Maybe it’s hyperbolic to say the NBA was on our televisions the night the world changed. Maybe it’s not hyperbolic at all. Only time will tell whether word of Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 on March 11, which led to the NBA immediately halting play and set the protocol for other sports to shut down, will be a ”Where were you when it happened?” cultural touchstone.
This much we do know right now: While the pandemic continues to affect our way of life in myriad ways, the NBA has found what appears to be a feasible way to return. It includes a complex and impressive collaboration between the league and broadcast partners Turner Sports and ESPN to broadcast games from the bubble at Disney World in Orlando, a return to television that began Thursday night with TNT’s broadcasts of Jazz-Pelicans and Lakers-Clippers.
The Celtics restart Friday against the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks was on ESPN and NBC Sports Boston.
Mike Shiffman, vice president of production at ESPN who oversees all of the network’s basketball coverage, said personnel from the networks and the league got together in the third week of June to really begin considering the magnitude of the undertaking and what it would take to make the broadcasts work without fans in the building.
“We came down here to Orlando with folks from the league and folks from Turner and did a site survey,’' said Shiffman. “And we literally went arena by arena with drawings and went through what was possible. The league has been very innovative and had some ideas on what they thought we could do; we of course had ideas, as did Turner.
“But the main court wasn’t even down yet, so we had to imagine what a court would look like in this larger structure. It did allow us to visualize what was possible.”
As it turns out, there is quite a lot that is possible. Games will be played in three venues in the bubble. The Arena (the main court, where the conference and NBA Finals will be played); HP Field House (in use for the current seeding games through the second round of the playoffs); and the Visa Athletic Center (which will be used for games airing regionally rather than nationally).
In total, there will be approximately 260 total cameras in use around the complex, including 60 robotic cameras. Each venue has at least 30 cameras to use in-game, with the Arena and the Field House each equipped with an innovative RailCam that moves up and down the sideline with the action and provides a strikingly fresh viewpoint, though it will not be used as the primary shot.
ESPN and Turner will not be using pumped-in crowd noise as Major League Baseball has chosen to do on its broadcasts. Instead, it will emphasize the sounds of the game — with a five-second delay to make sure the audio remains suitable for all audiences.
“We’ll get the chatter of the game, whether a guy dunks or on a block shot, we’ll hear the yell of excitement,’' said Shiffman. “The combination of the cameras and that audio, you do feel closer to the game, and it should be a more intimate experience.
The broadcasts will feature monitors showing real fans reacting live via video conferencing. Examples of this could be seen on NBC Sports Boston’s broadcasts of the Celtics’ recent scrimmages.
Shiffman also said that the experience in the arenas will be tailored to how the designated home team’s home games usually look and sound.
“The aim is to make it natural for the home team,’' said Shiffman. “So what Lakers fans sound like at the Staples Center will differ from fans at a Bucks game or a Celtics game and so on.”
ESPN, which will produce 20 seeding games and up to 44 playoff games, will, along with Turner, provide the world feeds that the regional sports networks such as NBC Sports Boston will use for their broadcasts, since their own announcers and production personnel are not in the bubble.
The regional sports networks are permitted to tweak the world feed to suit the home audience. NBCSB plans to enhance the feed it receives from Orlando with a dedicated camera that it controls, allowing the network to customize the broadcast toward Celtics-focused story lines. It also will have additional camera feeds to supplement replays. Virtual graphics will allow the Celtics logo to appear on the court.
Based on what we saw during NBCSB’s broadcasts of the scrimmages, it should look and feel just like the Celtics broadcast we are used to seeing. Mike Gorman, who has experience calling basketball and handball remotely during NBC’s Olympics telecasts, and Brian Scalabrine will call the games from the Boston studio. NBCSB will have all eight seeding games, including the ones that are also airing nationally.
The studio programming will be hosted by Kyle Draper, with Scalabrine and Abby Chin joining him. A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg will contribute remotely, as will Kendrick Perkins, Chris Mannix, and Tom Haberstroh for select games. Tommy Heinsohn, who has been battling a blood clotting issue, is still recovering, per NBCSB.