Tim Legler Interview PART TWO
This interview with Tim is the 11th in our series with NBA broadcasters. Previously interviewees include Jim Barnett, Fran Fraschilla, Sarah Kustok, Mark Jones, Gary Gerould, Marques Johnson, Bob Rathbun, Stephanie Ready, Jared Greenberg and Matt Bullard: http://basketballintelligence.net/2020/10/26/nba-broadcasters-interview-series/
Here is Part One of Tim's interview: http://basketballintelligence.net/2020/11/15/tim-legler-interview-part-one/
RAY LeBOV: How did you transition from playing to broadcasting?
TIM LEGLER: I didn't initially go into it. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I came home from the West Coast and I retired. I still had money guaranteed over the next two years from the Warriors. I decided that rather than just sit around and do nothing, I wanted to get my Master's Degree. The first thing I did was look into an MBA program and, of course, being me rather than just go get a run-of-the-mill MBA from somewhere, I applied to the executive program at Wharton. They told me they had already passed the admission deadline for that class, which was about to begin in May of 2000. They had already accepted all their applicants and they said, "Because we like diversity and you're an athlete and we've only had one athlete ever come through the executive program, you would be number two. We'd love to have that but you have to take the GMAT." It was in a week and I had to get a certain score. I said "OK" but I didn't know much about the GMAT. I took some practice exams. I wasn't anywhere close to the score that I was going to need and I started panicking a little bit.
It turns out that the official test I took was the only one out of the eight practice tests where I got the score I needed. So I got accepted into the Wharton Program which was every other weekend for two years with people that were working full-time jobs. There were one hundred and three people accepted in the class out of thousands of applicants and a lot of them were flying in from foreign countries every other weekend. Studying became my full-time job for the next two years. I went to the library every day. I got through Wharton, got my master's degree.
Right before graduation, I got a call from Ric Bucher who was a long-time NBA beat writer who had covered me in Golden State and Washington. At that point, he had moved on to ESPN The Magazine.. He said, "Are you interested in doing any NBA TV analysis?" And I said, "I don't know, man. I am finishing up my Master's Degree and I'm going to see where that leads me." He said, "Well, here's the producer's name and number. Call him if you're interested." His name is Barry Sacks. I called him and we talked. He said "Come on up, see if you like it. Let's see if we like you if it's something you're interested in," and that's literally how it started. Sometime over that next summer, I went up to ESPN and I did my audition and now I just finished my 19th season there. RAY: I teach a class on the legislative process and how to lobby. It's open to anybody who wants to take it and so we get total neophytes as well as people who have significant experience. My biggest challenge in teaching that class is to strike a happy medium where I'm not presenting over the heads of the rookies while at the same time not boring the veterans. You seem to be able to meet that "happy medium" better than anybody else. If I'm watching you with somebody who's a casual fan or if I'm watching with somebody who's seriously involved in the NBA, it doesn't matter.
To me, being able to express and analyze what's happening in a way that works at each extreme seems like it would be a huge challenge. How do you feel about that? TIM: That's a great question and great analysis. That thoroughly describes my approach and it has since the day I started at ESPN. Every time I go on the air my approach is to teach in a way that works for viewers even if they have never seen a basketball game before Most people are watching because they love the NBA, they love basketball in general, and now I'm going to try to explain something on the court that they never would have picked up on. I am going to explain it in a way that no one else has ever explained to you. That's been my approach from the beginning. I think the reason I'm able to do that is because I see the game like a coach. I've been that way my whole life. My passion is coaching. The one thing I have not been able to accomplish, the number one thing that I would love to accomplish, would be to get my own Division 1 program to coach. That's my goal. What I'm looking at when I'm watching a game is not what the average person or analyst is watching. I'm watching all ten guys at the same time. I think that's how I was able to accomplish so much as a self-motivated self-made player. It wasn't like I was just going to go out there and dominate you athletically. I was going to have to understand everything about the game. That's how I've always approached it. When I watch a game, I break down plays. I'm looking at it completely differently. I'm looking for something that makes a big difference to the outcome that might be something that the average fan would never pick up on. That what my approach has to be every night when I go on the air. That's what I'm trying to bring to them.
RAY: There are a couple of levels to that. One is the ability to see and understand it and the other equally important part is the ability to explain it in a way that it resonates with everybody.
TIM: There's no doubt. Those two things are linked. One of the reasons I've been at ESPN so long - and I've been with countless guys that have come and gone in the time - is my ability to explain why something happened, why I think something will happen that you're about to watch, something to look for in tonight's game, something to give you as a fan. For example, a particular play set that a team had a hard time defending throughout the course of the game that was the biggest reason why they lost. I explain why they struggled to defend it. When your approaches go about it that way, people really home in on, "Man, that was awesome. I've never thought of that before. I never would have noticed that if you didn't point that out."
You're right, there are two components. You have to know what you're watching first of all and then you've got to be able to explain that to someone without getting too technical or boring. That's the combination of the two things that I try to do whenever I go on the air . RAY: It's quite remarkable. Many people think that you're significantly underutilized at ESPN. Has that been your choice?
TIM: It's a combination of a couple of things. If you go back to what is now considered the pre-game show, Countdown, I was on that show for several years. I climbed pretty quickly from a guy they brought in to do NBA Tonight, which is the late-night highlight show, to do Sports Center hits within just a few years. I co-hosted Mike and Mike a lot. I was on First Take all the time. I was then moved up to the Countdown show with John Saunders, Greg Anthony, and Steven A. Smith. We started out in Bristol and they ended up moving the show to New York City. We were doing the show from Times Square and I think it was the best that the show has ever been. What happened was, as often is the case at ESPN, production team personnel got moved around and the guys that I was working with who valued what I was doing and were definitely moving me up in terms of my exposure, were moved. Now, there were new people running the NBA division and producing those shows. They have a blank page and they want to blow it all up. They want to reinvent everything.
RAY: They want to put their stamp on things.
TIM: I got caught up in that a little bit and it seemed like they felt there were some chemistry issues with what we were doing as a group that didn't involve me at all. But rather than say, "Okay, you're still going to be here. We're going to make some other changes around you.", it was, "Let's just wipe this thing clean and start over." They went with a completely different concept. That was around 2007 or 8. I had been there six years and they decided they were going to go in a different direction. I still had a high-profile,doing a lot of studio analysis, and I was actually also calling a lot of games at that time. I was probably calling 12 to 15 games a year. I was part of their package, and then there was a combination of what I just said and a difference in philosophy. They said "We want the studio analyst to be different from the game analyst," so then they took the games off my plate and I just was strictly doing studio stuff. That lasted for several years and then they got to the point where it was a matter of "we're going to get rid of a lot of these studio shows". NBA Tonight is gone. Coast to Coast, which was a great live two-hour show on Tuesday night, went away. They didn't need analysts as much in Bristol anymore, but they still needed one guy to fill that role because of all the Sportscenter shows still coming from there and that was me.
While they opened up a studio in LA and they have guys out there doing that, I became that guy that fills that role for them because they always are going to need somebody in the studio to breakdown and be on different shows that they have up there - radio and television. They need someone physically there on campus because a lot of stuff we do now comes from other places and a lot of these guys live in other places, some on the West Coast. It became something where they were going to use those guys at that studio and I was going to be the East Coast guy because of my proximity to Bristol. I've been in that mode now for a long time. I often hear "Why aren't you on more ?" It's been a role and a niche and a lane that I have filled for them that they love me in and I think it has contributed to my longevity there because if you insist, "Hey, I got to be part of this, this,or this," you might not be there anymore. They value me greatly but the way this has played out, I'm the one guy that's filling this very important role for them in Bristol and it's kind of defined what I do. I can do things in there with the touchscreen and do things in there right after games and everything else that other people just can't do so they want me in that role.
RAY: You've spoken about your natural ability to understand what's going on. Nonetheless, it's clear that there's a lot of preparation that enhances that. How would you characterize your preparation?
TIM: I get asked all the time when I'm on the air to prognosticate what's about to happen and I always do it because I know it's part of what I do for a living. But if you're asking me to be able to tell you what guys are going to do, it's impossible. That's why I'm not a big gambler. I will bet on things that I have control over: you want to bet me on the billiard table, let's go. You want to go out on the golf course or to go shoot free throws against each other, I'll lay some money on that because I'm in direct control. To be able to predict what people do, I know they want us to do it all the time and it's funny because they'll ask me who's going to be the MVP a week into the season. It's just part of the nature of what we do for a living.
My real strength is that I'm a meticulous note-taker when I watch games. I will defy you to find anybody that takes as many notes as I do in the course of a game. I might take 15 pages of notes watching a game. As it is happening and then shortly after, I want to go and make some notation. I see a pattern developing and based on my note-taking and that pattern I come up with story line of the game. Then I go back and find the plays that tell that story. That way I can succinctly break it down in a 1, 2, or 3 play clip that will let me show "This was the biggest issue in this game for the team that lost. Or "This was what a team did exceptionally well tonight to win."
I will have those plays rather than asking a PA that's on the production team " I thought the Celtics were really good on the offensive glass tonight. Can you pull me some clips of that?" I would have no idea what I'm about to get sent back to me when they go cut those plays. Instead, I tell them specifically, "6:52, second quarter. I want to see this play and this offensive rebound at 4:43 of the third quarter. Give me this one of Jayson Tatum. " I'll give them the plays. Number one, it saves them a hell of a lot of time. They're very appreciative when they're working with me. And then, second, it's exactly what I want. I know I'm going to take these. These are the best examples of what I'm talking about. And now I will take those and I will turn those into a story that explains what happened.
I get frustrated sometimes because TV is very time-sensitive. So I might be asked to cut my chosen three plays down to two. And I will fight for my three plays because what I always tell them is that almost anybody can pick out one play. One play gives you a moment in time. Two plays give you a little bit more of a highlight feel. Three plays tell a story. Say we're talking about transition defense, I gave you three different examples over the course of the entire game that play out three different ways where a player makes three different mistakes in transition defense. Now you have a story. Now you have a theme for the game. So for people who watch that 90 seconds or 2 minutes that I'm on the air doing that, even though they might have missed it when it happened, now they can say " I see why they had a hard time with that tonight."
I think my note-taking sets me apart and my real passion and value is that I'm gonna explain to you what you just watched and I'm going to show you something important that you did not notice in the game.
RAY: You indicated that coaching has been your goal the last few years. You were a finalist for the La Salle Head Coach position,
TIM: I was second for that job. I was also in the running to the Duquesne job a year or two before that.
RAY: Is it still what you want to do? What's the prognosis? What are you doing about it?
TIM: When my son was ten years old, I decided I was going to coach AAU basketball and so I put together an AAU team. I saw the coaching that was going on. It felt like I owed it to him because it's the one thing I've been good at my whole life and he loved the game. We started at ten with local kids. Then over the course of the next seven years, I coached the main core group, but I did start adding better players when we got up to the 14, 15-year-old range. With my age 16 team in my second to last AAU season I told Under Armour "I've got a team good enough to play against national teams, national programs, big names with a lot of top-level Division 1 players." I said, "I'm telling you right now. We're beating these teams in non-Under Armour tournaments ," I begged them to sponsor us because the exposure level on those circuits, whether it's Adidas, Nike, or Under Armour, is completely different.
So, finally, after we knocked off six to eight of these teams, they started to pay attention. I didn't have anywhere near their level of talent. I had one high major Division 1 player who's at Seton Hall right now. I had another kid that came on very late who got some high major offers and then I had three other kids that were lower-level Division 1 players, and then I had Division 2 and Division 3 players, including my son who plays at Division 3. These other teams were playing in the Under Armour circuit in some of these big tournaments. Ray,in some cases they had 8 high-majors, 8 four and five-star recruits, ten Division 1 players for sure. And we're beating these teams and it was mainly because of the way we played and the way I insisted we were going to have to play to be able to compete. We looked like a basketball team. When you watched our team, the South Jersey Jazz, play it was definitely different than anything you were watching it with any other AAU team.
It was so great because we were holding our own against any team in the country in our age group. It was fantastic. All these coaches coming out, watching us play and I'm thinking, "I'm going to parlay this," and you get an opportunity to coach on because that was what my goal was and I wanted to see it through with my son and I did. So I finished AAU with him. He's now a senior in college. This is four years ago. I basically, the next two to three years, was 100% focused on getting a Division 1 job. I'm talking, meeting with search firms, interviewing for jobs, going to the final four, meeting with people, doing everything. I hired one of the best agents in college basketball doing everything I needed to do and the Duquesne job came up, that was a great opportunity because they were in the A10, which is great conference. They were really down but a new AD came in and they were going to dump a bunch of money into it. They wanted to put Duquesne basketball back on the map. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for a guy with no experience to be able to come in there and grow with the program. And I think the AD was really impressed. But they went with a guy who had won 20 games a bunch of times at Akron. Keith Dambrot was the right hire for Duquesne. He went there and turned their program around.
I understood that. I made my mark in the interview with Duquesne Then the La Salle job opened up. I was not a hundred percent sure that I was going to get it but it seemed obvious to a lot of people. I was one of their most famous alums. I coached 500 high-level AAU games, I could do things for recruiting that no one else would be able to do. I had known the AD for 30 years. I thought I had a great interview.. It was pretty devastating when I didn't get the job..
It took five days after that interview before I got word and I was on pins and needles waiting because I thought this was my shot. Could I go coach at a Division 2 or Division 3 program? Probably. But there are financial considerations at 53 years old, to go down that path not knowing where it's leading and walking away from something where I'm so established. But here was an opportunity at La Salle. The salary was going to be right. I thought that the league was right. They had been down for so long. I thought that I could bring juice to the program and could get us back on the map in a really good league. Whether I stayed at La Salle forever or parlayed that to something bigger down the road at a Power Five conference if I did a good job, that's where my mind was. That didn't happen. That was over two years ago. Have I given up? No. I'm starting to get a little bit more resigned that this might not happen and that's frustrating but I haven't given up: If the right AD hears it on the right day and can offer the right coaching position. who knows? Maybe it's somebody I have a connection with from years past and the next thing you know, I'm in an office and selling one person to get the job .
So I'm not going to say it can never happen. It's still the number one thing that I would love to do in the game. I just am a little bit more resigned and realistic about whether it will happen. Search firms are a major impediment because they have their list of guys that they're trying to put in for these jobs and I'm not on that list because I didn't go through the pipeline. The lack of experience sometimes gets thrown in my face. And then people ask "Why don't you just go be an assistant on somebody's bench for a couple years and then maybe--". Maybe, but again, it's a financial consideration. It would be an enormous sacrifice for my family financially to go take an assistant's job not knowing if that's going to lead to a head coaching job at some point.
I think I could take a head coaching job from day one. I don't know that I need to be an assistant coach somewhere first. I'm still holding out hope but I'm a little bit more realistic and I'm kind of planning out what the next twenty years of my life are going to look like. I thought it was going to be coaching. I thought that my last chapter in basketball was going to be as a coach. It might not happen for me and it's very frustrating and hurts quite a bit that that might not be the case.
ESPN is very supportive about it. I've had conversations with them. If something popped up that was a good opportunity for me, they would be very supportive of it. Life's circumstances sometimes change and a year or two from now, I might say, "You know what? Maybe I need to go take that low-level D1 job or that D2 job if I have an opportunity to prove something that somebody needs to see," But I'm not there right now.
RAY: When you were talking about the success you had with your AAU team against those super teams, I thought back to the mid-60s when Dr. Jack was coaching St. Joe's. That was a "play the right way" team as well. I lived in Connecticut at the time. I saw them play Fairfield University at the New Haven Arena. I was just a freshman in college but I was a stringer for the New Haven Register. That was the Matty Guokas, Cliff Anderson team, and I said, "These guys play like no other team I've ever seen. They do everything right. They play as a unit. They all know what each other's doing at all times and they do all the right things in the right way." To this day, that's the best coached college team I've ever seen. TIM: Ask anybody that saw our teams play what our team looked like relative to everybody else. The way we played, the way we moved the ball, the way we screened, the way we defended against superior talent. I knew how they were going to play and I was not going to let guys beat us individually. It just wasn't going to happen. They were going to have to play against multiple defenders on penetration. We were going to help and recover better than any team you've seen. We were going to get back in transition. We were going to move it. I had this one kid, Myles Cale, that it's unfortunate watching his college career because he almost was turned into a robot when he got to Seton Hall. He has started the last two years.. He got big minutes as a freshman and started his sophomore and junior years, He was the second-leading scorer as a sophomore behind Myles Powell who was one of the best college players in the country. When Myles got there, he was just a flat-out scorer. Against all these guys going to Kentucky, Indiana, UCLA, you name it, Myles was the leading scorer in the Under Armour Association and he played for me. He was an incredible athlete, 6'5", unstoppable in the open floor. He's just a walking bucket. That's what we used to call him and he got to Seton Hall and shooting is an afterthought now. They've turned him into a guy that's mainly out there to defend and it's been tough to watch because he went from four or five points a game as a freshman to eleven as a sophomore as a second leading scorer because Myles Powell took so many shots. After averaging 11 points as a sophomore,he set himself up to have two big years but he took a major step backward last year in terms of his offense. I think they constrained him a little bit to where he just lost his confidence.
I have gone to see him him play a few times and he's unrecognizable compared to the kid that I coached. Other than him, every other place on the floor our guys looked across at someone bigger, longer, stronger, way more talented, with much more of a recruiting profile and yet we were going to take you down to the wire or beat you. I remember our biggest win was we when beat the Houston Defenders in the Under Armour Playoffs. They were coached by the Harrison twins' father. They had eight five-star recruits, eight high majors on their team and my best player didn't make the trip because he got an infection from getting his wisdom teeth pulled. He was so much better than our next best offensive player. I get a phone call saying that Myles couldn't go while I was driving to the airport to go down to Georgia for the playoffs knowing that we would be playing the Houston Defenders. I will never forget how my heart sank.
I thought, "We're about to get smoked. How are we supposed to make up for the 30 that he was going to give us?" And sure enough, our style won the day. They played isolation basketball. They were kind of selfish the way they played and our guys just rose to the occasion. That was our signature win of the years I coached that group of kids. I felt all along that if you give me a college team you are going to see one of the best coached teams in the country. I think I have a really good ability to make people feel connected to each other and I made our team love each other. All our players are going to be friends for life. They're going to be inviting each other to each other's weddings. We were a family. It was different than what many AAU teams look like.
I didn't have a revolving door of players every tournament where I was giving a jersey to new kid because one of our players had a bad game. I was with those guys for life. We were a family and so I know that if I could ever get a group of kids at the college level, I would be able to create that same feeling. Our style of play would be so hard to play against. It has been so difficult to make any headway because the lack of experience factor comes up. Also, I guess I'm not a big enough name. I'm not Chris Mullin going to take the St. John's job. I'm not Patrick Ewing getting Georgetown. I'm not Penny Hardaway going back to Memphis. I am Tim Legler, which, maybe you think would be more appealing because I had a 10-year NBA career despite the fact that I wasn't that level player.
RAY: There is a lot to be said for having a team that plays the right way against teams that have more talent.
TIM: You have to convince your own players. I remember thinking, when my first team traveled to tournaments, "Oh, my God, look at the size of these teams," and my guys were nervous about that. Over time they became confident because we were so prepared. I've built up a basketball camp in South Jersey. We just finished our 13th year . I tell all the kids there every year that the one thing that you can rely on to eliminate anxiety, stress or nervousness about the unknown is preparation. If you feel you are prepared, you will relax and you will calm down. It took time for our guys to realize that. Our opponents were bigger, longer and way more athletic, but we hung with them and, over time, it went from hanging with them to knowing we would beat them. To watch that change in their eyes was so cool.
RAY: I told you about how that reminded me of those mid-60's St. Joe's teams with Dr. Jack that had Matty Guokas as the tallest starter at 6'6". Cliff Anderson was the center at 6'5", four of the five starters came out of the Philly Catholic League and had known each other forever. They played as a unit and they consistently beat highly-ranked national powers
TIM: Villanova right now has a guard named Colin Gillespie. He's a kid from the Catholic League who played at Archbishop Wood and went completely unrecruited until his senior year. We played his AAU team probably ten to twelve times over the course of the years. They never beat us. And that kid is now going to be in the running for Big East player of the year for Villanova. He's been a three-year starter. He didn't have a single scholarship offer until his senior year. They played another Catholic League team that's got a kid going to Kentucky, at the Palestra. He drops 43 points in that game. His goal in life was to get an offer from Delaware. Jay Wright was at the game and offered him a scholarship. He's starting for three years. He's one of the guys on the shortlist for player of the year the Big East this year and his AAU team from Northeast Philly could not beat our team one time in probably ten tries. That's pretty cool.
RAY: You've been associated with the NBA for a long time as a player and analyst. There have been a lot of changes in the game during those years. What stands out to you the most?
TIM: Without question it's the acceptance and utilization of the three-point shot. What is now considered an acceptable shot is totally different than when I played. The biggest difference is the way that that is incorporated into your offense to where it is almost the preferred shot. When I played it was definitely something that you were more measured and cautious about taking, even for the guys who were the best shooters. Now they're taking that three-pointer on 3 on 2 breaks. In my time, even a guy like me doing something like that could get you yanked. Now in a two-on-one guys flare out to the corner for a three. That would be at the top of the list. Also the freedom of movement of players is totally different than when I played.
Things were congested, clogged. You got hit just making random cuts through the lane without the ball. You would probably get hit in the chest with somebody's forearm. There was a lot of resistance at the rim, a lot more contact, a lot more guys laid out on their backside in the course of a game. It was a different approach to protecting the rim. Now because the floor is so spread with all the shooters and because of flagrant fouls, instant replay, ejections, suspensions, it is much less physical when you get the rim and in the paint.
RAY: In the past when a particular aspect of the game became too dominant, like the thuggery back in the day that you're talking about, we've seen rule changes which helped push it in a different direction. Do you see that happening with anything that you have been talking about if the pendulum swings too far?
TIM: Do I think they'll rein it in?
RAY: Back then a lot of people considered the game unwatchable. So, for example, they stopped hand checking which has opened up the game in a lot of the ways that you're talking about. If it gets to the point where players like Dame,Trae, Steph and others become comfortable shooting it as soon as they cross half court, do you think at some point the pendulum will have swung far enough that they'll say we've really done great things to open up the game, but maybe we went a little too far and we should look into changing the rules? Or do you think they will let it go however it's going to go organically?
TIM: I think that ship has sailed. The talent is incredible in the league and because of the free flow of the game, there's more of an emphasis on your ability to shoot, dribble, pass than ever. Now this next generation of players and the generation after them continue to evolve and escalate and you have more guys that can do more dynamic things offensively. As a result, you already see fewer and fewer bigs on the floor, . That's going to continue. You're going to have a spread out, perimeter -based offense on both ends of the floor and I think that trend will continue. They don't want to inhibit the skill and talent of these players by being able to hand check and get into guys, hit guys when they come into the lane. They want to see the skill that has evolved over time. I think Steph Curry has influenced a generation of players in a way that very few players in history have.
RAY: At every level.
TIM: At every level .If you are a skinny 6-foot to 6'4" high school or middle school player you see this guy who's not imposing physically, not 6'8", not a freak athlete. He's a dude that flat-out does it with skill. He is influencing generations of players to work on their handle, to work on their shooting, to work on their range, to work on their passing. I think Steph Curry is arguably the greatest combination that we've ever seen in one person in those three categories of skill - dribble, pass, shoot. You're talking about one of the greatest handles you've ever seen, undisputably the best shooter we've ever seen. He's also a phenomenal passer because of his vision. He's ambidextrous. Like Steve Nash, he can make any pass with either hand to either side of the floor.
He has influenced a generation of players to work on their skills and make their dreams come true. Some of them who wouldn't have thought they were big enough, strong enough, didn't have enough weight on them, look at him and say, "He did it through repetition and developing skills ." Because offenses now spread the floor more, defenses have to continue to evolve to guard people further out which makes the lane even more accessible to players. I don't think it's going get to the point where you go, "My goodness, no one's guarding anybody. I can't watch these 140-130 games anymore." We're a long way from that. We're going to continue to evolve over the next two decades, to continue to trend in this direction because more and more players are bringing an incredible amount of skills. Even the big guys now are learning how to dribble and shoot and so they're going to continue to evolve in that way and the league will continue to look that way.