Matt Devlin pulls up to Scotiabank Arena and parks his car, as he has hundreds of times over the course of his 13-year career as the play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Raptors. He fills out a form confirming that he has no symptoms of COVID, takes the elevator to the building’s 300 level, steps out, takes a right, then another right, and finally walks out into the vast, wide-open stadium. He’s here to announce the team’s home game against the Boston Celtics. And for once, the 20,000-capacity arena is completely empty.
Devlin, alongside rotating co-hosts Leo Rautin (on Sportsnet) and Jack Armstrong (on TSN), has been a fixture of Raptors home games for years. Reporting live from the side of the court, they feed off the extraordinary energy of the sell-out crowds at the Scotiabank Arena, relaying the action to TV and radio audiences with a delirious, irrepressible verve. But since the beginning of the NBA restart late last summer, the official voices of the Toronto Raptors have been kept at a distance from their team as a result of COVID-19 safety protocols, and they’ve had to make do with reporting on Raptors games from thousands of kilometers away.
“It’s extremely different,” Devlin says, calling me from his home in Toronto a few hours before the Raps are set to take on the Phoenix Suns in Arizona. “Calling a game remotely is very, very different from actually being on site. Just being there in the arena has such a great benefit, because you get a sense and a feel for the action and the nuances of the game. We’re very much removed from that now.”
Devlin hasn’t called a game with the team and fans present since before the Raptors road trip last March, before the NBA took its months-long break due to the arrival of the novel coronavirus. (“And that just seems like ages ago,” he says.) When the NBA finally returned in the summer, it was within the so-called “bubble” inside the Disney World compound in Florida. To continue their work, Devlin and Armstrong reported on the bubble games and the playoffs from inside a remote TV trailer on the site of Dome Productions in Oakville. It worked OK, but they assumed it was a temporary measure and that they would be back before the team soon.
“The interesting thing is, the whole time we did this summer for the bubble, we were thinking it would be the last time we’d have to do it,” says Armstrong. Fittingly, he’s called me from the arena itself, just before a game. “I’m literally standing in the 320 section looking at the floor. They’re setting up the ice for the Leafs. I’m looking at some guys putting up the boards right now!”
It’s certainly weird to see ice on the court when the NBA season is in full swing. But with the Raptors at their new stopgap home in Tampa Bay—and with the Maple Leafs starting their own season in town next week—it’ll be a long while still before Toronto’s basketball team plays in Toronto. For the time being, Devlin and Armstrong are working out of the old Raptors practice court on the 300 level of the arena, which the team used to use before the OVO Center was built down by the lake. Over the last few weeks, the production team has transformed the court into a makeshift broadcast studio.
“The challenge is that you’re not actually there: you’re not around the team, or the other team, or scouts, or the referees—the whole basketball community." - Jack Armstrong
The setup, Devlin insists, is about as perfect as you could hope for. Devlin and Armstrong sit at a separate tables set about ten feet apart with a plexiglass divider between them. When they do their on-camera stand-up pieces, they stand eight feet apart on either side of a TV monitor; they use separate headsets that are sanitized at the end of each game. They watch the game on what are essentially big-screen TVs set in front of them, with a separate side monitor showing a constant feed of the ten players on the court. This way, Devlin says, he can keep tabs on things happening that might not make the broadcast, such as a quick aside between Nick Nurse and one of the referees.
“We’re looking at 10 guys running around on a TV screen,” Armstrong laughs. He admits that the new setup presents certain obstacles: “The challenge is that you’re not actually there: you’re not around the team, or the other team, or scouts, or the referees—the whole basketball community. A lot of your best stuff usually comes from standing out on the court two hours before the game, chatting with the assistant coaches or sitting in the stands or chatting with the scout for the Bulls. You’re getting all the ins and outs of the gossip from around the league, and not having that connection, I’m not going to lie to you, makes it difficult to stay connected.”
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, though, it’s their enthusiasm. Devlin still calls the game with the kind of passion that makes it hard not to get into the action. And Armstrong is still capable of yelling his trademark catchphrases (“Get that garbage outta here!”) with the same infectious brio. To hear these guys call the game, you’d hardly think they were half the continent away.
Devlin credits their long history together—they know each other well, and trust each other, and know how to do their job even from afar. Armstrong says it’s just about the energy maintained. “I’m still the same knucklehead,” he laughs. “I’m genuinely fired up calling these games because it’s what I love. It’s sincere. It’s genuine.” As if to emphasize how much fun he’s still having with it, he’s even grown out his hair, and set the internet abuzz when he debuted a new ponytail. When I asked about the new look, he says he’s “got the flow going.” Besides, “It’s not like I’m going anywhere or seeing anyone.” I point out that he’s on TV and seen by millions of people. “True,” he admits. “But they only see the front of me!”
Devlin insists that the whole thing is running smoothly because the team behind him has done such a great job making it work. The Raptors’ com team, Roven Yau and Jennifer Quinn, have been arranging interviews for Devlin and Armstrong with the coaches and the players via Zoom; David August and his team have worked wonders with the venue and the technical side. And while everyone is eager to have the Raptors back in Toronto and things back to normal, if this is how it has to be for the time being, they’ll make it work.
“Over the last 10 months, everyone, not just basketball people, have had to make a lot of adjustments, right?” Devlin says. “This is the new norm. You have to be flexible and adaptable to be successful in what you want to do.”