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This NBA Life

Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and Allie Clifton started the ‘Road Trippin’’ podcast to kill time on the road with the Cavs. They wound up creating a juggernaut that gives fans an intimate and hilarious look at the NBA. Could it be the future of athlete-driven media? Maybe, but for now they’re just having fun while it lasts.

(Jungyeon Roh)
(Jungyeon Roh)

The interview had barely begun when one of the Cavaliers ambled over and interrupted. This was at the team’s practice facility out in the Cleveland burbs on the morning before they burped up a bad loss in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. It seems that one of the players always wants to talk to Allie Clifton these days — or, more accurately, talk with her. The Cavs sideline reporter for Fox Sports Ohio moonlights as one-third of the Road Trippin’ With R.J. & Channing podcast, along with players and longtime friends Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

What started as an outgrowth of the conversations they’d have over long, wine-fueled dinners on the road has mushroomed into an increasingly popular podcast and the only regular in-season show hosted by active NBA players. (As of Tuesday, it was ranked 39th on the iTunes charts in the Sports & Recreation category.) They talk basketball, but mostly they have the sorts of discussions that friends and coworkers engage in all the time. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are frequent guests and have touched on everything from whether the moon landing was faked to Love’s fashion sense. Tim Duncan popped by to discuss Gregg Popovich and tongue rings (two independent topics). Bill Walton did his Bill Walton thing. It’s a fun show.

If they initially had any trouble persuading their peers to appear on the pod, they have the opposite problem now. They used to record on the team plane while flying from city to city, but that had to stop because too many Cavs would wander back while they were taping and try to insert themselves midstream. (It also messed with the only time the equipment managers and training staff could nap; they felt bad about that.) It’s easy to imagine. Just when Clifton and Jefferson were about to discuss the podcast with me, another player saw what was happening and crashed the party.

"Hi," he said, extending his hand. "I’m LeBron James. What are y’all doing, an interview? She’s a big star, you know."

"He’s kidding," Clifton replied.

Only a little. Road Trippin’ recently signed a deal with LeBron’s company, Uninterrupted. What The Players’ Tribune has done for athletes and the written word, Uninterrupted hopes to do through video and podcasts. Draymond Green recently started a pod on Uninterrupted called Dray Day, but he’s less prolific than the Road Trippin’ gang. At present, Green has recorded eight episodes, while Road Trippin’ has banged out 28. They have more set to drop before the NBA Finals. Jefferson joked that Road Trippin’ was LeBron’s "biggest free agent" move in a while.

It seems so obvious, having the players pull back the NBA curtain to allow a peek inside their otherwise cloistered world. Who wouldn’t want to take a quick look — or, even better, a long one? J.J. Redick did a podcast for The Vertical for a while, but he stopped when the season started. His show also had an NPR-interview quality to it. Road Trippin’ is different in just about every way. They didn’t record the first episode until mid-January, during a flight on the longest road trip of the season. And where Redick’s pod often felt professional and polished, Road Trippin’ is, for the most part, unvarnished. It’s heavy on detours and long on laughs.

But if it’s such a fun pod, and such an obvious idea, why aren’t other players on other teams doing it? After all, Jefferson and Frye get feedback from listeners from all over, all the time. When they persuaded the notoriously reticent Duncan to sit down for an hour, Jefferson said, "Spurs fans lost their shit."

"It’s not just Cavs fans," Clifton said. "We’ll get people who send messages saying they love the pod, and at the end they’ll be like, ‘Go Raptors.’"

So why are they the only regular player podcast going at the moment? When you talk to Jefferson, you notice a certain habit after a while. When he thinks of something that amuses him, a grin will spread across his face in advance of sharing it with everyone else — like he wants to have the thought all to himself before letting the world in on it. When addressing the topic of why Road Trippin’ figured out something no one else seemed to, he beamed. "Look," Jefferson said, "I’m sorry that we’re so smart and did it first."

Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson (Getty Images)
Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson (Getty Images)

My take, which you should handle with insulated oven mitts due to the attendant hotness: Being an NBA player is hard. It requires supreme effort and a lot of time. They practice. They play. They watch film. They fly all over the place. It has to be exhausting. When and where do you fit in a podcast? NBA players have a lot going on.

"No. No we don’t," Jefferson said when I told him my theory. He smiled and laughed again. Actually, from now on, I should probably just report the parts when Jefferson did not smile or laugh, because the man smiles and laughs an awful lot. If there’s an athlete having more fun than the soon-to-be 37-year-old, I’ve yet to meet them. Which is undoubtedly part of why this podcast thing is going so well for the lot of them. He enjoys it, and it eats away at the boredom.

"That’s what I try to tell people," Jefferson continued. "We have so much downtime on the road that people don’t know. We land at 3 o’clock in Atlanta and coach says, ‘OK, shootaround is at 10:30 [a.m.] tomorrow.’ What are you doing? We’ll go to the long dinners. We’ll walk around the malls. Like, Kent Bazemore came on because Kent is a good friend of mine. We’d normally go to dinner. These are things that people don’t know. Like, ‘If you sit in a hotel all day, do you watch film?’ They don’t know. They don’t understand that it’s so much downtime."

What began as a way to fill the day has become something else, something they work at and care about. They’re constantly talking about the show and how to make it better. After recording, they immediately listen back to figure out what went right and what didn’t, as though they’re breaking down game tape. They do a lot of preshow prep too. Jefferson and Clifton do, anyway.

"Channing is definitely the funniest, and he does the least amount of work," Jefferson said. "He shows up. He does the podcast. He says whatever he wants. And he leaves. He doesn’t listen to the podcast. He doesn’t promote the podcast. He does nothing. And I love him for it. … Channing got into this because we asked him to."

"He wants free stuff," Clifton added.

"Yeah, we have to keep getting him free wine and free shirts," Jefferson said. "We have to keep him happy, keep him liquored up."

It’s a typical exchange. While Clifton often acts as the conductor, Jefferson and Frye are usually willing to drive the train off the tracks if they think there’s a good joke at the bottom of the ditch. That can irritate Clifton. "We annoy each other all the time," Clifton said. "Like, I’m annoyed at Channing right now."

(Frye was supposed to join us for the interview. He ducked out and sent Clifton a "sorry, LOL" text message instead. I saw Frye later that day after the Game 3 debacle, but he was busy spooning large gobs of guacamole and giant handfuls of tortilla chips from the locker-room buffet into a to-go container. It seemed like the wrong time to bother him.)

"We annoy the shit out of each other," Jefferson agreed.

Jefferson and Frye have been annoying the shit out of each other since they were kids. They grew up about 10 minutes apart in Phoenix and met when they were teenagers. They’ve been tight ever since. They only recently started annoying the shit out of Clifton, whom they roped into doing the pod with them for several reasons. As Jefferson explained, the players are around her all the time and feel comfortable. More practically, they needed a professional host because, as Jefferson put it, he and Frye are good talkers but "we don’t know what we’re doing."

About that: The latest Kevin Love episode was supposed to be roughly 50 minutes long. It ended up at around 30 minutes. They cut out a lot of stuff at Clifton’s insistence — which makes what they left in all the more curious. At one point, after calling Clifton "grumpy" multiple times, Jefferson put himself in timeout and didn’t talk for a long while. It was weird, even by their standards. Clifton reviewed it nine times before they finally posted it, even though she wanted them to scrap it. She initially called it "unlistenable" — which is evidently not a rare occurrence.

"There’s been four podcasts where Allie has said, ‘This is unusable. We can’t use it,’" Jefferson said while Clifton laughed. "She’s like, ‘It’s no good, the content is there, you guys are all over the place, we can’t use it.’"

Then they invariably use most of it anyway, which is part of the charm. Maybe some episodes aren’t as streamlined as they’d like — they both couldn’t believe no one asked Duncan about LeBron — but their improv approach is what makes the show appealing, leading to some interesting and unscripted moments, like when Frye disclosed how many pairs of underwear he packs for a one-night road trip. Or when Jefferson revealed that he was in the school choir for three years, which Frye couldn’t believe because he insists Jefferson is "the worst singer ever." Or pretty much anything Irving ever uttered to them — a long list that most notably included his thoughts about how the earth is flat. Those remarks received a ton of attention — everyone from NBA commissioner Adam Silver to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked about it — and effectively acted as a massive, unplanned PR push for the pod. Jefferson had so much fun with the fallout that he wore a Flat World Champions T-shirt to practice.

That was just one of Irving’s many remarkable Road Trippin’ appearances. In other episodes, he discussed the possible existence of the illuminati, "extraterrestrial beings that exist in the universe," and his desire to start a self-sustained commune after he’s done playing. He figured he’ll need about 200 acres. Frye immediately endorsed the idea and thought it would be "easy. E-Z." He suggested Irving put it in Montana or maybe Wyoming.

"Are you familiar with the Jonestown massacre?" Jefferson asked.

LeBron James and Allie Clifton (Getty Images)
LeBron James and Allie Clifton (Getty Images)

As Clifton likes to say, "No one tells our story better than us." That’s probably true. Back before they stopped recording on the plane, they did a pod on a long flight where Clifton copped to how much she hates flying. The topic came up when they hit some choppy air, or as Frye cavalierly called it, "a dip." During her first year as the Cavs sideline reporter, whenever there was any kind of turbulence, Clifton would shut down. "Like, head between my knees, almost cry," Clifton said. She’s better with flying now, but the experience led to an epiphany.

"My [seat] partner is [Cavs basketball communications senior manager] Jeff Schaefer," Clifton said during that episode. "It’s been him for five years. So I’m sitting there, sitting there. And finally, midway through the season, he looks at me and he was like [she’s guffawing now], ‘Allie, Kyrie Irving is on our plane. God is not going to kill us.’ I’m like, ‘You’re right. You are right.’ And ever since, my theory is, number one, if we die, I’m going to be part of one epic story."

They all belly laughed at that, no one more than Kyrie.

"Why are we talking about this?" Jefferson asked.

"She’s morbid," Frye said. "She grew up on a farm, man."

It was a good yarn, but it makes you wonder how long they’ll keep spinning them. Unlike other podcasts, Road Trippin’ has several complicating factors. They didn’t start doing the show until long after Frye was serendipitously traded to the same team his pal played on. There’s a flip side to that, of course. What happens if one of them gets traded again? Or both? Not to mention that Jefferson isn’t sure how long he’ll keep playing. It’s probably not over for him yet, but he’s well aware that he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. In theory, they could keep doing the pod after he retires, but he’s not sure that kind of show would yield the same candor with guests. Or even secure the guests in the first place. Hard to get LeBron after dinner if you’re not sitting at the King’s table.

"Once I retire in two years, or whatever it is, I become an outsider," Jefferson said. "Those interviews you get on the plane, those interviews you get in the hotel, they don’t happen. They’re like, ‘Who is this guy?’ And it happens very, very quickly in this league. It’s like, you’re one of us, or you’re not."

Clifton is another variable. She played Division I basketball at the University of Toledo. She was an education major there for a while, until she switched to sports analysis and communication and decided she wanted to do something else with her life. She tried TV, got a job at an ABC affiliate in Toledo for a hot second, then took the big jump to the NBA, where she’s in her fifth season as the Cavs sideline reporter. She was slow to begin the media rat race, but she’s already lapped almost everyone who got a head start. Jefferson said, "She’s in a perspective that every fan dreams of," but he conceded that, with her current career trajectory, she could end up leaving them for a bigger gig before they leave her.

"If me and Channing were on the same team for five years and Allie was by our side, this would be one of the best podcasts in history," Jefferson said. He didn’t add the obvious "but." He didn’t need to. They’ve all considered that the end could come at any moment.

"We’re prepared for it," Clifton said, "but it’s not what we’d like to happen."

So the band plays on even while bracing for the inevitable breakup. They think more teams should follow their model, and they plan to reach out to peers in the offseason in an attempt to put more player pods under the Road Trippin’/Uninterrupted umbrella. "Every team should try to find something along those lines," Jefferson said, "and say, ‘Hey, once a week, how about if you come on and bring a teammate. We’ll film it right there so you guys don’t have to walk anywhere after shootaround. We’ll crack jokes and put it up on our website.’"

Jefferson has had enough teammates in his career to know that, while the NBA is ultimately entertainment, not every player is an entertainer. Road Trippin’ has a good thing going, but it’s fair to wonder whether it can be easily franchised. The idea and format can be copied, but the chemistry will be a harder formula to follow.

While they were in Toronto for their playoff series against the Raptors, they did a pod at their hotel. The episode quickly deteriorates when the shrimp dumplings and wine arrive. All you hear in the background after that is chewing and swallowing noises, and the sound of knives and forks attacking plates.

Clifton: "You guys are going to town on this food."

Jefferson: "I’m starving."

Frye: "Duuuuude, this food."

Jefferson: "I’m sorry, I know you can hear us chewing …"

Frye: "Just use your hands, Rich!"

Jefferson: "Just shut up. How about that? How about you do that?"

Frye: "He’s hangry."

[Much laughing.]

From there, Clifton asked if they wanted to go hang off the edge of the Space Needle (she meant the CN Tower) — which Jefferson called "some white people shit" — and then Frye took his own advice and dug into the bottom of the shrimp dumplings with his uncovered paw.

Kyrie Irving: "Wow, Channing. That is fucking ridiculous. Wow. He found a secret stash underneath the sauce, didn’t even wait, he just took his hands …"

Frye: "I clamped it."

Irving: "He didn’t just clamp it once, he clamped it twice …"

Frye: "Re-clamp!"

Clifton: "Do you guys have those kind of friends that, like Channing, just took the entire thing and got his fingernails in the sauce?"

Jefferson: "What are you talking about? Channing is that friend of mine."

Fin.

"Yeah," Jefferson later admitted when I said the pod might be hard to replicate. "Ours is completely off the wall."