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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This boot camp is for NBA hot takes

A two-day camp trains current and former basketball players in the lucrative art of broadcasting, podcasting and throwing verbal bombs on camera.

By Sopan Deb

Alan Williams was the first person to brave the anchor desk, tucked away on a chilly set at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles that was darkened, save for the spotlight on Williams in his black suit and blue-striped tie. Almost involuntarily, he lifted a hand from the desk’s shiny surface 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, much like the aliens inhabiting human bodies in the 1990s movie “Men in Black.”

“Hi, everyone!” 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 tough-mindedness is really 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 muttered. He looked around the set. Five other current and former professional basketball players quietly lingered in the corners. After a woman off to the side reassured Williams that he was fine, he responded 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 crisply pressed, stylish suits. Williams did another, smoother take, prompting one of the suited men to yell, “That boy good!”

Williams, 30, and the men were at USC’s journalism school this month for a two-day NBA players’ union camp called Broadcaster U., now in its 15th year. They learned how to host a studio show or podcast, do color commentary and rapidly dole out hot takes for an on-camera sports debate. Former NBA players like 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 were to get their start at the NBA draft on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but most of them will eventually have to find a new way to make a living. Crossing over into film and television has proved to be a viable, and often lucrative, alternate 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 cash in.

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

“I know that 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 inaugural year in 2008, is now a color commentator for the Memphis Grizzlies.

“When you are done playing, you would like to take a little bit of time just to take a deep breath,” Knight said. “But I’ll tell you: The spending habits keep going and you always need something coming in.”

Some camp attendees have already undertaken pursuits beyond the court. Norense Odiase, 27, plays in the NBA’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 written a children’s book.

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

“Hi, everyone!” Smith nearly shouted. “Welcome to ‘SPORTS EXTRA!’ I’m Craig Smith! Just 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 influences me a lot because I feel like we have a real voice and I feel like we have power that comes with it, being that we’re more than just ‘shut up and dribble’ players,” Smith said. “We have meaning and people want to hear what we have to say.”

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

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

Parker frequently 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 argument’s sake. Parker said no, and that he and Broussard discuss topics before their show. They use the ones they disagree on.

“If we all agree that LeBron is the greatest player ever, what conversation are we having?” Parker said. “Do you know what I mean? There’s nothing going on here, and no one’s going to watch it.”

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

Odiase and Smith argued about whether the Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler needed to win a championship to get into 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, did they win without LeBron?”

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

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

“I do not believe nothing I’m saying,” Odiase told Parker afterward. Later, in an interview, Odiase said he felt “very uncomfortable” arguing a point he did not support, though he believes it happens “a lot” in sports media.

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