Simmons on Magic Johnson's departure, NBA Countdown's future, more
In what has become an annual rite of autumn, the on-air staffing for ESPN's NBA Countdown has changed yet again. Last week Magic Johnson announced he was leaving the show (and ESPN as well) on the same day SI.com reported Doris Burke would be joining the program on Wednesdays. Former Sixers coach and ESPN newcomer Doug Collins on Countdown will join holdovers Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons while former NBA coaches P.J. Carlesimo and Avery Johnson are also possible studio candidates on certain days. With so much swirling about the comings and goings of such a high-profile studio show, it seemed like a good time to check in with Simmons, who also serves as the editor-in-chief of Grantland.com. He agreed to an email interview, which occurred on Sunday. Below, is the transcript of that conversation.
SI.com: Why will NBA Countdown be a better show this year?
Simmons: That's a loaded question! You're supposed to butter me up first before you try to get me to say something dumb. Come on, Deitsch.
SI.com: Deadspin reported last Thursday, via unnamed sources, that you were responsible for Magic Johnson being removed from Countdown. What is your response to that assertion?
Simmons: Those unnamed "sources" are liars. Someone planted a fake story to try to make me look bad, and there's a 99.3 percent chance it came from someone in Bristol (which presents its own set of concerns). I was upset; I can't lie. Maybe this happens to people more often than I realize, and maybe it comes with the territory, but man ... I can't properly explain how fantastic it was to watch basketball with Magic for nine months. I brought my dad to our show for the whole day once and he absolutely loved it. He just couldn't believe they paid me to watch hoops with Magic. One of Magic's best qualities is that he always makes an outsider like that feel special and [feel as if] they connected with him -- I probably watched him do it with 50 people last year. To see Magic do that for my father was something else.
He's just an amazing person. When [Johnson's agent] Lon [Rosen] told me Magic was leaving, I actually got pissed at myself that I didn't appreciate those nine months more. Our interview with LeBron after Game 7 [of the NBA Finals] -- seeing the affection that LeBron and Magic had for one another, getting LeBron to open up a little, and being part of that moment in NBA history -- was one of the five or six highlights of my career. Jimmy Kimmel wanted me to write a book about a season watching basketball with Magic -- he was endlessly fascinated that I spent 8-12 hours a week with someone like that. Magic is a story jukebox. We'd be bored sitting there watching some sh-- game and I'd liven things up by asking, "Magic, what was the best fight you ever saw in a game?" and he'd pause dramatically, then he'd launch into some awesome five-minute story and do all the voices and everything. Remember, Magic's life intersected with just about every relevant NBA player and celebrity from the past 40 years. He has an endless well of stories. I probably heard two percent of them. My wife had a running joke -- I'd come home from doing a show, walk through the front door and she'd immediately mock me in my voice (not hard to do), "I can't believe I get to work with Magic Johnson" before I even said anything.
I don't know if our show will be better or worse without Magic, but he certainly made the show feel bigger. He's one of the most famous people on the planet -- and the weight he carried with current players is just something we'll never be able to match. We'll never have a moment on our show again as special as that LeBron moment. Big picture, I know I'll be better on TV this season. I learned a ton last year and felt like I was coming at this season from a position of strength. I knew the Dodgers were becoming Magic's life; you could see it happening last spring. He loves being part of a team again. So I knew he'd leave, just not this soon. I wanted one more year with him.
Anyway, that's why the "report" upset me so much -- it wasn't just that someone made it up (and how disturbing that is), but how I felt in real life was the exact opposite of what that "report" portrayed. I felt blindsided when Magic left. I thought he was quitting on the show, and I guess on me, too. I took it personally. But then I thought about the whole Dodgers thing (and how into those games he was), and it made more sense and I got over it. Regardless, I will miss spending time with him every week. Jalen and I nicknamed him "Mogul" for "Hall of Fame Mogul." We were like little kids around him. In retrospect, maybe that wasn't the ideal dynamic for a studio show, but I thought we were getting better at challenging him while also respecting him and everything he accomplished. Year 2 would have been better than Year 1.
SI.com: How much influence, if any, did you have in NBA Countdown's on-air talent comings and goings?
Simmons: Zero. I didn't think I was coming back. I wasn't happy during the last two playoff rounds; I didn't feel like they cared about the show enough and had some other issues that I won't rehash. And I felt like I had done a lousy job with my family and with Grantland in April-May-June. So I decided to wait a month or so before I told them officially, but in my head, I was gone. They probably thought I was leaving, too. They weren't going to listen to someone who wasn't coming back -- and besides, Bristol doesn't listen to on-air talent about on-air talent decisions, anyway. That's a point of pride for them. Ask anyone.
But as I decompressed during the summer and started feeling like a normal person again, I realized that my schedule burned me out. And, in the irony of ironies, I didn't want to give up working with Magic yet. So I asked to do Fridays and Sundays during the season, and I asked if we could stay in L.A. for the conference finals (so I wasn't on the road for six straight weeks, including the draft). They agreed and then I had to spend the next few days convincing my wife to let me do it. She's still not totally convinced, by the way. If I end up getting divorced, I'm just going to move in with Jalen and we'll sell the ensuing sitcom to ABC.
SI.com: Why do you like being on NBA Countdown?
Simmons: Last year's reasons were because I wanted to get better on TV, because it was good for Grantland and because I wanted to be on the show that came on right after an iconic NBA game. This year's reason: I want Countdown to be a consistently creative show that doesn't look like every other Bristol show. I also like being in the house for the biggest games, and I like reaching all different types of people. My mailman didn't say anything to me for six years other than hello -- after the 2013 Finals, he was like, "Heyyyyyyyyy!" It made me remember how many people are out there, and that it's a much bigger challenge to entertain 10 million people instead of, say, 750,000. I love challenges. I love the fact that people think we can't have as consistently good of a show as "Inside the NBA" -- that it's not humanly possible. It motivates me. I am also dumb enough to think we can be as consistently good as "Inside the NBA," so that helps, too.
SI.com: How much power and influence do you have at ESPN?
Simmons: I don't know. I pitched them two interesting ideas (30 for 30 and Grantland); they greenlit them and they worked. But I can't do anything at ESPN unless someone else wants to do it. The people who run the company creatively are [ESPN president] John Skipper (obviously), [executive editor] John Walsh, [executive vice president of production] John Wildhack, [executive vice president, programming & acquisition] Norby Williamson, [executive vice president, ESPN digital and print media] John Kosner, [senior vice president, editorial, ESPN digital and print media], Rob King, [senior vice president, global strategy, business development and business affairs] Marie Donoghue and at least one person I mistakenly left out who's probably pissed off right now. Nothing happens unless they're on board. Some of those aforementioned people respect me and will always listen to a good idea. If I feel strongly about something, I know someone smart will at least consider it -- so that's been beneficial for me. But if I had real power at ESPN, then our next NBA Countdown host would be Brian Austin Green.
SI.com: You have tweaked Fox Sports 1 on podcasts and on your Twitter feed. How much latitude should ESPN's front-facing talent (and writers) have in talking publicly about the competition?
Simmons: Fox Sports 1 talked a big game before they launched and deserved a little ribbing. Remember, they were posing for magazine covers, trying to steal ESPN people, bragging about having "fun" and taking veiled shots at us. Meanwhile, the NBA previews I did with Jalen for Grantland Channel would be their highest-rated show right now. Why are we even talking about them, Deitsch? When they can come up with a show that can out-rate me and Jalen wearing the same clothes for six straight hours on YouTube, get back to me.
SI.com: Give me someone who works at ESPN who is significantly underrated and deserves more public run?
Simmons: Great question. If I vote for a Grantlander, every Grantlander that I didn't mention would take it personally. I also can't mention anyone behind the scenes who is significantly underrated because I wouldn't want Fox or NBC to steal them. (Sorry J.D, E.L. and M.K.) So I'm going with Ryen Russillo. I wish we gave him a daily NBA show and told him to hoop-nerd it up with people like George Karl, Zach Lowe, Bruce Bowen and Kirk Goldsberry. I would love that show. We have a daily NFL show but we don't have a daily NBA show? We have like 18 freaking channels! I don't get ESPN sometimes.
My other underrated vote goes to the ESPN exec who moved Outside The Lines to 8 a.m. on ESPN2, just because your incensed reaction on Twitter was my single favorite ongoing thing on the Internet ... well, until ESPN pulled out of the Frontline doc and then your Twitter reactions to that became my single favorite thing on the Internet. Your "journalism island" tweet was my favorite tweet maybe ever. What else can we do to antagonize you? Should we fire Doris Burke and the Fainaru Brothers? What if we made Bob Ley wear a cocktail dress when he hosted Outside the Lines? I really want to figure this out.
SI.com: What is the next evolution of Grantland? Where should the site be 12 months from now?
Simmons: We've gotta keep pushing. These next 12 months scare me -- I don't want us to get comfy, I want us to keep pushing and trying stuff. We had a couple of good hires recently that really helped us behind the scenes (including one that hurt your feelings), so we're humming on all cylinders right now. That Simmons guy needs to write more though -- he's killing our salary cap.
SI.com: How well do you get along with your father-in-law?
Simmons: He's a New York Giants fan. So it's always been rocky. But I don't need to misquote him -- it's much more fun to misquote his daughter.
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. My latest piece for The MMQB.com is a roundtable with eight college sports journalists on how they watch NFL football -- and the impact of social media on their viewing habits.
1a. Reporter Andrea Kremer and producer Lauren Gaffney collaborated for a strong NFL Network piece on Green Bay defensive lineman Johnny Jolly, who has returned to the NFL after a prison stint and a decades long battle with various addictions, including codeine and alcohol.
1b. Richard Sandomir of the New York Times reported that Frontline's airing of "League of Denial" drew an average of 2.2 million viewers, which was "well above the program's average of 1.5 million viewers." Sandomir reported Frontline also had one of its heaviest days of traffic to its website. I served as one of the moderators for a Frontline chat with League of Denial authors Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada.
1c. Timing and tone sometimes gets overshadowed by sports networks attempting to collect revenue. An example: Fox NFL Sunday had a thoughtful report (fronted by Laura Okmin) on Vikings running back Adrian Peterson at the top of its show with a curious lead-in: Actor Chris Hemsworth hawking his new movie Thor.
1d. The good news for Fox: It's pregame show is crushing The NFL Today, tallying 5.1 million viewers last Sunday to CBS' 2.89 million.
1e. The CBS national telecast of the Broncos-Cowboys was the most watched TV program last week with an average of 28.3 million viewers. It was the second most-watched NFL game this season behind the Packers-Niners on Sept. 8 (28.5M).
1f. Fox NFL analyst Michael Strahan on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo: "Romo is the basketball player that can't hit the clutch shot. He's the baseball player that hits well in the regular season but can't hit anything in the playoffs. I don't know what it is but at least he has a long career ahead of him in order to change this."
2. ESPN has been the Worldwide Leader in Jadeveon Clowney narratives over the past 12 months, starting with its replaying of Clowney's hit against Michigan in last year's Outback Bowl on a seemingly endless SportsCenter loop. That's been followed by a stream of ESPN analysts (led by Paul Finebaum) questioning Clowney's commitment to South Carolina football. (I personally like Finebaum a lot and I love his radio show; I also think he's been incredibly unfair to a 20-year-old kid without knowing the severity of his injuries.)
If you don't believe the network is pushing the storyline, here's an ESPN PR staffer pushing Finebaum's take to the masses. In my opinion, the network has seriously played the South Carolina junior for eyeballs, and maybe that's just a part of the 2013 sports media environment. I'd argue it's also symptomatic of those inside ESPN who lust for debate television the way a Kardashian lunges for a reality series.
What happened on Saturday, however, was absolute nonsense on arguably ESPN's best show. ESPN's GameDay, generally an unimpeachable source of accuracy, reported multiple times that Clowney did not travel on the team bus to the stadium for South Carolina's game against Arkansas. Naturally, that played into the ongoing narrative tagging Clowney as selfish and diva-like, caring only about NFL riches and not "the program."
One problem: It wasn't true.
The State (S.C.) newspaper had reported earlier in the morning that Clowney had indeed taken the bus with the team. After repeating the wrong information several times, GameDay host Chris Fowler finally apologized to viewers. "We have to make a correction and an apology," Fowler said. "Earlier information we were given out of Fayetteville was Clowney was not on the Gamecocks' team bus. That apparently is incorrect ... We are now told he was on the bus. We made something out of nothing. It is a non-story. We apologize for the misinformation earlier."
That was a pro move by Fowler, who cares greatly about accuracy. But it was another low point in the coverage of a 20-year-old kid.
2a. CBS Sports Network's Aaron Taylor, a former All-America lineman at Notre Dame, will serve as the analyst for next Saturday's CBS broadcast of Georgia-Vanderbilt. It's Taylor's first time as a game analyst on a national CBS broadcast. I emailed him this weekend to ask him for his take on Clowney.
"Right or wrong, the recent circumstances, (and what I feel was their mismanagement) make me question how important the game is to Clowney," Taylor said. "Because of how it was handled, I'm forced to speculate rather than analyze, as I don't think anyone has all of the information. And I'm not alone in my doubts as I've had several scouts (and one GM) tell me that they are also concerned, whether it be his durability, toughness or love of the game. I wonder if watching former teammate Marcus Lattimore's career-threatening injury affected him ... I know it would have affected me. But that's what insurance policies are for, which is why I took one out my senior year at Notre Dame. What's a shame is that the college football world, me included, is talking about this, instead of what an incredible career he has had, or the fact that the SEC East is a wide-open free for all.
"I feel that all national media, CBS included, has a responsibility with how we portray and "leverage" these special young men. As fans, all we saw this offseason was "The Hit" versus Michigan. The talk was about Clowney being Top 3 overall last year (were he allowed to come out), and how he would be a shoo-in as No. 1 overall pick after the upcoming 2013 season. Then it got hot: a stomach virus. Then a foot. Ribs. We are now criticizing this kid via a relentless news cycle on multiple platforms with the same disregard as a parent who gives his kid a plate of cookies for dinner, and then wonders why he won't settle down and "act like big boy" at bed time. At the risk of channeling my inner Dr. Phil, I see a lot of similarities between what's starting to happen in college football and the emotional and developmental challenges that extreme fame, attention and notoriety causes for other extremely celebrated people/players."
2b. The Oct. 5 broadcast of Fox College Saturday on Fox Sports 1 drew 80,000 viewers. At the same time, the Newlywed Game on Game Show Network drew 223,000 viewers. ESPN's CollegeGameDay drew 1.68 million.
2c. Nice effort by Fox Sports 1's Andy Roddick interviewing Texas coach Mack Brown this weekend.
3. Doris Burke has built her broadcasting career on a couple of simple precepts: Preparation, information and smart queries. I reported last week that Burke had been added to NBA Countdown on Wednesdays. It's a move I really like. Personality-wise, Burke isn't a look-at-me broadcaster. She has a different on-air tone than current Countdown staffers Doug Collins, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons, and that will provide a good contrast for the audience. Studio shows are about chemistry, so we'll see how Burke works with new partners, but kudos to ESPN management for highlighting one of its smarter basketball talents.
3a. ESPN announced last week it had reached a multi-year agreement with Doug Collins, who will work on NBA Countdown as well as be a game analyst for select telecasts.
3b. Ken Fang of Awful Announcing reported that Bill Walton is negotiating with ESPN for a return to calling NBA games. Let's hope this happens -- with authority!
3c. Fantastic news that the Orange County Register has hired Basketball Hall of Fame writer Mark Heisler as an NBA columnist.
4. Basketball analyst Greg Anthony, who works for Turner Sports, NBA TV and CBS Sports, confirmed that he'll be on the game broadcast for the NCAA Final Four and title game in 2014. (TBS will air the Final Four; CBS has the final). "I'm very excited about the opportunity," Anthony said. "I love basketball -- collegiate, professional, high school -- so to get the opportunity to call the Final Four is beyond my wildest dreams ... I'm pretty opinionated but I feel like I am fair. I also feel like I have a responsibility to the game to continue to try to promote it in its best light and also call it to task when things have not gone necessarily in a manner in which it should. That is pretty much what you will get from me."
5. ESPN will shift the staffing of its women's college basketball studio show this season. Longtime game analyst Rebecca Lobo will move to the studio to join Kara Lawson while Carolyn Peck will now work as a game analyst. Lawson and Lobo will be paired (along with host Kevin Negandhi) for Selection Monday and throughout the NCAA tournament, including live coverage from the Final Four in Nashville. "Over the years I've grown to realize how much work and preparation go into covering games as an analyst and how important it is in studio to have a broad knowledge of the teams in the women's game." Lobo said in an email. "I obviously hope to give the viewer a better understanding of why things are happening on the court and will deliver it as a woman who has the experience of not only watching the game for a lot of years, but having "been there" myself.
Lobo said she and Lawson have a great relationship away from the camera and she expected it to translate on camera. "She has been so good for us in studio for a lot of years and I'm eager to sit beside her this season," Lobo said. "I expect we'll see some things differently since she spent her career facing the basket and I spent mine with my back to it. (I think posts and guards tend to see the game a little differently overall.) My family is just hoping that I'll get through the season without letting Kara turn me vegan. I'm not sure they could handle that."
5a. Peck will be assigned primarily to Sunday games, including a majority of the ESPN Sunday package with Pam Ward. She also has five men's games on her schedule.
5b. While Lobo will be in studio most of the season, she will call a handful of regular-season games. Lobo and Lawson will be covering UConn's First Night celebration on Friday beginning at 7 p.m. on ESPN3.
6. In what should be a future column for ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, Bob Burns, a Blackfeet Elder and the father-in-law of ESPN columnist Rick Reilly, wrote a piece for the Indian Country Today Media Network claiming Reilly misquoted him and mischaracterized his views on the Washington Redskins name. Reilly responded on Twitter, standing by his reporting and that he accurately quoted his father-in-law.
On Sunday, an ESPN spokesperson told SI.com: We stand by Rick's reporting."
7. This week's notable sports pieces:
• Chicago Tribune sports writer Paul Sullivan examined Steve Bartman 10 years after the foul ball.
• SI's Thomas Lake debuted SI Longform with his piece on how race and recollection still frame an Alabama football fatality 40 years later.
• Alan Abrahamson of 3 Wire Sports on why U.S. women's water polo head coach Adam Krikorian was awarded the U.S. Olympic Committee's top award for sportsmanship and fair play.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• The New York Times ran a fascinating piece adapted from Peter Baker's new book, "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House."
• Want to get angry? Read this Kansas City Star story about football and privilege in a Missouri town.
• Nick Kristof on sex trafficking in America.
• The Economist obit on Vo Nguyen Giap.
• New ESPN employee Nate Silver wrote his first piece ("The Six Big Takeaways From the Government Shutdown") under the temporary home for his upcoming FiveThirtyEight website
8. Fox Sports Originals, Relativity Television and Major League Baseball Productions have combined to produce a 90-minute documentary on Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The program. "Being: Mariano Rivera" followed Rivera around for the entire season including at his home, to a late August saltwater fishing trip in Clearwater, Florida with teammate Andy Pettitte and a private lunch in Boston with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. The show premieres next Sunday on Fox (2:30 or 4:30 p.m. ET; check local listings), with an encore presentation on Tuesday, Oct. 22 on Fox Sports 1 (9:30 p.m. ET).
"First and foremost it's a testament to who Mariano really is -- his beliefs, his will, his talent, his courage and his drive," said Michael Bloom, Fox Sports' Senior Vice President, Original Programming. "He and [Rivera's wife] Clara opened their lives to us this past season. They literally allowed us in and let our cameras capture what turned out to be transformational journey for their whole family ... It's a unique film because you will be able to feel what Mariano felt the whole season right up through and after he walked off the field that final incredible night at Yankee Stadium. You will also get to see what's next for him. We were really very lucky and privileged to be trusted with such amazing access."
8a. Fox Sports director Bill Webb and coordinating producer Pete Macheska -- two acclaimed production people in sports television -- were on the top of their game Saturday night with the production of Detroit's 1-0 ALCS win over Boston. Among the terrific touches: A cut to the famed Fenway Park left field scoreboard to show the audience when the scoreboard operator placed the lone "H" by the Red Sox.
8b. Fox's telecast of Game 1 of the ALCS Series between Boston and Detroit drew 6.8 million viewers, tying 2010 as FOX's highest-rated Game 1 of an LCS since Angels-Yankees in 2009 (8.4 million). Fox said the game was up two percent over last year's NLCS Game 1 on FOX (Cardinals-Giants).
8c. TBS has averaged 4.7 million total viewers through the opening two games of the NLCS between the Cardinals and Dodgers. Last year's TBS coverage of the Tigers sweeping the Yankees averaged 5.92 million total viewers over the four games.
9. Sports Business Daily writers John Ourand and Christopher Botta reported that MLS has started negotiations to extend its media deals with ESPN and the NBC Sports Group. SBD reported ESPN and NBC currently pay around $18 million combined annually for rights to MLS games and U.S. men's and women's national team games through deals that expire next year. According to SBD sources, the MLS is looking to more than double that figure, bringing in $40 million to $50 million per year.
10. A very troubling piece by Jason Lisk of Big Lead Sports illustrating what looks like a clear case of plagiarism in Dallas.
10a. Last Sunday morning's Outside The Lines drew the same rating as Colin Cowherd's new football last week despite being on an hour later on ESPN2. As for the raw numbers: Outside the Lines averaged 217,000 total viewers while Colin's New Football Show averaged 252,000.
10b. Nice job by ESPN PR highlighting some hard-working production people who work for ESPN Audio.
10c. The next 30 for 30 film is No Más, which premieres on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN and chronicles the rivalry of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran.
10d. For those who live in a tabloid town, this is great work by Brian Bassett on Jets quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith.