Boot Camp for NBA analysis and hot takes

Alan Williams was the first person to brave the anchor desk, tucked away on a cool set at the University of Southern California that was darkened except for the spotlight on Williams in his black suit and blue-striped tie. Almost involuntarily he lifted a hand from the glossy surface of the desk and nervously scratched his face.

Williams, a former NBA player, read from a teleprompter, his deep voice booming robotically in the nearby control room, where USC students monitored his volume and made sure the camera was level. He bobbed his head up and down, like the aliens that inhabit human bodies in the 1990s movie “Men in Black.”

“Hi every one!” he said as he looked into a camera. “Welcome to ‘Sports Extra’. I’m Alan Williams. The Miami Heat have evened the series against the Denver Nuggets. The Miami Heat’s toughness is truly led by coach Erik Spoelstra. And their identity truly proves Heat culture. Goodbye.”

The camera stopped rolling and Williams loosened his shoulders.

“Oh god, did I go too fast?” Williams murmured. He looked around the set. Five other current and former professional basketball players lingered quietly in the corners. After a woman next door assured Williams he was fine, he replied with relief, “Man, I was about to say. Silence?”

This drew laughter from the set and scattered applause from the players, who, like Williams, were wearing sharply pressed, stylish suits. Williams made another, smoother take, prompting one of the suited men to shout, “That boy’s good!”

Williams, 30, and the men were at USC’s journalism school this month for a two-day NBA players’ association camp called Broadcaster U., now in its 15th year. They learned how to host a studio show or podcast, do color commentary and quickly dish out hot takes for an on-camera sports debate. Former NBA players such as Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Shaquille O’Neal have gone through the program.

While superstars typically compete for more than a decade, the average NBA player lasts only a handful of years. Dozens of players will make their start at the NBA draft on Thursday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but most of them will ultimately have to find a new way to make a living. Crossing over to film and television has proven to be a viable, and often lucrative, alternative path, even for players who weren’t big stars.

With a new television deal looming for the NBA and streaming services and social media changing how fans engage with the game, there will likely be more opportunities for players to make money.

Williams played for the Nets and Phoenix Suns from 2015 to 2019. Last year, while playing in Australia, he provided occasional color commentary for the National Basketball League there.

“I know my time is coming to an end soon,” Williams said. “I want to be as prepared for the next step as possible.”

Brevin Knight, a former NBA point guard who went through the program in its first year in 2008, is now a color commentator for the Memphis Grizzlies.

“When you’re done playing, you want to take some time to just take a deep breath,” Knight said. “But I’ll tell you: The spending habits continue, and you always need something coming in.”

Some campers have already taken on pursuits off the field. Norense Odiase, 27, plays in NB.A’s developmental league, the G League, and has a self-help podcast called “Mind Bully.” Will Barton, 32, has been in the NBA since 2012 and has released several albums for his singing career under the name Thrill. Craig Smith, 39, spent six seasons in the NBA and has wrote a children’s book.

Smith was next at the anchor desk after Williams and he jumped in his seat. The words on his teleprompter were in capital letters, though they should not be read so enthusiastically. Someone must have forgotten to tell him.

“Hi every one!” Smith almost shouted. “Welcome to ‘SPORT EXTRA!’ I’m Craig Smith! Only about 24 HOURS until Game 3 of the NBA Finals!”

He even stomped his feet a few times.

Smith said he has been inspired by the many players who have started podcasts and especially by LeBron James and Stephen Curry, who have used their fame to create production companies.

It affects me a lot because I feel like we have a real voice and I feel like we have power that comes with it because we’re more than just ‘shut up and dribble’ players,” Smith said. “We makes sense and people want to hear what we have to say.”

Hours later, Rob Parker, Fox Sports host and adjunct professor at USC, gathered the players for what could be called the Hot Take O’Clock to show them how to drop verbal bombs. He shared directives like “Don’t stay in the middle of the road” and “Make things you can pull off – ‘Meme-able’.”

It’s OK to be wrong,” Parker said, adding that if they could be right all the time, they’d “be in Las Vegas making money.”

Parker often debates Chris Broussard, a Fox Sports host, on their radio show “The Odd Couple.” Williams asked Parker if he had ever disagreed with Broussard just for the sake of argument. Parker said no and that he and Broussard discuss topics before their show. They use those they disagree with.

“If we all agree that LeBron is the greatest player ever, what conversation are we having?” Parker said. “You know what I mean? Nothing’s going to happen here, and nobody’s going to see it.”

Parker led the players in mock debates as if they were on ESPN’s “First Take” or Fox Sports’ “Undisputed.” They are among most watched programs on their network and have turned their hosts into household names.

Odiase and Smith argued over whether Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler needed to win a championship to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame. Odiase said no; Smith said yes.

“How many guys have taken a team of seven undrafted players, the eighth seed, to the NBA Finals?” Odiase said.

“Is it Jimmy or is it Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley?” Parker interjected, referring to Miami’s longtime coach, Spoelstra, and its president and former coach, Riley.

Odiase paused.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Before Jimmy got there, were they winning without LeBron?”

“Yeah, with Shaq and D-Wade,” Smith replied, referring to O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, who won a championship in 2006 with Riley as coach.

This rebuttal, undercutting Odiase’s argument, drew laughter from the control room. Parker ended the segment complimenting Odiase and Smith for having a lively debate.

“I don’t believe anything I say,” Odiase told Parker afterward. Later, in an interview, Odiase said he felt “very uncomfortable” arguing a point he didn’t support, although he believes it happens “a lot” in sports media.

For current and former players, participating in hot take culture means having to criticize players in ways they might not like if the comments were directed at them.

Barton said he sometimes gets frustrated when analysts “go too far on a player, especially if you haven’t played or you don’t really know what the guy is going through.

He continued, “I feel like a lot of guys try to do it so they can go viral or feel like they’re a bigger asset to the company they’re working with because it’s entertainment.”

The players also posed as analysts for an NBA Finals game. Jordan Moore, the radio voice of USC men’s basketball, did the play-by-play. But first he got advice.

“The worst broadcast is if I say, ‘Oh, what a shot by Jimmy Butler!’ And you go, ‘Man, what a shot!’” Moore said.

He added: “You all played in this league. You played with these guys. You have prior knowledge. That’s what you need. I could never get your job.”

The most serious session was about podcasting. In 15-minute chunks, the players exchanged stories about their lives: playing on the road, dealing with fans, growing up.

Shelvin Mack, 33, who played in the NBA from 2011 to 2019, asked Robert Baker, a 24-year-old in the G League, what it was like to play for Harvard. Baker recalled a game against Kentucky.

“My nerves were cool,” he said. “Hint, I warmed up well. I hit shots and then they played an intro song, I said, ‘Oh.'”

Mack said, “You froze up?”

“Yeah bro,” Baker said, adding, “Tough day.”

Players receive reels of their best moments from camp to send to networks in hopes of being hired. Williams said the potential financial rewards of broadcasting appeal to him, even though he is “comfortable” financially. Odiase said this alternative career is a way to tap into his other skills and interests beyond basketball.

“It’s learning every aspect of yourself to grow after the game,” he said.

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