Five springs ago, I stumbled on a pot of audio gold.
I was living in Buffalo, N.Y. and needed good listening material to accompany my 20-mile bike rides along the Niagara River (yes, you can absolutely ride a bike in Buffalo … during the spring and summer.) I started listening to podcasts and downloaded a handful for my rides; I loved the NBA (and still do), so I searched whatever podcasts I could find on the sport.
That is how I discovered The Basketball Jones.
Everything about it screamed “well-kept secret”. The hosts, J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas, followed a familiar path in terms of topics — recapping the previous day’s action and offering their respective takes — but they did it in such a unique way. They were conversational yet intelligent, relaxed yet witty; they were, to borrow an oft-used expression, the types of people with whom you would want to watch a game.
In short, they did what every professional studio show tried — and usually failed — to do.
On top of that, they both lived in Canada. This fact made them even more endearing to me, for two reasons. First, I had grown quite fond of the Canadian spirit after living in Buffalo, five minutes from the border.
The second reason? It made them seem like even more of a long shot to break their “well-kept secret” status.
Five years later, that status has been shattered.
Earlier this month, NBA TV officials announced they had hired the now-six-person Basketball Jones crew. They renamed it “The Starters” and even invited their biggest names to welcome the young guns into the fold:
(For some reason, I absolutely crack up in the beginning at Ernie Johnson’s delivery. He is simply one of the best.)
I missed this news while on vacation. When I heard it, I could not have been happier. It marks an impressive achievement for a group who never seemed like ideal candidates to “make it big”.
That is not an insult. Unfortunately, originality and conversationalism — seemingly prized qualities in today’s media world — rarely wind up being rewarded on a mass scale. Decision makers often prefer safe bets; they like to know what they are getting.
The Jones podcasts did not seem “unsafe”, necessarily. But the group did seem to relish a certain outsider status. Skeets and Melas appeared to take pride in their lack of polish, and even when they joined Canadian TV station The Score, they seemed more intent on producing wacky and oddball content than cleaning it up.
But they kept working — hard.
They built massive followings on Twitter and found a way to work the biggest memes of the day into their shows. They added a video component and gradually made the show slicker, but they continued to place their most important ingredient front and center: an infectious enjoyment of the beauty of basketball.
And yet, they still seemed like an underdog. I knew a lot of basketball fans, but very few had heard of these guys. Especially after I moved to Atlanta, I rarely met anyone who listened to The Jones, now a thousand miles away instead of being my next-door neighbors to the north.
Now they have joined me in Atlanta, and they are about to reach their biggest audience yet.
The success of The Jones, er, The Starters, provides some great lessons for storytellers everywhere. They have shown the ability to retain their originality and personality while also catering to their ever-increasing audience. They have become classic examples of underdogs who made it big.
Beyond that, they are a testament to the value of hard — and smart — work.
Listen to these guys for long enough, and you will appreciate the effort behind their on-air effortlessness. They put out a tighter, sharper product than they did five years ago — a product that has grown gradually, with Skeets, Melas, and crew continually building onto an already outstanding product.
To put it simply, these guys care.
They deserve their success — a success built on grinding, honing one’s craft, and owning one’s voice.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.