Inside the NBA bubble: Announcers preparing for game broadcasts unlike any seen before

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Thank goodness that play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan has become the lead voice for the NBA2K video game series. If not, he would have less to draw from as he prepares for his next assignment.

The NBA will restart its season Thursday at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex without any fans, which marks one of many safety precautions the league has taken to resume operations during the coronavirus pandemic. Lately, Harlan has reflected on the past 15 years recording voiceovers for the popular NBA 2K series.

“I’m in my closet at home with a headset on, and I’m calling a play with little or no crowd noise. So I’m kind of used to that,” Harlan said, laughing. “I’m really not thinking it’s going to be all that weird.”.

It will be different, though.

TNT will showcase a doubleheader with plenty of star power, with the New Orleans Pelicans playing the Utah Jazz (6:30 pm ET) followed by the Los Angeles Lakers facing the L.A. Clippers (9 pm). When Ian Eagle and Stan Van Gundy step into the broadcasting booth for the Pelicans-Jazz game, however, they will soon discover that life remains abnormal during the pandemic.

Harlan and Reggie Miller will experience the same thing for the Lakers-Clippers game. So will ESPN’s Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Mark Jones and Doris Burke when they broadcast a doubleheader on Friday, including Boston-Milwaukee (6:30 pm ET) and Houston-Dallas (9 pm ET).

The announcer booths sit halfway up the lower bowl, several rows behind the scorer’s table, leaving them without the intimate view of the on-court play. The announcers will be protected with plexiglass.

Though they do not have to wear masks during the broadcast, the announcers will have to wear face coverings and obey social-distancing rules when they are out of the booth before and after the game.

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“Anyone who has been in this business a long time usually can draw upon previous experiences. In this case, there is nothing to compare it to,” Eagle said. “So that brings a unique set of circumstances for a broadcaster.”.

How will announcers adjust to calling games without fans?

Eagle might have some point of reference for games without fans.

“I did New Jersey Nets in the mid-’90s; I know what it’s like to do games without fans,” Eagle, the Nets’ play-by-play announcer on YES Network, joked. “This is not that new.”.

Like players, though, announcers feel more comfortable with fans in the stands. The cheers become the soundtrack for their dramatic calls on a big play. The boos offer extra spice when they detail a controversial finish. As Harlan said, “the crowd is like an orchestra.”.

Harlan and Eagle floated the possibility that producers might pump in crowd noise into their headsets during the games they call.

“God bless Kevin Harlan, he’s full of energy and brings it each and every night. I don’t think it will be a problem for him,” Miller, the Indiana Pacers legend and Basketball Hall of Famer-turned-broadcaster, said. “But as a former player and an analyst, I get juiced up by the fans, by the music, the cheer squads and the atmosphere. It will be a little different.”.

Mar 29, 2014; Memphis, TN, USA; TV announcers Kevin Harlan (left), Reggie Miller and Len Elmore (right) prior to the game between the Florida Gators and the Dayton Flyers in the final of the south regional of the 2014 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship tournament at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-176946 ORIG FILE ID:  20140329_rvr_sc6_175.jpg

Both the network and announcers have tweaked their playbook to adjust to the new atmosphere.

Every TNT and ESPN telecast will feature up to 31 cameras, including ones that are placed courtside and below the rim. Most of the cameras are robotic, while one lone cameraman will sit across from center court. The networks will amplify their microphones to pick up sneaker squeaks, ball bounces and on-court trash talk and strategy.

The NBA has installed 17-foot video boards that will serve varying purposes. Sometimes, those video boards will feature 320 “virtual fans.” Other times, those video boards will display a players’ profile after a made shot. The arena also has an in-house DJ that plays rap music frequently throughout the game and during timeouts.

All participants remain aware, though, that they cannot rely on special effects. They need a compelling script, too.

“Our jobs are still to document the game so we’re not going to experiment when the ball is in play too much,” said Tim Corrigan, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “Coming and going from break and dead-ball situations, that will prove to be really interesting for the fans, producers and directors. But documentation is always the priority.”.

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On-air talent has channeled its focus into pre-game preparation. Both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy have spent the past week watching games both from four months ago and the recent scrimmages. Harlan and Eagle have updated and studied their game charts filled with statistics and anecdotes. (Eagle called the Nets’ recent scrimmages remotely for the YES Network in hopes that could shed rust.).

“How that will change with what we do? I don’t think it will,” Stan Van Gundy said. “We’re trying to talk about the game and what’s happening. But how the game feels will be different.”.

How will announcers address the pandemic & social justice issues?

The game might feel different for reasons beyond the non-existent fans.

Will the NBA’s health and safety protocols be enough to ensure a coronavirus outbreak does not occur? To what extent will the NBA and the players continue to speak out on social justice issues?

“I don’t know if you can really tell the story of the NBA restart without telling the story about how active these players, coaches and the league have been with the various causes and the social justice push,” Harlan said. “Their voices are enormous in this. Not only will we have ‘Black Lives Matter’ in bold print on the floor. We’ll have names, causes, feelings and thoughts on uniforms that these players want to portray and show. It is every bit as much the story as the teams reassembling, trying to stay healthy and getting back on the floor.”.

Do not expect the announcers to stick to sports.

On social media, Stan Van Gundy and Miller have often criticized President Donald Trump for his racially divisive rhetoric and the handling of the pandemic, while also supporting the Black Lives Matters movement. Van Gundy, who coached the Orlando Magic from 2007 to 2012, also ripped the Magic for laying off employees during the pandemic.

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Van Gundy said TNT has not talked to him about censoring himself. He mused, “when I spoke out against David Stern, that’s the only time I was told to shut up.” As the Orlando Magic coach in the 2010-11 season, Van Gundy likened the late former NBA commissioner to Middle Eastern dictators because of his refusal to listen to outside opinions about the league’s officiating.

“Coach and I shoot from the hip at times. I can see where people at times will be uncomfortable with some of the things that I say or retweet on some of the political views. But I don’t consider myself a political guy,” Miller said. “I mention and say things that I feel are right for common sense people. I’ve never heard anything from my bosses. That is the same as coaches or anyone from the league as well. I’ve always been outspoken even as a player. People expect that from me. They give me a long leash to venting.”.

Do not expect the telecasts to turn into CNN or MSNBC, though. Despite Van Gundy’s blunt opinions, he stressed, “people are tuning in for the game and we are going to present the game.”.

“If it’s conversation that works in the flow of the broadcast, I’m embracing it,” Eagle said. “Stan is informed, smart and prepared. Already in our short time together, I feel comfortable going places with him because I know he can handle it. I know that from our off-the-air conversations. So if it pertains to what’s happening in the game or a storyline that is connected to the game, I am comfortable with the subject matter. But I’m not going to force things in for the purpose of trying to cover every base. You have to be cognizant of what fits and what doesn’t, and use the appropriate tone.”.

Like with everything these days, the announcers’ game plan remains fluid. So as much as he prepared for the moving parts, Harlan has recently shifted into a different mindset.

“I have tried to stop myself from imagining what it’s going to be like,” Harlan said. “I’d rather get in there, have a taste of it myself and let my own experience dictate what I need to do personally.”.

In case Harlan feels he needs to prepare more, though, he knows what to do. He can play NBA2K.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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