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THANK YOU, POINT GOD, FOR REMOVING AMERICA FROM ESPN HATE FEST
The disturbing racial debacle, centered around Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor, nearly sabotaged Game 1 of the NBA Finals — until Chris Paul and the Suns reminded us that basketball is ... fun!
Never was a mid-range jumper so welcome, a bounce pass so refreshing, a pick-and-roll so appreciated. A basketball game finally happened in the desert Tuesday night when, frankly, many had forgotten the NBA Finals were starting. They were being sabotaged by, of all things, a network studio show, filled with so much racial tension and C-suite ineptness that the temperature in downtown Phoenix — 109 degrees at tipoff — seemed cool by comparison.
If I’m NBA commissioner Adam Silver, I’m hugging Chris Paul and Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, who were lethal in a 118-105 Suns crusher, as they deflected the conversation from a disturbing, distracting drama that reflects a divided, hateful America. Finally, after so many injuries and so much career heartbreak, these are Paul’s Finals, and his third-quarter takeover of scoring flurries and clinical passing was defining.
‘‘I was watching them soccer games," said the Point God. ‘‘I watched a hockey game last night. I'm watching that, like, ‘Damn, how do they know to pass it there?’ And they probably think the same thing with us. But we do this so often, and we have seen just about every coverage you could possibly see, so it's second nature.’’
I’m also delighted, if I’m Silver, that Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from a hyperextended left knee, providing hope the Bucks can mount a threat at some point. But mostly, I’m livid that my business partners at Disney Company allowed the league’s showcase event to degenerate into possibly the nastiest, pettiest media spat in the history of big-time television, which is some statement, given the medium’s rampant megalomania through time.
‘‘It’s disheartening,’’ Silver said.
The unexpected rise of the Suns? Paul’s quest to further validate a Hall of Fame career with his first title? The health of Giannis? The tale of two obscure towns, Milwaukee and Phoenix, that rarely win anything in sports? Those pregame narratives were secondary to sickening strife that only could be described as Black people vs. White people on a studio set. As it is, there are concerns that these Finals, without LeBron James or Stephen Curry for the first time in a decade, could draw lower ratings than even last year’s least-watched-ever Bubble bomb between the Lakers and Heat. This after a season that launched too soon after a brief offseason, entirely for financial reasons, causing injury-related attrition that cost the league too many stars this postseason, including Antetokounmpo. So no one in this country, beyond gossip whores, has an appetite for a TV sports version of an Octagon showdown.
That being: Rachel Nichols vs. Maria Taylor, split down racial lines, with the network’s Black basketball analysts piling on and threatening a mutiny if Nichols wasn’t reprimanded for her comments about Taylor — that racial considerations led ESPN/ABC to replace Nichols, who is White, with Taylor, who is Black, as the ‘‘NBA Countdown’’ host. In her now-infamous words, spoken to an advisor in what she thought was a private conversation in a Walt Disney World hotel room during last year’s Bubble season, Nichols said of her setback: ‘‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball. If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.’’
As I wrote this week, Nichols made a mistake to invoke race, but she never intended the words to go public. She deserves a much better career fate, as a formidable veteran host, to lose a position in a diversity play. Taylor, talented herself, could have assumed many roles at a very large network — say, on a college football studio set. Why did she have to supplant Nichols on the NBA stage? Remember, a remote camera in Nichols’ room — placed there by ESPN for in-room reports during the pandemic peak — picked up her rant, and a rogue employee recorded the video and distributed the tape throughout the network. According to a tweet last weekend by Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, a Black female producer admitted to the network’s human resources department that she showed Taylor the tape. Suspended for two weeks without pay, the producer eventually left the network.
Wrote Tucker: ‘‘I have concerns: The ESPN Black employee was punished for revealing the incident but no action was taken against the White ESPN talent for insulting the Black talent? There will be follow up post holiday.’’
Which likely explains why Nichols, who was supposed to work the Finals as a sideline reporter, was removed from those duties Tuesday. So much for the apology, to Taylor and other employees, that she was required to deliver on air Monday. In making the announcement, ESPN said, ‘‘We believe this is the best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the NBA Finals. Rachel will continue to host ‘‘The Jump.’ ‘’ But Nichols didn’t appear Tuesday on ‘‘The Jump,’’ either. The show never made it to air, replaced by ‘‘Jalen & Jacoby’’ and co-hosted by Jalen Rose, who has made no secret of his affinity for Taylor, his colleague on ‘‘NBA Countdown.’’ Taylor and her supporters had succeeded in rubbing Nichols completely out of Game 1 coverage, which is pathetic and a poor commentary on Disney executives who never should have let a story simmer for a year ... and explode on the eve of the Finals.
Silver is so upset, and rightly so, that he devoted several minutes to the topic at his state-of-the-league news conference before Game 1. He was quick to upbraid Disney executives for not being proactive and, wisely, he didn’t pick a side in Rachel vs. Maria.
‘‘I think it’s particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other,’’ the commissioner said. ‘‘I mean, this is an incident that happened, I guess, when Rachel was in the Bubble a year ago, and I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not. … This is just a really unfortunate situation, especially coming at this moment in time when we would like all the focus to be on the players on the floor.’’
Such as Paul, who finally seems headed to a championship in a fortune-crossed career. He scored 16 points in the third quarter, 32 for the game (with nine assists), as the Bucks struggled with backcourt defensive matchups. ‘‘He’s prepared his whole life for this moment,’’ said teammate Mikal Bridges, ‘‘and it shows out there on the court.’’
‘‘Every time he shoots it,’’ said Booker, ‘‘we think it’s going in.’’
Said Paul, emphasizing poise at age 36: ‘‘We've been building all season long for these moments. We're going to keep playing. This is just one game. We've got to stay locked in."
Thank you, Point God, for returning us to basketball.
It wouldn’t shock me if we’re seeing the last of Nichols, whose attorneys would have one hell of a case against Disney, including invasion of privacy at a Disney hotel property involving a Disney remote camera and a rogue Disney snitch/employee. Also, it was illegal to record her phone conversation in Florida from ESPN headquarters in Connecticut — two states with two-party consent laws. As for Taylor, her contract is about to expire, with ESPN not interested in meeting her $5-million-a-year demands. Imagine if the Finals go seven games and the network has no studio show.
I could live with that.
So could the NBA.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.