The Bane of the N.B.A. Coach: The In-Game Interview
“It’s just abnormal,” said Doc Rivers, the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I never even spent one second thinking about what I was going to say,” said Kevin McHale, the former coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets.
A flash of insight? A burst of banter? Those are considered monumental successes in the in-game interview genre, which tends to consist of 15 to 20 seconds of improvisational theater. The interviews are typically recorded between quarters — the visiting coach goes at the end of the first quarter, while the home coach has his turn before the start of the fourth — and are aired once the broadcast resumes.
Popularized by personalities like Craig Sager, the longtime sideline reporter for TNT, the interviews are the sole province of the league’s national broadcast partners: ESPN, ABC and TNT. Everyone hopes for the best. There are no do overs.
“You try to ask the best questions possible,” Burke said, “but you don’t necessarily control the outcome.”
Some coaches are more invested in the process than others, or at least do a better job of faking it. Burke knows, for example, that Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the Detroit Pistons, is likely to give her a frank assessment of his team’s play since he generally wears his emotions like a rumpled blazer.
“You’re going to feel every bit of Stan Van Gundy’s frustration if his team had a tough quarter,” Burke said.
Then there is Rivers, the coach of the Clippers, who acknowledged that he barely listens to the questions. His default response, he said, is to say something along the lines of “We need to play better.” Still, the league’s sideline reporters appreciate his diplomacy.
“Doc Rivers might not tell me anything,” Burke said, “but he’s going to have a smile on his face and his tone of voice is going to be absolutely delightful.”
One of the goals with any telecast, said Craig Barry, the executive vice president and chief content officer for Turner Sports, is to bring viewers as much access as possible. In-game interviews, he said, help deliver a richer narrative. For that reason, said Lisa Salters, a sideline reporter for ESPN, she feels it is important to use her own access to inform her questions.
“Some of the best stuff happens from overhearing the huddles,” she said.
But Salters and her colleagues also need to be concise. By agreement, the sideline reporter is permitted two questions. Sometimes, Burke said, she will tell a coach beforehand that she intends to ask only one with the hope that it will generate a more thoughtful response. But there are times when she can sense that the coach is just not in the mood for a chat.
“I do think you have to be smart enough about the circumstances to say, ‘I’m only going to ask one here,’” she said, “if for no other reason than self-preservation.”
The one-question method can backfire. During Game 3 of the N.B.A. finals last season, when the Golden State Warriors found themselves trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers by 17 points after the first quarter, it was left to Burke to sift through the wreckage by asking Steve Kerr, the usually affable coach of the Warriors, what he had seen from his team.
“Not a whole lot,” Kerr said.
That was the sum total of their interaction.
It could have been worse. During Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in 2014, David Aldridge, a sideline reporter for TNT, asked Popovich how he thought the Spurs had played in the first quarter. Popovich responded by staring at Aldridge for a full seven seconds, at which point Aldridge deemed it necessary to remind Popovich that they were on live TV.
“Seven seconds of silence,” Aldridge recalled in a telephone interview.
Aldridge sees value in most of these exchanges — “You’re giving people a sense of what it’s like to be there,” he said — but he can also understand why coaches would feel annoyed.
“You’re interrupting them while they’re working,” he said. “It’s an intrusion.”
And there is, of course, the Popovich problem. Popovich, by all appearances, does not enjoy in-game interviews. His mood generally ranges from perturbed to exasperated. But people like to watch. His interviews have almost become performance art.
“I think what Pop does is still his form of protest that this is not right,” said George Karl, the former coach. (Attempts to reach Popovich for comment on this article were, perhaps not surprisingly, unsuccessful.)
Karl, who most recently coached the Sacramento Kings, considers himself philosophically aligned with Popovich when it comes to in-game interviews. (“Not a big fan,” Karl said.) And while Karl always tried to come across as accommodating, he set out with one clear objective.
“I know people are going to be upset by this,” he said, “but as a coach, you’re trying to say nothing.”
Karl recalled the in-game interview’s genesis. In September 2007, he said, the league’s coaches gathered in Chicago for an annual meeting. David Stern, the commissioner at the time, made an appearance with executives from the league’s broadcast partners.
The N.B.A. had recently renewed a contract with ESPN, ABC and TNT for eight years and $7.4 billion. As a part of that agreement, Stern explained, the league wanted to introduce in-game interviews with the coaches during national broadcasts. The networks were paying the league a lot of money, Karl recalled Stern’s saying, and it behooved the league to make them happy.
The coaches in the room were not, for the most part, thrilled with this development.
“We were against it: ‘You can’t do this! This is our sanctuary!’” Karl said. “We lost.”
Sam Vincent, who was then the coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, said the consensus was that the interviews would be another irritation for coaches who already had enough to deal with during games. But most coaches have since come to realize that the interview itself is far from the most taxing part of their responsibilities.
“I have nothing to hide,” said Earl Watson, the coach of the Suns. “You can do in-game interviews. You can do in-game locker room. You can have a film crew following us. I don’t really care, man.”
He added, “Maybe that one interview can change one life.”
McHale, now an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, said that when he was coaching he always forgot when he was slotted to be interviewed. It was left to one of his assistant coaches to remind him with a tap on the shoulder.
“Is it a pain in the butt?” McHale asked. “Sure, sometimes it is. Because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, God, we’ve got two minutes to get our defense squared away before the second quarter.’ Or whatever it is you’re trying to fix. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to do this?’”
But unlike some coaches, McHale said he was glad that the networks had added the interviews. They help fans feel more connected to the action, he said. And depending on the coach’s willingness to cooperate, they can add depth to the game. Then again, that level of cooperation varies.
“There are days,” McHale said, “when you’re in a really bad mood and don’t feel like helping the average fan.”
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