ESPN's Rachel Nichols talks life in the NBA bubble - Sports Illustrated

Rachel Nichols Adding Human Element to Coverage of Life in NBA Bubble

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Before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Rachel Nichols will interview NBA Commissioner Adam Silver from inside the bubble on the NBA Countdown pre-game show. An interview with Silver is fitting, as Nichols has helped define league coverage all summer long. She stayed in front of every major story, while also adding a human touch to the players and coaches she covers.

Two decades into her career covering the NBA, Nichols brings a level of professionalism and accuracy to her work at ESPN. The NBA benefits from her important role, as she delivers first-rate journalism for those involved in the game of basketball. She receives quite an honor this postseason, when she will hand out the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to the league champion.

Speaking with Sports Illustrated, Nichols discussed life in the bubble, covering the NBA amidst a pandemic, and the honor of handing out the championship trophy to the winner of this year’s Finals.

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Justin Barrasso: You have been in the bubble for almost the entire time since the NBA season restarted. What’s your experience been like?

Rachel Nichols: One of the reasons I wanted to be sure to be right at the beginning was to watch how this giant experiment was going to unfold. It was absolutely fascinating to me. There were 22 teams participating at one place all at once, and this was bigger than a basketball experiment or a sports experiment. It was a national experiment to keep people safe in the face of this virus. At the beginning, there was so much curiosity. To the NBA’s credit, safety in the bubble has been kind of routine. And the basketball has been phenomenal.

Barrasso: You are always seeking that next story, and you consistently do so in a manner that highlights a different angle and uncovers new information. There are so many examples of that from your time in the bubble, with one that particularly resonates being a feature on Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat. Which stories are you especially proud of from your time in the bubble?

Nichols: Some of the slice of life stories have been really fun. It seems like such tiny details, but showing how the mailroom works here, that turned out to be a story where people that kept people talking—every week, a variety of people, some that I wouldn’t have ever expected, have reached out to me about that story. But when you have a closed-bubble campus, and you have to get hundreds of pounds of equipment in every day, along with everything else—boxes, packages, Amazon shipments for the players, new pillows for the player’s outdoors lounge—there was a fascinating process behind it. The inner-workings were so fascinating, which is how this simple, little slice of life piece about a mailroom turned into one of the more visited stories we’ve done down here.

Some of the more traditional parts of my job are also a highlight, and that’s having conversations with players. Talking to Chris Paul, who was so important from the player’s side about making this all work, from a logistical standpoint to all of the really meaningful conversations about social justice and how the players could be leaders. I sat down with Jimmy Butler before the playoffs even started, and he told me that the Heat were going to win the whole thing. At the time, everyone said, "That’s just Jimmy," but here they are in the NBA Finals.

I had also really wanted to do something with Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brothers. It’s crazy to think about—all these players came to the bubble and they weren’t with their families, but Antetokounmpo has two brothers also in the NBA and they were all staying at the same hotel. I did a piece with them where we all played Uno together, which is one of the big pastimes in the bubble, and it was phenomenal to see their family dynamic and their legendary competitiveness.

That’s something we never would have been able to do if we weren’t in the bubble. One of the parts I’ve enjoyed best is telling the stories that wouldn’t have applied in any other postseason.

Barrasso: Part of the difficulty of life in the bubble is being away from family, and you have been away from your two children. Merging together your personal and professional lives, you hosted The Jump on site each day in the bubble. Obviously you still missed your children, but how much did the preparation and execution of a daily show help keep you focused on work?

Nichols: Having the daily show has been so great because there are so many stories about being here that fall in between the games. The action on the floor has been incredible, but there have also been so many stories that didn’t fit into the games. Being able to have this daily place to meet and talk about the NBA has been great, and for our analysts, like Richard Jefferson, who’s here inside the bubble, and our analysts around the country. I love that our show has been able to be that kitchen table to talk about this incredibly exciting time in the league, although obviously a very difficult time for our country.

For me, personally, I have twin nine-year-old girls. I was fortunate enough to see them for a couple weeks and be with my family, and that was incredibly important and meaningful to me. I admire the people that have gone the whole way through, because going home for me for even a couple weeks was a real big deal. I’ll be away for 11 or 12 weeks in total, depending on how long the finals go, which is a quarter of the year I’ll miss being with my kids.

Barrasso: You have covered this league for over two decades, establishing an elite standard as a journalist. The NBA has predominantly been run and operated by men, but you have set a tremendous example of hard work, integrity, and questioning what needs to be questioned. What has been your experience covering the NBA?

Nichols: It’s changed significantly since I started. I have been fortunate to cover a little bit of everything in my career, and that includes football, baseball, golf, the Olympics, and college sports, but the NBA has consistently been a more welcoming place for women, even 20 years back. And there has still been a tremendous amount of change.

Earlier in the bubble, the Raptors’ director of team communications [Jennifer Quinn] was talking about a playoff series in the early 2000s. She was remarking that she, myself, and one other reporter were the only women in the couple hundred media in the arena. We’ve come so far since then. I look around the arena now and I see all the women playing key roles, and there are also women doing that across the league. When you have more of a diversity and perspective, and you’re drawing from the whole pool of possible workers, that makes the league better. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Barrasso: The NBA is usually always one step ahead in its milestones and memorials, but not honoring Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her passing was a misstep. Even before she was a Supreme Court Justice, she fought for human rights. You proudly spoke about Bader Ginsburg. Why was she so important to you?

Nichols: For me, when you are a league that celebrates equality and really has equality as a core value, you need to take a minute to celebrate the icons of that equality. The NBA has done that so well, and here in the bubble, too, honoring civil rights activist John Lewis and Chadwick Boseman, who gave so much inspiration through the roles he brought to life.

If you’re celebrating the icons of equality, those icons can’t be the people that only helped the men. There are so many women in the inner-workings of the NBA, and they play such an important role. They make the league a better place, and they would not work there if not for the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is a direct line there, from her work as a Supreme Court Justice and even what she accomplished before that.

Barrasso: There have been so many rich basketball stories during the playoffs, from the rise of the Nuggets, the demise of the Clippers, the Heat’s dominance of the Eastern Conference, and LeBron James's pursuit of his next championship in L.A. You have a very dignified way of covering the men that play in the league, treating them first as people and second as basketball players. In terms of your coverage, you are always mindful of pursuing a story, but also doing it the right way. Is that a fair assessment of your work?

Nichols: I hope it is. You always hope to do it the right way. You don’t always get it right, and when I get it wrong, I hope I do a better job the next time. It’s also important for me to repay the respect that so many people I cover give me. I have been in plenty of work environments covering other sports where they have not been as respectful of the women that make up the members of the media. The people across the NBA make it a point to be respectful with you.

I know I’m not going to get it right every time, and I think it’s really important to say that, especially for younger journalists out there. We’re all going to fall and make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes, you just hope that you can own up to them and do right by all those people the next time.

Barrasso: The Lakers have jumped out to a two-game lead to start the NBA Finals. What has stood out to you most so far in the series?

Nichols: It’s probably the most relatable trip to the Finals for LeBron James. For someone who is super human in a lot of ways, here is he, in a bubble in quarantine, having his home and work life upended by COVID. He said the other day that the past three months have felt like three years. I think we all can relate to that. He’s three months away from being 36, which makes him the old guy in the office, and I think there are a lot of people who can relate to all the things LeBron has been marching toward and marching through on the way to this Finals. And Jimmy Butler is incredibly relatable, too. He’s such a great story, such a fighter, so there are such great storylines in this NBA Finals. Whoever comes out of this as champion, they will have earned it.

Barrasso: You have the opportunity to hand out the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy to this year’s champion. What does that mean to you?

Nichols: That is such a privilege and something I never dared dream. What an honor. Trying to live up to anything the great Doris Burke has done is impossible, but I’ll do the best I can. It’s something I can’t wait to do.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.