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Sage Steele Has the ‘NBA Countdown’ Crew Ready for Christmas Day

“It’s kind of our Super Bowl,” Steele says, as she prepares for the NBA’s slate of Christmas games

ESPN's Sage Steele

ESPN's Sage Steele

ESPN

Christmas Day has been a big deal in the NBA since 1947, when the New York Knicks took on the Providence Steamrollers at the Garden. Of course, in recent years, it’s become a showcase for the league’s marquee stars – and this year is no exception.

With ten killer teams (OK, more like eight – sorry Lakers and Knicks fans) set to face off, it’ll be wall-to-wall basketball, and the NBA Countdown crew of Jalen Rose, Sage Steele and Doug Collins are getting ready to kick it into gear. Steele – Countdown‘s mediator, power broker and pass-first point guard – will preside over it all, the latest step in a career that’s taken her from sports reporting in South Bend, Indiana to the NBA’s premier pregame show.

Before the madness, she spoke with Rolling Stone about covering the NBA in the age of analytics, finding on-set chemistry in the face of behind-the-scenes turnover and trying to squeeze as much as possible into a 20-minute halftime break.

How much does Christmas differ from a regular workday?
It’s crazy. It’s kind of our Super Bowl. Because football’s winding down, it’s the first big day of coverage on our air. Last year, we had five games, so I was at work before the sun came up on Christmas and it was actually kind of hard, what with being a mom. But once I got there, we sat there and watched five straight games of basketball. And it was awesome.

Let’s say it’s a regular day and you have to go to the studio. What’s the first thing you do?
I really need to get out of bed before I do this, but I check my cellphone. I answer some emails and texts and then go to Twitter to check the goings-on in the sports world. There’s no way we can watch everything, especially in a hotel room, so I just catch up on whatever happened overnight and get different perspectives. The columns and opinion stuff, I love them.

Then I’ll work out – allegedly. My mornings are pretty open but it’s a lot of reading and then listening to Colin Cowherd and ESPN Radio stuff while I’m getting ready. Then my whole night is just NBA. We sit there and talk, have our meeting and talk some more and then talk too much, to the point where we’re almost running late. It’s my goal to get as much of that conversation as possible onto the air. When we have a doubleheader, we prefer a fill between games so we can go back on TV and talk more about the game. Sometimes we tape segments. Doug Collins and Jalen Rose will tape some stuff separately. It varies every show.

Does off-air chemistry translate on-air?
You know what? For me, it always has. I worked Jay Crawford from 1998-2001. Then years later, I got to do First Take and host SportsCenter with him at times. He was at my wedding. My kids call him uncle Jay. So how does that not translate on TV?

I’ve known Jalen since I covered the Pacers and he played for them. We weren’t close then but I’ve known him for 17 years. I think it’s starting to come across on the air and that’s my goal: to make it conversational. We’re talking about basketball, not ISIS or Ebola. We’re talking about sports. So let’s have fun with this.

You guys have had a lot of turnover. Do you think that has hurt?
Yeah. I will say that all the turnover doesn’t help. But I wasn’t a part of all that turnover. They came to me last October, I accepted the job and all I know is that I’m back for year two. Jalen’s back for year three. Doug’s back for year two. Actually, this is an accomplishment isn’t it? We’ve got three people back for a second straight year! At this point, we don’t even think about the past because I can’t change that. And frankly, I don’t care about all that turnover before. I really don’t. Probably a few years ago, I would have cared but I’ve matured. I realize you can’t change the past, you can’t worry about what people are thinking or saying.

It’s like “Where are we now? What can we do to move forward?” and right now, honestly, we all like each other. And it’s really cool. Year two is already better than year one for the obvious reason that we know each other better. We know the show better. We know the expectations. I’m not going anywhere – that I know of. [laughs]

How has your approach to presenting the game changed, given the increased focus on analytics and stuff like new media, blogging?
Sometimes it overwhelms me. I’ve always been a newspaper guy – girl, whatever. I was aspiring to be a beat reporter in the NFL. I’m like, “Alright, those [reporters] are there every single day.” That’s what I veer towards every morning with the sports stuff I read, you know?

The analytics, I see how that all helps. I do. Though, I really respect what so many of the old-school coaches say: “You gotta pass that smell test, that eye test,” you know? What do you see? What do you hear? That, to me, has to remain number one. I love it when Collins gets up at the big board and he’s drawing up plays and showing what did or didn’t happen correctly. X’s and O’s. You can see his energy level rise and you can see a burst of sweat. He’s coaching again!

Then again, I’m old-school. I appreciate all the numbers and I’m all-in on them. I think it’s a personal thing. The game has changed. The players have changed. The way people coach; that has all changed. Everything has changed. And if you don’t accept that, you’re going to get left behind.

What’s your favorite day in the NBA to cover?
I think it’s those early rounds of the playoffs. You have so many games, so many different storylines. I love the beginning of the playoffs like I love the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It’s like, “OK, here we go!” You just never know what’s going to happen. Of course I love the intensity of the Finals, the pressure and the excitement. Last year in San Antonio, I started to get emotional because I realized, “Look at how big this is. This is what I would be arranging my day around if I were at home as a fan. And now I’m here and I’m in it and I’m part of it. ” It doesn’t get better than that. When all the eyes of the sporting world are on that one game, it’s pretty powerful.

I think halftime shows hold a special place in the NBA fan’s understanding of the game. Do you ever feel pressure because of that?
Absolutely. I’m a disaster. I feel pressure with everything. I had to go read to my daughter’s third grade class to the other day, thinking, “I hope I don’t screw this up.” Also because it’s halftime, it’s quick. So I have to make sure we get to the highlights as quickly as possible. At least 50 percent of the time we get to halftime and say “I have to make this point, I want to make this point.” We’re always pretty pleased but we’re all our own worst critics. We have to remind ourselves it’s just not feasible to get in everything. I think we always want to do more. We’re greedy. We’re TV people. We want to talk about everything. You just have to try to pick the right topics. Sometimes we nail it. Sometimes we don’t. Then you just figure, “OK, I’ll nail it the next ten times.” That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to wait too long to go do it again. It sucks when I have a couple weeks off early in the season. That’s why I really love once Christmas Day hits. That’s when we get on a roll. It’s easier to put mistakes out of your head if you’re a head case like me.

In This Article: NBA, sports

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