Q&A with Linda Cohn, ESPN's new WNBA announcer
Breaking in a the Rookie
Having worked as an anchor for ESPN's "SportsCenter" since July 1992, Linda Cohn is no stranger to the camera. Hers is a face that every sports fan immediately recognizes and trusts. But this spring, Cohn will join the WNBA broadcasting team as a play-by-play analyst and desk host beginning with the 2006 WNBA Draft and running through the season. Just after coming on board with the WNBA, Cohn visited the league office in New York and spoke about her new role and how excited she is to be starting a new chapter in her accomplished career.
Q. So how did it come about that you are now working with the WNBA for ESPN and ABC? Was this something you sought out or was recommended to you?
The opportunity to do play by play for the WNBA was presented to me, and I grabbed it. I wanted it. I'm mainly known for doing SportsCenter and my work as a remote host at various events, but jumping on board and getting involved in this league at this time especially, with the league's tenth anniversary, was a tremendous opportunity.
Q. And what makes the WNBA so exciting for you?
I've seen how the growth in the league gets better and better, I watched the playoffs last year and it really won me over. It was really exciting and the game has just gotten so much more challenging and riveting, the league is deeper, and the talent is better, so I became a fan.
Q. It seems like you just love sports in general, no matter what the subject matter is, right?
I grew up in New York. I grew up a sports fan of all major sports: football, hockey, basketball, baseball and I'm a die-hard sports fan. It's the reason why I've spent 13 years at ESPN, as the "pioneer" everyone likes to label me as. But I'm like everyone else, I'm with the viewer, I'm a hardcore sports fan. That's what people like about me, when they watch me through the years they say "you're one of us, you really like sports, you're not just reading copy, you're feeling it, you love it, and it has come through. It is always refreshing to hear that, especially since I've been in this man's world all through the years, being the primary female anchor on SportsCenter for so long that it says something about my knowledge.
Q. So how much do you know about the WNBA and its players at this point?
I've read so much about these players and love watching them. I've really taken an interest in them, their backgrounds and how they've gotten up to this point. It takes a special mettle inside to reach the ultimate level in any sport, and just what you can do on the basketball court. I'm interested in that. When I read their stories, from Diana Taurasi to Sue Bird and Sheryl Swoopes, they have that driving force that I can relate to in a way. They are playing in a game that began as a men's sport. I am in a profession that was primarily dominated by men. When I started out, you couldn't even count many women sportscasters. There were reporters, the Leslie Vissers of world who I have tremendous respect for, but there weren't many women out there who do what I do. So there is a parallel there between me and the WNBA, I just see that, I've really taken to that and can relate to it, and admire it.
Q. What kind of sports did you play growing up?
My sport growing up was ice hockey. I was really ahead of my time. There is no women's professional hockey league like the WNBA and women's ice hockey was not an Olympic event yet. But I played on my high school men's hockey team because there were no women's teams at the time. I started playing when I was 14 and I fell in love with it. I spent a year on the JV basketball team as a perimeter shooter, but that was all I could do. But I really loved hockey, I found more of a skill and talent, and my hand-eye coordination was made to be a goalie, even before I played on a high school hockey team.
Q. Ice hockey with boys? Wasn't that dangerous?
I started in a league and yes, they allowed girls to play, but I was one of three girls in this league and the punchline was they'd let us play with the boys, but boys that were three or four years younger than us. So I started playing with 8-9 year old boys, and here I was with a ponytail sticking out of my mask, a cool red, white and blue mask, and it couldn't have been better. I soon graduated to play with twelve year olds when I was 15, and they were just afraid because of the differences in body and everything, but I wasn't complaining and my parent's weren't complaining. I was just thrilled that I could play. So then when I was 16, in my junior year of high school, I tried out for the men's team but didn't make it. There were like 10 goalies trying out, but I definitely opened their eyes. Then in my senior year, I tried out again, and I made it and I was the backup goalie. I ended up starting about 8 of the games of an 18 game schedule.
I'll always remember the moment when I made the team, because we had no ladies locker rooms back then, so I was changing in the ladies room with my 40 pounds of goalie equipment. So when I made the team, the coach knocked on the ladies room door to tell me the good news, and my response to him was "I'm not going to let you down." And I always really remember that because that was my driving force, to do and believe that I could live my dream
Q. How do you think women's basketball is different than the men's game?
I grew up a Knicks fan, of course, but watching guys play sports, you are going to get used to certain things like action above the rim, but the women's game and the WNBA are somewhat different. Remember that the men got a heck of a large head start here, with everything, with every sport, and you really can't judge a men's game with a women's game side by side. You just have to look at it differently and realize that a late start is better than no start, and you hope to make progress every year. It is so great to see young kids and the crowd at the WNBA games, and you can see that they're making an impact. Just like young girls had watched me every morning before school and they see a girl, a woman on TV talking sports, I think the WNBA is doing the same thing. I remember reading a quote by Kara Lawson saying she was in high school when the WNBA started, and it gave her hope and that there was something bigger and better after college.
Q. So have you ever done play-by-play or is this going to be totally new to you?
I've done some for the LPGA in the mid-90s, but of course, it will be nothing like that. I'd be lying if I said that doing a million highlights and going to hundreds of live basketball games will prepare me. You can't really feel it until you open your mouth and you're sitting there and you're all hooked up and you're ready to go. I'm going to prepare, get to know the league and know the players, but it's going to take time.
Q. Are you going to have a unique angle or personality? What do you see your role on the broadcasts being?
I know what kind of play-by-play person I want to be. I want to tee up the analyst. I'm going to be working with incredible, talented people, whether it's Ann Meyers, Doris Burke, Nancy Lieberman or Rebecca Lobo. All of these wonderful people and great sources are going to be right next to me and my job is just to play traffic cop and get the best out of them. I hope to guide the broadcast and not be a distraction. I frown on those who yell a lot, those screamers, because then when you really should raise the level of intensity in your voice, you ask "is this the time we should get excited?" I think less is more, so the key will be to pick the right spots, tell stories and bring out what our viewers may not be aware of as they watch the exciting action.
Q. So the key is knowing what to say and when, pretty much, right? And fighting through the nerves? Does that play into the equation at all or are you past that?
What made me successful at SportsCenter is just being myself. One of my greatest tips I received when I first started out in this business was from a friend of mine in Seattle. I was standing at the corner of a basketball court before a Sonics game ready to go live on the six o'clock news, and she said, "Just make believe you're talking to me, it's just me you're telling. Tell me what I should look for in this game, don't worry about everybody else." And that really helped me, so that's what I did at SportsCenter and that's what I plan to do in the booth doing WNBA games.
Q. Wow, you sound like you're totally ready to go. Are you itching to get started?
I'm starting things off by hosting the WNBA Draft in Boston with a cast of thousands. I'll be joined by Doris, Nancy, Ann Meyers and Rebecca. I'm looking forward to it because I think it's a great idea that the league is holding the Draft in conjunction with the Final Four. Everybody from the WNBA, players, coaches and GMs, will gather at Pre-Draft Camps and gives me a tremendous opportunity to say hello, find the tidbits, to talk to GMs and coaches about what they need, what they like, what they hope to happen this season, etc. It's just that nervous excitement, like that live shot before the Sonics game. This is new, it is different, but you know what? That's what I'm all about. I've always loved new challenges and that's what's gotten me to this point. I like to keep things exciting and this tenth anniversary season for the WNBA is going be really exciting.