Chris Webber On March Madness, Broadcasting Tips From Ernie Johnson, And How To Fix Youth Basketball

Turner Sports

The 2018 NCAA Tournament is upon us, as Selection Sunday brought us the full 68-team bracket. While you’re busy trying to fill out your brackets and determine what teams are on upset alert and what Cinderellas can make a deep run, the Turner Sports and CBS broadcasting crews are spending the next few days learning everything they can about the eight teams they’ll be calling this weekend.

The first weekend of March Madness is one of the great weekends in the entire sports calendar, as from 12:15 p.m. ET on Thursday through Sunday night there is a veritable all-you-can-watch buffet of basketball. Every game will be broadcast across the CBS and Turner family of networks, with CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV splitting up the first weekend action (you can find the full schedule of games, with tip times, channel and commentators here).

Chris Webber will be joining Brian Anderson in the booth — with Lisa Byington on sidelines — in Boise, Idaho this week for the opening rounds of the tournament. We spoke with Webber last week, prior to Selection Sunday, about his process of getting ready for the NCAA Tournament, the craziness that is the first week for a broadcaster, the quality of college hoops today, the broken youth basketball system in America, filling many roles at Turner, and lessons learned from the great Ernie Johnson about the business.

UPROXX: What is your process of pivoting focus to college hoops and when do you really start trying to lock in on college hoops and potential tournament teams?

Chris Webber: I try to watch it all year, but that’s usually just regionally, or locally players that I like — coaches that I follow, etc. And so I really started this summer because I go to a lot of clinics and speak to coaches, and talk to a lot of high school kids and so I know who they are, [so] I’m familiar with them. Then I kinda forget about it over the fall and the winter months. Probably a week before tournament season, before their individual tournament conference tournaments, I really focus in, because the tournaments really tell you a lot about players and how they’ll react in [subsequent] tournaments. So it really starts about a week before the conference tournaments to really get into it and I just immerse myself in it from there.

Obviously it’s a pretty quick turnaround to go from Selection Sunday to those first-round games for you. As a broadcaster, you get four games that first day, eight teams. What is that four or five days like when you’re doing a little bit of cram session on those teams to get ready to broadcast four games in a day?

That’s tough, that first week is not something I look forward to. The first practice is really — the first eight practices in one day, and then the next day we begin. I just keep it simple. I remember what is was like to be there practicing in front of people, dunking, what it’s like to be nervous all day in your dorm. I remember what it was like when your parents, aunties, great grandparents, everyone really rallies around the family — almost like when a newborn comes into family. And since I know the game of basketball, I really just get to do that. College basketball isn’t as good as it used to be. I think you can tell that from watching the games.

But the stories are good, and the kids are good. And you still have the best players. But this isn’t Derrick Coleman running down the court for Syracuse or some of the teams that I watched coming up, because you don’t have junior-, sophomore-laden teams anymore. You can’t follow a guy four years and actually root for him to win [in] his fourth year like you could [with] your old favorite teams. So it’s different.

So one thing that I know is the people that I trust, and some fans told me was that’s what they hold onto. So that’s what I plan to provide: of course in context of the game, but also the emotional context of a game because you don’t have to fake it. Every shot is important, even if the game is 40 to 38. So I really enjoy it.

The best part about it is the comments that I receive, the letters that I receive from parents of players and coaches. Whether it’s the coaches that I got on because I didn’t understand the decision, or if it’s coaches that I praised and they [told me] they had been coaching for years and never got the respect that I gave ’em from the side[lines].

So I do know when I listen to college games, a lot [the commentary] often leans [toward praising] the best team. And being that I love underdogs, I try to make it equal with the respect and story factor. So to me, it’s a really cool opportunity to fill in some holes that my generation felt [used to be] there when we used to hear our games on TV.

You mention that the game’s changed. There’s a lot of conversation right now about one-and-done, and you mentioned the lack of the juniors and seniors at the top level. People are debating letting high school kids back to into the NBA and whether that would hurt college ball — do you think it could help, because it might create some more of those teams that have more juniors and seniors and are less reliant on those one-and-done freshmen that are maybe a bit more detached from the team game we used to see?

I think the players should be able to go to the NBA the minute that they can play and earn a living for themselves and their family. I don’t think there should be an age limit on that. However, I do think we need to address the game at the middle school and high school level.

The coaching is terrible [at that level]. I go to other countries during the summer, and the coaching is much better because it’s a different culture. They take the principles of our coaching, but the coaches are old school. So I think you have to start again. I was lucky to have great programs like PAL, where you know police officers and the ones that had game would coach us, and they would talk to us after [the games], and it was a whole system — a whole program, a whole neighborhood, a whole community, a whole village type of thing.

And I think there were suggestions that I’ve heard by the NBA — not knowing what they’re going to do, but I think the suggestion is they have to get it back to that type of community, where you have a lot of assistance as far as in developing a player and a person in games. I love college athletics and college kids, but I definitely think it can always get better, but as a basketball player first and as a fan and then as an analyst, I can’t lie and say the game is better [now].

What are the differences in your approach to calling a college game compared to an NBA game? Is it trying to give some more of that emotional context to the game, is it trying to maybe be a little more positive on both sides? Do you approach it in a different manner?

I treat them like they are [different]. The [players are] kids and they’re not professionals, so it is a different game. So the way that you [call] a professional game, no you can’t do that, I don’t think there’s a lot of room for negativity in college sports. I don’t believe the pressure is on the referee who’s in college sports. I don’t think the pressure’s on the kids in college sports.

At the end of day, you just want to honor the game. [If] you honor the game, you honor those that honored the game. So it was tremendously fun doing the Wichita State game, getting to know the coach and the team. It was just as fun working at South Carolina, or Coach K, seeing him again. Or Notre Dame’s coach, who I forgot he sat in my living room and tried to recruit me with Coach K some 25 years ago.

It’s great. I stay in contact with a lot of the coaches and the kids in the system, but it’s always great to kind of even take myself away from that familiarity and look at it as a new experience every time. For some teams, winning one game is a championship. I think that the cynicism of our culture, I think that sometimes the college athlete playing is the only still pure thing we have in sports.

It is how you play the game, it’s not whether you win or lose all the time. If you beat a seed that you shouldn’t have. You come from a small town that you have 50 fans traveling with you and you beat a powerhouse — I mean how many more times [do you get to] do that? So I love being able to appreciate the outing and that night, as opposed to the very next minute asking what will they do tomorrow as we do [with] professionals, because that’s what we sign up for. But for the kids it’s really refreshing during their games.

Is that what you’ve enjoyed the most about being able to get back into the college hoops, is getting to see the kids kind of have that pure enjoyment? Obviously you weren’t allowed to be around the game for awhile. Have you enjoyed that part of getting back to being a part of the college game?

No, I’ve never been away from the college game, because the best high school athletes come talk to me before they go to college. So, it’s just watching basketball.

When you do get to talk to those kids what are the things that you tell them, the advice you give them about the college experience and the tournament experience?

I just think some of that’s personal. It’s just between me, them, and their parents. But just things they are going through based off their situations and my experience. That’s all.

You wear a lot of different hats at Turner. From doing studio analysis, to color commentary, to now studio hosting with Players Only. What have you felt has been your kind of growth as a broadcaster, and especially transitioning to being a host when you do Players Only? What have you found to be some challenges that maybe surprised you a little bit?

Nothing surprised me. I expect for it to be tough. So when the curve ball is thrown, I expect things to be tough and that you have to have a learning curve, and that you have to be yourself and you can’t please everyone. So within that, there’s only a certain number of things you can do is work your ass off, and make sure you are around the finest of people who have done it before. And I’m lucky — I’m blessed — that at Turner I started off doing games with Dick Stockton. There’s no one better. Then I got to do games with Kevin Harlan; there’s no one better. Then I got to do games with Marv Albert; there’s no one better. So I’m in the classroom every day with those guys.

I also bring them energy and experience. I know what I bring them or they give me is tremendous. And then being in the studio for over 10 years and working with Ahmad Rashad, and those hours when you’re in the studio for eight hours talking about nothing, killing time and being able to work with Ernie Johnson, and being able to call him and ask him how to do things, and ask his opinion and ask him to teach you.

So one thing is, you know, I’ve treated basketball like I do life and vice versa. The fact that you get around the best people and you learn. And that’s been my only key. And I learn, go back and check, re-evaluate, check in with those teachers and others [who give feedback] that I apply. And let the chips fall where they may. But I’ve been really blessed to have some really great mentors, and if it was not for Ernie Johnson, I wouldn’t be able to be in the studio on Wednesday, then go in there on Thursday and do a show I’ve never done.

There’s no production meeting [or] those type of things, and so I just I really thank God for Ernie Johnson personally. As a friend, what he’s given me and talked to me about in my profession. He’s so selfless; he’s an open book for me. And I’ve seen people not do that and seen people wish against you and hope you fail and not set you up properly, and Ernie is just a godsend. So I don’t know if I’m better, what happened, what people say — I don’t care about any of that. I just know I had some really good teachers, and I try to add my own style along with their professionalism and their years — years, years, years, years of experience and context.

I’ve talked to Ernie about kind of the way he handles steering the ship on Inside the NBA. Obviously that’s a unique kind of show, and you’re in a similar position on Players Only where it’s kind of built to, for lack of a better term, kind of go off the rails and go on these tangents. What have you learned from him as a host, for how to kind of continue steering the ship and make sure you’re hitting your marks and getting in and out but also facilitating those conversations that make it a unique show people want to watch?

I just think the key is as I’ve learned from him is to be prepared to know everything that’s gonna come your way, but don’t be disappointed you only get to use two percent of that that night. Because it’s about the conversation. And working with Turner as a whole is great, because after understanding the process there from producers and directors … It’s a freedom, but there’s more responsibility with that freedom. and I’m just really happy that they trusted us. I mean, think about it: they trusted us to have a show with players doing sports commentary, and taking on the role that some great professional like an Ernie Johnson [normally has].

That was a big gamble in their faith, and it makes us work that much harder. It’s flattering to see other shows with other sports doing [the] Players Only [model], and having players from other sports come up or call me, tell me that what we’re doing is dope and they wish their sport had those opportunities.

So again, it’s just about being as prepared as you can, because we make fun of ourselves — we’re not overly stiff. We enjoy the process, and if we can bring something that others can’t and that’s a personal context, then I think that’s pretty cool. That’s something that I would’ve wanted to watch, so it’s really cool that we have the opportunity. One of the most important things Ernie taught me was to be prepared with everything for that night, but if you do a really good job, maybe you’ll only give two percent of it away, because the conversations are flowing.