Behind the scenes of NBA Countdown: Chemistry and striking a balance

Behind the scenes of NBA Countdown: Chemistry and striking a balance

A year-and-and-a-half ago, ESPN made significant changes to “NBA Countdown.”

Jalen Rose was the only on-air talent who returned from the previous iteration, and ESPN was surrounding him with Paul Pierce, Jay Williams and Adrian Wojnarowski, with Maria Taylor handling hosting duties. Amina Hussein, an Emmy-Award-winning NBA senior coordinating producer who played a huge role behind the scenes, left to take a job at Peloton soon after.

Just when the group was starting to get comfortable, the 2019-20 NBA season was suspended last March due to the pandemic. After a five-month hiatus, the show returned, with the group working remotely. During a recent episode, Pierce was in Los Angeles, Rose was in Detroit, Williams was in Connecticut, and Taylor and Wojnarowski were in New York.

Despite facing a ton of adversity and the strangest of circumstances, the Countdown team has been winning over fans and delivering solid ratings. “NBA Countdown” on ABC is averaging 1,490,000 viewers through nine broadcasts, which is up more than 9% versus their full-year numbers (2019-20), according to Nielsen. 

And even though they’re shooting most episodes from different parts of the country, everything the group has been through has brought them closer together. 

In this two-part series, BasketballNews.com recently spoke with Maria Taylor, Adrian Wojnarowski, Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose, Jay Williams, and ESPN Vice President of Production Mike Shiffman to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show. They detailed the last year-and-a-half, the group’s chemistry, how the show appeals to all kinds of NBA fans, the debate over former players criticizing today's stars and more.

THE CHEMISTRY

Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s Vice President of Production, oversees all basketball properties across all platforms. When it came time to assemble this new “NBA Countdown” cast, he was very involved in the decision-making.

Mike Shiffman: “In terms of making the decision, you look at how they complement each other. Paul, Jalen and Jay each bring their own unique outlook on the NBA and all things surrounding the league. Woj is obviously the top basketball newsbreaker in the business. And Maria is one of our top-tier hosts and reporters, who has a terrific way of getting the most out of whoever she’s interacting with -- whether that’s analysts or reporters or players who are on as guests. We knew that from the work she’s done hosting the Women’s Championship and working on college football and college basketball; we knew she’d be the perfect person to sort of run point with everyone. I don’t think there’s any magic formula to create chemistry. Some shows develop it very quickly, others need reps and time together.”

Adrian Wojnarowski: “I thought leading up to the shutdown, you could absolutely feel the chemistry. With this group, it was natural because everyone already had relationships. Then, we started feeling that rhythm on the set, but then the shutdown came and we were out for several months, so that was certainly an interruption. But I just think it speaks to the group of people -- they’re really good people and everyone is really passionate about the game and working together. Everyone has a role on the show and I think we play to everyone’s strengths.”

Maria Taylor: “Right before the shutdown, we traveled to L.A. to do Lakers-Bucks and Lakers-Clippers in the same weekend. We did the show on the court [at Staples Center] and after we finished, we kind of all looked around and were like, ‘This is what it’s supposed to feel like. This is the kind of show that could have longevity.’ We were still working through things and trying to figure everything out, but we felt really comfortable with one another. I think traveling together really helped with that, along with having dinners together after the show. I remember that being a moment [when we knew this could be special]. But there have been a lot of those moments. Luckily, I had already worked with Jalen Rose on 'Get Up' for the last two years and I had traveled with J-Will when I was doing the college basketball prime games and I did the NBA Combine with Woj, so we all kind of knew of each other and it just kind of flowed from there.”

Jalen Rose: “Woj and I go back a long way actually. He went to St. Bonaventure and a high-school teammate of mine went there, so we’ve had a kinship ever since. Once ESPN signed him, I knew that was a terrific move for obvious reasons. Maria is like a little sister to me. She is the only person in this industry that has a Heisman vote and an MVP vote, so she isn’t just your normal host. Jay and I were teammates before; we played together on the Bulls in what was his only NBA season. This is our team.”

Shiffman: “I remember very early last year, around the start of the season, that’s when we had an idea that this was on its way to developing into something really special. We were pretty optimistic [about this group] and some of it was based on what we saw off camera; the show would end and we’d all be watching games all night. It’s a special group. You can’t just snap your fingers and create chemistry. Genuinely, what you see on the screen is what they’re like before the show and after the show. They enjoy one another’s company, and they bust each other’s chops when it’s called for.”

Paul Pierce: “It is like a family. We check in on each other and see how everyone is doing. We hang out together when we can. Before COVID, we’d go out and have dinner together, have some drinks. But that’s what makes the chemistry so good, too -- we took time to get to know one another outside of just showing up at the studio or talking to each other on Zoom from across the country.”

Shiffman: “It’s incredible because while it feels like forever, it’s only been a year-and-a-half that they’ve been together. This is only their second season; we started a year-and-a-half ago, then we were on pause for five months, and what that group -- both in front of the camera and behind the camera -- has been able to do in a really short amount of time and in these unique circumstances is just a testament to all of them.”

Taylor: “I think it’s a testament to the chemistry that we really, truly do have and that it’s been organic since day one. None of it has been forced, and that obviously shows. When we are together, we’re genuinely happy to do a show together.”

Pierce: “When you look at the group, everybody kind of has their own identity. It’s sort of like a great team. I don’t think we have any two people who are the same. If everybody were alike on our panel, that’s when it gets kind of repetitive. Everyone has their own identity, and I think that’s what makes it great.”

Pierce compared the Countdown crew to the star-studded Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, since everyone thrives within their role and there’s great chemistry. 

Rose: “You take people who are the crème de la crème at what they do and put us all together and it’s like a super-team! Usually, you become a super-group first -- like New Edition -- and then everyone sprouts out and becomes Bobby Brown and everybody [has individual success]. I think this team happened in reverse. Each person has a chance to express themselves and play to what they consider their own strengths. You take what each person feels like they’re extremely good at and allow them to cook on that.”

Shiffman: “A few weeks ago, they brought out a birthday cake for Jalen; a while ago, the guys gave Maria flowers on the set [after a radio host criticized her outfit in her first Monday Night Football game]. That’s all driven by them. These are things that they really wanted to do; it’s not some ‘made-for-TV moment.’ They just really enjoy being around each other -- on and off camera.”

Taylor: “I was literally almost in tears, and I didn’t know how to throw to the game at all. I was completely caught off guard. I didn’t see flowers coming into the studio or anything. At the time, Amina Hussein was our coordinating producer and she got in my ear afterwards and was like, ‘I swear, I had nothing to do with it! The guys just decided that they wanted to salute you and be there for you, so that’s what they did.’ To hear that… For them to be so sensitive and empathetic to what I was going through that week, that just meant everything. For them to say, ‘We’ve got your back,’ and for it to be so public and such a statement, that’s family. That’s the type of people you really want in your life, and I’m so blessed that I get to work with them.”

Jay Williams: “Having the game taken away from me early on, there was a void. When you’re in the locker room, you feel like you’re with family. Those are your brothers. I think I missed not having that. When I found my wife and we had our first child, I felt like, ‘Man, this is my team and I don’t know what I would do if something happened to them.' Now, with J-Rose and Paul and Maria and Woj, I’m not working; I’m kicking it with my family and talking about hoops! I can’t wait until I get the vaccine and we’re all back together in-person in the studio.”

Pierce: “From the time that you start playing basketball and travel hoops, that’s been your whole life. That’s kind of what you need. When you get to the end of your career and there’s no more hoops, no more bus rides, no more plane rides -- it’s almost like, ‘Where’s that fix at?’ You’ve been doing it your whole life, being around teammates and coaches and you’re hanging with these guys and they’re a big part of your life. Not that they won’t be [part of your life] when you’re done, but you don’t do as much stuff together. You lose that. That was the hardest thing for me as I was adjusting to retirement, just missing the group.”

Williams: “J-Rose and I were teammates and I was a young pup when I came into the league, so we always keep it really real with each other. He always showed me love. He’s my vet, and he always looked out for me. My wife is pregnant and my daughter is immunosuppressed, and we went through a very scary situation with her last February and March where she was really sick. It was close to a month, and she got diagnosed with pneumonia and then she got re-diagnosed with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and then they really didn’t know what it was. A year later, they still don’t know if it was COVID or not, but there were some issues and it was really scary for us. For me, I’ve been doing a lot of 'NBA Countdown' from home, and they’ve all been so supportive of it. And it hasn’t made the show easy. But that kind of camaraderie and people understanding your situation [is special]. The first thing J-Rose said is, ‘You stay home and you protect your baby. You can work from home and do what you do, but you be there for your family.’ That’s internal leadership that I don’t think a lot of organizations have, and that’s what J-Rose provides each and every day. And that support means the world to me.”

Wojnarowski: “Jalen has been a mainstay of Countdown through several incarnations of it across the years, and he really, really understands the audience we’re trying to reach, and how to reach it. But more than that, he isn’t just only one of the best and most important talents at ESPN, but he’s also really a ‘glue guy’ of the entire operation. He’s the person who pulls people together, who rallies people -- both with those he works with on-air, but also with the folks behind the scenes. He’s strong in his convictions about right and wrong, both when everyone is watching and -- more importantly, I think -- when almost no one is watching. Jalen is really a conscience of ESPN.”

Pierce: “He’s been there the longest, and he has his own perspective on the game. Even though he’s a former player, he’s been doing shows for a long time now. He adds a different perspective and sometimes he sounds like he’s been an analyst all his life; you may not even know that he was a player! That’s the great thing about Jalen, he’s very knowledgeable and he’s very educated -- sometimes he throws out words that I don’t even understand! (laughs)”

Williams: “We’re all so comfortable together, and we all feel comfortable in who we are. All of the pieces just fit. I think it was like that from the beginning. One of the things that we all recognized early on is that there’s so much respect, and I think we all have this same drive. There’s this hunger to be us and to prove that we can be really informed, but also have chemistry and bust each other’s chops. This is our team.”

STRIKING A BALANCE

Whether you’re a diehard fan who wants breaking news, film analysis and advanced stats, or you’re a casual fan who wants entertaining anecdotes, funny jokes and G.O.A.T. debates, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for on “NBA Countdown.” The show can provide smart, informative coverage just as well as it can do funny, entertaining segments.

Taylor: “I think the goal of 'NBA Countdown' is to inform and entertain the NBA fan. You can be anywhere on the spectrum, from the person who is super dialed in and watches every minute and is all over HoopsHype and knows what shoe every player is wearing, to the casual fan who just wants to watch the Lakers play. We want to entertain and inform every NBA fan.”

Wojnarowski: “I think that speaks to our production staff and the people behind the scenes; they help us strike that balance. As we prepare for each show, it might be Jay with a breakdown or me discussing news. That’s the balance we want to have. In a half-hour show, every segment has great value. You want to be able to provide something for everybody, that different levels of fans [can enjoy] because not everyone wants the same thing. To be able to find that balance is important.”

Shiffman: “Each week, we look at the shows as they are coming together and ask, ‘Are we striking a balance here? Is there too much for the diehard fans? Is there too much for the casual fans?’ There’s not an exact science to it, but the talent and the producers weigh in on it. Our goal is to always strike a balance -- the seesaw can’t be too extreme to one side or the other. It’s something that we discuss each week, and [we go through topic by topic] and ask whether it appeals to casual fans, moderate fans or diehard fans. As long as we feel we have something for each group, we’re happy with where we’re headed.”

Taylor: “We know our target audience. When we’re on ESPN, we’re going to be even more dialed in to Xs and Os and be even more informative. When we’re on ABC, we understand that we have a broader audience and topics will be [different] and we’ll paint the story in a way that’s a little broader. We have those conversations, and our producers do a great job of reminding us of that. That’s something that we really focus on. If you come to ESPN, you expect the opinions to be smart and informed; you expect to become informed -- and that’s what Woj always brings -- but you also expect to be entertained. That’s where the chemistry and liking each other and being able to needle each other comes in, because the last thing you want is to turn on the show and be like, ‘Man, I really think they don’t get along.’ (laughs) But we’re always having those conversations and what channel we’re on determines how we talk about things.” 

Rose: “Yeah, when you sit down and turn that microphone on, each platform isn’t the same. When I’m on 'Get Up,' that’s more blazer, sweater, collared-shirt, SportsCenter-style media. When I’m on ‘Jalen and Jacoby,’ I’m going to have on a Pistons baseball hat and we’re going to interview Shaq Barrett about Tom Brady being drunk at the Super Bowl parade. Then, when I’m doing 'NBA Countdown,' that’s ABC and 8-year-olds may be watching! When I show up to Countdown, I’m Christmas-Day clean: a three-piece suit, shoes on, enunciating names, not saying nicknames, not using slang within the game that people won’t understand. It’s as remedial as possible. Most people don’t understand that.”

Taylor: “There’s a diversity of thought that’s there, and there’s a range. We can be very funny and we can be very serious; we can talk about Black Lives Matter, but we can also talk about what James Harden wore to the game and whether LeBron is the GOAT. With all of those conversations, we have someone sitting at the desk who can tell you all about it. Since we do have such diversity of thought, it makes our show better. You can almost feel it when it’s getting too serious, so then I’m like, ‘Alright, let me make a joke about Paul’s hairline compared to Jalen’s before the break.’ (laughs) Sometimes, the guys will feel it too and they’ll start joking. You have to be able to feel the rhythm and flow of the show.”

Rose: “As soon as someone compares 'NBA Countdown' and 'Inside the NBA,' they immediately let me know that they don’t even know this industry. Because what they do is feet-on-the-table, Jimmy-Kimmel, late-night TV. That’s cable at 1 a.m., and that’s vastly different from what you’re doing at noon on Sunday. That’s a whole different job, for those that don’t know.”

Taylor: “The funny thing is, we’re all good friends. Ernie Johnson and I went to the same college. Over COVID, I did a [live-stream] thing with him on Twitter because he did his own little ‘EJ's Journalism School.’ I reach out to him and he’s great. With Charles Barkley, I had him Zooming in to a college football Zoom party in the middle of their show; he always responds quickly. I’ve been on their show before... I’ve done Chuck and Ernie’s podcast. We actually all get along. We’ve all hung out and gotten drinks before. I think, publicly, people think it’s a rivalry, but we feel like they are two completely different shows. Both of them feed the fan and do a service, but we feel like they’re two completely different entities.”

Over the last few months, there’s been some talk about whether 'Inside the NBA' is too negative. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley aren’t afraid to criticize today’s players, but do they sometimes go too far? Again, this is an area where the Countdown crew tries to strike a balance, offering fair criticism without crossing a line.

Shiffman: “Listen, we want all of our analysts to say what they believe. When it’s called for, there should be criticism. When a mistake is made or there’s poor shot selection or the player is struggling, we should document that just like we would if the player was playing great. But be factual. Don’t be personal. Just be fair. We have terrific resources in terms of our research and data that can help your discussion, but don’t make it personal. I think fans come to us for an escape, and while we should be fair and critical when it’s called for, you also have to balance that because there are a lot of good things going on too. I’m not sure how much fans want to hang out with a show that’s way too negative. When it’s called for, the analysts should certainly speak what they believe, but there’s a lot of good going on and we have to strike that balance. If our 30-minute show was entirely negative, I’m not sure how enjoyable that is for the fan. But we also live in reality and if a team with high expectations is struggling, we have to discuss why -- but be fair and have the data to back it up and don’t make it personal or about you.”

Rose: “You can criticize a player’s performance, but you don’t have to make up a derogatory nickname for the person. And just because you played in the league, that doesn’t give you the right to criticize other players -- regardless of what you accomplished. You can say it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s credible. What earns credibility is when people see that you don’t have an agenda and it’s not personal. You have to earn that equity with the audience and the players over time. You have to be knowledgeable about what you’re talking about, you have to be consistent with your stances and you have to hold everyone accountable equally -- even the people who are texting you on your phone.”

Pierce: “You have to comment on what you see. If I see a player who’s not doing well when I’m used to them doing a great job or I think they should be doing better, I’m going to say that. I think there is a line that you shouldn’t cross, and I try not to [cross] it as a former player who was on the other side at one point. But it comes with the job. When I played, there was criticism too. Players have to understand that when things are said that they don’t like, it comes with this. It’s sometimes hard for me as a former player, but I am who I am and I don’t hold back when I give criticism or praise... A lot of guys trust me and they know that I’m not going to bash them too much. And in fairness, they know that when I say something, I’m being honest. That’s probably why I was nicknamed The Truth!”

Taylor: “What we try to do is lean on the information. If someone is shooting 20% from three over the last 10 games, throw the graphic up there! Let’s talk about the fact that it doesn’t look good. We’re going to use the information to tell the story. But then, what we might turn to is, ‘Okay, well, how does it improve? Does he need to do a better job of moving away from the ball?’ Let’s have that conversation. We’re not just going to bash him for being bad and just be like, ‘Oh, he has no guts and no courage and he can’t play and he doesn’t care about basketball.’ Because we don’t know! We’re going to tell the story, but we’re going to give you a lot of facts that surround it, we’re going to have J-Will break down what hasn’t been working and what is working. And then, of course, we have Paul, who doesn’t care, so usually there’s someone who’s going to say it outright. And then the rest of it is us building up the story and trying to figure out the problem. We want to be smart about it; that’s what we always say.”

Pierce: “I think [players just see the clips]. A lot of times, I get criticized because people think I criticize LeBron -- like the times I said he wasn’t in my [all-time] top-five. But people don’t see all the times when I’m giving him his due. [Prior to his injury], I said that he’s deserving of the MVP award. Sometimes people only look at the negative things. I guess when I was a player, I only viewed the negative things too, because players use that for motivation, so [I get it].”

Williams: “My thing is that I don’t go toward anything personal; I keep it to things on the floor and what I see...I’m not going to say anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in front of you. That’s the only way that I could do TV. It’s funny too because now, in the social media age, players only hear the clips -- they never hear things in the full context. They usually see just the text or a clip that someone has passed onto them. But my thing is: I’m always down to have a conversation. To be able to articulate the complexity of things [is important]. Look, Shaq is Shaq, man. I’m not Shaq. I’ve watched Donovan Mitchell from the time he was at Louisville, when he was a slashing guard and people thought this dude was going to be a second-round pick or maybe even play overseas. I’ve seen the climb and I’ve spent time with him during the climb! I watched Steph [Curry] when he was at Davidson and I remember doing one of his college basketball games and I said, ‘Man, that’s a Baby-Faced Killer!’ And people started calling him that! I’ve watched these guys grow and I feel like I’m always respectful. I’m also going to say what’s on my mind, but I think how you say something is very important these days. To be frank with you, I call a lot of people. I think that one of the best parts of this job is that I have access to certain people. I’m on the phone with Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers, asking them questions about their team. I’m talking with Alex Saratsis, who is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s agent, all the time. I’m talking with Rich Kleiman, who is Kevin Durant’s manager.”

Shiffman: “Authenticity is No. 1. There’s no, ‘Hey, what if we said this? That could spark some interest.’”

Williams: “There’s a lot of things that we know that we don’t talk about. It’s not my job to put people on blast. I know some of the stuff that J-Rose knows and some of the stuff Paul knows, and none of us say anything. There’s a code, and there always will be a code.”

Pierce: “We know that we came from a fraternity and we all relate to one another. As players, there are things that we all go through away from basketball that we don’t really want to talk about. A lot of players go through the same things off the court -- whether they’re good or bad. Like any fraternity, it’s a tight-knit group and even though I’m not in the NBA anymore, I’ll always be part of that fraternity -- just like when you leave college, you’re still part of the fraternity. And that will never go away.”

Tomorrow, check back for part two, which includes a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation that goes into each episode, Woj’s successful transition to broadcasting, how COVID-19 has impacted Countdown, how the group became an important voice on social issues and more.

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