Bruce Arthur can still recall in vivid detail the stillness and the silence that pervaded Scotiabank Arena over a year ago. The longtime sports columnist for the Toronto Star was in attendance on the night of May 12 to cover the deciding Game 7 of the hometown team’s second-round playoff series. The score was knotted at 90-all and a mere 4.2 seconds remained on the clock when the Raptors’ star forward, Kawhi Leonard, launched a high-arcing, seemingly impossible fadeaway jumper deep from the right corner.
As the ball clanged four times around the rim and the buzzer sounded, Leonard squatted down low on the baseline, waiting and watching for what seemed like an eternity. “I can still remember what it felt like in the moment before [the shot] dropped,” Arthur says when reached by phone. “The silence, the way everything stopped, and then the explosion when it actually goes through.”
Two weeks later, the Raptors toppled Milwaukee Bucks in six games, sending the team to its first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals. The resulting celebration extended beyond just the Raptors faithful packed in the crowds or the thousands more milling around in the public square nearby which was dubbed “Jurassic Park.” Arthur sprinted down into the bowels of the arena, and spied ushers who’d been working in the building for two decades. They were openly weeping. He also ran into Masai Ujiri, the team’s president of basketball operations and architect of the soon-to-be 2019 NBA champions, sitting by himself in a room. Ujiri was so overwhelmed by the enormity of what had transpired, he could barely sputter out a few words.
Their conversation became the lede of Arthur’s game story. Beyond giving his readers the nuts and bolts of what transpired—telling them who won and why—his job is to "bring people inside that arena to a degree," he explained, to draw back the curtain and reveal the all too raw moments of humanity, from the profound to the profane. "It's not just the game,” said Arthur. “It's those people and the ancillary emotional ripples and waves that come from it."
Of course, Arthur doesn’t have access to any of those arenas, nor will he be stumbling upon a trusted exec in a side room any time soon. Not while the league has ensconced itself in a semi-permeable bubble in Disney World, with only up to 20 reporters permitted to report from the inside. (Other pro leagues have similarly opted for a controlled environment in order to resume play. MLB and the NFL are going a different route.)
Last Thursday, Arthur was at home in suburban Toronto, watching Game 3 between the Raptors and the Boston Celtics—another contest decided by a thrilling, last-second heave. He spent the night with two computer screens open—one set to the game broadcast and another to bang out his story. Once the final buzzer sounded, he logged into Zoom, toggling between channels in the Raptors' locker room and the postgame presser, trying to cull as much info as he can and get in a pertinent question.
Anyone who’s spent the last six months longing for unmediated contact with friends, with family, or even total strangers, will recognize the sense of exasperation the limits and challenges of technology brought Arthur. “Whatever you lose in that translation—it’s not the same,” he said.
This is not to suggest that when it comes to sports, in the NBA or any of the leagues that have been slowly but surely returning to action, reporting has been waylaid. Far from it. Sports writers are continuing to crank out yeoman work on a daily basis. They’ve done so in an industry hemorrhaging staff jobs and decimated by layoffs over the last six months, and even before the NBA and MLB restarted their respective seasons. As has been the case for millions of Americans in other fields, they’ve had to shift entirely to remote, online work.
For beat reporters and columnists who once had a job dependent on their constant presence at both home and road games, practices, press conferences, and more, navigating the lockdowns and social distancing measures have required adaptation, creativity, and flexibility.
Mike Vorkunov covers the New York Knicks for The Athletic. Since March, he’s turned one of the two bedrooms in the apartment he shares with his wife and 18-month-old daughter into his office. Working from home has meant trying to draw lines whenever possible between work and time off— but as so many have learned, those barriers can become blurred if not obliterated altogether. On more than one occasion, phone calls have been interrupted by his daughter crying in the background.
“We’re all trying to make this work,” he said. “We don't have the hardest job in the world, but juggling everything can be difficult.”
Normally, the NBA calendar provides a clear framework for a beat reporter’s sometimes grueling schedule. Over the course of 11 months, the grind of the 82-game regular season soon morphs into the draft and then whipsaws directly into free agency. By the time the Summer League schedule has concluded, within a month, the whole kit and caboodle will have revved up again.
New York was one of eight teams excluded from the abbreviated season and postseason, and failed to address the media at any point between March 12 until late July when they hired a new coach. Facing a dearth of actual news—let alone games—has compelled Vorkunov to dig deep for story ideas. "At some point I realized I can't write about the Knicks anymore,” he said. “There's nothing left to write."
The process has been hampered by the lack of face-to-face interactions. Before, Vorkunov’s daily routine would bring him into contact with any number of possible interview subjects, both inside and outside the locker room. Now he’s been cold-calling possible sources or reaching out to those he’d never met face-to-face.
“The best way to talk to people, to gain someone's trust, is in person, where you can have a normal human interaction,” Vorkunov lamented. “That’s disappeared.”
With no Knicks games to write about, he’s expanded his portfolio to include detailed analysis of players and strategies derived from digging into game film or poring through advanced stats. That’s a beat Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight.com knows well. When he was with The Wall Street Journal in the middle of the decade, Herring made his bones by introducing statistical analysis which had been proliferating online to daily hoops coverage. Much of his work schedule over the last six months has been devoted to his book about the New York Knicks and installing a few exercise machines in his Chicago apartment to make up for the lack of gym time. “I’m treating this like I’m an 80-year-old man,” he said.
Even so, being over 1,000 miles away from the nearest post-game scrum still triggers an old, paranoid tic for Herring: his habit of scanning the room to see which player might be huddled off to the side, offering up a choice nugget to which reporter, or spotting a colleague who’s perfected the time-honored journalistic practice of sidling. While he had no desire to join the bubble, exorbitant five-figure price tag for the full, three-month stay or not, on some level, “I’m jealous of the people that are down there.” Herring said. Both he and Arthur worried about what might fall by the wayside now that almost all of their interactions are mediated by screens
“That's the thing we're all cognizant of and worried about—not being there for that.” he said. (Herring, Arthur, and Vorkunov all made it explicitly clear that they were in no way seeking sympathy. To a man, they considered themselves incredibly fortunate to still be employed, difficulties and professional stresses notwithstanding.)
Like the games themselves, the virtual fan-festooned event becomes to a certain degree flattened, stripped of its full import, and closer in to any other form of filmed entertainment, no matter how captivating much of the playoffs have been.
Sometimes, what’s missed is as simple and delightful as Bucks center Brook Lopez lazily thumbing through an Ian Fleming novel while waiting to be interviewed, or a candid video of a player’s young child scampering down the hallway of a Disney World hotel, smiling, her arms akimbo, to greet her father after being separated for what must have felt like an eternity. Sometimes it’s being able to look into the eyes of players as they speak about their response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake one day before the NBA went on a wildcat strike. As Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated wrote prior to his own exit from the Florida bubble: “You got to see them. You got to feel them. The despondence of Fred VanVleet. The frustration of George Hill. That mattered. It all mattered.”
The Toronto Star was willing to send Arthur into Fortress NBA—at a five-figure cost—but he declined. With four kids requiring in-home schooling while Ontario works out the kinks in its reopening plan, Arthur didn’t want to go away for three months and then spend two more weeks in quarantine after returning to Canada.
“I’ll do a lot for my career but it wasn’t worth it to us this time,” Arthur explained.
There have been instances where Herring found it difficult to think about sports. “It didn’t feel like the most important thing in my world at times,” he said via text message. Both the pandemic and the George Floyd situation “weighed really heavily, and felt more meaningful.”
Arthur ended up ditching his chosen beat entirely. In mid-March, his editor offered him the chance to become the paper’s coronavirus columnist. Those four months presented an entirely new series of challenges: including becoming steeped in virology, immunology, and all the attendant fields impacted by a still-metastasizing global crisis. He’s only recently returned to covering the games. But in the end, it wasn’t much of a choice.
“It just matters more,” he said. “It was the story of all of us.”