NBA Countdown, featuring Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Jalen Rose and Mike Greenberg, will tip off NBA Christmas Day coverage at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN with a live special two-hour show. In addition, NBA Countdown will tip off ABC’s coverage with a 30-minute show at 2 p.m. and return to ABC at 7:30 p.m. with an additional 30-minute show prior to the primetime Nets vs. Lakers game. The shows will preview all five matchups, provide halftime reports, discuss the biggest headlines across the league and feature exclusive interviews from the stars of Christmas Day.
For full Christmas Day details, visit ESPN Press Room.
Smith, Rose and Greenberg spoke to media to preview the slate of Christmas Day matchups. Additionally, David Roberts, ESPN Senior Vice President, NBA & Studio Production, also discussed ESPN and ABC’s game and studio production plans for the day.
Full transcript of today’s media availability below:
DAVID ROBERTS: Thank you. Thanks to everyone who is participating in this opportunity to kind of just talk basketball, and we all know that as we get ready to hopefully have basketball games on Christmas Day, that’s the expectation, the bottom line is the gentlemen that are on this call — Michael Wilbon couldn’t be with us today, but he will be available at another opportunity if anyone wants to reach out it him — but the people that are on this call deserve a great deal of credit because in a very short period of time, the NBA Countdown team has delivered a very consistent product based on what I believe to be their strong knowledge of the sport, their relentless commitment to working around the clock if necessary, and the commitment to just the sports fans in general.
I think one of the opening headlines that I would like to underscore is the fact that we’re through one-quarter of the season, and NBA Countdown is up 51% year-over-year in terms of ratings. We all know that this show has been the subject of press in the past, and I just want to underscore that point because I think it’s relevant as we head into the most important day besides the NBA Finals, which is the Christmas Day.
Now, we understand that it’s a fluid situation given where we are with this pandemic, but the good news is we’re well positioned to deal with whatever might happen. The hope is that we will have 13 consecutive hours of NBA coverage on ESPN and ABC on Saturday. We will watch a two-hour edition of NBA Countdown at 10 a.m. Eastern, and there will be two additional half hours of Countdown going into the ABC games.
There’s a host of reporters across all platforms, whether it’s on radio, whether it’s in digital, and, of course, on the linear networks of ESPN and ABC, but I’m really proud of Mike Greenberg, who has done an exceptional job as the host, Jalen Rose, who has been the mainstay on this program and for good reason because he has been the glue that holds this program together. Then there’s Stephen A. and Michael Wilbon, two savants of the game of basketball, two strong journalists, so we’re well-positioned.
We take it one show at a time, and we look forward to your questions as we get ready for the next big day of the year for us, which is Saturday.
Q. Good morning, everyone. Jalen, Stephen A., Mike, everyone else, hope you’re all hanging in there. I was wondering, how did the news land with all you guys that the Nets’ decision with allowing Kyrie back in the fold even if it’s as a part-time player?
MIKE GREENBERG: Stephen A., I’ll let you go first because many of us, anyway, saw you on First Take yesterday, and it made me all the more disappointed that you weren’t there on Friday because you said what I wanted to say, and it wasn’t the prevailing feeling on Friday. Get ’em, Stephen A.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I will tell you that I thought it was an egregious decision on the part of the Brooklyn Nets. I don’t think it’s something that they should have done. Not only because I think that it’s a culture issue from the standpoint that you are either all in or you’re all out. This is something we religiously hear sports organizations and the players that represent those organizations articulate, but also, if anybody wasn’t worth it, it’s Kyrie Irving.
I’m not talking about Kyrie Irving as a talent. I think as a talent he is a superstar. I think he is box office, but I don’t think that he is somebody that has shown a willingness to come to work. I think every excuse under the sun that he can find to not show up to work is something that he does. History has shown that. To make this kind of concession and capitulation for him, I think it’s foolhardy, to say the least. I think it sends the wrong message, and I was completely and adamantly opposed to that, and I stand by it.
JALEN ROSE: For me I think it’s a good decision for the Nets for the simple reason that you’re paying him anyway 50% of the salary not to participate. It could be an issue except he has the buy-in of K.D., and since he has that, the organization now has to basically allow him to play in 50% of the games in the road games. I don’t think it’s a heroic act that he decided to not get vaccinated and chose not to perform with his team. However, at this point the Nets have dealt with so many injuries.
And the other point I want to also make, I think this unlocks James Harden. For those of us that’s really in the know, James Harden has been, I’ll just say, in a funk, based on the fact that he came to be a part of a big three, and Kyrie isn’t participating because he is choosing not to get vaccinated, so I think when you get Kyrie back into the fold, you keep K.D. happy, keep his minutes down, take pressure of on of him, and you get a Harden that’s back motivated, and now you’ve got a team that’s not just the number one team in the conference, but now they’re my favorite to win the conference, and Kyrie, even if it’s part-time.
MIKE GREENBERG: Jalen, what you actually said Friday, without Kyrie, they’re the favorites to win the championship, and I would agree with that if Kyrie was 100% in, which to Stephen’s point, I’m not sure that he figuratively ever is. And to the obvious overriding point, at this point he clearly literally is not, and it sets up some ridiculous scenarios. Like, are they better off not having a higher seed so that they play more road games in the playoffs? These are not considerations that I think we should have in sports and at this moment in time. This is conversations that players had in the NBA in the ’50s when Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe was a doctor and only played home games because it was a better job to be a doctor than it was to be an NBA player in those days.
Q. To piggyback on that, I wanted to kind of get into the actual Christmas Day games and with the one that Kyrie would potentially be playing in, the STAPLES Center has obviously a different set of rules with the COVID regulations. You either have to be showing proof of vaccination or a negative test within a certain time period, so I wonder whether you guys feel if he were to be cleared — I know he is one of the players right now who is on health and safety protocols, but if he were to be cleared, would you anticipate him suiting up for the Christmas Day game against the Lakers?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I imagine so. If he is eligible to play and all he needs is a negative COVID test prior to playing, why wouldn’t he play? I would anticipate that that’s something that’s definitely possible. I don’t know what kind of shape he is in. I imagine he is in shape. It’s not like he sits around and gets fat and happy and stuff like that. I certainly would never accuse him of that. I definitely think that he is in shape, and he would be ready to ball on Christmas Day, and the opportunity to show up on Christmas Day for the first time and to go against his old teammate, now nemesis, in LeBron James is something that I think that he welcomed a chance at doing. I wouldn’t rule it out. I certainly don’t know whether or not that’s going to happen, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
JALEN ROSE: I’ll just piggyback on Stephen A.’s point. It is Christmas Day. He is a professional athlete. It’s a huge stage, and he has vendors like Nike, that he also need to satisfy and sell shoes. Since he is only playing in road games, that makes the road games more paramount that he actually participates in all of them, so based on that, yes. If he is able to play based on COVID protocol, I definitely anticipate he is going to play for all of those reasons.
MIKE GREENBERG: And I would just finish it by saying I only root for the most interesting possible things to happen, and so with that in mind, I would love nothing more than to see him go running out there on Saturday. I have no idea, literally none, whether he will or he won’t, but it sure would help us make this Christmas Day as memorable as any that I can think of in recent NBA years.
Q. If I may, just another piggyback off of what Jalen was saying. Because it is Christmas Day, last night, obviously, LeBron, he rolled his ankle a little bit, and obviously, with adrenaline and everything, he was able to finish out the game, but given where the Lakers are at right now, do you guys feel that at his age he is going to try to suck that up and play Christmas Day, or do you think that he would nurse the ankle first as a safety precaution?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I think that’s what makes LeBron James special. LeBron is going to always exhaust every means and every measure to make sure he is available, and it’s ironic that you would ask that question because the lead into that question was Kyrie Irving, who I believe is the antithesis of that. LeBron, if he is out, there’s a damn good reason he is out. He can’t go. And that’s one of the things that you have to appreciate about stars of his ilk. Him, Kevin Durant, Kobe before him, God rest his soul, M.J., Steph Curry. The list goes on and on and on.
When you have two superstars in this game, the number one thing that gets bypassed but that we should definitely never hesitate to applaud them for is their availability. Somehow, some way, if there is a way, they find a way to make sure that they’re available. A lot of guys with superstar talent don’t have that superstar’s mentality, and that’s why they come up a bit short.
JALEN ROSE: I agree with Stephen A. about bringing it every night, and to me that’s what actually makes you a superstar and winning because we have you versus we need to add help to play with you. For LeBron at this point of his career with A.D. being out, it’s unfortunate that he has to play so many heavy minutes and be so productive during the regular season. All that’s going to do is not only tax him as the season progresses, but the Lakers are going to have a low seed. I don’t see this team winning the West. Definitely don’t see this team winning the championship. That’s with a healthy A.D.
They put all of their chips in the middle of the table. Their goal was to win a championship for LeBron, and they did, but when you do that, you get older, not younger, and you lose younger talent. Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Caruso, Ball, Hart, Randle. You have to lose all of those players in order to get that championship, so now they have that championship, and this is the residue of it.
I do believe that he understands the significance of balling on Christmas Day and showing up and being a superstar, so I do anticipate if he can go, he will.
MIKE GREENBERG: I agree, and they need him. To Jalen’s point, they need to start stacking up some wins. No champion — we had a fascinating stat from the Elias Sports Bureau. No NBA champion has ever been .500 or worse this late in the season, and the Lakers right now are at .500. They need to start winning some games, and they clearly need LeBron James to do it.
Q. Stephen A., as a person who respects the NABJ, what does it mean to you to see HBCUs, on a personal scale, get the national exposure it deserves?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: It’s very heart-warming. There’s a lot of talent that emanates from HBCUs. We recognize the fact that the lack of recognition has definitely hurt HBCUs to some degree. That’s why it’s been one of my priorities to highlight and elevate the profile of HBCUs as an ambassador for HBCUs, and the fact that the NBA, Chris Paul, TNT, and, of course, Walt Disney has really gone about the business of highlighting HBCUs in a significant fashion. That’s something that’s very touching to me. It’s something that resonates with me, and I can’t be thankful enough for all parties involved for contributing to elevating the profile of HBCUs.
Got to give props to my man Primetime, Deion Sanders, for what he has done in terms of elevating the profile of HBCUs. The name, image and likeness issue has played a role in also helping to elevate the profile of HBCUs as well. I’m incredibly happy about that.
Q. Jalen, what are your thoughts about the Bulls? Do you think that they can take it all the way and be one of the contenders in the Finals?
JALEN ROSE: I love how the Bulls just went from being irrelevant in theory, though they had LaVine, who I really like, an all-star player, and Vucevic, who was an all-star, to what they did this offseason by adding the defense in particular and passing to Lonzo Ball, who is an improved shooter, and Caruso defensively, but DeMar DeRozan was the guy. He is a person that when you look down at the stat sheet, he is going to always have 25 points and play in all phases of the game. I’m really happy that the Bulls now have a pulse, but it’s not a contending one. If they won a first round series, to me that would be a successful season, but I don’t see this as an Eastern Conference finals type of team.
MIKE GREENBERG: I wish Wilbon was on this call right now, Jalen, to set you straight on that because I think he might strongly disagree.
I don’t know that if there is more than one team in the Eastern Conference, and that would be Milwaukee at full strength or maybe the Nets if Kyrie ever does actually play all their games, that the Bulls couldn’t beat, and I say that on behalf of my good friend, Michael Wilbon, who would be yelling at you right now.
Q. I just wanted to ask all your opinions, specifically about one player, Isaiah Thomas, and his recent play with the Lakers and whether or not you believe that will in the coming hopefully weeks or we’ll see months, whether he will sign with another team and what you think the future is for him?
JALEN ROSE: I’ll go first on this one because I have a coincidence. We record Jalen & Jacoby, and Isaiah Thomas had 42 points in his G League game. The next day we brought him on the show, and I asked him when does he hope to get called up? He was, like, I believe it’s going to happen within the next week. 24 hours later he got called up by the Lakers, so I do think that he still can ball in the NBA. His first game, I saw him playing really well. We had that game on our network. He struggled last night, him and T.H.T.
Not only do I think he is going to get signed by another team, but with COVID, you’re going to see other older guys, Lance Stevenson and Joe Johnson already, probably like a Jamal Crawford maybe. You’ll see more guys that have recently retired and kept themselves in shape to be eligible to possibly join rosters because so many teams are going to be shorthanded.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Anybody that can score from the perimeter has a chance. If Isaiah Thomas is making shots from the perimeter on somewhat of a consistent basis, he has a chance. If he struggles, he has no chance. When it comes to him, there’s a level of empathy that you’ve got to throw into the equation because this is a man that played for the Boston Celtics, averaged 29 a game, and was a league MVP candidate, but had injuries. Whether they were mishandled or he mishandled it or whatever story you want to believe, his career has never been the same. When you look at it from that perspective, it’s sad because the bottom line is whether it was a missed opportunity on his part or something that just wasn’t capitalized because of the influence of others, you just find yourself looking at a guy like him knowing what the potential was that was there and no matter what it can ultimately morph into, it certainly won’t be what it once was, and that’s what you find yourself feeling sad about when it comes to him.
MIKE GREENBERG: I think that’s right. I can’t really add much except that we also all remember the family tragedy he lived through so very publicly at around that same time, so he is an easy player to root for, and I hope the answer to your question, William, is yes, he does wind up catching on somewhere permanently and resurrects a career that did look so incredibly promising at one time.
Q. Hi, guys. Thank you for doing this. So my question pertains to really COVID and how you guys are dealing with the effects of it as broadcasters. What kind of protocols or differences are in effect or differences you’ve seen with the broadcast this year especially with the rise of the Omicron variant?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I was just going to say from a network standpoint, I don’t know how much more we can do. As everybody knows, I’m presently at home with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. I have COVID as we speak. I’ve been tested at least twice every single week. Stuff happens. This is the Omicron variant, Delta variant. Don’t know what it is. All you can do is put forth your due diligence, and I agree and I side with Commissioner Adam Silver, who when he is reluctant to postpone or delay the season or what have you because he said this is something that we’re going to have to learn to deal with. It’s not going anywhere. My mentality is that I think the NBA, the networks themselves, everybody is putting forth their due diligence.
It’s all new to all of us. It’s a global pandemic that we’re talking about here, and everybody is acting like everybody is supposed to know the answered. Well, even the scientists don’t have all the answers. They’re figuring it out as we go along. We have to understand that, respect that, and come together as best as we possibly can to put forth our due diligence to make sure that we insulate ourselves. Not just in terms of protecting ourselves, but protecting other people, and as it pertains to the league, the NBA itself, the only thing that I would say is I am an advocate of the Commissioner and the league invoking the Best Interest of the Game Clause. You’re not vaccinated, you don’t play.
I think we’ve gotten to that point where you consider over 70 plus players that are in COVID protocols. Yes, the NBA Players Association has been on the record stating via statements and the ilk that they are in complete support of guys — they’re pushing people to get their booster shots, and 97% of the players are vaccinated, 65% of them have the booster shots, et cetera, et cetera, and they’re continuing to encourage, but they are completely and adamantly opposed to a mandate. I say, excuse me, you’re revenue sharers. You’re partners. And now it’s about the best interest of the game. What you don’t want to happen is the season gets stalled or flat-out stopped. You don’t want to go through something like that again.
If the resolution is to be vaccinated, then I am of the mindset that the NBA and all professional sports leagues should impose Best Interest of the Game Clause and mandate that you’re vaccinated or you don’t play because last time I checked, coaches, administrators, arena personnel and the ilk have all been mandated to be vaccinated. Only the players are the hold-outs, and I would eradicate that. That’s my personal opinion.
MIKE GREENBERG: It’s infinitely more interesting than anything I was going to say. I was merely going to say that, very specifically to the question that you asked, some of the things that we’ve done. For example, we’ve taken Countdown on the road a few times. We’ve been in arenas, and we have followed some new and really fascinating protocols in order to be on the floor unmasked. We’ve all had to be tested the day before we’ve been anywhere. We were in Boston. We were in Philadelphia. We were in Brooklyn. We were at the Garden, and, of course, the protocols at our studios at the Seaport are stringent and have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, and ESPN has done a great job seeing to it that those are enforced. I was just going to add that. Obviously, much less interesting, as is usually the case, than what Stephen A. Smith had to say.
JALEN ROSE: A couple of things. My brothers both made great points, so kind of like a puzzle, I’ll take a different point. I’ll take the point for television and doing broadcasts I think the idea that it’s not going to always be perfect is now accepted, and what I mean by that is pre-pandemic — and, by the way, I wish all of us would have had some stock in Zoom before the pandemic. The idea of bringing people on with Facetime or remotes, that wasn’t necessarily encouraged. It was tolerated. Now not only do multi-media personalities accept that that’s the way it is, but also fans accept the way it is. So if somebody was doing an interview now on TV and their television screen starts buffering, two years ago the television world would freak out because we are all about perfection, but now we understand that that’s going to happen, and it’s the new climate that we live in.
And, Stephen A., also, the fans need to be vaccinated as well to get into those games. I go to a lot of sporting events. I go to Buffalo Bills football games, Detroit basketball games. The fans are also required to be. The only people that aren’t vaccinated are the players, and here’s what’s going to happen if what Stephen A. said doesn’t take place. It’s almost a laugh now, cry later thing. If they don’t address it right now, the only way you’re going to finish the season with integrity — and what I mean is like major players not out during the playoffs and COVID — is to go back to a bubble because players don’t want to play in arenas without fans, and, of course, players aren’t cheering for a bubble, but for the integrate of the championship once the playoffs start, if everybody is not vaccinated, that’s what they’re going to have to consider.
Q. One more follow-up to that. In a time where there’s so many different media platforms converging to put on an on-air product, how are you using social media to your advantage to bring viewers closer when many of them cannot attend games in person or are consuming things through multiple different avenues?
DAVID ROBERTS: I’ll take that question. We’re in a multi-platform world, as you know, and that’s why part of what we’re doing on Christmas Day includes multiple podcasts, includes digital-based programming, whether it’s the Hoop Streams, on Snapchat, the radio broadcast. Meanwhile, anywhere you can consume content, there’s a good chance you’ll find NBA with the connection to ESPN. Wherever the fans are, they’ll find us covering the NBA and broadcasting the NBA and talking about the NBA on ESPN.
JALEN ROSE: We’ve taken over TikTok too. Just joking.
Q. My question to all three of you is, COVID is clearly taking over everything in the NBA and all the sports really. It’s impacting not just practice squad players in the NFL, it’s hitting the major players including guys like — we’re talking about Christmas games. Giannis is currently in COVID protocol. It’s hitting a lot of people.
Stephen A., you kind of mentioned it a little bit, but I want to go into it more. Do you think the NBA needs to take a pause just even if it’s just for a couple of days to try to stop the spread, or do they maybe need to do kind of what the NFL was doing, which is where they said if players are not showing symptoms, they’re asymptomatic, they can go play, depending on a situation?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Hell no. I’m going to tell you right now what the NBA should do. The only time a pause should take place is for the NBA to conduct a meeting with all players in attendance and say, okay, either you all accept this vaccine mandate, or we’re going into a bubble. Those are your two choices. Pick one because what we’re not going to do is let the season come to a halt. We’re not doing it.
The NFL is not doing it. The NFL, that’s a different subject for another day, but when you’ve got guys that you don’t have to be vaccinated and what have you, but you’re seeing it midfield hugging one another, being in each other’s face after every single game. There are things that the actual athletes themselves can do in terms of conducting themselves to sort of minimize the potential impact of a contraction. We get all of that.
As it pertains to the NBA, the same applies. I piggyback off of what Jalen said. This ain’t rocket science. What the real issue is that everybody wants it all. It’s a virus. It’s a global pandemic. You’ve got scientists that are still trying to figure it out. Now we have the Omicron variant and Delta variant and before that was COVID, and before that you didn’t need a booster shot, and now you need a booster shot. It continues to evolve, and we’re learning more as we go along. If the experts are learning more and more as we go along, then obviously we don’t know, so what’s the best thing that you could do to insulate yourself so the games can continue and you can continue to get paid without compromising the bottom line because there is revenue sharing here.
There’s something called basketball-related income that comes along with everything, and so when you understand that in a partnership, now you’re talking about the best interest of the league. Over 70 dudes — or actually, it might be close to 100 now, in COVID protocols, it is clear that this is running rampant, and so that’s the situation that we are having to deal with.
If that is the reality of the situation, listen, we’ve got a Best Interest of the Game Clause we can invoke, we believe, that says, hey, everybody needs to be vaccinated or you don’t play. If you don’t want us to do that, because we are in a partnership, then be ready to go back to the bubble. Pick one. That to me should be the only pause in play. The only pause in play that should take place is the NBA should summon every single player in the NBA to have a meeting with the league, with doctors, et cetera, and those are our two choices we are giving you. Complete vaccination of players or go back to the bubble. I would give them 24 hours. Does that answer your question?
JALEN ROSE: Yeah.
MIKE GREENBERG: I can’t say it any better than that.
JALEN ROSE: That’s exactly what I just said. Same thing.
MIKE GREENBERG: I would add just quickly that I also agreed with what I heard the Commissioner say to Malika yesterday on NBA Today, which is if you gave me a finite date, if someone could say, well, if we pause now and we pick it up again on February 1st, everything will be normal again, then that would be something, I suppose, to consider, but there is no reason to believe that this is going to end even as we currently are living in it that quickly, and there is no complete end date to this. This is something we’re going to have to learn to incorporate into our lives going forward. I appreciate it and agree with what Adam said when he said there really isn’t any logic that he sees in the idea of pausing the season because there’s no reason to think it will get better that quickly.
Q. I’m going to take my question back to 1984. Bernard King set the NBA scoring record for Christmas Day with 60 points. If you could see a player doing that this year, who would it be?
JALEN ROSE: Steph Curry.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Honestly speaking, I can say K.D. or Steph, but I could also say Kyrie if he is returning because he is going against the Lakers. It’s been one of the worst defenses in the NBA.
JALEN ROSE: I’ll take K.D. against LeBron and the Lakers, who for some strange reason are now featuring him at center. I don’t care what the numbers say. I know it looks good on paper. I’ll take K.D. as my answer, if Kyrie doesn’t play. If Kyrie does play, my answer is Steph.
MIKE GREENBERG: I’ll take Steph just to round it out. This entire season has been about Steph Curry so far, and I can’t think of anyone better to be the face of the sport right this minute, so who better to score 60 points on Christmas Day?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I’ll say Steph because he is going against Phoenix. I would say K.D. or Kyrie because they’re going against the Lakers.
Q. Stephen A., if there’s any word or phrase that I can associate with you, it’s box office, so with everything that’s going on with these protocols right now, what affect do you feel will be had on viewership and/or attendance?
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, it definitely could have a profound effect on viewership and attendance if we’re learning before the games people aren’t available because they’re in COVID protocols. Let’s face realities. Listen, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the game, and as incredible as they were, Showtime against Bird and McHale and Dennis Johnson and all of those boys with the Boston Celtics, you thought, “team.” Jordan changed all of that because you thought about the individual.
As a result, from that point forward, you’ve got the Shaqs, the Kobes, the Vince Carters, the Allen Iversons. The list goes on and on and on. You gravitate towards the individual player, and that certainly elevated during the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992.
When you look at it from that perspective, if you turn around and now you’re advertising before the game, this dude ain’t going to be available, he is in COVID protocol, that dude ain’t going to be available, he is in COVID protocol, it does take something away. To me that’s the reason why the NBA is perfectly entitled to address this with the level of urgency it deserves because essentially what you want to do is insure the availability of the players. That’s what you want to do. That’s one of the reasons.
And it’s not just with COVID. It’s one of the reasons that I had an issue with their decision about Kyrie. You all in or you’re all out. To capitulate, you are providing excuses for people to miss games and not prioritize being there all the time. That’s the thing. Everybody is talking about the whole Kyrie thing. Has anybody thought about the fans in Brooklyn? You don’t get to see him. That’s the show-stopper. You walk through the turnstile to see the kind of show he is capable of putting on, but he ain’t there. He is the one responsible for getting everybody to come there.
They’re going to be on the road. They’re going to show up in Utah, show up in Phoenix. You’re going to show up in Minnesota and stuff like that, but Brooklyn don’t get to see. Everybody is acting like that’s not a big deal. It’s a big deal to them.
Same is applicable to COVID. If you are not putting forth your due diligence and doing everything you can to ensure that you are available, you’re cheating. You’re cheating the game. That’s why I’m a complete supporter of a 100% mandate that says everybody needs to be vaccinated or we’re going back into the bubble because I’m sending the message, come hell or high water, you’re going to play. You’re going to be available. These games are going to continue. That’s the message you want to send to the fans. That’s the message.
JALEN ROSE: To me that’s a great point, Stephen A., and there’s a regular season message, and there’s a postseason message. The loyalty that fans used to have to teams, they don’t have anymore. Like Stephen A. was talking about, they now follow the players. What ends up happening is, yes, these same fans during the regular season are now conditioned that they know the best players might not be playing anyway because of load management. We don’t even need COVID.
No NBA players going forward will be playing 82 games again. How about that? When showing up each game ain’t important to the players, to the fans — that used to be important. Showing up to practice. Showing up in games. Now longevity is the key for everybody. Based on that, in the regular season people are kind of conditioned somewhat to the best players not playing, but in the playoffs you can’t have that at all. That’s why I said for the integrity of the game if they’re not all vaccinated, they definitely are going to have to go into a bubble, or you won’t really have a true champion.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: Let me interject by saying this: We are talking the NBA, and we’ve got our Countdown show, and we’re talking about the game itself or whatever. Let me provide a macro-perspective for everybody to understand. As we all know, as I said, I have COVID, today or yesterday. I intend to be on the air Saturday. It’s going to take a hell of a lot for me not to be on the air Saturday. Jalen has Jalen & Jacoby, NBA Countdown. He is doing a bevy of things all over the place. Mike Greenberg, what doesn’t he do? What hasn’t he done throughout his illustrious career? Mike Wilbon, if you don’t see him on PTI, on NBA Countdown, where do you see him? You see him at some game. He is all over the place. Because we’re going to put in the work because the best ability is availability.
The one obligation we have is to make sure that come hell or high water, 99 times out of 100, we there. And the one time we ain’t there, it’s a damn good reason for us not to be there. Guess what, the same is applicable to any professional athlete, any professional coach, any professional team because you’re asking the audience to take time out of their busy schedule and to ingratiate themselves with whatever it is that you are offering. You have an obligation to exhaust every means necessary to make sure you are available.
That doesn’t mean we’re on the field of play or the court of play. I understand that. We’re not running up. It’s not our knees. It’s not our hips and ankles and all of this other stuff, but it’s the principal position that I believe you have to have. You got to show up to work, or there needs to be a damn good reason why you’re not.
The true superstars in this game, that’s what we owe a debt of gratitude to them for. It ain’t just their greatness and their exploits on the field or the court of play. It’s the fact that they’re usually available. If LeBron James ain’t available, there’s a damn good reason. If Kobe wasn’t available, there was a damn good reason. If M.J. wasn’t available, there was a damn good reason. They understand they’re marquee, they carry the mantle, and it’s their job to show up first. That’s what this is about, and that’s what we’re talking about, and that’s why it’s so important in my opinion that the league take this position that they need to take because they need to remind these dudes you have just as much of an obligation as we do to make sure that games go on and that games continue with you in attendance. That’s my belief.
MIKE GREENBERG: That’s beautifully said. I would just add as an illustration of that that in Michael Jordan’s final three seasons in Chicago, which are ’96, ’97, and ’98, he played 82, 82, and 82 regular season games, and they won the championship all three years. Those two things at least as recently as that are not considered to be mutually exclusive.
DAVID ROBERTS: Let me add this context for all of you all putting together your stories to underscore the points that have been made. Through the first quarter of this NBA season, first 30 games, the ratings for the regular season games on ESPN are up 26%. Put that with also Countdown being up 51%. What that says is that NBA is in real good shape. They have a lot of star players that fans are interested in watching. Again, think about that. 26% increase in audience, and it also points to the fact that after everything that this country and society has gone through, through this pandemic, the fans are hungry to watch live sports like the NBA and the NBA is well-positioned. That’s why it’s important that you all are asking these questions.
MIKE GREENBERG: That’s such a good point, Dave. I’ll jump in on that really, and, Jalen, I’ll give it to you with this thought. One of the reasons for that, I believe, and Michael Wilbon brought this up the first night of our first Countdown, Jalen, is the NBA this season has an element of parity that I think it has not had in quite some time. He has been covering the league longer than any of the rest of us, and Michael said there has never been a time that he can remember when there were more teams you were interested in seeing than there are this season. There’s no super team. The superstars are, at least by recent standards, much more spread out in different places, and every single night we’ve got games with teams that are worth watching.
Out of the 30 teams in the NBA, the overwhelming majority — I don’t have a number in front of me, but 20-something of them are teams you’re very interested in watching, and Jalen, I’ll give you the thought there. It was Michael who first brought that up, and I think it’s an important point. I think that has been one of the reasons, Dave, for the success of the ratings and everything else to this point.
JALEN ROSE: Here’s also a couple of things. While football is going to be king in America — we all love football — the basketball players are more popular than football players. You can go by any metric. You can go by social media. You can go by commercials. You can go by Forbes List. You can go by whatever you want. Basketball players are more famous than football players, and that’s why I said, to Dave’s point, the regular season because fans are already conditioned. Kind of like we were talking about doing television during pandemic, fans are already conditioned that the top players may not show up. I’m a Pistons fan, and just think about this. If you root for a team that is in the lottery, the star players don’t play those road games anyway. I’m going to 25% of Pistons games, and I’m not seeing the top two or three players on the other team anyway during the regular season. So everybody is now conditioned for that to happen, and so that’s why it can’t take place in the playoffs. That would be magnified.
Q. Jalen, as the one on NBA Countdown who played in the league, what is your fondest memory of playing on Christmas Day? I had to look it up and make sure you actually did play on Christmas, but I saw you did. You were a part of the Pacers. What was your fondest memory?
JALEN ROSE: Playing on Christmas used to be exclusive, so now you have five games. You have ten teams. Before you had an East Coast game and a West Coast game. I don’t mean to get all “old man, get off my lawn.” It’s kind of like NBA player of the week versus NBA player of the conference. It’s like we’re just trying to make sure that we give out as many awards as possible.
To your question, my worst moment, I’ll tell you what is when Curtis Thompson elbowed me in the head, and I didn’t do nothing bad, and I got ejected. And to tell you about that morning, I just had a young daughter. I woke up, had Christmas, feeling like a great dad and doing all these great things, opening presents and all of that. So I’m feeling like I ain’t going to get ejected, but I ultimately got ejected anyway.
My favorite memory — you ask this to any player, what was your favorite team? They’re going always going to say where they won the most or made the most money. Mine has to be a combination of the two, and I think I was playing against Orlando. And I held T. Mac under 50, but I scored, like, 35, I think.
Q. Just wondering, when you all three of you watch the NBA in the last couple of seasons — I guess three seasons starting with COVID, and you look at the Orlando bubble and you look at empty arenas last season, and now you look at arenas that are filled with fans and we don’t know, obviously, what the future holds, do you think — I know this is applying both to the regular season and playoffs — that the concept of home court advantage is not as relevant anymore?
JALEN ROSE: It’s definitely relevant. It’s a difference when you go between — when you walk in your job — just think about you walk to your job today, and everybody that saw you, hey, man, your haircut is great, I like that beard, oh, man, look at those arms, you’re in shape. You just feel bigger and makes your shoes feel oversized. It makes you have a competitive edge when you have 20,000 people or so cheering for you. So on every level, high school, college, pro, the home record for teams is going to always trump the one on the road. There are a few exceptions. The Spurs come to mind where they were kind of doing both, but for the most part, that’s still going to stand.
STEPHEN A. SMITH: I think the thing that you all have to remember is I brought up bubble play after Jalen for a reason. Those dudes remember what it was like to play in empty arenas. They remember what it was like to play with no fans in attendance. You’ve got these fake props in the stands and stuff like that. No real fans and stuff. Stuff was virtual. They remember the difference. That’s why it’s important that the league says 100% vaccination or we’re going back to the bubble.
JALEN ROSE: And, Stephen A., I also remember when there was no basketball because we were locked out and that can also be the alternative choice by the league. Because that’s where the standstill is going to end up happening if they choose not to do it.
MIKE GREENBERG: Mike Breen came on my radio show — it wasn’t during the bubble, but it was during the early part of last season when there were no fans in the stands, and I thought he had a great phrase. He said, what we’ve learned from this process is that the fans are the soundtrack of the sport. Nothing is the same without it. The energy isn’t the same.
I can’t speak to the value of the home court relative one way or the other. I would defer to Jalen on that. If there’s one thing we have seen, and I would use this to underscore the point that Stephen A. has been making throughout this conversation. It’s how important to the sport, and to all sports, to have the fans in the building in attendance and providing all of the energy that they do. The games clearly just weren’t and aren’t the same without them.