You’ve likely seen the clip by now. Fresh off the Cavaliers unnecessarily close 100-97 win over the Indiana Pacers, sideline reporter Allie LaForce asked the best basketball player of all time for his thoughts on the passing of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. From the reaction on LeBron’s face, it was clear that he was only just processing the news as he heard it. Far from the usual softball “were you happy to win?” type questions, this was one freighted with real emotional weight.
After the game Twitter, as it does, descended on LaForce for a whole host of reasons, none of them terribly compelling. LeBron came to her defense with his own statement that he thought she was “very professional” and did “a great job.” That likely won’t stop the trolls, but it at least sheds some light on the situation.
Down in Puerto Rico, the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins were playing something vaguely resembling baseball. With the stultifying game heading into extras, ESPN sent their sideline reporter down to speak with Puerto Rican natives Roberto Perez and Francisco Lindor during the game. The interview was a banal as they all are, but it raised a question. Why bother?
Especially in basketball the sideline reporter is an awkward fit. Initially, networks deployed talent to the sidelines during football games in order to mine a bit more information and make observations that weren’t as self-evident in the days before ubiquitous cameras. Football is a slow game that generally features plenty of down time between spurts of action, so it was a natural fit. A plodding event can be easily enlivened with a bit more content. Even baseball is a somewhat more natural fit for added coverage. Guests in the radio or tv booths are normal, so Tim Kurkijan inexplicably sitting in the stands isn’t that much more of a reach. A commentator can take back over should something happen, or calmly interject a ball and strike count.
Basketball is different. Even postgame last night, LeBron is still in the midst of recovering from the incessant physical exertion demanded by the game. There is no down time in basketball, no 45 second clock for players to stand around and make arcane plans, no real stoppages unless a coach calls timeout. When the clock is running, the game is on. That makes shoehorning in interviews difficult. Popovich himself has become known for his taciturn and clearly vexed answers to halftime questions to the point it’s something of a running gag now.
And halftime and postgame are times when the ball isn’t in play. The in game interview or sideline reporter is essentially useless for basketball. A player who is receiving treatment for an injury is either plainly visible on the bench or has been taken back to the locker room where there is limited access anyway. Interviews with players are punctuated by gasps for air or long pauses while a guy who just finished a series of wind sprints tries to regain some mental faculty.
All of this to say, sideline reporting is an experiment that has succeeded elsewhere but largely failed with basketball. This isn’t on Allie LaForce or LeBron or Gregg Popovich and his non-answers. It’s just that the sport doesn’t fit well to the idea. Last night could LeBron have held forth just as well at his locker or on the dais? Obviously. Has any coach or player ever really said anything that wasn’t a platitude while on court after a game? Nothing comes to mind. Last night wasn’t some failure of the system or moral failing on the part of TNT, it was just a bad system being forced somewhere it doesn’t fit and isn’t needed.