Christmas came early via gift of CBS Sports Classic

My unforgettable experience as a young reporter covering big-time college basketball

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Mitch Legan

Contributing Reporter

It's been a while since I've had an article published in the Oak Park Wednesday Journal. 352 days to be exact.

I'm currently a senior studying Radio Journalism at the University of Missouri. Whenever I'm back home in Riverside, I reach out to Wednesday Journal sports editor Marty Farmer to see if he needs any help with the paper's sports section.

Down at Mizzou I'm the education reporter for Columbia's National Public Radio member station. Whenever I get to cover sports for the Wednesday Journal, it's a nice change of pace from mid-Missouri politics and education.

My last piece for the Journal ran in January 2018, so when I offered my help I was expecting an assignment similar to past one. I figured nothing too big – maybe a feature on a local basketball standout or coverage of the holiday basketball tournaments taking place around the area.

So you could imagine my surprise when Marty got back to me saying he needed someone to go to the United Center to write a column about the CBS Sports Classic in December, which featured games between some of college basketball's biggest powerhouse programs: Ohio State versus UCLA followed by North Carolina versus Kentucky.

Talk about a change of pace! I told Marty I could do it before I even finished reading his text.

I mean how do you say no to covering three Top 25 teams, with the nightcap featuring John Calipari's Wildcats against Roy Williams' Tar Heels?

The short answer: you don't.

It wasn't until I sent my response that I realized I had never covered a professional or major college sporting event. I'd never even written a column before.

Sure, I'd learned how to at school, but I had never actually done it.

That didn't matter, though. It was a great opportunity and I was determined to cover the games, even if it meant learning on the job.

In the opener, Ohio State pulled away from UCLA with a strong second-half performance en route to an 80-66 win. The Buckeyes outscored the Bruins 47-36 over the final 20 minutes as C.J. Jackson (22 points,  7 rebounds, 6 assists) and Kaleb Wesson (15 points, 12 rebounds) paced Ohio St for the game. Kris Wilked scored a team-high 18 points and pulled down seven boards for UCLA.

In the second matchup, Kentucky defeated North Carolina 80-72. Keldon Johnson (21 points), Reid Travis (20 points, 7 rebounds), Tyler Herro (15 points, 5 assists) and PJ Washington (11 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists) all scored in double figures for the Wildcats. Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye led the Tar Heels in scoring with 17 and 16 points, respectively.

Considering this was my first time covering a major sports event, I'm not one to be giving tips. But I have a column due. Here's what I learned covering the CBS Sports Classic.

Arrive Early

Like most professional reporters, I arrived well before the first game started. I hopped in my mom's 2011 Honda CR-V and took I-290 over to the United Center.

The Ohio State/UCLA game began at 2 p.m., so I left around noon to give myself plenty of time before tip-off. After parking in the media lot, I made my way past the statues of Chicago Blackhawks legends Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull before getting to the media entrance – Gate 3 ½ – where I checked in. Making it through security, I received my media credential and was directed to the bowels of the United Center. For someone who grew up dreaming of playing at the UC, Gate 3 ½ felt more like Platform 9 ¾ (for you Harry Potter fans).

The excitement of covering my first big-time game took me past the media work room, past the Bulls' and Blackhawks' locker rooms, and straight to the court, where I flashed my media credentials. Before I knew it, I was on the hardwood watching the Buckeyes and Bruins warm up.

I paced the court's perimeter for a bit before spending most of my time under the basket where Ohio State was warming up. Even an hour before tip it felt like OSU was the more confident team.

Because I had arrived so early, I made it a point to watch the entire warmup on the court so I could get a feel for both teams. And it was a good thing I did.

Not only did I (correctly) get the feeling that Ohio State had come to play (they defeated UCLA 80-66), but as they were finishing warmups, a hulking seven-foot figure came over from the OSU bench to the basket directly in front of me. The coach picked up a basketball with both hands and lifted it over his head before dunking it with the ferocity of a No. 1 overall draft pick.

Show up early – it's not every day you get dunked on by Greg Oden.

Bird's eye view

The press box is an interesting place.

Up in the 300 level (commonly referred to as the "Madhouse on Madison" level) of the United Center, it provides reporters with space to work, an unimpeded view of the court and television monitors so reporters can also watch the game's TV broadcasts. But what is arguably most important is the reporter's view of the arena itself, fans and all.

While it might feel more natural to follow the game on television, turning the monitor off and taking in everything – not just the game – can tell you how something is going to go before it happens.

Kentucky's fans had traveled well, and it became apparent that they would not lose what was essentially a home game for Big Blue Nation.

It might be tempting to hunker down in the media work room and punch out a story, but by watching the game from the press box you give yourself the opportunity to report on aspects of the game TV broadcasts don't include.

Experience the game from the press box – you might realize that no, you weren't wrong about John Calipari the whole time, and yes, he is screaming the entire game.

In fact, you can still hear Calipari raving all the way up from the press box.

Enjoy the experience

Finally, you have to enjoy it. Even if it is a sport you've never covered or an article you've never written before.  

If you go in with a fan's attitude (but don't cheer for either team) and hope to enjoy the experience, you might just find that you have yourself a column just in time for Christmas.

 

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