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 NBA.com 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, NBA.com’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 NBA.com 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 NBA.com 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 NBA.com 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 NBA.com…
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