Breaking down game elements to create a compelling recap

I originally published this on Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center website in June 2011.

Let’s talk game stories, the starting point for all sports conversations and the most significant part of any sports media. Without games, there would not be debates, analysis, prognostications, commentaries or features. Without game coverage, sports sections would be flimsy, sports websites would not exist, and sports bloggers would have nothing to say.

Yet, game stories are sometimes given short shrift, especially at the local and college levels where reporters only cover one side of the story, walk into stadiums and gyms without much knowledge, and then take few notes on play-by-play.

That was not the case for most sportswriters covering the NBA Finals who filed terrific stories on Game 6 that revealed solid reporting, detailed observations, wonderful storytelling, informed interviews, and careful statistical analysis. These stories can serve as models for anybody learning to write a game story.

First, let’s review some elements in a game story.

  • Storyline – the narrative thread that runs through most of the game story, something that addresses the significance of the event, of a strategy, of a play, or of a player. The storyline keeps fans reading, even if they’ve already watched the game.
  • Context – explains the news values and offers key details, such as the score and the participants. Sometimes, this information, referred to as the nut graph, is included in the lede paragraphs for stories that do not take a narrative approach.
  • Quotes – comments from players and coaches reveal insights into key plays, approaches and performances. Writers need to speak with participants on both teams.
  • Key plays – descriptions and references to key plays illustrate how a team or player performed during key moments.
  • Key statistics – the most significant numbers, particularly those that help propel the main storyline or that clarify a main point.

Storyline

Nearly 24 million people tuned in to Game 6 of the NBA Finals, many cheering for Dirk Nowitzki, who elevated his game in the second half and led Dallas to its first championship. A large percentage of the TV audience also jeered LeBron James, probably the NBA’s most hated player after departing his native Cleveland for Miami following his hyped “Decision” announcement last summer. James fizzled down the stretch, shooting infrequently and poorly, setting up a perfect foil for Nowitzki, the assiduous forward. Essentially, that was the storyline for most journalists, a comparison between James and Nowitzki.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press compared the two primary players in his lede:

For Dirk Nowitzki, the resume is complete. He’s an NBA champion.
For LeBron James, the agonizing wait continues for at least one more year.

Meanwhile, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel led:

The end.
Of the hype. And the hope. Of instant gratification. And of vindication.
Year One of the Big Three ended with a thud Sunday night for the MiamiHeat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
There will be no capping of last July’s premature celebration over the free-agency signings of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Craig Davis of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel described Nowitzki’s reaction in his lede:

Dirk Nowitzki threw a fist in the air and flashed the smile he had been waiting 13 years to display. After shouldering much of the blame for years of Dallas disappointments, he will finally have his ring and vindication.

Context

The nut graph should address which teams played, where they played, when they played, who won, what the final score was, and, perhaps, a brief reference to how the game culminated.

Davis references most of this in a second graph that notes Dallas earned its first NBA title and had won the final three games in the series.

Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks claimed their first championship with a 105-95 victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. They did it by winning the last three games, including the clincher in Miami.

The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn inserts several reasons Dallas won into his nut graph:

With stellar shooting, strong defense, and execution to make up for a poor offensive night from Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks overcame Miami’s Big Three and won their first championship with a 105-95 victory over the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena.

Reynolds addresses the free-agent signings of James, Wade and Bosh in his nut graph. Like Davis, he also cites Dallas’s success in the final games.

A season that began with Miami celebrating the signings of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — along with the promise of championships — ended on the very same floor, with the Dallas Mavericks hoisting the title trophy for the first time in their franchise history after beating the Heat 105-95 on Sunday night. The Mavericks won four of the series’ last five games, a turnabout that could not have been sweeter.

Quotes

Sportswriters should not interview players and coaches from just the local team, otherwise readers will get half the story. If an opposing pitcher throws a shutout against the local team, for example, a sportswriter needs to interview the opposing catcher to understand pitch selection and ball movement. Therefore, to understand how Dallas shut down James in the second half of Game 6, ask the player himself. As James told Winderman: “They did a great job of every time I drove, they brought an extra defender in front of me.”

The AP’s Reynolds did the best sourcing among sportswriters, citing both coaches and seven players. He also includes Tweets from both Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and from James.

After a major sports event, you’ll want to get reaction quotes, such as:

  • “Tonight,” Jason Terry said, “we got vindication.”
  • “We worked so hard and so long for it,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “The team has had an unbelievable ride.”
  • “It goes without saying,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “you’re never really prepared for a moment like this … Neither team deserved the championship more than the other, but Dallas earned it.”

But you’ll also want quotes that offer analysis, such as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle’s assessment of his team: “This is a true team,” Carlisle said. “This is an old bunch. We don’t run fast or jump high. These guys had each other’s backs. We played the right way. We trusted the pass. This is a phenomenal thing for the city of Dallas.”

Key plays

Basketball is a game of scoring runs. The team that strings together the most runs usually wins. So you’ll need to keep detailed notes as you watch a basketball game, highlighting where a team outscores its opponent in runs like 8-0, 12-2, 14-4. You’ll also want to underline key plays and to determine how a team scored several unanswered points. Was it thanks to 3-point shooting? Strong rebounding? Transition points?

And which runs should you focus on? That depends on the game’s storyline, in many instances. But a scoring run that puts a team ahead to stay is always worth noting. Here’s Eddie Sefko’s take on the Mavs’ key run from the Dallas Morning News:

The Mavericks led virtually the entire second half. They had lost a 12-point first-half lead and were down 56-55 early in the third quarter before Nowitzki, who was 1-of-12 from the field in the first half, got going in the third quarter. The Mavericks scored eight consecutive points and never trailed again.

Most writers addressed two key runs in the second quarter – Dallas’ 8-1 run that padded its lead to 12 and Miami’s 14-0 run near the end of the second quarter that gave the Heat a brief two-point lead. Davis put these scoring runs in context. Plus, he cited key plays during each scoring explosion, writing:

This has been a series of runs, one team going off and the other answering with a topper. The Mavericks opened the second quarter on an 8-1 run, pushing the lead to 12 on consecutive three-pointers by DeShawn Stevenson off a couple of Heat turnovers. The Heat responded with a 14-0 counter that featured a pair of three-pointers by reserve Eddie House, who was playing in place of James.

The Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman characterizes a scoring drought by Miami at the beginning of the fourth quarter, using two scoring plays to bookend the dry spell. At the same time, Goodman distinguishes how Dallas increased its lead:

Miami went more than four minutes without scoring between a dunk from Wade with 11 minutes 15 seconds to play and a layup by James with 7:05 remaining. Meanwhile, the Mavericks took a 12-point lead with a run that included a clutch three-pointer from the shortest player on the court, guard J.J. Barea of Puerto Rico and Miami Christian High School, and then a layup over Heat defender Udonis Haslem. Barea finished with 15 points.

Typically, writers focus much more on the final minutes or innings of games. But that does not mean earlier action is unimportant. The New York Times’ Howard Beck synthesized the various first-half scoring runs into a concise graph toward the end of his game story:

A wild first half featured runs of 12-1 (by Miami), 29-8 (by Dallas), 14-0 (Miami) and 10-4 (Dallas), and concluded with the Mavericks holding a 53-51 lead, despite Nowitzki going 1 for 11 from the field.

Reynolds also addresses a few key plays not part of significant scoring runs, describing a jumper in the final minutes that helped hold off Miami.

Nowitzki sealed it with 2:27 left, hitting a jumper near the Miami bench to put Dallas up 99-89, and some fans actually began leaving. Nowitzki walked to the Mavs’ side slowly, right fist clenched and aloft.

Later, Reynolds, focuses on another key play that exemplifies James’ scoring inefficacy in the second half:

After James got off to such a fast start, he had two points in the final 19-plus minutes of the half.
James didn’t score in the second half until a layup with 1:49 remained in the third — his first field-goal attempt since 1:05 remained in the half. Kidd made a 3-pointer late in the period, pushing the Dallas lead to 79-71, and it seemed like the only people standing in the arena were the players, referees, Cuban and a few guys around the Dallas bench.

Key statistics

You do not need to recite every scoring leader in a game story. Less can certainly be more. Readers’ eyes will glaze if you offer too many statistics, especially if these numbers are packed together. Look for stats that might not emerge in a box score, such as a player’s shooting percentage in a quarter or half. For instance, a quick glance at the box score shows that Nowitzki made nine of 27 shots in the game for a paltry 33 percentage. Nowitzki shot even more feebly in the first half, making just one of 12 shots, before playing well in a second half where he made eight of 15. Always compare stats from each half or each quarter, if possible.

If covering a series, such as the NBA Finals, review a player’s, or team’s, overall statistics. Perhaps, you’ll notice that a player attempted only 20 free throws during the series, as Washburn noted of James. Or you might find key stats in press guides, noticing that a coach (Carlisle) is 11-3 in closeout games during the postseason, the highest winning percentage among coaches.

Covering a game can be the most challenging task a sportswriter can be assigned, especially if the sports event is scheduled late at night and close to deadline. In order to cover a game properly, you’ll need to research teams, events and players, put together a plan for taking notes, and then ask questions that prompt specific, insightful remarks. I’ll address these, and other topics, in future posts.

In the meantime, emulate the people you will cover. Like coaches, create game plans to prepare for writing a story on deadline. Like players, practice incessantly (and that includes constantly assessing the work of more accomplished writers). Good luck.

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About jgisondi

I am the author of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports," the second edition now available from Congressional Quarterly Press/SAGE, and "Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot" (U of Nebraska Press). Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition goes beyond general guidance about sports writing, offering readers practical advice on covering 20 specific sports. From auto racing to wrestling, author Joe Gisondi gives tips on the seemingly straightforward—like where to stand on the sideline and how to identify a key player—along with the more specialized—such as figuring out shot selection in lacrosse and understanding a coxswain’s call for a harder stroke in rowing. In the new Second Edition, readers also explore sports reporting across multimedia platforms, developing a foundational understanding for social media, mobile media, visual storytelling, writing for television and radio, and applying sabermetrics. Fully revised with new examples and updated information to give readers confidence in covering just about any game, match, meet, race, regatta or tournament, Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition is the ideal go-to resource to have on hand when mastering the beat. In "Monster Trek," Joe Gisondi brings to life the celebrities in bigfoot culture: people such as Matt Moneymaker, Jeff Meldrum, and Cliff Barackman, who explore remote wooded areas of the country for weeks at a time and spend thousands of dollars on infrared imagers, cameras, and high-end camping equipment. Pursuing the answer to why these seekers of bigfoot do what they do, Gisondi brings to the reader their most interesting—and in many cases, harrowing—expeditions. You can order both from Amazon.
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