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|| News Item: Posted 2011-04-08

A Season In The Links
Behind The Scenes In San Diego State’s Record Season

By James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

This basketball season, I was fortunate enough to be along for the ride as San Diego State enjoyed its most successful season in history. The culmination was a special project page of 15 video features about the season, centering on mini-documentaries of the starting five players. I'm glad to have the opportunity to share the back-story.

(The project can be viewed at this link:

On November 15, 2010, the AP poll was released ranking the San Diego State Aztecs at #25. For many schools, this is no big deal. For teams like Kansas, where I spent my undergrad years, or Arizona, where I spent 4 years as a staffer for Tucson's Arizona Daily Star, being in the Top 25 is expected. For SDSU, it was the first time in their entire history to break into the ranks.

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Kawhi Leonard watches portions of "Fisher's Five" after being interviewed for the series in the Viejas Arena green room.
A day later, SDSU would face #11 Gonzaga and their 77-4 home court record at McCarthey Athletic Center. I was at a local bar and grill after work where the game was on TV, sitting at the bar next to a SDSU fan who groaned early in the second half as Gonzaga started to make a run.

"How's the game going?" I asked. Having just arrived at San Diego Union-Tribune in late August, deep in the learning curve of video and multimedia, I was untainted by the years of disappointment suffered by Aztecs fans. "They'll blow it,” my neighbor at the bar sighed.

Only they didn't. The Aztecs shocked the world with a 79-76 upset and 31 points by senior forward Billy White. After seeing just the second half of that night’s game, the only SDSU basketball I had ever seen, I was left with these impressions: This was a really good team, who the heck is Billy White? Who were any of these guys, why were they so good now after years in the cellar?

I needed video story ideas and this seemed perfect.

I called the media relations office at the school and told them I was interested in doing a video story about the team and their success. I wanted to go to a couple of practices, a game, maybe some behind the scenes stuff, and interviews with the starting five and the head coach. Seemed like a good idea to me.

I got a call back explaining that there was no way I was going to get the access I was looking for. They said they weren't willing to let me put 20 minutes of their practice up on You-Tube.


Even though I knew that was the furthest thing from my mind, they didn't. I tried to explain that I was a serious and experienced journalist and that I was looking to do a well-polished feature on the team that would meet the expectations of my news organization, and that my approach wouldn't need to reveal anything about their program that would give away their strategy.

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

A story about San Diego State's mascot was just one of several video features that Gregg worked throughout the season.
After trying to negotiate a bit for access, it was clear that I was going to have to prove myself if I was ever going to get their guys one on one. No one from the U-T had ever shot video of this team before, and I was the new guy. They agreed to give me the same access as local TV, which was home games and press conferences, so I started with that.

The idea was that I would start off doing whatever story I could find with the access I was given at the beginning while building relationships with the media staff. At the same time I could start building stock footage of each of the players, and head coach Steve Fisher in anticipation of the deeper access I hoped to gain later.

I went to the next three home games and put together the first of what would become 15 features on the season. The first piece was a general fan feature approach that dealt with how excited the fan base was now after years of disappointment, and how different the environment at Viejas Arena had become.

Without the players and coaches themselves to give me context on the season and the program I needed an expert interview, and there was no one better than U-T sportswriter Mark Zeigler. Mark would continue to be a crucial factor in the project all season. I wanted this work to be distinctive, so I resisted making Mark a TV personality, doing stand ups in front of the camera. I just treated him as an expert source and interviewed him just like I would anyone else that I had a one on one interview with. Mark was great to work with and this project wouldn't have been what it was without him.

Throughout the season, I looked for ways to produce features that would justify the time I was spending going to games while gathering all of the content I would need later for the Fisher's Five. At the same time I was working hard to keep showing the officials at SDSU what kind of work I do.

Building credibility and access with the staff at SDSU was a season long process. I spent a lot of time going to press conferences, just to show my face. I called and emailed on a regular basis providing links to my work, even the non-basketball pieces I was doing.

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Gear used by Gregg for his video project: Canon 5DmkII, 7D, and lenses; Rode video mic; Zoom H4n recorder; Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mic, wireless mic set and headphones; Juiced Link DT454, Zacuto Zfinder; Manfrotto 701 fluid head for monopod/tripod.
As I continued to make requests to talk to players, I did features on the mascot, and a preview of the conference season. I tried to do anything I could to prove that they could trust me to do a good job and respect their rules.

The learning curve for this project was huge. I was trying to juggle how to do all of this with an unwieldy DSLR system that had me shooting everything with a 5DmkII and external sound from a Zoom H4n.

Shooting video of basketball action on all manual focus with every lens from a 16-35 to a 400 and syncing sound can be a little… interesting. My background is as a still photographer, and many good friends across the country answered phone calls emails and online chats that helped me through hang ups about gear questions editing hang ups, codecs and bit rates.

The DSLR gave me amazing visuals, and learning the sound end was great too. Having an extended network of really smart people who were generous with their time and wisdom was key, and relationships that have been formed over years of going to workshops and staying involved with the greater photojournalism community really paid off. I hope I can give back a fraction of what they have done for me.

Finally in January I got the green light to do a one on one interview with the 6th man James Rahon. I hadn't shot a lot of stock of James because he wasn't a starter, but he's from San Diego, and I did a story about him and his younger brother, who he is very close with and plays basketball at James' alma mater Torrey Pines High School.

Somewhere along the way I got word that Coach Fisher had used my first video about Viejas Arena to show a recruit why he should come to State, and the tone for access changed.

The last week of February I got the news I had been waiting for all season. They would let me interview starting point guard D.J. Gay. The first week of March I got D.J., Billy White, and Chase Tapley. With just two starters left to complete my set, the Aztecs won a share of the MWC regular season title, and traveled to Las Vegas for the MWC tournament.

I stayed in San Diego producing the first three pieces, praying that I could get Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas interviewed before the team left for Tucson for the NCAA tournament. I posted the first three pieces under password protection and sent them to the media relations staff, pleading with them, please, please help me get the last two players and let me complete the story.

They came through and on Monday, March 14th at 5pm I was able to interview Malcolm Thomas as he was leaving the arena and asked him to put in a good word for me with his roommate Kawhi Leonard to stick around for a few minutes because he was the last one I needed to complete the piece.

All of the players were great to work with. Once they were in the chair, in a room away from the press conference table, they spoke to me like real people, no ego, no agenda, just very genuine young men who were appreciative to be a part of a magical season.

After I wrapped up with Kawhi Leonard, who is projected to be a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA draft, he asked me what all of this was for. I showed him the piece I had completed on D.J. Gay from my laptop in the arena green room. After it was over, he asked, "Do you have any more?"
"Sure, I have one on Chase and Billy, which one would you like to see?"
"Both of them" he said.

Kawhi sat there for 15 minutes just watching and commenting, sometimes laughing. I realized that even through all of the hype, these are kids, and their teammates are their best friends.

As I walked him out, he said simply "Thanks for doing this for us". It really made the past four months all worthwhile, and fired me up to get the project completed and launched over the next couple of days.

The media relations staff went the extra mile to take care of me during the busiest part of the season as they were swamped with requests from big national networks, magazines and newspapers. After I finished the last interview with Leonard, I went up to Mike May, the director of media relations to thank him for his help, and he told me he couldn't believe that we got all five players.

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

Photo by James Gregg, San Diego Union-Tribune

D.J. Gay celebrates with the fans.
When I asked him what made the difference in being able to get it done, he said that it was patience and flexibility. I think it was also relationship. At some point in the season, Mike decided he wanted to help me succeed, and then I was totally flexible to his needs. It was a great lesson to me about how consistency and communication can open doors and I am so thankful for it.

I also got a lesson in the power of teamwork at my newspaper.

Support from so many people is critical during projects like this. U-T staffers Andrew Huse and David Brooks shot invaluable supporting footage that contributed to this piece. Director of photography Robert York granted me the time and freedom to get this done and never stopped believing in it, even during times when I wondered if we could pull it off. Yuri Victor, Digital Design Manager, designed a custom page for the project on a ridiculously tight deadline and we launched Starting Five on the morning of the Aztecs first ever NCAA tournament win against Northern Colorado on March 17th.

Mark Zeigler put it best in the first piece we did, talking about the Aztecs possibility for a special season. "It's always the most special to be the first, and they could be the first team in San Diego State history to win an NCAA tournament game, but (to) really leave their mark on the school".
It was truly a memorable season in San Diego. It was full of special firsts, for the Aztecs, but for us at the U-T as well.

James Gregg is on the staff of the San Diego Union-Tribune. You can see his work on his Sports Shooter member page: and on his personal website:

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