'Sportscaster U' helps NBA players learn a new (broadcasting) game

NBPA, Syracuse work together to teach skills standout hoops analysts need

Richard Jefferson was 12 years into his NBA career and his back ached.

Antonio Daniels isn’t going to lie — he liked the sound of a job that could pay him a hefty salary for two or three hours of work each day.

Steve Novak approached it like a coin flip, figuring he was just as likely to hate picking up a microphone as love it.

Caron Butler had nurtured the idea for more than a decade, ever since he got traded to Washington in 2005 and met three-time All-Star turned Wizards color analyst Phil Chenier.

Drew Gooden remembered how impressed he was when he caught Richard (Rip) Hamilton doing an NBA TV gig, then found out how he got there.

All roads led those former NBA players to and through “Sportscaster U.,” the unofficial name of a popular and long-running career development program offered by the National Basketball Players Association.

They’re five of the more than 60 players who have participated in the program, and all five are working in one capacity or another — in some cases, multiple jobs — on TV and radio basketball broadcasts. “Sportscaster U.” has helped them find a second career that piggybacks off, and keeps alive, their first.

Placing an estimated 80 percent of its alumni in some form of sports broadcasting — from game analyst to studio commentator, from sideline work to sports-talk host — it quickly became one of the NBPA’s most successful programs. Anything that can help athletes transition into the so-called real world, starting out at an age when most folks are hitting their professional strides, is appreciated.

This one made connecting those dots from here to there so much easier.

“My first 10 years,” Jefferson said, “whenever someone would call me to do [a broadcast appearance], I’d feel exhausted during the season and say, ‘Dude, I can’t do that.’ But as you get a little older and you’re approaching retirement, you’re more like, ‘OK, this might be a good opportunity.’ ”

The opportunity wasn’t there, however, for interested players in 2018. It’s status for this summer? To be determined.

A way to stay connected to NBA

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“I viewed it as, ‘My career could start closing down.’ Any teammate will tell you that I never shut up. So just being around the sport that I love, in almost any capacity, was really interesting to me. Broadcasting was something people kind of asked me about. … I’d seen other guys go through it and it looked like a great program. I truly was blown away.”

— Richard Jefferson

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There’s a long history of NBA players moving over to (or up to, given their perches in most arenas these days) the broadcast table. Legendary names such as Jack Twyman, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy and Rick Barry were some of the pioneers who lent credibility and expertise to the play-by-play calls of so many layman announcers.

Tom Heinsohn and Walt Frazier, among others, still are at it, Hall of Famers known to two or three generations of fans more for their on-air personalities than their on-court exploits.

The success of studio shows staged by the league’s broadcast partners, Turner Sports and ESPN/ABC, and the players who populate those sets led to a formula imitated on regional sports networks across the U.S. Now there are Internet-based offerings, too, and outlets such as social media and podcasting opening up new platforms for ex-players.

The idea of helping its members prepare for such opportunities, though, dates back more than a decade to 2008.

“It came out of some brainstorming on our part, and from asking players what they wanted as far as programs,” said Deborah Murman, director of the NBPA’s career development department. “We’re here to equip guys with the skills and resources they need to be successful off the court.”

Among the NBPA’s other offerings: Seminars and mentoring programs in real estate, technology and franchising. The union also runs programs, overseen by former player Purvis Short, to acquaint its members with possible careers in coaching or in a team’s front office.

“That year [2017], it hit me when I got the mailing that you could go listen to speakers from the Harvard Business School on sports management,” said Novak, who played 11 seasons for nine teams. “You could do the real estate symposium. You could follow around a Google executive, an American Express executive. You could go to Sportscaster U.

“I finally said, I need to take advantage of this. I knew I wasn’t going to play basketball forever. This was after my last year, and I thought I was still playing.”

After I went to Sportscaster U., I was so terrible there that I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me.’ … I’d hate to discourage any guys to pursue it, because I’ll tell you what, there was nobody who did a worse job than Drew Gooden.”

Drew Gooden, on his Sportscaster U. experience

Said Daniels, the No. 4 overall pick in 1997 who logged 13 years as a role-playing guard: “It’s a tough transition, to not knowing what’s next. You’re leaving behind something you’re extremely passionate about. What this does, it lets you stay connected, stay involved, see guys and coaches you played with and played under.”

Rich Rinaldi, an NBA old-schooler known by most current players for his work as an NBPA career counselor, oversaw Sportscaster U. almost from its inception. He took it as a personal challenge to recruit, monitor and follow up on the participants

“I’d tell them, you’re going to have a lot of money but you’re going to want to do something,” said Rinaldi, who retired from the NBPA after 18 years in 2017. “You’re going to want to stay in the game. That’s how I sold this to ’em.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to make any promises. But I will promise you this — when you’re leaving Syracuse, heading to the airport, you will thank me for this.’ ”

Said Murman: “It’s easy to be asked to make [a TV] appearance once. Your goal is to be asked back. A little training will enhance your changes of that happening. We talk about creating the life you want to live after basketball.”

To go from playing and immersing oneself in basketball, to talking and immersing oneself in the game as usual, would seem to be an obvious and natural transition.

Obvious, sure. Natural? Not so fast.

Learning a new gig never easy

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“I always say, if you hit the lottery and get millions of dollars — that’s pretty much what happens when we play in the NBA, we hit the jackpot — and after you go on vacations and get things you want, all right, now what? What’s next? So many guys never find it. I found something I love and I’m passionate about. It’s not about the money. It’s about being in that happy place. You’ve got another 30, 40 years of good living — you want to do it right.

— Caron Butler

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The NBPA didn’t mess around. If you want to build from scratch a program of sports broadcasting, you go to the best. Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications counts Marv Albert, Bob Costas, Mike Tirico, Ian Eagle and more among its alumni.

As Sportscaster U.’s lead professor, the NBPA brought in Matt Park, Syracuse’s football and men’s basketball play-by-play man. Over the years, the program enlisted help from the likes of Steve Infanti, sports director at WSYR-TV9, and Marc Zumoff, the “voice” of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“The program spoke for itself after a couple of years, because word got around,” Rinaldi said. “We tweaked it every year. By the 10th year, we had grown the program so much.”

In 2015, the NBPA added a “graduate” course in conjunction with its “Top 100” basketball camp for high school prospects held each summer at the University of Virginia. There, NBA players who had gone through the Syracuse offering could get actual game experience, analyzing players and teams, tackling pre- and post-game chores and doing sideline interviews and stand-ups.

“The big challenge there was, you’re calling the game without knowing the players,” Murman said. “They really had to do their homework.”

The Syracuse program was held each year in early June, starting the same weekend as The Finals. Players arrived on Friday and began that day with “classroom” training, studying video and participating in production plans.

They would spend Saturday morning in the studio, learning and working in a variety of roles with Parks leading the way. Come Sunday, they would shift gears to focus on radio work before departing Monday.

Enrollment typically was limited to eight players. A production team of 12 to 15 professionals was needed, with a budget for the long weekend of approximately $80,000. Cost to the players: $5,500, although starting in 2014 that simply was what they were required to deposit to hold their place. Once they attended, Rinaldi said, that money was returned to them. Players were responsible for their hotel costs and airfare.

Each participant leaves with an edited DVD of their performances, presumably a few new skills, and a sense of whether they would enjoy the work.

“After I went to Sportscaster U., I was so terrible there that I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me,’ ” said Drew Gooden, who played 13 seasons for nine teams. “But that’s what it’s for, for first-timers to get their first live reps.

“Your peers are with you, so it becomes like ‘America’s Funniest’ out takes, because everyone is there ready to laugh. But you found out what you’re bad at and what you needed to work on.

“I’d hate to discourage any guys to pursue it, because I’ll tell you what, there was nobody who did a worse job than Drew Gooden. But once I was able to get real-life reps, I think I was overprepared.”

As always, reps matter

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“A lot of players are reluctant to put themselves out there to try something different that’s not basketball, because we’re probably going to suck at it because it’s not what we do. It’s embarrassing to go into a normal college setting and be this highly touted NBA player who’s a bit of a fool at whatever else you’re doing.”

— Steve Novak

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The old saying, “make your mistakes in the minor leagues,” applies to sports as well as non-sport professions. One purpose of Sportscaster U. was to carve out a safe space for players to learn, try, stumble and try again.

“The one thing that stuck in my head was reps, reps, reps,” said Jefferson, welcoming the chance to mess up without actually being live on someone’s TV.

Of course, Jefferson was a special case, preparing and starting to cobble a network of connections in his new field before he’d exited the old. While playing for the Utah Jazz in 2013-14, he called up a local station and volunteered to come to the studio to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket.

By the time he got to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015-16, four years after his Sportscaster U. training, he and teammate Channing Frye started their “Roadtrippin’ ” podcast. Jefferson says that it is on track to soon be spun into a TV show.

When it’s right, it’s right. When it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Some guys pick and pick and pick. I just tell the truth. And I’m giving you a visual where, if you go back and watch it yourself, you’ll see exactly what I see.”

Caron Butler, on criticizing a former friend or teammate as a broadcaster

Jefferson, who has worked both NCAA and NBA games this season in addition to appearing on ESPN’s “Get Up!” morning show, began the podcast partly to get more comfortable as a host. “If not for Sportscaster U.,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had that mindset for growth and reps.”

Here are some other lessons learned and experiences gleaned at Sportscaster U.:

— To mark the program’s 10th anniversary in 2017, Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal recorded a testimonial. “What qualities make Sportscaster U. unique?” he said. “It teaches you the ins and outs of broadcasting. I learned a lot about camera angles, production aspects. There are a lot of veteran players who have great knowledge of the game, and Sportscaster U. will help them get comfortable sitting behind the desk, looking into the camera.

“Some guys can talk when they’re amongst themselves, but when that camera gets in their face, sometimes they freeze up. But if you attend Sportscaster U., they will help you get rid of your fears.”

— Jefferson noted the wide range of aptitude for broadcast work, citing the very different early performances of former Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo and Jason Witten in NFL booths. Romo was an instant hit, especially lauded for his ability to anticipate plays. Witten had a bumpier start, such as the Oct. 15 game in which he said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers “pulled a rabbit out of his head.”

“Both guys entered the booth with little to no experience,” Jefferson said. “It shows you there’s a skill, a talent, an art to it. There’s a difference between making a guest spot and being on television every day. You have to learn how to do these things, and just because you’re articulate, just because you’re talented, just because you have the gift of gab … those aren’t the only things required to be successful. Things that, if you don’t go to school for it, you’re going to be taught while on air. Right? That’s very difficult.”

— For instance? “They put us in position to learn how to call highlights,” Jefferson said. “Making sure you know X, Y and Z, where the highlights will be. And how, when you’re calling a basketball game [as an analyst], you’re job basically is to talk between 3-point line and 3-point line. … Replays are for color commentary. That’s for the specialist who supposedly knows more than everyone else. He’s going to explain to you why this happened, why this was an impressive dunk, why this crossover or spin move is so difficult or why the coach called this play.”

— “I learned how difficult it is to talk when someone’s talking in your ear,” said Daniels, of mastering ear-piece skills. “I learned how difficult it is to talk for a minute straight — in real life, a minute’s nothing, but when they tell you to talk about why the Boston Celtics are going to repeat, it was so difficult at the time to do that without repeating yourself or going ‘uh… uh…’ It really made me uncomfortable.”

— Tiago Splitter, the former San Antonio Spurs big man and first international enrollee at Sportscaster U., participated in 2016 in English, his second language. Then the 6-foot-11 Brazilian was told to work in his native tongue, Portuguese. “You could tell by how much he said how much more comfortable he was,” Rinaldi said.

— Butler juggles a mix of broadcast gigs, including NBA TV stints, studio work on Spectrum working Lakers games and co-hosting a Sunday radio show on the Fox Sports network. He credits Rinaldi for encouraging his participation. “I found my niche,” Butler said.

He also picked up a few skills after attending Sportscaster U. in 2012 and 2016: “I learned about trimming my thoughts, about the need for being punctual and having that presence of really being comfortable in front of the camera. It changed the game for me.”

— Studying film is as necessary in their new career as in their old. Said Butler: “Sometimes players don’t want to watch film, because they see, ‘Oh [snap] I should have helped on defense.’ It’s the same that goes into your craft when you’re on television. You see, ‘That’s my crutch word. I keep saying that word.’ All sort of things, you learn about yourself and you try to correct.”

— What’s the key to criticizing a friend or former teammate? “When it’s right, it’s right,” Butler said. “When it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Some guys pick and pick and pick. I just tell the truth. And I’m giving you a visual where, if you go back and watch it yourself, you’ll see exactly what I see.”

— For Gooden, getting past the cameras and the realization there were hundreds of thousands of eyeballs on him at any point in time was essential. “Being myself was the biggest takeaway. I kind of came off as a robot when I was trying to analyze basketball situations. That wasn’t showing my personality — I’m a charismatic guy, I like to have fun, I like to laugh. None of that came off on camera at all. I was like a frightened child with stage fright.

“They gave us our clips of everything we did and I would cringe when I watched it. I’d be like, ‘Turn it off! Turn it off!’ I felt I had one good take from that week, and that was all I had to give my agent.”

Now Gooden works 41 games for the Wizards before, during or after. He also does some TV work in Orlando, where he lives.

— Novak appreciated the heavy class load of Sportscaster U. “We were on the ‘green screen,’ we were at the anchor desk, we did interviews, we did color, we studied the game. And because we were at Syracuse, we were able to do all that in one place. It was the most real boot camp you could do.”

Two weeks after Novak completed the program, the Milwaukee Bucks called out of the blue to see if he was interested in joining their broadcast team. He began by doing a segment for the pre-and post-game shows. Then he moved into a host’s chair. Now he works alongside play-by-play man Jim Paschke on some games in relief of Marques Johnson or Jon McGlocklin.

One door had closed, another immediately opened. “The timing was uncanny,” Novak said.

‘The program is so, so important’

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“I’m appalled. There are so many great minds in basketball and so many guys who could do this on camera, they may never know they’d be able to do it. Sportscaster U. gave you the reps. You got to see if you’re good. You got to compare yourself to your peers. You got feedback, and you left with film. For that not to go on would be a loss for the NBA and the union.”

— Drew Gooden

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Gooden had just been told that Sportscaster U. was not offered in 2018. Neither the Syracuse program nor the “Top 100” version in Virginia was held, shutting down the former after 10 flourishing years and the latter after just three.

What happened?

“We did not offer it [last] summer for a variety of reasons I’d rather not go into,” Murman said in a recent phone interview. “We are reviving it for next summer. Once I have more details, I can share it with you.”

There were a few reasons cited by multiple sources for keeping Sportscaster U. shuttered last year. One was apparent dissatisfaction with the main program’s location in upstate New York; some felt the program would be more attractive if offered in Manhattan or Los Angeles.

Two other claims — that modern NBA retirees will have made too much money to seriously pursue second careers, and a belief that millennials aren’t interested in traditional TV and radio jobs — floated around as well. Then there’s the suspicion that, with Rinaldi retired, the work of planning and organizing went undone.

There was sufficient interest, Rinaldi said, with three active NBA players expressing interest well before the 2017-18 season ended. The program needed a minimum of four participants.

Murman indicated it is possible Sportscaster U. will be relocated when revived this summer, though not due to any shortcomings in or displeasure with Syracuse. There has been speculation that ESPN might want to play a role.

Things always seem easier when you’re on the outside looking in. ‘Aw, man, I can do that. I can sit and talk about sports.’ As athletes, this really removed you from your comfort zone. I’m all for that.”

Antonio Daniels

Rinaldi understandably was unhappy that a project he devoted so much time to slipped through the cracks, at best, and wasn’t available to interested players.

“The NBPA failed its members last summer,” he said. “We had that program on auto-pilot. To make excuses really diminishes the hard work these players put in and what it took to get them there.”

Just as Gooden was “appalled” to learn of the program’s absence last summer, other grads expressed disappointment and urged that it be reinstated.

“It definitely is worth reviving,” said Daniels, who returned to speak at the 2017 camp. He has an ESPN radio show in San Antonio, serves as a host on Sirius XM NBA Radio and works in studio for Fox Sports Southwest. “It would be a shame if they don’t have it, because there are so many players who would be good at this. The NBA is a fraternity, and you want to see as many guys succeed as possible.”

Jefferson sounded determined. “I promise you, that won’t happen again,” he said. “The program is so, so important. It almost feels like being an alumni of your basketball program. You can’t let something fail after you’ve seen the benefits of the program. So yeah, that’s kind of shocking to me. But it will be back.”

Said Daniels: “So often, you don’t respect someone’s occupation till you’re put in their shoes. Things always seem easier when you’re on the outside looking in. ‘Aw, man, I can do that. I can sit and talk about sports.’ As athletes, this really removed you from your comfort zone. I’m all for that.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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