Even as a rookie filmmaker, Michael Jordan is forever the badass dictator, controlling “The Last Dance’’ like a mash-up of Craig Ehlo, Bryon Russell, Jerry Krause, Steve Kerr’s chin, Reggie Miller’s eyeball and Isiah Thomas’ feelings. The 10-part documentary series finally addressed one of Jordan’s dirty deeds, his gambling missteps with various creeps and cocaine dealers, yet somehow, hints of an all-time American scandal were spun Sunday night into a profile in perseverance and a triumph over unscrupulous media.
“A hobby,’’ Jordan called it, never mind that the IRS found his $57,000 check in the account of a convicted drug trafficker and three checks totaling $108,000 were discovered in the briefcase of a murdered bail bondsman.
“Michael was betting on his golf game. But given Michael’s earnings, it never reached epic crisis levels in my belief,’’ said David Stern, then the NBA commissioner, who said he dismissed a possible gambling problem because Jordan’s wealth justified the extravagant amounts he was betting.
And this from Phil Jackson, who suggested criticism of Jordan’s infamous gambling trip to Atlantic City and other accusatory stories inspired the Chicago Bulls to their third NBA championship: “Respond, he did.’’
As always, Jordan has slayed another challenge. He owns this production the way he owned sports and Planet Earth at the close of the 20th century. The badass smirks as he clutches the ball, waves it in the faces of mesmerized millions, peeks in at co-conspirator Scottie Pippen, allows superfreak Dennis Rodman his load management, lends a respectful ear to Jackson, imparts a master’s wisdom to Kobe Bryant, conquers popular culture and sneaker commerce, and, in the end, toys once again with every obstacle, real and imagined. And when the series wraps in two weeks, he will have taken that ball, soared through the mob like Jumpman himself and slammed his honed legacy into the grills of LeBron James — who foolishly anointed himself “the greatest player of all time’’ in 2018 — and an ignorant cult of LeBron-obsessed, recency-biased millennials and Gen Z-ers who’d buried Jordan as some cobwebbed myth.
The man has crushed all else. Why wouldn’t he take over Hollywood, too, not only controlling the narrative but enhancing it forevermore?
It should be clear now that “The Last Dance’’ — as approved, influenced, shape-shifted and executive produced by his Jump 23 company — is designed to maximize Jordan’s grandeur, minimize his flaws and leave no doubt about historical basketball supremacy. Because only he would survive with barely a smudge when, in the fifth episode, he defended his aversion to political commentary thusly: “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.” Jim Brown, a vocal critic of Jordan, would have provided a thoughtful counterpoint. Colin Kaepernick, too. Jordan has already succeeded, gloriously, in presenting his story as he wants it perceived. If Jordan didn’t brow-beat director Jason Hehir into exquisitely sculpting every nanosecond of the film, then his trusted business advisors, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have served as obedient gate-keepers for the first six episodes. He really should add his byline: “The Last Dance, by Michael Jordan.’’
And don’t expect revelations in the final four shows, either, now that Hehir has pleased all parties: presenting the gambling subject in a way that satisfies Jordan and the NBA and answers media who thought the angle would be played down. Yet to be tackled is his father’s murder, which came amid the gambling stories and Stern’s investigation, a succession of events that rattled the land in the still-murky haze of 1993. The director could have broken new ground by interviewing Daniel Andre Green and Larry Demery, convicted of murdering James Jordan Sr. that July. We’ll likely only hear Jordan’s take and NBA-friendly comments with no attempt at definitive truth-telling.
See, none of the principles invested in “The Last Dance’’ — from Jordan to NBA Entertainment to ESPN — is interested in any lasting result beyond the advancement of the Jordan legend for posterity. Of course, he wouldn’t be participating without complete say-so over the content, no matter how much Hehir raves about access and his willingness to answer any and all questions. Jordan’s aim is to celebrate himself without warts. This drew the wrath of the acclaimed American documentarian, Ken Burns, who has refused to watch and told the Wall Street Journal that Jordan’s editorial influence has tilted the series into a journalistic sham.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,’’ Burns said. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
To which Jordan surely chuckled. Typically, he’s just trying to win the game — the documentary. Though he’ll never admit it, his purpose within the process is to win the Greatest Ever debate, as engaged by James, by beating LeBron at his own game: movie-making. Let’s not forget when Jordan decided to dust off and release footage of the Bulls’ final title, from the 1997-98 season, and present it to a new generation: the day after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 1-3 deficit in the 2016 Finals to upend the Golden State Warriors. The world was buzzing about LeBron as the G.O.A.T. and forgetting about Jordan, who had been mostly media-reclusive while suffering as owner of a nondescript franchise in Charlotte. As quickly as he said yes to the pitch of producer Mike Tollin, Jordan was armed with the leverage to circumvent All Things LeBron and make his own documentary in his own words, effectively bringing his pre-eminence back to life in a matter of five weekends in 2020.
Notice how “The Last Dance’’ has yet to include any contribution from James. The series has featured basketball greats who have made Jordan’s case for him, augmented by video evidence that encompasses 500 minutes. As Magic Johnson put it, “Young fans that never got to see Michael play now understand why he’s the (G.O.A.T.) of basketball. For me? Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Beyonce are the three greatest entertainers of my lifetime, and you probably could throw Muhammad Ali in there.’’ Jordan never has involved himself in the James debate, preferring to take the high road. As a Chicago columnist, I cornered him in a United Center hallway during James’ rookie NBA season, just after Jordan had retired from the Washington Wizards, and asked what he thought of LeBron.
“What do you think?’’ said Jordan, refusing to go there.
As recently as four months ago in Paris, Jordan shrugged off a James-as-G.O.A.T. question before a Hornets-Milwaukee Bucks game, saying, “What was the name again? Pardon me, who? Oh, is he playing? I just think we’re playing in different eras. He’s an unbelievable player, one of the best players in the world, if not the best. … I’m a fan of his. I love watching him play. But when you start the (Jordan-James) comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a standup measurement. I take it with a grain of salt.’’
It doesn’t require passive-aggressive expertise to translate. Jordan knew “The Last Dance’’ was coming. He also knew what James had said 13 months earlier in his own production, “More Than An Athlete,’’ claiming his title in his native northeast Ohio put him over the top. “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt,” James said. “I was super-super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year (title) drought. The first wave of emotion was how everyone saw me crying, like that was all 52 years of everything in sports going on in Cleveland. And after I stopped, i was like, `Shush, that one right there made you the greatest player of all time.’ … Everybody was just talking about how (the Warriors) were the greatest team of all time, like, it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’ ‘’
Special? Yes. Transcendent in the tiresome greatest-ever debate? No, not when James has lost six times in the Finals and not always maximized the talent around him as Jordan did. LeBron, who tends to whine at times, might claim Jordan has the advantage of a captive global documentary audience during a pandemic. I would suggest apologies are in order, along with an acknowledgment that James’ upcoming Space Jam project — assuming we’ve ever allowed to enter a theater without a Hazmat suit — was a ripoff of Jordan. As was the day he decided to wear No. 23. (My God, now I’m partaking in the debate.).
The docu-series also has succeeded in using interview subjects who mostly buff Jordan like one of his $200,000 sports cars. To his credit, he didn’t nix Sam Smith, a longtime Bulls beat writer (and operative of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf) who wrote a seminal book, “The Jordan Rules,’’ that painted Jordan as a tyrant and presented a less-than-glowing look as he was rising as a global phenomenon. Sunday provided a glimpse into media-related dysfunction surrounding the team; Jordan said teammate Horace Grant was a prime Smith source for the book, which Grant denied while raising suspicions that Jackson and Reinsdorf provided leaks to Smith. Media politics were a central part of the story in that some who covered the team took sides — Smith was embedded separately with Reinsdorf and Jackson, prominent national columnist Michael Wilbon was a Jordan guy, and Chicago-based Rick Telander was a lightly opinionated bystander who wrote as-told-to-pieces for ESPN The Magazine from the mouths of Jackson and Jordan. Journalism students, if any still exist, are reminded to remain independent and avoid appearances of trying to make money by climbing into bed with the people you’re covering.
So far in the docu-series, no media person has been permitted to make Jordan look even remotely bad. Hehir chose to use Barack Obama to effectively smooth over the political controversy when Jordan uttered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Rather than presenting a Detroit side of his still-fiery feud with Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons, Hehir allowed Jordan to condemn Thomas — “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole’’ — while showing 1991 video of Thomas and teammate Bill Laimbeer refusing to shake hands with the victorious Bulls. This gentle coverage of Jordan’s controversies has led influential basketball journalists of the time to wonder why they were omitted from the docu-series. Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum was front and center as an objective chronicler of Jordan dynasty. Where is he?
“I would be less than honest if I said it didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t interviewed for the doc, though over the years I have pontificated about Jordan and others of his generation on outlets too numerous to count,’’ McCallum wrote recently on the SI site. “I was scheduled on at least four occasions to talk on camera, but each was called off, one of them because, I was told, `We have to do J.T.’ ‘’
And where is Peter Vecsey? His Bulls coverage was must-read material during a stretch when he was the ultimate NBA insider, dishing scoops in print and on NBC’s weekly coverage. “ESPN never called me about `The Last Dance,’ ” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s absolutely amazing to me that they could be that stupid. I had so many inside stories that were printed that they are not even going to address it. It’s amazing. They interviewed Sam Smith; they couldn’t avoid that. I was involved in all of that stuff.”
We’re also left to ask if Reinsdorf was allowed editorial approval, or if he leaned on his high-placed connections to protect him. As controlling owner, he had the power throughout the ‘90s to stop the never-ending madness — how Pippen and Jackson were woefully underpaid by market standards; how Jordan had to play out an eight-year, $24 million contract before he was paid his worth; Krause’s vengeance-fueled whim to run off Jackson and prematurely break up the Bulls; the decade-long tensions pitting Jordan, Pippen and Jackson against Krause. But Krause, who passed away in 2017 and unfairly can’t present rebuttals, is painted at every turn as the lone villain, with Reinsdorf allowed by Hehir to sit back as a narrator of the dysfunction rather than one who could have stopped it. As TNT analyst and former Jordan confidante Charles Barkley pointed out on Dan Patrick’s radio show, Reinsdorf was the owner, wasn’t he?
“(Krause) didn’t take that apart — anyone who thinks that is a fool. That thing was orchestrated by Jerry Reinsdorf,’’ Barkley said. “The notion that that little man broke up the Bulls is asinine and absurd … Jerry Reinsdorf broke up the Bulls ‘cause he didn’t want to pay anybody. You think about this — he let Horace Grant go because he became a free agent and they didn’t want to pay him. They probably don’t want to talk about that in the documentary. That’s why he went to Orlando. He only paid Michael the last two years. When he had Michael at a bargain, he was happy. To try to make Krause the bad guy, I thought that was very disingenuous of Reinsdorf.’’
And why wouldn’t Jordan use the docu-series to crucify Reinsdorf, as he has done in conversations with a few media people, myself included? Oh, maybe because Jordan, as an NBA owner, prefers to smear Krause and protect a fellow owner who always could exact stealth revenge on Jordan in league circles. Even at 84, Reinsdorf keeps secrets. He would have been a much better private investigator than sports owner; beyond Jordan’s six titles, of which any owner could have rode the coattails, Reinsdorf’s dual ownership of the Bulls and Chicago White Sox has produced only one championship in almost eight decades of collective ownership.
Hehir won’t be winning an Oscar, not that he deserves one. Technically, “The Last Dance’’ isn’t eligible, says Dawn Hudson, CEO of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “If you meet our requirements for being a movie — you have been scheduled for a theatrical release, which the ESPN series is not, and you are presented in one sitting, which the ESPN series is not — then you are eligible for the Oscars. But that doesn’t apply to this series, even though it’s terrific content,’’ Hudson told the Hollywood Reporter. With Jordan running the show, “The Last Dance’’ can’t possibly have the same gravitas of ESPN’s Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made In America,’’ the five-part miniseries crafted by director Ezra Edelman that didn’t have O.J. Simpson as a creative overlord.
Gambling? There will be no investigative attempt to ask if the murder had anything to do with Jordan’s wagers and seedy North Carolina connections — including Slim Bouler, the cocaine trafficker who took Jordan’s money on golf courses. Another Jordan image cop, longtime agent David Falk, told WFAN Radio: “At the end of the day, Michael was almost Teflon. There’s very few things people criticized him for. The gambling thing was it. He loves to gamble. He’s an extremely competitive guy. If he loses $150,000 playing golf, big freaking deal. If I told him tomorrow, `Hey, I’ve got an appearance for you for five minutes for $150,000,’ he’d laugh at me. If it was $1.5 million, he wouldn’t do it. So yes, he lost money in gambling and it sort of had a little bit of a black eye for five minutes. He apologized and the thing went away. But any of these Oliver Stone conspiracy theories that somehow it pushed him out of basketball were ridiculous.”
Not so ridiculous: the possibility that Jordan, who was wagering obscene sums and was exposed by former San Diego sports executive Richard Esquinas in a book (“Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction — My Cry For Help!’’), was vulnerable to betting-line extortion if he was down a few million on another bad golfing day. Esquinas was the former president and general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena. Did it occur to Stern that the NBA Clippers, before moving to Los Angeles, played home games in that arena? That Esquinas had a direct connection to the league? Jordan denies betting on NBA games — “I only bet on myself,’’ he said, which is what Pete Rose said. The league constitution mandates a fine, suspension or expulsion for “any player who, directly or indirectly, wagers money or anything of value on the outcome of any game played by a team in the NBA.’’ But did the league truly conduct a legitimate and comprehensive investigation of Jordan in the summer of ’93, when he was threatening to retire because of the probe? And shouldn’t the probe, headed by former federal judge Frederick Lacey, have intensified after the murder of Jordan’s father? Wasn’t it peculiar when the NBA closed the probe only two days after Jordan announced he was leaving the Bulls? And why was Stern, before his 2019 death, so defensive and dismissive about Jordan’s gambling “hobby’’ instead of emphasizing public transparency, especially as baseball was coming off Rose’s gambling scandal?
We won’t be getting more answers in the 10-part docu-series, even after 100-plus subjects were interviewed. “I found out later what kind of people I was dealing with. But the act of gambling, I didn’t do anything wrong,’’ Jordan said.
So this could be the biggest of all his victories, in a sense. He indeed has achieved Rare Air, somehow floating above the scrutiny of society’s biggest sports greats and celebrities. Jordan knows his audience wants celebration, not revelation. He also knows he’s lucky: The pandemic has created a hunger for the upbeat. Witness the lines Sunday inside and outside an Atlanta mall, where people waited to buy his newest sneaker model — “Air Jordan 5 Fire Red 2020’’ — that sold out outline. Were they even thinking about Covid-19?
The most majestic athlete of our lives finds himself nearing another fourth quarter, armed with the usual untouchable lead. He could relegate the final four episodes to the cutting-room floor and still know he has won again. Michael Jordan didn’t have to spend millions of dollars or plot deep strategies to control his image.
He just called ESPN.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Jonathan Vilma Went To the Super Bowl As a Player, He Wants To Go Back as a Broadcaster
“The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
From training camp to preseason action; then an 18-week regular season followed by a string of pressurized, single-elimination playoff action, the journey to the Super Bowl is long and arduous. That is part of what makes the conclusion of it all exhilarating for the winning team and, conversely, gut wrenching for its opponent. Jonathan Vilma knows firsthand just what this journey entails and now articulates it to football fans on a weekly basis.
Vilma also knows how it feels to be a world champion, starring on the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl championship team’s defensive line as a middle linebacker. As a three-time Pro Bowl selection and defensive captain, he always made sure he was ready to take the field, proved when he made a critical pass deflection that helped secure the Super Bowl victory. Yet he is not satisfied just winning the game, as he aspires to one day call the nation’s largest, most complex sporting event from the broadcast booth.
“This is no different than football for me,” Vilma said. “[I am] very competitive, so I would want to make sure that [in] each performance [and] each game that I do, I prepare and act as if it is a playoff game; a Super Bowl game. It’s the best game that I’m ever going to call.”
Vilma enjoyed a decade-long career in the NFL and was inducted into the New Orleans Saints’ Hall of Fame in 2017 even though he did not play in New Orleans for the first several years of his career. Instead, Vilma’s career started in East Rutherford, N.J. as a member of the New York Jets, an organization to which he was drafted with the 12th overall pick out of the University of Miami. Following his 2004 rookie season, he was recognized as the NFL defensive rookie of the year by the Associated Press and went on to lead the NFL in tackles the next season.
Aside from all of the accolades, suiting up in the New York-metropolitan area meant facing a deluge of media on a regular basis, aggrandized because of his abilities on the field. Vilma always sought to give 110% effort as a player and did the same when giving interviews by being truthful with journalists – no matter the situation.
“I notice that a lot of the beat writers [and] a lot of regional writers appreciate when you’re just very honest about the good and the bad,” Vilma said, “and they appreciate more when you’re the same person during the bad times as you are during the good times. If I lost a game, whether it was with the Jets or the Saints, beat writers come in and you handle it the same way.”
In February 2008, Vilma was traded to the New Orleans Saints and proceeded to sign a five-year contract with the team approximately one year later. After winning the Super Bowl championship in February 2010 just past the midpoint of his career, he began thinking about what he would do next and eventually decided to give sports media a try.
Despite being an active player, Vilma appeared on a local television postgame show to give his thoughts and analysis on the action, affording him early repetitions in the industry. Once his contract expired with the Saints, he joined Bleacher Report as a guest analyst, but then moved back to college football to cover the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with NBC Sports.
The transition from playing in the NFL to working as a media member in college football on pregame and halftime shows was facile since he remained informed about the NCAA and the various conferences. In his preparation, he examined Notre Dame and its opponent, organically forming cogent opinions conducive to his role and the matchup at hand.
“I was following it prior to when I went to NBC,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of dialing in. When I say dialing in, I just reverted back to what I did when I was playing – and that was watching film [and] getting an understanding of the players, the teams, the coaches [and] the schemes. Once you do that, everything else outside of that is kind of free-flowing because I already know what the players are going to do or the coaches or the teams and how they operate.”
After a year where Vilma exclusively worked on Notre Dame football broadcasts, he began a four-year stint with The Walt Disney Company where he contributed to programming on both ESPN and ABC. With both linear television networks, Vilma was covering college football in its entirety, meaning that he needed to know information about every team. It resulted in a shift in his in-studio preparation for his role on ESPN2’s Saturday studio coverage to ensure he would be ready for any situation presented to him over the course of a broadcast.
“During the week, it would really be about watching [one] half of a team but not watching the whole game or not watching two to three games,” Vilma said. “Then, being very aware of what the media is saying about particular teams to see if it matches up with whatever I believe [about] that team.”
Upon signing a multi-year contract with ESPN in 2018, Vilma was moved to ABC’s Saturday college football studio coverage, working as an analyst during the day and at night on ESPN Saturday Night Football on ABC. Vilma joined the show to replace Booger McFarland, who had been added as a new analyst on ESPN’s presentation of Monday Night Football, collaborating with host Kevin Negandhi and analyst Mack Brown to prepare fans for the weekend primetime matchup.
Over his time with ESPN, Vilma had also been placed into the broadcast booth on occasion, including for its broadcast of the 2018 Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl between the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers and Northern Illinois University Huskies. Through the experience of being on the call for live games, Vilma was eager to explore an opportunity to progress into doing it regularly. It relates to his competitive mindset fostered from his time as a player, and one that he continues to carry with him in sports media.
“It allows me to, for three hours, do what I did mentally when I played – which was [to] break down the opponent; anticipate what they’re going to do; look at their strengths or weaknesses; talk about it and really be able to go in-depth,” Vilma recalls telling his broadcast agent leading into contract negotiations. “….It really lets me feel like I’m a master of this game this week and I really enjoy that.”
The only problem was an opportunity to make the move into a broadcast booth was not available at ESPN in 2020, as the Monday Night Football booth was filled by Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick and its college broadcasters were relatively in place. As a result, Vilma decided to interview for an NFL broadcasting position with FOX Sports, despite initially being hesitant because of the various nuances in the league and having the ability to adopt a parlance applicable for both defensive and offensive analysis.
Recognizing his passion for the game of football and enjoyment of calling games, Vilma chose to join FOX Sports where he was paired with versatile play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert.
The decision by the network to form this particular duo was auspicious for Vilma’s development since Albert had demonstrated experience working with an array of analysts and partially engendering their success. The impact of Albert, who joined the NFL on FOX in 1994, was even more apparent when Vilma had to work his first few NFL games without him since Albert had to complete a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon returning from the NHL Bubble in Toronto.
“Kenny has been in it for so long that he’s a guy [who] doesn’t want the spotlight [or] the limelight – he just wants to make you look good; ‘you’ as in obviously me,” Vilma said. “….I could see the difference in Kenny and how he likes to call games because I had watched about five of his games prior to my first season. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll wait until Kenny comes back and we’ll kind of go from there.’”
Albert and Vilma just completed their third season together in the booth and worked in tandem with sideline reporter Shannon Spake, who provided reports from the field. The congeniality within the broadcast team comes from having an understanding of optimizing each other’s roles and effectively supplementing them.
“I mess with him all the time; I call him a nerd all the time,” Vilma remarked of Albert, “but he’s actually really, really cool so we go to dinner a lot [and] we hang out a lot. Because of that, it shows through our body language [and] through our rapport when we call games.”
As an analyst, Vilma aims to present the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of each play while Albert’s play-by-play responsibilities center around his accurate and concise description of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ and ‘where.’ In order to perform their jobs to the highest standard, they take different approaches when it comes to preparation.
While Albert meticulously researches the rosters, creates detailed charts and talks to coaches and team personnel to elucidate storylines and set up his colleagues, much of Vilma’s preparation relies on watching film. Even though he is not taking the field as a player, the methodology corresponds to his participating in as many facets of the team as possible to gather quality film.
In fact, that practice was advised to him as an NFL rookie by Baltimore Ravens linebacker and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, Ray Lewis – and it had a part in shaping the trajectory of his career. Instantiating that wisdom into media, Vilma tries to formulate comprehensive and coherent points on which to expand and implement in his analysis of a play – unimpeded by other sources of information.
“I don’t want the media to influence anything I say on Sunday when I’m calling that game,” Vilma said. “I want to make sure that whatever I say is because of what I saw on film and what I watched of those teams, and then what I’m seeing Sunday as a game is going on.”
Vilma officially retired from playing football in 2015, meaning he is not very far removed from the NFL. He remains immersed in the football community as a former player and maintains relationships with players, coaches and personnel in the league. His job as an analyst though is predicated on straightforward objectivity; therefore, it is his obligation and that of other analysts to critique individuals and teams as necessary.
“I’ve always felt that if I’m calling the game based on what I see and there’s no hidden agenda [and] there’s no sugarcoating it, then you’ll be fine,” Vilma said. “Just in the same light that I’ll talk about a player who’s inaccurate or whatever it is, I’ll also speak very glowingly about a person if they’re having a great game.”
Playing professional football generates ethos in terms of commentary and the editorializing thereof whether that be during live game broadcasts, shoulder programming or studio shows. Despite making the ostensibly inscrutable parts of the game understood, it is impractical to carry an expectation of pleasing everyone. With the advent of social media, viewers with minimal credibility can suddenly become boisterous critics and build a legitimate following, lending them exposure and a megaphone to project their voices en masse.
One example of such an instance came following a game between the Atlanta Falcons and Vilma’s former team, the New Orleans Saints. As a Super Bowl champion with the team, some fans of the Saints expected him to be inherently biased throughout the game; however, they were flabbergasted when he lambasted their play amid a substantial defeat.
After the game, Vilma opened his Instagram account on which he received direct messages where afflicted fans expressed disbelief that they ever cheered him on as a player. Those types of excoriating messages can unnerve typical social media users and beget demoralization, but for Vilma, it was the epitome of a successful week in the booth.
“After each game, I want to have the fans from both teams saying I was biased for the other team,” Vilma said. “That means that my passion is coming through; it means that the emotions of the game – I’m expressing it as I call the game.”
Throughout the game, Vilma has chances to infuse his personality within his analysis and display his synergy with Albert. He genuinely enjoys his work and is not afraid to divulge how he feels about certain situations, including replay reviews during which he has a 50-50 chance of getting the ruling correct.
“You can’t be right for three hours,” Vilma said. “Nobody is perfect, and I’m not trying to be perfect. [I just] try to make sure that I talk about what I see, have fun and then let my personality come out when the moment presents itself.”
Similar to studio programming across professional sports, Vilma is looking to find a way to incorporate interactive elements into a live game broadcast so viewers can feel engaged and entertained. He has thought about implementing tweets over the course of the broadcast directed at him and Albert, potentially to guide their commentary or to implore them to hone in on a certain player or situational tendency. They would then sometimes choose to respond to the viewers while on air, akin to a point-to-mass communication system occasionally exhibited by alternate-style broadcasts.
In this manner, the user is able to gain control over what they are watching, a critical element of appealing to consumers in the 21st-century amid advances in streaming technology and an active proliferation of OTT content providers. Overall, broadcasting across the NFL is a means through which to promulgate the sport and attract viewers – and Vilma, as a live game broadcast analyst, is a fundamental part of that process. The challenge for him and other analysts is to resist allowing pundits on social media to regularly sway them in a certain direction, which would actualize capriciousness and render entropy in some of their viewpoints.
“If you try too hard to appeal to everyone that is going to comment negatively or positively about your performance, you can find yourself not knowing who you are when it comes to calling games,” Vilma said. “That’s very important because you have to establish yourself in some regard.”
Vilma aspires to call a Super Bowl at some point in his career; however, the next time FOX Sports will have the broadcast rights to the game is in Feb. 2025, the culmination of what Tom Brady expects to be his debut season in the network’s lead broadcast booth alongside Kevin Burkhardt. With other lead broadcast booths around the league being cemented over the last few years on CBS, ESPN/ABC, NBC, it is unclear how that opportunity may come on linear television, but it remains a future goal he looks to attain.
“It’s very eye-opening for me how much media surrounds the game,” Vilma said. “….With FOX [and] being on this side now, I’m still kind of just amazed at how much time, effort and investment goes into the production of the game. It’s very interesting to see how it’s really two different kinds of industries – the athletics and the media – but very similar in the sense that everyone is locked in to putting out the best product. The players obviously want to play their best; and then you have the media and FOX who wants to put out the best production, and so that I can really appreciate.”
An effective way to be considered for an opportunity of that magnitude may just come from following Ray Lewis’ advice he received early on as an NFL player of amassing a library of film. In that practice, Vilma demonstrated a persistent, indefatigable effort to continue to grow – and sees the parallels between his time on the field and current endeavors in sports media.
“I did local TV; I did NBC; any interview I could do at that time, I would do,” Vilma said. “It was now to be able to have as much film as possible – at that time, enough good film – that someone could look and say, ‘You know, I can respect him. This guy is really trying to perfect his craft. He’s been on film; he’s got a lot of good tape,’ and then go from there.”
For former athletes, moving up in sports media, aside from notoriety or expertise, often derives from putting one’s ego aside and evoking a sense of humility. It comes from adopting a hard-working attitude while taking chances that others may perceive as being demeaning or beneath them.
In many ways, it is what any entry-level employee usually does early in their career, generating a sense of respect and collaboration through their work ethic and, in turn, making enduring connections. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and it seemingly holds true across various industries, making relationship-building and versatility integral to experience sustained success.
It all begins with repetitions and focused practice, and Vilma shows no signs of slowing down.
“A lot of the guys don’t want to do the local [or] regional stuff, and that’s the only way to get film,” Vilma expressed. “Unless you’re just going to go off of your name – which few can; most cannot – you’ve got to get on film.”
Derek Futterman is a features reporter for Barrett Sports Media. In addition, he serves as the production manager for the New York Islanders Radio Network and lead sports producer at NY2C. He has also worked on live game broadcasts for the Long Island Nets and New York Riptide. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks and wrote for The Long Island Herald. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Gabe Kuhn Isn’t Worried About Filling Gary Parrish’s Shoes
“I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out.”
In the movie Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character, Crash, says, “Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once. Twenty-one greatest days of my life.” That quote popped in my head because of a sports radio host that recently got called up. Gabe Kuhn is now the host of a brand new drive-time afternoon show on 92.9 ESPN in Memphis.
This is a major opportunity for Gabe, and the smart money is on him lasting much, much longer in Memphis than Crash Davis did in the majors.
Gabe is a former offensive lineman at the University of Memphis. He obviously knows the Memphis area well and has risen quickly in the industry. Some say that love is the universal language. I would argue it’s ball, and Gabe definitely knows his stuff when it comes to football.
We chat about finding the balance of talking football on a deeper level but not too deep. Gabe also talks about filling big shoes, St. Louis Cardinal face tats and being motivated by fear. We even sneak in a little Super Bowl talk. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: You basically just got called up to the big leagues. What does it mean to you to get this opportunity?
Gabe Kuhn: It means a whole lot. It means a lot of people have the confidence in me that I can get this job done. It also means that the city of Memphis has embraced me to the point where people believe that I’m worth listening to from 4:00-7:00 PM. But overall, man, I feel like the job itself — the confidence I have in myself in getting it done — it means a bunch. I just want to make sure I can reciprocate the love the city has given me to this point from 4:00-7:00 PM every day.
BN: What were the sports radio gigs you had before this latest opportunity?
GK: Four years ago, I was let go by the Memphis Express of the AAF. Obviously, the AAF ended up folding. But I decided to just move on from there. I really started about as ground floor as you could get. I just hit up a connection I knew from Sports 56 in Eli Savoie. Eli was great. He told me that they didn’t have any spots open there. I basically stayed there in the morning, checked out the afternoon, learned some things for free. I wouldn’t even call myself an intern; I was just sort of looking, watching and trying to figure out the whole radio thing. This was four years ago.
Then about three weeks into it my guy, Johnny Radio – Johnny Hardin, knew the new producer. Right place, right time, hired me. Wasn’t making anything for two and a half years really, but obviously enjoyed it and learned a whole lot. Started producing middays for Eli Savoie and Greg Gaston. Then made the jump about two and a half years in when the station decided to rearrange their show. Dave Woloshin, voice of the Tigers, wanted to take a step back in workload. Brett Norsworthy needed a co-host with him. I ended up getting the 3-6 show Sportstime with Gabe and Stats. It really was interesting. It was from $9 an hour to salary in about two and a half years. Now I’m where I’m at.
BN: What was it about sports radio that got you interested right after your football career, and what was it about sports radio that maintained your interest when you weren’t making any money for a couple of years?
GK: Well, first of all, I love talking ball. I always had the confidence in myself that I would eventually get where I needed to go with it. I would say I’m a prideful person. I’m not foolishly prideful, but I’m prideful in the work that I put out. I feel like that always shines through. That’s just the confidence I have in myself. And honestly, when it comes down to it, I appreciate the art of it. I know how cliché, corny that may sound, but I appreciate being able to have contrary thoughts and show my personality through. That’s one of the perks of the job that I do appreciate.
BN: You’re from the St. Louis area, right?
GK: Yes, sir.
BN: That’s cool. My dad is originally from Alton, Illinois.
GK: About an hour away. I’m in West County. Wildwood, Chesterfield if you’ve ever heard of that.
BN: Nice. Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
GK: Of course, absolutely. 100%.
BN: There ya go. It almost sounds like you’ve got Cardinals ink. Like, yeah, of course, I’ve got an Ozzie Smith back mural.
GK: I don’t have the full Cardinals face tat yet. But it’s coming soon.
BN: [Laughs] That’s great. Taking over for Gary Parrish, who as you know is big deal in Memphis, pulling huge shares, what’s your approach when it comes to filling big shoes like that?
GK: First of all, I do want to give a shout-out to Gary. Gary was very nice through the process and congratulated me and reached out. I thought that was really cool of him. But as far as filling those shoes, just be as informative, as entertaining as he is. I know that’s simple. I know that’s an easy way of putting it, but Gary was so popular for a reason; he put out good content and people enjoyed it. He had a genuine back and forth with his audience. His audience latched on to what he was putting out. I guess that’s as best as I can put it. That’s what I plan to get done as well. And also, I think that Gary has a love for this city that I have as well. I think that we’re similar in that way.
BN: The cliché of you never want to be the guy who follows the guy. I’ve always thought that’s total BS; I don’t want to be the guy who never gets an opportunity. What is your thought process when you hear someone say you never want to be the guy following the guy, because in your situation, you’re the guy following the guy?
GK: I would say that I don’t think about that in the grand scheme of things. I’m not going to lose sleep over opportunities I get. I know that it’s tough at times to follow a guy who has been so successful in whatever industry it may be. But I tell those people, I’m going to do a fantastic job as well. I guess that’s where I’ll go with it.
BN: What do you want your show to sound like?
GK: First of all, genuine. That’s where you have to start with this thing. I think there’s a lot of people coming up through the ranks that try to find their voice. I feel like that’s something I’ve done a good job of, I’ve found my voice. I have a personality that will absolutely shine through. I don’t want to be overly serious, but I love just talking ball.
But also, as far as the sound day-to-day, I love more so than a lot of people in the city, talking with players, with coaches, people inside the locker rooms, people that are connected still to whatever sport they’re in. I certainly feel like I have some good connections there. I feel like I can break down some barriers in talking with those guys that a lot of people can’t. I feel like that’s something that people will really like as far as my sound is concerned.
BN: You played ball. You know it very, very well. You could get really intricate with it if you wanted to. How do you balance not getting too crazy with the details, but also not being basic to a fault?
GK: I think the biggest equalizer there is if I’m going to dive into some deep ball talk, if I’m talking about the Philadelphia Eagles run game for example, I’ll say what I’m going to say and then I’ll explain it. I’ll try to bring people in there with me. I try not to get carried away when it comes to blocking schemes and who had a down block here, who was pulling there. I try to stay away from stuff like that. But I feel that listeners are a lot more moldable and understanding than some people think.
BN: Who do you like in the Super Bowl, Eagles or Chiefs?
GK: The Chiefs looked very good in the AFC Championship against the Bengals, but when I just sit back for a half second and think about the situation, Patrick Mahomes has a bum ankle. The Eagles pass rush got after Brock Purdy to the point that he got knocked out of that game. They got after Josh Johnson to the point that he got knocked out against the Eagles.
I just feel like the Eagles pass rush mixed with the rest of that defense, they’ve done a good job of building that secondary. They have a MVP-caliber quarterback this year, who will finish in the top five in MVP voting. Their offensive line is great. They’re just so complete. I don’t know if the Chiefs are as complete a team. I feel like the Eagles will be able to get after Patrick Mahomes and bother him in ways that he hasn’t been bothered through the playoffs. But we will have to see. This is definitely going to be an interesting back and forth.
BN: What do you think are the top-3 most popular teams or sports in Memphis?
GK: We have a very, very passionate audience, and certainly I think the Grizzlies audience has grown a lot. It’s catching up and it might be there right now. But we have a very passionate audience when it comes to Memphis Tiger basketball. That’s the truth of the matter. The city loves following recruiting. The city loves the AAU circuit. The city loves everything like that.
Since we’re in the Southeast, since we have a footprint of a lot of different college football teams, and obviously the University of Memphis in town, I’d put college football up there. But really close, as it always is, is the NFL. The NFL is a year-round topic as well just because of how national it is. We don’t really have a defined fan base here. I guess Cowboys, Steelers, maybe a little bit of Titans sprinkled in there. I’d say those are really at the top.
BN: Going back to your playing days at Memphis, what was your experience like playing on the team?
GK: When I came in, there were 29 guys in my recruiting class, I was easily the 29th. Granted I did get a scholarship. Obviously, I had to pay for my first summer. That was a little bit different. I came in and I had to really, really grind for everything. I came in at 260 pounds. I had to get myself up to 310. I had to play different positions. I played left tackle in high school. I had to move myself to center and then eventually guard. It was an uphill grind the entire time. I learned a whole lot and honestly, it gave me the pride in my work and the work ethic in general that I have today. I’m glad for that time, no question.
BN: Who are a couple of the big name players from Memphis that went on to the NFL while you were still there?
GK: Oh, how much time you got? I’m just kidding. Jake Elliott. Bobby McCain. Anthony Miller, Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor Jr. Tony Pollard. There’s more where that came from. There’s a few more that got through, Wynton McManis spent some time in the NFL. We had some really good talent on those teams, ‘13 to ‘17. That’s why we won as much as we did.
BN: How about Tony Pollard, man? It’s really cool to see how his career keeps growing and growing.
GK: He was a guy — Mike Norvell was my second head coach. We always had some questions, ‘Why is he not getting as many totes?’ Obviously, we had Darrell Henderson Jr. in that backfield, Patrick Taylor Jr. in that backfield, so we had to sort of balance that out. But we always knew what he was capable of. The fact that he can get out there, play in the slot, catch some balls, run outside, get into that sort of zone scheme that the Cowboys can run, get him out on the edge into space. We always saw that. But honestly, it’s probably a good thing that he didn’t have all of those body blows in college, because that tends to help out running backs these days.
BN: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s a random question, but I just have to know, your Twitter background picture where it’s a guy and a girl at a baseball game or something. If you know what I’m talking about, I have to know the backstory of that.
GK: [Laughs] Well, honestly, I find it to be a funny picture, first of all. That’s the background story in general. But I have a lovely fiancée, and I find myself explaining a lot of sports situations to her, discussing my day-to-day life with her. I just feel like that’s me, I guess. I feel like it’s just a funny representation of what I go through with my fiancée day-to-day.
BN: [Laughs] I love it, man. That’s great. Do you have a marriage date?
GK: September 30 is the marriage date. I told her, try to stay away from fall weddings and she came back to me five minutes later and asked if September 30 was okay. It looks like the first battle I’ve lost.
BN: [Laughs] Ahh man, that’s funny. I also need to know the name of the dog in the background of your Twitter picture there.
GK: So I have two dogs now. I have about 185 pounds worth of dog at my house, both Great Pyrenees. One is named Nola. She’s the girl, and then Motley is the boy.
BN: Are you a Mötley Crüe fan? Where does Motley come from?
GK: He’s actually a rescue. He was named previous to us rescuing him.
BN: Oh, gotcha. It might be a weird time to ask about your future when you just got a big opportunity, but when you think about the next five years or so, what do you want it to look like?
GK: As far as the gig I have, 4:00-7:00 PM, that’s just going to be a massive part of my life and obviously going to be my A-priority the next five years. But also within that, I really do think that some opportunities as far as maybe college football games, color analyst, those type of things. Helping out in the community in general away from the studio, that type of thing. But I feel like the professional opportunities will widen a tad bit and I’m looking forward to it.
BN: When you were transitioning from football to sports radio, who were a couple of the sports radio hosts or TV personalities that you enjoyed?
GK: What’s interesting and kind of funny is I know a lot of people will smack him down, but over the years, especially earlier, probably a little bit less now, but I think Colin Cowherd is a guy that I always watched growing up that I had some appreciation for. And yes, he’s wrong. And yes, there’s a lot of people that go after him for various things. But I feel like the engagement that he has is pretty nice. But also in town, let’s be honest, the truth of it is the guy I’m following. When I didn’t have my 3-6 show, I listened to Gary a lot. I thought he did a fantastic job. He was the guy in town that I certainly appreciated and thought the world of as far as the show was concerned.
BN: What are some of the things that get you to listen to a show if you’re driving around, and what gets you to turn away from a show?
GK: That’s tough because I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to sports radio. I generally give people a longer shot. I think when we’re just speaking generally, someone who’s informative and engaging, no matter what content they’re putting out. I know a lot of people will say they like the bits, they like segmented items that bring them back every day. I think there’s something to that as well. But if you’re informative, engaging, I’ll listen to anything you have to put out there.
On the flip side of that, if you hear a bunch of errors. If you hear a bunch of people slipping up. If there’s no point to the conversation being had, if there’s no sort of end goal — and that goes with the engaging part of this whole thing — I feel like that would be the time where you may switch stations. I feel like that’s a pretty long-winded way of saying you stay around if it’s informative, engaging. You don’t if it’s not informative and engaging.
BN: Going back to your football days after college, what was it like in the AAF? Just that year and how the league was shut down, what was that like, man?
GK: It was interesting to say the least. I got cut right after minicamp. That’s the truth of the matter. I got signed to the inaugural team, and then was cut directly after minicamp. I guess I wasn’t big enough, whatever it may be. But it was not a good experience. To be completely frank with you, it was bad for most everybody involved. They didn’t have a practice field all figured out. Everything was pretty spur of the moment. After I got done, they sent me a bill for the physical I took previous to minicamp. It was just a bunch of errors stacked on top of it.
Obviously, I got cut early and moved on and found my role, but there’s a lot of good guys I know that got cut from that league and couldn’t really land on their feet for a while. Didn’t get paid, didn’t have anywhere to go for a moment. Obviously, some of them found their way, some didn’t. I just thought that that operation in general, and I know this is getting serious and a little tough, but that operation in general was very disappointing to see about how ill-prepared they were.
BN: I just thought of Mark Schlereth, a former offensive lineman. He once talked about being scared during his NFL career. He was a guy that wasn’t highly recruited, wasn’t highly drafted and he was just scared that he was going to get replaced or get cut. I think about your football career and how you explained it where at Memphis you’re one of the last guys on scholarship. You go to the AAF, you’re cut. I don’t know if that builds a fear that might be a good thing with what you have now in sports radio, where it’s like, I got to prepare or the next guy is going to take my spot. Do you feel like that at all?
GK: Yes, I do. I think I would relate it to my fiancée is always telling me you never give yourself credit. You never sit back and enjoy and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. I say I don’t think there’s time for that. If you’re giving yourself credit that means you’re patting yourself on the back for a job well done. I hate to say it like this, but the job’s not finished, right? You have to move forward day to day like the job’s not finished. I would relate it to that. I think there’s absolutely a part of me that feels that way.
The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?
“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”
When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.
There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.
With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.
Strategy 1: The Game Participant
This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.
Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game
This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.
Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.
Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst
Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.
One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.
Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle
Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.
Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.
The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.
Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.