Every NBA broadcast has three main on-air components, the play-by-play announcer, analyst(s), and the sideline reporter. For the play-by-play and analyst, their impact on a broadcast is easy to see, as they’re calling the action throughout.
For the sideline reporter, the ability to have that impact is much different. On some nights, their presence isn’t tremendously felt beyond the between quarter coach interviews and postgame walkoff interview with one of the players from the winning team. Other times, they are critical in relaying information if there’s a major injury during the game or in adding color to the broadcast with an anecdote about a player having a big game.
During the regular season and early in the playoffs Doris Burke serves in the analyst role, as she has become one of the best in the business at breaking down the game and offering insight into what the two teams are doing (or failing to do). For the NBA Finals, she shifts back to the sideline role she long held prior to her move to full-time analyst a few years ago, partnering with Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson in the booth.
Burke knows as well as anyone the differences between the two roles, but also the similarities in how much preparation is required going into a broadcast. Speaking with Burke shortly after the NBA All-Star break, she explained how legendary commentator Al Trautwig offered her the best advice she got on handling the sideline role and the frustrations that can come with it.
“The best piece of advice I received on that part of the job came to me from Al Trautwig from MSG Networks and of course NBC’s coverage of the Olympics,” Burke tells Dime. “I didn’t know how to do the job, so I talked with Michelle Tafoya and Al Trautwig, because they were the people in my universe who I knew, and Al once said to me, there are going to be nights where you step off the air as a sideline reporter and you’re going to think to yourself, ‘Wow, I really think I helped the broadcast and elevated our coverage tonight.’ But far more often than not you are going to get off the air and think, ‘Wow, they paid me to do that.’ Because the nature of sideline reporting is you prepare as hard as the play-by-play and the analyst who are there, but the opportunity to effect the broadcast is far less frequent.”
Basketball’s continuous action and lack of in-broadcast stoppages — which is to say, breaks in play that don’t result in a commercial break — make those chances to get information through on air even more scarce than, say, football, where there are far more gaps between plays.
Cassidy Hubbarth’s move into the sideline role at ESPN coincided with Burke’s transition to analyst, and the two regularly work on the same broadcast team with Burke in the booth and Hubbarth on sideline duty. As such, Hubbarth credits Burke with helping her find her footing in the role, and had a similar perspective on having good and bad nights in terms of impact on the broadcast.
“So it’s a dance, man,” Hubbarth said. “Like, sometimes we get perfect 10’s and sometimes we get eliminated on the first night. As far as me being able to get in in a moment, they’ll bring up a topic in the booth and I’m like, ‘I have more on that,’ and then some action happens and then we’ve got to wait for like a free throw, and then the moment’s passed. So it’s tough. You prepare so much and you kind of have to work with the producer, the booth, and make sure that I have my thoughts organized in order to get it out, so I’m not ruining the flow of the action because when I watch games, sometimes I don’t appreciate if there’s a long story going on and it’s not complimenting what’s happening in the game. So these are all things that are kind of in my mind of when’s the best time to fit this in?”
Sideline reporters are at the mercy of many factors during a game, most notably what’s happening in the game itself, and so being over-prepared is a necessity of the job. Given how difficult it is to find those 20 to 30 second gaps where you can get a story in during play, you have to have things prepared on a variety of subjects because the star player might not be the biggest story of that particular game, which means being able to dig deeper down the roster for interesting things to offer the viewer during the game is critical.
Beyond that, as Burke notes, there are other behind the scenes factors that play into how much a sideline reporter can do, which makes patience quite the virtue in the job.
“The players you might be particularly interested in furthering their story that night, they may not have a great night. So you may not have an opportunity because they’re not part of the conversation,” Burke said. “So much is contingent on how’s a game played. Then, what’s the philosophy of the producer and network you work at? Do they simply want you to personalize the athlete, or are they OK with the sideline reporter doing more basketball-centric stories? How do the play-by-play and analyst incorporate the sideline reporter? There are so many variables that go into your ability to effect the broadcast. And you have to be on so many nights patient and know the opportunities will be there during the interviews — after the first and third quarters, postgame, at ESPN you’re always going to have a SportsCenter or Countdown hit. So it’s a very challenging job in that you’re trying to impact a broadcast in about 20 seconds during live action. That’s not always the easiest thing to pull off.”
Kristen Ledlow, who has taken over the lead sideline role for TNT, turned to Rachel Nichols, David Aldridge, and Craig Sager for advice when she made her transition from Inside Stuff host to sidelines. Nichols reinforced the need to bring your own personality to the gig rather than trying to be a copy of someone else.
Aldridge helped her break down the minutiae of the job, from where to stand during timeouts to who to ask for to do walkoff interviews, but Sager’s advice is what she finds herself thinking about the most as far as making sure she doesn’t miss the chance to make a lasting impact in those guaranteed moments for the sideline reporter.
“Craig Sager gave me the most lasting advice, in that, you can never miss the obvious question. I think about that more times than I can count in big moments in walkoff interviews that have determined playoff series,” Ledlow said. “You can get caught up in the questions you want to ask and the direction you want to take the conversation, but what’s the obvious question, that moment that everyone’s going to come back to. Don’t miss that obvious moment.”
Learning to get the most out of those interviews is an art form in and of itself, particularly the between-quarter coach interview.
Hubbarth, whose first-ever coach interview was with the notoriously difficult Gregg Popovich, approaches it as a chance to continue the conversation the broadcast team has been having.
“I mean look, they’re the hardest, easiest things I think in our game broadcast because there’s not a lot of great questions that you can ask,” Hubbarth said. “But what I do is I listen to our play-by-play and analyst. And it’s just to add to the conversation. I think of those interviews as a way to extend the conversation that the play-by-play and analyst are having by trying to ask questions that they were talking about.”
For Burke, now that she is only on sideline for the final two rounds of the playoffs, it’s all about respecting the moment and the time of the coaches.
“Here’s what I tell you about that interview, the thing I try to do most is respect the situation of that particular moment. One time I had to interview Steve Kerr in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and they’re at home and getting absolutely waxed. And he’s down over 20 and he comes over to the position and goes, ‘Doris, we’re down 20 I didn’t think I had to do this!’ It’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I have no control. I have to do this. And I think you have to recognize the particular situation that you’re in. Is the team up? Are they playing well? Are they playing poorly? You have to recognize your subject. One coach might give you a bit more leeway than another, so it’s important to be paying attention to everything.”
It’s all about picking spots, and knowing when to push or when to ease up depending on the situation.
“There are many, many times I will only ask one question, especially in the NBA conference finals and Finals,” Burke adds. “This is the absolute pinnacle of what these men are trying to achieve, and this is part of their job because of the partnership with the broadcast networks but you’re trying to respect the competitive environment that they’re in. We wouldn’t do them if the fans didn’t tell us they’re interested in them.”
The time crunch of those interviews makes learning to be succinct and direct with questions critical. For Ledlow, coming from a hosting role, she had to learn to self-edit by literally writing out her questions and reports, reading them to herself in the arena, and timing them, before working on where to cut.
“I’d think, ‘where can I make this shorter?’ If this is 46 seconds, how can I make it 42? If this question took me 16 seconds to ask, how can I make it eight? And I used to sit there and read it and time it and give myself a target,” Ledlow said. “I don’t go through that in the entirety of that process now, because doing that helped me learn where to be more succinct. It helped me learn where to be less wordy so it gives my interview subject the time and capability to be more wordy.”
While interviews are sometimes the biggest role a sideline reporter plays in a broadcast, their impact is never bigger than when a player goes down with an injury. The sideline reporter’s focus shifts totally to gathering information and preparing an update on that player’s status for the broadcast during those times.
In those moments for Ledlow, it’s another piece of advice from Sager that she always thinks of.
“The other piece of advice Craig gave me that’s also lasted years, was that the report that I gave may be the first thing someone’s wife, or mother, or father, or brother, or sister heard about that player. So when I think about giving injury reports, if I think, ‘OK, his mother might be hearing for the very first time what’s going on with her son based on the information I’m giving on the broadcast,’ it’s a lot more important for me to get it right than get it fast. It’s a lot more important for me to change my tone so it communicates that I care a lot more about this person here than about him as a player.”
There’s no greater example of how an injury can completely change a broadcast — and the delicate nature of offering reports on major injuries — than opening night of the 2017-18 season between the Celtics and Cavs. Ledlow was on sideline duty for that, with a host of opening night stories to bring into the broadcast (including peanut butter and jelly jars with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s faces on them), when Gordon Hayward went down with one of the most gruesome on-court injuries in NBA history a mere six minutes into the first quarter.
“The night that I learned the most about my position and this role was opening night between the Cavs and Celtics. Gordon goes down with such a horrific injury and nothing I had prepared mattered anymore,” Ledlow said. “And those words from Craig came back immediately, because the Celtics, I believe, were on a back-to-back. They were in Cleveland and then they were going to have a home opener the night after, so in my mind I thought, his family might not be here. His wife might not be here. They might be home watching this broadcast and waiting for him to open at TD Garden. So the things that I say, to millions watching it’s a player, but to them it’s a son, a husband, a father. I just so vividly remember that advice in that moment.”
The old adage to overprepare, but be willing to throw it all away if the situation calls for it came into play.
“Everything I had prepared for opening night and all the fun things are immediately done for the night. We never got back to them, because it became all about that. Not just for the franchise but for this young man we just saw go through a life and career-altering moment, and I remember thinking, if the things that I say are the first things his family are hearing, I want to make sure they’re correct, I want to make sure that they’re said in a way that conveys that I care about him as him and not just him as a player. And I think I had taken that advice from Craig to mind but never to heart prior to that moment. That broadcast taught me that one moment can change the course of a broadcast, but that same moment can change the most of a young man’s career and life. And to feel the weight of that moment for him and to make sure to take care of their stories.”
In those moments, the relationships built by a reporter are critical. They better the relationships, the better the information they get will be (and the faster they’ll get it), from training staffs to coaches to the players themselves.
“So much of being a great sideline reporter is forming relationships,” Ledlow said. “It’s about being in touch with the training staff to find out what the diagnosis may or may not be and when we may get the diagnosis. It’s about being in touch with the team PR staff that the message presented is what the team wants presented on a national broadcast. And then of course the player relationship comes into that as well, because you want to know how they’re feeling. You want to know how they felt in that moment. You want to know about the rehab process and what could lie ahead or what’s already taken place in that moment of the injury process. So much of getting that information is more about the weeks, months, ultimately the years that you spend around these teams and the men and women that work for these teams, rather than just the 30 or 40 seconds you may hear on television.”
Sideline reporting is very much the old iceberg metaphor. What gets seen and heard on a broadcast is a mere 10 percent of what goes into the job. It’s having stories prepared that may never get told in full on the broadcast, but may help inform better questions for interviews. It’s keeping track of all those stories so the next time you have a game with that team, you can build on that and on that night, it might pay off in the form of an in-game report that advances the broadcast. It’s constantly building those relationships so that if something major happens in the game, you can get fast, reliable information to deliver to the audience.
Burke, Ledlow, and Hubbarth all pointed to two main requirements of the job. The first is the tremendous amount of preparation for what often amounts to a few 30-second snippets of airtime. The second is the need to be your own unique personality and to allow that passion for the game to shine through.
“The one thing I come back to and tell young broadcasters who ask, over and over, is that professionalism is important, but personality is what sells and what makes you unique,” Ledlow said. “In the same way Rachel told me I wasn’t going to be a better Rachel Nichols than her, you’re not going to be a better Doris Burke than Doris Burke. So trying to do a lesser version of what any of those broadcasters do is only selling yourself short. There’s a lot of space in this industry to stake your claim, and to stake your claim it’s got to be entirely you.”