As they sat down for lunch last August at The Palm in Beverly Hills, ESPN Coordinating Producer Amina Hussein made it clear to Paul Pierce that her company was seriously interested in having him work as an NBA studio analyst. A post-playing role in sports broadcasting was something Pierce had long been interested in—he enjoyed his previous guest work for TNT, ESPN as well as in Boston while playing for the Celtics—but Pierce was still itching to play a 19th NBA season. He ultimately opted to play one final year for the Clippers but announced early he would retire whenever the Clippers did. With Pierce having come to a decision about his playing tenure, Hussein set up another meeting this February at NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans which included herself, Connor Schell, an ESPN senior vice president and executive producer of original content, and ESPN’s vice president of original content Kevin Wildes. In the Big Easy, the trio made the hard sell: ESPN wanted Pierce as a guest analyst on NBA Countdown for this year’s NBA Finals, as well spots on some other NBA-centric studio shows including The Jump.
The partnership has been a success. Pierce, a future Hall of Famer, has added edge and additional bona fides to Countdown and well as the Rachel Nichols-led The Jump afternoon show. ESPN executives have been so impressed by Pierce’s work that they have let him know they are interested in bringing him in fulltime for the 2017-18 season. Pierce said he and his reps will sit down with ESPN executives after the Finals but this is something he wants. Nothing is official but take this one to Vegas: Next year’s fulltime NBA Countdown group will be Michele Beadle, Chauncey Billups, Jalen Rose, and Pierce.
“I can work in LA, which is where I am from, and I am already used to people at the network after working with them the last two years,” said Pierce, in an interview earlier this week. “And Beadle makes everyone feel comfortable. It just feels natural to me talking hoops and analyzing the game. I feel like I have been doing it forever.”
“He has been a breath of fresh air and his credentials and personality work well with Jalen, Chauncey and Beadle,” Hussein said. “What I have always liked about Paul from a far and even more now working with him is that he is honest not afraid of the moment.”
In an email, she added a hashtag: #truthjuice lol
Pierce’s basketball nickname was “The Truth” and he’s been candid during his Countdown and Jump trial, most notably receiving national attention and endless social media responses for saying after Game 2 of the NBA Finals that he believed Kevin Durant “may be the best player in the world today.” (Check out the clip above: It’s worth watching Biliups’ stunned look on his face as he repeats the word “today” back to Pierce.) I asked Pierce about the reaction to naming someone other than LeBron James as the game’s best player. (Remember, this was prior to Game 3 when Durant had a legacy-making final quarter.)
“What I am seeing right before my eyes is this is the changing of the guard,” Pierce said. “I didn’t know it would garner this type of reaction. It’s like people don’t want to accept it right now because LeBron has been doing what he has done over the last couple of years but I just feel like this is Durant’s time. I just said what I felt at that time. Everybody was like, ‘You are a LeBron hater and you are mad that he put you out of playoffs.’ That’s not it. I am just stating what I see and this is what I see. We all know Durant is a great scorer but what he is doing defensively has made me change my tune about him. I could see the Warriors winning the next two or three championships and then we are in the Durant Era. I’m just calling it early.”
As far as his work for ESPN during these Finals, Pierce said he is much more comfortable this year given the additional reps. (He did some guest work on The Jump during the NBA All Star Game, so ESPN execs have been scouting him for some time.)
This year Pierce is more apt to jump into conversations without being prompted. He said it helps that he has longstanding relationships with Billups and Rose. In talking to Pierce, I didn’t get the impression he needed to be the studio alpha dog. He said heading forward he could see himself working both in the studio or as a game analyst.
“You can tell from interviewing someone over the years if they're going be good on TV,” Nichols said. “So I always knew Paul would be good. But we had an amazing moment on The Jump last year, when Paul came on as a guest, with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady—the chemistry was just off the charts. So ever since then every time I'd see Paul, it would be all one sentence: ‘Hey, how are you, gonna be fun when you to come work with us when you're done playing.’ It became such a running joke, that when the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs this season—Paul gave an impromptu retirement press conference in the locker room—there were about 30 reporters gathered around, and someone asked him if he knew what his plans were post-playing career. All I did was clear my throat (loudly) and Paul just cracked up, and said something like ‘we can refer to Rachel there in the back.’ Bottom line: We knew how much we wanted him; he knew how much we wanted him. And he's been as fantastic as we'd hoped. He's tremendous.”
I asked Pierce what has been toughest challenge for him on air. He thought about it for some time before answering.
“The most challenging thing,” he said, laughing, “is my ear piece has fallen out a ton of times on The Jump.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. For the last 15 years NBC NHL broadcaster Mike Emrick has spent part of his August vacation in Michigan listening to tapes or recordings of young sports broadcasters plying their trade. It’s an offer he makes to broadcasting or journalism classes whenever he does a guest lecture but here is something that I found amazing: Emrick actually gave his email on air for any broadcaster to contact him during a recent interview with Nashville sports-talk station 102.5 The Game in Nashville as well as during a speech at this year’s Sports Emmy awards. Given Emrick is arguably the best working play-by-play broadcaster in the United States, regardless of sport, that’s pretty amazing.
“My wife Joyce and I are always on vacation in Michigan and I can usually listen to one or two a day,” Emrick said this week. “I usually e-mail or handwrite my thoughts to them while I am listening so it’s more stream-of-consciousness than anything else. Some send five to ten minutes, others an hour. I save the discs. I have one from John Walton during his days with the AHL Hershey Bears [Walton is now calling the Capitals] and a Jack Michaels cassette—yes a cassette!—that must be from 10 years ago from the ECHL Alaska Aces. [Michaels now calls the Edmonton Oilers’ games]. I normally make this offer when I am speaking at school broadcasting or journalism classes. This past year I was at Fordham, Northwestern, Point Park and also on NHL.com, a Nashville radio station, and at the Emmys. I won't know until August how many respond. Perhaps in this immediacy-culture some won't want to wait until August but that's when I have the time to listen to them."
“I would say the typical things I notice in a radio call are: One, time and score. Of course radio listeners can never have it enough because on TV it is always available; two, location of the puck— it’s hard to get the names in, and position—near boards, far boards, left wing, right wing, center ice, defensive zone; three, occasional team names—not everyone listening knows the roster of both teams. Once in a while, if the possession is changing you can mention, "Watson takes over for the Predators" so that it establishes which team has it. TV of course is easier because once people learn the uniforms they know possession. I would add that were I to do radio, as I did once this winter at Bowling Green, those would be the
three criticisms of myself. Because they are the hardest things to accomplish when people cannot see the game: score, position, and which team has it? It’s like the t-shirts that have all the things for the perfect golf shot printed on them upside down so that when you are looking down at the ball you can read them. Hilarious. Same way with these aspects of radio.”
Emrick is the son of a high school principal and guidance counselor and holds a PhD in communications from Bowling Green State University He is the rare sports broadcaster who owns a PhD in something other than ego. Education is important to him, as is paying it forward. When Emrick was a first-year doctoral student at Bowling Green in Ohio, in an effort to sate his academic responsibilities and gain some insight into the work-a-day-life of a professional sports broadcaster, he embarked on a rigorous exploration of the history of baseball broadcasting. With Detroit only an hour or so up the road, Emrick reached out to the Tigers organization. Yes, he was told, Mr. Harwell would be happy to meet with you. Later on, Ernie Harwell would become Emrick’s de facto academic advisor.
1a.Fascinating report by Sports Business Journal writers John Lombardo & David Broughton on the median age of sports television viewers increasing for just about every sport. Three findings that really stood out for me:
• The median age of pro wrestling viewers jumped by 26 years since 2000. That has to be frightening for WWE executives and USA Network.
• The NHL’s median age increased by 16 years.
• The NBA barely moved up, with the median age of viewers at 42, up only two from 2000.
2. Episode 123 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Ken Rosenthal, a senior writer for FOXSports.com, a field reporter for MLB on FOX, and an insider for MLB Network.
In this podcast Rosenthal discusses the value of transactional reporting; how at 22 he was told by a Newsday sports editor to get out of journalism and go to law school; how competitive baseball reporting is; his relationship with agents and whether he gets used; how to transition to sports television from print; his rocky relationship with Cal Ripken and Peter Angelos while working as a columnist for the Baltimore Sun; his reaction to ESPN baseball personnel such a Jayson Stark being laid off; why Max Scherzer would be an excellent broadcaster; how he feels about sabermetrics in baseball writing; why the Astros are built for regular season success but maybe not the postseason; how he feels about a baseball team doing what the Golden State Warriors did in terms of creating a superteam, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
3. Last week I wrote about a grand experiment from Fox Sports: For Saturday’s live broadcast of the Nascar Xfinity Series race from Pocono Raceway, Fox used a crew of current NASCAR Cup Series drivers for its broadcast team. Kevin Harvick served as the play-by-play announcer alongside analysts Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Danica Patrick and Denny Hamlin hosted the race coverage from the Hollywood Hotel mobile studio while Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. served as the cover pit road reporters.
I’m not a regular Xfinity Series watcher but I checked out some of the pre-race show and the first 45 minutes of the race and I thought it was a compelling production. First, Fox NASCAR producer Pam Miller made a very smart decision by letting the viewers see the active drivers getting ready to take over the coverage—getting mics on, hanging out away from the cameras, etc.—that added to the reality of the switch. Fox also didn’t waste time at the top of the race broadcast by having any kind of long handoff from the regular broadcast team. The result was viewers seeing how Harvick & Co. could handle stuff on the fly. The broadcast didn’t flow as smooth as a regular broadcast but that actually made it far more interesting. They should try to make this an annual thing.
One overwhelming takeaway: Harvick has a huge future in NASCAR sports broadcasting should he desire that job following his post-racing career. He was as sharp as any regular NASCAR series broadcaster. I also enjoyed Patrick using “Boom, goes the dynamite” as a tag line to send it to the announcing team. The production was a good reminder that Fox Sports isn’t just bashing LeBron James, John Wall and Colin Kaepernick for profit. There are a lot of talented people who work there.
3a. The AP reported earlier this week that John Strong, Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden will be Fox’s top broadcast team for the 2018 World Cup. Given the announced on-air talent for the upcoming Confederations Cup in Russia, expect the studio to be some kind of combination of Kate Abo, Rob Stone, Alexi Lalas, Arne Friedrich, Fernando Fiore, Aly Wagner and Mariano Trujillo and Eric Wynalda.
4. Non-sports pieces of notes:
• Brilliant, haunting and sobering work by John Woodrow Cox of The Washington Post: The story of four first graders still haunted by a school shooting: This is one of the best (and hardest) things I’ve read in 2017.
• The most important piece Mitch Albom has ever written.
• From David French of National Review: We’re Not in a Civil War, but We Are Drifting Toward Divorce.
• Lizzie Presser wrote about three siblings left behind in Arizona when their mother was deported to Mexico. Incredible piece.
• From NYT’s Michael Wilson: Solved: The 47-Year Mystery of a Murder Victim’s Many Identities.
• A great media and culture piece by Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed on the race to get the top response under a Trump tweet
• New York Times reporter Sarah Lyall flew around America for eight days: Here’s what happened.
Sports pieces of note:
• The end of a college baseball program. Terrific work by Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News:
• This Players Tribune piece by Mike Bossy is tremendous. Really poignant:
• Yahoo’s Eric Adelson on the public awareness of CTE:
• From Cindy Shmerler, writing for the New York Times: Kathleen Horvath was the only person to beat Martina Navratilova in 1983. Now she's guiding her son's tennis career.
• From Chuck Wasserstrom of MLB Trade Rumors: A conversation with Jayson Stark:
• SI’s Andy Staples on Bob Stoops. Staples played for Stoops while Stoops was an assistant at Florida.
• The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis, on the ever-lasting impact of Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules” book.
• ESPN’s Sam Borden on the tragedy of Chapecoense soccer.
• Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs on the odd remarks of Red Sox analyst Jerry Remy.
5. ESPN said its Women’s College World Series coverage averaged a total live audience of 984,000 viewers across the 14 games (June 1-6), up 21% from last year’s event (15 games, including a three-game WCWS Finals).
5a. Vice Sports profiled Chris Puckett, the voice of Major League Gaming.
5b. The Ringer’s Haley O'Shaughnessy examined the stereotype of the NBA sideline reporter position: young, blond and female, and the few exceptions.
5c. The Oregonian editor Mark Katches on why his outlet published top Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich's felony conviction.
5d. NBC sports host Bob Costas offered a tribute to Frank Deford during the Belmont Stakes.
5e. Fox Sports vice president of research Michael Mulvihill said last week’s James Comey testimony drew a 14.3 overnight rating for on three broadcast nets and three cable news nets. (The final viewership number was 19.5 million.) That was the same overnight rating, via SBJ’s Austin Karp, that NBC drew for the Seahawks’ come-from-behind win over the Patriots in Week 10 of Sunday Night Football in 2016. The final viewership number for Seahawks-Pats was 22.5 million.
5f. Terrible news about a longtime Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine staffer: Jane Bachman Wulf, the longtime chief of reporters for SI and the wife of former SI and current ESPN writer Steve Wulf, passed away over the weekend after a long battle with cancer. Here are tributes from former SI staffers Jeff Pearlman and Joe Posnanski.