Covering sports can be daunting at first -- watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and players. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the second in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during the game.
Add color and give insights to the reader when you cover any athletic event. In basketball that means watching the game closely to find themes and trends so you can reveal them to readers. Below are some ways to find these themes and some tips to invigorate your reporting and writing of basketball games.
[Thanks to photo-journalist Jay Grabiec for the picture shown above.]
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ Can focus on a key play, particularly if it took place near the end of the game
■ Can focus on an individual’s performance
■ If the game is blow out, focus on how and why one team dominated
■ Focus on a coach’s decision or strategy
■ Can focus on a stat leader, if the stat is truly worth addressing such as 30 points or a triple double. [Sports roundups, which are a series of 2-3 paragraph game stories, typically lead with a stats leader.]
■ Records. Put team records in parentheses within the first few paragraphs. Try to add it after you cite the school’s name, not the school’s nickname. And make sure you add conference or district records as well, when they are relevant.
Eastern (8-2, 4-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference) capitalized on eight second-half turnovers to rally in the final minutes.
■ Avoid jargon and clichés – especially those you hear on TV in prime time, baby. While they might be entertaining to someone who just viewed the play, such phrases are equally vague and confusing to those reading about the play after the game. So avoid writing that a player “found the bottom of the net,” “made two shots from the charity stripe,” “buried a 3-pointer,” or “dumped in 20 points.” Instead, you should write that a player made a short jumper, made two shots from the free-throw line, made a three-pointer and scored 20 points. You can be creative by finding unique angles, by focusing on an otherwise overlooked but key play, and by writing tight sentences.
■ Do not repeat the phrase “during the game” or “on the night” throughout the story. It is assumed that a player scored her 24 points during the game on that night. You can just write that Mindy White scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Also, there’s no need to write that a player scored 18 points in 24 minutes of play. Delete the final “of play.”
■ Avoid adding “a game” or “this season” every time you write “she averaged.” Average are per game or for the season.
Becky Carlson averages 20 points and Brittany Brown averages 18.2 rebounds.
■ Avoid playing off team nicknames by writing that the Panthers were on the prowl or that Warriors are ready for their next battle.
■ Avoid the cliché of saying the team needs to rebound from a tough loss in a story. Do the reporting to find a more specific, unique angle for precedes and other feature stories. Cite how the team is going to attempt to halt its losing ways.
■ Hyphenate compound nouns like field-goal attempts and free-throw line and compound-modifers like fast-break offense and slow-down defense.
Some other cliché phrases to avoid:
■ “Treys” – instead, use 3-pointer
■ “knocked down” a jumper – instead, use “made a jumper”
■ “came up big” in overtime – instead, she played well in overtime (and show how exactly the player did play well)
■ Boards – instead used rebounds
■ Avoid "got." Write that a player recorded her fourth foul or scored 20 points, not got the fourth foul and got 20 points.
■ Avoid tag lines on quotes. Let the quotes speak for themselves by using only "said," a neutral word the further allows the reader to focus on what was said, not how the words were said.
“It was almost the same kind of game as last year,” said Butler coach Beth Couture of the exciting finish. “I was happy with our composure down the stretch.” You would have already established that the game was exciting through descriptions of key plays.
“We played 13 minutes with a lot of heart,” said coach Brady Sallee, speaking of the overtime and last few minutes of regulation. “I look at the other 32, and that’s what will keep me up at night.” A quote like this should follow some description of the game, so the reader should easily understand the context of the quote.■ Games are not wars. Referring to them as such trivializes the magnitude of true life-and-death struggles. Avoid calling rallies or mistakes as fatal, for example.
■ Avoid holiday leads. Football games covered on Halloween should not be filled with players galloping or flying like ghosts or about a monstrous defense or a ghoulish finish to a game. Please, avoid these. Readers will get bored with so many references in so many games and copy editors will not tear out tufts of hair with each a succession of trite, cliched references. Find a more creative way to approach the game.
■ Passive words, such as was/were and are/is add unnecessary words and weaken your sentences. So get right to the point with active verbs.
Original: That lead was thanks to some excellent long-range shooting from guards Ellen Hamilton and Jackie Closser, who each hit a three-pointer during the 8-0 run in the second half.THINGS TO FOCUS ON/LOOK FOR
Revised: Guards Ellen Hamilton and Jackie Closser each hit three-pointers during the 8-0 run in the second half that gave Butler its first lead with eight minutes left in the second half.
■ Match-ups: How a team that presses fares against a team that plays zone, for example. And also look at individual match-ups, a guard against a guard, or a center against a center.
■ Adjustments: How does a coach make adjustments? Rarely, does a game plan have legs for the entire game. Coaches usually have plans B, C, and D. How do coaches adjust to minor and major changes in their original game plans. For example, did a coach have to adjust to how to defend against a trap on a ball screen, or to a defensive alignment by the opposing team. Try to see if a team changes its defense, from a man-to-man to a zone, for example.
■ Pivotal moments in the game. Game-changing moments.
■ Assists. Who fed the scorers the most? Describe the types of passes.
■ Offensive and defensive alignments.
■ Trends in either team results or within the game. The team might have won or lost its last four games by a single goal or by three goals. Or, the team may have lost the ball countless times at midfield or been called for penalties near their own goal.
■ Determine how a coach recognizes match-ups. Ask them, along with some players, afterward.
■ Leading scorers. (Cite the reasons for this player doing well, such as a defensive mismatch, or exceptional skills, such as the ability to make three-pointers at a high percentage or the ability to drive the lane and create shots.)
■ Is this the team’s worst loss, or biggest margin of victory? As always, seek to find out the reasons for such a great victory or terrible loss. You can also cite the last time the team lost by such a margin. (Check newspaper archives and speak with athletic directors/sports information directors.)
■ Locations of shots. Keep a chart to see where the team took (and made) most of its shots in a quarter, half or game.
■ Look for streaks in a game, such as those 8-0 or 12-2 runs. Cite the key plays and performers during the streaks.
■ Divide stats by half (or by quarters). Did a team do much better statistically in one period than the other?
■ Put summaries of key scorers near the end of the story. Only list the top stat leaders, if at all, since the agate will already list these in the summaries.
■ Look for stat trends. For example, tell the reader if one team has averaged 20 three-point attempts during the past six games. Find out the reason for this as well. Reading archive stories will help in finding such trends.
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the game and the opponent’s record, somwhere in the story. Unless the game is pivotal, such as a playoff match-up or a game that can determine a conference champion, you can cite the next game near the end of the story. You might also create a fact box that lists the next opponent as part of all game precede stories.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against this team. See if you can find anything interesting in the numbers.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the player of the game by describing how she played in key moments. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how a team appeared fatigued down the stretch by describing the action.
THINGS TO KNOW
■ College basketball games typically last 40 minutes in two 20-minute halves. High school games typically go 32 minutes over four eight-minute quarters.
■ Show up early for the game to record the lineups in your own scoring book. Check with the official statistician, managers and coaches that the players and the numbers match up. At high school games especially, verify the class standing and any team and individual stats for players on both teams. Record full names, numbers and class standings of all players before the game
■ Record the names of the game officials in case anything unusual happens in the game. Also, interview them afterward in such instances. I covered a state high school basketball game where a coach chased the officials off the floor and into their dressing room.
QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS/COACHES AFTER THE GAME
■ Ask what coaches, players were thinking during a key play in detail.
■ Ask what they were thinking during a key point in the game, such as a rally?
■ Ask them to describe your opponent, particularly those they guarded.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays.
■ How did they adapt to the other team’s play?
■ Ask coaches about their tactics.
■ How have these teams progressed over the last several games or weeks.
■ Introduce yourself to coaches before the game whenever possible so they will expect to speak with you after the game. This is especially important for high school and amateur games. You can also ask the coach his goals and how he expects the game to go, which could lead to a nice angle for your game story.