No Fear: Rachel Nichols
She may be one of the most prominent TV voices on the NBA, but ESPN’s Rachel Nichols holds on tight to her roots as a sportswriter.
Consider NBA All-Star weekend in Charlotte, where she went from emceeing a bold-name retirement-year party on Thursday for Dwyane Wade — joining, among others, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Pat Riley — to hanging out with beat reporters and columnists the next night.
Nichols, despite spending the last 15 years on national TV covering and interviewing the likes of LeBron James, dispenses with any notion of broadcaster imperturbability. During a live broadcast of her daily NBA show, “The Jump,” from Charlotte, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, a first-time All-Star, dropped by the set for an interview. Nichols struggled with an unfortunate urge to cough.
“What was that?” she said after the show. “I can’t pretend that it’s all glossy. I don’t have 30 years of TV training to pull that off. I’d rather just have everyone come in with me. If that coughing fit with Ben Simmons had continued, I would’ve asked him to give me the Heimlich maneuver on TV. Which would have horrified more people.”
That assessment is typical Nichols. Funny. Blunt. Confident. And never afraid to describe precisely what she sees, good or bad, about herself and whoever happens to be in her orbit.
Nichols spoke to Sports Business Journal during All-Star weekend. She sat in a luxury suite at Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, where “The Jump” broadcast live leading up to the event. Rival network TNT had the prime location at Spectrum Center several blocks away as the rights holder to many of the events over the weekend.
She explained the look of the show’s main studio set back in Los Angeles and the premise of a hang-out-and-talk-basketball show that has moved from a seasonal offering on ESPN2 since starting in 2016 to a year-round weekday afternoon staple on ESPN.
“You get the look of the show,” Nichols said. “We don’t have any big monitors behind us because, in my house, we have no big monitors. When I sit around and talk about sports with my friends, I don’t telestrate. That’s why the set looks the way it does.”
Nichols wants “The Jump” to be a no-frills show not driven by highlights and one that puts her on equal footing with a rotating cast of former players led by Tracy McGrady. And one that doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, instead using nicknames and skipping backstory on the assumption that you already know (and can turn to Google if you don’t).
“Part of the concept for the show was I never wanted to be asking a question I already had the answer to — right?” she said. (Nichols likes to punctuate her sentences with an interrogatory “right,” gently carrying her listener along on assertions of inevitable logic.) “So that was a big driver for how we scripted and did the show. I know the league — right?”
■ ■ ■ ■
Nichols started as a sportswriter in the mid-1990s and migrated to ESPN for nine years starting in 2004, where she was a constant presence reporting on the NBA and NFL for “SportsCenter” as well as other shows while also doing sideline reporting on “Monday Night Football.” She left for a hybrid CNN-Turner Sports role in 2013, including NBA sideline reporting, but then ESPN brought her back to start “The Jump.”
In three years, the show has expanded, added Scottie Pippen and Paul Pierce as rotating analysts, and become the program that consistently lands big-get interviews. Think Jimmy Butler after his infamous practice tantrum in Minnesota that led to his trade or, more recently, think rapper Meek Mill and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin discussing criminal justice reform. Most of all, think Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who appeared on-set with Nichols last September after an NBA investigation found patterns of sexual harassment, workplace misconduct and a culture hostile to women in the Mavericks organization.
Nichols’ straightforward but unyielding questioning of boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on separate occasions in 2014 won applause from fellow reporters. So, too, did the Cuban interview.
“I’m proud of her, but I’m not surprised in the least,” said ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, who first met Nichols when he was a lead sports columnist at The Washington Post and Nichols was an 18-year-old summer intern. Wilbon and Nichols are both alums of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Wilbon said Nichols’ fearlessness was evident from the start. “She lit it up [at The Post] like she owned the place [as a college intern]. She had supreme confidence.”
Nichols did Thursday and Friday editions of “The Jump” while in Charlotte, followed by taping separate sit-down interviews across town with James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook. On Saturday and Sunday night, she headed to the Spectrum Center to provide live reports for “SportsCenter” from the skills competition and All-Star Game.
■ Host of “The Jump” on ESPN (since 2016)
■ Sports reporter, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 1995-96
■ Sports reporter, The Washington Post, 1996-2004
■ Reporter and correspondent on “SportsCenter, “NFL Countdown,” “Outside the Lines” and “E:60,” and sideline reporter on “Monday Night Football,” ESPN, 2004-13
■ Host/sports analyst, CNN, and sideline reporter on Turner Sports’ NBA and NCAA basketball coverage, 2013-16.
On the Friday afternoon of All-Star weekend, Nichols walked into a stadium club area serving as the stage for her live segments, drawing whoops from an audience of 125 people. “The Jump” is, for basketball fans, becoming the yin to the more established, multiple-Emmy-winning “Inside the NBA” on TNT. They’re different shows; one airs in the afternoon while the other is tethered to game broadcasts.
“The Jump” blends Nichols’ journalism chops with the former NBA players (McGrady, Pierce, Pippen, Rasheed Wallace and Stephen Jackson) and reporters and insiders (Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst, Zach Lowe, Jackie MacMullan, Ramona Shelburne). Each show starts with Nichols’ four-minute monologue taking on an NBA issue or story, offering her perspective in what is a hybrid sports column-video montage.
A typical example: The day after the All-Star Game, Nichols’ lead-off segment mixed humor and observation from the league’s showcase weekend.
“By definition, Charlotte 2019 was a success,” Nichols declared, before poking fun at the silly theatrics of the dunk contest. “Even if it will be, in part, remembered for a man failing to fully jump over a cardboard airplane.”
And, just before she explained how the main event started slowly but built to a high-scoring crescendo, Nichols took aim at the ambience: “It didn’t help that the in-game entertainment crew was really struggling to find famous faces on celebrity row. When the second guy you put on the JumboTron is Guy Fieri, it’s not a good sign.”
■ ■ ■ ■
By the time of that post-All-Star edition of “The Jump,” Nichols was at ESPN’s main campus in Bristol, Conn. The stop-off was a good alternative to the long flight back to the regular Los Angeles studio, a move that would have required her to leave Charlotte early. Instead, she was able to stay through the All-Star Game.
Nichols, as several of her colleagues put it, is a force of nature. Her typical workday starts with catching up on overnight developments before a 7:30 a.m. production meeting that includes her first sketches of the monologue. As she drives to the ESPN studio, Nichols loads up on basketball intel by listening to various NBA podcasts at double-speed.
“I have told her it’s unnerving. It gives me anxiety,” said Windhorst, a frequent “Jump” contributor who credits Nichols, then a “SportsCenter” field reporter, with showing him the ropes of TV. (She bought him his first makeup compact at a CVS in Miami when she and Windhorst were marooned doing multiple hits analyzing the LeBron-era Heat, telling him, “You’ll need this.”)
When she arrives at the studio, she collects more news, polishes her monologue, shares ideas with her staff and is on-set for the live telecast from noon to 1 p.m. Pacific at ESPN’s L.A. hub. That’s a 3 p.m. air time on the East Coast, ideal for players and coaches, especially those on the road, who have already finished morning shoot-arounds and often have some free time midafternoon before heading to the arena.
A post-show staff meeting and additional planning and editing for future episodes lasts until mid to late afternoon. Then, Nichols heads home for a few hours. Two or three nights a week, she goes back to the Staples Center (ESPN’s studios are across the street) to target visiting teams in town to play the Clippers or Lakers, checking in with players and coaches to take the temperature of the league.
On nights when she’s home, Nichols surfs League Pass, texting and emailing a handful of other “Jump” co-workers about what storylines might fit into the next day’s show. This may be the thing Nichols likes most about living on the West Coast: All of the day’s games are finished by 10 p.m. instead of 1 a.m. on the East Coast.
“[Rachel] is in constant communication with myself and the rest of the staff all day long,” said Hilary Guy, the show’s coordinating producer. “We have a Google doc where we throw in ideas for the show and we’ll all be watching games through the course of the night.”
Asked for an explanation of these time-management feats, Nichols said, “I’m also a vampire. I think it’s important that SBJ gets this exclusive.”
And she does this while managing a family with her husband.
Nichols pushes to take the show on the road and not just for obvious occasions like The Finals, All-Star weekend and Summer League. Other times, she makes a quick trip herself.
“Rachel, as soon as we gave her a studio show in L.A., she’s like, ‘Wait, I want to go back on the road,’” said Danny Corrales, producer of “The Jump.” “Part of my job is just keeping up with Rachel. She’s grinded so hard as a journalist.”
In January, when Harden, the Rockets All-Star, was going for his 19th straight 30-point game against the Lakers in Houston, Nichols flew to Texas for the Saturday night game and spent time chatting with Harden and Houston coach Mike D’Antoni — without a camera crew. Such conversations provide context during future episodes of “The Jump” while keeping Nichols connected to the people she’s constantly talking about on TV.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr, after a routine pregame session with beat reporters, was asked by SBJ whether he might be able to offer any opinions on “The Jump.” His immediate answer: “I watched it today. I think Rachel’s awesome.” As for Nichols’ handle on the game, Kerr said, “She knows her stuff. She’s been doing this a long time and she knows how to handle her subjects.”
Take it from Kerr: He knows a winner when he sees one.
Nichols built her reputation on a willingness to ask tough but fair questions. Such as …
Nichols: “You are someone with a history of domestic violence yourself. You’ve even been to jail for it. Why should fans root for you with this kind of history?”
Floyd Mayweather Jr.: “Everything has been allegations. Nothing has been proven, so, you know, that’s life.”
Nichols: “The incident you went to jail for, the mother of your three children did show some bruising, a concussion when she went to the hospital. It was your own kids who called the police, gave them a detailed description of the abuse. There’s been documentation …”
— September 2014 interview of Mayweather after the boxer criticized the NFL for suspending Ray Rice for domestic violence. Mayweather himself had not been suspended from boxing for his own record of abuse, even after serving two months in jail.
Nichols: “Commissioner, you mentioned Robert Mueller’s investigation as key to solving all of these issues [in the Ray Rice case]. I’m not gonna sit here and discuss the integrity of the ex-director of the FBI — I can leave it as a given that he’s a man of integrity, but the law firm that he works for and will help him carry out that investigation is a law firm with extremely close ties to the NFL. You guys paid that law firm recently to help you negotiate some television deals. The president of the Ravens who will be key in this whole investigation worked at that law firm for more than 30 years. Why hire someone with even the appearance of impropriety, and how do you expect this to affect everything?”
— September 2014 news conference with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Nichols: “You run a franchise where you’ve talked a lot publicly about how you know everything that goes on there, you have a finger on the pulse. … But even the best-case scenario of you not knowing, the best version of this is that women in your office felt unsafe coming to work — that they made official complaints to human resources, that they were threatened, they were not promoted. If you just didn’t know any of this, how do you explain that?”
— September 2018 interview with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, regarding Cuban paying $10 million to women’s rights groups in response to league findings of rampant misconduct in the team’s business offices
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.