By Cameron Song
Paul Hirschheimer, a Westchester resident for the past 17 years, has built a thirty two year career with the NBA by capturing the stories and drama of professional basketball through the eyes of a fan. “Hirshey” took his passion for sports and sports fandom and worked his way up from a production assistant, to following the 1992 Dream Team, to becoming the Senior Vice President of Content Production for NBA Entertainment. Many of the scenes you might have seen of Michael Jordan in The Last Dance were shot by Hirschheimer and his team.
In his current role, he directs NBA content across league assets on all media platforms, overseeing editorial direction and broadcast operations. In other words, what you see at home is what he sees first through a picture he paints in his head.
Despite having seen it all, nothing would have prepared him for 2020. The sports entertainment world was hit with unthinkable challenges when games were shut down, then re-imagined without fans. After months of planning, the NBA had to finish its season in a bubble in Orlando in an altered format. Widely regarded as a success, the games still delivered drama and gave its fans something else to think about besides COVID.
I spoke with Hirschheimer over a Zoom call to pick his brain about his team’s experience in Orlando and what we as fans might see in future league broadcasts.
Thank you for joining me to do this interview. How did you get into this business?
“As far back as I can remember in my life I was in love with basketball and specifically the NBA. In a sense, I trained to work here since I was a little kid, where I would read, watch, and listen to any NBA I could find. I steered my education towards getting into the sports television business, and have been with the league since graduating college. A career in sports was always where I wanted to be.”
So, my family watched The Last Dance on ESPN every Sunday night during the lockdown. Your team shot a lot of the footage used for the documentary. How did that come together?
“Our job at NBA Entertainment has always been to document the history of the league. We built and still build an archive of footage that positions us to do any kind of production. We can then create everything from a short form social post to a long form documentary, but you have to capture it for the library first. When Michael Jordan was playing, he was one the biggest stories, if not the biggest story in the world – even beyond basketball. So we spent many hours following him and had the privilege and honor to document every step of his phenomenal basketball career – on and off the court as you saw.”
Why did it take so long to release it into a documentary? How did it finally come together?
“Ultimately it just felt like the right time. It was a combination really of Michael ready to tell his story, ESPN excited to produce it with us, and the world ready to see it all. For us, it was the culmination of sharing Michael’s story with this ultimate 10 part series. In a sense it was just an evolution of delivering Michael Jordan content to his fans around the world. Back in the 90’s it was done through DVDs like Come Fly With Me, and Bulls Championship stories that we put together. This documentary was of course an entirely different level. The project was focused on Michael and Scottie Pippen’s and Phil Jackson’s last season together with Chicago in 1997-98. Phil called that run for a sixth title ‘The Last Dance’ and the team delivered one of the greatest stories in the league’s history. It was a fabled team, maybe the best ever, and certainly Michael in the middle of all of it as the most dominant player in the game at that time. That said, the series went beyond just that season of course and told a deeper story of Michael’s personal journey from growing up in North Carolina to his early struggles to become champion, to leading a basketball dynasty that will never be forgotten.”
Let’s talk about Orlando. Walk me through what happened when your team found out you were going to do games with no fans. How did you create a viewer experience that would not look like zombie basketball?
“It was a very challenging season. No one was trained for what was about to happen in the world. When everything paused in March the first thing we were thinking was how we had a responsibility as leaders to stay connected to our fans and to try to help them through this. We wanted to help educate our fans from a social responsibility standpoint what the virus was and how to approach it safely. That was the first priority – awareness. Shortly after that we started thinking about whether we were able to play ball at some point and how we would try to bring sports back, knowing all along the way that this was bigger than basketball. Those were tough times, but we really wanted to bring joy to people around the world. You can’t substitute what our fans mean to us in our buildings – the emotion and passion, but we tried for the next best thing. We worked hard to bring our version of the sights and sounds to the world and tried to make the broadcasts and our social and digital experiences as authentic as possible.”
Without fans, were you able to experiment with the production in ways you could not before? Did you have to rethink the whole broadcast with camera angles and the audience noises?
“We pride ourselves on always innovating, and it was a necessity here. It’s always a goal of ours to bring our fans closer to the game. That means new camera angles, more access, and customization. It was also important that we create an atmosphere for the players that came through on the broadcast. In re-imagining our game in Orlando, we’re always asking ourselves what would the fans want to make this special, and then do our best to execute. That’s what drives us on all our content platforms – not only the broadcasts but on platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Our fans are amazing and we just wanted to deliver for them.”
I saw the wall of monitors with fans at the games. How did the idea kind come together and how did you pick who was on there?
“The virtual fans are a perfect example. More than 300 fans each game were invited to appear live on the Michelob Ultra Courtside video boards surrounding the court. This was about bringing our fans into the game experience. If you couldn’t be there in person, the next best thing was to be there virtually. We worked with Microsoft to create this shared experience for fans that was seen throughout the venue and on broadcast. Our teams drove the decision making on which fans were in the seats rooting them on, and there became even a bit of a home court advantage as we had virtual fans trying to distract the opposing teams shooting free throws for example. Ultimately it was all about how close we can get our fans to the game.”
So the innovation from the bubble – all this new technology that was created – do you think you’ll be carrying that on for future games?
“We absolutely do. We have incredible partners in ESPN and Turner who are always looking to move forward, innovate and bring every cool technology option that exists to our broadcasts for our viewers. We’re always asking each other – what else? What’s next? From Orlando we found several new cameras that resonated with our fans that are definitely part of our working blueprint going forward – robotic cameras, rail cameras, unique angles which, again get our fans even more intimate access to our players and our game – that’s what it’s about – enhanced audio and customized broadcasts too. As technology and content evolve we want to be there to deliver for our fans with the best viewing experience possible. It’s the same focus on social media, where we get so much real time feedback on what people love, which guides us. The media world changes constantly and we need to constantly innovate.”
For the upcoming NBA Draft we’re not going to have fans right? What can we expect? Will it be like the NFL Draft?
“Yes I hope everyone is watching this Wednesday night on ESPN. It’s a must watch. It will be held virtually with Commissioner Silver announcing picks from ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Connecticut. The broadcast is in the innovative spirit of much of what we’ve been talking about Cameron. Normally we bring the prospects, who have dreamed about this day their whole lives, together to a place like the Barclays Center and that’s not possible this year, but we’re going to do everything we can to make this special for both them and our fans. We have several fun things that you’ll see like a virtual green room and we’re using hologram technology, which we think is so cool, but I think what you will learn is it’s all about the stories. The night is about the incredible journeys for the players from all over the world and how they all got there in their own unique way- the struggles and their commitment to become the most special athletes in the world and to be picked on this day – out of the billions of people on earth to end up as one of only around five hundred players in the NBA. It’s the ultimate reality show and they get their moment. One thing we’ve learned is there’s no substitute for capturing the emotion and the reactions of the players and their families together on their special night, and the broadcast will provide an ability for the fan to come along for that ride.”
What’s the best advice you could give to someone who wants to get into sports media or broadcasting
“Never underrate the fundamentals. NBA greats like Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and most recently Luka Doncic continue to teach us this vital lesson. Success is about things like preparation and commitment. It’s no different in business. Be the most prepared person. Know your subject thoroughly, know the sport, and know what’s happening in the media industry. That means a lifetime commitment. It’s going to take hard work, and reading is at the heart of so much. Read everything! There’s no substitute for this. Right along with that is to work on your writing skills. Whether you want to be a journalist, a business executive, in TV, digital, social media – whatever – being able to communicate in written form is critical, and a constant every day. And all of this is easier if you follow your passion. I’m with the NBA forever, but it’s never felt like work to me as I continue to love basketball and the media business.”
Alright, that’s, that’s pretty much it. Thank you so much for the interview!