‘The NBA Is This Great Canvas’: Rachel Nichols Explains What Makes Her New Show So Exciting

TORONTO – It’s impossible for Rachel Nichols to hide her excitement these days. And who’d want her to? She’s back home on ESPN after a three-year stint at CNN and Turner Sports, and she’s debuting a new show called The Jump weekday afternoons starting Thursday at 3:30 p.m ET. If she wasn’t excited, there’d be a problem. And that’d be its own story.

What’s surprising is how people are reacting to the news. Over NBA All-Star Weekend, nearly everyone she talks to is excited, too. Not just for her, which would be natural for someone as well-respected in the field as she is. But for what this means to the league as a whole.

In a way, Nichols getting a daily NBA show is a win for anyone who follows, covers, or works in the NBA. This is a chance to break off a chunk of time typically reserved for the glacier that is the all-encompassing machine of the NFL. And who better to do that than one of the NBA’s best personalities – and someone who already knows the ins and outs of ESPN?

“There hasn’t been that dedicated space during the day for the NBA,” Nichols says. “The players are excited about it. That’s been what’s really cool about all this. I expected to have to tell them because they don’t pay attention to press releases, right? But 75 percent of the players I’ve run into in Toronto have said to me before I could even get the words out, ‘You’ve got a new show! This is going to be so cool!’ They turn on ESPN in the afternoon, and it’s football, and more football. But if you’re an NBA player, you’d like to see some basketball. They already feel like this is going to be a cool space to talk about the league.”

Nichols doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. She proved a lot in her time with CNN and Turner, and she’s coming back to the four-letter network with perspective. Not only did she get the experience of seeing another outlet’s approach to doing things, but she developed her own voice, improved as an analyst, and is better equipped in general to host and run another show.

Despite Unguarded being canceled – along with a few other shows by CNN on the same day as part of a series of layoffs in 2014 – it yielded big sports moments, gave Nichols some scoops, and led to big guests.

“I felt so good about Unguarded as a step in the path to feel like I’m always moving further long,” Nichols says. “It ended for a reason that was very practical. They canceled five shows in one day. If you take that personally, you really have an ego problem. What that does now is give me confidence as we’re doing this. There will be moments that you would like to reel back except they went out on live television. But you get to do another show. I learned that at newspapers, too. You may not have your best day, but you go out and you write another story the next day. I’m looking at this, five days a week on TV. I hope they’re all A+, 100 percent shows, but if one is an A-, you can get the A+ the next day. I’m excited to see what happens. And I’m open to that. I’d love to see The Jump evolve every month we’re on the air, because that just means it’s a breathing thing.”

As it’s structured now, The Jump is bringing in some of the best basketball minds at ESPN. Zach Lowe, Brian Windhorst, Tom Haberstroh, Marc Stein, Ramona Shelburne, and even Tracy McGrady are set to join the team, and Nichols wants the format to be one that can be malleable from day to day. If someone from the TrueHoop network has a feature that needs extra attention, they’ll come on the show. That flexibility is something Nichols feels will help the show stand out.

What’s nice is that she’s not locked into game coverage. Sure there can (and will) be highlights, but the everyday format leaves room for long discussions and analysis. There’ll also be plenty of interviews, and that’s where Nichols really shines.

“Rachel’s very good at asking tough questions in a way that doesn’t turn people off,” SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm says. “She’s unafraid and really thinks about how to ask them in a very respectful way and in a very direct way.”

While the Floyd Mayweather interview on Unguarded, and questions to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in multiple press conferences grabbed headlines, another moment in her career stands out more over the past few years: speaking with LeBron James in December of 2011.

In the conversation, James opened up about how The Decision led him to be a different person, and embracing the role of the villain didn’t work for him. Following the loss in the NBA Finals, he reflected on that and revealed to Nichols that he had to go back to having fun. Being “on the dark side” was challenging to him, and this was the first time he mentioned that he might have done things differently.

It was a critical moment for the career arc of James, and a big weight seemed to be lifted off of him following the confession. That postseason, LeBron won his first NBA title.

“I covered him extensively in Cleveland and Miami,” Nichols says. “I watched him go through the first year he had in Miami, and his public facing persona through that season was not the same guy that we had seen prior. All of that time spent covering him allowed me some insight into what he was facing. That, to me, was such a thoughtful interview. Someone who didn’t know him as well maybe wouldn’t have gotten to what we got to. When he says, ‘I don’t want to be the villain anymore,’ that was a huge turning point for him. It was a big moment, and it felt like something was really happening here. That was the first time we heard him say so much of that stuff.”

Of course you can’t equate LeBron’s later play to the interview itself, but it was clear James had something he had to say, and doing so to someone he respected and trusted allowed him to put those things into words and move on. It was cathartic.

Nichols wouldn’t have been in that situation – or the situations with Goodell and Mayweather – if she didn’t take the approach she takes. She explains her interview style as a combination of preparation and respect. If her subjects know she’s on their level, they are more open to discussing hard subjects. How someone answers a question isn’t in her control, but it’s her job to ask a good question and see where it goes.

With her print background, the time spent in a heavily news-driven organization, the constant reps, and mentors like USA Today columnist Christine Brennan giving her advice along the way, Nichols has the ability to matter of factly address the issues facing sports (and the world) today. And she’s sharing that knowledge with younger journalists.

“I just try to give them small parts of my life,” Nichols says. “The little catchphrase I say sometimes is that ‘no is a complete sentence.’ I think that, as a culture, we kind of teach young women if you’re not going to do whatever everybody else wants you to do and be whatever everybody else wants you to be, then you better have a good enough justification that’s good enough for them. That’s not healthy. It’s not how we function or succeed. I’m always saying try to do everything you can do, but if the answer is no, the answer is no. You don’t have to explain or make someone else happy with your answer. No is a complete sentence.”

Her journey hasn’t been punctuated quite yet, and the move back to ESPN is just another moment in a series of critical moments that have led Nichols to today. As she says, “there aren’t enough days in a day” to juggle changing jobs, moving across the country, starting a new show, and raising four-year-old twins.

Seeing everyone responding in a kind way to The Jump has been humbling and is adding a little extra motivation to make this thing as great as it can be.

“The NBA is this great canvas,” Nichols says. “It’s a fascinating time to be a sports journalist because you get to touch all those issues. It’s a permeable membrane more so than a lot of other sports. I don’t know if it’s the court, that there’s no fence, or a lack of equipment on the guys. But the city creeps in, and the NBA creeps out, and that’s a fun thing to watch in person.”