From: The Commercial Appeal

By: Geoff Calkins

Date: 4/13/17

 

The topic is mellows. Favorite mellows. Because this is the Grizzlies television broadcast and it is not like any other in the league.

Rob Fischer, Brevin Knight and Chris Vernon are winding up the pregame show the way they wind up every pregame show, with the 3-pointer, an off-the-wall feature that invites all three to weigh in on a topic related (often loosely related) to the game of the night.

This night, with the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony in town, the topic is favorite mellows. Fischer goes with the Caramello, a Cadbury candy bar, and even has one on set. Knight goes with marshmallows and waxes on about the joys of “cooking a marshmallow, on a stick, that you got from the ground, that is dirty, that you eat off of.”

Vernon?

He goes with singer Jack Johnson. Because he’s mellow. Hey, it’s game 80, what do you expect? And just then, on cue, the screen is filled with a picture of Vernon’s head spliced onto Jack Johnson’s body. Laughter all around.

“We have fun every day,” Fischer says. “We try to laugh, we try to entertain. I think we’re different because we have fun with it, we want to model ourselves off the TNT guys more than some of the other local broadcasts.”

This is a fine aspiration, of course. What sports broadcast wouldn’t want to model itself after what is generally considered the best studio show in the country? But the Grizzlies broadcast isn’t a cheap knockoff. It is energetic, original and it is rapidly becoming — dare I say it — beloved in this city.

Pete Pranica is the straight man, the play-by-play guy, the consummate professional who holds everything together with preparation and calm. Knight is the color commentator, the former Grizzlies point guard, who can light up the broadcast with his insights or his smile. Fischer is the sideline reporter, the man in every Grizzlies huddle, who is vastly more serious than his goofy shoes suggest. And Vernon is the voice of the fan, the former radio host, who will ask or say things that most people wouldn’t have the nerve to ask or say.

“Everyone who does TV is looking for the right balance of chemistry,” says John Pugliese, vice president of marketing, broadcast and communications for the Grizzlies. “They’ll roll something out that they’re hoping works, but a lot of times it doesn’t. It’s like you’re making a gumbo. And this gumbo has come together just right.”

It works because they’re friends

Two hours before tipoff, Pranica is applying makeup — “just some foundation” — and going through his notes. So many notes. All written out by hand with a particular kind of pen, Le Pen, which is felt tip, fine point and has the advantage that it “doesn’t leak on an airplane.”

“It takes me a minimum of six hours to do the research,” Pranica says. “The biggest thing is what I learned from Steve Jones in Portland. Can you identify what this team you’re playing is all about? Are they a jump-shooting team? I can tell you that the Knicks get the fourth-highest percentage of points off jump shots in the NBA, which is why they shoot 3.5 fewer free throws a game than their opponents.”

This is one of hundreds of facts Pranica has at his fingertips. It is one of the reasons his colleagues hold him in such high regard.

“You get all of these crazies, and then there’s Pete,” Knight says. “That’s pretty much how I describe it. He’s the anchor. When it can all go to the right, Petey is the guy that always gets it back to the center. I tell people his professionalism has rubbed off on me more than anything. To see the way he prepares, and how much he loves this organization, not just the team, has been big for me.”

Speaking of those crazies, up on the pregame set, all hilarity has broken loose. A fan has shown up wearing Knight’s original Stanford jersey. Vernon cannot let this pass.

“You get that for five bucks on eBay?” Vernon asks.

“Twelve bucks,” says the fan.

“That sounds about right,” says Vernon.

To which Knight says: “Ask him how many Vernon jerseys are out there.”

This back-and-forth continues right up until the lights go on, which makes sense when you think about it. The banter on the show isn’t that much different than the banter off the show. That’s the key to the whole deal.

“Honestly, I think it works because we’re friends,” Vernon says. “It’s one thing to work together; it’s another thing to be actual friends. And I’ll give these guys massive credit. They don’t have big egos. A lot of that has to do with Brevin, as an ex-athlete, I can’t imagine anyone that is easier to work with.

“The other thing is, we’re honest, we tell you what we really think. I don’t think you could ever accuse us of walking off the set and giving a different explanation about what happened than we gave on the air.”

This night, the talk is about the need to find some consistency and rhythm heading into the playoffs. And that is where a lot of shows might stop. But Vernon — who will say or ask anything, remember — calls BS on that.

“We’re at game 80!” he says. “We’ve been searching for consistency for 80 games. I mean, seriously. It’s game 80!”

Vernon is absolutely right, of course. But how many franchises would let him say something like that?

“I can honestly say they’ve never told me what I couldn’t say,” Vernon says. “OK, maybe once, they reined me in. It was like, ‘Enough already.’ But it was after a particular loss and I was really mad.”

Banana bread for everyone

Just before tip, Pranica begins the broadcast the way he always begins: “Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the excitement of the NBA!”

In a big truck parked in the FedExForum loading dock, the excitement has been unfolding for a good long while. There, the Grizzlies production crew sits in front of dozens of screens and millions of dollars of equipment, and sets about bringing the game to you.

“It’s a strange job we have,” says Scott Zachry, director of broadcast production for the franchise. “We are not far from a court where the greatest athletes in the world are doing amazing things, but we are sitting in a TV truck, parked in a loading dock, watching it on a monitor.”

Zachry is one of four production pros who travel with the team. The others are Tom Huet, the director, and Brian Wright and Michael Edwards, who wouldn’t actually answer to those names.

Wright — who handles graphics — is always “B-Dub.” Edwards — who handles replays — is always “Speedy.” The two men drive back and forth from their homes in Alabama for every game.

“If we land at 1 a.m., they drive home to Alabama,” says Zachry. “They look like a couple good ol’ boys. But they’re as talented as anyone I’ve ever worked with anywhere.”

Part of the reason B-Dub and Speedy go to such lengths to work for the Grizzlies?

“We feel like part of the family,” says B-Dub. “Believe me, it’s not like this everywhere.”

Huet: “There are teams in this league that say you cannot even give eye contact with a player, you cannot say hello.”

By contrast, B-Dub tells a story about the time he and Speedy watched the Super Bowl with Vince Carter. Huet tells a story about Mike Conley and banana nut bread.

“We were in Toronto,” Huet says. “It was right after Mike had broken his back so everybody was pretty down. Well, Tayshaun Prince had a chef in Toronto who would always make this amazing banana nut bread. So Mike called and arranged for everyone to get trays of banana nut bread, to cheer us up.”

It’s completely organic

If you really pay attention to a Grizzlies broadcast, three things become clear:

1. Pranica and Knight really know their stuff. But they relay it in a way that is so natural, so accessible, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit forced or stiff.

Pranica weaves his six hours of research deftly into the action. If he were a player, you’d say he gets his shots in the flow of the game. Knight combines humor, warmth and insight like few other color commentators.

“His knowledge of the game is amazing,” Vernon says. “As an analyst of the NBA, he’s one of the best I’ve heard because he makes it sound simple and notices things that a casual fan wouldn’t notice. But then he also treats it like he’s a fan, like he cares as much as you do.”

2. Fischer is not like every other sideline reporter. And, no, I don’t mean the shoes. Fischer has roughly 50 pairs of lurid/colorful shoes that have become a sort of trademark, but it’s his ability to get information that really sets him apart.

“People don’t realize, most teams in this league put the sideline reporter in some far off place not involved in the action,” Huet says. “Fish is probably the best in the league right now, without Craig Sager, bar none. He’s in every huddle. He contributes to the show as another announcer, not as, ‘Crap, we’ve got to put them on the air coming out of this commercial break.’ ”

3. The Grizzlies broadcast crew can be critical, really critical of the team. The Knicks game was a perfect example. The Grizzlies dithered around and let the Knicks stay in the game. Neither Pranica nor Knight tried to sell it as anything other than the indifferent performance it was.

Pranica: “You’ve to to respect your opponent.”

Knight: “Forget the opponent, you’ve got to respect the game.”

Pranica: “We keep waiting for the Grizzlies to get serious about this game.”

Knight: “We’ve been waiting since the All-Star Game for the Grizzlies to get serious about finishing the season.”

Pranica: “That might be one of the worst quarters of basketball the Grizzlies played all year.”

Knight: “The sad thing is, we’ve been saying that way too much the last couple of weeks, partner.”

And so it went. In the end, the Grizzlies rallied to win. But one reason Pranica and Knight — and Fischer and Vernon — can get away with saying such tough things about the team is that everyone knows where their hearts lie.

“Pete is up with the wins and down with the losses,” says B-Dub. “He takes it hard. We get on the bus after the loss to the Lakers, and it’s just silence, from everyone.”

So it is a particular pleasure for Pranica to be able to say the magic words he says whenever he deems a Grizzlies win secure, the catchphrase he inadvertently hit upon a year and a half ago.

“It was completely organic,” says Pranica. “I didn’t feel the need to have a signature phrase.”

But with 13 seconds left in the Knicks game, Pranica decides it is time.

“Hammer, nail, coffin,” he says. “This baby is over.”

Vibe wildest after a win

Back on the postgame set, Fischer, Vernon and Knight have reconvened. Knight actually resisted doing the pre- and postgame shows at first, but has since come to enjoy them.

The vibe is always wildest after a win. Especially because the fans are a part of the enterprise, stopping to wave hello or make faces in the giant glass window behind the broadcast desk.

It was a brilliant stroke, to put the desk right out there with the fans. Like TNT’s “Inside the NBA” meets ESPN’s “GameDay.”

But does it create headaches for Zachry?

Of course it creates headaches for Zachry.

“It scares me every night,” he says. “You’re always afraid of a flasher or someone flipping you off, that kind of stuff. It’s live TV. There’s been one or two incidents, but nothing that has been Deadspin-worthy.”

Everyone is happy on this night, not necessarily with the performance, but with the victory. The Grizzlies have clinched seventh place in the West and a playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs. And the next game is Tony Allen Pepper Grinder night, which brings us right back to the set and to the giddiness that started this.

Knight: “Why can’t you put salt in there?”

Fischer: “You can. I think you can.”

Vernon: “Who grinds salt?”

Fischer: “Sea salt, if you’re not using sea salt, you’re just missing out.”

Knight: “Nobody uses Morton’s anymore.”

Vernon: “Sea salt? You guys are unrefined, I use Himalayan pink salt.”

Knight laughs at this. Everyone laughs at this.

“Yeah,” says Knight. “You and Jack Johnson.”