When Mark Cuban announced he would let bloggers into the locker room, I wasted no time in applying for credentials. I posted a sample article on Cuban's blog, and I contacted the Mavs communications department person in charge of the press, Sarah Melton. As I've written on this site before, I had contacted Melton in the early summer of 2007 for credentials but was turned down. This time I received the following email:
You have been approved for credentials. Which game would you like to attend?
I requested the season finale with New Orleans, and a short time later received the confirmation from Melton. It was at this point that I had to actually decide what I was going to do with my access. I figured I could go two ways with my approach: I could treat myself as a serious journalist and do bloggers everywhere proud by coming up with a hard-hitting story that I could only write with the access I was given, or I could write a behind-the-scenes story outlining my experiences and what really goes on.
To my mind, there are dozens of basketball stories written every week by credentialed journalists, but, besides this post on Hardwood Paroxysm, I can't think of one in recent memory that gave fans insight into the behind-the-scenes experience. That, to me, was a much better story for readers. So that's what I decided to do.
One of the first things that happened after I announced I had credentials was that I got a great email from Tim McMahon, NBA blogger for the Dallas Morning News. He said that it can be confusing getting around and offered to help me. I thanked him, and invited him to lunch the day of the game.
Shortly after that email exchange, I also had the great idea of including photos and video of the day. I do work with multimedia video lifesteam company Kyte, and I knew it would be perfect way to do that. I was also armed with a new cellphone, a Nokia N95, which takes spectacular photos and has an amazing video camcorder in it. I was getting excited about the process when I set up my Kyte channel the night before, tested how it would look on this site, and took my first video entry. Everything looked good.
The day of the game I met McMahon at the Hooters near the American Airlines Center. Tim picked the Hooters because he was covering the morning shootaround, and the Hooters was close. At least that's what he claimed was the reason. We had a great lunch. Tim told me how he got his position, some of the politics around the sports journalism world of Dallas, and gave me some insight on different players on the team and how they deal with the press. He also outlined where everything was, what happens at what time, and the various protocols for dealing with everyone. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Tim because his advice became extremely helpful.
At the end of lunch I figured I'd shoot a short segment with Tim to test the video, and it turned out well. The entry got posted in a relatively timely manner, and Tim's a funny guy.
Entering the arena
Tim told me that Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson's pre-game press conference is roughly 90 minutes before game time, so I showed up at the AAC at 4pm. With my credentials, all I received was a press pass and a seat in the press box. I had to pay for food and parking. There was empty parking for as far as the eye could see, but every entrance was reserved for one type of ticket holder or another. I finally pulled into a lot and asked where the general parking was. I somehow sweet-talked my way into a spot about 20 yards from the press entrance. Sweet.
Melton told me to pick up my press pass at the press entrance, and McMahon told me where it was. I have a lot of experience picking up special passes at things like concerts, where you basically go to a ticket window, hand them your drivers license, and then receive your passes. At the AAC, the press passes are picked up from women seated on metal chairs behind a folding table just inside the doors. It was the only moment the whole night where I felt things weren't presented in a first class manner.
That said, the people couldn't have been nicer. As I entered, a pleasant woman asked me for my name. I told here "Jake Kerr," and she hmmed as she looked over her list. I said, "I'm today's token blogger. I'm with Mavs Moneyball." Her finger ran over the list and she hmmmed some more. I glanced down, and that's where I saw the following:
Jake ??????, www.marvelous.com
I quickly said, "It could be under mavelous" (my old blog site), when she noticed the question marks and "marvelous" and replied, "Ah yes, here you are." I took a picture of my name with the question marks (to the amusement of the women handing out passes) with the intention of getting it onto my videoblog entry for a laugh, but I was in such a hurry the photo was nothing but a blur. So I gathered up my pass and followed the directions that Tim gave me to get to the interview areas.
My Spinal Tap moment
Tim gave me great directions, but that wasn't nearly enough. I found the elevator easily enough, but the bottom level where everything happens behind the scenes is cavernous. I had already decided that my key strategy was to follow the media horde. I figured if I'm following the right people, not much could go wrong. That turned out to be a major mistake.
As I walked down the hall, there are dozens of people with passes going this way and that way, and unless you stare at someone's pass closely, it's hard to tell who is press and who isn't. I did find a number of landmarks: The wive's room, the press cafeteria, the Mavs locker room, and the interview rooms. My goal was to follow the press to Avery's press conference, video tape it if possible, do a videoblog entry, and then follow the local press to Mark Cuban on his stairmaster, where I would introduce myself. Then I would hang with the press in the cafeteria and hit the game. Nice strategy, right? Well, here is what actually happened:
I immediately saw the ESPN crew with Jon Barry, and they were standing next to the only open interview room. I went inside to prepare for Avery's interview. When I was inside there weren't enough chairs and one of the cameramen said to just go next door and get one. I went and checked, but the door was closed. When I returned, the guy replied, "Don't worry about that. People are doing things in the rooms all the time. Just be quiet, grab a chair, and come back." I decided that standing was better than potentially annoying someone, so I just picked a spot in the rear and stood.
As I was getting my camera prepared to videotape the interview, I realized that I was so deep inside the AAC that I didn't have AT&T 3G data access. I knew that I could get wireless access from the press department, so I took a quick video of camera team for color and then fiddled with the wireless access of my cell phone. In the middle of this, coach Byron Scott of the Hornets came in and started his interview with ESPN.
Byron Scott? Where was Avery Johnson? I was also unsure if I was allowed to videotape Scott, as he was being interviewed one-on-one by ESPN. This was not a press conference. As the interview ended, a journalist from the side tossed a question at Scott, and that's when I realized that this was basically an organized free-for-all. There was an initial structure, but beyond that it was every one for themselves. This turned out to be true for the entire press experience.
At this point I badly wanted to find the Avery Johnson press conference, but the other two interview doors were closed. I also had to fix my Internet access. As I was figuring out what I should do, Bob Ortegal opened the doors of one of the interview rooms and walked out, followed by a Fox Sports anchor. I assumed that I had just missed the Avery Johnson press conference, which was behind closed doors. With that opportunity missed, I wanted to see if I could see Mark Cuban and perhaps ask him a question while he rode his stairmaster. But no matter where I looked, no press person seemed to be heading in a specific direction, and I had no idea where Cuban did his exercise.
Fixing the connection
I decided my biggest priority at this point was to get my Internet connection issue fixed, as my whole videoblogging the event idea would fizzle out if I couldn't send video updates. I went into the Dallas Mavericks office and asked someone at the front desk. He pointed to the woman next to him, and she gave me the login and password. Success!
As I tried to set up my wireless access, however, I found that there are half a dozen networks at the AAC, I started with "press box" and attempted a few others before I gave up in frustration. None of them gave immediate access and requested a name and password. I trudged back to the Mavericks offices (which are the nice area right in front of the locker room). The woman who initially gave me the login and password shrugged. She pointed me to a guy working on his laptop behind the counter. "Art, can you help him?"
I'm pretty sure it was former Star-Telegram Mavs beat writer Art Garcia, who now writes for Mavs.com. Art told me to try "press box," but it didn't work. After some more fiddling, a young woman came up to me and told me how to log in. I tried it, and, thankfully, it worked. I decided to hit the press dining room before tip off.
Eating with the press
Press meals are $10. For that $10, you get a cafeteria style meal (I had spaghetti and meatballs), along with a dessert and drinks. You get two tickets (the standard tickets used in fairs and churches all over for things like raffles). The second ticket gets you a hot dog, a drink, and a dessert at half-time. If you're a lazy journalist who doesn't need to actually see the game, you can get your hot dog during the game any time up to the third quarter.
I did some video of the press cafeteria and took stock of how things went so far. It wasn't pretty. Of the goals I set, the only one I achieved was eating in the press dining area. How did this happen? The short answer is that, even with the help of Tim McMahon, there is too much chaos to effectively work before the game without experience or on-the-spot help from someone with the Mavs. As I didn't have the former, and I didn't want to bother the press department, I was out of luck.
Here's an example: I made the common sense move of going to the open interview room before the game at the right time. But I had no idea that things weren't organized in a linear fashion--interviews weren't done one after another in one spot. They are done all at once and in different places. In fact, interviews aren't even always done in the interview rooms. Shortly after Byron Scott did his ESPN interview, he was doing a more intimate Q&A for the local New Orleans press outside the Hornet locker room.
As I finished my spaghetti I suddenly realized that I had no idea where to sit for the game. Luckily, I saw Tim McMahon leaving the dining room and asked him. He told me that most likely I was in the Dallas Stars press box, which is way up in the rafters. I remembered Matt at Hardwood Paroxysm saying that's where he was, so I walked toward the nearest elevator.
I took a short break to film a video clip in the hall, mentioning how intimidating everything was. I should clarify here. I wasn't intimidated by the experience. I spent five years in Los Angeles writing a weekly column for a music industry publication, so it wasn't much different than things I've experienced dozens of times before. What was intimidating was the lack of information I had on how things were handled.
A Short Rant
I can only imagine how things are for young reporters from visiting press. The Mavericks press department hands out an amazing amount of information about the team, the game, and what's going on in the NBA. It would be extremely helpful if they also handed out an outline for the visiting or new press. Something like the following:
4pm: Avery Johnson takes questions in Interview room 1 4pm Byron Scott interview with ESPN in Interview room 2 4:15pm Bryon Scott takes questions outside visiting team locker room 4:15pm Mark Cuban available for questions in Mavericks locker room (check in at desk)
This is probably not necessary for 90% of the press, who cover teams the entire season, but for the occasional press team from Germany or Lubbock (or Mavs Moneyball!), it would be really helpful.
The Game Begins
I made my way to the elevator and all the way up to the press box. It wasn't really a box, so much as a long table with chairs behind it, separated from the regular seats. I was about as high as you can possibly be in the American Airlines Center. In terms of covering the game as press, you'd be better served watching it on TV. Sure you can see some off-the-ball and not-on-camera action, but not so much that you'd need to be there. Clearly, press access is all about player and coach access, not game access itself.
Press don't really have access to the players or coaches at half time, so half time is a mad rush to the dining room. There is a room next to the dining room where press can quietly write or send updates to their various publications or stations. So it was basically an organized scramble for hot dogs and electric outlets. I noticed as I got up for the third quarter that quite a few of the journalists didn't seem to be in a hurry to get to their seats. As I mentioned: Press access isn't so much about game access.
I would bet that behind the scenes at the AAC for a Mavs game isn't much different than what you would see behind the scenes at the circus. There were people rushing around, groups preparing to perform, and people like the Mavs dancers practicing while people would walk around them. It was another example of organized chaos.
I went to the elevator, and I once again noted to myself the most annoying thing about the AAC: The elevators are incredibly slow, as they stop at every floor and it takes a long time to get everybody on and off.
I did a few video updates during the fourth quarter, including video of the scene immediately after Jason Kidd got his 100th triple double. Thanks to my great Nokia phone and the Kyte service I was also able to chat in real time with the people at Mavs Moneyball during the game. If I was closer to the action I could have actually responded to chat requests like, "Get a shot of Bob Ortegal!"
Avery's Press Conference
When the buzzer sounded at the end of the game, I was finally able to use my "follow the press horde strategy." They all were heading to the same place: The Interview room where Avery Johnson was giving his press conference. While waiting for Avery to come in, I also had an inspiration. Kyte allows you to broadcast live video, and I had an advanced phone with a wireless connection--I'd live webcast Avery's press conference! And that's exactly what I did.
Unfortunately, I only had the phone since the morning, and I didn't know how to hold it for live video. As a result, I had Avery sideways on the screen for the first few minutes until someone on chat informed me of that. I quickly recovered, and for the rest of the interview I was able to do a live webcast of the press conference. After Avery's interview, I followed everyone to the locker room.
The one story line I wanted to pursue was directly addressed by Avery Johnson at the press conference: He said that the team felt mentally and physically better heading into this post season than the previous one where the team had won 67 games. This was a question I wanted to ask players, so the fact that Avery addressed it in the press conference made me feel good in following up with them later.
In The Locker Room
First of all, the Mavs locker room isn't nearly as large as I was led to believe. Don't get me wrong, it's a decent size, but it's not huge. With only a few steps you can make it from one side to the other. Matt at Hardwood Paroxysm described it as a hotel room, and that size is about right. I can easily see a handful more press making the room cramped.
Josh Howard was the first Maverick back from the shower. My immediate thought was that the whole process was rather demeaning for the players. They all come back wearing terry robes, pull up their underwear under the robe, and then get dressed. The whole time with women and men watching. The press are to wait until the player turns around, and then they ask questions.
As I outlined earlier, it's organized, but another example of a free-for-all. The players respectfully answer questions, but there appears to be no real guideline. You sneak a question in as fast as you can, and it's basically a mob. If you aren't close and don't have audio equipment, you're out of luck. The players tended to be patient, but if they were ready to go, they simply turned around, and... no more questions.
The very first series of questions pretty much confirmed Mark Cuban's assertions that there isn't room in the locker room for a lot more people, at least not with this bizarre system. For example, Josh Howard speaks very quietly. I was at the edge of a group of reporters, and I couldn't hear a single thing he was saying. Add a few more people, and all you have is more people who can't hear Josh Howard. It was easier with Jerry Stackhouse, who doesn't speak as quietly, but even he was hard to hear at times.
Brandon Bass answered questions from a smaller group of reporters. Terry had a nice crowd and was just as engaging and positive as he is on camera. Jet answered a ton of questions, but toward the end even he simply turned away, and no more questions were allowed, which pretty stopped me from asking a question.
I had figured before entering that I wouldn't ask a question until the professionals were done. I mean, if I didn't get a question answered, no one would be surprised or mad at me. But if one of the established press didn't get their question answered, they'd have an angry boss or an incomplete story. This isn't my livelihood, so I kept quiet. Ironically, the only Mav I asked a question was the biggest star--Dirk Nowitzki.
The other players had left before Jason Kidd arrived. He was immediately surrounded by a large group of media, and he didn't even bother getting dressed first. He sat in his robe and started answering questions. After a while, Dirk walked in to relative quiet, as everyone was grouped around Kidd. Dirk joked with a few people as he got dressed.
The first thing I noticed about Dirk was the ugly dark bruise on his ankle as he limped in. He's definitely one tough hombre. Dirk joked with one of the reporters who teased him back. He seems like a genuinely good guy. He also didn't speak in cliches. He answered as honestly as he could within the circumstances. One of the reporters asked Dirk the question I intended on asking: Does the team feel better heading into the playoffs this year than last year? I anticipated a "yes," but he surprised me and said that he felt about the same. I guess that speaks well of the confidence level the team has heading into the playoffs this year, but it scares me a bit considering the results last year.
Dirk mentioned his ankle hurting his lift, which has affected his rebounding. I had wondered about that, and I was impressed with Dirk's honesty on the point. I asked Dirk if it was improving at all. He said it really wasn't. This worried me as a fan. It's nice to know that Dirk is tough and playing some effective basketball, but we are looking at Dirk's ankle only getting incrementally better throughout the playoffs. So there you have my one moment in the sun with credentials: My asking Dirk if the lift from his ankle was getting any better.
Dirk answered a ton of questions, but at a certain point he said, "Thanks," and turned around. End of interview.
I looked up and Sarah Melton came over and intoduced herself. She was very pleasant and couldn't have been nicer. There was a "no cell phone" rule in the locker room, so asked permission to take pictures of the crowd around Kidd, and she said it was okay. We chatted about the blogger thing, which she said was quite the pain in handling. The press started walking out, and as I prepared to leave I noticed Eddie Sefko having what looked like a one-on-one interview with Jason Kidd.
With the game long over, the elevators weren't nearly as slow as before. I went up to the plaza level, walked through a set of double doors, and my press credentials were no longer in effect. I was a normal blogger again.
I enjoyed the experience, but I have to honestly say that I came away with an opinion not too far removed from Cuban's in regard to the locker room: The "locker interview" space is too small for many more press people to effectively take part. It's bursting at the seams as it is. Add people from the four or five Mavs blogs, and I could see a rugby scrum as people battled for positioning to hear what the heck the players are saying.
That said, access to the players and coaches are really the key point of press access. There's no better way to get insight on a team, its performance, and the players than to talk to them directly. You don't really get a proper perspective on Dirk's toughness until you see him limping into the locker room on a badly bruised ankle. Beyond that, there's only one way to really find out the story first hand: Ask the players themselves.
So do I want to get back in? I sure do. But if it happens again, I'll be prepared, and I won't sit back. I'll ask key questions. I'll probe for insights. I'll muscle my way to the front of the mob so I can actually hear what Josh Howard is saying. Yes, Mr. Mark Cuban, I will be that Joe who beats out the pros.
So, Sarah Melton, do you hear me? Can I get back in? Please? I promise I'll even wear a shirt that buttons down this time! I'll be patient. You have my email address; just send me an email. I'll be waiting.