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Inside ESPN’s ‘NBA Countdown:’ 7 Things You Don’t See on TV

Sage Steele, Jalen Rose and Doug Collins invite TheWrap behind the scenes of ESPN’s flagship basketball show during the NBA playoffs

ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” began a new era in October with a slimmed-down “A team” assembling Sage Steele with analysts Jalen Rose and Doug Collins for their sophomore year together. As the NBA playoffs heat up, ESPN’s flagship basketball show has gone into full throttle.

After the departure of Bill Simmons in the offseason, the trio have found their groove and are having a blast doing it. TheWrap went behind the scenes at ESPN’s Los Angeles studio — nearly 3,000 miles from the sports network’s home base in Bristol, Connecticut — to see what makes the show tick.

“Having fun banter and a genuine friendship so we can give each other crap back-and-forth is important,” former “SportsCenter” anchor Steele told TheWrap. My goal is to forget we’re on TV — to an extent at least — and just have a conversation.”

With 20 years of broadcasting experience under her belt, Steele is an expert at juggling all of the moving parts in a live show with the helping hands and voices of producers Amina Hussein and Lisa James.

Check out seven revelations from behind the scenes at “NBA Countdown” that you don’t see on TV.

It’s always a time crunch
With a 30-minute pre-game show and a halftime slot, the “NBA Countdown” crew has to make every second count. “I have a running clock in my head and several voices. The hardest part, and the thing I enjoy the most, is editing in my head on the fly to track how long they’re on a topic,” Steele said. “I’m also listening to the producer at the same time in my earpiece. That’s where my adrenalin rush comes from — not knowing what comes next and to be able to somehow pull it off.”

There’s bloopers … but you just don’t see them
“My goal is to not let anyone see mistakes if I am on camera. But sometimes I’ll give a fake smile if I am mad at myself,” Steele confessed. “I used to beat myself up over mistakes — but the beauty of live TV is it’s gone and over, then you get to do it again the next day.”

Pre-game rituals aren’t limited to the court
Former Chicago Bulls/Indiana Pacers star Rose still has weird pre-game quirks, such as having movie popcorn in the “war room” while watching 10 TVs as they prep for the show. “We all go to sporting events — what do you do? You order nachos and popcorn. I love sports. I love popcorn,” he told TheWrap. Luckily for ESPN staffers, there’s a movie theater across the street from the studio so Jalen’s craving can be easily satisfied.

They do their own research
It may sound like they’re chatting on the fly, but both Rose and Collins delve deep into their research. “You have to constantly stay current so you are never playing catch up. If it’s phony, people will see through it,” Rose said about scouring every website before game time.

After 42 years in the league, Collins is serious about his homework. “I read for two and a half hours every day to keep abreast on what is going on, then follow the games from the night before if I’ve missed them. I try not to read a lot of opinions — I read facts and data, as I want to make my own thoughts and be fresh,” said the veteran who coached Michael Jordan on the Bulls for five years. As for the producers, “I am never not preparing, even on a supposed off day,” said James, who will stay up late texting with Hussein during a nail-biting game. “I am always on Twitter seeing what is going on.”

They play to fans and non-fans alike
Anyone can watch a game, but not everyone can really understand it. So Collins says the key to explaining the action is storytelling. “We have two minutes to hook you by personalizing these guys,” he said. “I was always taught to hang your hat on something and give the viewers something to watch aside from the game.” Another tip is to know your viewers, as the playoffs attract people who haven’t necessarily been watching all year long. “You can’t talk down to the basketball junkie, but you can’t go over the head of the casual fan,” he explained.



The show is — mostly — unscripted
During a conference call to debate the biggest stories of the week, James keeps the talent thinking on the fly. “I have an idea of what I want to do, but I don’t tell them as I want to make sure I am getting the best stuff out of them,” she said. “It’s not super scripted, as you want the natural interactions to happen.” Even she doesn’t know everything that they will say. Steele says she rarely uses a teleprompter anymore — “it’s all on my scribbled note cards” — while Collins incorporates color coding to track numbers and stats.

They’re at the vanguard of mobile technology
As the playoffs progress, “NBA Countdown” will increasingly go on the road and leave behind its digitally-advanced studio, but the viewing experience won’t suffer. “We are working with more technology, smarter graphics and touchscreen stuff that will look a bit different,” Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer for the NBA on ESPN, told TheWrap. So fans will get the same experience that they expect. “Once we get into conference finals we will see it a lot more.”

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