ESPN's Bill Simmons on joining 'NBA Countdown' and his close encounter with Mike Francesa

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Your online fans won’t blink twice when they see you talking hoops on the tube, but you’re also going to be introduced to new, older people like my dad, who don’t have smartphones and are less familiar with your work. Do you change anything about your style or just hope he catches up?
My feeling is as long as the conversation is good, your dad’s not going to care what my credentials are or why the four of us have been put together. I’ve put a lot of thought about why different studio shows have worked or not worked, and in my mind, if it’s four people who wouldn’t have dinner together and have a two-hour conversation, then the show’s probably going to suck. Jalen and I did a podcast two weeks ago, and we talked for about an hour and 10 minutes straight. We immediately went to lunch and talked for another hour and a half about basketball. And we could’ve gone for another hour. And I think once you have that, it’s pretty hard to screw the show up. So it’s a long way to answer your question, but I feel like your dad, if he likes basketball, is going to feel that energy.

Initially, this will be a once-a-week gig for you, but playoff time, I imagine, will be pretty hectic. How will this impact all your other responsibilities?
I’m somebody who likes to be working all the time, and the bottom line is I have extra time now to do it. I could not have done this a year ago, because we were working so hard the first year with Grantland. Now that we’re 18 months in, and we have a staff of 16 people, we know what we are. We know who our writers are. We know what we’re doing every week. We’re like a machine at this point.

I know it’s likely only coincidence, but soon after you were named to the show, NBA commissioner David Stern announced his retirement plans…
Man, I wish I could take credit for that. The funny thing is the league has been very supportive of me being on this show. They really wanted me to be on a year ago. They think that I have a chance to make the show — I don’t want to say more sophisticated, but maybe capture a little bit of the conversation that’s going on online. If you look at the way that basketball writing has changed and the use of advanced metrics and the salary cap, it’s so much more sophisticated online. My whole thing is, I’d rather talk above the peoples’ heads a little bit than dumb it down. And we, I mean ABC/ESPN, may have dumbed it down too much. I think people would rather catch up. That’s always been my experience.

The NBA wanted you on the show last year?
Yeah. We shot a test show a year ago, right before Christmas. But Grantland had only been up for six months, so.

Have they thrown up a flare about your affection for sports gambling? It’s one of the things I enjoy most about your podcasts, but I know the NBA is extremely sensitive about that side of sports.
No, that never came up. I’ve certainly talked about gambling more than anyone with a big forum. I get a kick out of it. I think it’s fun. I think everyone knows it’s good-natured for the most part. I just did a podcast and the second guest was a professional NBA gambler. [Laughs] So I guess you can definitely say it hasn’t come up. You just have to be conscious of the fact that the league is not crazy about this stuff.

You’ve become friends with Magic Johnson, but he’s still a Laker, and I assume you’ll be pitted against him on the show occasionally on all Lakers/Celtics matters.
Dirty secret about Magic: Magic loves when people come at him, whether you’re on TV with him or whether you’re just arguing with him about whatever. Magic’s super famous. He’s surrounded by people who tell him, Yeah, you’re right, Magic! And Good point, Magic! I feel like the biggest problem the show has had over the past couple of years is that everyone was hanging on Magic’s every word. Nobody was challenging him. If he made a point that didn’t really make sense, people kind of let it go. And I don’t think he wants that. I think he wants to be challenged. So I’ve enjoyed every conversation I’ve ever had with Magic, especially any time we’re arguing about the ’80s or what makes a true point guard. It’s impossible not to have an interesting conversation with him, so I feel like, if we go on television and it’s not good, then I’m going to feel like I failed.

What are you most excited about this season?
I’m excited that the Celtics are going to be good again. LeBron James has basically created a new position — point power forward — which we’ve never really totally seen before. I can’t wait to see where that goes. And I like the fact that we have a lot of rivalries again. We have feuds. I mean, Boston and Miami hate each other. Boston and the Lakers hate each other. The Lakers and Miami are going to be a rivalry every time they play. Brooklyn and the Knicks. The Clippers and the Lakers have a surprising animosity. This season has the best chance to be a lot like what I grew up with in the 80s, where it really felt like everybody was a gang. Like your gang was going against the Detroit gang, and the Detroit gang was going against the Lakers gang. And everybody hated each other and they got in fights. I like that there’s an extra level of bitterness, because the league was a little too buddy-buddy there for a while.

Way back when, you almost walked away from sports journalism before you were even in it because you were frustrated in your efforts to write for a local newspaper. Now you’re part of NBA Countdown, which must feel a bit surreal.
If you had told me that 10 years ago, I just wouldn’t have believed it. I remember doing a two-part piece on Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith and [their TNT] show in the spring of 2002. Hung out with them for a couple of days, watched them do the show, basically geared the piece around why the show worked, why the chemistry in the show worked. And never at any point was I thinking to myself, Yeah, 10 years from now, I’ll be doing one of these. It never, ever crossed my mind.

I seem to recall in between then and now that you nearly ended up on the radio, as Mike Francesa’s partner after Chris Russo left in 2008. Did you audition?
No, it wasn’t an audition. He called me. He tried to convince me to co-host with him. He called me out of the blue. I was under contract, so it was never a serious thing. But it was an amazing phone conversation because that was a show that I loved obviously from when I was after college and when I was bartending. It was kind of surreal to have him call, especially in his voice. He called and he was like, [imitating Francesa’s deep Noo Yawk accent] “How much do you make? How much do you make?” That’s how he started it. And I’m like, “Mike, what are you talking about?”  And he just goes into total Francesa mode. “You’ll make more with me.” It was fantastic. I wish I had a tape of the phone call.

KIA NBA Countdown airs tonight on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, to be followed by a double-header of Knicks/Heat and Lakers/Clippers.

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