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opinion

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young acknowledges the crowd after an overtime loss to the New York Knicks at State Farm Arena on Mar 11, 2020. Young is one of the best shooters in the NBA, but he couldn’t hit anything on Sunday.Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Leading into the first fresh sports content we’ve had in weeks, ESPN decided to loop reruns of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

There isn’t much to say for a spelling bee as live televised entertainment. First, it’s tedious. Second, it definitively proves you aren’t as smart as a bunch of 11-year-old dweebs.

But – and this part is crucial – even the worst spelling bee has been filmed by professionals. Actual camera- and-sound people who’ve gone to school for this sort of thing, working with actual cameras and sound equipment.

As it turns out, that’s what really matters when it comes to television.

Do you think The Bachelor is bad? Sure. Fine. Now try to imagine it if the actual bachelor did all the filming and sound mixing.

That is the awful position ESPN put a bunch of current and former pros in with its inaugural NBA HORSE Tournament on Sunday night.

“Tournament” is far too grand a word here. FaceTime interaction would be more on point.

The “show” – there are going to be a lot of implied quote marks here – opened on a shot of ESPN host Mark Jones broadcasting from what looks like his laundry room. Whatever it is, it’s the place where he keeps his souvenir jerseys and finest scented candles.

Working on a choppy laptop over a so-so connection, poor Jones desperately tried to inject some big-game grandeur into the thing. But you realize now how many little things are needed to achieve that – a soundtrack, crowd noise, visual busy-ness in the background. A guy in a closet is not capable of faking that Stones at Altamont atmosphere. Even the title animations looked cheap.

The opening pair of competitors featured Atlanta’s Trae Young against Detroit legend Chauncey Billups.

Young is still new to the league, so he hasn’t yet earned stupid money. This must be why he was working with a hoop in his driveway.

Billups has made his money and has a proper half-court in his backyard. Unfortunately, he lives in Denver where the temperature yesterday was -3C. He looked half-frozen throughout.

The things in the background – is that a doghouse? Why is there a huge pile of dirt over there? How many people are “isolating” in Young’s house? – kept pulling you out of the moment. Well, that and everything else.

There were more than a few basic issues.

Everybody understands the HORSE format – you make a shot, I make the same shot, if one person makes it and the other doesn’t they get a letter to spell the word HORSE – but the finer details of who did what when were lost on most of these men and women. Most of them probably haven’t played a serious round of this thing since they were children.

Because no one could see each other, further confusion resulted when Young tried describing what he was doing to Billups.

Nothing puts you in the mind of the Big Time like a freezing, middle-aged man yelling “Right side? This right side? Man, the sun is in my eyes” while his wife chases him around the yard with an iPhone.

Then there was the actual skill on display. That’s supposed to be the NBA’s big advantage. That its athletes do things nobody else on Earth can do.

But NBA players are trained to make shots in specific situations, from specific spots, while a very large opponent puts a hand the size of an iron skillet in their face.

They don’t stand behind the basket – which has been unhelpfully landscaped with small, uneven boulders – trying to loop the ball up and over, as Young did. Unsuccessfully.

Pros have trained themselves out of HORSE. As a result, things did not go well.

Young is already one of the best shooters in the NBA. He is a notorious free-fire type who will launch long-range artillery from anywhere during games.

But on Sunday, he couldn’t hit anything. He put up so many bricks, ESPN should lend him to FEMA so that he can help build temporary hospitals.

All of this might have been mildly amusing if it had been professionally put together. But instead, we had Billups talking over Young, who was talking over Billups, while Jones tried to inject the sort of lines that work in in-game broadcasts, but don’t work when you’re having a family Zoom chat.

The video was so choppy, this thing had more in common with the moon landing than a regular NBA game. YouTube has a higher transmission standard. You have a higher threshold for broadcastability.

This may be the first time I’ve ever watched anything and yelled, “Hurry, get in here. It’s almost time for THE COMMERCIALS to start.”

In this context, it looks as though State Farm has its ads done by Ingmar Bergman.

The quality did not improve with subsequent competitors, which was not their fault. None of them have ever tried doing anything like this.

So the first attempt at a live, mid-COVID-19 sports broadcast was a wretched failure. I used to believe that Olivier could do King Lear in a suburban YMCA and be magnificent. Now I’m not so sure. Regardless of the quality of the performers, the stage matters as well.

I should also say I watched it happily. I’ll probably watch the conclusion of this impenetrable nonsense on Thursday as well.

Because, seriously, what else are we going to do? Read? You always think to yourself, “If only I had a month to myself to read In Search of Lost Time.” And then you have that month and Proust remains up there on your bookshelf, untroubled by handling.

It’s become clear that sports will have to find a way to carry on under very different circumstances. It’s going to take a few tries before anyone figures out what works and what doesn’t.

HORSE on ESPN doesn’t work. But I salute them for trying.

At the very least, the NBA is responsible for the first professional sports broadcast of which everyone who saw it might credibly say, “I can do that, too.”