The assignment offers a unique brand of crazy: You are standing on a makeshift staging area, usually in the middle of a massive arena or stadium. A national audience is watching you on television or via digital media, and the crowd inside the arena can hear every word you are saying. Sure, your producer is in your ear, but you are flying solo up here given all the chaos around you. Your subjects are often elated, which is good. But if the title takes place on the floor or field of an opponent, there will be no energy in the building. You also have maybe two or three questions, tops, for each subject. You better make them count, or social media will have a field day.
“I love my job, but the trophy presentation assignment makes me nervous,” said ESPN’s Doris Burke, one of the best in the business at this unique part of sports broadcasting. “I love the game of basketball, and it has shaped my life since I was seven years old. But as a broadcaster it took me a good 10 to 15 years to relax and allow myself to enjoy the job. You get a little more comfortable each time you have that trophy assignment, but there is a responsibility there. You want to give the fans the information they are curious about, and also honor the achievement that these people on the floor have been fortunate enough to do. It makes me very nervous, to be honest.”
Burke’s exceptional handling of the NBA Finals trophy ceremony following Golden State’s win over Cleveland on June 12 prompted me to take a closer look at how broadcasters and producers prepare for the assignment.
Over the course of 11 minutes and 25 seconds, with yellow confetti falling on top of her following Golden State’s win over Cleveland in Game 5, Burke posed 13 questions to seven different people, including Warriors co-executive chairmen Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, coach Steve Kerr and Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. That was in addition to introducing commissioner Adam Silver twice, including for the presentation of the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award. It was flawless work. I re-watched the ceremony over the weekend, and each of Burke’s questions was tailored to the individual and open-ended. Here’s an example of one, to Green:
“So, rightly or wrongly, you said last year failures were in some measure your responsibility. So how did you take the passion that is so integral to the success of this team and get it where it needed to be to win a second one?” Green gave a great answer to that: “You learn from your mistakes. Obviously, we had a letdown last year, and I had a letdown last year. But like I told everybody before, if Kevin Durant was the consolation prize to lose, thanks for that loss, and we champs this year.”
One of the broadcasters Burke cited as among the best at such assignments is Turner Sports host Ernie Johnson. In an interview last week he told me that his favorite presentation was for the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers in 2010 following a Game 6 road win at Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals. After the game, in which Ron Artest scored 25 points, Johnson wanted to ask the veteran small forward on the podium how he felt about playing in his first NBA Finals.
“I knew I would get Phil [Jackson] and Kobe and maybe another player, but I thought it would be cool to hear what Ron Artest had to say,” Johnson said. “So I’m standing with the Lakers outside their locker room during a commercial break, and I asked Ron if he wanted to answer some questions. But before Ron could answer, Kobe steps in and said, ‘No, you are not talking to Ron Artest.’ I said, ‘Why, Kobe?’ He said, ‘I am the leader of this team. You are talking to me.’ I looked at Phil, and he shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Hey, he’s the captain.’ Kobe was not going to have Ron Artest as part of trophy presentation equation because, I guess, he didn’t want to give the Celtics any extra motivation.”
Burke said she came upon this assignment because of an awful circumstance: Stuart Scott, who was battling cancer, had been scheduled to do the trophy ceremony at the 2012 NBA Finals but had to be rushed back home from Miami to see his doctor. Burke filled in for the presentation, which was the first title for LeBron James. “That was very hard because I was only doing it because Stuart was sick,” said Burke.
After Scott passed away in 2015, the assignment became hers on a full-time basis. In a long interview last week, she offered a primer on the behind-the-scenes logistics of the ceremony. NBA officials meet with key ESPN/ABC production staffers the morning prior to each NBA Finals game. For a potential close-out game, the two entities discuss how the postgame will be handled for television purposes should a championship be decided. ESPN officials make requests regarding what players they want immediately after the game (on the court), while the NBA lets ESPN know where and when the staging will go up, and which members of the ownership group will participate in the on-camera interviews. ESPN/ABC officials also discuss when the first commercial break will come after the buzzer. Why is this important? Because once ESPN/ABC goes to a commercial after the game, the rating for that game is officially ended. Since games rise in viewership as they approach their conclusion, it pays to stay on the air as long possible for the highest rating.
As noted above, ESPN production staff requests via both the NBA and the staff of the winning team which players they want to speak to on the floor immediately after the championships. Obviously, that’s a chaotic scene. But this year the choice was obvious: Finals MVP Durant. (Burke also revealed something you did not see on the air that could have been a serious social media meme: She nearly fell before interviewing Durant on the floor after the game because the back of her heel got tangled on a cable wire.)
Burke said after she concluded her interview with Durant, she got teary-eyed thinking of Todd Harris, the longtime NBA executive who for years was the league official who would bring Burke up to the stage or another part of arena after a conference champion was crowned. As soon as the on-court Durant interview concluded, ESPN NBA producer Tim Corrigan was in Burke’s ear telling her to get to the stage. When she arrived at the staging area, Burke switched from a remote microphone to a wired mic.
“Now here is the most important thing that happens,” said Burke. “Tim and I have to establish communication. He says, ‘Doris if you can hear me, raise your left hand.’ I don’t want to speak over the mic because it is now live to the house [arena]. So I signal to him, and that is the most important thing that occurs. Then it becomes chaotic for the NBA. Picture the bedlam that occurs on the floor, and now NBA personnel and the Warriors’ PR staff is trying to get everybody whose required to be on stage on the stage, but they are immersed in the celebration.”
This year the stage was not yet filled with all Golden State team personnel when ESPN/ABC came out of a commercial break. Corrigan said game broadcasters Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy had to fill airtime for a couple of minutes— the production crew showed shots of the players on the floor with their families — before heading to Burke on stage. When Corrigan finally got the word from NBA official Dana Jones that the stage was ready for the ceremony, Breen introduced the public address announcer, who introduced Burke.
“All these men—the players, owners, team officials—they are all reveling in this incredible achievement, and you as a broadcast team want to capture that emotion and let them enjoy this is much as possible,” Burke said. “At the same time you understand there is viewership at home that wants to hear from the respective stars.”
Burke said that before Game 4 she went over with Corrigan some of the questions she would ask players and management in a close-out situation. She often runs such questions by Corrigan and sometimes Van Gundy and Jackson as well. She’ll also listen to what Breen, Jackson, and Van Gundy discuss in-game and follow up on those points in the postgame. “You take into considerations whatever storylines are around the teams and then around the individuals themselves,” Burke said. “For Kevin Durant, I had to somehow get to the fact that he faced criticism and why he was able to set aside a negative narrative.”
Corrigan has his thoughts on question order and the quality of questions, and he was in Burke’s ear before her interview with Thompson about how he adjusted his game during the year. “Tim hit me in my ear and said, ‘Remember, you want to know about Klay’s efficiency,’ and that was my second question,” Burke said. “It is very much a collaborative team thing.”
Said Corrigan: “This is a big-time moment for everyone, and you have to be comfortable in yourself in that moment and with the knowledge base you have with each of these subjects. Kevin Durant’s story is different from Steph Curry’s story, which is different from Draymond Green, which is different from Joe Lacob. Doris has such a nice knack for this assignment, and she knows all these guys. They trust her.”
At Turner, Johnson has had the assignment for both the NBA conference finals and the All-Star Game. He has also has done MLB trophy ceremonies since 2007. Regarding his preparation for the assignment, he said he thinks about questions that are specific to the subject or the title won. “What can I ask the owner that I won’t ask the GM that I won’t ask the coach that I won’t ask a player?” Johnson said. “I want to get something for the viewers at home. That’s why I was so impressed by Doris after the Warriors won. Her questions were so good, and they were good questions of so many different people. Just remarkable.”
I asked Johnson if he enjoyed doing the ceremony. “I like doing it, but the important thing is it is not about you,” he said. “It’s a cool moment. The fans at home want to hear what LeBron or Kevin Durant or Steve Kerr has to say. But it’s much easier to do when you are at the home arena, because it’s a festive atmosphere and everyone in the crowd is excited about the presentation. It’s a little tougher when you have to do it on the road, and sometimes you better be used to doing it off the court. You just don’t have the electricity of the home crowd and that can impact the guys answering the questions. You might get some subdued answers, which is understandable.”
On the issue of the in-arena crowd, Burke said it has been helpful during her career to think about nothing but the person in front of her. “Because if I ever considered the number of people who might be watching or that the house mic is picking this up, to be honest, it might scare me a little bit,” she said. “It’s always been helpful in my experience to just converse with the person in front of me.”
There are the rare moments when the interviewer—at least those if he or she is journalistically sound—needs to ask a semi-difficult question. Burke said for those times, you have to just dive right in.
“As an interviewer, I don’t think you can dance around the subject,” Burke said. “Certainly the interview subject knows if you are dancing, and the viewer knows that you are dancing. If it’s a hard question, you just have to ask it. Was it appropriate for me to bring up Draymond Green’s suspension in Game 5 last year? I did debate it in my mind, but, yeah, it was part of the story, and the reality is, as Draymond Green said, it did help [him].”
“You pray there is nothing controversial you have to ask about,” said NBC Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “You always hate to rain on someone's parade. Some have ignored that elephant in the room but we wouldn't.”
In addition to Johnson, Burke cited ESPN colleague Holly Rowe and CBS’s Jim Nantz as broadcasters whom she particularly admired regarding how they’ve handled the trophy presentation assignment. Worth also noting was how well Fox broadcaster Kevin Burkhardt handled this year’s World Series on-field trophy presentation. That had long been an issue for Fox Sports.
“Holly Rowe is a close friend, so I am obviously biased but what makes Holly great in those moments is she is one of the nicest human beings on the planet, and is so deeply immersed in the storylines,” Burke said. “When I watch Ernie Johnson do the celebration at the conference championships, I marvel at how smooth he is. The guy is just the consummate pro. Jim Nantz is a pro’s pro, and you just sit back and watch in awe at how he does it. I think even though Holly, Ernie and Jim have stylistic differences, there is a genuineness to who they are.”
No working sports broadcaster has done the trophy ceremony more than Nantz, if you include his golf work. In an interview last week, he told me he’s crowned a champion on more than 80 occasions. (He broke it down: seven Super Bowls, 19 AFC Championships, 27 NCAA men’s basketball championships, 30 Masters and a smattering of other ceremonies from basketball conference titles to bowl games and PGA Championships.)
“If you take the three primary properties I cover these days, the challenges vary a great deal with each sport,” Nantz said. “Standing on the podium at the Super Bowl is far different than being in Butler Cabin for the green jacket ceremony. The Lombardi presentation can be chaotic. Not that chaos is a bad thing. You want that scene to be filled with unbridled joy and raw emotion. As the host, you go into it knowing your potential interview subjects range from 45 players in uniform to coaches, general managers, owners, family and of course the commissioner. It’s very similar at the Final Four, just smaller in numbers. My goal is to ask the right questions—short and snappy—and then fade into the background. It’s their moment. In most cases it’s the culmination of a lifetime of work for these folks. Often it’s a standalone occasion for the athlete or coach. Not everyone is Tom Brady or Bill Belichick, who have seemingly spent half their lives on a platform receiving the AFC Lamar Hunt Trophy or the Super Bowl trophy.
“I have to admit, it is so cool being a part of that moment,” Nantz continued. “To see the look in their eyes. The elation. The shock. The tears. The dream coming true. It’s an incredible thing to witness up close. Which brings me to my favorite victory presentation—April 12, 1992. Fred Couples and I shared a dormitory suite at the University of Houston back in the late ’70s. From day one his goal was to win the Masters, and my obsessive/compulsive ambition was to one day work for CBS Sports. We were consumed with achieving our goals and talked about them often. We even, a time or two, discussed in our dorm room what it would be like to see our careers intersect in Butler Cabin. So fast-forward to that fateful day in ’92. A couple of kids who used to dream about this exact moment were now carrying out the interview before a worldwide television audience. I handled the bulk of it straightforward, as if we had never met. Finally at the end, with a quivering voice, I asked, ‘Back at the University of Houston, those who knew you always said someday you’re going to look great in a green jacket. Did you believe this would ever happen?’ Trust me, I was down to my last words before a complete meltdown. Fred was about to lose it too. Had [former CBS golf executive producer] Frank Chirkinian instructed me to go on for one more question, it would have been ugly.”
It was interesting to learn that the broadcasters I spoke with did not, for the most part, use notes. Johnson said the only kind of note he might have is if there is a sponsor involved or if there are multiple members of an ownership group and he wants to pronounce the names correctly. (A sponsor’s involvement can often produce a viral moment, such as this famous one following the 2014 World Series.) Nantz said he believed handling the play-by-play of a broadcast significantly helped him with the post-game presentation.
“You’re living possession by possession, shot by shot,” Nantz said. “You are hyper-aware of the key moments that won the game or the golf tournament, and the central storylines. Those questions come naturally. Getting a player or coach to put into context what a long-awaited championship means to their career, like Kevin Durant, is a theme that reappears, and one that I rather enjoy. I’ve seen it often in college basketball. I’ve been there to query Nolan Richardson, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, Roy Williams, John Calipari, all of them Hall of Famers now, all of whom addressed the sweetness of that first success after facing years of disbelievers. On some occasions you go into a game knowing there is a question you have to ask. For example, for Super Bowl 50 I had to ask Peyton Manning on the platform if there was any chance he would ever play again. This year at the AFC Championship I asked Brady how much it would mean to him to go to the Super Bowl and complete the revenge tour after opening the season on a four-game suspension. Back in 1997 when Tiger shattered all the records at Augusta, I asked him how much he carried in his heart all the African-American golfers who paved the way to his epic victory. He was as brilliant in that interview as he was on the course that week.”
Burke takes a lot of social media heat—the worst are from the mouth-breathers who dislike her merely for existing—so it was good to see how many on social media last week praised her for the exceptional work. Her friend and ESPN colleague Rebecca Lobo texted her after Game 5 to let her know that she had been trending on Twitter—for positive reasons.
“I said, Well, that’s nice, and in many ways a switch!” Burke said, laughing. “In the immediacy of that moment, I have no idea how I have done. I just try to do it. But when we got in the car to head to the airport after Game 5, [ESPN senior vice president of production and remote events] Mark Gross and Tim Corrigan had some very nice things to say me, and Jeff Van Gundy said the same. It’s important that they think well of me, so that was a good moment. So when I arrived at the airport and headed to my gate, I can tell you the adult beverage I was drinking prior to the flight tasted that much better.”