In 1990, Ahmad Rashad was in the midst of transitioning from an All-Pro NFL player to a national broadcaster. After his final season in 1982 with the Minnesota Vikings, Rashad joined NBC Sports as an NFL commentator and host for Sports World. Rashad worked as a studio anchor at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and won an Emmy for writing.
The following year, in Nov. 1989, NBC reached a $600 million broadcast agreement with the NBA. David Stern, the commissioner of the league at the time, approached Rashad about the idea of a half-hour show on Saturday morning that would have entertainment geared to kids and player features that would resonate with fans of basketball across all ages.
Rashad would not just be a co-host — he was offered the role of managing editor and executive producer, with full creative control over the program. It was exactly what he was looking for to take the next step in his career.
“My whole goal in broadcasting was never to be a football analyst,” Rashad told Uproxx. “I was really concerned about being a broadcaster who could do any sport. I wanted to get to a point where I could produce a show.”
And that’s how Inside Stuff was born.
The NBA season doesn’t actually restart until July 31, when the New Orleans Pelicans tip off against the Utah Jazz at Disney World. But it unofficially returned when Denver Nuggets guard Troy Daniels shared a photo of his first meal inside the NBA bubble.
It was the return to normalcy for all of us who are accustomed to consuming off the court content from the most social media friendly league in the world. Since Daniels’ viral food photo, we’ve seen players share their experiences inside the bubble on a daily basis. Matisse Thybulle of the Philadelphia 76ers, for instance, started his own YouTube channel to give fans a peek into life inside the bubble.
Today, this type of behind the scenes content is available everywhere. Three decades ago, it was only available on Inside Stuff, a show built to showcase the excitement of the league — thanks to segments like “Rewind” and “Jam Session,” and combined with the insider access of exclusive player interviews — giving viewers a look, for the very first time, of what life was like away from the court.
Rashad decided early on the show would be an extension of his personality. He was a fun-loving, easy going guy who exuded a radiant energy and found the perfect balance of unrelenting and steady.
“My work was personality driven,” Rashad says. “I didn’t have an act. How I was on the show is pretty much how I am in life. I didn’t have a character I needed to build myself into. I was always me.”
The NBA Finals had been broadcast on tape delay in the mid-80s, and we were still a few years away from the explosion of international popularity of basketball thanks to the Dream Team, Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls winning six championships en route to becoming a global phenomenon.
“It was a new genre,” Rashad says. “There wasn’t anything like it on television. There was nothing that took you behind the scenes. Nobody was going to the players’ homes, to where they grew up, or going to the grocery store with them. During that era, you would see a great player on television, but you would know nothing about them. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know what their voice sounded like.”
The show’s personality resonated with players, too, as they realized an entire generation was tuning in to Inside Stuff. It became a destination spot for every single NBA player. Being featured on Inside Stuff became a badge of honor — “If [a player] didn’t make the show, they were lacking some kind of legitimacy,” Rashad says. “You hadn’t really made it until you were on Inside Stuff.”
Players would run by Rashad sitting courtside after a great play during games and remind him that they had just made a highlight that was deserving of the show. Paul Pierce once approached Rashad in a restaurant, listed off his accolades, and asked why he hadn’t been on the show.
Rashad took advantage of his full creative control and what felt like an unlimited budget when it came to tracking down stories for the show. When he heard about a player named Hedo Turkoglu, described as the Michael Jordan of Turkey, he booked a flight there to find out firsthand. Rashad traveled around the world — often at a moment’s notice — to track down any player and tell any story he wanted.
It also helped that Rashad had relationships with players around the league. Rashad was featured prominently in The Last Dance because of his close friendship with Michael Jordan. The two would drive to the arena together on game days and hang out away from the basketball court. Getting players to open up to him was not, however, was a skill that Rashad used on more than just His Airness.
“People said it was just Michael Jordan,” Rashad says. “But it wasn’t just Michael. Whether it was, say, John Stockton, or Shaquille O’Neal, I had access to all the guys, which helped tremendously.”
Rashad was everyone’s main man, a term he used frequently in reference to his favorite players in the league. “My dad could never remember his friends’ names, people who would just come over to the house,” Rashad says. “He could see them on the street and say, ‘What’s up, my main man,’ because he forgot their names.”
Rashad’s access once landed him a segment with O’Neal before he entered the NBA Draft. The two met at a gym to play one-on-one. During their game, O’Neal drove to the basket and dunked the ball so hard the entire backboard shattered and fell on him as he crashed to the floor.
“Everybody was in panic,” Rashad says, laughing. “I thought his agent was going to have a heart attack. Shaq is laying on the ground and I walk over to him to see if he’s okay. He said yeah, so I said, ‘Keep rolling.’ To this day, he still reminds me of that, he’ll tell me, ‘Remember when I almost killed myself and you told the cameras to keep rolling.’”
Despite being the show’s face, Rashad is quick to give credit to the entire team that made Inside Stuff possible every week, from the behind the scenes work of Andy Thompson, Dion Cocoros, and numerous others, to the “wonderful” Willow Bay, with whom he co-hosted the show from 1991-98.
Bay, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, worked as a reporter in 1991 when the NBA called about a co-host position on Inside Stuff. Even though she was a sports fan and confident in her knowledge, Bay didn’t take any chances.
To prepare for her interviews, she went to the New York Public Library and read a year’s worth of Sports Illustrated issues. After the final interview, Stern told Bay that it was down to herself and another candidate, but he would choose her because of the MBA, which meant if she faltered as a co-host, Stern could re-assign her to the marketing department.
Bay’s first week on the job featured a bombshell: Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. A somber moment in the NBA world, this gave Bay an early look at the potential of Inside Stuff.
“While the show was high energy, spirited and fun, we were able to mine some very powerful topics and stories,” Bay tells Uproxx.
She still remembers poignant stories like her interview with Drazen Petrovic in New Jersey with the World Trade Center as the backdrop. She still remembers Petrovic — a dynamic, high-scoring guard for the Nets who passed away in a car accident in 1993 — describing the relationships that were severed because of the war back home in Yugoslavia.
There were also fun moments, like when she got to visit Reggie Miller and hang out on his back porch, learned how to spin a basketball with Harlem Globetrotter Frederick “Curly” Neal, and have dinner with Felipe Lopez and his mother in the Bronx.
And then there was the on-air chemistry with Rashad.
“I’ve had great partners and co-anchors but Ahmad was really special,” Bay says. “Our on-camera relationship is really special, and our friendship continues to this day. We had so much fun. We could play off each other because I had a much dryer sense of humor.”
“Willow allowed me to bounce all over the place while she drove,” Rashad says. “I was so far off the script, and on purpose, that’s what made it fun. She was so sharp and so good and she would always keep us on the road so we wouldn’t crash somewhere. She was wonderful and just a great person to work with.”
The original version of Inside Stuff ran from 1990 to 2006. In 2013, the series was revived with Grant Hill and Kristen Ledlow as hosts. Earlier this year, while The Last Dance was appointment viewing for basketball fans, Rashad and Bay hosted a reunion show with a slew of NBA superstars including David Robinson, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, and Dominique Wilkins.
Rashad can’t help but wonder if the original Inside Stuff would still work as a show today.
“Times have changed,” he says. “I don’t know, do kids sit down for half an hour on Saturday? Who has the attention span? The attention span is like three minutes now. Back then, it was at least like 20 minutes. Kids can’t sit down for 20 minutes anymore.”
Bay, who is currently the Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, looks back on her time on Inside Stuff fondly.
“It was probably the most fun I had on the job ever. It was so filled with life, energy and laughter,” she says. “When I look back at it, I look back at that experience with enormous pride, because I think that show was groundbreaking in so many different ways.”
Three decades later, Inside Stuff remains an integral piece of NBA history.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have someone tell me that they watched that show,” Rashad says. “If you sat at home and watched Inside Stuff, you were a pretty cool person, because that was a pretty cool show.”