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Inside the truck: How ESPN handled Kobe Bryant's epic final game

About 19,000 people got to watch from inside the Staples Center Wednesday night as Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant scored 60 points on an absurd 50 field goal attempts during the final game of his career. Tickets for the farewell game surged into the thousands of dollars, if you could even find any to buy. 

Everyone else had to catch it on television. 

And watch they did, transforming an otherwise meaningless contest between the Lakers and Utah Jazz into a national spectacle. At its peak, more than five million people were tuned in. 

Here's how ESPN pulled off its portion of the evening — how the sports broadcasting behemoth handled a night unlike any other in NBA history. 

Two days before game day, Lakers coach Byron Scott confirmed what NBA fans and ESPN executives alike had hoped for: That Bryant would play a ton in his final game, probably more minutes than he had in any so far this season. That was, of course, "encouraging" news to Mark Gross, ESPN's senior vice president for production and remote events, as well as the team in L.A. tasked with executing the broadcast. 

But first, another internal decision had to be made. The Golden State Warriors had one game left in their season, also on Wednesday night; if they won, they'd set the NBA's all-time record for wins in a season. ESPN picked up its option to air that game, too, which pushed Kobe's finale over to ESPN2. Had the record not been at stake that night, Bryant and the Lakers would have aired as originally planned on ESPN. That's what Julie Sobieski, the company's vice president of league sports programming, told Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch on Sunday. 

The Kobe game would prove to be a bonanza for ESPN2, with Wednesday night becoming the channel's most-viewed regular season NBA game ever. The Lakers game drew a 2.6 overnight rating on ESPN2, just a shade less than the 2.7 rating that the Warriors record-setting win drew over on ESPN. 

Two hours before tip-off, though, play-by-play man Mike Tirico and his colleagues didn't know any of that. In the Staples Center stands as players warmed up and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea got ready for a national anthem soundcheck, Tirico said he'd never experienced a pre-game atmosphere quite like this Kobe sendoff. 

"The feel of this, even from our preparation, feels more like your preparation for a conference finals or NBA finals game, as opposed to the final game of the regular season between two teams that are both under .500," Tirico said. 

Tirico first called a Lakers game featuring Bryant on a Friday night in October 2002, just after ESPN acquired rights to show NBA games. Since then, according to a company official, Bryant has played on ESPN channels more than any other NBA player. 

But, said Tirico, "I don't think we've seen an event or a night like this."

It was approximately two parts NBA game, eight parts basketball theater. 

While Tirico, analyst Hubie Brown and reporter Lisa Salters called the game from courtside, producer Ed Feibischoff  and director Ken Dennis ran the broadcast from a production truck stationed in a parking lot just outside the Staples Center. Before tipoff, Feibischoff reviewed a legal pad covered in notes. 

PIN number-like codes corresponded to prepackaged feature elements the crew could add to the game presentation at a moment's notice. Need a quick recap of Kobe's relationship with Shaquille O'Neal? 7211. Kobe and Michael Jordan? 7236. His best games in this final season? 7240. 

"You never know where the game takes you, so you come as prepared as you can be," Feibischoff said. "It's picking and choosing and doing the right thing as the game develops."

Now in his 28th year producing NBA games for TV, Feibischoff has worked some momentous occasions. He was producing when the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons had their infamous brawl in 2004. He also produced Michael Jordan's final game in 2003, and LeBron James' first game later that same year. 

"Those games do prepare you for these kinds of moments," he said Wednesday. "We know what tonight brings — it's reality television, the NBA."

Entering the production truck — a white monstrosity with sections that extend and pop out like a Transformer — is sort of like walking into the Matrix. Dozens of TVs covered one wall of the darkened control room. The game's small broadcast crew sat in rows facing an all-TV wall, which blinked and flickered with feeds from throughout the Staples Center and around the country. 

After the broadcast started, Feibischoff and Dennis began directing traffic. Calling out directions in TV jargon, they sounded similar to NFL quarterbacks making audibles at the line of scrimmage. They said stuff like, "Ready 1! Take! Stay...stay!" 

Other times, they hollered seemingly random numbers, colors and verbs, which corresponded to specific tasks for others who speak their language. 

Bryant started slow, missing shots and looking out of sync. But as he began to find a rhythm, an on-the-fly decision was made during the game's first half: Whenever Bryant was in the game, ESPN2 would feature a small graphic at the bottom of the screen tracking his point total. 

That ended up being a prescient idea, as Bryant's scoring continued to climb. He hit 40, then 50. Then — defying all expectation — 60. 

The night took on a magical feel, and the TV pros in the trucks were reduced to fans along with everyone else. More and more, cries of exaltation after each make and ironic groans after each questionable shot from Bryant interrupted the still-constant stream of jargon and directions. 

"The thing is, the game itself in the standings means nothing," Feibischoff said. "Is there a possible Kobe overload, that I'm just throwing so much stuff at you that you might start throwing stuff back at me? That's my job — that this feels right, and I'm not jamming things in just to jam them in." 

But this was Kobe's evening, and it would've been hard to have too much Kobe. After the game ended, Bryant walked to center court and gave an emotional speech to the sold-out crowd while teammates from the past and present watched. The ESPN2 crew in the truck stuck with all postgame sendoff before calling it a night. 

The following day, Gross, the senior vice president for production and remote events, was ecstatic. He'd watched the game from his home near ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters, part of an extended team that also provided feedback and ideas throughout the broadcast. 

Bryant, of course, had more than done his part with those 60 points and 50 field goal attempts. But Gross felt the biggest win by his team on Wednesday night had been letting Bryant's brilliance and the night's organic magic shine through naturally. 

"The crew was smart about rolling in retrospectives and that sort of thing, but documenting the event live was the ultimate goal and I'd say we were successful," Gross said. "We didn't get overly fancy." 

Gross, Feibischoff, Dennis, Tirico and the rest of the crew don't get much time to celebrate, though. Now that Bryant has ridden off into the sunset, the NBA Playoffs start Saturday. 

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