ESPN's NBA coverage is going through major changes next season. Magic Johnson announced he will leave the TV show, along with Mike Wilbon, and Doris Burke and Doug Collins will come in to replace him. The often lambasted show should get some much-needed seriousness from having a great NBA mind and TV personality in Collins on the panel along with Burke's seriousness and experience as a host.
It should run a lot smoother.
Bill Simmons remains the grand experiment. Considering how much he is tied into ESPN through Grantland and his popular column and the 30 for 30 documentary series, Simmons was thought to have a lot of pull. So it became natural to try to connect dots and make assumptions where it wasn't warranted.
And it annoyed Simmons.
Simmons told Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated that he was angry that reports came out that it was Simmons who pushed Johnson out of ESPN. In fact, Simmons expressed how much he enjoyed working with Johnson:
Those unnamed "sources" are liars. Someone planted a fake story to try to make me look bad, and there's a 99.3 percent chance it came from someone in Bristol (which presents its own set of concerns). I was upset; I can't lie. Maybe this happens to people more often than I realize, and maybe it comes with the territory, but man … I can't properly explain how fantastic it was to watch basketball with Magic for nine months. I brought my dad to our show for the whole day once and he absolutely loved it. He just couldn't believe they paid me to watch hoops with Magic. One of Magic's best qualities is that he always makes an outsider like that feel special and [feel as if] they connected with him — I probably watched him do it with 50 people last year. To see Magic do that for my father was something else.
He's just an amazing person. When [Johnson's agent] Lon [Rosen] told me Magic was leaving, I actually got pissed at myself that I didn't appreciate those nine months more. Our interview with LeBron after Game 7 [of the NBA Finals] — seeing the affection that LeBron and Magic had for one another, getting LeBron to open up a little, and being part of that moment in NBA history — was one of the five or six highlights of my career. Jimmy Kimmel wanted me to write a book about a season watching basketball with Magic — he was endlessly fascinated that I spent 8-12 hours a week with someone like that. Magic is a story jukebox. We'd be bored sitting there watching some sh– game and I'd liven things up by asking, "Magic, what was the best fight you ever saw in a game?" and he'd pause dramatically, then he'd launch into some awesome five-minute story and do all the voices and everything. Remember, Magic's life intersected with just about every relevant NBA player and celebrity from the past 40 years. He has an endless well of stories. I probably heard two percent of them. My wife had a running joke — I'd come home from doing a show, walk through the front door and she'd immediately mock me in my voice (not hard to do), "I can't believe I get to work with Magic Johnson" before I even said anything.
Bill Simmons has always styled himself as the "voice of the fan" and it seems like sitting around and watching basketball with Magic Johnson. That is a pretty awesome job.
And Simmons, being a fan at heart, loved the opportunity to pick Johnson's brain and watch games with him and hear the stories from Johnson's playing days. Seriously, who would not love that?
Magic Johnson though opted to leave to pay more attention to his business endeavors including his NLCS-bound Los Angeles Dodgers. It has been clear throughout the offseason that he wanted to be more involved with them.
What still seems pretty clear is that ESPN's NBA show is a bit of a mess. If the source for this report did come from inside ESPN, which Simmons seems to suggest, it shows how much infighting and posturing is on this show. ESPN trails TNT in acclaim and popularity and it is not even close.
While ESPN's broadcast team has its moments, the show falls into several of the pitfalls that ESPN tends to fall into. The whole show could use a makeover. A new group could help.
Whatever shortcomings Johnson had as an analyst, he is still an extremely relatable voice to the non-NBA fan and he does have the gravitas and authority to talk about the league. It will be weird not having him around the NBA in some way this year.