There's no other way to introduce our subject; Tim Capstraw is a Mid-Majority god. A Red Line legend. We offered homage all the way back in Season 1, after Game 59 of the 100 Games Project, but it took us five years to properly pay tribute, by letting the man speak in this space.
Mr. Capstraw was the head coach at Wagner College of the Northeast Conference between 1989 and 1999, and won the 1993 NEC Coach of the Year award. In 2000, he was the Metropolitan Basketball Writers' "Good Guy of the Year." It was this latter quality that served him best in his transition to the broadcast booth, because he's real good at it. He's been doing color commentary for Northeast Conference television games for the past decade, and hosts the legendary "Holding Court" segment on NEC broadcasts. He became the radio commentator for the New Jersey Nets in 2002, and wowed audiences with his grasp of foreign pronunciation and world knowledge with his work on Euroleague and FIBA championship games for NBA TV.
We caught up with "Capper" on the phone Wednesday before the Nets played the Utah Jazz. We talked about the legacy of "Holding Court" and what the perennial one-bid NEC means within the grand scope of Hoops Nation. We also talked about broadcast preparation and why he never screwed up names like Tadija Dragicevic. We discussed the Nets' very NJIT-like start, as well as the team's former Mid-Majority star, Courtney Lee. Tim also shared some travel tips, and talked about the importance of finding balance between basketball life and family.
TMM:We've known of each other, but we've never really been able to talk before this, so I'm glad for the opportunity to personally thank you. Watching the NEC games on TV back around 2002 and 2003 was a real revelation for me. "Holding Court" showed me that it was okay to take conferences like the NEC seriously, that one could really throw oneself into this level of basketball and treat it like it's important... but still have a lot of fun with it. A lot of people at the school I went to, then-America East member Drexel, didn't take it seriously at all, and didn't even bother showing up. So, in short, you were a real inspiration for The Mid-Majority in its pre-developmental state. How did all of that start?
TC: Thank you, Kyle, that makes me feel good. I really cared, and we all worked really hard at those games and try to make them good. For a number of years, I used to speak at some of these writers' lunches in New York City, and I got a reputation for saying funny things. [NEC Associate Commisioner] Ron Ratner knew I had that in me, and he approached me with the concept of doing a halftime thing when I started doing color commentary for the NEC games. He came up to me near the beginning and told me, "Don't be afraid to go a little bit farther with this, as long as it's not too overboard. Because, hell, there aren't a lot of people watching anyway, and we want to attract some people if possible."
I had some ideas, but he had great ideas. Working with the NEC, and pushing the envelope like we did, really helped me in my career. It helped me get the job I have now with the Nets. TMM:I know some people in The Mid-Majority audience watch the games, we have a sizeable NEC representation. I reference "Holding Court," and the fans who go to Central Connecticut or Wagner or Sacred Heart know what I'm talking about. What have some of your favorite memories been of doing that?
TC: We never have a big audience for those games. But small-college people, the NEC people, come up to me at Nets games and they always bring it up. I always appreciate that they recognize the effort we put into it. We were always experimenting, so we'd always have three that were really strong, and then one that was horrific. The bad ones couldn't be any worse, but that usually made it even funnier. We did this one thing at the end of the year, we did a Survivor bit. This was back at the beginning of the decade, when Survivor was still new, and we turned it into a talent contest between NEC players. Ron put it in the highlight reel, I know you can find it on YouTube.
The best thing was that after a while, the kids on the teams started getting it. They figured out that it was about them showing their personalities, not me showing mine. It's never good when I'm doing a lot of the talking, you know? It's always best when they were playing off me and I was the brunt of their jokes at the end, or something like that. The format is designed for the kids to show a side of themselves that would let the audience know them better, instead of just another guy on another NEC basketball team.
"Holding Court" was, in a lot of ways, before its time. I see stuff on TV during basketball games now and think, "Geez, we were doing that 10 years ago." Once, I think it was 2001, Ron had me dress up in 1970's short-shorts and goggles, looking all goofy and running around. I'm telling you, two years later, there was an ESPN commercial with a guy dressed up the same way, doing the same act. Ron and I saw that and looked at each other, and said, "Holy cow!"
But it's always best when the kids are the stars. A stale interview with the chairman of the education department at the school wasn't going to get it done. Who cares about that, except for his wife or something? Why not have some fun, and let the kids shine.
TMM:OK, tell me about some of the segments that have been really horrific.
TC: The kids never looked horrific, I never wanted them to look bad. If that happened, and it did, we wouldn't air the piece. The bad ones are when I came off as too much of a goof, or it just doesn't work. Buy you have to keep trying, you know? Johnny Carson was best when his jokes bombed, because of the way he handled it.
I've only done two games so far this year, of the six I'll be doing for the NEC, but we had one between Mount St. Mary's and Robert Morris. These two teams don't like each other, they've split the last couple of championships and there's some bad blood. And we got two players when we taped our segment beforehand, Shawn Atupem from Mount St. Mary's and Dallas Green from Robert Morris. Two forwards who were going to guard each other. And I was trying to get them to go at each other a little bit, a little verbal stuff. But it started getting scary! These two players really, seriously didn't like each other. There was a lot of tension, which is good for TV, but this was... whoa. I walked away thinking, "That was really awkward."
TMM:A lot of people outside the NEC don't get a true idea of how fierce the rivalries are, how much people inside the league care. And even in the Northeast, a lot of college basketball fans don't really have a sense of what the NEC is, it seems to many like a formless glob with no specific identity that doesn't win a lot of NCAA Tournament games. Like, for instance, the Ivy League is the Ivy League. The MAAC is primarily small Catholic schools. The America East is lots of New England state schools, the "Cats and Dogs Conference." You've been around it for years and years... what's a NEC?
TC: I don't know that it has a perfect identity. It's not really a group of schools that all fit the same mold. But I think that's what makes it interesting. It is a group of different schools in a wide array of locations, each trying to have a quality athletic department. All I know is that whenever you're coaching in any particular league, it's the biggest deal in the world. You know what I mean? That league is your life. When you're a one-bid conference, there's nothing you think about more than your school and the schools you're competing against for the opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament. People inside of it never ask, "What are we?" The answer to that question is, "Twelve schools trying to be successful enough to the NCAA Tournament." You're locked in your zone when you get into conference play, and your life becomes these games, this competition, the chase.
TMM: Traveling around the league as a broadcaster for the last decade, is the league any different now than when you were coaching at Wagner?
TC: There have been a lot of significant improvements. The facilities are amazing at some of these institutions, really impressive. To a young kid visiting a school, the right kind of facility can make the difference. Wagner used to play in a high school gym, now they play in a nice place that's just the right size. Monmouth has a gorgeous new place, Quinnipiac's is incredible. Long Island used to play in the Paramount Theater, which was cool and a nice story, but it wasn't helping the program from a competitive standpoint. The addition of new facilities, and bringing in the Connecticut schools -- Sacred Heart, Quinnipiac, Central -- that all has really helped the league. The New England part of the conference is a huge positive, and Bryant is an excellent addition too.
There's also an abundance really good young coaches in the league now who are in that 35 to 45 age zone. I don't think it's been a league where the bigger conferences have come in to scoop up coaches, but I think you're going to see that in the next five to ten years. You're going to see guys moving from the Northeast Conference on to bigger schools.
TMM:I always loved your work doing the Euroleague games on NBA TV. Whenever I watched those games, you always had every pronunciation correct, you had an encyclopedia facts about obscure players and teams and resort towns in Bavaria and Luxembourg, and there were always those "I didn't know you knew that" moments with your play-by-play guys. And this wasn't Wikipedia stuff, either, this was deep knowledge. Either you're the world's greatest basketball genius, or you are the best-prepared dude in the business.
TC: NBA TV moved from Secaucus [New Jersey] down to TNT's complex in Atlanta, so I'm not really their guy anymore. I did that for five or six years. I loved that work, and I worked hard at it. It was a great opportunity, and you're right. Knowing how to pronounce the name of a guy from Serbia or China or somewhere else was very challenging. Especially if there was a tournament with three or four games a day. I can't do it halfway. Like how you do your thing, and what you say all the time... if you're not going all out, there's no sense in doing it at all.
Whenever they're paying me to broadcast basketball games, I think it's such an honor and privilege. I get excited about it. It's just wonderful. I never, ever take it for granted.
TMM:We have a lot of aspiring broadcast journalists in the audience, so what are some of the techniques and disciplines you employ?
TC: When I was first starting out making the transition from coach to broadcaster, when I was getting the chance to get on the NEC games 10 years ago, I found out that one of the hardest things to learn to do is talk into a camera and act natural. A lot of people see guys on camera and think, "That looks easy, I could jump in the booth and do that right now." But I spent a lot of time talking into a portable camera and playing it back, and I would practice commenting after plays when I watched games on TV. Why the play worked or didn't work, I worked on keeping it to five seconds and not rambling.
One of the nice benefits in working in the NBA is that it's less work, if that makes any sense. It's not as hard. I called a Nets game last night in Cleveland, then we flew home and we have a game tonight with the Utah Jazz. But it's the Nets again. I don't have to spend hours and hours getting up to speed on a team I've seen over 20 times. For the college or international games, I have to read up on both teams, learn the players, talk to the coaches and ask them what their keys to the game and priorities are. And I never start studying the day of the game. I study multiple days in advance. I study enough so that I don't have to look down at my cards during the action. You can't not know about a player while he's making a play, you have to make sure you sound natural. The game takes on a life of its own, but if you've done a lot of background work, the pace never overwhelms you.
TMM:I do want to talk about the Nets a little bit. Even those folks with a passing interest in The Pros know that New Jersey had a really tough start to the year, going through the longest season-opening losing streak in NBA history and a coaching change. We had the play-by-play announcer from NJIT on last month, and we talked about the particular challenges of calling a lot of losses, keeping it all-business and not taking it home with you. Did 0-18 weigh on you at all? Did it feel like it was never going to end?
TC: It is significantly tougher to call games when a team is struggling. But I coached for a long time, and I lost as a coach. Between losing as a coach and losing as a broadcaster... I'm telling you, there is no comparison whatsoever. [laughs] Light years apart. There's one-one millionth of the pain on this side of things. It brought me down a little bit, but my pain and my concern was not for myself. It was about seeing coaches that I like going through it, and players that I thought were good people not being able to enjoy being able to win. It wasn't me out there. After the game, as much as I cared, I had a job to do. And I could walk away from it after we packed up, and I could go home or to the hotel. You can't do that when you're a coach. When you're a losing coach, that baby is with you 24 hours a day.
Sometimes I had to choose my words wisely, but I work in the New York metropolitan area. We're supposed to be honest and upfront, because the listeners expect nothing less. We weren't looking to crush people or make things worse, but we were doing games from a Nets fan's point of view, and they weren't playing well. It was obvious they were doing badly, and we weren't kidding anybody. We told them the truth about what was going on.
TMM:One of the players on this Nets team is somebody we spent years following on The Mid-Majority. I'm talking, of course, about Courtney Lee, formerly of Western Kentucky. Here's a guy who came out of college after so much success, leading a team to the Sweet 16, and he's met with some real adversity right off the bat. He blew what would have been a game-winning layup in a pivotal Game 2 of the NBA Finals, and was an instant scapegoat. Then he was shuffled off to New Jersey over the offseason, and he started his second year on an 0-18 team. You see him almost every day, how's C-Lee holding up?
TC: First of all, anybody who can be a starter on a team that goes to the Finals is a heck of a player. He's going to have a very, very good NBA career. It's one thing to be a fifth starter on the Magic, where he gets a few open looks and there's not a lot of pressure on you, to being somewhat of a go-to option on a team that's struggling... I'd say that's a tough adjustment. He started off this year with a groin injury, so he missed a number of games. He got slowed down a little bit by that. He's come back, and I think he's benefited from the coaching change. He seems to be liking the more uptempo style, and he's more able to finish in transition. He's got a good-looking jump shot, he's pretty good off the dribble. He has a little extra space now, and he'll get that extra pass returned to him because Dwight Howard's not around. But he's being challenged a little more, and now he has to work through that and be a consistent contributor. That's the next step for him.
TMM:OK, I have two more for you. As you know, The Mid-Majority is about basketball, and it's also about making our way around this big Hoops Nation of ours. You get to go all over the 30-city world of The Pros. Do you have any basketball travel tips?
TC: Let me think... I pack my suits in Hefty trash can liners, they keep them from getting wrinkled. You gotta do that. Trash can liners. Also, take the free food everywhere. I'm sure you do that too. Oh, and when your clothes are wrinkled, you put them on a hanger right outside the shower. Get a little steam bath going. Basketball guys like me can't iron, so that's as good as it gets right there. Those are my big travel tips.
TMM: Classics, one and all. I keep forgetting about the bags, I'm going to go pick a box up from Wal-Mart later. And you're right about the ironing... I've sworn by the steam treatment for years, and I see a lot of wrinkly suits on press row so I know it's not universally known. Last of all, what are you doing for the holidays? I know you have a relentless schedule, I hope you get at least a few days back at home with your family.
TC:We have a decent break, so I'm thankful for that. After coaching at Wagner, I got married and had children. Our kids are eight and five, and it's Christmas time for them and that's big. Funny how everything changes in your life, you know? I loved coaching, but I love what I'm doing now. The benefits of being able to have kids, and being able to spend time with them at this time of year without having the wins and losses weigh on you, are amazing. That's what I'm going to try to enjoy to the fullest.
When I'm home, I'm home. You know what I mean? A lot of people in New York go to work every day, they leave at 6:30 in the morning and come back at 8 p.m.. They might not even see their kids. If I'm home, I take them to school, I'm here when they come back from school. It's a full day with them. Then when the season's over, I do a lot of summer camps, but my kids can come and be with me there. For the most part, you can go through an NBA season with two or three week-long trips where you're out on the road. It's travel, but its not ridiculous travel. Even take a guy like you, you go out there for months and then you're back home for months. There can be a balance there. Other people in other jobs might not be home unless they're sleeping.
Tim can be heard on the Nets broadcasts, but he's got four more games in his NEC package for 2009-10. If you have the MSG Network, Fox College Sports (or the DirecTV Sports Pack), you can see Tim call NEC hoops and do "Holding Court" once again in late January. Here's the schedule.