Like most pre-game shows, ESPN’s NBA Countdown was less an acquired taste than a settled-for taste, like the restaurant you eat at on a road trip because it’s just off the highway. Most viewers barely have time to watch the actual games these days—who can absorb another hour for the set-up?
Still, given the prominence of the league and ESPN’s endless tinkering with the lineup and the format of the show, Countdown was interesting if nothing else. Given that ESPN is the colossus that bestrides the sports world, the fact that its NBA show toils in obscurity in the shadow of TNT’s Inside the NBA (where Charles Barkley & Co. have done for the format what David Letterman did for the late-night talk show in the 1980s) is compelling on its own. Factor in the difficulty the show has had in settling on personnel, and Countdown is even more intriguing.
Thursday, the show swapped talent yet again. Last season, Countdown operated with a quartet of two former players, Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose, and two writers, Michael Wilbon and Bill Simmons (disclosure: I have free-lanced for Simmons’ website, Grantland). None are actual TV hosts, though all four have their strengths as personalities, in particular the cool jock/smartass sidekick dynamic between Rose and Simmons. That aspect remains, but Wilbon, and now Magic, are gone, reportedly at the behest of Simmons, who famously worshipped Larry Bird, and apparently is exacting revenge for the 1985 NBA Finals. Talk about a long con!
Regardless of whether Simmons was truly behind the ouster (and he issued a denial on Twitter), neither Magic nor Wilbon will be much missed. Magic is a huge name and genial presence, but ponderous in his delivery and given to floundering off on endless tangents. Wilbon, such a potent presence on Pardon The Interruption, seldom made an impact on Countdown.
In their place come Doug Collins, a veteran coach, player, and broadcaster of the league; and, more intriguingly, Doris Burke, a longtime hoops voice at the network, usually as an analyst or sideline reporter. She ostensibly will replace Magic, but her addition is more important than a simple in/out swapping of chairs on set.
At a stroke Countdown becomes simultaneously more and less diverse. Last year’s edition was 75-percent African-American, and the urban vibe felt appropriate given that the overwhelming majority of the league is black and given the importance of the NBA to African-American culture. In that lineup Simmons, the lone white face, took on a joking, Dwayne Wayne-style persona that came rather naturally to him. (Simmons has written about wishing he was black when he was growing up, something many of us secretly felt as nascent sports fans, though that might have been a more fraught hope in 1970s and 80s Boston, where Simmons grew up.)
Now the show leans caucasian, with Rose the lone African-American standing. Ordinarily, this would be a depressing development, and still might hinder the program, but it is mitigated by the presence of a woman, Burke. She isn’t a classic host in the sense of her colleagues Chris Fowler or Rece Davis, but one of Countdown’s weaknesses was its host-less format. The lack of an air-traffic controller was keenly felt at times. Burke at least should be able to handle that piece of business more comfortably than the scribblers and ex-jocks.
Like any self-respecting football fan, I love Hard Knocks, the HBO/NFL Films collaboration that follows a team through training camp and preseason each August. And as a diehard Cincinnati Bengals fan, I especially dig the fact that my team has appeared twice, including this past summer.
But finding teams to let the cameras inside the bunker has become more and more difficult, leading to less-interesting seasons over the last few years (as I wrote elsewhere, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you are a fan of the team being profiled). The NFL is a control-freak’s paradise, and letting cameras profile the operation is, too many in the league, like letting the snake into Eden.
So the NFL is flexing its muscle on the side of good for once. The league now says it will order teams onto Hard Knocks if none volunteers. There are conditions—no operation with a new head coach will be made vulnerable to national embarrassment, and playoff teams can be exempt, meaning there is now even more incentive for the secretive likes of Bill Belichick and his disciples to qualify for the postseason.