Wednesday, March 06, 2013
They say you need 10,000 hours of practice. I say that’s true – give or take 7,000 hours. It’s true in writing and certainly in learning how to do sports play-by-play. There is no substitute for experience. At least when you try to hone your craft as a writer you can do it inconspicuously. To learn play-by-play you need to go to a venue and announce the game. That means a recording device and talking out loud in a public setting. Not for the faint of heart. But you can’t learn it by just turning down the sound on your TV. You need your own eyes to scan the field and describe what you see.
I used to bring a tape recorder to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium and call games from the cheap seats. I figured, if someone was paying good money for a ticket they didn’t want some buffoon sitting next to them mangling play-by-play. But in the general admission section the seats were unreserved and if someone took issue with my announcing they could just sit somewhere else. Also, folks are so plastered up in that level they don’t even know you’re there. Forget that the players look like ants and the bullpens are in the next time zone. But that’s what I did for two years until I felt I was accomplished enough to send tapes to the minor leagues.
I also practiced basketball by going to Clippers games. Back then it was easy. No one came. I had entire sections to myself. I was running late one night and they held the game for me. Seriously, no one came.
But just because you don’t have a major league team in your town doesn’t mean you can’t learn your craft. There are probably college and high school games in your area. You can sit in the stands of a high school and call a baseball game (for you non-American readers – substitute cricket or rugby or whatever they play in your country).
My favorite story involves a young announcer (who went on to become a major league announcer) who decided to call a high school basketball game. He set up his equipment in the bleachers. It was a mid-week game and the stands were practically empty. The only problem was he didn’t know any of the players. So he decided that since this was just an exercise he called the teams the Lakers and the Celtics and assigned the players names of real NBA players. So one guy was Magic Johnson, another was James Worthy, another was Larry Bird… you get the idea. Pretty ingenious, wouldn’t you say?
So the game begins and he starts calling the action.
“Magic into the front court, right wing to Worthy, baseline to Cooper – turns, 10 footer… no good… rebound by Parrish, ahead to Johnson, left wing to McHale. He shoots a three-pointer…GOOD!”
Unfortunately, since the gym was so empty everybody could hear him. And by everybody I mean the players themselves. They found this incredibly unnerving. After about five minutes a time out was called. Both head coaches went to the scoring table and huddled with the officials. A moment later the announcer was thrown out of the game.
I’m guessing the players were really rattled. Or maybe just annoyed with the assignments. “Hey, why can’t I be Magic Johnson? Why do I have to be A.C. Green?” “How come I’m on the Celtics? I want to be on the Lakers.”, etc.
So again, when you’re writing your spec in Starbucks, you can do it blissfully unnoticed. You don’t have to call out stage directions. You don’t have to say:
“Bald guy crosses to counter to add sugar, cute blonde orders double latte and fumbles for her credit card. On her sheepish expression, we:”
Yes, it takes 10,000 hours of practice. But the time spent being escorted out of arenas, stadiums, or coffee houses counts. Best of luck!
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM