UK basketball notebook: Ex-Cats Azubuike, Mohammed take crash course in broadcasting

Former UK player Kelenna Azubuike, center, worked on in-studio analysis at Syracuse. "He  really had an on-camera presence," said Syracuse play-by-play broadcaster Matt Park.
Former UK player Kelenna Azubuike, center, worked on in-studio analysis at Syracuse. "He really had an on-camera presence," said Syracuse play-by-play broadcaster Matt Park.

Don't be surprised if you begin watching a basketball telecast in the future and are seized by what could be called a feeling of deja Blue. That man behind the courtside microphone will look and sound familiar. Where have I seen him before? Don't tell me. Isn't that ... ?

Former Kentucky player Kelenna Azubuike took a significant step toward being that familiar face and voice this summer when he participated in what's known as Sportscaster U. Each summer the NBA Players Association and Syracuse's highly regarded Newhouse School of Public Communications team up to teach a handful of players what it takes to be a color commentator during games, a studio analyst before and after games, plus ringmaster for on-court demonstrations.

To hear the man who heads the four-day Sportscaster U. program, Azubuike was the star pupil this year.

"The thing that struck me about him is that he really had an on-camera presence," said Matt Park, the radio play-by-play voice of Syracuse football and men's basketball. "Of the eight guys we had in the program this year, he lit up the most when the red light was on. Really good-looking guy. Big smile. Just had a kind of 'it' factor that not everybody else does."

Azubuike, who finished his three-season UK career 10 years ago, credited his parents, especially father Kenneth, for this "it" factor.

"I guess my parents are pretty bold and forward persons," he said. "I'm pretty bold myself. Everyone in my family kind of has a big personality."

Of the Sportscaster U. program, which began in 2008, Azubuike said, "Basically, everything is to get you to be yourself in front of the camera. Once the camera is on, you're thinking of so many things, your personality doesn't come through."

Azubuike, who returned to UK this summer and finished work on a degree in business marketing, wasn't the only former Wildcat to attend Sportscaster U. this year. So did Nazr Mohammed.

Public relations people with NBA teams he's played for encouraged Mohammed to participate in the program. Why? They liked how he fielded questions from the media.

"But it's a big leap being good in an interview and being part of the presentation and production," said Park, an adjunct professor in the Newhouse School. "And I think that's what Nazr learned."

To become an analyst on TV or radio, Mohammed needed to find the right "venue or format," Park said. When working a game, a color commentator must form and express opinions on the fly in, say, five- to 10-second bursts while not interrupting the tone set by the play-by-play announcer. In the studio, the analyst has more time to compose his thoughts, but also more pressure to be insightful and/or entertaining. On demand.

In any TV role, "You've got to know what you want to say before you go on the air," Azubuike said. "When you get in front of that camera, it's not the time to be trying to figure out what you want to say."

When asked how he thought he did at Sportscaster U., Mohammed prefaced his remarks by saying, "I'm a very critical person. I wouldn't compare myself to professionals."

A moment later, he added, "I'm a natural low-talker. They told me to project. It's TV. Bring extra projection and emotion."

Sportscaster U. took place this year in Syracuse's new $18 million on-campus Dick Clark Studios, named for the Newhouse School graduate and television icon thanks to American Bandstand and rockin' New Year's Eve celebrations.

The NBA Players Association pays the costs of tuition at Sportscaster U. The players pay their own travel and hotel expenses.

Saturday and Sunday were "heavy studio days," with the emphasis on pre- and post-game shows and halftime banter, Park said. Sunday was also the day for on-court demonstrations.

Monday brought color commentary on games. Specifically, ESPN provided video of Game One of the NBA Finals that had the announcers' audio stripped away. The students did color commentary with Park providing play-by-play.

Rich Rinaldi, a former NBA player who "recruits" for Sportscaster U., said that about 80 percent of participants get jobs in broadcasting. That might seem like a high success rate. But as Richard Sandomir, TV sports and business reporter for the New York Times, noted in a story last week, ESPN has more than 1,000 on-air reporters, hosts and commentators on its various television and radio channels.

There are plenty of jobs. But, as Park said of all these commentators, "They're not all Jay Bilas." He noted ESPN shows on bass fishing, drag racing, "the funny car thing they do and ultimate frisbee."

Besides trying to identify and/or improve on-camera skills, Sportscaster U. also seeks to determine how badly the players want to work in broadcasting. Mohammed was one of several players who expressed an it's-not-as-easy-as-it-looks sentiment. He noted how participants get thrown "right into the fire." Richard "Rip" Hamilton said he "felt like a rookie again."

Park said he challenged another promising candidate, veteran player Richard Jefferson, by asking if he really wanted to go to, say, an Arizona-at-Washington game on a Thursday night and get paid $2,500 (tip money compared to NBA player salaries).

In June, Sportscaster U. assigned would-be broadcasters to the NBA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Va. The purpose was not just to practice in-game color commentary. It was also to test a participant's willingness to do the homework needed to give expert commentary on relative unknowns.

For now, Mohammed, who turns 38 on Sept. 5, hopes to continue playing, but only if the right team comes calling.

"I'm at the point, I'm just not willing to play for anybody," he said.

Injuries cut short Azubuike's playing career. Now 31, he wants to pursue a broadcasting career. Toward that end, he sought advice from another former UK player, Tony Delk. Plus, Azubuike and his agent plan to send videos to networks.

Why broadcasting?

"Because I love sports, love basketball and I love talking about it with my friends," Azubuike said. "It just kind of seemed like a natural fit."

He should list Park as a reference.

"I'd like to follow up with him ... ," the Syracuse play-by-play man said. "If the SEC Network was looking for somebody or Kentucky's in the Final Four and they're looking for that hometown announcer type thing, he's the guy who would deserve consideration."

Pelphrey to TV?

UK "Unforgettable" John Pelphrey might move to television next season. Matt Park, director of Syracuse's Sportscaster U. program, said he heard through the agent grapevine that Pelphrey has expressed an interest in a TV commentator's job.

"A guy I think you'll see popping up," Park said of Pelphrey.

After being named Kentucky Mr. Basketball as a senior for Paintsville High, Pelphrey played for UK. He was among the players who stayed rather than transferred when the NCAA prohibited UK from postseason play for two seasons as part of the punishment for rules violations. A rapid renaissance guided by new coach Rick Pitino led to the nickname "The Unforgettables" and retired jerseys for Sean Woods, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and Pelphrey in 1992.

After his playing career ended, Pelphrey sandwiched two stints as an assistant coach for Billy Donovan at Florida around head coaching jobs at South Alabama and Arkansas.

As a UK player, Pelphrey gained a reputation as a "good quote."

"That's the first thing that identifies somebody as a potential candidate (for TV work)," Park said. "Doesn't mean they'll be any good. But it shows they don't shy away."

Curb your enthusiasm?

Former UK All-American Willie Cauley-Stein has become an example of how dramatically perceptions can change.

He went to the NBA Combine in May trying to refute the suspicion that basketball was not that important to him. With that objective in mind, he disavowed an interest in art.

Fast forward two months. Now, excessive zeal for basketball has apparently become an issue for Cauley-Stein.

A blogger for the Sacramento Bee wondered about a danger in Cauley-Stein crashing to the floor in attempts to block shots in summer league play. The blogger asked if coaches had ever cautioned Cauley-Stein about risking injury because of reckless effort.

"No," Cauley-Stein said in the blog posting. "I ain't never heard that in my life."

The Kings, who took Cauley-Stein with the sixth pick of this year's NBA Draft, will not try to curb the player's enthusiasm.

"I think Willie always plays hard, and I think he's still adjusting to the NBA game and style of play," Kings assistant coach John Welch said in the blog posting. "The one thing I love about Willie is every night you know what you're going to get. His effort is great."

First impressions

The New York Daily News noted 10 things learned from the NBA summer leagues. The list included:

Karl-Anthony Towns will be Rookie of the Year.

"While he's struggled to find his rhythm in Summer League, the top overall pick has shown glimpses — from perimeter shooting to impressive passing you just don't see in someone his size," the Daily News said.

■ Nothing in a summer league means anything, which echoes opinions expressed in last week's UK Notebook by former NBA coach Del Harris, Pacers' scouting director Jason Buckner and, to a lesser extent, Toronto Coach Dwane Casey.

"It's fun to break down successes and failures in summer league," the Daily News said. "Everyone is an amateur scout. But the games mean little (unless you're a fringe player) and the competition is lacking. It's essentially organized pick-up for the top rookies."

Fund-raiser set

Former LSU Coach Dale Brown will give the keynote address at a charity fund-raiser at Scott County High School on Aug. 8. Proceeds will benefit scholarships created in the name of Tyler Hicks, the late son of Scott County basketball coach Billy Hicks.

Tickets are $25 for adults. There's no charge for children 12 and younger.

The event, which includes a dinner as well as Brown's talk, is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

More information is available at www.tylerhicks14memorial.com.

Happy birthday

To Jules Camara. He turned 36 on Thursday. ... To Mike Slive. The former SEC commissioner turns 75 on Sunday (today). ... To Steve Clevenger. He turns 69 on Wednesday. ... To Jim Harrick. The former Georgia coach turned 77 on Saturday.