NBA

Bill Simmons and HBO are a Perfect Match for NBA Fans

Even the most ardent Sports Guy-hater would concede that Bill Simmons has built a prolific résumé over the years. Though–ever since he wrote the same words about Roger Clemens over fourteen years ago–the former Grantland boss has spent a sizable chunk of his career enraging various local sports municipalities with his sardonic commentary, self-referential vernacular and unabashed Boston homerism, it’s difficult to deny Simmons’ overall popularity and the unique space he occupies as a sports media personality.

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HBO, it seems, would agree.

Per the premium cable network’s public relations Twitter account:

The longer press release reports that Simmons and HBO “have entered into a major exclusive multi-year, multi-platform agreement highlighted by a new weekly series coming next year”.

The release goes on to detail Simmons’ new role:

“Simmons will also have a production deal to produce content and assets for the network and its digital platforms, delivering video podcasts and features. In addition, Simmons will be consulting with HBO Sports, working closely with HBO Sports president Ken Hershman on non-boxing-related programming, including the development of shows and documentary films for the network”

When the news first broke in early May that ESPN would not be renewing Simmons’ contract (which expires in September), reactions ran the gamut from genuine empathy for the murky future of Grantland’s talented writing staff, to brazen, “Ding Dong! The witch is dead!” hit pieces that skewered Simmons writing ability and danced on the grave of ESPN’s most recognizable multi-media talent.

There were detailed accounts of Simmons’ humble beginnings as an AOL-only sports columnist / bar tender, his rise to prominence on ESPN’s now-defunct Page 2, his often rocky relationship with and ultimate divorce from the Worldwide Leader, and of course, rampant speculation about where he’d land next.

While it looks like we have our answer to that last question, there are still plenty of details that remain to be seen regarding the nuts and bolts of how Simmons’ “multi-platform” campaign will be presented to the viewing/listening/reading public. While the television aspect is fairly straightforward, it will be interesting to see how the other media platforms are fleshed out, especially in the editorial realm.

HBO’s residence under the vast umbrella of multi-national media corporation Time Warner Inc. opens the door for any number of potential outlets to either host Simmons’ writing outright, or, as ESPN did with Grantland, provide him the infrastructure needed to again launch his own sports and culture site.

Time Warner’s sprawling empire also includes Turner Broadcasting Systems, which owns channels like TBS, TNT and CNN as well as broadband sites such as BleacherReport.com and NBA.com. Additionally, according to Turner’s website, Turner Sports and the NBA “[J]ointly manage NBA Digital, which includes NBA TV, NBA.com, NBA LEAGUE PASS, NBA Mobile, the NBA Game Time App, NBADLEAGUE.com and WNBA.com.”

Well then.

While the overall heft of Simmons’ union with a Time Warner affiliate and all of the various outlets it opens up has led to speculation about what kind of other talent his gravitational pull could attract, the fact that Simmons will again be given a public platform to pontificate on the NBA (among other topics) is a huge win for all parties.

It can be a dicey proposition to accurately champion anyone as a pioneer in any field–laud the Beatles for their early contributions to psychedelic rock and some windbag will jump down your throat in a matter of seconds for not giving due credit to the Yardbirds or Aldous Huxley‘s tripped out lectures. Praise Stan Lee for creating X-Men, and a real-life version of the Comic Book Guy will (rightly) scold you for not giving Chris Claremont proper acclaim for completely re-imagining and breathing life into a dying franchise.

Sure, we’re talking about sportswriting, not some key pillar of America’s artistic and cultural evolution, but it’s at least fair to say Simmons’ voice as a sportswriter was wholly unique and distinctive at the national level when he first came on the scene. The sports as pop culture concept, the writing from a fan’s perspective and the complete lack of objectivity in discussing rooting interests had all probably been imagined and brought to life on the pages of fanzines, or even graced the sports pages of the occasional national publication prior to Simmons asking the question, Is Clemens the Antichrist? Yet, it’s possible to hold these ideas in mind while still admiring Simmons place in sports media’s history, and future.

While Simmons covered a range of topics in his podcasts or columns, including his diehard Red Sox and Patriots fandom, it’s been pretty obvious for a while now that rapping about the NBA is where his star shines the brightest. The Game of Thrones references, the New York Times Best Selling book, the voluminous glossary of made-up NBA terms and theories and the sheer quantity of NBA-related content Simmons churned out made his abrupt absence from this spring’s NBA media landscape especially jarring.

Aside from a few notable series and games, the 2015 NBA playoffs were something of a disappointment from an entertainment standpoint. Yes, the Spurs and Clippers pulled the opening round out of the abyss and the Finals were surprisingly competitive, but the generally blah intervening rounds could have greatly benefited from a few lively Simmons aphorisms, whimsically long-winded mailbag columns and off-the-wall Celtics theories.

The timing of Simmons’ ouster from ESPN was especially brutal taken in context of what was to come in the remainder of the second round of the NBA playoffs. By all accounts, Simmons likes the Los Angeles Clippers just fine as a basketball team–he is, after all, an LA resident and season ticket holder–but discussing their many foibles seemed to be a pet topic of his, and it’s difficult not to wish for what could have been as the Clips suffered a historically painful gut punch in surrendering a 3-1 series lead to Houston just as Simmons was forced to go silent. Trying to approximate the word count on the retro diary he could have done on Josh Smith’s fourth quarter in game 6 alone would necessitate the use of brackets, exponents and a week-long roll out.

While there obviously would have been plenty of non-NBA content in whatever Simmons vehicle emerged from the haze of his two month hiatus, and I don’t expect his many detractors–both perfectly legitimate and petty–will be proselytized by his change of scenery, the reintroduction of Bill Simmons’ voice into the NBA conversation should make for quite a show.

Aside from merely regaining a platform (any platform) through which he can dispense his NBA ruminations, the fact that Simmons will now get to do so without fear of censorship, the need to glad-hand to more family-oriented sponsors or the specter of some omnipresent ombudsman stalking his every word makes his new venture at HBO all the richer.

While his podcasts were a huge hit, Simmons always seemed slightly out of place on network television. Especially when considering his former spot at the analyst’s desk on ESPN’s NBA Countdown, the rigidity of network television seemed to dull Simmon’s personality just enough to sap him of the usual farcical vigor that shines through in his writing and podcasting. Simmons never smiled widely or laughed heartily enough to ever really fit in on a more traditional TV outlet, so the more free-spirited and creatively fluid atmosphere of HBO should be a natural fit. After all, it’s not TV…



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