The Jax Show
The HEAT's Jason Jackson discusses his career ahead of being honored by the NABJ
Before being honored as the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force Journalist of the Year, Jason Jackson sat down to discuss his journey to Miami, his approach to the craft and his advice to aspiring broadcasters.
Let’s start with the big question, why broadcasting? Where and when in your life did this become something that you wanted to do?
It was pretty simple. It was a decision made for me in many ways. I wanted to be a high-school American history teacher who coached baseball. Baseball was my first love. I knew that I was not going to play in college, at the Division I level. I knew I wanted to go to a Division I school and was going to go to Bowling Green University, that was all in place. I had an invitation to walk on, and then that coach got fired. Danny Schmitz, who is still the head coach to this day at Bowling Green, made it very clear that if you were walking on, you could walk off immediately. That was his line. It was so warm [laughs]. I remind Danny of that to this day. It was the end of my baseball career.
My father made it very plain that he was not subsidizing the education of another educator, and I come from two educators, he knew what he was steering me toward and away from at the same time. Still love American History. Still love baseball. But I was on a path to something else.
I had a great internship. Scripps Howard had one spot. My first year, the program made me work two weeks in every department in the station. I knew I wanted to be on air. Being candid, I also knew I wanted to be in sports. Sports was not a stop. The newsroom was a stop. When I got to the newsroom I was assigned these really mundane tasks?
Mundane as you expected, or did that catch you off guard?
I knew that they would be mundane. One of my jobs was that I used to call Sherriff’s departments in the counties around Greater Cincinnati. Every day it was, ‘Hey, it’s Jason, just calling to see if anything is going on.’ One day I got sent out to a home to gather what we in the business call sound, and the interview was with a family whose son was gunned down on the lawn the previous night. I knew then I didn’t want to do news. I have a really tough time with sadness, it gets into my bones.
It was clear to me that was not what I was supposed to do. I’m a joyful person, I have a joyful disposition. I love sports, and so I wanted to connect those dots.
You mentioned baseball as your first love. Was there any part of you that was disappointed when your career starting becoming basketball focused?
No. The NBA was the savior of my career. I got to ESPN quickly. We can talk about deserving or what have you, I just was in a really good spot. The Super Bowl was here, in Miami, my first year after college. I was on TV a lot. Chargers and Niners. I just was everywhere and the ESPN executives were here. The second week I had this secret interview down at the Sonesta Beach Hotel on Key Biscayne. I got [to ESPN] and I was really, really bad. I had not anchored a great deal. I’d just really gotten my chops together as a reporter, but I got this great opportunity. Which was so weird because people like Kenny Mayne, Bill Pidto, Reece Davis, Suzy Kolber, Stuart Scott, were all grinding over on ESPN2. I show up in the winter of ’95 and I get a full Sportscenter schedule. So that was funky. And then I wasn’t very good, so that was funkier.
The advent of ESPNews was critical. After getting jettisoned to 1 AM Friday and Saturday night SportsCenters, I thought I was going to lose that job. I didn’t think they were going to pick up my option.
So you weren’t exactly buying a house?
No, I didn’t. But they picked up my option, and I was stunned. But it also energized me. So when ESPNews was invented the next year, I got the shift. So many reps. Like anything else, it’s 10,000 hours. You either do it or you don’t. I got there and I really become solid at anchoring, delivering highlights, having conversations.
That put me in position when Keith Olbermann left, the first time. There was a tectonic shift. It opened up NBA 2NIGHT. Man, I campaigned for that thing like I was running for class president. I got a half dose, and about a year later I ended up having all the NBA shows, which was pretty strong.
And you were how old?
That would have been ’97. So I was 25. It was a little ridiculous.
So, basketball came to me. I tell people all the time that it was my best sport as a kid, I just didn’t love it. I loved being outside, that smell coming out of winter. The cleats and the grass. I was below average, but I loved it.
Sometimes that’s not the worst thing to have the thing you love and the thing you work at be two different things.
I’ve said it a billion times. If I covered baseball I’m not sure I would love it the way I do now.
When you were on your way back to Miami in the mid-2000’s, how did the HEAT happen?
Yeah, so I was actually between jobs for a couple years. We had actually moved to Bowling Green, and two months after that I was offered the HEAT job. It was weird, we moved and after all that time of not being in the mix, I finally had the longest wait and negotiation between getting my material to [the HEAT].
Thank god for it. It saved my career. It made me love this career again, after you get through the darkness of being jettisoned and then no one wants you. Then you wonder if I have to do something else. This is what I’m good at. I think I’m great at it. And finally got a shot. I had to prove to the Miami HEAT, like we all do around here, that I could be a HEAT guy. And I will go to my grave thankful for what I was told was the final blessing, from Dr. Jack Ramsay. I understand that he was an impactful part of it, I don’t think I would’ve been given the chance if he didn’t let people know that I was worthy of the opportunity.
Knowing that you were getting the job right after the team traded for Shaq, I’m always curious especially for someone working the sidelines, who will be in the locker room, traveling and very hands on, what was your approach to building relationships with these players. Is there a strategy, is it organic? How did you think about it?
It’s a funny thing. I was not aware of how I was viewed by players until about two years later.
When I got here, it was just be there, do the work, be there, be there, be there. I’m very fortunate in that I host and report. I have a lot on my plate. So I need to be around a great deal. A lot of my work is osmosis, I need a lot of stuff in my head. Stan [Van Gundy] was in his second year as coach, Dwyane was this emerging star, Shaq was still dominant, eventually that roster had three or four guys who were my age, so at that point I was one of the guys as well as being part of the team. That evolved from being somebody’s brother to being the uncle to being their dad, which is where I am now with these kids being the same age as my oldest [child]. The one thing that’s been constant through these 15 seasons has been, show up. Be there. When you have the opportunity, you have to be there. It really is organic, but there’s something about being there, asking thoughtful questions, talking to people before you stick a mic in their face letting them know who you are, what your function is.
Now, it’s a lot easier because I do have a little more cache and authority. Some of these people grew up watching me do what I do. There’s a lot of respect that connects as soon as they arrive.
When your paycheck is coming from the same place as the guys you cover, is that more of a gift or a curse?
It’s a gift. There are media that have other responsibilities, but I’m primarily here to do the game. It is freeing, once I freed myself from what was my previous training and job trapping, and realize that this is my job. There’s a burning, flaming basketball that’s in the top left corner of my check. That is all that matters. I work for a team that has been blessed enough to have three generations of the same family control it.
Spo says it all the time, this place is different. I agree with him that it’s not for everybody. There is a way that we do things that’s not similar to what my colleagues experience. Some harder, but all of them far more enriching. I look at it all as a blessing.
To come through this place in the time that I have, run the list of pretty cool relationships that I’ve never had to force or insert myself in. Just do my job to the best of my ability.
The thing that I struggle with is that I’m not naturally inquisitive. I tend not to care unless you want me to. I don’t know if that’s a Midwestern sensibility, but it is my job to ask questions. I really work hard at thinking about what our viewer wants to hear, on top of being aware of what the moment may call for because of the stars we’ve had through here.
Has that changed over the years because of social media, where you can now, even while working, follow along with the chatter and keep up with the conversation other people are having?
Entirely. There have been nights I’ve asked right on the thread, ‘What would you like me to ask the player of the game?’ It’s good to have that. I have a great production team, led by Ted Ballard and AJ Speaks, that have a path right into my ear that keep me honest. But for the most part I think I’ve developed a decent understanding of the moment and what it requires. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of occasions where we’re doing something grand, where my instincts are pretty solid. But you do need people to catch your blind spot, because you can get caught up in what’s happening right around you and you need to provide context.
I will be honest with you, I don’t know the score of the game as soon as we’re done. As soon as I say it the last time, I’ve forgotten what the score is. That’s always befuddled me, because I love listening to a golfer talk about his round of 18.
Have you ever forgotten the score at a time when you really needed it?
All the time. I write it down anywhere and everywhere. I don’t do ‘Uh’ [when stalling] but I do silence. Anytime you catch me saying nothing, which you can’t really conceptualize when there’s moving video and music. I just kind of disappear for a half second and then I come back.
Understanding how my brain works I try to write down the score everywhere. You’ll see some nights that I still glance at the monitor to make sure I have the score right. In the middle of each HEAT Live! Postgame, we reset the score and tell people what’s coming up. If you took 100 of those elements and had somebody clip them off, probably 97 of them I will look at the monitor, just a quick move of my head to the right, just to make sure I know the score. It’s ridiculous.
I’ve been fortunate enough to come on the show a couple times and what’s always amazed me, and I don’t think I really appreciated it until I came on, is how hard that job is when you have people coming on and you’re guiding them. I was nervous the first time, but the second you come in the room and you see you doing it, and you come on and you have a way about you. I think that’s an incredible talent and I didn’t understand before how hard the host job is, how have you had to evolve your role there. Maybe some of it comes natural because of your personality, but have you had to fine tune aspects of your on-air leadership, so to speak?
Not necessarily. I’m always aware of what is important. The importance has nothing to do with me. There are elements of this job that can make you feel like everything is about you, and I’ve tried to be disciplined enough to realize that I’m kind of in the way, and what I need to do is get out of the way. I need to get people in, get them as much information about our game, get the people who know more than I do, get them into the right spot, and get out of the way and let that stuff happen.
I kid all the time, I tell people that I am a carnival barker by trade. My job is to get you in the tent, keep you entertained in the tent, tell you when it’s time to get out of the tent and then tell you when its time to get in the tent again. There’s something to that old timey stuff that’s a part of my presentation that I fully utilize every single night. I try to make it feel big and important, and I respect the fact that someone has waited all day just to watch this game. How important that is in somebody’s day. We’ve been blessed with some really big stars in my day. They don’t need my help.
What was your best day on the job?
There’s always something about the first one. That first championship, to think that that group was going to win the title before it did, required stuff that I don’t have. I don’t have that type of vision or disconnect that makes me go, yeah, I know what we need, we need Antoine Walker, James Posey and Jason Williams. That’ll do it. And throw in Gary Payton. Let’s not diminish Dwyane being healthy and all-world in the playoffs, or Shaquille still being dominant and massively impactful, but that night in Dallas, in the locker room, with champagne in my eyes, that joy was unspeakable. I had covered five Finals before that, but this was my first one as a team employee, so you feel a part of it. Roll the tape on my interview with Udonis Haslem, that day. I know the story, and I told the story, but everything that man went through – it all came out in that moment.
And what was your toughest day?
I know that one, but let me give you two.
Performance based one was I was in Milwaukee [in 2004] and I couldn’t get any segment clean. Not one segment. I don’t know if I was ill-prepared or off, but I remember after that show, I said I will never, ever be that bad again. We used to do pre-game from the road so it was a heavier load in those days, but I was so bad. To Ted [Ballard’s] credit, he gave me a tape of that show and I kept it on my desk for over five years. Just so I could remember. I wish I could say to you I was out all night the night before or I was ill-prepared, but did I the things I was supposed to do. It was a pebble that turned into a boulder. Just a disaster.
The other was the day my father died. We were playing Charlotte at home that night, in 2006. I had 19 messages on my phone. He was sick so we knew the end was near, but I sat in the family room knowing what had happened. Just looking at my phone and staring. Thank god my father got to see some awesome success in my career, a resurgence from difficulty. He didn’t get to see that particular championship, but it was hard to have the architect of your existence just be gone. Thank goodness for the joy of that season.
With your being honored by the National Association of Black Journalists this week, how has the industry changed as far as welcoming young African Americans?
I’m still surprised, I don’t feel like the number of young African American men that get into this business has really moved. I don’t have any stats for you, but with just a glance at the national and local landscape, particularly in sports, it’s just not a big [group]. How many African American men call games? Color analysts all over the place, coaches and players, but guys who actually call play-by-play. A few hosts and reporters. For whatever reason, it’s so interesting, I’ve not pushed myself in growing and developing as a play-by-play announcer. And [Charlotte Hornets broadcaster] Eric Collins called me out on it recently. He [noted] the fact that there are not [many] African American play-by-play guys at any level of recognizability in sport. He really challenged me to get that part of my act together. Obviously that would be off of [the HEAT’s] map, with Eric [Reid] in his prime, but its an interesting challenge to put forth because there is a responsibility.
Young African Americans come to me all the time for advice, and I don’t push necessarily the genre. It’s the skillset. If young black college students that want to be in this space, I just talk to them about writing and I talk to them about editing, and those things being so critical to the acquisition of your first job. If you can do those things, you might end up getting a job in a market you shouldn’t.
It’s far better now because of the things that have been done by the pioneers that have come in front of us. Is it anywhere near where it should be? What is? I’m not going to kill television, radio or newspaper for being anywhere less reflective than the rest of our society. We could probably look to those areas and see a little more balance than even our society provides.
Do you think that could possibly create an environment where even though as you said its better now, it creates an environment where if management positions haven’t changed, then minority candidates aren’t pushed in the same way beyond a certain level, or a certain number of hires?
It might be. What I would hope is, what the utopian vibe is, it’s just a fair shake for everybody. What we’re still dealing with is young brown and black-skinned folks are still in spaces where they’re not exposed. Where the education dynamic is not the same. Where is the instructional television program for the kids who are not in the suburbs, who are not in private school? Should they not be exposed to that simply because of where they live and their economic situation?
I’m a third-generation college graduate, so I’m extremely blessed. There are still kids, who are my kids’ age, who are going to school as the first in their family to go to school. It’s staggering. College isn’t for everybody. I know that. It’s not essential. It helps a great deal. But my thing is vision. If you don’t see it, how are you supposed to know? Where are you supposed to get it from?
If you were writing a letter to your younger self, would that be any different from what you are telling kids today?
The exact same thing. I guess I would be telling myself to continue to do what you’re doing, maybe beg someone to get into sports immediately [laughs], but just do everything. You have a view of what you want to do. Producing and on air are divergent paths, but you better learn how to produce. Know how a show is put together.
Fully understanding everyone’s job around you is critical. We’re so blessed here to have such wonderful professional people here. It’s such a diverse space, too. Think about Inside the HEAT. It’s produced by all women. All of them, except for the executive producer which is Ed Filomia. The stories that we share with our fans have been some of the greatest joy that I’ve had. It’s unique what we’re able to provide in that space, and its driven by all ladies. It’s awesome.