There is no one more familiar with the NBA Bubble than ESPN reporter Malika Andrews, who was the first reporter to make the trip to Orlando for the league’s restart at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex, before any players or teams arrived.
It wasn’t just a massive personal commitment to spend the entirety of the NBA’s restart in the Bubble, but a professional one, too. With the limited available spots for media in the “green zone” of the NBA campus, where reporters can actually interact with the players, those that get those spots have to be able to expand their roles. For some, this has meant expanding their coverage to include more teams than are customarily on their beat, but for Andrews it’s meant becoming a TV sideline reporter in addition to her typical written coverage of the league.
It’s a step in her career that she was, initially, supposed to ease into by dipping her toe in the relatively calm, tepid television waters of NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this summer. Those games would’ve provided a lower stress environment to learn the role and grow more accustomed with being on television, as she came to ESPN from a newspaper background with no significant on-camera experience. However, as was the case for millions around the country, the COVID-19 pandemic changed plans, and suddenly her first taste of sideline reporting would be in the NBA’s seeding round and just two weeks into the gig, her first playoff assignment — which now extends to a spot on ESPN’s Game 1 broadcast for the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Robby, I was so nervous,” Andrews said with a laugh. “I mean, I was so nervous. I was sweating. That feeling you get in your stomach where you know you’ve eaten but it feels like you haven’t eaten in days because your stomach feels like it’s bottoming out, that’s how I was feeling on the trial sideline. Like that wasn’t even the real thing yet, and I had [producer] Ian Gruca, he was so patient with me and just kind of walked me through everything and it was very slow, but as I told Ian, it did not matter, I was so nervous.”
Andrews credits the support of the rest of the ESPN broadcast team with helping her transition into the sideline role. She’s had the chance to work games with the legendary Doris Burke, who is very familiar with the sideline role as she excelled at it for years before moving into the booth as an analyst, and cites a specific bit of advice Burke provided as something that helped focus her for in-game interviews.
“The switch that flipped for me was when Doris Burke told me that what she and Mike Breen, Mark Jones, whomever — those have been the play-by-play guys I’ve been working with the most — their cheat sheet; when she does sidelines, she likes to listen to them to get clues on what the in-game interview questions could possibly be,” Andrews said. “Because the way their conversation is going, it helps to be able to slide that interview in with the points they’ve already made or the questions they’ve brought up that then you can actually get the answers to. And when I started thinking that way — I was always listening, but I started to listen in a different way when she said that. It was sort of like, ‘That’s so simple, but ah-ha! that makes sense.’ So, that really helped. … I’m still sweating. My knees have stopped knocking, but I’m fully sweating [laughs].”
On the ground, fellow ESPN sideline reporter and Hoop Streams host Cassidy Hubbarth has been able to offer assistance from in the green zone, sometimes texting Andrews during games, like, “Hey, you got this? You need anything?” Hubbarth, not too far removed from her sideline debut, knows that, as much as anything, it’s understanding the limitations of the sideline role and accepting that your job is to enhance the broadcast however that may fit that can be the biggest hurdle early in your career.
“Yeah, that’s what I said to her,” Hubbarth said. “I think honestly this environment can actually help that anxiety of not contributing as much as you want to because you have a game in, like, another day. So you do feel like you’re working, and she’s just been a workhorse here. Not only is she doing sidelines, but she’s doing every SportsCenter hit imaginable, she’s writing; she’s been a marvel here.”
“I just tell her not to force it,” Hubbarth added, “because when you force things that’s worse than not getting in. Ultimately it’s about what’s happening on the court and you’re just trying to complement the action, and, yeah, sometimes all you’re doing — like I had a game where I was really excited about my opening hit but the game before us went long so we were pushed to ESPNNews and I didn’t get to do that hit and the way the game played out there wasn’t a lot of time or space for additional stories or stuff on individual players, it was all about the action. I always compare it to double dutch, where you’re just waiting to get in and sometimes you just don’t. Sometimes there’s not an opening.”
Accepting that truth of the sideline job is something Andrews has noted has been a “tough” adjustment, but, as Hubbarth notes, there certainly shouldn’t be any feeling like she’s not doing enough in the Bubble overall. Andrews maintains her role as a writer and reporter for ESPN.com, along with doing TV and radio hits from on-site as one of the few who is in contact with players. It’s quite the workload, but something Andrews has embraced in such a unique environment, because ESPN would typically have more than a hundred writers, reporters, editors, and broadcasters on the ground in the NBA Playoffs, but in the Bubble green zone, that number is under 10 meaning everyone has to wear a number of hats.
Where all of those roles came together most notably was when the Milwaukee Bucks led a work stoppage in protest of police in Kenosha, Wisc. shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back seven times. The Bucks refusal to play Game 5 of their first round series against the Magic not only resulted in halting the NBA Playoffs for three days, but became a movement that saw stoppages in the WNBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, and more.
As the sports world stopped, sports outlets began having conversations rarely seen in an extended format. Prominent Black voices at the league’s TV partners were given airspace to share stories and experiences with racism and police brutality at length, a rarity when games are happening. For Andrews, who covered it from the beginning outside the Bucks locker room on that Wednesday afternoon — and really conversations with players about Jacob Blake being shot all week — it provided a further sense of purpose to what she was doing in the Bubble,.
“It was heavy and draining and there was a whole lot of uncertainty, just in terms of what would happen next,” Andrews recalled of that week. “These players, that entire week you could see them reckoning with this guilt — and that’s my word, not their word. … Like I mentioned with the testing, this is such a privileged existence that we are living here. It’s hard, it takes a mental toll, but it’s also one of the safest places in the country right now. We have an abundance of testing. You can almost forget [the problems of the world], if you choose to turn off the television and not read the Times, because there’s a buffer between us and what’s happening around this country and around the world, and I think for these players that feeling was made more acute because they look like and have the same skin color as these men — and women — but men in this case with Jacob Blake who are being shot. So you could feel that visceral emotion all week, but there was a sense even as the Celtics and Raptors were talking about what they wanted to do. There was a sense with multiple people that Milwaukee would be the group to say something. Looking back, I think you can feel you’re covering something monumental when it’s happening. You can feel this is something that is pivotal, but I think the weight of it was still sinking in because you’re kind of running on fumes and trying to cover it, trying to be diligent, trying to be sensitive while running on three hours of sleep.”
But Andrews believes there was a sense that this was exactly where she needed to be.
“There was this column in the Associated Press about the feeling of being Black and not protesting and if that makes you … what that feels like,” Andrews said. “And for me there is this reckoning of, what is objectivity? Is objectivity the privilege of white journalists? Because historically objectiveness and white has been kind of — objectivity has been white-washed. And how can you show up and continue to work and cover things in this even way when many of these things directly effect you, whether that be as a Black person or a woman. I think that my outlet, what is cathartic for me, is having the opportunity to cover these events and make sure that objectivity isn’t as white-washed as it would’ve been in the past or other circumstances. That gave me a sense of purpose as I continued to write and cover those things, because it was such a privilege that these players trusted me, but also I felt like I had a duty to our readers and our listeners and our viewers to really take care in how we covered this and also highlight facts that are hard to hear or uncomfortable, especially for sports circles. Because, I think you said earlier, so many people are in this because they love basketball, and I do love basketball but I got into this because I love journalism. I just happen to cover basketball and those three days were kind of the epitome of that love and that intersection for me.”
That next Saturday, the Bucks and Magic were set to play the first game since that stoppage and Hubbarth was scheduled to be on the sidelines for that game, as well as ESPN’s late game that night, as they were putting their A-team on those games. However, Hubbarth called senior coordinating producer Tim Corrigan and pushed for Andrews to take sideline duties for that game, given she had been at the forefront of their coverage of the stoppage.
“She came from being on the Bucks beat, and she was at the arena when the Bucks didn’t leave the locker room. I wasn’t,” Hubbarth said. “I was at the hotel getting ready to got to my game later that night, and she was on the scene and she had been covering it. She did a masterful job covering that story during the pause and being in talks with several Bucks players because of her relationship, and, to me, it’s always about what’s going to be the better broadcast. Obviously I’m confident I could’ve stepped up to the plate and done the job of covering what happened, cause I’m still here and I have my own connections, but she was, by far, all over that story. So I just called Tim [Corrigan] and said, just broadcast wise she’ll be the better reporter on this game and that will make our coverage better. That’s what it’s all about. This experience here has been so rewarding in so many ways that to keep score like that, what are we doing it for? It’s not about us, it’s about what’s the best coverage to cover such a historic moment in time for the league and also us as a broadcast group.”
The gesture resonated with Andrews, and only furthered to strengthen the bond between the two.
“I was so touched by how, I think especially airtime and all this stuff can be something that is sensitive and people compete for, but this group — that’s emblematic of how solely focused they are on putting out whatever it is that is going to serve our viewers best,” Andrews said of Hubbarth’s insisting on her taking the assignment. “Who has the best information? And Cassidy has the best information on the Western Conference. She felt that I was going to be the best addition to that Milwaukee Bucks game. Like, she’s just the best. The best.”
That game was the real convergence of all of Andrews’ roles at ESPN, and she’s finding that it’s not just that her reporting background helps her on sideline duty, but that working sidelines is furthering her reporting by building better relationships with coaches and players around the league. For all of the hats she’s had to wear in Orlando, they’ve helped to reinforce and refine her skills across the board.
Doing interviews for TV, where being as concise as possible is a necessity given time constraints, only helps when distilling questions into their simplest for when talking to coaches, players, and executives for print stories. Having the chance for more face time with people from around the league, particularly in the Western Conference where she has far less experience, only grows her contact list and creates more resources for her across the NBA landscape.
For NBA players, the Bubble has provided an opportunity if they’re willing to take it to boost their profile and we’ve seen a number of young stars do so, from Devin Booker to Donovan Mitchell to Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The same can be said for the select reporters in the green zone, as they’ve gotten a chance at rare access and opportunity to expand their roles for their outlets because of the limited entry. There have been some standouts, like Taylor Rooks of Bleacher Report, and Malika Andrews certainly falls into that category as a rising star in the industry.
As Hubbarth said, Andrews has been “thrown into the fire” of sideline reporting and has handled being thrust into that new role with incredible poise and thrived in it — even if she’s still sweating on the inside.