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The new but familiar faces of ESPN's 'NBA Countdown'

Stephen A. Smith and Mike Greenberg on the

Stephen A. Smith and Mike Greenberg on the set of NBA Countdown at ESPN's South Street Seaport Studios on Oct. 19, 2021. Credit: ESPN Images/Gabriella Ricciardi

ESPN unveiled the latest iteration of its "NBA Countdown" studio show on Wednesday night with a clear strategy in mind, one centered on familiarity and continuity.

The first part already has been achieved.

Stephen A. Smith, Mike Wilbon, Jalen Rose and host Mike Greenberg are among ESPN’s most visible personalities, and at times they will be joined by a retired player of some renown named Magic Johnson.

"Obviously, we’ve got a bunch of A-listers here," Smith told Newsday during an interview at Madison Square Garden with the four main cast members before Wednesday night’s Celtics-Knicks opener.. "Everybody brings what they bring to the table at a very elite level. We’ve proven it, and we plan on proving it as a team."

The second part is TBD, given the show’s famously inconsistent roster over the years. Check back in 2022-23.

"Next year feels an awful long way off," Greenberg said. "Do I think it will be better if this group is together for a long time? Absolutely. But I think we have a million things to get right in between."

Dave Roberts, the senior vice president who oversees ESPN’s NBA coverage, views the familiarity and continuity as part of the same approach.

"When you have that type of brand recognition," he said, "it’s a recipe for at least achieving a more consistent product that the sports fans can identify with, because they know who the hell they are."

"Countdown" could use stability now more than ever, in the wake of a tangled controversy late last season that ended with Maria Taylor leaving for NBC and Rachel Nichols getting sidelined despite being under contract.

By using Smith, Wilbon, Rose and Greenberg, ESPN can cross-promote its NBA wares, be it on the individual shows each of the four host, or on "SportsCenter," where they appeared multiple times Wednesday evening.

They all have known each other for decades, so finding a comfort level should not be difficult.

"Whatever opinions we have or whatever positions we take, none of it is manufactured," Smith said. "We argue about this stuff on camera, we text each other, talk to each other and literally tease each other on our respective shows.

"We do all of it anyway. We’re just bringing it to television. We’re giving folks an inside look at what we naturally and normally do."

Inevitably, "Countdown" has been, is and will continue to be compared with the gold standard of pro sports studio programs, TNT’s "Inside the NBA."

ESPN knows that, accepts it and is not sweating it.

"What they do on TNT is outstanding, and the people who work on that show are outstanding," Roberts said. "Our mission is to do an outstanding job of what we should be doing day in and day out at ESPN. We have the people and we have the resources to make that a reality."

Wilbon noted how close the people who work on both shows are with one another, including Charles Barkley, with whom he has written two books.

"There’s only one Charles Barkley," Wilbon said. "I watch their show every single show and am going to watch it and be thrilled by it. We need to do our show and bring the talent, the skills, that we have."

Said Smith, "All of us are friends with them . . . They root for us like we root for them, because they want to talk basketball."

One element of the TNT show that ESPN hopes to emulate is the camaraderie.

"What makes their show successful is that they’re having fun," Greenberg said. "I think we have the ability to do that . . . If people on the air are having fun, the audience will have fun.

"I think if we’re having fun, that will be the most important element of the secret sauce of what we’re doing."

Given the personalities involved, Greenberg figures to do as much cutting off as setting up.

"These three guys are the best," he said, "and the one thing I can tell you about all three of them is that they always have one more thing to say."

Rose, 48, is the youngest on the cast but is its senior member in terms of continuous service, dating to 2012. He said the credibility the commentators have earned over decades around the game is crucial.

"If you look at what we do on a daily basis, from the outside looking in it’s probably taken as we don’t get along with the players and the coaches in a lot of ways," Rose said.

"But before the game when we’re about to do our show, the players from both teams respect what we do, and they’ll come up and show love, because they understand it ain’t personal."

Rose added, "The other thing is they know a lot of things you could say that you don’t say."

Smith said fans will judge whether the show is a success based on how often they watch it. He is confident they will do so regularly.

"We take a backseat to no one," Smith said. "We’re not planning to – ever."

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