Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Producer Jay Hoover, right, director Garry Lehman and technical director Michael Farnsworth run the control boards from the production truck during a Hawks game at Philips Arena. Up to 40 people work to pull off a single televised game for SportSouth and the crew will usually cover 70 games per season.
ATLANTA -- Below the stands of Philips Arena, just feet from a road nearly buried by parking garage concrete and steps from the open floor of the arena is a small, dimly lit room closely resembling a factory break room. Modest kindly describes the tables and chairs that clearly were purchased with a focus on quantity rather than comfort. On a late winter's night, the breeze from the street keeps the room cool, cold even.
It's more than two hours before the Atlanta Hawks tipoff against a mediocre Minnesota Timberwolves team. Against one of the walls near the center of the room, a group of six people huddle together discussing that night's game. Like the Hawks, this group and dozens with them returned the night before from a weeklong West Coast road trip.
Three of the six huddled together easily catch the eye of a mild Hawks, or Atlanta sports, fan. Towering over the table, though seated, is Dominique Wilkins, the former Hawks superstar. Across from Wilkins is the familiar face of James Verrett and the polished tenor of Bob Rathbun resonates through the room.
These three are the face of the Hawks on television. The other three, along with nearly 40 more, make that face look good. They give the faces and the voices texture and depth. Sitting with the familiar three are producer Jay Hoover, director Garry Lehman and font and graphics coordinator Gretchen Kaney.
These three, under the watchful eye of coordinating producer Rohan Backfisch, steer every element of each television broadcast. They work in the sponsorships and time the commercial breaks to pay the bills. They dig up and create graphics, stats and highlights to keep the viewers watching. They communicate with the Houston headquarters to keep the picture on the screen.
Joe Johnson hit a game-winning shot two years ago against the Timberwolves. That video has already been pulled. Josh Smith's passing improved on the road trip, so a video montage is ready. The pre-tip segment will be taped on the floor as well as halftime. The Hawks Live postgame crew is off tonight, so Rathbun and Wilkins must also do that show after the game. Kia, Verizon and other sponsors' spots must be worked into the game. It's all discussed in the meeting. They talk quickly, but thoroughly, about sponsors and hoops alike. The operation crew knows its basketball and the NBA as well as the analysts.
"It's about preparation," Backfisch said. "It's about planning and being ready for those moments (Smith's passing, Johnson's game-winner).
"And still the unexpected is going to happen."
When it does, the two-time Emmy-winning crew doesn't flinch. The stats don't come in live from the Hawks early in the game. No big deal. Wilkins' audio is slightly modulated during pregame. It's fixed over a one-minute commercial break.
Backfisch usually monitors the games from his home. He oversees more than just this crew. Fox Sports and its other entities across the south broadcast NBA and college games from Charlotte to Nashville to Memphis. This is not a crew Backfisch worries much about.
One step ahead
It's a half-block walk from the door of the arena to the production truck outside, and the truck's exterior is less than underwhelming. Just a plain white tractor-trailer with cords running in every direction from underneath. There is a constant hum of electricity.
Inside explains why.
Countless monitors show every camera in the arena on a wall of screens. There are two rows of seats with computer monitors for each crew member. Some are for graphics, others for replay, one for the score and time clock box on the screen. Everyone wears a headset and when the producer counts down from 10 to start the show the room is strangely quiet -- except for the directors voice and the electrical hum.
Fox Sports uses a "dual feed" truck for its games, allowing two separate broadcasts off much of the same equipment. Tonight the Timberwolves TV crew fills the smaller section allocated to the away team. Just like locker rooms for the players, the visitors don't get all the perks.
"It's a cost-effective way of doing to shows," Backfisch said.
Watching a game from this angle feels like staring at ingredients of a favorite meal without knowing the recipe. Television gives a finished product, these people do the cooking.
Once the game starts, the myriad camera angles all move quickly. There are close-ups of coaches and players, shots from the floor, the generic midcourt shot, cameras above the basket and cameras underneath the two baskets. The score and clock must show up on the screen. When the Hawks go on a run, the stat pops up. Every item is separate and the mixing goes through the director.
Lehman, the director, operates this live broadcast much like an orchestra conductor using his voice as his baton. He decides what people see at home. Jamal Crawford hits a basket. Close up on Crawford as he bounces back on defense. A quick foul under the basket. First Zaza Pachulia's reaction, then coach Mike Woodson's. Now back to the action from above. He sees it before it happens, anticipates the action and puts that picture on the air. He lives slightly ahead of the game, just one step.
Close to the action
Rathbun and Wilkins get the best seats. Courtside, they are so close that many times during the game the two must shift and crane to see around players. At one point, Josh Smith sits directly in front of Rathbun. He bobs back and forth and his voice never falters.
Rathbun and Wilkins watch the game live and only use the monitors for replays. They interact constantly during the game and during commercials. They wear earpieces to hear the producer, director and each other and can talk to the production truck at any time by turning off their live audio. Little is said during the game, allowing the two time to concentrate. They are counted into and out of commercial breaks and sponsored spots are worked in usually with just a few words from the director.
Both Rathbun and Wilkins, along with Verrett, are engrossed in the game. It's a Wednesday against a bad Timberwolves team, but watching them it could be the Lakers.
Before each broadcast, Rathbun does his own makeup, especially for the high definition games, which most are. He brushes his teeth before the tip as well. He speaks off camera exactly as he does on-air, his energy never dropping. It's an enthusiasm that can't be feigned.
"The part of it that sometimes gets lost in all of this is we have an obligation as professional broadcasters to give it our best every night," Rathbun said. "In the television business, this is prime-time TV. We are fighting for eyeballs and viewers and we owe it to the team, we owe it to our sponsors. We don't get a chance to come out of the game and call a 20-second timeout."
After broadcasting 75 games this season, this crew is not done.
Like the Hawks, they were back at Philips on Saturday preparing for the playoffs. Same people, same truck, same dark meeting room. The days are long, but Rathbun remembers when they were longer.
"The best part is now, we are winning," he said, remembering the 13-win season of 2004-05. "There were those lean years. You have to really manufacture some excitement. You just have to hope you have a good game, you figure you are not going to win but you just want to have a good game and a good telecast. But now, you do get a good telecast and you are going to get a good game."
Good games make the job more enjoyable for the crew. More excitement, just like for fans, brings more energy to the whole crew and especially to the on-air talent. But the play-by-play and live analysis and in-game interviews don't happen without the others working in the nondescript truck, back at the local home office at Colony Square or in Houston. If the call doesn't match the picture or the stats don't supplement the analysis or the audio fails, no one's work matters. When each ingredient can be combined and mixed in the right proportions all the audience sees is the game and it's hard to change the channel.
"It's just like a team, you know how you have five guys and when they are running the offense well it just looks like they know what they are doing," Rathbun said. "They seem to go before the ball gets there, they get to the right spot. It's all in flow. It's the same way with us. When it all comes together we hope it is going to be a nice flawless seamless production."