Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
Taylor Rooks has always had a knack for starting a conversation. At 29 years old, the Emmy-nominated broadcaster is one of the most talkative and talked-about sports journalists in the business.
“I was such an annoying kid,” she laughs. “My mom makes jokes about how I would ask a billion questions a day. I was always talking.”
That constant chatter seemed to be foreshadowing for a storied career. Rooks has a relentlessly busy schedule anchoring, reporting and hosting shows for Bleacher Report and Turner Sports; reporting courtside this winter for actor Michael B. Jordan’s new HBCU basketball showcase Hoop Dreams Classic; hosting NBA Twitter Live during the 2022 All-Star weekend; making a cameo in the upcoming film National Champions; and starring in the new short promotional film Blind Faith for Off-White and Jordan Brand, where her character zooms around hairpin turns on a motorcycle and then kicks the a-- of who seems to be the bad guy. And she hasn’t even turned 30 yet.
“I’m just getting started,” Rooks says.
Add in the nearly 1,500 interviews and sports reports she’s aired in less than a decade—many of them with jaw-dropping revelations from superstar athletes, celebrities and entertainers—and it’s hard to deny the impact she’s making in the sports world.
Rooks has interviewed and held court with the legends—LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, just to name a few. Many of her interviews have gone viral because of her ability to get her guests to talk candidly about real life. During a recent interview, WNBA champion Candace Parker dropped a bombshell when she told Rooks the only reason she didn’t make the 2016 Olympics team is because coach Geno Auriemma doesn’t like her. Dwayne Wade once confessed to Rooks that he can’t watch his wife, Gabrielle Union, in on-screen love scenes. And Atlanta Hawks guard Lou Williams admitted he cried when the Clippers traded him and told Rooks he’s planning to retire. In an industry where success is measured by access and exclusives, Rooks is applying pressure, without even trying.
“I don’t think about it like that,” she says. “Success for me isn’t about accolades or recognition. It’s about getting people to trust me, to open up and have these conversations with me because I care about what they have to say.”
Her technique was on full display last year when she was one of only a few journalists selected to cover the NBA from inside the bubble at Disney World. “Every single pressure point in society was cooking in that bubble from the pandemic to the social-justice movements happening, so my stories couldn’t just be about the games and wins and losses,” Rooks says. “I felt a responsibility to talk to the players about their experiences inside the bubble and to take them away from the isolation. I asked questions to bring some levity to a situation that was really heavy for a lot of people.”
Rooks’s insightful coverage landed her a side gig as the featured writer for GQ magazine’s monumental “Men of the Year” Issue. Her article about the NBA bubble gave an in-depth look at how strange the start of that experiment was, but how beautiful and life-changing it became for many who were there.
Rooks’s style is natural and thorough. And her research is extensive—she comes prepared with facts, stats, honest questions and no fear. “My dad used to write me a letter every day before he left for work. Sometimes it would just say, ‘Work hard,’ or, ‘Don’t be complacent.’ And he would ask me every single day, ‘O.K., are you going to be a leader or a follower?’ and I’d have to tell him how I would lead.” She says that built her confidence and trained her to look for ways to connect with people. “My parents taught me to enjoy people and to never feel nervous when I’m speaking. That sticks with me today.”
She comes from a family of committed sports fans. Rooks grew up in Georgia when Michael Vick was Atlanta’s savior. Her dad and uncles played sports, her mom loved going to games. “[Sports have] always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she says.
Her family tree is ripe with star athletes, too. Her dad, Thomas, was a record-setting running back at the University of Illinois, and she’s got two uncles who played professional sports: Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Brock, and NFL veteran Marv Woodson. Somehow, the sports phenom gene skipped her. “I played soccer growing up and ran track and played tennis in high school, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a standout. But in a weird way, I wanted to be a star, too. So, I played to my strength and focused on talking.”
Rooks launched her career in 2012 while a junior at the University of Illinois. She and a friend somehow obtained an NBA press credential and drove from Champaign to Orlando to cover the NBA All-Star weekend. “I interviewed anyone I could to build my reel. Fox Sports/Scout.com saw my stuff and hired me, and I finally started getting paid.”
From there she started working with the Big Ten Network while still in school and landed a full-time job with the network when she graduated.
“I think one thing that set me apart from everyone else then and now, is that I go into every interview wanting to unlock something new,” Rooks says. “What have I not heard them discuss? What story have they not told? Or, we only know a piece of this, I want them to expand on it.”
Though she’s riding a wave of popularity, Rooks remains grounded and celebrates the accomplished sisterhood of Black women in sports journalism. “I’m so proud of all of us who are here and for those coming up next because we’re all so special, so talented and good at what we do,” she says.
“I saw Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and it stung for a second because so many of us never make it on these lists. And then I thought, this is small potatoes. The impact we make in people’s lives means so much more. I’ve carved a lane for myself that can’t be measured by anyone else. The work that I do, the people who trust me enough to talk to me, and the people who enjoy the conversations we have will always be my focus. And for me that’s everything and enough.”
Madelyne Woods is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.