‘When the Buzzer Sounds’ – Writing sports recaps

One of the most exhilarating moments of my life – covering the NCAA tournament in 2009.

I had everything ready to go, and then the final buzzer sounded.

It was the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament, and I was traveling with the Gonzaga Bulldogs to cover their postseason run. By that time, I was a senior at GU, so I knew the drill when it came to writing a game recap. I took my position at the press table, two rows from courtside, opened my clunky laptop, and wrote about the game as it happened.

Each time a key sequence took place, I jotted down the events, the time, the score. If a seemingly more significant event happened later in the game, I’d move it to the top of my document, ready to use it as the central sequence in the story if necessary. It was all part of the process. I knew my story was due to go to the web immediately after the game, so I was making sure to build the skeleton of the story ahead of time. As the game goes on, sports writers can sense where the story will go. In my case, the Bulldogs built a strong lead in the second half and would likely hold on to victory. I wrote my skeleton that way and knew I just needed to fill in the blanks of the score and stats afterward, in order to get it posted online within minutes. That’s how the pros do it.

In the final minute of the second half, things changed. Western Kentucky came storming back from a big deficit, and even tied it up in the final seconds. I quickly wrote in the possibility of overtime to the top of my story.

Then, with the clock winding down, Gonzaga freshman Demetri Goodson took the inbounds pass, dribbled it the length of the court, and hit a game-winner at the buzzer. The crowd went nuts. The GU bench exploded. Players and coaches mobbed Goodson at midcourt.

The big story had just unfolded before my eyes. I looked down at my skeleton, highlighted the whole thing, and hit delete.

Time to really get to work.

I still quickly threw together a short recap of the amazing events at the end of the game, and fired off the story to my editors while the celebration continued on the court. Then I went to the locker room, got quotes from Goodson and his teammates, and used them to create an even more thorough recap for the next day’s print edition. And all the extra material I gathered during the celebration was put together for a special feature to run alongside it.

It’s the life of a sportswriter – you cover an amazing story and tell it in multiple ways.

As a sports writer, you may be covering one story, but you’re probably writing two or three.

There’s the initial game recap – which you write while the game is in action in order to post it immediately. There’s the main recap – fleshed out with quotes and context. And there may be another feature that goes alongside your game recap.

(And that’s not even counting your social media duties! Any sports writer worth his or her salt is tweeting from press row and giving real-time insight to readers).

The point is, every night you will be expected to know how to write a quick story, and how to write a bigger story.

Let’s examine this by looking at Monday’s Celtics-Jazz game in Salt Lake City. The first version of the story to appear online was by Associated Press writer Kareem Copeland. His job as the AP “wire” reporter, is to quickly file a report on the game that can then be picked up around the world by AP subscribers. We’ll start by taking a look at his lead:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tayshaun Prince scored 19 points, and the Boston Celtics held off the Utah Jazz for a 99-90 victory on Monday night.

That’s it. It cuts straight to the chase and gives us the most relevant information – who won, when it happened, and the leading scorer.

Copeland and the AP need to get this story out as quickly as possible, so he’s not wasting time trying to be clever or flowery. He’s the meat-and-potatoes writer, just giving the important information so the story gets published moments after the final buzzer.

Following that, he just includes more related information – other key players and stats, and key moments in the game:

Tyler Zeller had 14 points and seven rebounds for Boston, which grabbed control with a big second quarter. Jared Sullinger had 12 points and nine rebounds, and Avery Bradley also scored 12.

Prince, who was acquired from Memphis in a three-team trade on Jan. 12, was 7 for 10 from the field and 3 for 4 at the free-throw line.

Gordon Hayward had 26 points for Utah, and Enes Kanter finished with 20. Reserve Trey Burke added 18 points, and Derrick Favors finished with 13 points with eight rebounds.

When you’re on deadline, you don’t mess around. Just get the story out.

So that’s the first version of the story, but not the last. If you try to publish that AP story in your newspaper the next morning or as the featured story on your web site, it’s going to look tiny and unattractive to your readers. The next version of the story is when you give a little more than facts and stats. Your deadline is a little later, so you have the time to go to the locker room, get interviews, and craft a compelling narrative with more than numbers. You tell a story that keeps your reader’s attention.

Let’s look at a recap of the same game that was published online for the Salt Lake Tribune later that night and printed in the next morning’s print edition, written by Aaron Falk:

When Gordon Hayward’s old college roommate landed in Salt Lake City, he had a request for the Utah Jazz forward.

“He said he needed me to do some laundry,” Hayward said with a smile at shootaround Monday morning. “I was like, ‘What do you think this is, dude? We’re out of college.’ “

For the first two paragraphs, we don’t even mention the game. Falk gives an anecdote about Hayward’s college roommate. It’s light, it’s fun, it gives us a little chuckle, and then it acts as a segue into the bigger story about the game itself:

In the end, Hayward would have probably rather washed shirts for former Butler guard turned Celtics’ player development coach Ron Nored than deal with happened Monday night during a mini-Butler reunion at EnergySolutions Arena.

A second-quarter collapse doomed the Jazz in a 99-90 loss, putting them in a hole so deep even a furious third-quarter comeback and 26 points and six rebounds from Hayward weren’t enough to complete the rally.

Now we’ve reached the main hook for the story – what happened in the game. But because Falk had a little later deadline, he was able to go to the locker room and talk to players and coaches, which is how he found the Hayward-Nored connection. Details like that make your story stronger, and gives your reader more than a box score. It makes the game human.

Your second version of a game recap uses the advantage of time to provide your reader with a little more. Like anecdotes and quotes:

“It was one of those problems that permeates everything,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the Jazz had dropped to 16-29 on the year. “We didn’t play hard. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that, but we played soft as much as anything. There’s just nothing we did with any force.”

As a sports writer, you may have written your initial game recap while sitting at the press table during the 4th quarter. Then your second, fleshed out version comes an hour or two later after interviews. But you might not be done yet! Sometimes there are more stories than a single game recap can contain! Sometimes you find yourself in the locker room and find some strong stories that can’t fit into your game recap! So sometimes it means writing another feature story to run alongside your recap.

Falk saw another opportunity for a story while visiting the Celtics’ locker room. He spoke to Celtics rookie Marcus Smart about his matchup with fellow rookie Dante Exum, and turned it into a nice feature story that gave more depth to his coverage of the game.

Marcus Smart stared at the floor in the locker room, a steady beat leaking out from his headphones.

And if the Celtics’ point guard was visualizing his matchup against Dante Exum, the guy taken one pick ahead of him in the June draft, the rookie wasn’t about to say so.

The end result was quality, comprehensive coverage of a little Monday night game, but it was something that gave more to the readers. Sports readers crave as much coverage as they can get, so use your talents as a sports writer to give it to them.

It takes a combination of all of these things to be an effective daily sports writer – immediacy and emotion, providing the reader different things at different times. If you only give stats and numbers with no emotion or context, readers will be feeling empty. And if you wait until 12 hours or more to write your fleshed out recap, your readers will have lost interest. Your initial web recap acts as a promise to your readers of more things to come.

So when your freshman guard hits a game winner to send your team to the Sweet 16, you’d better get that story online fast, then give them a deeper story to read later.


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