NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Disney World Diary: Zooming in on players, even when you're close to them

ORLANDO — Every profession has its own lifeblood, the artery that makes everything else possible. Books for teachers, spreadsheets for accountants, scripts for actors, microphones for singers. Those can’t-do-without tools.

For us reporters, it’s the interview, that chat session with the subject where we learn a bit and ultimately relay the goods to the reader. Before the 1950s, sportswriters rarely spoke to athletes. By the 1970s, when the popularity of sports mushroomed and the demand to know our heroes expanded as well, the interview became a necessity. The art of crafting the right question was the oxygen for stories and reporting.

The leagues cooperated because it was good for business and helped teams and players build their brands and connect with an audience. Not all interviews went smoothly, then and even now. Over the years I’ve seen Barry Bonds scream at reporters, Bill Laimbeer insult them, Rasheed Wallace heckle them, Kawhi Leonard do everything possible to avoid them. Those were the exceptions; for the most part, interviews enjoy the spirit of mutual cooperation.

Here at the NBA reboot the interview is something altogether different. Interviews are largely done by Zoom, a reflection of the technology of today, but also the health crisis we’re in today. Here’s how it works: A player or two, along with the coach, will sit in a chair facing a large flat-screen monitor. Then he’ll answer questions from reporters virally in other cities. Even the few reporters allowed here at the Disney campus, including yours truly, must connect by logging onto Zoom and speaking questions into our cell phones to a player sitting a few arms lengths away.

On those rare occasions when an interview can take place after practice without Zoom, the reporter and player must stand six feet apart — keep those masks on! — and the interview is on the clock and ticking fast.

It’s a cold and impersonal new world for journalism until science gives us a better option. Even though I had a heads-up, it was still a shock Monday when players and coaches who once allowed for casual conversation just last spring were suddenly unapproachable.

Four months ago, before the pandemic changed everything, reporters would crowd LeBron James five-deep in the cramped Lakers locker room. Until further notice, LeBron will now enjoy plenty of space. It reminds me of old footage of NBA teams immediately after clinching a title in their home arena. I can still picture Larry Bird racing through the mob of fans who swarmed the parquet floor, tearing at his jersey. Security soon put an end to that dangerous ritual.

The intimacy we reporters enjoyed before March 11 would now be classified as dangerous, too. The NBA is taking no chances, nor should the league; too much is at stake, mainly the health of everyone.

So on Monday I didn’t as much interview Lakers coach Frank Vogel, or Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, or Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant. In order to fit these uncomfortable times, the interview has now adopted whole a new description. To quote the great Aretha Franklin: Who’s Zooming who?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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