This is the first part of our celebration of the late podcast, The Basketball Jones, which is now an awesome new show on NBATV called The Starters. We’ll start today by giving a (relatively) brief history of the show from its inception through the end of the TBJ run, with insight from the guys themselves. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some of the show’s best moments with some Essential Viewing before wrapping everything up on Wednesday with a Why We Watch on the legacy of the best thing to come out of Canadian sports media not named Renee Young.
We know, most likely, who and what the Basketball Jones was, and that they now go by The Starters and have moved from the Great White North and Toronto’s Score Network to beautiful downtown Atlanta, where they work on their titular daily basketball news show. It airs at 6pm every evening on NBATV.
Before that, they were something of an anomaly in the world of sports media: a prominent and influential source for analysis and information that existed almost entirely outside of the orbit of ESPN, and geographically outside the United States. Even before their “Overdose” extra-length episodes began getting featured on the Grantland podcast network, they had built a devoted following as one of the better and more successful podcasts having to do with sports, and anything else for that measure. It all started, naturally enough, with a goofy idea, a funny name and a trip to a college bar.
The bar was near the alma mater of most of the crew -- Ryerson, located in Toronto -- and the funnyname actually was “J.E. Skeets”. Skeets, whose real name is Phil Elder, along with co-host Tas Melas and producer Jason Doyle (J.D.) decided to start the podcast after Skeets had started gaining a bit of prominence writing a daily blog. Elder had started doing it after betting a friend, with the prize being a Craig David CD, whether or not he could write a post every day.
The show began to gain an audience fairly quickly, because as producer Matt Osten explained, podcasts were just emerging as a viable form of broadcast when they first began rolling out the show. “The first podcast went up in Jan. 2006 and, as far as I know, podcasts first became available on iTunes sometime in 2005. So, when people who liked the NBA typed ‘basketball’ into iTunes, our show came up”.
It wasn’t just a right-time/right-place situation, though. As the marketplace became more crowded, the podcast continued to define and fill a genuinely unique niche. “While there’s always been a place in sports for the beat writer, columnist, and talking head,” Matt said, “I think people wanted something a little more casual that felt as fun as the game they were watching.”
Also it was good. Nearly every member of the group interviewed mentioned at some juncture echoed a point raised simply by Mr. O: “If it had sucked, they wouldn’t have kept listening.” There were, of course, some growing pains as TBJ grew from a weekly podcast recorded at J.D.’s house to a daily show; there was the agony of the “46 takes” that Tas still feels bad about needing to get things right.
It helped that Tas and J.E. both have -- as anyone who has heard one of Melas’ Rounders softball update can attest -- a level of competitiveness near that of professional athletes. They would not let the show suck, and they would not stop. After four years of running the podcast for free, they landed a contract with Score. The crew had expanded by then to included Matt, who joined in 2009 to help produce/sell the show after graduating from law school; it would eventually also include Trey Kerby, who joined in 2010 after leaving Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie to run the TBJ blog, and fact checker Leigh Ellis, who joined that squad during the No Season Required tour forced upon them by the Association’s most recent lockout.
Four years is a long time, if not necessarily in the overarching narrative of the universe, definitely in the “working two full time jobs” sense. In a matter of life imitating art, the group managed to get through it by creating an atmosphere that is reminiscent of what you’d see during a San Antonio Spurs game if the rules suddenly changed to allow six players per side, microphones and a mixing board on the court: a tight, cohesive unit willing to sacrifice for one another with a greater goal in mind. It’s something to which the entire team is deeply committed, with everyone serving roles that manage to be both concrete and fluid. It all starts, though, with J.E. Skeets running point.
Ever the Canadian, Skeets is modest about his role on the show, “Truthfully, I only really became ‘the anchor’ of the show because I talked way more than Tas, and, well, I actually play the point. I have to bring the ball up in rec league -- I'm useless off the ball.” Skeets, along with Melas, seem to have a particularly cooperative-competitive relationship, which as Tas notes is an integral part of the show, “like two players fighting for playing time, it only does good for the team overall.”
The level to which the team mentality permeates everything they do is endearing, and authentic. Throughout the emails by which these interview were conducted -- because phones are hard and plane tickets to Canada are expensive -- there was a near constant building up of their fellow “Starters” (TBJers feels a little off) from every member of the group.
As will be discussed more in depth on Wednesday, the show would not work without this: there’s a unique symbiosis in this group that has allowed them to achieve completely unprecedented success in the field of podcasting, putting them on the levels of Marc Maron and Comedy Bang! Bang!, with their shows on IFC. As they shift to national television in the United States, the crew hopes to continue the show with a reverence for the essence of the source material, while expanding the show and the roles of everyone involved.
The team are fully aware of the magical identity they’ve created, which despite its gloriousness, has little do with The Basketball Jones name itself. “We make the show name what it is. I understand fans may feel some nostalgia, but it’s a name, it’s not the show,” Tas wrote. “It would’ve been a really crappy name if we produced a crappy show.”
Nearly everyone was excited about the change -- in name and scale and venue and everything else that came with the move to the states -- although both Skeets and Trey seemed like they would miss it, deep down. “I did for a couple of days, sure,” Skeets said. “That's our baby. But then I stopped whining about the name change, and remembered that no one will even care by week three of the new show.” Kerby was more concise: “‘Twas a great hashtag.”
After a little more than a month of The Starters, it looks like the new name, television show and address are here to stay. Matty O explains, “While there’ll be new segments and a new look, the backbone of the show’s going to remain the same. You can dress it up as much as you want, but if the show doesn’t work as a conversation about the NBA between four fans, then nothing you layer on top is going to make it more engaging.”
Also helping is the nearly unprecedented access that the Association gave to a group of rabid fans -- which is essentially what these guys are, professional fans -- to the world of basketball, despite those fans lacking the cache of a professional fan like Bill Simmons. Integrating those inside/outside dynamics into the show will be a challenge. “We'll have more access than we've ever had and a bigger platform for distribution,” Trey notes. “Which means we just need to figure out how to use those things to do what we've always done, just on a bigger scale.”
If there’s a difference between the old show and the new one, it will be a matter of scale, not anything else. Or… well, some other things, which Trey gave me the scoop on: “We'll probably wear more makeup,”