The same broadcast team calling back-to-back Game 7s in a 24-hour stretch would be an extreme rarity and likely a logistical nightmare in normal NBA Playoff times but, obviously, these are different times. Fresh off working the low-scoring yet thrilling Nuggets-Jazz decider, Mark Jones, Mark Jackson and Cassidy Hubbarth are turning right around and working tonight's Rockets-Thunder winner-take-all on ESPN.
Hubbarth, a host and reporter who has been chronicling her time in the bubble, spoke to The Big Lead about her experience, the journalistic opportunities it's presented, an increased reliance on shuttle transportation, and balancing the on- and off-court stories in an unprecedented time.
Kyle Koster: Did you realize how many oral histories you signed yourself up to be interviewed for down the line when you decided to cover what's going on in the bubble?
Cassidy Hubbarth: I knew I was going to be part of history in more ways than one when coming here but I don't think I was prepared for how historic these six weeks have been. I had talked to a bunch of people like Malika [Andrews], Rachel Nichols and Woj [Woj!] who were here before I was. While I had an expectation of what it was going to be like, you just don't know until you're inside what life is like. Interacting with these players and how they're dealing with everything that's coming their way is such a unique experience and one that I am thankful for not just professionally but personally.
KK: What does time feel like there? I have to imagine it's different. Is it a summer camp vibe? Do you feel like it's been years or just a few days?
CH: There's no time in the bubble. This is a line we use: the only days are yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
It's constant because games are every day. You just saw Jamal Murray last night on SVP be like 'we play Thursday?; And that's kind of what it's like for the reporters as well because we're doing something every single day. I have these two games in a row but if I didn't, I'd still be at the arena for media availability for a game I'd have the next day. For instance, I was at the Rockets-Thunder game two nights ago and that was my preparation for tonight's game.
It's a little bit easier now with more teams gone but the practice schedules are spread out across campus. None of us have cars so we have to go by bus schedules or shuttle schedules. It's every half hour or on the 45-minute mark. We are all on the bus schedule time.
KK: So it really is like its own civilization on its own clock. Do you have beat writing in your background because what you're describing sounds a lot like going to a beat reporting training camp?
CH: I don't but I have the utmost respect for them and rely on them when I come into a city to do a game usually.
My whole approach of coming was this: I have a 1.5-year-old, I have a husband who works 18-hour days himself, so it was twofold. I knew this was going to be one of the most significant opportunities for me to grow but that it was going to be hard to balance. Being here and my husband being very supportive and getting to experience the atmosphere has been very valuable for me growing as a reporter. That to me is what I was hoping to get out of it and I definitely have.
KK: On a day-to-day basis, how does the environment change the way you ask questions? A big part of the players' movement has been specific answers and solutions, so how do you tailor your questions to get specificity?
CH: It depends on who I am talking to. For instance Donovan Mitchell, he vowed to help support the education of Jacob Blake's children. He gave such a poignant and eloquent response on how his childhood shaped him. He is focused on education reform because, growing up, he went to a predominantly white school and there were times he said he hated the month of February because he felt like the focus was on him as one of the only black people and kids would make jokes and comments. He said that ignorance drives him toward a change.
You kind of get a sense of which players want to talk about which topic. After last week it was sort of asking what it's like for them. Instead of me leading them, this is a time for them to lead us and talk about what they want to talk about. That's been my approach.
KK: How about postgame, on-camera? Are you finding it difficult to ask basketball-specific questions? Do you leave things open-ended for them to take it where they want to take it? A big part of the conversation has been about players realizing this is their biggest platform and you could make the argument the biggest platform is immediately after a game.
CH: I feel like it's not my decision. We're trying to give them a microphone to amplify their message but we also don't want to force them to speak on anything. These guys aren't trained activists. They are taking on an incredible burden -- competing at the highest level, trying to fix the world. It's a lot to take on.
Sometimes there are some nuances. For instance, the first Clippers game after Doc Rivers' comments, I was planning on using my second question after the first quarter to ask him what he hoped would be the lasting sentiment after the last week of action. That was my intent going into it. Then Marcus Morris got ejected two minutes before that so I had to change it. There's a balance of making sure you're being respectful of them in this intense moment of a playoff game and giving them a voice postgame if that's what they want to do.
They're going to say how they're feeling regardless of the question so I still have to do a job to make sure I'm putting players and coaches in the best position.
KK: You're in the midst of back-to-back Game 7s, which is itself weird and made weirder by the whole setup. What's the atmosphere like? Last night was the biggest game of the year, but did it feel like that? Is the setting still surreal?
CH: The drama is what's happening under those lights. Yes, having the fans there would change some momentum swings. I talked to Paul George a bit during his slump and he said that was the hardest thing because there weren't fans to take you out of your head. As far as the intensity, though, you can see guys are competing at the highest level.
KK: Have you noticed a change in the relationship between media and players?
CH: Most things are on Zoom so there's no scrum. Instead of people yelling out their questions, everyone is raising their hand. It's been very different. Less chaos. And chaos, for a person like LeBron James, is part of life during the playoffs. He's not dealing with that now.
He sits down, answers 12 or 13 questions, walks over to a chair in room, waits for Anthony Davis to answer questions, and he goes back. That's not typical. He's typically swarmed constantly in the playoffs. As far as the media is concerned, it's a lot more structured. If you're on Zoom there are sometimes you can't ask a follow-up because you're already muted.
KK: How are you filling your free time, if you even have free time?
CH: There's no downtime. For the playoffs, I got out of quarantine on Friday, went to practices on Saturday and had two playoffs on that Monday. I went from having seven or eight games during the season to doing six games in six days.
KK: What do you think you've gotten better at with that increased and compressed workload?
CH: Relationships. Talking to people and digging a little deeper into aspects of the game. Exposure and repetition are the top ways for a reporter to get better and that's what you get here -- exposure and repetition. Access has also given me confidence. There are often times during the season I fly into a game and get there the night before and neither team has shootaround in the morning. There's no access, only maybe a phone call if possible. This environment has allowed me to be around players and coaches more. That turns into reports I can do or questions I can ask postgame.
It's been a valuable experience and it's going to be hard to go back when there are games not in the bubble.
KK: Are you spending more time with your ESPN colleagues than you normally would?
CH: I don't see them. They're Tier 2 and I can't have any access to them. I'm separate from them, completely. We can't even talk to each other in person, really. We'd have to be Every time I see and talk to them it's via Zoom.
KK: Weird. It's all weird.