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Rewind: Ahmad Rashad on 30 Years of ‘NBA Inside Stuff’

The longtime NBA host and reporter reflects on the creation and legacy of one of the most influential sports shows in history

Adam Villacin

Ahmad Rashad’s NFL career had been over for nearly eight years, but for one day in October 1990, he was a professional athlete once again. Rashad suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers during a preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and hit his lone field goal attempt. The stunt was part of an all-access television show conceived by NBA Entertainment and brought to life by Rashad. “David Stern and I had a conversation and I said, ‘It would be really cool if I did a story where I went to training camp for a while and actually played in a game,’” says Rashad, now 70. “It was to get the interest of people who were like ‘Ahmad Rashad’s doing this show? I thought he was a football guy.’”

Rashad worked part time as a reporter for the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis during his career with the Minnesota Vikings. He joined NBC Sports after hanging up his cleats in 1983, and when NBC purchased the NBA’s television rights for $600 million in 1989, Stern chose Rashad, whom he met through Howard Cosell, to host a weekly, half-hour show: NBA Inside Stuff. The show targeted young viewers through its Saturday morning time slot, and along with the NBA on NBC broadcasts, kicked off a new era for the league.

NBA Inside Stuff offered a weekly recap of league action through a segment called “Rewind.” It fused highlights and popular music with more agility than the NBA Superstars home video series with “Jam Session.” And, most importantly, it showcased players’ personalities through off-kilter features. The NBA’s popularity had grown during the 1980s in part because of the emergence of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan as bona fide superstars, but it soared during the following decade as NBA Inside Stuff helped fans establish deeper personal connections to players. Long before Tim Hardaway Jr. made it to the NBA, he was playing in halftime scrimmages while his father was a member of the Miami Heat. Rashad, who was also the executive producer and managing editor, had an energy that guided the show: He was so affable that his enthusiasm resonated with viewers of all ages. Along with cohost Willow Bay, he turned NBA Inside Stuff, something initially conceived as a marketing tool, into one of the best—and most important—sports shows on television, with a pace, format, and cross-demographic appeal unlike any of its peers.

Alas, even the best shows have expiration dates. NBA Inside Stuff moved to ABC with the NBA’s TV rights in 2002, and ended in 2006. It was rebooted on NBA TV in 2013, with Grant Hill and Kristen Ledlow as hosts, but its behind-the-scenes access hasn’t resonated in an era when players can do that themselves. Thirty years after NBA Inside Stuff’s premiere, Rashad, who currently works as an ambassador for the NBA, remains very proud of what the show accomplished—and with good reason. (Check out the reunion that aired earlier this year, unintentional humor and all, for evidence.) There will never be another show like NBA Inside Stuff, but traces of its influence are evident in many that have followed. Rashad recently spoke to The Ringer about NBA Inside Stuff’s creation and legacy, how the NBA is currently covered, and much more. This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Did covering a variety of sports give you an idea of what you did and didn’t want to do with Inside Stuff?

Yes, it did. There was nothing out there that showed the personality of the players. And the NBA was a sport that was just connected, socially, to the country. The whole hip-hop movement was going on. The music for the show was absolutely wonderful; there were fashions, styles, and sounds, and everything we could put together in a weekly show that was highly entertaining. And it helped that as a former athlete, I knew most of the players already. And there were also a lot of guys that were looking to go into television. It was kind of an opportunity to see somebody that had done the things that they had done and also had gone on to do this television thing. So it was kind of inspirational to those guys too. It was all about promoting the NBA and the players. We did a “Stay in School” special every year that was so great. We’d have all kinds of different hosts, like Will Smith.

You’ve mentioned that you were one of the first Black television hosts to also be an executive producer for a network show at that time, which was really important back then. That certainly shaped the vision and scope of the show, but did the fact that you are, first and foremost, a Black man, and also a former professional athlete help you establish a better rapport with the players? Inside Stuff could have been a much different show with a different host.

I think it did, because I knew what I was talking about. I was asking questions that I had answered myself as an athlete. So it was just a different, closer look at the NBA. A closer look at professional athletes, a closer look at Black athletes. I was just thinking the other day: They had the NAACP Image Awards and I was thinking, Man, Inside Stuff should have gotten one of those—because that’s what we were doing on a weekly basis. It’s amazing how much impact that show had on people that grew up watching it.

Did you ever consider pivoting the show to reach all ages or did you realize it accomplished that already just because everyone watched it, regardless of age?

We accomplished it anyway. It was a kid’s show, but it was done in a way that was pretty much for everybody. And you also have to realize that at that period, the hottest team in the world was the Chicago Bulls—in any sport. So we were tied to that, and it didn’t hurt that the star of that team was my best friend. But that wasn’t it; I had friends throughout the league. Magic, Bird, all the guys—I knew every one of them. And there was a trust factor there that every time we called up, they were like, “Great, when do you want to come?” I think if you made it to Inside Stuff, in your mind, you had become a star. It used to be so funny to be sitting at games and guys would run by and ask, “How come you haven’t interviewed me? When are you gonna do me?”

Was the response like that from players from the very beginning? Was there ever any apprehension?

Right off the bat, because there had never been a show like that. I’m surprised it didn’t win more awards, but it doesn’t matter because if you listen to people, they all grew up watching that show. And all different kinds of people have come up to tell me that they’ve watched that show. You couldn’t stick them in a corner and say “Oh, these are just basketball fans.” No, everybody was hooked into that show because it was really about normalizing these superstar athletes as just people.

The NBA let you play in that preseason game as a member of the 76ers against the Timberwolves. Was that your idea or the league’s?

Mine. Because I was coming from football, the Olympics, track and field, and all those kinds of things. They had Charles Barkley and all those guys on that team that I had a chance to have a lot of fun with, and the game happened to be in Minnesota. So when I got there, all the fans just went crazy. And then getting in and actually making the shot couldn’t have been any better. I keep giving Michael shit about that, like “You never caught a pass in an NFL game.”

As the managing editor and executive producer, you had final say over everything. How did you decide on the format and the structure of the show?

One of the things that I insisted on was that we do one take. If you messed up somewhere, you fixed it and kept going. When you watch somebody on television and they’re just perfect—they don’t miss a word, they don’t miss anything—it’s kind of boring, weird, or more of a performance thing as opposed to this show, where it was almost like I was talking to you in your living room. If I said a guy’s name wrong, it didn’t matter. I’d just make it right. Or if I forgot what I was about, I’d just make it right, whatever it was. We very seldom stayed on script with Willow. She was so good. I used to explain it like, “If I get crazy and start bouncing off the walls, Willow can grab the wheel and drive.” Not like a scripted show where one guy says one thing, stops, then the next person says something then stops.

I think the Jam Session segment was particularly important at a time when hip-hop was expanding its reach. Was it your call to include the musical element?

Yeah, we knew that we were on to something there, and a lot of them were big fans. Jay-Z was into the show. It was one of those things that just hit at the right time and we were part of that wave, so we accepted it and grew with it.

You met Michael Jordan the year the NBA started airing on NBC, which is the year that Inside Stuff started, which is also the season in which the Bulls won their first title—which, in turn, helped define the NBA during the 1990s. I’m sure there was a wealth of stories around the league, but did you ever consider how his first retirement might impact the show?

No, because there’s a ton of players. Even though Michael was at the top of the league, there were a lot of stories. To have access to the best player in the league was good, but we had access to everybody. So when he retired, that was on him. He was retiring. No matter who you are, the league goes on. So it wasn’t like “Oh God, we don’t have a show anymore,” because the show was much more than that. We still saw each other all the time, but just being at games and being at championship runs and all that when Chicago was involved, that sort of changed—because he wasn’t there anymore. But in terms of everything else, like I said, the league is much bigger than everybody.

How do you feel about the criticism of your relationship with Jordan in terms of access?

There was a tremendous amount of jealousy, because here was a guy that nobody could get to, and I talked to him every day or rode to the games with him. NBC did the game of the week and it was always the Chicago Bulls, so that means I’d see Michael every week. And when they would play at home, I’d fly in on Saturday night, spend the night at his house, then ride to the game with him on Sunday so we could talk about anything we needed to talk about. “With the game coming up, what do you think about this guy? What about that guy?” That was already covered in the conversation that we had. No newsperson had that situation, so those guys were just jealous.

What was different about Inside Stuff’s ABC days? Was it the atmosphere? Was the relationship with the network just different?

I guess it’s just change. Not only did the network change, there were also new players. During that time, there were a lot of players who were in their heyday. There were a lot of great players at that time, straight through the Olympics with the Dream Team. Things change constantly, so it was just different. But it was always missed. Like I said, there hasn’t been a day in my life since I started doing Inside Stuff that someone hasn’t made reference to it somewhere—and even more so now that we have the internet.

How do you feel about current NBA coverage? Inside Stuff had your personality: It was light and upbeat. A lot of sports coverage in today’s hot-take economy is the exact opposite. Plenty of bullshit agendas and bad-faith arguments. I can’t picture you screaming about LeBron’s legacy.

Yeah, I think about that too. It’s almost like the person who’s “right” is the one who screams the loudest. We were entertainment. That show was purely personality-driven, and I don’t have that personality. It wasn’t about saying who was the best or who ain’t the best and why they ain’t the best. It was “Hey, let’s just take a look at this guy. What does he do? Does he go to the store?” Or “Here’s one of the biggest stars in the world—who gets his groceries?” Anything like that. “What’s your favorite hobby? Bowling? Let’s go bowling.” It was just entertainment, and it was something that the internet does now. If guys want you to see them going bowling, they’ll just put it on Twitter themselves. It won’t be quite the same, but when it comes to interests and those kinds of things, players can do their own Inside Stuff through the internet.

Now every player has their own thing allowing them to speak directly to the world. Why do you think debate shows have taken over sports coverage? Because they’re entertainment vehicles, too.

I think the entertainment factor is different. Nowadays, maybe people think that’s entertainment. “I’m gonna stand on this rock to say this guy’s better than that guy” as opposed to talking about the beauty of the game. All of a sudden, you see all these players from all over the world in the NBA. That’s incredible, because when we were doing it, if somebody came from Turkey or somewhere like that, we’d jump on a plane and go try and figure out how he got to the league. That was more interesting to me as opposed to who’s better.

How did Inside Stuff handle heavier moments? Magic Johnson initially retired after announcing he was HIV positive early during the show’s run.

We handled that in a celebratory way. It was sad, but because Magic was so positive, he was like: “I’m going to beat this.” There were no low moments. When he came back to play in the Olympics, it was inspirational. So that’s how we covered it. It was a downer in terms of him having this disease that he could possibly die from and that he wasn’t going to be able to play, but you never got any of that from him.

I thought about that when Kobe Bryant passed away earlier this year. Unfortunately, there were instances where players passed away while Inside Stuff was airing. Drazen Petrovic, Malik Sealy, and Bobby Phills are just a few that immediately come to mind. How did you approach those tragedies?

It was always a celebration. There was the sadness of the guy not being around anymore, but you still celebrated what he had done up to that point. How meaningful he was to life itself. So it was always that. And, you know, that’s kind of the way life is.

You’ve been working with the NBA and NBA TV for a while, but you haven’t been on the sidelines in a long time. I know the league has you doing a lot now, but with the pandemic, you couldn’t be at the NBA Finals this year.

Yeah, it was weird to not be there. Adam [Silver] and I talked about that—it was the first time that he and I hadn’t been at the Finals in a long time. But I’m still an ambassador to the NBA. I still work for the NBA and I still do a lot of different things during the course of the year for the league. A lot of the charity work, a lot of the things they do during the Finals where they dedicate schools. They’ll go in and repaint, install new computers, make a new gym, or build a new floor. They do it during the Finals in each city, but they do it all over the world during the course of the year.

Have you thought about how you would have covered the NBA bubble?

Well, no, I never thought about that too much because that was just what it was. I thought it was a great job by Adam Silver to even be able to have that and have the players say, “OK, we’ll stay in this bubble the entire time and keep this thing going.” But there wasn’t any way to sort of do features and things like that because, if you go in there, you’ve got to stay in there. So that just wasn’t possible. But I’m sure there would have been some sort of a way around it.

Do you feel like you recognize Inside Stuff’s influence in other sports broadcast shows? I look at a show like Inside the NBA and those guys who were on Inside Stuff: Shaq and Charles Barkley, obviously, but also Kenny Smith. Some of that silliness and energy is reminiscent of Inside Stuff.

Yeah, I agree. And I agree that there has not been a show quite like it, but there have been a lot of shows that have tried. A lot of the positive things that we did on that show that people have taken and are using now. I think the show was so good that you have to sort of take some of the good things from it and move on with it. It’s sort of the evolution of the show. Everybody wants to be funny now. Everyone wants to get a laugh off, and we did it so well that it still lives on.

I know for me, personally, Inside Stuff’s defining moment was Shaq breaking the backboard and falling flat on his back. What do you think the show’s defining moment was?

I think it’s me playing in that preseason game. Because it was before Inside Stuff started, and it was something that I wanted to do to show that I was a big basketball fan. Now, that could’ve gone sideways if I couldn’t dribble. I would’ve been like those other people who can’t play and just yell [laughs]. So that was one of the defining moments of the show, especially when it started. No one’s ever done that.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.