JJ Redick’s emergence as a rising star for ESPN since joining the network as a basketball analyst in October has been one of the more notable stories in US sports media over the past year.
The 37-year-old Redick, who launched a popular podcast while he was still a player, spent 15 seasons in the NBA after a decorated four-year stint at Duke, where he was the consensus national college basketball player of the year in 2006. He’s brought the keen insight and deep knowledge of an ex-pro to the broadcasting booth, but it’s been his regular appearances on ESPN’s breakfast-time debate show First Take that have made the biggest splash.
There’s nothing extraordinary about Redick’s sober, rational analysis except as an antidote for the incentivized buffoonery of the sports-shouting programs that ESPN has made the cornerstone of its daytime programming since the mid-aughts. And the contrast that his presence creates between the old-school talking head and the newer, fresher type of pundit was on full display this week during one memorable exchange that has since gone viral.
The gasbag of the scene is Chris Russo, a longtime New York sports-talk radio shock jock known as Mad Dog (yes, really) who began making weekly appearances on First Take this year. Above a chyron posing the question “Problem with how Draymond has carried himself?”, Russo groused over Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green’s ejection from Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals against the Grizzlies for a flagrant-two foul and his subsequent flipping-off of the Memphis crowd after he was bloodied by an elbow to the face during Game 2.
“He’s hard to root for,” Russo said. “Just shut up and play, will you please? America is tired of Draymond Green. I deal with him constantly. The fans, San Francisco fans, are a different story.”
He doubled down moments later for anyone who couldn’t detect the subtlety on first pass, stressing that all of America was “tired” of Green’s antics: “Just be quiet and play. We all know he has a great skill set for that team but who in the world is sitting there; he’s so polarizing, I can’t root for him.”
It didn’t take long for the visibly annoyed Redick, who heard the rightwing dog whistle like an ambulance siren, to clap back.
“I want to take a little umbrage with this ‘shut up and play’ because that has the same sort of connotations that the ‘shut up and dribble’ crowd has towards athletes and I have a real problem with that,” Redick said. “Specifically with Draymond [and] the idea that America is tired of him. You do realize the guy has a very popular podcast where he hosts and he talks, himself, for the majority of the episode and people listen to that.”
Redick went on: “He signed a talent deal with Turner [Sports] because people want to hear what Draymond has to say. The reason they want to hear what Draymond has to say is because – just like in this press conference – he is real, authentic, and unfiltered. You can’t take away what makes a player great so there’s no shut up and play.’”
Russo backtracked, insisting it was “not a political scenario or race situation” and that he was speaking for millions of fans who are put off by the “polarizing” Green’s on-court antics. But Redick didn’t let him off the hook, firing back: “I’m not saying it’s a race situation. I’m saying the fans you’re talking about, they talk about athletes that way like you just talked about an athlete. The people on Fox News talk about athletes that way, that’s my issue.”
Redick concluded: “I don’t actually care about the fans that watched Bob Cousy play or watched Wilt [Chamberlain] play. I don’t care! I appreciate they’ve been NBA fans that long but I don’t appreciate the undertone.”
The back-and-forth was the latest skirmish in a simmering generational war between millennials and boomers on NBA soil and the result was beyond dispute. Green himself was first in line to give Redick his flowers, but the ultimate co-sign soon followed when LeBron shared the video clip in his Instagram story beneath the caption: “JJ FOR PRESIDENT!!”
Redick’s nearly uniform popularity as a pundit is even more noteworthy considering where he first became a household name. Few things bring Americans together like rooting against Duke, where Redick became one in a long line of high-profile, typically white villains that includes Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski, Grayson Allen and Jon Scheyer, all loathed as much for a perceived sense of entitlement as their on-court exploits.
But unlike countless former pros who transition into broadcasting with little more than a name as their credentials, Redick has worked hard at his craft and it’s shown as he continues to shatter perceptions of himself and the wills of his older, lazier colleagues. Whether it augurs the end of the risible “Embrace Debate” ethos that has filled our screens with cartoonish, over-the-top personalities screaming at one another, it’s too soon to say. But if simply coming off like a human being and approaching these panels with intellectual honesty is all it takes to clear the bar, then more people should try it.