We huddled under the doorway to escape the rain as a little man with a walkie-talkie checked our IDs before ushering us into a back hallway of the Fedex Forum on Thursday evening, March 27. After receiving our credentials, we were pointed in the direction of the training gym where the NCAA had set up an impromptu media compound.
As we turned the corner, my heart skipped. This was my paradise. From wall to wall, cameramen, reporters, journalists and editors lined tables making last minute adjustments to two dozen laptops, cameras and equipment that I had never had the chance to see up close before.
When my friend Paul asked if I would work as a film runner for the NCAA South Regional Semifinals and Finals, my mind didn’t fully wrap around what that might entail. We would be taking memory cards back and forth for photographers on the court and, in the process, get to watch the games from the floor. That sounded good enough to me, so I agreed and, early Thursday morning, set out with Paul and another friend Spencer to make the six-hour drive to Memphis.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the forum that I truly understood the opportunity we were being given.
Paul’s father is a close friend of Mark Humphrey, one of two Associated Press photographers who would be working the games. To those out there not interested in journalism, this might not mean much, but to an aspiring reporter, working for AP is the chance of a lifetime.
Associated Press, one of the largest news conglomerates in the world, is commissioned by the NCAA with providing film runners for all media outlets who need to ship film during a game. What this means is that any photographer whose employer is uploading photos live from the game will send (or ship) anywhere from 20 to 50 memory cards filled with pictures to the media room upstairs during each game to be edited, captioned, and posted. Major conglomerates like Associated Press and Getty Images provide pictures for many other news sources around the country, so these photos reach massive numbers of people in the U.S by the next morning.
Our job was simple: sit courtside and wait for a timeout, run to the photographers to receive envelopes full of the large square memory cards, then run upstairs to the media compound to deliver them and return with fresh cards to be filled up once more.
What this meant was that, for at least 80 percent of each game, we were sitting right there in the middle of the action. Two of us sat on each end of the court next to the bands and cheer teams, waiting and watching an amazing group of games. We came expecting the usual intensity of March Madness, and I am glad to say we weren’t disappointed. Both the Dayton/Stanford game and the UCLA/Florida game were fast-paced and frenzied, but the real treat came on Saturday, March 29, with the Elite Eight game between Florida and Dayton. Walking through the tunnels onto the court, we were greeted with what felt like a sea of bright red and blue. The fans were phenomenally passionate. The underdog Dayton refused to disappoint, bringing unrivaled energy to the game even after they fell behind just before the second half.
The feeling from the floor was incredible. The entire game was so vibrant and competitive that we were literally on the edge of our seats from start to finish. And when it ended, the real fun began.
The photographer’s at Associated Press kept using the word “jube” over and over again as something they had to capture. I realized when the final buzzer hit, that what they were referring to was jubilation, and that may have been the only way to describe it. As fans flooded to the front of the stands and a stage was brought out by the staff of the arena, the entire Florida team, coaches, managers and families swelled into a rumbling wave of excitement. The joy coming from the floor was palpable. As media techs, we were allowed onto the floor ourselves and witnessed the unique ritual of cutting the net first hand. The players were ecstatic, the fans were ecstatic and the energy in the room was overwhelming.
After this, we were able to sit in the press room and watch the post-game interviews. Then, with a smile on his face, Mark Humphrey took us to the catwalks of the stadium to take down the overhead cameras. I stared over the railing at the floor 200 feet below and smiled. This was the best feeling a journalist or photographer could ever have. There is no natural high quite like witnessing what you love at work.
For me, that thing is media. Whether it is photography, reporting, journalism or editing, my passions were most definitely sated. For Paul and Spencer, the thrill of the games and the players and people we were able to meet were an experience that could only be described as unforgettable. Not being much of a sports fan myself, I appreciated these aspects but was more often awed by the mechanics of an overhead camera mount, or the way the photos we carried captured humanity and joy and dejection in such a powerful way.
I was even told by Paul that the man I had bumped into twice during our two evenings working was none other than Reggie Miller, a childhood idol of Paul’s who later fist-bumped him on the floor.
Needless to say, we all have our own meccas of fascination and experience. For me, that place was the converted practice gym sitting two flights of stairs above the game’s action. For Paul, it was the court. Either way, the weekend proved to be one we will not soon forget.