Behind the scenes of NBA Countdown: Woj's role, preparation, COVID's impact
Across all networks, there’s only one regularly scheduled NBA studio show that has grown its audience this season: “NBA Countdown” on ESPN and ABC, which has seen viewership improve by 4%.
Yesterday, part one of this two-part series looked at this new era of Countdown, examining the group’s chemistry, how the show manages to appeal to all NBA fans (from diehard to casual), comparisons to “Inside the NBA,” and how they balance positive and negative coverage.
BasketballNews.com recently spoke with Maria Taylor, Adrian Wojnarowski, Paul Pierce, Jalen Rose, Jay Williams, and ESPN VP of Production Mike Shiffman to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show.
In part two, they discuss the preparation that goes into each episode, Woj’s successful transition to broadcasting, how the show became a powerful voice in the fight against social injustice, how COVID-19 has impacted production and more.
RESEARCH AND PREPARATION
“NBA Countdown” airs on many weekends as the pregame show for NBA games on ESPN and ABC. What goes into producing each episode?
Mike Shiffman: “First off, we’re always planning far off and looking ahead at our matchups and seeing if there are any features we can do [ahead of time] with one of the top players from those games (like a storytelling feature or a sitdown conversation or background on a player). We start there and see what’s possible because those can happen weeks out, and then we can plan for that.”
Maria Taylor: “The research is what makes us smart and makes us better, and we have a guy named Matt Williams, who’s committed to [researching] the NBA in general and specifically for our show. Every single night, we’re reading recaps from him that highlight big performances and storylines we need to watch out for. It gets down to the nitty-gritty; sometimes, he’s even watching the press conferences and it’ll say, ‘Hey, Steve Kerr said this, we should think about having it in our show.’ So we get that [packet] every night, and all of us have League Pass and all of us are watching all of the games. I’ve got NBA TV, so I’m constantly watching games and making my boyfriend sit down to watch games with me, which is a great girlfriend to have. (Laughs)”
Shiffman: “In a typical week where we have Countdown, we start to hone in and take the temperature of the talent [and what they want to discuss]. There’s an urgency too because we want to be having conversations that NBA fans are having in that moment. If we sat here on a Monday or Tuesday and decided what conversations we’re going to discuss on Friday, that doesn’t serve us or the fans well. Every night, there are interesting things happening -- on and off the court. As the show gets closer, the producers will have calls with each of the talent where they’ll go over what they’re most passionate about, and then they’ll have a group call to go over everything. From there, the show’s topics are really built around what the analysts want to cover. The discussions on the show are based on a lot of conference calls and text chains and Slack threads from throughout the week. Then, since we want to be in the moment, we’ll wait until 24 hours before the show to finalize the topics.”
Taylor: “We always have conference calls on Wednesday and Thursday, and every single analyst has their own conference call where they just throw topics out like, ‘What do you think of Golden State? How many minutes should Steph Curry be playing?’ That way, they understand what we think about [each topic] and they can build graphics to support what’s being said. When I’m asking my questions on the show, I’m asking in a way that gets to [each analyst’s] best topic or whatever they’re hot on. Then, when we get in on Friday, I usually get in around 4 p.m. if our show is at 7 or 8. I’m dialing in on how I want to ask questions, writing scripts and doing interviews. I’m constantly talking with teams about interviews and trying to set those up. That’s kind of our typical schedule.”
Shiffman: “With Woj, he’s obviously breaking news all the time, but we may not know what he wants to talk about until Friday afternoon since the news is always evolving.”
Adrian Wojnarowski: “My prep starts by looking at the schedule and seeing who’s playing in the Friday night games. Then, all week, I’m talking to teams and people around the league to see where there’s a chance to break some news. One example was Dennis Schroder’s contract talks. That’s something that I could hold [for the show]. There’s certain things that I can hold onto and I know that they aren’t going to get out anywhere else. That’s something that Adam Schefter and I talk about a lot. You generally have a sense of what you can and can’t hold onto; there are certain stories where you know that it’s walled off a bit, whereas other stories are more easily accessible to others, so you just have to measure that. You always want to stay nimble and know that something might change right up to the show, but there are those times when you can prepare over a period of time and save it to break on the show. Over the course of the week, I’m talking with the producers about what I might have and what I’m working on and what could change. You always want to have a few options. And if they’re watching Countdown, they’re somewhere between avid fan and junkie, so you want to be able to hit the big stories.”
WOJ’S ROLE ON THE SHOW
Wojnarowski initially made a name for himself as a terrific columnist and the top NBA newsbreaker. Since arriving at ESPN, he’s successfully transitioned into more of a broadcasting role. Just as he used to weave NBA news and notes into his columns, he now drops those interesting nuggets on “NBA Countdown.”
Taylor: “I was literally with Woj during his first real television hits when we did the NBA Combine in Chicago about three years ago. It was one of his first big-time [moments] being on TV, and we were there literally all day -- Mike Schmitz, Woj, Jay Bilas and I were on the desk and we were on for the entire time. Literally, that was his first time; he was like, ‘Okay, what camera are we looking at?’ To see where he is now, where he’s like, ‘Here’s what I want to hit on and here’s what the segment will roll like...’ He is his own producer! He comes in, knowing what information he has, and he’ll say, ‘I talked to so and so, so I’ll say this and then that will be a great lead-in to the topic that you want to get to.’ I mean, it’s been more than an evolution. It’s been incredible to watch.”
Shiffman: “If you’re an NBA fan and you see him on your TV, you stop what you’re doing because who knows what news he’s breaking? He’s approached this with open arms. We had a conversation a couple years ago about how he could contribute even more across TV shows, specifically ‘NBA Countdown’ and ‘The Jump.’ He’s been really enthusiastic about it, and he’s wide open to hearing [feedback] on how he’s doing. The information is always going to be industry-leading, but in terms of presenting that information on TV -- and for someone who hadn’t done a ton of TV prior to coming to us -- I think he’s done a terrific job. He has premium news, and he delivers it in a way that’s easy for fans to understand.”
Taylor: “Sometimes, we’ll be talking during warm-ups and he’ll just be like, ‘Yeah, I just talked to their GM and he just said this or that. We’re like, ‘You just have that information floating around?!’ It may be the most profound thing that said on the show, but it’s a throwaway comment for him! That’s how incredible his knowledge base is. It’s been fun to see how comfortable he is on camera now. Now, he gets his own segments, where we’re just like, ‘Well, what do you want to talk about Woj?’ For him to own those moments, it’s fun to watch.”
Shiffman: “What we’ve seen with Woj is that in addition to the breaking news and transactional stuff, he’s also able to add context to discussions that the group is having. He might add in, ‘Behind the scenes, this team is very happy with their roster and won’t be making any trades,’ for example. It isn’t traditional ‘news,’ but it does add context. We’ve discovered that these things make Woj even more valuable to the show, because we’re not just limiting him to a box where he can only break transactional news.”
Paul Pierce: “Oh man, he’s amazing. I’ve sat there with Woj [after our show] and just chopped it up and it’s amazing. I love that guy! He’s great. At one point, me and Woj were sitting in the green room and I asked him, ‘How do you always break news? Why are you always the one who knows everything first?’ The amazing thing he said is that it’s all about maintaining relationships. He has maintained many relationships over the years, he does his research, knows not to cross the line, and there’s trust. They trust him with his information and they know that isn’t going to leak it at the wrong time; they know it’ll be told when it needs to be told. Those are the biggest things: relationships and trust. There are times when he’ll say certain inside things that I know from my playing days and I’m trying to figure out, ‘How does he know that?!’ People trust him with their lives, with the information that he has. That’s just a sign of respect.”
Jay Williams: “I’m about to make a headline for you: Woj off air? Oh. My. Goodness. If I could turn that into an HBO After Dark show, it would win so many awards. He’s one of my all-time favorite people. The amount of knowledge and how he works, it’s so impressive. It’s relentless, man. I would hear insight sometimes, and it would be a little different from his insights, and he’d say, ‘Well, let’s talk this through.’ He’s very thorough. He’s always researching and fact-checking. And look, [being the top newsbreaker], that’s a lot of pressure all the time, but he handles it with such class. He’s one of the most impressive people that we have. He’s next level, and he’s a really unique person.”
Jalen Rose: “Woj is 24/7, 365...He’s breaking news, giving updates, sharing information and setting the table. Then, Jalen Rose comes in and starts riffing on teams and agents and what he don’t like about the rules or whatever. (Laughs). Woj is more of the adult in the room.”
Woj always has his phone on him while filming the show -- he may even have two phones on him depending on the time of year. Fortunately, because the group is only on air for roughly 19 minutes, he hasn’t missed any scoops because of his on-camera obligations.
Wojnarowski: “It’s not uncommon for news to break while we’re doing the show. I remember the Lakers waived DeMarcus Cousins during the show last season...I do remember having to hold my phone up to Maria’s face during one show last year, so she saw what I just tweeted and could come back to me. I didn’t know if the mic was on and we were showing some kind of B-roll on the screen, so I was sticking my phone in her face. (Laughs). Afterward, we were laughing about it.”
Woj admitted that it’s harder than ever to get breaking news since he can no longer network with executives, coaches, scouts, players and agents prior to tip-off at NBA games. Typically, that’s where reporters get a lot of information and figure out which leads to pursue. Now, even if a journalist is credentialed for a game, most teams won’t let you leave your seat, and the court and locker room are off-limits (with all interviews happening over Zoom instead). This has made things more difficult for all reporters, but Woj and Co. have adjusted.
Wojnarowski: “My goal is to try to bring something newsworthy to each show, whether it’s about a particular team that’s playing [that night] or a broader league issue. It makes it easy, just to be with this group because they want to put you in a position to [succeed]. Jalen, Jay, Paul or whoever is on the set in a given show, they’re going to spend a preponderance of the time doing analysis of the teams and breakdowns...They’ll come to me when they are building [the show] around news and information. I do think it’s important because it keeps the show timely. We have a great production staff that gives me a lot of latitude to adjust as news changes and be nimble right up to the start of the show.”
As Wojnarowski prepared to take on this new role with Countdown a year-and-a-half ago, he turned to some of his ESPN colleagues for help.
Wojnarowski: “I’ve learned a lot from watching Adam Schefter and how he handles news on ‘NFL Countdown’ and ‘Monday Night Countdown.’ Those are longer shows, so he’ll do multiple hits over the course of three hours on Sunday morning. But it helped to watch Adam, and we bounce things off each other all the time. We were just doing it the other day. He had a slew of breaking NFL stories recently, and I called him about one particular story and said, ‘Tell me the backstory. Here’s my guess of how this came together; am I right?’ We talk all the time. At least a couple times a week, we’ll have a lengthy conversation about this stuff. I’m always learning stuff from him. Adam has been an incredible resource for me, and we consider each other close friends. [MLB reporter] Jeff Passan, who I worked with at Yahoo, is another person. Emily Kaplan on the NHL [beat] at our place is in that realm now, and she’s going to be great...Chris Mortensen is another person I lean on. I miss being in Bristol with Mort; I love to pick Mort’s brain when we’re together because he’s a forebearer in this business. One of the great perks of this job is being surrounded by these people. I’ll talk through different scenarios with them and bounce ideas off of them, and it’s great getting to work with people like that.”
SPEAKING UP ON SOCIAL ISSUES
One of the strengths of this Countdown group is its range. While they can be very entertaining and funny, they can also cover serious topics with grace. For example, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in their postseason game against the Orlando Magic last fall, the crew showed their range by doing a two-hour special about everything that was happening.
Taylor: “I believe that there are certain moments where you have to live up to the role...When the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play, we were told just a few hours before the show that we’d be doing a two-hour show because there was no game. We just kind of looked around and said, ‘Okay. We’re going to have to be a voice, and everyone who’s sitting on this set right now is a Black man or woman, so we kind of understand where the Bucks are. Let’s express that and let’s be open to that.’ We try to never shy away from it; in fact, we try to lean into it because we think there’s a reason why we have three Black men and a Black woman on the show. And insert Woj, who...it’s common knowledge that he is supportive of Black Lives Matter and has been so supportive of diversity and inclusion in general. So, we’re leaning into it. We’re not going to shy away from the topics that are relevant in our NBA coverage.”
Shiffman: “We knew how important and necessary a topic this was going to be heading into the Bubble. The Countdown group, throughout every show, had an element of Black Lives Matter, and we were documenting what the players and teams were doing. The players have incredibly powerful voices and they're willing to use them and take stands. When the Bucks boycotted the playoff game, we had a two-hour special, and I think the group had poignant and meaningful conversations. I think it shows that this Countdown group is a driver of conversation, whether it's on the court or off the court -- and at the biggest moments. And this was as big a moment you could possibly have, throughout the Bubble and then specifically when the Bucks didn't play their playoff game. All the credit goes to Maria, Jalen, Jay, Paul and Woj and our producers for doing the right thing -- and a very important thing, and they know that their voices carry weight. I'm incredibly proud of what they've done and what they continue to do in these moments.”
Pierce: “I think it’s great that we’re being allowed to use our platform to discuss social injustice. It’s been a tough year with coronavirus and the things that are going on in our communities, and being that the league is, what, 70-80% Black, I think it’s important to [discuss these things] the right way. You’ve heard people say ‘shut up and dribble,’ but that’s not the case. We’re more than athletes; we are business people, we’re dads, we’re brothers. We have a voice out here, and it’s been like that since Bill Russell! But I’m just glad that in this day and age, our voices are heard more than ever before without the backlash. Before, players were afraid to speak up and use their platform to fight social injustice. They feared that all of these brands would drop you or you’d lose money just for speaking your mind, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Taylor: “We’ve just been allowed to be ourselves in so many ways, and that’s something that’s been special. I feel like it’s the first time in my career that I’ve felt that way. [They just tell us], ‘Just openly be yourself and have fun. The chemistry and the joking is what we want because that creates the entertainment.’ I’m just really thankful because it’s kind of like a new phase of my career, or a new phase of broadcasting for me.”
Williams: “When you see everybody across the table, we have an all-Black crew. There isn’t a lot of that from a representation perspective for the NBA, so bringing our experiences to the table and being transparent about how things make us feel, and also understanding the business of the sport and where it needs to go, allowed us to have a unique perspective that ESPN was really open to letting us communicate to the world. It was really important to me, to the degree that I went and consulted multiple social activists to be more informed. I had always been informed, but not to this degree. I think we all took the responsibility upon us that we didn’t want to be a crew that just kind of spit off the handle with, ‘Yeah, we’re mad!’ We were mad, but how could we come to the table with a strategy? And how do we back that up with actionable items?”
Wojnarowski: “I am proud to be part of a show that continues to speak to the issues that are going on in the league and in society, and that reflects the conversation and movement that’s going on in the NBA and WNBA for social justice, for equity. You’ve got some very principled people who are part of our group, who you have heard speak out about these issues outside of Countdown, so it’s a natural extension that it’s reflected within the show too. You can’t properly cover this league if you’re not covering these issues. They have been a part of the league here for a long time, but certainly in the last year, and it’s an honor to be a part of it and play a small role in trying to report on those conversations and certainly further the discussion on those issues on a platform like ESPN or ABC.”
Having a versatile host like Taylor is a big reason for Countdown’s incredible range.
Williams: “She is a super-superstar. She’s going to be on GMA (Good Morning America) someday. She’s going to be the next Robin Roberts, if she decides to be.”
Pierce: “She makes my job a lot easier. She’s the Magic Johnson or the Rajon Rondo of the group. She sets the table, and I appreciate that. She’s very knowledgeable; she knows so much about the game of basketball as well as the other sports that she does. She’s like a sister to me. She calls me ‘Uncle P’ and I call her ‘Niecey,’ so that’s kind of like our relationship. We’ve been able to form a nice little bond, not only on the set but off the set as well.”
Rose: “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.”
Wojnarowski: “Maria does a great job; she’s like a pass-first point guard who keeps the ball moving. The ball never sticks with her moving, and I think that’s the best compliment I can give. When it’s a half-hour show, every moment matters; you want to fill all of the real estate with good information while keeping it entertaining and moving. She does a great job as the point guard of the group, which is quite a big role. Maria always puts you in position to do well and I think that’s why people love working with her.”
HOW COVID-19 HAS IMPACTED THE SHOW
Rose: “When the pandemic hit, it was important for us to create content without being in the same place at the same time and each of us had to practice being engineers in our way. I wish I had stock in Zoom! But it makes you appreciate everyone’s work ethic, when you see everyone doing work on their own.”
Shiffman: “Health and safety has been our top priority since this began. Recently, there was a weekend where Maria was in New York, Paul was in Los Angeles, Jalen was in Detroit, Jay was in Connecticut and Woj was in New York. We think that one of the many strengths of the show is being conversational, and it makes it a little harder to be conversational when you’re not together. So it’s a little bit more on the producers to make sure it’s clear who’s [talking] next, or if someone wants to interrupt, do they raise their hand or do they just jump right in? We have really talented producers, but that’s been the biggest challenge: keeping a conversational show conversational when you’re not all sitting in the same room.”
Taylor: “We can’t all be in the studio. Paul couldn’t travel in the beginning, so he was coming in from Los Angeles. J-Will has a young daughter and he’s trying to be safe with COVID protocols. Jalen is in a remote location in Detroit. We’ve literally been on set and our communication from New York to LA goes down, and I can’t hear my producer at all and someone in the studio is holding their phone and has it on speaker phone with our producer back in LA and they’re saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to break,’ and, ‘Tell her to read this!’ We’ve had times where I can’t hear any of the guys. We’ve got at-home cameras and we’re trying to get everything to work. These are the things we’re dealing with, and maybe they keep us from being what we believe is the best version of ourselves, but I do believe the challenges that we’re kind of going through will only make the show even better. We were all together a few weeks ago, and we were like, ‘This is when we’re at our best -- when we’re all together and having fun and feeling it.’ And as soon as COVID is over, that’s going to be our reality, and we know that potential is there. Until then, battling through things the way they are now is crazy.”
Rose: “We’re not in the studio together and we’re not at the games. We didn’t go to the Conference Finals or the NBA Finals. Last year was the first time in 19 years that I wasn’t on television during the NBA Finals -- the first time since Lakers-Nets in 2002.”
Williams: “My wife is pregnant and my daughter is immunosuppressed, so 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]."
Taylor: “We lean really hard on our producers, especially when everything is remote. They have to be in our ears, making sure we don’t talk over each other. It’s not like we just throw a topic out there and are like, ‘Okay, go at it!’ No. We have exactly two minutes and 30 seconds to get everyone’s opinion on this topic, and we lean very heavily on our producers. People think we just show up and talk hoops, because if you make it look easy, then they think it must have been easy to do. But there are a lot of people behind the scenes who are working overdrive and overtime to set stuff up. We’re constantly thinking about and battling through our COVID realities, but more than ever, it takes a village to make the show.”
Shiffman: “In terms of sit-down conversations with players, the teams have been great about helping set those up; a lot of the teams have in-house camera people, so they’ll set up an extra camera with the player and we can set up an additional camera with the host who’s doing the interview. So, I don’t think we’ve had fewer interviews. Obviously, any access-type pieces behind the scenes are challenging in this time of COVID. But I think when it comes to getting the players for sitdowns, we’ve been just as successful [and it’s easier] in some ways because with the technology, you can get a player for a one-on-one in a moment’s notice via Zoom.”
Taylor: “It reminds us that this is a blessing. Like, we get to talk about the NBA -- a sport that literally all of us love and that has changed all of our lives in some way, shape or form -- and to be able to do it together means everything. We’re reminded of that because of COVID, because of shutdowns, and because of the uncertainty.”