Behind The ScenesCOVID-19NBAWho Does That?Working @ ESPN

Ryan Ruocco recounts covering, reacting to the breaking Coronavirus NBA news

"We need to calmly convey the news to our audience; we need to consistently update them on the news"

Last Wednesday, March 11, feels like a long time ago. As the country continued to monitor the rapidly intensifying news of the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, NBA fans were starting to hear reports of potential empty arena games or even stoppages in play.

That evening, ESPN was the national broadcast home of the Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks game – it proved to be the last one before the NBA officially suspended its season.

ESPN play-by-play voice Ryan Ruocco was on the call that evening in Dallas with analyst Doris Burke and reporter Tom Rinaldi – who got Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for instant reaction (see video above).

Ruocco took a few minutes with Front Row to discuss the surreal experience, the emotion he and Burke felt at the end of the telecast, and his objective in communicating the news to the viewers.

Even entering the game there was this feeling of nostalgia like this could be our last time calling an NBA game for a while. – Ryan Ruocco

What were you feeling as you entered the arena last Wednesday evening?
I felt uneasy. Normally when you walk into an arena there’s this feeling of welcoming where you are constantly greeting people and sharing high fives and hugs and feels like you’re basically reuniting with family and that’s one of the beautiful parts of being part of the NBA fabric. It already felt eerie because we knew we were on the brink of things changing significantly. Even entering the game there was this feeling of nostalgia like this could be our last time calling an NBA game for a while.

Tim Corrigan, ESPN NBA senior CP, reflects on eventful night:

“The event and studio teams collaborated throughout the night with timely updates during our NBA window. Ryan, Doris, Tom and the production team handled this fluid story with care, thoughtfulness and professionalism as did Scott Van Pelt, Woj, [ESPN.com NBA writer] Royce Young and our studio group with their reporting.”

How did you learn the season had been suspended and what was your approach in conveying that information to viewers?
We had been following on Twitter what was going on in Oklahoma City and at some point we got word that there was a report that [Utah Jazz center] Rudy Gobert had tested positive and that’s why he wasn’t in the game. I was in touch with our producer Ian Gruca who said before you go on air, let me confirm it. We were in a break zone and just as we were going to break, Ian said,‘Ryan, tease major news on the other side of this break.’ I thought the major news was that Rudy had tested positive. Little did I know Ian was referring to was that the season was being suspended.

After [SportsCenter anchor] Scott Van Pelt broke the news coming out of break with [Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski] Woj to provide more information, we shifted our focus and our approach was that there was completely different context to this game now. We need to calmly convey the news to our audience, we need to consistently update them on the news in case there are new viewers joining us, we need to constantly update them that we will have new wrinkles to this news as the evening goes on. So it was finding the right tenor of tone that was going on while also serving the action in front of us.

The final on-camera moment, Doris and I were both very emotional. I think there was real gratitude that we felt for each other that we had each other to navigate through those moments. – Ryan Ruocco

Are there any other anecdotes on or off camera from that evening that you would like to share?
The final on-camera moment, Doris and I were both very emotional. I think there was real gratitude that we felt for each other that we had each other to navigate through those moments. I could tell when Doris was talking at the end of the game she was getting choked up. As soon as we got off air I said it was really hard to not get emotional during those moments, and as I was reliving it, I did get emotional and choked up a bit. I think there’s that sense of teammates you feel connected to and also we’re all in this together. It’s not just fear that’s making you emotional, it’s this common experience that you feel so tightly wound to humanity and to your friends.

Doris Burke and Ryan Ruocco report from the Denver Nuggets-Dallas Mavericks game on March 11.
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