His parents thought television would stifle his creativity. Now, Aladdin Freeman ’94 is directing live ESPN coverage for audiences around the world.
Aladdin Freeman ’94 stands on the theater stage of MGM’s casino at National Harbor, outside Washington, D.C, worrying over what he calls a “tiffany.” The delicate-sounding word comes from a man no one could consider delicate. An EHS football standout whose smash-mouth play earned him the nickname “Freight Train,” Freeman still has a gridiron physique and tough-guy look. T-shirt and shorts, hair cropped close. Shoulders as wide as a highway overpass. Knees each sporting a long scar from surgery.
Yet Freeman’s job, he readily acknowledges, demands a wedding planner’s attention to details. Including the tiffany. In less than 36 hours, the MGM theater will host a highly anticipated boxing match between two undefeated junior welterweights. ESPN is airing the fight, and Freeman, who directs boxing, college football, tennis, and occasional other sports for the media giant, is responsible for creating a broadcast that makes this humble venue, capacity 3,000, pulse like Madison Square Garden with 20,000 in the house.
From the stage, Freeman surveys the theater and runs through a mental checklist. Crews have assembled the boxing ring on the theater floor, in front of the rising rows of seats, and Freeman considers the ring walk, the entrance of the two fighters into the theater. Is each boxer’s path laid out so that ESPN’s cameras can capture the moment with drama? Also, he’s worried about the boxers’ dressing rooms, where MGM has put down plastic to protect carpets from the fighter’s shuffling feet as they warm up. Will the plastic crinkle and pop like firecrackers and disrupt his audio feed?
And the tiffany — that bundle of microphones that dangles above the ring. Freeman has watched boxing on television since he was about 5 years old, and he knows that the sound of flesh absorbing blows is critical to the broadcast. But is the tiffany too high to catch that audio? Or … is it so low that a boxer can jump up and grab it?
Freeman has seen a fighter do exactly that. Indeed, after 20 years with ESPN working broadcasts ranging from Wimbledon to Monday Night Football, from X Games to professional bowling, he’s learned that he has to plan for the unexpected, even the unthinkable. And while he doesn’t know it yet, tomorrow’s fight at National Harbor will be no exception.
There’s rich irony in the fact that Freeman is a top television director. Growing up, his parents didn’t own a TV because they believed hours in its thrall stifled creativity. But for big boxing matches, the family rented a set. His father, who grew up in the 1940s, when boxing was a favorite American pastime, had gone to fights with his family, everyone dressed in their finest. He passed on his love of the sport to his son, the two of them gathering around their rental, with Aladdin offering commentary even as a tyke.
At Episcopal, Freeman gathered his friends to watch Tuesday night fights broadcast on cable. But it was football that became his playing passion. A bruising fullback, he helped lead teams that lost only two games over three years and posted undefeated seasons in 1991 and 1992 — the first in 30 years at the School. Those teams were inducted into the EHS Athletics Hall of Fame.
Though Hummel Bowl stands filled with cheers of “Freight Train” when he ran, Freeman was enormously popular on campus because of his warmth and infectious good nature, faculty remember. “He could have been the biggest, toughest, baddest guy on campus,” says English teacher Whit Morgan. “He just rejected that in favor of sheer friendliness and exuberance. He was all smiles; he never busted an attitude.”
Once, during a schoolwide discussion about how to break down stereotypes, Morgan and other teachers had Freeman and fellow footballer Cary Goodwin ’93 come down the Callaway Chapel aisle in helmet and pads, shouting, grunting, and pounding on each other. Freeman then picked up a violin, Goodwin stepped to the piano, and together they played a beautiful rendition of Pachelbel’s canon, by German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel. It was the ideal illustration of the day’s lesson, Morgan says. “The two biggest, toughest guys on campus showed a side of themselves that people literally did not know.”
Freeman says his time at Episcopal set him on the right path for life. Childhood friends back in his Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood made life-changing bad decisions, he says. They slid academically, had children as teenagers. EHS teachers, he said, kept him on track. He reels off a long list of faculty and staff whom he “ran with,” including Steve Castle, Perry Epes ’65, Jim Fraser, Marcia Jones, Ed Rice, and Bobby Watts. “You don’t realize when you meet them that they’re always going to be in your life,” he says.
Freeman had dyslexia, which sometimes made academics a struggle, but faculty worked with him and held him accountable. Teachers, in turn, credit him for working hard and staying upbeat. “He was so easy to work with,” remembers Castle, a physics teacher and football coach. “Some kids who struggle bang their head against the wall. I’m sure he had moments, but he never let it beat him down.”
Says Freeman of the rigors of EHS: “At the time, when you’re going through it, you don’t realize how it’s preparing you for life. I didn’t take Episcopal for granted; I understood the opportunity I was given. And I didn’t want to screw up; I didn’t want to let my family down. I wanted to make something of myself.”
ESPN’s small army will spend three days crawling around the MGM theater preparing for the fight. Freeman — who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., and has a condo in Connecticut not too far from ESPN’s Bristol headquarters — arrived on the second day and began prowling the complex to scout camera angles and troubleshoot. He’ll do this almost 40 times this year, directing nearly 20 fights as ESPN’s boxing director and another 13 college football games, along with the college lacrosse national championship, some major tennis tournaments, and a handful of other events. His job: manage a large crew, deploy hightech equipment worth millions, and telescope the sprawling spectacle of a live event — the action, the noise, the energy — into the pinhole of a television screen.
As he walks the theater on his inspection tour, he declares: “It’s not Madison Square Garden, but it’ll work.” Freeman got into sports television not long after college. After EHS, he played football at West Chester University, outside Philadelphia, then at Towson University, near Baltimore. As Freeman was weighing a bid to turn pro, Luke David ’93 helped him land a job with a Washington television station’s weekly show covering Redskins football.
Freeman’s personality and deep knowledge of the game earned him access to players who typically shunned the media, which impressed his boss. When that show was cancelled, she put him up for an entry-level job at ESPN.
He arrived at the network in 1999 and impressed with his hard work and creativity. Asked in one assignment to identify the fighters in archived boxing-match tapes, he dug in deeper and added a round-by-round summary of each bout. That helped him earn a gig traveling the country and doing pre- and post-match interviews with boxers. He also earned high marks on a broadcast of a celebrity athlete golf tournament; told to produce a highlight video of sporting gods like Larry Bird in their natural sport, he added a blooper reel that showed their funniest goofs and missteps. Soon, he was assigned to college football.
When Freeman was outside football season, he worked a variety of sports so he could meet and learn from different ESPN staff. Perhaps his least favorite: women’s professional bowling. He didn’t enjoy golf either. But beginning in 2004, he joined coverage of major tennis tournaments and fell in love with the beauty and power of the sport. He also got his first taste of international living; assigned to produce “scenics,” video from the environs of tournament locales, he hustled the streets of cosmopolitan capitals — Paris for the French Open, Sydney for the Austrailian Open, and London for Wimbledon — to dig up creative shots from cafes and cultural touchstones such as the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower. “Tennis showed me the world,” he says. Today, though he’s on the road constantly for broadcasts, he uses his down time to travel. He has twice joined the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and recently returned from a beach vacation in Asia.
Freeman’s first solo gig as director came in 2008, when he led a tumultuous broadcast of the X Games in Los Angeles. An earthquake rocked the area and knocked out his communications, so he had to juggle a phone, walkie-talkie, and other improvisations to direct coverage.
On the night of the fight at MGM, Freeman squeezes into ESPN’s command center, an 18-wheeler parked by the theater’s loading dock and jammed with equipment. He mans a bank of small screens carrying images from one of 23 cameras. Here, the wedding planner morphs into part air-traffic controller, part Army general, as he directs his crew through his headset with rapid-fire commands. “You have to stay calm,” he says. “The more crazy you get, it messes things up.”
Adrenaline will surge through his body for hours after any broadcast, making for some sleepless nights in hotels.
Some colleagues turn to drink, some burn out. Freeman, however, radiates energy as he talks about his work. He’ll be in Philadelphia for a fight in a couple weeks, then Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He’s considering buying a house in the Pacific Northwest, hoping to put roots down. But he says he’ll probably direct for at least another 15 years.
The National Harbor fight between undefeated boxers Maxim Dadashev and Subriel Matias delivered a surprising and grisly turn of events. Dadashev began to take a pounding in the 10th round, and the bout was stopped before the bell to start the 12th. The fighter collapsed outside the ring and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He later died from massive head trauma.
It’s the second time Freeman has seen a fight with a fatal outcome; the other was in 2001. “It’s sad,” he says. “This is a gladiator sport. Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more deaths.” Boxers today don’t train enough as defensive fighters, he adds. That may have something to do, he adds, with the rise of mixed martial arts, the full-body combat whose violence is glamorized.
Directing coverage of the fight, Freeman had to put aside emotion and consider how journalistically to cover the moment. Most analysts didn’t think Dadashev was in trouble until after that decisive 11th round, but Freeman noticed earlier that he was getting wobbly and dispatched his rover cameraman to the fighter’s corner. After the 11th, that camera zoomed in on the fighter’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, as he pleaded with the dazed Dadashev to let him to stop the fight. “You’re getting hit too much, Max,” McGirt said, almost nose to nose with his fighter. “Please, let me do this.”
Later, Freeman’s cameras caught Dadashev’s collapse as he returned to his dressing room. “We were ready,” Freeman says. “You try to prepare for every situation and how it will get covered, even something like this.”