In any other year, it would be the time to shine.
Bill Macdonald would be ambling through the tunnels of Staples Center and into the soft spotlight that drapes the Lakers’ center court. He would be shaking hands with players and coaches and producers and friends made through a decades-long broadcasting career. He would be setting up mics and makeup and camera lighting, preparing to be the sound of basketball’s biggest stage.
Instead, Macdonald, the TV voice of Lakers broadcasts on Spectrum, ambles through the mostly empty streets of Newport Beach these days. Without gym access, he fills the hours with long strolls through the shuttered husk of Fashion Island, longing for a purple-and-gold heartbeat that he thinks should be thumping throughout Los Angeles.
“We’ve been six years starved, and I have been loving this as much as anybody,” he said. “We understand what the deal is: The focus right now is on being good humans, being good citizens. But like anybody else, I’d love to have this season finish.”
Since the NBA season was suspended more than a month ago due to the COVID-19 outbreak, that sense of angst over an unresolved campaign has set in deeply with basketball fans in Southern California. That feeling is all the more poignant this weekend, when the postseason was set to start with the Lakers and Clippers among the title favorites – the broadcasters who would have been the narrators of the drama, as familiar to audiences as the sound of sneakers squeaking on hardwood, are feeling the sting.
The Clippers’ Brian Sieman calls the Thursday and Friday before the playoffs begin his “favorite days of the year,” spent exhaustively researching the team’s first-round opponent, diving into stats and flipping through features to tailor his broadcast for the series. The absence of that private ritual was tough to stomach for the Fox Sports West/Prime Ticket broadcaster.
“It’s a super bummer,” he said on Friday. “Today stinks.”
The Lakers and Clippers owned the Western Conference this season, winning a combined 73 percent of their games and sitting at Nos. 1 and 2 in the standings, respectively. The crescendo of the season so far was arguably when they played each other in three smashmouth rivalry games, with the Clippers winning the first two and the Lakers winning the third just three days before the NBA’s hiatus began.
For the Lakers, it was a long-awaited return to dominance after the longest playoff drought in franchise history. For the Clippers, it was perhaps their most serious contender ever. While the TV and radio voices have acknowledged that the need for public safety trumps their desire to return to competition, as some of the closest people to the campaigns, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss.
“It’s incredibly disappointing not getting to cover a run like that,” said Mike Trudell, who works the sidelines for Spectrum. “With a team that has a chance to win a title, there’s a higher level of intrigue, and you feel that chance to be at your best. It’s definitely something that there’s a big gap of your heart and your brain, where you’re wanting to try to fill it.”
The voices of the Lakers and Clippers are doing what much of America is doing: Staying home. While he’s filed written pieces in the interim, Trudell is playing two-on-one in his backyard against his twin 5 1/2-year-old sons who squabble over who gets to play as Kobe Bryant. Sieman has also found solace with family, racing through the Marvel movie catalog and enjoying lively dinners together that usually are rare in the spring.
While John Ireland has maintained a daily radio show on ESPN that keeps him busy, he’s also tuned in for old games: He admitted he watched Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, the clincher over the Celtics, three times in its entirety since the quarantine began (“it’s my comfort food,” he said). He’s also been dragged into another pursuit by his color commentary partner, Mychal Thompson.
“He’s been watching these stupid Lifetime and Hallmark movies,” Ireland said. “The plots are always the same, but he’s gotten me into it.”
NBA families who would typically be in different pockets of the country have enjoyed unexpected together time. Thompson’s children, including Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson, are in the area and able to visit regularly – “playing video games together like they’re back to 12 or 14 years of age” he said with a slight disapproving edge.
With his first season as KLAC’s radio voice of the Clippers suspended, Noah Eagle is back on the East Coast with his parents — his father is renowned Nets broadcaster Ian Eagle — and is filling time with family dinners and move nights. Some sense of decorum is intact: Noah says he has competitions with his father on who has the better hairstyle for the day.
“It’s a big adjustment for both of us, but moreso for him because he’s been in the business for a while,” he said. “He’s very routine-oriented, and just knows, ‘I have this very specific thing from here to here, then I get my time off.’ … We didn’t realize that we’d both be shifting our livelihoods this early in the year.”
The Clippers and Lakers both played their final games on March 10, a day when many of the broadcasters assumed the NBA was headed for arenas without fans but still would be able to play. Macdonald said of the Lakers’ loss to the Nets, there was “no way we left the building that night thinking that was going to be the last game of the year.”
Trudell experienced the suspension of the NBA season differently, calling perhaps the last professional basketball game in the country on the night of March 11, a G-League affair in El Segundo between the South Bay Lakers and Austin Spurs. The NBA season was suspended just as the teams were about to tip. The G League played on. Trudell soldiered on as well, cautioning fans after every break that play could be called off at any time.
“It was just an odd, eerie sort of feeling,” he said.
For some, it’s a time to critique their work. Both Sieman and Eagle are in their first year in their respective roles, and they’ve listened to old broadcasts with fresh ears which helps lend perspective to how they called games and how they followed the story lines at the time.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Thompson doesn’t want to watch any old games at all: “It just frustrates me. We know what happened. Why would I want to watch it? It makes me more aware of what’s going on.”
While the NBA season was a roller coaster for both L.A. squads even before the suspension, the broadcasters couldn’t help but be enchanted by special campaigns headlined by the league’s best players. The arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George gave the Clippers one of their most exciting teams ever. The trade for Anthony Davis and the rejuvenation of LeBron James felt like a reawakening of the glory days.
During some of the Lakers’ bigger wins – such as an early-season overtime game against Dallas, or the back-to-back victories against the Bucks and Clippers in March – Macdonald said he thought back to his predecessor, Chick Hearn.
“Think back to Chick all the time, how much he would be loving this,” he said. “It’s like finally, this is where the Lakers belong.”
While NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged Friday that the league doesn’t have enough information to target a date to return, broadcasters remain hopeful. Ireland said he walked away from the season believing the Lakers were the team to beat, and he clings to hope that they’ll be able to resume a chase for their 17th title.
Sieman acknowledges that it’s not fun to imagine that he’s already called the last game of the 2019-20 season. But even so, he says, he believes the Clippers – who would return most of their key players next year – are built for long-term contention. From a personal standpoint, he frets the most about whether work will be the same: whether the broadcast crew will continue to fly on the team plane or sit in on shootarounds, which is where he picks up much of the insight he shares on TV.
“The back part of the plane is pretty tight – I miss that camaraderie,” he said. “You start to think when we come back, we wouldn’t travel. I could be wrong, and I would love to be wrong.”
The camaraderie these days is shared through texts and Facetime calls. Macdonald keeps in contact with Stu Lantz, based in San Diego. (“Everybody,” he said with practiced theatrical delivery, “I want to tell you Stu is doing fine.”) Ireland broadcasts his shows with Steve Mason through remote radio technology; he hasn’t set foot in the studio or physically seen his co-host for weeks. Eagle recently shaved his quarantine facial hair to record a promo for the Clippers – because even though the games have stopped, work continues.
Even the small inconveniences now are missed. Thompson has long lamented his commute from Orange County, but swore: “I miss sitting in traffic on the 405 – I don’t think I’ll ever complain about traffic jams in LA again.”
Eagle got advice from mentors before moving from Syracuse to Los Angeles that he should take his headset off and take a moment to appreciate where he is – in an NBA arena, calling pro games. It’s something he’s thought about during quarantine: While no one knows how the NBA will resume, where games will be played and even if the voices who call the action will be able to sit courtside, the day the NBA comes back will be one he’ll try to soak in.
“I truly have pinched myself every day of this job. … You want to take a second to really look around and think that this is something most people dream of,” he said. “This is a case where distance really does make the heart grow fonder.”