When the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship this year — its first since legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the team to victory 50 years ago — it wasn’t just the players who made history.
The team’s sideline reporter, Zora Stephenson, had also made history earlier in the year by becoming the first woman broadcaster to do a play-by-play of a Bucks game — and the first woman to do so for any major men’s sports team in Wisconsin.
“History was never the goal,” said Stephenson, director of storytelling for the Bucks who also joined NBC Sports and NBC Olympics as on-air talent this year. “It was just to continue to get better at a specific role within the television broadcast and history happened, and I don’t take it lightly. But I know there’s so many people coming right behind me that could have done the same thing.”
NBCU Academy spoke to Stephenson about covering the NBA Finals, building a career in sports journalism and how reporters can better cover athlete protests and mental health. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
NBCU Academy: You and the Milwaukee Bucks had a historic year. What was it like covering the NBA Finals and being the first woman to do play-by-play for the Bucks?
Zora Stephenson: Exciting, thrilling, nonstop. It’s always such an honor to witness history when it comes to the team, winning the Finals, and then observing people at the peak of what they do. Especially when you get to be along for the ride, see how hard they work and continue to chip away at their goals. To finally meet one of those goals, you have to appreciate greatness. It’s inspiring, both personally and professionally to see people do it in their respective areas.
As far as the play-by-play opportunity, I’m grateful and humbled. History was never the goal, it was just to continue to get better at a specific role within the television broadcast and history happened, and I don’t take it lightly. But I know there’s so many people coming right behind me that could have done the same thing.
What are some of the challenges that you faced in becoming a sports journalist, and now, a sideline reporter, and how did you overcome them?
Well, getting [told] ‘no’ like, a million times is and was probably the biggest thing that stands out to me in terms of an obstacle. I switched careers. I was mostly focused on news, and then jumped over to sports. The two different industries see themselves as very different, but for me, I feel like if you know how to be a journalist and how to be a reporter and tell stories, you can cover anything and any topic. I just really utilized all of the skills that I had been working on for years when I made the jump from news to sports.
What inspired your shift from news to sports full time?
Basketball was always the dream. Growing up I played division one basketball in college, and I always wanted to be on the court somewhere with a microphone in my hand, elevating other people. My journey just took me to [local TV] news first and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was so valuable to me learning just how to be a real reporter, learning how to write, deliver on camera and how to work under pressure with deadlines. I had two stops in news and it was amazing. It really laid the foundation for the professional and journalist that I am today. And, like I said before, I really honed my skills within news, and was able to carry them over into sports when I finally got my sports opportunity.
“If you know how to be a journalist and how to be a reporter and tell stories, you can cover anything and any topic.”
What skills overlap between being a news reporter and a sports reporter?
Everything. Relationships are key; knowing how to interact, connect and talk with all different types of people. Listening is so important. Being clear and concise, whether it’s in your writing for a longer form piece, or in your delivery on something short and sweet. Being able to adapt and adjust to different work environments. Everything, everything carries over. It’s all journalism.
What does a typical day look like for you during the season? How do you prepare?
You’re always preparing, you’re always reading, talking to people, you’re always getting more information. But, specifically on game day, there is a morning call with everybody on the TV production team, and we go over storylines and who’s going to do what and what ideas we have for both the pregame show, but also the game itself. Everybody pitches, and it’s collaborative. Then, the team has shootaround.
Pre-Covid, I’d be able to go and watch shootaround and just get some notes and see what the team is focusing on. After shootaround, there’s media availability so you have the opportunity to interview players and coaches. I would then go back and put all my notes together and start to put my stories together. Once you do all that, you keep up with the headlines of the day, and then you head to the game and get your workspace ready, constantly going over your notes. Once the game starts, I do a hit in the pregame show, one to two hits depending on the game. I do a hit as the broadcast is opening, and then you have all your hits and interviews throughout the game. And then, interviews after the game. So, it’s a busy, unpredictable super fun day on game days.
Recently we’ve seen athletes become more vocal about their mental health, the biggest example being Simone Biles, who cited her mental health when she withdrew from several competitions in this year’s Olympics. What can we do as journalists to observe athletes’ mental wellbeing while reporting on their physical achievements?
As journalists, the best thing that we can do is ask insightful and thoughtful questions each and every time you are talking to someone. Mental health is so hard because it’s not something that you can necessarily observe with your eyes. As journalists, we have to be aware of our surroundings, and we’re always looking and observing, but mental health displays itself in so many forms. Somebody could be struggling, but what you observe looks perfectly okay. You just have to continue to ask the questions, but you also have to be respectful. It’s definitely a hard topic to continue to cover, but a topic that we most certainly have to shed a light on and continue to shine a light on.
There have been some headlines recently asking “Has the NBA become too political?” because players are loudly taking stands against racism and police violence. During last year’s playoffs the Bucks refused to play a game in protest of the police killing of Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin. How can sports reporters better equip themselves to cover these protests?
The men within the NBA care about so many more things than just putting a ball in a basket. They are athletes, but they’re human as well, and the majority of them in the NBA are humans of color. They put their efforts towards moving, not just this country, but our world forward. And so, it would be no surprise if they continue to do that.
“As you’re trying to get into this industry, know that you can do it… Just continue to work hard and get as many reps as possible.”
As far as journalists, it’s so important to not just see yourself as a sports journalist, or on the political beat or the health beat. We have to know a little bit about everything, and that’s why we continue to ask questions. We don’t ask questions because we know the answers to the questions, we ask because we’re trying to get more information. So just continue to do our jobs, be good humans, and everything else when you’re covering these topics should fall into place.
What advice do you have for aspiring courtside reporters?
It only takes one yes. As you’re trying to get into this industry, know that you can do it and believing in yourself is the first part of it. Just continue to work hard and get as many reps as possible. It doesn’t have to be organized repetitions, you could go and cover a relative’s Little League game, or go to a pickup game that you see at the park and practice telling stories, practice interviewing people, practice being on camera. That’ll put you in a position to get you where you want to be. Reach out to as many people as possible, talk to people, hear their experiences and know that other people have their journey, but it’s not your journey. You can take nuggets from everyone else, but know your story is going to be your own and that’s the beautiful part of this business, everyone’s path is different.