Behind the scenes: my first season on the UH Basketball beat

I want to share a behind-the-scenes look at my first year as the basketball beat writer. It’s incredible how much has happened in such a short time.

I’d written 12-15 stories for the Cougar – from volleyball to women’s golf to football – when I received a (long) DM from Ryan Monceaux at GoCoogs. He had a vision for a new hoops beat writer position and offered me the opportunity. Game stories, practice reports, and most importantly, the features that became the Kelvin Culture series.

I immediately thought, oh man, this is real now and that it was too much too soon. I had barely done the normal coverage stuff; how was I supposed to be a beat writer and add a new twist? But Ryan said he saw something in my writing.

Everyone around me, including Cougar Sports Editor James Mueller, told me that I couldn’t say no to honing my skills by covering one of the best basketball programs in the country. And they were right. Why would I say no to that?

Lesson #1: there’s no such thing as a bad seat at Fertitta Center

Four months later (which feels more like eight), here are some lessons, experiences, stories, and other thoughts from the beat.

1. The season was a grind. From games to practices to interviews to media availabilities to the time in between, there was always something to do, something to plan, and something else on the immediate horizon. It took me a while to realize it was basically a full-time job! Because of that, I couldn’t afford to worry too much or get complacent.

2. My main goal when I started this was to get experience and improve, and I have…a lot. When I started, I knew how to write a game recap. That was it. I did not know where to start for a feature, how to develop ideas for a story, what questions to ask, how to structure a story, who to talk to, or how to speak to them. I have learned a lot.

In the team room watching the selection show

3. I see the Kelvin Culture stories as the major step in my progression.

The first one, the two-part story on student managers, was my first real experience writing a full-length feature. I learned how to think of questions, how to ask them, and, collaborating with Ryan, the entire feature-building process. The student managers – Jonathan, Laith, and Matthew – were all fantastic and helped make the story great. The story got passed around on social media and helped me gain momentum.

interviewing student manager Jonathan Loredo

The K.C. Beard story is the story I’m most proud of. K.C. was great to work with, and talking to players and other coaches about him was really fun. I learned the importance of doing lots of research, which showed in the story.

The interview and story we did with Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark was the most fun I had all year. That story greatly raised my confidence in interviewing. Jamal and Tramon were super relaxed, joking around and telling stories throughout the interview. I was completely surprised it went so well.

Jamal and Tramon interview

4. The AAC Tournament was intense. We worked from when we got to the arena until we left 6-8 hours later. Observing, documenting as much as we could, talking to coaches and staffers and other media people, watching shoot-around, looking for clues on Marcus Sasser, sprinting to press conferences, then the post-press conference conversations with players and coaches, then back to the media room to write for another couple hours.

It was easy for me to get stressed out and caught up in the scramble. So I learned to zoom out and look at the big picture occasionally. You tend to focus only on the most immediate moments when you’re in it. Ryan helped me step back and think about the context of things.

At Fertitta Center, the media sits near the top of the arena, far from the action. So my favorite part of the tournament was being right on the court and hearing the players communicate with each other and the coaches yell through it all. Seeing how everyone reacted to each moment, no matter how big or small was fascinating.

My view during the first two games. In the final, we were moved to the front row opposite the UH bench

5. There are some things I wish I had learned earlier but will help down the road:

  • writing down notes during the game for things to mention in the game recap or questions to ask later;
  • figuring out that the real information comes in the questions you ask after the press conference;
  • I need to improve my interpersonal and relationship-building aspects. Developing sources, too. I’m a natural introvert, so I need to continue to work on that.

6. My favorite part of the day-in-day-out work was seeing the team up close and how they all seemed like family. I loved watching the players interact with each other and joke around. My favorite? Jarace Walker was always reserved around the media but otherwise seemed fun-loving and childlike in shooting drills after practice. He obviously sees J’Wan Roberts as a big brother.

Sometimes it seemed like the coaches were also big brothers to the players. Guys like Quannas White would sit on the bench and talk with the players while they were shooting. The same goes for the trainers, managers, and other members of the program and the countless lighthearted moments shared after practices.

Sharp and Shead laughing about a teammate they said had 10 airballs

My favorite moments include: Asking the players about K.C. Beard; they all seemed to love him, especially Emanuel Sharp. Sharp laughingly told me that he was the best singer on the team (his grandfather, John Ellison, wrote and performed the song, Some Kind of Wonderful). Also, watching J’Wan Roberts trash-talk Ryan Monceaux was priceless.

Jeff Conrad is the greatest human being on the planet. He is really the best.

Ultimately, I’m proud of the work we have done and the progress I’ve made, but I know there’s still a lot of season left. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and will never forget it. This season on the UH basketball beat confirmed to me that this is what I want to do with my life, and I cannot wait to keep doing it.

Starns Leland
Starns Leland
Starns is the co-host of the Cougar After Thoughts Show (CATS!), a contributor, and the sports editor for the UH student newspaper, The Cougar.

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