Bill Simmons’ popularity has skyrocketed since starting as a columnist on ESPN’s “Page 2”over 15 years ago. In that time he’s been promoted several different times and has occupied various roles and titles increasing with prestige every step of the way.
It took me some time to warm up to his style and unique slant on sports and pop culture. I thought his columns were just too long. So I decided to make this one long in his honor. Even Simmons is self-aware of the flak he catches for this tendency, once saying in a podcast, “I can’t even burp in 850 words.” This writing style he’s inherited has helped build his brand and he’s never wavered from it. When he chooses to cover any given topic he’s going to tell everything there is to know about it. His podcasts, the “B.S. Report” and “Bill Don’t Lie,” his Book of Basketball (752 pages), along with a vast archive of columns on Grantland.com showcase his ability to argue all things basketball exhaustively, to think analytically and critically as well as his enthusiastic interest and excitement for sports.
On May 8th, 2015 ESPN President, John Skipper announced that Bill Simmons’ contract, which was coming to a close at the end of September, would not be renewed. Skipper’s announcement not so coincidentally came on the heels of Bill harshly criticizing NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, for the second time in under a year. Simmons’ brash comments undoubtedly sealed his fate with the network. Skipper cited money as a significant factor in determining to part ways with Simmons, but there’s no obscuring the fact this was a firing, fast-tracking his removal from Grantland, where he stood as editor-in-chief and immediately suspended Simmons’s involvement from all ESPN media assets.
His firing, just merely four weeks into the playoffs, couldn’t have come at a worse time for NBA fans. I was looking forward to his analysis during this period as well as the NBA Draft. Simmons has 4.5 million Twitter followers and from his first episode in June of 2007 he’s pioneered and perfected the art of podcasting. He’s cultivated a very loyal support network due to his style and scope of coverage. His unfiltered opinions on players, coaches, team dynamics and fanbases is compelling and informative. For instance, take a team like the Los Angeles Clippers, which anyone residing outside of Los Angeles may know very little about. Simmons lives in LA and regularly sits courtside for their games. On his podcast he describes the whining and pretentious attitude of their fans being directly inherited from the pre-madonna “ish” ways of their leader, Chris Paul and the rest of the team. In one episode he declared that every team in the NBA hates the Clippers and is sick of Chris Paul’s act. I genuinely laughed out loud. Very rare is it that sports journalists are brave enough to make such a bold statement. Simmons’ energy is a breath of fresh air compared to the style of popular sports personalities such as “Mike & Mike”, who merely read the previous day’s headlines and offer a Disney slant that’s minimal, conservative and fairytale like.
Simmons offers as legitimate, genuine, and introspective lens on sports as any journalist out there. I tune into his podcast to be entertained and to glean information about the landscape of the NBA that I wouldn’t get from following other sportscasters. In another episode on his podcast he shared the story of his interesting career path and the steps that led him to ESPN. From the beginning his vision was to take the popular sports topics nationally and involve a cultural element to the story. Simmons’ involvement with “30 For 30” and Grantland are both shaped by a similar style of journalistic creed that he’s adopted. At Grantland there’s a roster of talented columnists that cover topics across professional sports, film and culture. I recommend the BS Report episode where the extremely talented Grantland contributor, author and pop culture essayist, Chuck Klosterman joins Bill to talk about the Ohio State Buckeyes football team (fresh off their national championship win) and Leonardo Dicaprio’s life. Chuck was an arts critic for the Akron Beacon Journal in a prior role along with also having worked at the NY Times and Esquire. He had the distinction of narrating and interviewing James Murphy, front man of LCD Soundsystem, on Shut Up and Play the Hits, an excellent documentary about the popular music group’s last show ever at MSG.
Similarly the genius with “30 For 30,” is hinged on the element of culture and its seamless integration to producing and telling some of the most popular sports stories historically in a dramatic format. “You Don’t Know Bo”, which is my favorite from the catalog, is not only a great film because it tells the story and rise to stardom for the rarest of two sports athletes ever, but does so with a thorough focus on the generation who witnessed his uprising. One gets a good sense of his following and the cultural significance he created from the film’s incorporation of the pop culture which coincided with the Bo Jackson era.
ESPN has experienced noticeable turnover with their rebellious and outspoken sports personalities. Jim Rome, host of popular sports talk radio show The Jungle left ESPN in 2012 after the 8-year run of his tv show Rome is Burning was discontinued. In July they parted ways with Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann. June marked the talented sportswriter Jason Whitlock being demoted and disallowed access from “The Undefeated” ESPN platform that he helped build. He’s still with the network, but only occupies a couple weekday slots as co-host of “Pardon the Interruption”.
Simmons definitely made ESPN a better network during his 15 year run. Recently HBO signed Simmons to a contract that begins in October, which will involve his appearing on a variety of their media outlets. I’m excited to see the empowered and unfettered platform they will provide him. There has to be a large group of devoted fans such as myself who will be taking their loyalty, readership and interest to HBO.