Bill Simmons has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to expressing his opinion on sports, pop culture and anything else crossing his radar.
On two websites (the now-departed ESPN-powered Grantland and his latest online venture, The Ringer) and his cancelled ESPN program, Simmons weighed in on various hot-button topics animating the national water-cooler conversation, eventually running afoul of ESPN’s managers.
“Any Given Wednesday,” Simmons’ eagerly-anticipated weekly show, premiered Wednesday on HBO, a television platform known for edgy programming. Simmons needs no cable-TV liberation from the constraints of language to get his point across, but “Any Given Wednesday” reveals the sportswriter-turned-mogul hosting a show that, to go by the premiere, is a marked departure from most TV talk shows. In the bespoke-suit world of high-profile sports television, “Any Given Wednesday” stakes out different territory, with a style that’s refreshingly Converse All-Stars, a shot and a beer.
Simmons, looking a little like he just fell out of bed (understandable given how much he’s been juggling recently), has the good interviewer’s sense to ask a question and then get out of the way. That much was obvious in his interaction with Ben Affleck, actor, director, Oscar-winning writer, New England native and diehard New England Patriots fan. Simmons barely mentioned the word “Deflategate” and Affleck jumped in.
Affleck called the controversy — in which Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was accused of deflating footballs below National Football League standards, and requested to surrender his personal cell phone by NFL officials — “the ultimate b-llsh-t f—ing outrage of sports, ever.”
“You wanna give a guy, because he doesn’t give you his cell phone, a punishment?” Affleck said. “I would never give an organization as leak-prone as the NFL my f—king cell phone.
“They’re not the FBI. This is not a federal subpoena … it’s a f—ing ridiculous smear campaign.”
Charles Barkley was no less outspoken. The NBA Hall of Famer and sports commentator apparently isn’t ready to over-canonize LeBron James of the world-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Top 10? Sure. Top 5? Not yet.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the 10 greatest ever. I got Michael [Jordan] 1, Oscar [Robertson] 2, and I got Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Wilt [Chamberlain], I got Kobe [Bryant] and Tim Duncan. LeBron is right there with Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.”
This is when Simmons’ other interviewer’s instinct kicked in, as Simmons pushed back on Barkley’s rankings, as only a true fan can. It’s this informed jousting, the back and forth between devotees of sports that could make “Any Given Wednesday” appointment viewing for sports fans.
The show’s set tells part of the story. No fancy style-forward couch for guests to sit on, no expansive desk for the host to sit behind. In the premiere, Simmons goes extreme casual, either sitting across a guest at a round table you could play cards on, or in facing leather chairs. With a style a lot like “Up Late,” Alec Baldwin‘s short-lived talk show on MSNBC, Simmons’ program turns down the high-gloss visuals of sports TV, engaging guests — and, by extension, viewers — in a show whose context is more conversation than interrogation.
And Simmons gets the chance to step up on his own soapbox for commentary. Defending King James as arguably the greatest NBA player ever, Simmons said that “in his last three finals games, he fully realized his potential as Bird 2.0, Magic 2.0, Bo [Jackson] crossed with Scottie [Pippen] crossed with Mailman [Karl Malone]. He delivered on the promise of a championship, which puts him in the same conversation as [New York Rangers’ Marc] Messier, Ali, Namath … hopefully not Trump. …”
Simmons went on, of course, dropping other stats and points subject to challenge and dispute. But the throughline for this show — part of his multi-year, multi-platform deal with HBO — is pretty well established here at the outset. With events in the culture moving faster than once a week, Simmons will be at something of a disadvantage, keeping pace with a media universe that breaks news minute by minute. But “Any Given Wednesday,” puts those events through his prism. It’s classic Bill Simmons, a man with questions and answers, with a new forum where he can drop the mic and let others do the same.
Stay f—ing tuned.
“Any Given Wednesday” airs on HBO Mondays at 10 PM PT/ET.