If you saw the pictures of Kevin Durant working the Super Bowl sidelines as a photographer Sunday, you might have noticed a Canon camera, an enormous 400mm telephoto lens and his all-black attire.
But you likely missed a more important story.
On Durant’s right wrist was a yellow band with the letters “LL” on one side and the word “FAMILY” on the other.
Called an “A1” by people in the business, Gary Lee Laughlin made his living as a sports television production guru. For almost all of the team’s existence, he had served as the lead audio technician for Oklahoma City Thunder broadcasts.
But Laughlin died Feb. 1 at age 51, unexpectedly and hours before the team — and his TV-production colleagues — put on a show against the Washington Wizards.
“It was pretty tough to make it through that day last Monday,” said Anthony Mount, a camera operator for Fox Sports Oklahoma. “To me, Lee was constantly uplifting people. He was the best audio guy I’ve ever worked with in the fact that he would come out — it didn’t matter who you were — and he always had something positive to say to you.”
Tuesday, Mount reminisced to me about his friend — how he and many crew members learned of Laughlin’s death a little before noon Feb. 1, with word spreading as people arrived at work for that evening’s contest.
“Lee helped hold all of us together,” Mount said. “We were his family, and we all thought of him as our brother.”
‘I know I’ll be OK, you know?’
I had happened to attend the Feb. 1 Thunder game as a media member focused on “behind the scenes” production of an NBA game.
When I casually evaded my escort and snagged Thunder broadcaster Brian Davis for one question before tipoff — “After all these years, do you still get nervous before TV?” — I somehow stumbled upon the sadness that a family feels when it loses one of its own.
And the Thunder, make no doubt, is a family.
“I don’t get nervous, but I do get a little bit edgy,” Davis said to my question. “I’ve decided it’s kind of that performer’s edge, but I don’t really get nervous. I think what happens with me is I start to feed off the energy of the crowd.”
Davis’ speech slowed and his voice slightly cracked — a voice that Lee Laughlin had blended smoothly into crowd noise and court squeaks a thousand times.
Davis said he needed the energy of a Thunder game at that moment, especially.
“This is actually a weird example, but one of our lead guys on our crew died (today). We just found out about it when we got to the building, and I’ve been in a funk all day since I heard about it,” the veteran broadcaster said. “But now, as we’re getting closer to game time, I’m finding that showbiz thing kind of kick in, and I’m getting my energy back. And I know I’ll be OK, you know?”
I didn’t really know. I didn’t really know what to make of the extra weight in Davis’s familiar speech pattern, and at that point I didn’t even know Mr. Laughlin’s name.
“Do one for him,” is all I could think to say as the PA announcer fired up the crowd and Davis sat down courtside to carry NBA action into the homes of families who would be unaware that the TV crew’s hearts were hurting that night.
What really matters
Sports are so often what we turn to as an escape from our more serious and stressful realities. In our worst moments as sports fans, we tweet out irrelevant and emotional observations, or we smash our television sets during the Super Bowl because we’ve tied our hopes and self-worth to a child’s game while forgetting what truly matters.
By wearing Lee Laughlin’s initials on his wrist at the Super Bowl, Kevin Durant knew what really matters.
“Players wear wristbands all the time, and nobody really asks what they’re about,” Mount told me. “But when we see it, we immediately start texting each other screenshots of the television or whatever. ‘He’s wearing it again today! He’s wearing it again today!’ It really just kind of lifts us up and makes us feel great. Anybody can wear it, but for some reason, it makes us feel good to see Kevin still honoring Lee.”
Mount, who had worked on Thunder broadcasts with Laughlin “since the beginning,” ordered the wristbands prior to the Thunder’s Feb. 3 game against the Orlando Magic. Another camera operator walked up to Durant and told him of Mr. Laughlin’s sudden passing, and the NBA All-Star gladly donned a wristband, Mount said.
“He put it on and wore it and shocked all of us that he still hasn’t taken it off,” Mount said. “He’s worn it every day since last Wednesday. He wore it to the Super Bowl.”
Durant has even worn the wristband during games, interjecting a little bit of Lee Laughlin into the countless photos and videos taken of him each night.
“Whenever we were playing the Magic, he was wearing it,” Mount said proudly. “When he made that final 3-point shot basically to win the game, he shot it with his right hand, and if you’re looking, you can see him wearing that yellow band.”
Mount emphasized the “family” atmosphere of his job, saying the entire Thunder TV crew knows life is bigger than sports. The Thunder organization knows as well.
“The Thunder/Fox Sports Oklahoma TV crew is more than simply a collection of talented and creative professionals,” said Dan Mahoney, Thunder vice-president of broadcasting and corporate communications. “They are a close family dedicated to producing and presenting the best Thunder broadcast possible for our fans. Lee was an integral part of that family. We miss him.”
On Feb. 4, Thunder and Fox Sports TV crew members established a Go Fund Me page to raise money for Mr. Laughlin’s memorial service, set for Friday in Broken Arrow.
Mahoney said Tuesday that Thunder players heard about the page and donated money to ensure the goal was reached.
As a result, the page was updated with a broadened charitable calling:
Since we have in fact exceeded our goal, Greg Elzea and I, along with several other members of the Oklahoma freelance community, have discussed the creation of a Lee Laughlin Memorial Fund. This fund would be set up in Lee’s name and overseen by an elected board in order to provide grants to those Oklahoma freelancers who find themselves or their family in financial trouble due to illness, accidents, disability or even death. In fact, Lee had actually discussed such a project with several of us in the past, but sadly none of us had acted. I believe now is the time to act.
If you disagree or would like some or all of your money refunded we will gladly do so.
Mount praised the freelance TV-production community and his colleagues at Fox Sports and the Thunder while recalling his mother’s ultimately fatal battle with breast cancer.
“I’ve gone through some things in my own life that the Oklahoma City Thunder broadcast crew was there for me more than some of my own family members,” he said. “At times, we can be a pretty dysfunctional family, but it always comes back to how we are definitely family.”
Thanks to a rubber wristband and the humility of one of the world’s greatest athletes, Lee Laughlin’s extended family has made the best of a difficult week.
“Kevin’s a great guy,” Mount said of Durant. “I think Kevin knows how much Lee meant to us and knows that Lee was one of the most important parts of the broadcast crew.
“It means a lot to me.”
“Under the big top: Backstage at the OKC Thunder Circus” by Bryan Smith