It feels like so much longer than 15 days since the last NBA game was played on March 11. Of the six scheduled games that Wednesday evening, two were postponed after Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test in Oklahoma City and the chaos that ensued.
Awful Announcing chatted with three NBA broadcasters at two of the completed games, and another in a unique situation that night, to discuss how they adapted and responded to the news of the league’s suspension of play and what they’re up to now amid the new COVID-19 era.
Ryan Ruocco sat courtside at American Airlines Center in Dallas to call the Mavericks’ game against the Denver Nuggets for ESPN with Doris Burke and Tom Rinaldi. The second game of ESPN’s doubleheader, Sacramento-New Orleans, was never played.
“It was definitely the most surreal night of my career,” Ruocco told Awful Announcing. “Probably the most surreal night of my life.”
Media had been barred from locker rooms the day before, and the first game without fans was scheduled to take place the next day in San Francisco. Ruocco and Burke discussed the possibility that this was the last game they could be calling in person for a while.
While most nationally televised games are exclusive to ESPN or TNT, this was not one of them. That’s why Fox Sports Southwest broadcaster Mark Followill was courtside in Dallas as well, calling the action locally with Derek Harper and Jeff “Skin” Wade. As the news cycle was beginning to get into overdrive, Followill was checking his phone for new updates at every opportunity.
“I wanted to see if there was any news or Woj bombs about a potential announcement coming from Adam Silver that night,” he told AA.
At about the first media timeout in the third quarter, Shams Charania’s report of Gobert’s positive test was quickly followed up by the Woj bomb of the NBA’s suspension. That’s when both Ruocco and Followill had to begin balancing calling the action with breaking the biggest sports news story in a long time.
“The way it developed, it was just totally disorienting,” Ruocco said. “Our whole mentality shifted.”
Both now had to calmly convey the news and provide the proper context as the game was being played.
“It just took on a completely different meaning and focus from our perspective than we’ve ever had,” Ruocco said.
Followill was thankful for his broadcast journalism background and was able to rely on his instincts in the moment. He checked his email to make sure he had an official statement from the league before announcing anything on the air. Once he saw the statement, Followill had a discussion with his producer and director in the truck on how to proceed.
Though people were tuning in to watch the Mavericks, which is where the focus would be, Followill had the duty to inform new fans tuning in and out to constantly update them on the unprecedented situation that was developing.
“You had to do your best to strike the right balance between being a sports play-by-play guy but also a bit of a news man,” Followill said.
Ruocco had the challenge of SportsCenter cutting into game action with reports and commentary from around the country. His broadcast had to present things from a broader, national perspective as opposed to Followill’s more local focus.
“If we sort of like quickly mention the news and then dive right back into the action as if nothing’s going on, then I think we look at best naive and at worst almost painfully ignorant,” Ruocco said. “We made sure we had the right tenor and tone to calmly convey that news.”
At the same time nearly 800 miles east of Dallas, Bob Rathbun was at State Farm Arena in Atlanta calling the Hawks’ game against the New York Knicks along with Dominique Wilkins and Andre Aldridge on Fox Sports South. And while Dallas pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 16-point win behind fan favorite Boban Marjanovic, Atlanta was in the midst of one of its most exciting games of the season.
The Knicks led by 18 going into the fourth when All Star Trae Young scored 27 points in the quarter to force overtime. As New York secured the victory in OT, it was overshadowed by the suspension news.
“It was really bizarre because we were coming down the stretch of this amazing comeback,” Rathbun told AA. “The game was just incredible. Really exciting. And all the enthusiasm for the great finish was dampened. It was a strange night to be on the air.”
Rathbun mainly left it to those in the truck and their bosses to decide how to break the news on the air, allowing him to focus on the comeback. Like Followill, Rathbun was also checking his phone every chance he could get.
“We were just scurrying about, juggling all these different plates, spinning them all at the same time,” Rathbun said about the news. “At the same time, Trae’s hitting three after three and the game is crazy.”
With the league’s suspension at the conclusion of the ongoing games, Rathbun and company were confronted with another noteworthy scenario. There were 19.5 seconds left in overtime during a challenge stoppage when the Atlanta crowd began chanting “we want Vince.”
With the season in limbo, could this now end up being the final game of Vince Carter’s 22-year, Hall Of Fame career? As Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce inserted Carter into the game, Rathbun then announced the suspension on the air. Carter then rose up and nailed a three from the top of the key, which would be the last shot of the game after the Knicks dribbled out the clock.
“Vince Carter leaves the floor a hero,” Rathbun said as the buzzer sounded, quickly wrapping up the telecast to pivot to the postgame show.
Everyone was hugging and embracing Carter, actions now unfathomable in the age of social distancing.
“We didn’t have a chance to really grasp just how immense this evening would be,” Rathbun said. ““If we knew what we know now, maybe we would’ve handled it a little differently and given Vince much more of a sendoff. By the time we left the arena, everything had changed.”
It was an off night for Memphis Grizzlies TV analyst Brevin Knight, who works with Pete Pranica and Rob Fischer on Fox Sports Southeast. He was nearly 2,000 miles west of Atlanta in Las Vegas, watching alma mater Stanford take on archrival California at the Pac-12 men’s tournament.
After a home loss to Orlando on Tuesday, Knight took a quick stop at T-Mobile Arena before Memphis was scheduled to play in Portland on Thursday. The news came in as he was watching the Cardinal’s 12-point loss, a day before the tournament— and everything else in college basketball— was canceled. It didn’t dominate Knight’s mind until after the game.
“But once I got a chance to think about it,” he told AA, “it was pretty much ‘I can’t believe that this is happening at this point.’ You always said, if a player ever got it, then we felt as though that would accelerate any type of decisions that had to be made.”
Decisions were accelerated for everyone in America, as Knight quickly found out.
“The thoughts of our season and what was going on with our season became very secondary,” he said. “From there, first off, where’s my family? How do I get my family all together?”
With one daughter who’s a graduating senior at Stanford, another daughter who’s a first-year student at Elon, and a son who’s a freshman in high school, Knight went from an NBA analyst calling an exciting young Grizzlies team to one of millions of dads just looking to get their college-aged children home safe and sound.
Nowadays, the NBA season is on the backburner as everyone stays at home and tries to remain healthy and sane in our newly quarantined existence. For the Knights, that means holing up at the family’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
“Not many people will feel sorry for me and what I have to do with my time off,” Knight said. “The good thing is we can all meet here and kind of just lay low for a while.”
For Rathbun, it means spending more time with his family, taking care of offseason chores like cleaning out his office, and watching old Hawks and NCAA Tournament games.
“I threatened my audience to do play-by-play of the family Scrabble game one night,” he said, though his family wasn’t pleased. “I got voted down on that one.”
Followill is taking time at home with his wife to improve his chef game, perfecting recipes for tomatillo salsa, a pasta dish from one of chef Rick Bayless’ books and, eventually, homemade tortillas.
Ruocco’s home life in New York City, however, would become more complicated. The night before he called the Dallas-Denver game, he was in Los Angeles to call the Brooklyn Nets’ game against the Lakers for YES Network. But instead of catching a flight back to L.A. to call more of Brooklyn’s road trip, he took one back home. That was before two Lakers and four Nets players, including Kevin Durant, tested positive for COVID-19.
Already careful about staying inside, Ruocco — who, along with everyone quoted for this story, feels healthy— was forced into a 14-day quarantine along with the rest of Brooklyn’s traveling party. He then notified the ESPN crew that he had been exposed to the virus.
“It freaked me out a little bit,” he said. “I have a feeling that all of us at some point throughout this journey are going to either know someone who has it or knows someone who knows someone. But it still was a little bit alarming and halting when you see that, knowing I just traveled with them.”
Knight was one of many media members, including this reporter, who attended Memphis’ game against Brooklyn on March 4. But he said his exposure to the Nets was limited aside from interim head coach Jacque Vaughn, whose 12-year playing career coincided exactly with Knight’s.
Ruocco is now comfortably at home with his fiance Andrea, who have a wedding scheduled for June in Italy that’s very much in doubt. Worst case, they’ll postpone until next year. And if they’re able to get married in June, Ruocco is fine with missing potential NBA games if a conflict arises.
“I think we all just have to be on standby,” Ruocco said, true these days for both basketball and life.
If and when the 2019-2020 NBA season resumes, Ruocco, Followill, Rathbun, and Knight will be excited and ready to once again be the voices of their teams and fan bases.
“Like all broadcasters in the league,” Rathbun said, “I’m sitting here with the gas tank full and the car in the driveway, waiting for the go sign to get back to work.”