For rookie announcer Battier, a very public learning curve
Mar. 11, 2015
Rarely has a recently retired athlete stepped right into such a high-profile television role as Shane Battier did this season on ESPN's "Big Monday" ACC games. And he's doing so in an era when every stammer can be instantly dissected on social media.
"Deer in the headlights" is how Battier describes his December debut, immediately thrust in front of more than 1.3 million viewers for a matchup between top-15 teams: Ohio State-Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It wasn't a good feeling, or a familiar one, to a player who won two NBA championships and an NCAA title.
Later that week, he worked the St. John's-Syracuse game. The next day, he drove 250 miles to Bristol to review video with senior coordinating producer Jay Levy and Eric Mosley, Battier's main game producer. The conversation has continued all season about the mechanics of broadcasting.
Developing a rhythm with the play-by-play announcer. Picking spots. Finishing a statement as strongly as it started. Injecting commentary with passion not by yelling louder, but by speaking with conviction.
When Battier defended Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals, he could lean on more than a decade as a professional athlete. In his second career, he had scant experience to fall back on.
"It's definitely been challenging," said Levy, who recounted that meeting in Bristol. "I think he's worked really hard. The growth from day one is light years."
Battier knew when he signed a three-year contract with the Miami Heat in 2011 that it'd be his last in the NBA, and he was soon plotting his future. While still a player, Battier took part in ESPN's draft coverage, giving network executives some familiarity with him.
Even without that, he was going to be a man in demand once he retired after last season, which created the opportunity to appear on a stage as large as "Big Monday" right from the outset. His reputation preceded him — a guy who's "cerebral," ''glib" and "hard-working," in the words of new broadcast partner Sean McDonough.
All that emboldened ESPN to make "an informed bet that he'd be able to do it," McDonough said.
As Battier himself puts it, he was known as a player who "never said no to an interview, never passed by a microphone."
But those skills, as appealing as they are to network leaders, don't guarantee a swift transition to TV.
"It's 180 degrees different," Levy said. "People think just because they do interviews, they can do this. It's two different worlds."
Analyzing a game is more like chatting with friends than answering questions, Levy added. Yet coming across as conversational on air isn't as natural as it sounds.
Levy has noticed that coaches often take to broadcasting more smoothly than former players because addressing their teams required a similar set of talents. The issue isn't Battier knowing the Xs and Os, it's explaining them — and doing that concisely.
"Give me five minutes and I can break down the pick and roll," Battier said. "It's much more difficult in 10 seconds."
He's gotten advice from ESPN college basketball studio analysts Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams, his former Duke teammate. The opinions now flow on air with far more confidence, Battier said.
"He's noticeably more comfortable and more understanding of the mechanics of it," McDonough said. "The basketball part you know. The TV part takes a while to learn."
His partner is "very much a work in progress," McDonough added.
There are still some awkward silences, some clumsy phrasing. Most former players start their broadcasting careers calling lower-profile matchups, with a far smaller audience to observe their learning curve, before working their way. As a rookie, Battier handled most ACC "Big Monday" games, which averaged nearly 1.5 million viewers this season. He's doing the ACC Tournament through Thursday's quarterfinals.
When McDonough, the veteran play-by-play announcer, speaks to broadcasting classes, he always tells students: "Part of it is instincts and feel — some people have it, and some people don't."
That's the unknown for even the most promising prospect when he goes from player to commentator.
"Very few people are naturals and hit home runs out of the gate," Levy said.
He has told Battier this offseason will be an important one. Like a freshman college basketball player hoping to make a big leap as a sophomore, the novice broadcaster "now has a better understanding of what it takes," Levy said.
Battier noted that he could have spent the next few years playing golf.
"I wanted to challenge myself," he said. "I wanted to make myself uncomfortable."