NBA Behind The Scenes

NBA Behind The Scenes: The Real Draft Lottery

VIDEO: A behind-the-scenes look at how the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft is determined

(Editor’s Note: While we cover the NBA as obsessively as we can around here, there are still numerous ancillary parts of the NBA experience that we want to uncover and explore. Being involved with the NBA can mean everything from coach in the minor leagues to trying to catch the game one frame at a time. We will delve into these angles of the NBA as part of our regular — and perhaps a bit irregular — All Ball series, NBA Behind The Scenes.)

NEW YORK — On Thursday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers hold the first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. But how did we come to that? I went behind the scenes at the NBA Draft Lottery last month to find out how the lottery actually goes down.

The first thing to understand is that the draft lottery you see televised in prime time on ABC — with the NBA deputy commissioner dramatically unsealing envelopes and withdrawing large cards festooned with the winning team’s logos — is not the actual lottery. What you see is a made-for-TV event. The real lottery takes place off-camera earlier in the evening, in a sealed room populated with lawyers, accountants, public relations people, team owners, security staff and journalists. The results are uncovered, and then the information is delivered about an hour later to the masses via the tube. In the time in between, the select few who know how the lottery turned out are sequestered, holders of a great secret that they aren’t allowed to share.

(Which begs the question: Why not televise the actual draft lottery? Watch the video above and compare it to the televised broadcast and it’s pretty clear which version works better as a TV spectacle.)

On this night, we were not all witnesses. Of the several hundred journalists at the lottery, there were five souls invited to watch the draft lottery live, including me. At 6:45 PM, almost two hours before the lottery results would be unveiled on live television, ace NBA PR man Michael Wade escorted our cabal of writers from the media headquarters in the Best Buy theater, up an impossibly steep escalator, across 44th street and over to the ABC studios.

We had to fight our way across Times Square, right in the middle of rush hour, weaving in and out of gaggles of tourists, avoiding the pudgy guy in a Bane costume begging folks for money for photos, past the sidewalk vendors guarding tables stacked high with YOLO snapbacks, dodging the stand-up comedians searching for people who like stand-up comedy, and finally under the huge ticker scrolling headlines and ads for ABC, until we finally reached the studio door.

Just inside that door was a freight elevator big enough to drive a car into, usually used to transport visitors from the ground floor to the second floor. Why is the elevator so large? Perhaps better to fit the egos of some of the celebrity guests on “Good Morning America?” Wade avoided this elevator and instead led us up two flights of stairs. I wondered if he was attempting to spike our blood pressure and disorient us before the lottery began, the better to control the information.

Where it all happens

On the second floor we were led through a maze of hallways to a rectangular room, which is usually used as a green room for “GMA.” Black cloth was draped over the back wall, and the curtains were drawn tight across the windows overlooking 44th Street. On the far end of the room was a makeshift display of basketballs and jerseys from the teams involved in the lottery. In front of that was the actual lottery machine, a series of clear Plexiglas tubes and bowls, a terrific contraption that looked like something Willy Wonka might design for a pet rodent. Next to that was a large paper tablet where the winning combinations would be recorded. It was all very lo-fi considering the fortunes of a team could be riding on this evening. Then again, perhaps lo-fi was the best way to make sure the results stayed in the room until the official announcement.

Eight easels displayed six oversized posterboards that listed the various number combinations assigned to each lottery team. Filling most of the room were four tables set with three chairs apiece, ready for the dozen team representatives in the room. In the back of the room was a round table prepped for five, for the journalists in attendance, as well as another table for the overflow PR people and league staff. To keep us all sated, there were two large trays of crudités, cookies, waters and sodas.

Upon realizing that we were about to be locked in this room for close to 120 minutes, the Boston Globe‘s Baxter Holmes and I thought we better hit the restroom for a final time. We stepped into the hallway and were immediately intercepted by a security guard, who told us we couldn’t go anywhere without an escort. The guard, a woman, then announced that she would take us to the bathroom, leading us down a labyrinth of hallways, past a series of control rooms and offices, until we finally reached a men’s room. The security guard leaned against the wall and told us she’d be waiting for us. I have never felt as much pressure to perform.

Finally, just after 7 p.m., with everyone in the room and accounted for, we were each presented with a comically oversized manila envelope and a Sharpie. All of our electronic communication devices were to be sealed in the envelopes and then tagged with our names. These packages would then be collected by security and confiscated until we were released from the room.

I am not a regular watcher of “Law & Order,” but I must admit that it felt alarmingly like we were being processed into lock-up.

From this point we were, for all intents and purposes, muted from the world. I’m sure if something terrible happened our loved ones could have found a way to get in touch with us. But the important thing in this moment was that we weren’t able to get in touch with anyone else. Because those of us in this room would know who won the NBA draft lottery before anyone else.

Ping-pong business

A member of the NBA legal department stepped to the front of the room to talk us through the proceedings. Standing quietly behind the machine were Lou DiSabatino, the NBA’s vice president of events and attractions, and Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s senior vice president of basketball operations. The ping-pong balls were dropped into the hopper one by one, and the machine gurgled to life with an electronic hum as the balls ricocheted around. Next to the machine was a hollowed-out basketball, suitable for chips or dip. We were informed that in case of a malfunction with the machine, the party-platter basketball would be used instead and balls would be drawn one by one. Not nearly as exciting, sure. But you had to admire the versatility of that basketball.

In the middle of the room stood Kyle Yelencsics, an associate coordinator with the NBA. Yelencsics had his back turned to the podium and a stopwatch in his hand. After allowing the balls to percolate for 30 seconds, Yelencsics raised his other hand, DiSabatino opened a hatch atop the machine and a ball popped to the top. Vandeweghe reached over and withdrew the first ball, announcing, “Number 13.”

I immediately realized why this part of the draft process isn’t shown on television: A lottery taking several minutes is not exciting TV, unless maybe Yolanda Vega is involved. And for all his many talents, Kiki Vandeweghe is no Yolanda Vega.

Twenty seconds later, a second ball was withdrawn: “Number 7.”

With two of the four numbers known, I started scanning the number combination sheets in front of me. We were each given sheets listing all of the available combination, with the teams to which they were assigned. For instance, combination number 207 was 1-6-7-12, and belonged to Milwaukee. The sheet was several pages long and covered with numbers, and looking at it was like staring into The Matrix.

As the numbers were announced, everyone scanned the sheets madly trying to find the winner. This was like playing BINGO for geniuses — because the numbers were not drawn in order, it was nearly impossible to find the winning combination until all four numbers were called.

The third number was drawn: “Number 9.”

There was no way to tell who or what team was in the lead.

The fourth number came to the top, and as Vandeweghe plucked the ball from the machine, DiSabatino switched the motor off. If this was a low number, the pick would probably belong to Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Orlando, the teams with best chances at getting the first pick. If it was a high number, all bets were off.

“Number 14,” Vandeweghe called. The highest number available. What did this mean? Could it …

“Cleveland!” one of the NBA’s lawyers cried out.

“Congratulations, Cleveland,” said Vandeweghe. “You have the number one pick.”

Cleveland, again

Cavaliers general manager David Griffin (left) with Jeff Cohen at the lottery in New York last month ( Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Cavaliers general manager David Griffin (left) with Jeff Cohen at the lottery in New York last month ( Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

All eyes went to Cleveland’s representative, Jeff Cohen, the team’s vice chairman, sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the room. I was sitting almost directly behind him, and all I could see was his shoulders dip, and both of his hands go to his head as if in disbelief.

The Bucks, who finished the season with the worst record, had been assigned 250 of the 1,001 possible combinations that existed between the 14 ping-pong balls. But the four numbers pulled out were one of the 17 — seventeen! — combinations assigned to the Cavs. Cleveland had a 1.7 percent chance of winning the lottery. And they had just done it, again, snagging the No. 1 overall pick for the second year in a row and the third time in the last four years.

Cohen stood and, shaking his head, accepted hollow well-wishes from the other team reps, who presented braves faces while all trying not to show their disappointment at not getting the top pick.

This was Cohen’s fourth rodeo in the sealed lottery room, and he was basically batting an unprecedented .750. After posing for a few pictures holding a jersey and the lucky ping-pong balls, Cohen spoke about the power of positive thinking — he had come into night repeating a phrase from what he termed “a book of isms” that promised, “You can believe it when you see it.” So as the ping-pong balls ricocheted around the machine, Cohen tried to visualize the Cavs’ winning numbers being drawn.

Like the rest of us, he wasn’t exactly sure where the Cavs stood as the numbers were called. But he deduced as it went along that the higher the numbers called, the better Cleveland’s chances became.

What happened was some combination of luck and insanity. What happened happened. Like it or not.

Back to the real world

Close to an hour after the drawing had finished, we were still locked in the room, and I guess that’s when madness began to set in. I had made small talk with several NBA team executives, but honestly, none of them wanted to talk all that much, as they were still dealing with the sting of defeat.

I started to wonder what would happen if something catastrophic happened in the world outside and we were all trapped in this room. Would it devolve into a “Lord of the Flies” situation? My fever dream was broken around 8 p.m. when the draft lottery started airing, and someone flipped on the two TVs in the room and tuned them to ESPN. All of us in the room drifted toward one of the two TVs and stood watching. Some of the writers started talking about the upcoming draft, mostly as a way to fill time, wondering who the Cavs would draft, which teams would try to trade up, which teams would move down.

Meanwhile, Mallory Edens and the Bucks were winning the night on social media. In the back, where we were still in forced Luddite mode, we had no idea any of this was happening.

When it got to the final three and the broadcast went to a commercial break, the envelopes with our personal effects were distributed to us, along with a warning from Clifford Cooper, the massive security guard blocking the door, that we were not to open our envelopes yet “under penalty of death.” I’m pretty sure he was just joking. Nobody dared to find out.

Eventually we stumbled down a few hallways and into the television studio, where the broadcast was just wrapping up. Everyone in the studio seemed to be as amazed as the rest of us about the Cavs winning that top pick, even though we’d had an hour to process the results.

One day after the draft lottery, when the NBA tweeted out a link to my news story from the event about the Cavs winning the lottery for the third time in four years, I was inundated with tweets.



I’m here to tell you that nothing untoward happened. The draft lottery may have been surprising. But fixed? Not at all.

It was just luck. And sometimes, that’s exactly enough.

All Ball Talk Show: Othyus Jeffers

By Lang Whitaker,

ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — I admitted as much when I wrote the NBA Behind The Scenes piece last week, but I didn’t know a ton about the D-League when I arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, to serve as an assistant coach for the Iowa Energy. The most interesting player I came across in Des Moines was Energy swingman Othyus Jeffers. So much so that I devoted a chunk of the story to Jeffers, mostly about how he was carving up the D-League and seemed ready to be an NBA player. We sat down and taped an interview while I was there, about the ups and downs of playing in the D-League and what it would take to get back to the NBA, where he has had a few ten-day contracts over the years.

And then yesterday, Jeffers was signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves for the rest of the season. Which puts a totally new perspective on some of the stuff we talked about in the piece below…

VIDEO: Talk Show: Othyus Jeffers

NBA Behind The Scenes: I was a D-League coach

By Lang Whitaker,

Lang’s D-League Debut

DES MOINES — “Did you bring a suit?”

Iowa Energy coach Nate Bjorkgren looked me in the eye, ready to pass judgment on my ability to make the unprecedented leap from journalist to NBA Development League assistant coach. The room was dark except for a projector shining stats against a wall. It was almost as if I was in an interrogation room in a spy movie.

In four hours, the Energy would host the Tulsa 66ers in a game with playoff ramifications. At 25-17, the Energy had a shot at winning their division. The last thing Bjorkgren and his team needed was a distraction on their bench.

The thing was, I honestly felt like I could handle being an assistant coach, at least for a night. I’ve spent almost 15 years covering the NBA, and a lifetime playing and observing basketball at all levels. I coached a church league team for a few years and won a few titles by employing an aggressive zone defense and an offense best described as “let the best player take all the shots.”

The chance to be part of a real, professional game as a bona fide assistant, though? It was something I’d never considered. But it seemed like a great opportunity to pull back a curtain to a larger audience.

Honestly, I don’t know much about the D-League.  My ignorance is not born from some misguided elitism, though. I watch NBA games seven nights a week. I don’t have time to view much of anything else. I don’t tune in to college basketball games, either, or hockey or “Scandal” or “Dancing With The Stars” or “@Midnight” or … well, pretty much anything, at least from October through June.

And, so it was that a lifetime of accumulated hoops experience led me here, with an invitation from Bjorkgren and the D-League in hand, to an undecorated auxiliary locker room in the basement of an arena in the middle of Iowa.

I was prepared. My suit hung in a stall just a few feet away. We had a video crew in tow to record the entire experience.

I was as ready as I would ever be.

Iowa Energy Practice

Iowa Energy Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

I. This is Des Moines

Downtown Des Moines is a mixture of small-town Americana and ongoing urban renewal. Old buildings along the banks of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are being repurposed into sun-filled loft apartments. The hipsters are here, transforming long-abandoned buildings into coffee shops, cafes and arts and entertainment spaces.

The economic backbone of Des Moines is a thriving insurance industry — it is rated the third-largest insurance center in the world. There are so many insurance companies downtown that running into Cliff Paul wouldn’t be surprising.

That’s not all Des Moines in known for, though. The exposed brick wall at Java Joe’s here is covered with photos of glad-handing political figures, a reminder of the importance of the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff to the presidential race every four years.

The Iowa D-League franchise was founded in 2007, and in 2011 the Energy won a D-League title. They play in the Wells Fargo Arena, a beautiful facility that holds almost 17,000 people. The Energy are well-supported — they have set several attendance records, including drawing over 14,000 to a Finals game in 2011 — and generally average several thousand fans a game.

Part of the challenge of life in the D-League is that franchises are forced to endure an itinerant existence. Teams fly commercial, and because D-League squads are mostly based in smaller cities, commutes usually require at least one connecting flight. (For what it’s worth, the players I spoke to were unanimous in their belief that no commercial airplane seat should be able to recline at all.)

The Energy have offices at the arena, but because the facility is booked regularly for a variety of events, they can’t always practice there. On this weekend, for instance, they had to hold practice at Grand View University, a small school located a few miles from downtown.

I arrived in Des Moines on the morning of Friday, March 21, a day before the Energy were to play the 66ers. When I finally found the gym at Grand View, Patrick Jacobson, the team’s public relations and marketing director, met me carrying an armful of Energy gear, which he dropped at my feet. If I was going to be an assistant coach for the weekend, I was going to at least look like a coach. All I needed was a whistle.

The only people inside the gym when I arrived were Bjorkgren and forward Moses Ehambe. Pretty much immediately, Ehambe trotted over and vigorously introduced himself.

Bjorkgren stood a bit over 6 feet, his shaved head reflecting the gym’s fluorescent lights. Because the Energy had finished a game just 12 hours earlier (a 129-128 home win against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants), Bjorkgren told me that the morning’s practice would be a light one. The guys would get up a few shots and do some easy stretching. The session would be about maintaining and recovering.

“A lot of our shootaround time and our practice time is more geared toward us,” Bjorkgren said, “toward our team, making our team right, making sure we know the plays, making sure we know what we’re going to do on defense. Yes, we scout the other opponent very much, but it’s more of making sure our team is right just because of all the changes that take place.”

There are three assistant coaches on the Energy staff (Bruce Wilson, Deane Martin and Tyler Marsh) as well as Dylan DeBusk, who is the basketball operations assistant. Once the team arrived, the five coaches spread out among the nine players and worked on shooting drills. A few players rotated near midcourt doing stretches with athletic trainer Keith Walton.

I knew a few names on the Iowa roster from their various stints in the NBA or at high-profile college programs — Curtis Stinson, Kalin Lucas, Glen Rice Jr., Austin Freeman, Josh Boone. I spent a lot of time talking to swingman Larry Owens, a rangy scorer in his fourth D-League season. He’d had a few short trips to the NBA over the years, but for now he was in Des Moines hoping to uncover a path back to the NBA.

Bjorkgren had only recently found his way back to Iowa. Born in Storm Lake, Iowa, Bjorkgren had worked as an Energy assistant coach in their inaugural season. In 2011, Bjorkgren was hired by the Golden State Warriors as coach of their D-League team, stationed first in Bismarck, N.D., then in Santa Cruz, Calif. Last summer, Bjorkgren returned to Iowa to coach the Energy.

Iowa Energy v Rio Grande Valley Vipers

Coach Bjorkgren addresses the Energy (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

II. ‘The world of the D-League’

The NBA established the D-League in 2001, although it was initially called the NBDL. The league began with eight teams; today there are 17, with another coming next season. Fourteen of the D-League’s 17 teams are a single affiliate of an NBA team, which means they work directly with an NBA team’s front office and ownership. The Energy are one of the three D-League teams that remain independent. As such, the Energy are aligned with five different NBA teams — the Bulls, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Wizards. Instead of having one franchise to report to, Bjorkgren has to juggle relationships with five.

“I went to a number of different training camps, so I get to take bits and pieces of every NBA team that we’re a part of this year and kind of incorporate that into our system,” Bjorkgren said. “Last year we were a one-to-one affiliate of the Golden State Warriors, so that when assignment players came down, I was able to run the plays that were part of Coach [Mark] Jackson’s playbook. So it made it easy for those assignment players. That’s how it prepares me as a coach: I get to see the ins and outs of the NBA and how teams handle things differently.”

VIDEO: Take an all-access look at the 2014 D-League Showcase

The easiest way to explain the D-League is to call it the NBA’s minor league, though it definitely does not operate the same way as, say, baseball’s minor leagues. One way the D-League definitely is a minor league is the salaries. According to an agent I spoke to, the D-League has three salary tiers: $25,500; $19,000; $13,000. On most teams, two players are paid at the top tier, two players occupy the second tier and the rest of the team makes the minimum. The per-team salary cap in the D-League is $178,000 per season, which is a little less than Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez makes for playing one NBA game. While all the D-League players are provided with housing, transportation, insurance and a travel per diem, the financials are a sliver of even the rookie minimum NBA contract (which this season is worth a bit under $500,000).

“That’s just the world of the D-League,” Energy forward Othyus Jeffers said. “You know what you’re getting yourself into. We could fuss about the things the D-League don’t have, we could say great things about the D-League, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. You gotta roll with the punches. Everyone knows we don’t get paid. Everyone knows the travel is very tough. But you still have to perform.”

For many players, signing with the D-League is a calculated risk. Leaving for an overseas gig during the season is financially unfeasible due to the standard buyout figure in the D-League contract, which is around $45,000, double or triple the entire value of most contracts. Players may hope to supplement their D-League income by playing overseas after the D-League season, but many leagues run concurrently, making that impossible. If a player wants to make more money than the D-League offers, he could choose to pursue a gig overseas — though with financial crises in many countries, basketball contracts aren’t as sizable as they were even a few years ago. Playing overseas also brings up the whole out-of-sight, out-of-mind conundrum.

“You’re not close to your family but pretty close, instead of being overseas,” Owens said when I asked about the advantages of playing in the D-League. “And just being in front of GMs, scouts. You’re in front of GMs or scouts every night, whereas overseas they have to fly over there for a specific person. So just being around them is a good experience.”

VIDEO: Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger spent several seasons as an NBA D-League coach

At least 32 D-League players have been called up to the NBA this season, a total of 41 times. For a player who still qualifies for the minimum under the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, that 10-day contract is worth about $43,000. Which is a nice bonus for a player earning less than half of that over the 50-game D-League season.

“I always tell our guys and tell people, the D-League is an investment league,” said Bjorkgren. “If you come here to the D-League and you have a great year and you work hard, number one you can get an NBA call-up. Or maybe it turns into a Summer League invite, maybe it turns into a training camp invite. So good things can happen out of the D-League.”

The idea rings true for coaches as well; getting to the NBA is just as valid a goal for them. This season, there are 18 coaches on NBA staffs that have D-League experience . That’s mostly assistants, but that number also counts Memphis head coach Dave Joerger, who formerly served as coach of the Dakota Wizards.

“As a coach, this is my seventh year in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said on the Hang Time Podcast. “What I do is I focus everything during the year on my players and helping them get jobs. We’ve had a good year of call-ups — we had Diante Garrett get called up to the Jazz; Jarvis Varnado got called up to the Bulls and is now signed with the Sixers; Othyus Jeffers got called up the Spurs and started a game.

“So, I pour all of my time into the players. And then when the season’s over, once May comes around, May and June, then I’ll start thinking about myself again. You know, maybe there will be some job that opens up or some shuffling will take place, and maybe there will be an opportunity for me. But right now, I just try to do everything I can for the players, because they’re playing really hard for me.”


Practice? Practice. (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

III. Scouting the opposition

On the afternoon of the game against the 66ers, just as fans who were at the Iowa Wild hockey game began leaving Wells Fargo Arena, I found a parking spot close by, on the corner of Park and Fifth. Once inside, I wound my way through a series of unmarked hallways and finally found the Energy locker room. A door just inside was marked ASSISTANT COACHES.

This was where I belonged. Apparently.

Inside the spare space, tension already was building. It felt as though we were racing against the clock on the wall, which was ticking down until tipoff. Bjorkgren’s assistants gathered around a folding table waiting for his arrival. As the four assistants pecked at their keyboards, returning emails and checking the latest stats, occasional conversation dotted the silence. Our discussion hit on everything from the latest NCAA tournament results to the proper usage of the word “schadenfreude.”

Through the open door, the banging and clanking of the arena crew was audible as they transformed the arena floor from hockey to basketball. Just as Bjorkgren entered, a barking dog ringtone echoed through the room. Coach Bjorkgren pulled out his iPhone and stepped back into the hallway to take the call. He returned a moment later carrying an energy bar and a bottle of Gatorade.

Because there aren’t really advance scouts in the D-League, video scouting is done mostly through the game broadcasts, which are all streamed live and archived on YouTube. DeBusk fired up his MacBook Pro and attached it to a portable projection system. A slight crisis erupted when the arena’s WiFi signal waned, though it quickly returned. The beige wall in the front of the room became our big screen, and we started sorting clips of different Tulsa players. Bjorkgren called out last-minute alterations for the day’s scouting report.

IV. A new language and culture

There is a basketball language that coaches and players use that is nearly impenetrable for all who are not basketball lifers. I’ve watched and played basketball nearly every day of my life since I was a child, yet I felt like a freshman stumbling into a grad-level class.

“When they go horns or even sometimes if they’re in floppy, watch for him to be involved in wide pindowns.” Or perhaps: “We’ll stunt on the backside and make adjustments through.” In this room, the phrase “BS action” was not a coarse joke — it was a reference to a ball screen. Among coaches, this is lingua franca.

Because this is the D-League, we had to double-check a few video clips where players were wearing different numbers in different games. The coaches weren’t even certain who would be in Tulsa’s starting lineup. Eventually, though, 20 minutes of clips were culled down to a playlist just under eight minutes long.

“At the beginning of season we might watch about 12 minutes of video before a game,” Bjorkgren said. “But this late in the season we’re trying to keep it between seven and eight.”

While we were meeting, the players arrived and took to their own pregame rituals — getting taped, taking some shots. Owens ran up the arena stairs to the concourse to buy a hot dog. Around 5:30 p.m., the players squeezed into the film room. The clips rolled in order as Bjorkgren narrated. The assistant coaches piped in here and there.

At 50 minutes until tipoff, everyone gathered on the court for some loosely organized stretching and drills. The soundtrack blaring over the PA system was inexplicably heavy on the solo works of O.D.B., which the players seemed to enjoy. At one point Rice Jr. took a seat on the scorer’s table. He leaned over and noticed the PA microphone unattended, so he pushed the red button below it and bellowed, “HELLO DES MOINES!”

Eventually we headed back to the locker room, where the coaches ducked into an office and suited up. With 19 minutes on the countdown clock, everyone gathered in the main locker room for Bjorkgren’s pregame speech.

For the most part, it was just Bjorkgren giving reminders to the Energy. D-League teams play each other eight or nine times in the regular season — many more times than NBA teams see each other. As Bjorkgren ran through the 66ers’ presumed starting lineup for a final time, he would single out an opponent and say something like, “Play him as if you don’t need help. It’s there if you need it, but play like you don’t.”

The last thing he told the players was this: “Every game we play is a step. Tonight, let’s take one more step.”

No “rah rah” stuff. Just one professional reminding other professionals about the job at hand.

“Motivation is a big part of it,” Bjorkgren explained. “You have to stay creative as a D-League coach. I’ve got guys in their 30s, I’ve got guys that are rookies, and everything in between.”

For the final pregame ritual, we huddled up for a prayer delivered, perhaps fittingly, by the man named Moses (Ehambe). He spoke for a long time, touching on everything from commitment to excellence to injury prevention. When we finally broke with a unison “Amen,” his teammates immediately questioned his timing, specifically wondering why this apparently unusually long prayer occurred the one night cameras were in the locker room. For the next few minutes at least, everyone called Ehambe either “Rev” or “Kirk Franklin.”

The players jogged out onto the court for their layup lines. The coaches let them get ahead, and then followed them out. DeBusk handed me Bjorkgren’s dry-erase board to carry, so I wouldn’t be empty-handed. DeBusk and Marsh urged me to walk out first. I did, slapping the hands of Energy fans along the way, but not without first checking over my shoulder to make sure the other coaches hadn’t stayed behind.

Iowa Energy v Tulsa 66ers

The Energy line up for the National Anthem (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

V. The game, at last

After the National Anthem, it was time for introductions. The 66ers were starting the same lineup the coaches suspected they would, which meant no last-minute adjustments. As the lights went out and the music blared, Martin and I stood to the side, talking quietly as the circus raged around us.

Just seconds before tip-off, Ehambe jogged over, leaned in close to me and said, “Hey Coach, just wanted to tell you I really like your shoes.” The wingtips did look good.

Once the game started, I was in uncharted ground. The details were particularly vexing. What, for instance, was I supposed to do with my cell phone? Do coaches have their phones in their pockets during games? I figured it would look odd if one of the coaches was checking Twitter during timeouts, so I slipped my phone inside my jacket and resisted the impulse to check it until we were all done.

Bjorkgren had assigned me the first seat on the bench, with Martin sitting between us. Being so close to the action gives you the ability to spot things you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Just minutes into the game, Rice Jr. pulled up for a jumper and came down limping. I saw him mouth the words, “My toe!” As he limped to the other end of the floor, Bjorkgren plopped down on the bench and asked aloud, “What happened to Glen?” I said, “I think he hurt his foot or his toe.” As it turned out, he had re-aggravated an old toe injury and had to come out of the game.

While we sat on the bench, Bjorkgren worked the sideline, pacing back and forth. All of the other coaches had tasks to do and stats to track. I had no such assigned duties, so I spent the first half jotting down notes about the experience, trying to look like I was doing something official. I’m guessing I was the first professional basketball coach to use a Moleskine notebook on the sideline. Mostly, I slipped into a housekeeping role, moving chairs around, kicking towels out of the way and attempting not to step on anyone’s toes. Literally, in Rice Jr.’s case.

During each timeout and between quarters, the players filtered toward the bench and the coaches gathered around the free-throw line. At the first play stoppage, I instinctively stepped toward the returning Energy players to greet them with high fives, only to realize this was a job for the other players, not the coaches.

Each break had a similar schedule. Someone hands Bjorkgren his dry erase board, and he writes down five sets of initials, the five players who were in the game at the moment. Bjorkgren asks Wilson how many consecutive defensive stops the Energy had recorded. He asks DeBusk for the rebounding differential, Martin for transition scoring and Marsh for a deflection tally. All of these stats are recorded on the dry erase board, and then Bjorkgren draws up an offensive play for the next possession while he walks toward the huddle. He then kneels before the players with a board full of information, presented for their consumption in the few seconds before the timeout ended.

During these huddles, I stood toward the back along with most of the other coaches, leaving room for the players to get close to Bjorkgren. During one timeout, one of the referees walked up to the rear of the Energy huddle and shouted, “OK, time’s up! Let’s go guys!” I don’t think Bjorkgren heard him, or if he did, he ignored him, because he just kept talking to the players. Maybe 20 seconds later, the same ref returned and, from just over my shoulder, yelled, “Hey, I said let’s go! Second warning!” I glanced down to the other end of the court at the Tulsa bench and saw that they were still huddled up, too, so I turned to the ref and did the best thing I could do in that situation: I lied.

“OK, OK, we’re breaking right now,” I guessed, hopeful that Bjorkgren’s internal clock was telling him that it was time to go. The ref nodded and jogged away, and maybe 10 seconds later the huddle broke.

During the game, we were all so focused on each possession that the ebb and flow of the game morphed into a big blur. Bjorkgren’s system of having each coach track a stat and using those numbers in each timeout turned out to be a good way to get instant, frequent reminders of how the game was going.

Iowa Energy v Tulsa 66ers

Othyus Jeffers dunks with authority (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

VI. A sluggish first half

Things did not go Iowa’s way in the first half, but the Energy stayed in the game largely due to the efforts of Jeffers, who had 15 first-half points. Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffers was a terrific high school player despite enduring nearly unspeakable family tragedy — two of his brothers were murdered and, while in college, Jeffers himself was shot defending his sister. He attended three different colleges, finishing up at Robert Morris University, where Sporting News named him NAIA Player of the Year. Jeffers went undrafted by the NBA and signed a deal to play professionally in Iceland. While at the airport waiting to board his flight, Jeffers got a call informing him that the Icelandic state had essentially gone bankrupt.

He walked out of the airport and walked into a D-League career, immediately making a mark as an All-Star and Rookie of the Year.

“I didn’t come to the D-League with the same mindset as other players,” Jeffers told me. “I really didn’t know anything about the D-League. It was just something to do coming out of college. But I observe quickly. I went to Robert Morris — it was a business school — so I look at everything as, What am I going to do next? Every opportunity I had was, What am I going to do next?”

At one point during the first half, I leaned over and told Martin that Jeffers reminded me of an offensively-better Tony Allen: both guys are Chicago natives who are undersized but play bigger; both are versatile lockdown defenders who can defend several positions. Most relevantly, Jeffers has the same unstoppable grit and grind.

Martin immediately agreed. “O plays his ass off,” he said with a smile.

Jeffers ended up playing 46 minutes and finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, four steals and a turnover against the 66ers, defending everyone from shooting guards to centers. “He’s the best player in the D-League,” Bjorkgren said.

For whatever reason, Jeffers has played in just 35 NBA games over the last six years. An aspirational 6-foot-5, Jeffers seems like a classic ‘tweener — not a pure enough shooter to play the 2, too small to play the 3. Earlier this season, when the injury-riddled San Antonio Spurs signed him to a 10-day contract, Gregg Popovich joked about his possible impact: “What are you talking about? He’s a stopper,” Popovich told USA TODAY. “This guy, he’s the next Scottie Pippen on defense. You’ve got to be kidding me. We just uncovered a gem that nobody else knows about. You watch.” Jeffers got a start for the Spurs during a TNT game, but the Spurs eventually waived him a week into his 10-day deal.

After watching him, I’m not so sure Pop was joking. In the right system, with the right teammates, Jeffers could be a regular in the NBA. Until that day comes, Jeffers is one of the D-League’s most complete players, dominating competition while dealing with playing a step below the big time. During his down time, Jeffers said he was inspired by several business seminars offered by the D-League, and he has diversified his off-court business endeavors, including establishing a trucking company and opening a sports complex back home in Chicago.

“You got to have a goal or a plan. My plan has nothing to do with making it to the NBA, it’s just what happens. I don’t wake up every day saying, Hey, I have to go to the NBA. My plan is finish this, and move on.”


Curtis Stinson drives and hangs (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

VII. ‘What you got, Lang?’

By halftime, the Energy were on the wrong end of a 51-42 score. As soon as the buzzer sounded, Bjorkgren made a beeline toward the locker room, directly into the coach’s office. The door closed swiftly behind him, either because he allowed it to or he forced it to. I was a few steps behind, walking alongside Wilson. Wilson had actually coached Bjorkgren for a season in college, so they had a long history together.

“Was Nate this intense back when you coached him?” I asked Wilson. He nodded.

Bjorkgren had been deferential and inclusive since I’d arrived, almost disarmingly so. He was cool and calm, but also clearly invested and in control. This moment, as we filed into the locker room, was the only time I thought he was close to losing that unflappable sheen. As I opened the door to go into the room, our cameraman gave me a look asking if he should follow me inside.

Even though Bjorkgren had been totally accommodating, in this moment something seemed … different. He felt like he was close to the edge, and I felt like I owed it to him to give him the chance to go over that edge for a few seconds if he needed to, without a camera in his face. After all, we were in town for less than 48 hours. He was trying to clinch a playoff berth.

Though we were down by nine, the first half hadn’t been a total disaster. The players were getting good looks; the shots just weren’t going down (1-of-9 on 3-pointers at the half). Loose balls just weren’t bouncing Iowa’s way.

Once all the coaches were seated, Bjorkgren went around the group asking his assistants what they’d seen that Iowa could improve upon in the second half. He was frustrated. I sat in the corner, trying to make myself invisible. And then I heard my name.

“What you got, Lang?”

I sat up and cleared my throat. I poked the corners of my brain for things that had not been mentioned. I didn’t have much wiggle room.

“Well,” I offered, “two things I saw. That big dude, the guy who came in at the end of the half, Kraft? Kleft?”

“Kreft,” Bjorkgren corrected me.

“Right, Jon Kreft. He’s killing you on the boards. Maybe we try someone different against him? And then the other thing is we just aren’t making shots. And I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault — we’re getting good shots. We just need them to start going down.”

Coach Bjorkgren nodded. “Good stuff,” he said. I wiped the sweat from my brow.

We stood and filed into the larger locker room with the players, who were sitting in chairs around the edges. Bjorkgren took his place at the front. That angry edge I thought I’d seen as we left the court had been tamed, at least for the moment.

“I don’t think we’re playing that bad,” Bjorkgren said. “And you talk about our turnovers and stuff — they’re not bad turnovers. So those will get better. Don’t stop running. Just some of those plays that didn’t bounce our way, they’ll bounce our way in the second half if we stick with it.”

Before we broke to head back to the floor, Coach pointed out the home team was down 10 rebounds, and I heard Jeffers audibly sigh in disgust. He seemed to be taking this as an affront, and I suspected — and hoped — that he was making this as a personal challenge.

Iowa Energy v Tulsa 66ers

Assistant Coaches Martin and Whitaker assess the options (Jason Bradwell/NBAE)

VIII. Coaching by cheering

The third quarter began with the 66ers seemingly making every shot they took. After Bjorkgren’s upbeat halftime message, this obviously wasn’t what he was hoping to see. Not even three minutes into the quarter, he burned a timeout with the Energy down 60-46. This time he didn’t wait for the coaches to feed him his usual stats . As soon as the players arrived he went into a more impassioned version of his halftime speech. I got boxed out around the edge of the huddle, so I strolled over and got a cup of blue Gatorade from behind the bench. For the first time I considered what the postgame atmosphere might be like if the Energy lost.

It was during this timeout that I finally realized where I could make a tangible contribution. For more than a decade, I’ve had it drilled into me that whenever I’m watching a professional basketball game, I must remain impartial, particularly when I’m in the press box. There have been a few occasions when, despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t contain myself. When Robert Horry went nuts in Game 5 of the ’05 Finals in Detroit; when Ray Allen extended the ’13 Finals to a Game 7 in Miami.

But here in Des Moines, if I were to have any sort of impact, I decided I needed to throw aside those hard-learned lessons by being loud.

Most of the time, unless I wormed my way into the huddle to get a glimpse of his dry-erase board, I had no idea what plays Bjorkgren was drawing up, so I couldn’t opine on the finer points of each possession. I could, however, yell and cheer and clap and generally be positive. Yelling at Jeffers that he was doing a great job defensively might not tip the scales either way in the grand scheme of things. But it couldn’t hurt anything, either.

That was the moment I went from thinking of myself as a tourist and accepted that I was a full-fledged member of the Energy. I had been wearing their gear and hanging with the staff and players for two days. I was on the sideline, in the center of these flashing lights, the cameras, all this spectacle, getting sweated on every play. If I was going to do my best, and give the Energy my fullest effort, I had to acknowledge that I was no longer an impartial journalist. I was now a full-fledged member of the Energy.

More than anything else, my goal was to do whatever I could to help win this damn game.

Suddenly, things started going our way. The stops we were working so hard to accumulate began to add up. The rebounding margin got a little tighter. Rice Jr. returned from his injury and helped out on both ends. Jeffers, who had three rebounds at the half, grabbed five in the third alone. It all happened so quickly that it was hard to keep up, and as we headed into the fourth quarter, the Iowa En … — we — had tied the score at 77.

Tulsa guard Mario Little had basically been unconscious, draining threes from all over the place. Jeffers began hounding him and managed to slow him down a bit. (Little still finished with 31 points on 8-of-12 from downtown.) Kreft scored just two more points, Iowa point guard Austin Freeman entered and played solid minutes, Ehambe, Owens and Pat Christopher kept running the wings, and all those bad breaks started going our way.

Meanwhile, I turned into the verbal version of Kent Bazemore. Standing and gesticulating might be frowned upon from an assistant, but I could yell, so play after play I shouted names, told guys to watch for picks, even made a few passive-aggressive barks at the officials.

It wasn’t until there was about a minute left and we were up double-digits that I felt certain we were going to win. When Tulsa had a breakaway with just seconds to play, Bjorkgren hollered, “Let ‘em go!” to remind his players that, at least for this instance, perhaps there was one play where no attention to defense was required. Just this once.

IX. A victory like no other

The final buzzer sounded and it was over. We had won, 112-101. Finally. Thankfully.

The Energy players and coaches lined up in front of our bench and walked toward the 66ers’ bench, where we exchanged handshakes. Even though I was fully aware that my presence probably completely confound the 66ers — “Who is this guy?” — I made my way down the line, shaking hands and saying a perfunctory “Good game.”.

We went to the locker room and were told that we needed to return to the court immediately to take a team photo with members of the local Boys and Girls Club. I stood aside but was urged onward by the players, who were clearly having fun with my presence: “Come on, Coach! Let’s go, Coach! You’re part of this now!”

Back on the floor, as the Energy’s community relations staff herded us into loosely formed rows, I chatted with Bjorkgren about the win. That game-time edge everyone had been carrying had devolved into the afterglow of a win. I hadn’t expected to so thoroughly enjoy the experience. But here I was out on the court with the Energy, standing in my sweat-stained dress shirt, joking around and cutting up.

We all wanted to win; we all contributed in different ways. And it’s important to remember that the actual game was just a minor part of being a coach. These men are coaches 24 hours a day, every day; that a game happened to occur for a few hours on this evening was a minor part of the deal.

There was a satisfaction in that postgame celebration that is hard to match. I’ve seen the team I root for win close games, even had my favorite baseball team win a World Series. But standing there in the afterglow, being on the inside after a win … nothing tops that. That feeling of shared accomplishment is the high that fans and coaches and athletes keep chasing, day after day, night after night, season after season.

That’s what makes us tick. That’s what keeps us coming back for more.

(The Iowa Energy finished their season 31-19 and won the Central Division. They open the D-League playoffs on Tuesday against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.)

NBA Behind The Scenes: Highlight School

ATLANTA, GA — I stepped into the darkened soundproof booth and, with a palpable feeling of dread, pulled the door closed behind me. As it clicked shut, I surveyed my surroundings: one small light casting a dim glow in the otherwise black room; a music stand to place my notes; a flatscreen monitor embedded in the wall; a microphone and headphones, silently taunting me.

It was the day after Christmas, but there was nothing festive about this. I pulled the headphones over my ears and shuffled my notes on the stand in front of me. I could hear my own panicked breathing through the headphones, could hear my shirt and sweater ruffle with the slightest move of my arm.

Just as I began to run my eyes over the shot sheets in front of me for a final time, the voice of associate producer Charles Staples crackled through the headphones.

“OK,” Charles said, “if you’re comfortable we can give this a go.”

“Yeah, I’m…I mean, I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” I said, resigning myself to this fate.

“Great. So you’ll hear a series of beeps in the headphones to count you down, and then you’re on.”

For better or worse, I thought.

You click an icon, you watch a fully illustrative highlight from pretty much any game in any league — that is how streamlined and simple highlight delivery has become these days. It wasn’t that long ago that the only highlights available to the sporting public were once a day during the last five minutes of local news. The arrival of ESPN made highlights more frequent, and then the advent of the internet has made highlights basically omnipresent.

But how do those highlights come about? I wanted to find out. On the night of December 26, 2013, I arrived at Turner Studios a little before 7:00 P.M., where Gerald Smith,’s Senior Multimedia Producer, met me. Even though I work for NBA Digital, and in turn work for Turner Sports, I work out of New York City, so I don’t know the geography of the massive Turner compound in Atlanta. Gerald and I walked about eight miles from the visitor’s entrance to the Turner Sports studios, a huge building which backs up against 10th Street in Midtown Atlanta. This is effectively the highlight factory, where entire games are logged, recorded, edited, voiced over and posted online for the world to consume.

As we walked, Gerald told me that I’d be recording the highlight for the Hawks/Cavaliers game. As a native Atlantan, I’ve followed the Hawks my entire life, so I felt pretty comfortable with doing a Hawks highlight — in theory, at least.

Once we reached the studios, we went to the Feeds area, where about a dozen people were monitoring and logging all the games happening on a plethora of screens. Once there, we met up with my main man Jared Greenberg. Jared is one of the anchors on NBA TV, and part of a rotation of guys (along with Beau Estes and Matt D’Agostino) who take turns staying late at the studio to record voiceovers on highlights.

We parked at a deserted desk to watch the Hawks/Cavs game, and of course it turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the year. We looked on in surprise as regulation stretched into overtime, and then overtime went into double-overtime. I used the bonus time to flip through some of the game previews on and on the team websites, finding stats that might be relevant to drop into the highlight. (For instance, the Hawks had lost five consecutive road games coming in to this one.) When Al Horford injured his chest area and left the game, Jared and I quickly looked up when his previous chest injury had occurred ( and which side it had been on to make sure we had everything correct.

During a break, Gerald and I went into the Feeds room. In a cubicle off to the side, I was introduced to Matt Gaynes, the editor who had been assigned to edit the highlight of the Hawks/Cavs game. The game was midway through the third quarter at the time, and Matt said the highlight he was cutting was at that moment up to date with the game. So as soon as the game ended, we would just need to match a voiceover to the video and we’d be good to go.

As the game stretched on, with each crazy make and crucial miss, I wondered how I should describe that particular play. The major part of my problem was that I had no signature style or experience to fall back on. When I have to write a sentence, there are certain words and phrases I like to use and am comfortable grabbing out of my brain on short notice. But talking over a highlight is a completely different animal, an animal I was rather uncomfortable wrestling with. If anything, I felt like it must feel to be a stand-up comedian who climbs onto the stage in front of a rowdy crowd and has no material. Even worse, I knew I had no material. It wasn’t that I don’t know basketball, or the Hawks or the Cavaliers, or even a little bit about the art of broadcasting, but I’m pretty sure that for most people, their very first try voicing a highlight probably doesn’t get posted on a website that averages tens of millions of video streams each week.

As the buzzer sounded to end the second overtime, Hawks guard Jeff Teague fired up a long jumper that caromed off nearly every portion of the rim before finally dropping through as the buzzer howled. Game over. Hawks win, 127-125 in double OT.

Maybe five minutes later, someone came by and handed Jared and me copies of the shot sheet. This is a piece of paper that lists, in order, every clip that made it into the final highlight, with the accompanying score and game time remaining for each clip. This would be the road map Jared and I would use, albeit it seemed to be a decidedly text-heavy map for a primarily visual journey. The first shot on the sheet was a Jeff Teague runner at the end of regulation. This meant that all the work Matt had done when I met him earlier had been left on the cutting room floor in order to make room for all the overtime exploits and preserve this as a roughly two-minute clip.

Jared graciously sat with me and walked me through the shot sheet, helping me figure out at which point we should note, for instance, that Jeff Teague had finished with a career high, or when to point out that Kyrie Irving was trying to avenge his only scoreless pro appearance. As a writer, I tried to put some thought into crafting an interesting lead to the highlight, and decided to make some sort of reference to it being the day after Christmas and this game being a gift. I also knew that with the Hawks win, I wanted to throw an “#ATLshawty” into the highlight, referencing the Twitter hashtag I frequently use whenever Atlanta teams notch a victory.

Perhaps five minutes after we’d been given the shot sheet, Jared strolled to the voiceover booth and disappeared inside. I stood at Charles’s desk and listened to Jared record his take, the take users would hear. Jared did it without having actually seen the highlight, but he managed to make it work smoothly, and even got the catchphrase he likes to use (“You betcha!”) in there. It was a nice mix of stats, descriptions and fun. Just seconds after Jared stepped out of the booth, the video you see below was live on…

VIDEO: Hawks at Cavs Real Highlights

As I watched Jared’s take go down flawlessly, my own trepidation increased in equal measure. When he finished and I walked toward the booth, the overwhelming feeling I had was one of fear, mainly because I knew if I stopped talking while on the mic, there would just be dead air in the background. And while there is an occasional time and place for silence on a sports broadcast — maybe on a live telecast after a game-winner, for instance — a fast and furious highlight did not feel like that place. I also realized a moment like that should probably happen intentionally, not as a result of the announcer’s inexperience.

Soon enough I was in the room, alone with my insecurities. The series of beeps I’d been warned about began counting down the time until the highlight started. I said later that it felt like the beeps were counting down until the firing squad went to work, and in a way this was correct: When the beeps ended, the video came at me, and like it or not I had to start talking. So I did.

You could argue that I have a voice for print, meaning I don’t have the same golden pipes many of the more iconic broadcasters of all-time possess. This would likely be a winning argument on your part. But the way I chose look at it, there’s a thin, fragile line between being an anchorman and Anchorman. And I am in no danger of getting anywhere near that line.

In the end, we recorded two takes, the second nominally better than the first mostly due to trial and error and error and error. It didn’t take me long to figure out that paying attention to the highlight was more important than keeping my eyes glued to the stat sheet. And talking to fill the dead air wasn’t a problem as long as I could talk about what was happening on the screen in front of me. But at this point I felt like I was running wind sprints with a twenty-pound weight tied to my leg. I was doing my best, but I knew as I was doing it that my best was just not good enough. Doing highlights was infinitely harder than it seemed.

Being my own worst critic is a trait that is both annoying and, occasionally, helpful, as it drives me to give my best and strive to meet my own high expectations. Which in some ways made recording the voiceover pretty frustrating: Could I do better? Yes. Would I do much better on this evening? No, that would only come with at least a few weeks of reps. On this evening, at least, it was what it was. The entire experience will definitely go down as a highlight of my professional career. You just might not want me to be the one recording the voiceover on it.

You can watch the video below to see what I went through that evening, and stay tuned to the end for my version of the highlight…

VIDEO: Lang Goes To Highlight School

NBA Behind The Scenes: The Photo Game (Part Two)


BROOKLYN Earlier this week, I spent an evening shadowing Nathaniel Butler from NBA Photos as he photographed the Trail Blazers-Nets game in Brooklyn. During the game, Butler gave me a camera and let me shoot the action. What follows are some of the images I took that night, with my thoughts and comments below each picture. These pictures have not been cropped or color-corrected or anything else. This is what I shot … for better, or for, probably mostly, worse.


As the Blazers took the floor to warm up directly in front of me, Nic Batum started hoisting 15-footers from the right wing. I picked up my camera, zoomed in a bit, half-pushed the button down to make sure the image was focused, and then fired off the shot. What I didn’t account for was that Batum would jump when he shot, so my photo chopped off his arms and the ball.


Once the game started, sure enough the Nets ran a play to get Kevin Garnett a shot at the top of the key. I saw the play developing and as soon as KG caught the ball and squared up, I took this picture. Unfortunately, as you may notice, I managed to capture all of the players out of focus. But the basket support and the fans in the front rows are crystal clear. Also, terrific job by me to cut off the shot clock. (more…)

NBA Behind The Scenes: The Photo Game (Part One)


(Editor’s Note: While we cover the NBA as obsessively as we can around here, there are still numerous ancillary parts of the game experience that we want to uncover and explore. Being involved with the NBA can mean everything from serving up exotic foods to firing shirts into the crowd. We will delve into these angles of the NBA as part of a new regular (and perhaps a bit irregular) All Ball series, NBA Behind The Scenes.)

BROOKLYN — It was 3:30 on Monday afternoon in Brooklyn, four hours before the Brooklyn Nets would play host to the Portland Trail Blazers. The interior hallways of the Barclays Center were mostly deserted, save for a few food service employees firing up ovens and custodial staff giving the place a final shine before thousands of fans arrived. Out on the arena floor, a rec league championship game was taking place.

Sitting in a folding chair just below one of the baskets was a man in a black polo shirt and jeans, working at a determined pace. He wasn’t tall, wasn’t short, and his blond hair made determining his age require more than a glance. He tore black gaffers tape into strips and secured loose wires that were splayed all over the place — to the basket support, from the basket support, along the cement arena floor, on the edge of the court. Three large hard plastic containers were open on the floor around him, all neatly packed with lenses, cameras, tripods and various other equipment. A hand truck was just behind, waiting to be loaded up and rolled away.

The man’s assistant turned up, carrying several camera batteries, which were checked and rechecked, and some were swapped out for more potent options. Words like “reflectors” and “overheads” were used casually between the two men in conversation. A ladder was propped up under a backboard, and a multi-thousand dollar camera was affixed to the glass and carefully aimed out toward the paint.

I had come to Brooklyn to meet up with Nathaniel S. Butler, who is a photographer for NBA Photos, and has been chronicling the NBA in pictures for about two decades now. You may not know Nat Butler’s name, but if you’re an NBA fan, you almost definitely know his work. Like perhaps this image …

John Starks drives hard for a slam dunk


NBA Behind The Scenes: Brooklyn Taste

VIDEO: Brooklyn Taste at the Barclays Center

(Editor’s Note: While we cover the NBA as obsessively as we can around here, there are still numerous ancillary parts of the game experience that we want to uncover and explore. Being involved with the NBA can mean everything from serving up exotic foods to firing shirts into the crowd. We will delve into these angles of the NBA as part of a new regular (and perhaps a bit irregular) All Ball series, NBA Behind The Scenes.)

ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — If you live in or around the New York area, you’ve been hearing about the Barclays Center for a while. A new arena in Brooklyn was initially announced about a decade ago, and was first scheduled to open in 2006. But the project hit bumps along the way, the way that pretty much any large-scale building scenario in the New York area seems to find delays. When the Barclays Center finally opened for business in 2012, and started hosting Brooklyn Nets games soon after, all it took was one lap around the concourse to realize there was something really cool and different happening.

When they built the Barclays Center and started figuring out details, someone made the wise choice to eschew generic concession stands in favor of highlighting food from local Brooklyn restaurants. Brooklyn is a borough with a broad and varied history — why not look close by when you’re looking for something to eat? They call the program Brooklyn Taste, and in the first year of the program, there were 37 Brooklyn restaurants represented in Barclays. This season that number has swelled to 55 Brooklyn restaurants.

Not only are there are a ton of different foods available, there are so many different styles of food available. You want a slice of pizza? Sure, you can get pizza made by L&B Spumoni Gardens, a restaurant in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, that has been serving pies since 1939. Then there’s food from well-known places such as Nathan’s, from Fatty ‘Cue, from Paisano’s Butcher Shop. Junior’s cheesecake? Yeah, that too.

Even though I’ve been to numerous games at the Barclays Center, the life of a writer generally dictates hanging around in subterranean tunnels while the world happens above you. But last week we decided to investigate the Brooklyn Taste program, so I emerged into the main concourse with a camera crew and met up with Chef Alphonse Lanza, the executive chef of the Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Taste program. Chef Al took me to several places and let me sample as many of the delicacies as we had time for (and my stomach had room for).

I will stake my professional reputation on this one sentence review: It was all amazing. I think the video above shows how great it all looks, and you can probably tell by my reaction to a few of the bites that was an authentic take. And it wasn’t just generic hot dogs and nachos — basic stadium food. This was all above and beyond.

Maybe the best thing I ate? The cheddar bratwurst from Brooklyn Bangers and Dogs. A traditional brat with pork and cheddar, smoked, then cooked to a crispy perfection, nestled in tender bread, topped with tasty Red Hook Relish (mixed mustard and pickles). Three ingredients, all prepared perfectly, and all amazing. The simplicity was profound and perfect.

Because of the limits of TV, we didn’t even get to include the slice of Junior’s cheesecake or the red velvet cake I topped everything off with. We also didn’t include the part where I came home and laid down in the fetal position for half an hour, after gorging on so much delicious food.

Hey, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.