Friday, April 18, 2008

Pursuits: The Basketball Jones

Published in The Globe and Mail. [Life section, April 18, 2008]
Co-written with Sam Toman

These podcasters are a slam dunk
Three rabid hoops fans have attracted an international following by offering what the box scores don't tell you

All across the land, hockey fans are in heaven. Every morning, scores of bleary-eyed puckheads gather around the coffee machine to break down the previous night's National Hockey League playoff games. And all across the same land, fans of the National Basketball Association don't really care.

Both here and and in the United States, basketball followers are in the minority. In Canada, where hockey is a religion, hoops is treated like an afterthought.

True believers have turned to the blogosphere to show some love to their favourite league. And in the most unlikely of settings - an east Toronto recording studio in the heart of Leafs country - three university buddies meet five mornings a week to rally this disenfranchised diaspora with one of the most successful podcasts on the Internet.

The show is called The Basketball Jones, and if you're a diehard NBA fan, the 20-minute program is an irreverent dose of everything a box score can't tell you. With segments such as "Giving Love," where host J.E. Skeets whispers PG-13 sweet nothings to an underappreciated team over a Barry White-esque groove, the podcast has differentiated itself from the righteous rants of sports radio.

The Jones is featured on the iTunes sports podcast front page, billed alongside corporate heavyweights such as Pardon the Interruption and Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown, thanks to its consistent ranking among the top 100 most popular podcasts in the Apple's U.S. library. The show is also available on its website,, which tallies 60,000 page views a month.

This week, the Jones is focused on the NBA playoffs, which begin on Saturday. Meanwhile, the trio who make it are focused on getting sleep, which is in short supply.

"I'm so pumped, but at the same time, we dread the playoffs," Mr. Skeets admitted. "What else is there to talk about except the games? So you have to stay up and watch it. Those things don't end sometimes until 1:30 a.m."

It's an understandable concern, since the three write, record and mix the show before their day jobs. Each weekday at 8 a.m., Jason Doyle ambles onto the third floor of Super Sonics Productions. By day, he's a children's television producer at the studio, but he goes in early to produce The Jones.

As Mr. Doyle checks the voice messages left by fans overnight, the show's hosts, Tas Melas and Mr. Skeets, crack jokes, drink coffee and fine-tune their script. While the studio's space is cramped and the three are half-awake, it's an upgrade from last season when they would wake up at 6 a.m. to record the show from their homes over Skype.

The simple fact that people call in to their show still astounds them. "It's become like a forum. We're just a couple of guys talking about ball," Mr. Melas said. "And people join in on the conversation."

That conversation involves some of the ususal sports chat - who is winning, who is losing and why - but by the second of four segments, the show flips the switch and essentially becomes a sounding board for the two to riff on their favourite jokes. After all, it's not about who won or lost but which player did so with the most menacing facial hair. Is it kosher to tuck a basketball jersey into jeans? If each NBA mascot were brought to life who would win in a fight? (Mr. Melas likes the Raptor's chances, if not for it being extinct.)

The material might be sophomoric but there is nothing amateurish about the show's production, which is as crisp and polished as its big-budget brethren. "We call it professionally raw," Mr. Skeets said. "With the hope that it sounded like something you would hear on radio but had had a rawness to it."

The trio of Ryerson University graduates began the show as a weekly half-hour roundup recorded at Mr. Doyle's home. Almost instantly, it gained an international fan base.

"Having lived overseas, I know what these guys are going through," Mr. Skeets said. "In terms of getting games and following it, the Internet is really the only way to follow the sport; especially if you're a diehard. So the international callers and e-mailers, they're the ones who seem to really love the show because they stay caught up."

Still, it's a taxing schedule. Although they usually wrap up the show in an hour and a half, Mr. Melas, who works as a story editor at TSN, admitted that time constraints lead to the occasional off show.

"There are days where we bicker and we can sense it on air, too," he said. "We want it to be so good but at the same time, we have lives."

The three behind The Basketball Jones, now in its third season, are hoping for big things. While Mr. Doyle jokingly said, "that the plan is to get paid," the show's notoriety has allowed Mr. Skeets to quit his day job as a physician recruiter to write full-time for Yahoo's basketball blog, "Ball Don't Lie." The show is even a favourite among industry insiders.

NBA blogging pioneer Henry Abbott, whose TrueHoop website was recently purchased by ESPN, counts himself as a fan.

"Everybody likes funny lines and basketball insight," Mr. Abbot said. "But it's so much better coming from guys who sound like people you'd actually like to have over to dinner. After all the wisecracking, they are in the end decent, which means a lot in this world."

For Canadian basketball fans, the appeal isn't about decency but brashness in the face of all-too-earnest sports radio and a hockey-mad country. After all, what other Canadian sports show opens with a female voice merrily declaring, "Hey hockey, go to hell! You're listening to The Basketball Jones."

Link to story in The Globe and Mail here.

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