The NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns begins Tuesday. The last time the Suns went to the Finals, Charles Barkley was still on the team, while it’s been more than 40 years since the Bucks have made it this far in the playoffs.

There is certainly no shortage of story lines. But all anyone seems to want to talk about is the fallout at ESPN over a leaked audio recording involving two of their top NBA talents — Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor.

“This Rachel Nichols scandal is a perfect storm for ESPN, which has always had a fumblefingered approach to racial diversity, gender parity and its corrosive star system,” NPR media critic Eric Deggans wrote on Twitter Monday.

ESPN announced Tuesday that Nichols would no longer be the sideline reporter during ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals, replacing her with Malika Andrews. (ESPN and ABC both are owned by The Walt Disney Company.) Nichols will continue to host The Jump, while Taylor will continue in her role as host of NBA Countdown.

“We believe this is best decision for all concerned in order to keep the focus on the NBA Finals. Rachel will continue to host The Jump,” an ESPN spokesperson told the Inquirer.

The move comes after the New York Times published leaked recordings of Nichols complaining last year about being replaced by Taylor on the network’s most prominent NBA studio show while in the bubble at Walt Disney World. Taylor is Black, and Nichols, who is white, suggested she has been replaced because ESPN was “feeling pressure” on diversity, according to Times reporter Kevin Draper.

Nichols apologized for her comments on The Jump Monday.

“So the first thing they teach you in journalism school is don’t be the story. And I don’t plan to break that rule today or distract from a fantastic Finals,” Nichols said. “But I also don’t want to let this moment pass without saying how much I respect, how much I value our colleagues here at ESPN. How deeply, deeply sorry I am for disappointing those I hurt, particularly Maria Taylor, and how grateful I am to be part of this outstanding team.”

Nichols wasn’t aware her conversation last year with Adam Mendelsohn, a public relations adviser to LeBron James, was being recorded and uploaded to ESPN’s server and later leaked by a former digital video editor. During the more-than-20-minute phone call, Nichols complained about being replaced by Taylor on NBA Countdown, the network’s NBA pregame show, despite saying it was in her contract.

“I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols said in July 2020. “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

According to the New York Times, multiple Black ESPN employees said the conversation confirmed suspicions about white colleagues who speak differently in person they do in private. Nichols appeared alongside two Black colleagues on Monday’s The Jump — former NBA players Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson — who attempted to navigate the awkward situation as best they could.

“I fully support Maria Taylor. … I’ve known Rachel for 20 years,” Jefferson said. “Rachel and our entire group here have had very difficult conversations. … No one is excused. She is not excused. I am not excused.”

Taylor has yet to speak publicly about Nichols’ comments since the recordings were published, but she was scheduled to host NBA Countdown on ABC Tuesday night ahead of the Bucks-Suns alongside Jalen Rose, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Jay Williams. Making matters more tense is Taylor’s contract is scheduled to end later this month (and could end in the middle of the NBA Finals if the series goes long).

A video Taylor shared on TikTok in August 2020 resurfaced on social media, where she pointed out that society sometimes tells Black women “you don’t deserve that promotion, even though you know you do.”

“They may tell you that when you get the promotion, that you only got it because you were Black,” Taylor said in the short video. “But we know that’s not true.”

Former ‘NBA Countdown’ host checks in

The last time Michelle Beadle popped up on our radar, she was on her way out at ESPN after the less-than-successful launch of the network’s morning show Get Up!

Beadle was removed from the Mike Greenberg vehicle in 2018 and returned to her spot hosting NBA Countdown for the remainder of the 2019 NBA season. But in August of that year, she was removed from the show and replaced by both Nichols and Taylor. Soon thereafter, she was out at ESPN, which bought out the remainder of her contract.

On Monday, Beadle hopped on Twitter and offered her response to the news unfolding at her former workplace.

Other than a few Twitter barbs, Beadle has remained quiet since leaving ESPN and hasn’t announced any new gigs.

I’m not that Rachel Nichols

It’s only been a few days, and there’s already collateral damage from the leaked audio recordings.

Actress Rachel Nichols (Alias, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) said she woke up on Monday and her Twitter account was inundated with messages from angry users thinking she was ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. It doesn’t help that both are verified accounts, and the only difference between the two is the number “1″ in her username.

Nichols eventually changed her display name to “NOT ESPN REPORTER!” in all caps.

This isn’t the first time actress Rachel Nichols has been confused for ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. In 2018, Twitter’s algorithm suggested the CBS drama Criminal Minds — which Nichols appeared on — to people who followed her ESPN counterpart. What’s even odder is Nichols was dropped from the show in 2011.

Quick hits

  • TNT Inside the NBA analysts Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith will be part of NBA TV’s pre- and postgame coverage of Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals. They’ll join the broadcast remotely, which will also feature Grant Hill, Isiah Thomas, and Steve Smith.

  • Somehow it was news Monday that Katie Nolan’s ESPN show Always Late was canceled, despite the fact the show hasn’t aired since early 2020. But Outkick reported just that, and Nolan confirmed on Twitter in her own unique way.

  • Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski interviewed Marc Zumoff, who retired last week as the Sixers television play-by-play announcer after nearly 40 years covering the team. “There are only 30 jobs like this in the entire universe, and I ended up broadcasting the games for the team I grew up rooting for,” Zumoff said.

  • Derek Frazier, the youngest son of boxing legend “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier, will be part of the cast of Big Brother 23. Frazier, who works as a safety officer in Philadelphia, will be among those vying for a $500,000 prize.

  • Happy trails to Ed Benkin, who announced he’s out at KYW Newsradio after 17 years at the network. Benkin’s voice is likely familiar to most sports fans in the city — he has hosted on 94.1 WIP and done sports updates for ESPN Radio. Benkin also did play-by-play for Princeton’s football and basketball games for nearly two decades, and has filled in on Temple broadcasts over the years.