Watching the Siena-Rider men’s basketball game on TV last week brought back memories of the Broncs Zoo (great nickname, by the way, even if Rider’s home gym is in Lawrenceville, New Jersey).
“Tight quarters” doesn’t begin to describe it, from the standpoint of a sportswriter covering a game at Rider, which led me to recollect a variety of professional settings and circumstances I’ve encountered over the years that were less than ideal, maybe hazardous or compromised your ability to do your job, or simply were … weird.
Naturally, there are new rules and set-ups for the way we cover live sports these days, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the desire to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
I was at the UMBC-Vermont women’s basketball game at UAlbany’s SEFCU Arena on Jan. 3, and at one point, the ball bounced out of bounds and was caught by someone at the scorer’s table.
A guy in a purple UAlbany shirt and purple gloves immediately trotted over to retrieve the ball and whisk it out of circulation for the rest of the game, having been handled by an outsider.
Never saw that before.
I went to the Siena men’s game against Saint Peter’s at the ARC on Friday night, in part to see this beast of a team in person, but also to experience the media accommodations. You filled out a digital survey (“No,” “No,” “No” …), the little screen took your temperature (“96.89”) and we were socially distanced at the top of the bleachers.
The national anthem was a recording of Lady Gaga from President Joe Biden’s inauguration, a nice touch. A few players from each team kneeled, freshman Colin Golson Jr. and junior Jackson Stormo for Siena.
Masks on at all times. Postgame interviews via Zoom.
These are, of course, reasonable, sensible, necessary impositions.
But if you’ve done this job long enough, you’re bound to have run into some situations that test your adaptability and resourcefulness, COVID or no COVID.
Here’s 10 that come to mind from my 30-plus years at the Gazette:
1. BRONCS ZOO
Alumni Gymnasium at Rider seats 1,650, and press row when I was there for a Siena game a dozen years ago was positioned along one of the baselines.
Which is fine, as long as there is some working space behind the basket. At the Broncs Zoo, there is not. Like, not an inch.
Press row was so close to the court that I spent the game waiting for an errant pass — or human body — to come flying into my face.
Made it out with all my teeth and an unbloodied nose.
2. CARRIER DOME
The first Siena men’s basketball game I ever covered as a beat reporter was on the road and part of Syracuse’s season-opening tournament in 2007.
Like at Rider, the auxiliary press area was behind a baseline, but presented a different challenge, considering the SU band was right behind us. Kept waiting for a trombone slide to pop me in the back of the skull.
Made it out with my hearing intact. Barely.
3. FORDHAM UNIVERSITY
Another Siena road game.
Fordham didn’t really have a press row, so they put the two of us covering the game at a folding table. In the mezzanine. In the corner. And no power.
Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that spot had a double steel railing to keep people from falling to their doom and also prevented us from seeing the game.
Made it out with a longer neck.
4. POPCORN EXPLOSION
When I first started covering the Albany Patroons, in 1989, they were still playing at the Washington Avenue Armory.
The media would get a voucher for a box of popcorn before the game, and one night, during the pregame layup line, I had just reached into the box when a wayward ball bounced our way and wiped out the whole box, leaving me with my hand still poised over the table with a couple kernels in my fingers.
Willie McDuffie, the Patroons’ 6-foot-9 center, hustled over and apologized as he retrieved the ball (who lets a ball get that far away during the layup line?), and in the lockerroom, Steve Shurina, the former St. John’s guard, came over to me laughing and said that was the funniest thing he ever saw.
5. BEER ME
The popcorn explosion was an accident; the beer bottle at the New Haven Coliseum was not.
I helped Mike Kane cover the Adirondack Red Wings’ Calder Cup run in 1989, which took us to New Haven, Connecticut, for the championship series.
“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses was still in heavy rotation on the radio, and was adopted by a corner section of the Coliseum inhabited entirely by bikers in black leather. I went down and interviewed those guys for a fun sidebar the first night we were there.
Press row was in the front row of the upper deck, like it is for hockey at the Times Union Center, which means that there are rows of fans sitting behind you.
At one point, a beer bottle flew right over our heads into the sections below.
It wasn’t the biker guys.
I was back in New Haven last March covering the Union men’s hockey team against Yale in the ECAC Hockey playoffs and went down to visit the Coliseum, but it’s just a parking lot now, having been demolished in 2007.
6. THE WHALE
Speaking of Yale, the Bulldogs’ home arena, Ingalls Rink, is nicknamed “The Whale” because of its interesting curved shape.
That playoff series was my first time in the belly of The Whale, and it really is a cool place to watch a hockey game.
It’s also a very cold place, the coldest I’ve ever been while covering an indoor event.
Tim Wilkin from the Times Union and I had a competition to see who could complain about it more. Call it a draw.
After Union was defeated in double overtime of Game 3 to end the series and the Dutchmen’s season, we thought we had the place to ourselves while filing our stories. As soon as we sat down to write, a single figure skater came on the ice and practiced to very loud classical music.
The best part about that was when the skater would stop and start his routine over, which meant the music — did I mention that it was VERY LOUD — would also stop and start back at the beginning. Over and over and …
7. FIREBIRDS FIREWORKS
The Albany Firebirds pregame player introductions for arena football at the TU Center included blasts of fireworks, which was kind of cool, until the smoke collected at the ceiling.
This allergy sufferer spent pretty much the first quarter of every game sniffling and blowing my nose.
A minor quibble, yes.
Until a piece of fireworks gets stuck on a catwalk and just sits there, aflame, as happened one time.
It wasn’t dangerous, but the game was delayed while somebody got up there to put out the fire. Hey, we’re on deadline here.
8. FOUL BALL
OK, whining about the sniffles or a cold arena is pretty wimpy, but the foul ball that came through the press box window at Heritage Park was no joke.
I was covering an Albany-Colonie Yankees game and sitting next to the late, great Doug Dickinson, statkeeper extraordinaire.
Until night fell and the mosquitoes came out, we kept the front window open. One day somebody hit a sizzling foul ball straight back, and Doug and I did the deer-in-the-headlights freeze until the last nanosecond before ducking under the table.
The ball dented the aluminum back wall, and Doug calmly got up with his pencil, circled the crater and wrote the date and the batter’s name on the wall. There were a bunch of these dents, all circled.
Like I said, statkeeper extraordinaire.
9. SNOW GLOBES
Speaking of headlights, I filed a story from a pay phone in the parking lot of a closed gas station during a raging snowstorm in Utica, and needed the headlights of my car to see what the hell I was doing.
This was probably 30 years ago, before cellphones and the Internet. I was covering a Bishop Gibbons girls’ basketball game at Utica College, and they closed the gym and kicked us out before I had sent my story, so I had to find a phone somewhere.
Back then, we filed on Radio Shack Tandy 200s through couplers, two rubber cups that went over the mouthpiece and earpiece of a phone, with a cord plugged into the side of your laptop. The sweetest sound ever was when I dialed the number and heard that weird tone and the scratchy buzz that indicated that you were connected and your story was going through.
Then the fun part: whiteknuckling it down the Thruway home.
10. TURF TERRACE
OK, I have to sneak one COVID-related one in here. Just because.
Last summer at Saratoga Race Course, the New York Racing Association was one of the few jurisdictions in the sport to accommodate the media for on-track coverage.
One of the modifications to account for social distancing was to set up an open-air auxiliary press area in the clubhouse Turf Terrace restaurant, which Wilkin, Kane, Seth Merrow from Capital OTB TV and I used pretty much every day, unless the weather was crazy-hot and humid.
With no fans allowed on the grounds, we had the run of the place.
So did the birds.
By default, we became armchair ornithologists while observing the behavior of hawks, pigeons, robins, gulls and sparrows.
By default, we also became Tippy Hedren, but not quite in the same Hitchcockian defensive way. We didn’t have to fend off the birds so much as their excretions.
A dry piece of pigeon guano landed on my keyboard from the rafters on opening day. Tim and Seth were not so lucky, and both were bombed with the fresh stuff over the course of the meet. We would show up every day to find a new spatter pattern that the pigeons had left us.
Before the 2020 Saratoga season, I had never seen a hawk fly off with a baby robin in its claws, plucked right from the nest, while chased by the squawking parents.
Now I have.