV)

In a word, strange. We’ve all done games where there have been small crowds, but none of us, that I’m aware of has ever done a game without any fans and the noise they bring with them. There are some games that you feel as though you’ve been plugged into a power outlet, all because of the energy coming from the fans in the arena. I know there are a number of different ideas being discussed about having/adding some kind of crowd noise but I don’t know if that would be mixed into our headsets or if whether it’s only going to be heard by the viewers.

We know now that we will be doing games from a studio. This will present an even bigger challenge than not having fans. Combine a studio broadcast with no fans in the arena and you have one of the more odd broadcast settings you can imagine.  For us, the big questions are how many cameras will there be? What kind of delay will we be dealing with? Replays, communication from the event site. We are anxiously awaiting more details on how this will look and feel.

Having said all of that. I couldn’t be more excited about getting games back on the air and getting back to doing what I love.  A great adventure awaits!

Eric Reid (Miami Heat TV)

Not having crowd noise is a hurdle we will all overcome. The NBA is working on a “soundtrack” for all NBA broadcasts upcoming that will include crowd noise and many other “effects” that will enhance it. The league does not want it to be a hollow broadcast. MY enthusiasm will be generated by the game action.

We will be broadcasting Miami Heat games remotely from our normal courtside location at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, off 75-inch TV monitors. We know there are obvious challenges to overcome.  We will. My simple philosophy is based on the notion that the home viewer, so hungry to watch basketball again, does not care WHERE the announcers are broadcasting from (nor should they). MY focus will be on the viewers and the games we will be watching. It is only eight meaningful regular season games and then the playoffs. I will let the excitement of those games lead me. I look forward to this somewhat historic undertaking.

Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN)

All these questions are going to be debated, and there only bad answers. That’s the problem. I don’t care where you come down on it. Pump in crowd noise and there’s going to be some criticisms. Don’t pump it in, there will be some criticisms. Whoever is making these decisions like Adam Silver, there’s nothing that’s going to leave you criticism-free. I guess my stance is, do whatever happens in a normal NBA game and nothing else. Whatever ambient noises they put in, whether it be putting in music or something. But it will be very interesting if there will be no noise, no fans — what does that do to the game, the intensity, the passion? All that. I’m so interested.

Bill Worrell (Houston Rockets TV)

We are all flying blind here, never having done a game without people in the arena. You will hear the ball being dribbled, shoes squeaking as they start and stop. You will hear player comments, coaches shouting, referees blowing whistles. I will play it by ear. Might let my audience hear all of that, and talk when needed. Don’t know. Will experiment. I expect it will be a lower key call, not as much excitement that the crowd brings. More basketball “in a laboratory environment.” We’ll see.

No problem. I have done the Euro championships from the studio in the past, as well as several Rockets games from China. It is all new for many of us and we will make adjustments as we go along.

Mark Zumoff (Philadelphia 76ers TV)

When I was 14, I used to makeup broadcasts into a tape recorder, utilizing TV static which I regulated as “crowd noise.”  That said, I’m intrigued by the “sounds” of the game (players, coaches, officials) and if we’d be able to eavesdrop on any of that.

I’m not sure of our broadcast plans if any to this point, but if we do end up calling games off a monitor, it is what it is. It’s not ideal—there are any one of a number of things that can be missed—but you simply do the best you can.  I’ll be thankful for the chance to call any games at this point, no matter the circumstances.




Amelia Holland

Amelia Holland is pursuing a degree in Marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and certificates in Digital Studies and Sports Communication through the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Amelia will graduate in 2022 and hopes to pursue a career in sports marketing, journalism or broadcasting.

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