0

Ready for their close-up
Hosting ESPN2 a long and fun process for Norcross basketball

NORCROSS - Nearly five hours before tipoff, there was already a buzz around the Norcross basketball gym.

Workers set up cameras and additional lighting. Thick power cables were being run along the sidelines and out the door to satellite and production trucks.

The final touches were being put in place as Norcross High School prepared to put itself on national television Thursday night.

In the Blue Devils' 59-48 win over Helen Cox (La.), it may have taken less than two hours to play the game, but it took months of planning and hours of setup for the game that was aired live on ESPN2.

"People say, 'Well, was it worth it?' Of course," Norcross head coach Eddie Martin said. "How often do you get ESPN to come to your facility and work out of your facility? We're tickled to death to be able to do it."

The Norcross boys basketball team is no stranger to playing on national television. The Blue Devils played Oak Hill Academy (Va.) last year on ESPN and Arlington Country Day (Va.) on Comcast.

Both of those games were played at Georgia Tech and the setup was much easier.

Norcross just had to show up. For Thursday's game, Norcross began planning back in the spring of last year.

Months of preparation, hours of setup

The Blue Devils selected the date for Thursday's game last year in anticipation of a prime time matchup. Once the game was set with Helen Cox, Norcross began to make sure it met all of the requirements ESPN wanted.

Assistant basketball coach Keenan Temple was given most of the priorities in coordinating with ESPN.

"For them to come here and trust us to help them out, obviously Keenan did a lot of the footwork leading up to this, for them to trust us it's a big honor," Martin said.

The biggest adjustment Norcross had to make was brighter lights because the existing ones at the time did not meet ESPN specifications. So before the basketball season started, Norcross had 30 new lights installed above the court.

"That's the biggest thing. The lights," Norcross athletic director Kirk Barton said.

It wasn't until the beginning of January that things began to get a little busier, especially early this week. Most of the planning was already done, now it was making sure everything went smoothly.

"It's been fun working with them. It's been easy. It's no nonsense," Temple said. "It's not about money or anything else, we're thrilled to be on TV. The recognition is priceless. It makes it easy to want to work with them again because it's so easy."

ESPN officials arrived at Norcross at 9 a.m. and once the PE classes were over they began setting up the gym.

The school had to finalize details like where to put the student section and the pep band. Both are usually opposite the teams' benches, but to give them more TV exposure were placed behind the bench - across from the ESPN cameras.

Norcross' willingness to accommodate ESPN was a big part of why the game was played on the Blue Devils' home court instead of at Georgia Tech again.

"A lot of it you have to depend on the school and Norcross has been great to work with in terms of facilitating ESPN," said Paul Harvey of Paragon Marketing, which puts on ESPN's high school showcase. "You really have to work with a school that is accommodating with you."

Other small additions included having signs with national sponsors in front of the scorer's table and Old Spice logos on the top of players' bench chairs. Three cameras were placed on the balcony of the gym and two other mobile cameras were underneath the baskets. Additional lighting was set up on the ceiling.

"It's much like college basketball," Harvey said. "It's the same setup, same productions crew, the announcers do college games as well. It's really the college feel on the high school level."

Why play at Norcross?

Norcross first made an impression on Paragon Marketing at last year's game against Oak Hill.

Norcross brought a loud and exciting crowd to last year's game. The Blue Devils are the two-time defending Class AAAAA state champions and feature one of top players in the country in Al-Farouq Aminu, a Wake Forest signee. So it seemed like the perfect scenario to have a game on the Blue Devils' home court.

"We worked with them last year and anytime you can get one of the top 10 players in the country like Aminu, it's really a huge get for us," Harvey said. "When it comes to these games, Norcross is back-to-back state champions in Georgia, the players, the coaching staff, you have to find the right mix and Norcross has a lot of things going for them this year."

Thursday's game was one of a 15-game series that has or will be aired on the ESPN networks this season. Most of the games are aired on ESPNU, but Norcross' game was one of four games that was featured on ESPN or ESPN2.

"It's always a big thing for the community when ESPN comes to town," Harvey said. "It kind of gets people charged up, gets the students alive and we love to see that. It just makes the game that much better to watch."

Exposure for the community and players

Norcross' game on ESPN2 is the first time a Gwinnett County team has played in its own gym on the worldwide leader in sports.

When Louis Williams and Mike Mercer starred at South Gwinnett during the 2004-05 season, that game was played at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

So needless to say, Norcross was honored to be the first to have the major sports network at its school.

"We're so proud to host this event," Norcross assistant principal Nathan Ballantine said. "We're proud of our student athletes, we're proud of how they do on the court and the success they've had. The community should be proud of this, it's a big deal."

One of the main reasons for the game was for fans to see Aminu battle with Helen Cox's Greg Monroe, a Georgetown commitment, but it was also great exposure for other players.

Guys like the Blue Devils' Taariq Muhammad and Denzail Jones showed off their talents to hundreds of college coaches, along with several other of Norcross' players.

"Just for our program, being on TV is great," Temple said. "Just the publicity, you can't buy it."