Rise of a multi-media superstar
Separately, Grantland founder Bill Simmons and former NBA star Jalen Rose are appealing–as producers of crowd-pleasing content (Mr. Simmons produces a reader-driven mailbag column and Mr. Rose’s mantra comes from the O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” ), both healthily obsessed with the NBA. Together they are one of the most interesting duos at ESPN, which has had success pairing personalities (i.e. the inseparable Jemele Hill and Michael Smith; in the past year they have launched a successful podcast and are a formidable duo on Numbers Never Lie). Mr. Simmons and Mr. Rose have developed an on-camera chemistry that makes Mike & Mike look like a failed experiment.
Mr. Simmons’ Book of Basketball has been called a Bible for hoops. His status has, of all things possible, afforded him a lengthy interview with the reclusive Bill Russell, in his home for hours on end. Mr. Rose however has finagled his chemistry with Mr. Simmons, his devotion to entertainment value and lasting connectedness to the league to emerge as one of ESPN’s most versatile talents. He knows college hoops and the pros with extensive contacts across the coaching and management ranks. He’s developed into an excellent studio analyst. His foray into multimedia has been marked by his work on the Internet, namely his podcast on the Grantland network.
Their chemistry was on full view during the Grantland-produced “Bill and Jalen’s 2013 NBA Preview”, a series of 18-20 minute videos which ranked and discussed each NBA team’s season. The videos analyzed shot charts of specific players, explored summer roster moves and let Rose loose on the topic of the city’s nightlife offerings.
Had he anticipated the experiment to be as huge as it was? “I actually did,â€ Mr. Rose says without hesitation. “That’s why we did them.â€
In one sitting, Mr. Rose says, he, Mr. Simmons and the producers sat there for seven straight hours without eating or using the bathroom, and did it again the second day for five hours. “And the last time we did it for three-and-a-half.â€
Grantland insiders aren’t shy about how grueling the process was, and Mr. Simmons, for his part seemed to feign mild resentment, saying at the end of the series, “That was a lot of work. I don’t know if we’re ever doing this again. It might have ended [David] Jacoby’s marriage, and I know it almost ended mine.â€
But to Mr. Rose it represents the kind of dedication it takes to deliver content people will gravitate to, the kind he insists they want. “We wanted to show commitment to it. That’s like the work that you put in in the gym during practice that people don’t see. It’s a good lesson for young people that want to get into this industry. If you’re fortunate to be talented enough, you’ve still got to do the research and put the work in.â€
Mr. Rose’s determination last year was crucial to last year’s NBA Countdown show, which featured Mr. Simmons and Mr. Rose, but also Magic Johnson and Michael Wilbon — both whom have since departed. Without a regular host, Mr. Rose welcomed the challenge of getting the broadcast in and out of breaks and sometimes pivot the discussion, Hussein said.
“I almost feel like we did him a disservice,â€ she said laughing recently. “But the fact that he was willing to take on that challenge speaks to his personality and the competitor in him. He’s definitely excited about challenges and he loves what he does, and always wants to do more. The benefit of having Sage [Steele] is now he’s solely an analyst. I think now he can focus solely on his points and formulating his opinions.â€
ESPN extended Mrs. Steele’s contract in October, making her part of the Countdown team. She and Mr. Rose knew each other from when he played for the Indiana Pacers and she was a reporter at the local CBS affiliate.
“I’m an interesting linchpin because I’ve gotten the chance to work with each one of these individuals in my last 12 years doing media,â€ Mr. Rose said of Mr. Simmons, Mrs. Steele and new addition Doug Collins. “It’s our job to not try and emulate the previous edition. We need to be informative, funny, current and the type of show that when people watch, feel like they learned something that they didn’t know. The product speaks for itself.â€
As for the new look and feel of the show, Mr. Rose vehemently denies that Simmons had anything to do with Johnson’s departure from the show, a rumor that had been promulgated by the sports blog Deadspin. Hearing of the rumor, he says was, “almost like being on a team in the locker room and knowing certain guys’ dynamic on the team, then you read something in the newspaper that’s totally off the team dynamic.”
“Magic Johnson,â€ he continued, “is one of the most successful people that just happens to play basketball in the world — he’s a Hall of Fame mogul. And I love Bill Simmons. But if somebody actually thinks that Bill Simmons has the power to run Magic Johnson off of anything … Magic Johnson could probably own Bill Simmons’ house right now if he wanted to.â€