The most mesmerizing and memorable basketball moments on Christmas Day did not occur during the Knicks-Celtics season opener on TNT, or any of the other four NBA games that followed on ESPN/ABC.
Instead, they popped up on television screens a few moments before Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, and the rest of the Celtics and Knicks tipped off a season that until late November was in jeopardy of being a casualty of the lockout.
Through the magic of composite editing and the on-deadline brilliance of TNT creative director Drew Watkins and his team, the network opened its broadcast with a one-minute-53-second clip titled “NBA Forever’’ that was as breathtaking as a Blake Griffin dunk.
Blurring the lines of history by editing still photographs and classic video to put all-time greats and contemporary stars together on the court, it became an instant sensation; a YouTube video search for “NBA Forever’’ generates more than 16,000 clips.
“We knew all the fans were watching and that people in the industry were waiting and watching to see what would happen,’’ said Watkins, who worked with a small team that included a compositor, a final-cut editor, an editor who worked with the still photographs, and a couple of free-lancers. “We just wanted to give them something that felt good, that put the game in a good light, and reminded people why they liked basketball rather than thinking about the situation in coming off the lockout.’’
It does not cross over to hyperbole to say the clip is dead-on perfect aesthetically, nostalgically, and especially in tone.
Seeing Paul Pierce jog out of the tunnel behind Tommy Heinsohn, or Derrick Rose give a casual fist-bump to Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird feed Ray Allen for an open three, or . . . well, a sports fan never expects to actually see those “what-ifs,’’ but that’s exactly what happened.
The inspired pairings - did we mention Steve Nash chatting up fellow hardwood creative genius Pistol Pete Maravich? - reveal a deep reservoir of knowledge about NBA lore. Watkins, who has been at Turner since 2000 and has worked in NBA studios for his current employer and ESPN, confirms as much.
“I have a special place in my heart for basketball,’’ he said.
The visual concept that struck such a chord actually germinated from a song.
“I was in a hotel lobby last summer in Oklahoma City while we were filming something with Kevin Durant,’’ Watkins said. “This song was playing and I was listening to it and thinking, ‘This is a really interesting song.’
(The song was “Live Forever,’’ by Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors.)
“I loved it and wanted to use it for something, but I didn’t want to use it for something that wouldn’t be fitting. So I sort of put it away in the back of my mind.
“Once they released the schedule after the lockout and I saw that we’d be playing on Christmas, I was thinking, ‘Man, this might be the right song, it has a line about Christmas.’
“I was trying to figure out what the visuals could be, and the singer kept repeating the line, ‘Live forever.’ And I was thinking, ‘live forever . . . live forever . . .’
“What if we showed everybody playing together in a timeless sort of world where everybody is in their prime and playing against all the great players of current times and past times?’’
Watkins wrote up a treatment of his idea and sent it to his boss, who signed off. It was completed in roughly three weeks, with the finishing touches coming on Christmas Eve.
“We took off on it, didn’t look back, and we barely made it,’’ said Watkins, seeming to both laugh and exhale.
The first step: finding older video that would work. Watkins made a conscious effort not to use footage that was already familiar, such as Dr. J swooping behind the backboard in the 1980 Finals against the Lakers.
“There’s such a finite amount of the older video that exists that’s good and usable,’’ he said. “For example, there may be 10 really, really good shots of George Gervin, for instance. And then we have hundreds, and maybe even thousands of shots of Kevin Durant.
“So we try to identify the George Gervin shot that we have that we think we can composite. Then just basically overlay shot after shot after shot of Kevin Durant until we find one that looks like it could work as a composite. If it’s a match, we just go to work on that one and get started on the next one.’’
Watkins estimates that it took a day and half to do a challenging video composite (such as Wilt Chamberlain blocking Dwight Howard’s shot), 6-8 hours for a simpler one, and an hour to cut out still photographs, then animate and color-correct them.
Time was saved by having the rotoscoping (the complex process of having footage cut out of film) done by an outside firm. But it was still a race against the clock, and Watkins said one small lament is that he couldn’t find a way to work in legends such as David Robinson, George Mikan, and Moses Malone.
“It just made it impossible to get certain guys in in a way that made sense,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to force it, because I felt like if there was one shot that was forced, then that was the shot that everyone was going to see.’’
Judging by the feedback, every basketball fan loved the shots they saw.
“The reaction has been a big kick for us,’’ Watkins said. “The proudest thing for me anyway, we all love the game, you don’t want to see the game played under a cloud, and it felt like it kind of wiped the slate clean, and they were able to move on and enjoy the games and start the season.’’