During and after the shocking circumstances of Gordon Hayward’s grotesque ankle and tibia injury 5 minutes and 15 seconds into the Celtics season Tuesday, sensationalistic coverage could have reigned amid the chaos. But it did not. The opposite of sensationalism was the approach on Turner Network Television’s broadcast, and that level of professionalism should be saluted.
From the broadcast team of Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, and Kristen Ledlow, to producer Jeff Randolph, director Lonnie Dale, and the countless behind-the-scenes contributors, TNT handled the situation with the utmost grace.
After Hayward went down and a stunned Harlan informed viewers of what had happened with the jarring call, “Hayward has broken his leg . . . Hayward has broken his leg,’’ the network showed the play just once more after an initial replay. That was during the halftime program, and that replay was from a distance.
Scooter Vertino, Turner Sports’s senior vice president of production and programming, said the way networks cover unexpected traumatic developments during games has evolved toward the side of compassion and caution in recent years, and TNT’s veteran crew understood how to handle it in the moment.
“I think we probably have a little better idea of what’s appropriate in the situation,’’ he said. “I’m not taking a shot at anyone in prior years. We didn’t know what the production process was in situations like this until they had been experienced.
“I think what you saw the other night was some type of standard for how we are going to handle this type of situation going forward.
“They are a veteran crew that have seen all kinds of things happen at various sporting events. So when something like this, that is as serious as anything you will see on a basketball court happens, they handled it the best way they know how. With equal parts professionalism and compassion.
“There’s a very serious injury that has occurred. We are not going to be gratuitous with it. We are documenting the story and what’s occurring at the game. You can do that in different ways. It doesn’t have to be the same super slo-mo replay ad nauseum.’’
In the immediate aftermath of the play, rather than replaying Hayward’s fall time and again, TNT did something so much better. It brought the viewer into the arena and captured the emotions of those in the building.
There were shots that required no words. The Celtics gathering for a moment of prayer in their huddle. Dwyane Wade staring down at the court in the foreground while the doctors tended to Hayward behind them. LeBron James comforting Hayward. Fans and players alike wearing various looks of sadness and shock.
For five minutes as Hayward was tended to, Harlan and Miller barely said a word. It was classy and compelling at once — and a decision that Harlan and Dale, who have worked together for 20 years, were unified on immediately.
“After we realized what had happened,’’ said Harlan, “I hit the talk box [which allows the broadcasters to talk to the production truck without their voices being heard on air] and said, ‘Lonnie, do your deal. Do what you do.’
“And Jeff Randolph is there, and it’s the two of them coordinating those shots and finding the shot. It was a symphony of emotions, and they had to find this creativity and focus and all of it within the moment.
“I can’t imagine what it was like in our truck to do what they did. We really had the simple part on the floor of not saying anything and letting it breathe. Not that you can say anything. The emotions of those players and the faces of those fans said everything that we could not possibly come close to saying.’’
From the sideline vantage point, Harlan immediately recognized the serious nature of Hayward’s injury, leading to that jarring call.
“Through the legs and arms and the very congested lane, I saw not the impact but just as he was coming up and falling,’’ said Harlan, “and I could see it was turning the other way. You knew right there. I could immediately tell that he was in trouble.’’
It did not help matters that the microphones on the baskets captured the sound of the injury and Hayward’s subsequent screams.
“Those are noises you don’t really forget,’’ Harlan said.
Harlan and the on-air crew struck the right tone the rest of the way. There was a hushed understatement to the broadcast after the injury, with Ledlow providing frequent, welcome, and detailed updates on Hayward’s status.
A palpable pall had been cast over the game, even among the Cavaliers players. But when the Celtics rallied from an 18-point deficit to turn it into a compelling contest in the second half before losing, 102-99, the broadcasters hit the right notes of enthusiasm and intrigue while never moving far away from the significance of Hayward’s injury.
In a conversation Thursday, two days after the call, Harlan acknowledged he was shaken by the moment. He is friends with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, with whom he used to work on NBA broadcasts.
Harlan had not seen the replay of the injury until he was changing planes in Houston Wednesday. That night, he watched the broadcast at 11:30. He said he and his wife got emotional watching it.
“I guess I’m kind of a fan that way,’’ said Harlan. “Maybe that’s one of those things I need to work on more. I’m such a fan of the game.
“When I saw it, that’s all I could think of. He broke his leg. He broke it. Oh no.
“You’re just devastated for the guy. You had the emotion of opening night, such great anticipation for the game and the season, the newness of it all and what Hayward would bring to the Celtics, all these different emotions, and then all of a sudden it all changed. It was hard to see.
“All I can say is that with something this severe I was fortunate to have the collaborative effort and the back-and-forth with everyone who worked that night.
“We leaned on each other, and as awful as the situation was, it’s satisfying to hear people believed we handled it respectfully.’’