Michael Wilbon considers Philadelphia one of the few real sports cities in America.
But that hasn’t prevented the longtime ESPN personality from calling out Philly sports fans over the year, referring to them at times as “jerks” and “dopes” and blaming them in part for the current Ben Simmons situation by claiming the 25-year-old star needed to be saved.
“I don’t care what they say on WIP,” Wilbon told The Inquirer. “What I like about Philly is the toughness. They’re real sports fans … But I don’t feel the need to phony it up [to them].”
Wilbon, whose show Pardon the Interruption recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, will be on location at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday for Sixers-Warriors, which kicks-off this season’s NBA Saturday Primetime series on ABC. Calling the game will be ESPN’s top NBA crew, which features play-by-play announcer Mike Breen alongside analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. King of Prussia native Lisa Salters will handle courtside reporting duties.
Wilbon is part of ESPN’s newly revamped NBA Countdown pregame show, which was overhauled during the off-season due to the fallout over a leaked audio recording of Rachel Nichols complaining about losing her hosting job to her former colleague Maria Taylor. Nichols, who is white, complained that ESPN replaced her with Taylor, who is Black, to satisfy diversity issues at the network. Taylor is now at NBC and Nichols remains off the air.
To right the ship and offer a bit of consistency, ESPN assembled a team of heavyweight personalities that includes Wilbon, Get Up! host Mike Greenberg, First Take host and former Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith, and former NBA player turned analyst Jalen Rose. Hall of Famer Magic Johnson is also slated to join NBA Countdown at some point this season, which is one of the main reasons Wilbon said he decided to join the show.
“I did this largely because Magic said let’s get the band back together,” Wilbon joked.
Wilbon said the goal of the new show is to be conversational, especially after critics pointed out how little time the studio show hosts actually spent speaking to one another.
“There’s one agenda. Let’s have the best conversation we can have in whatever time we’re allotted,” Wilbon said. “Basketball sounds different, it is different to people who play it, and our show should reflect that. All too often on various networks, including ours, haven’t done that.”
The show certainly flows easier with Greenberg as host. On Wednesday night, Greenberg naturally extended a conversation about the future of Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard, drawing out a social media friendly quote from Smith declaring: “Portland’s season is over, they ain’t going anywhere. Sorry city of Portland, no disrespect, you ain’t going no damn place this year.”
“Greeny understands how to move the traffic, how to get us engaged, and he understands what makes each of us tick because he’s worked with everyone,” Wilbon said.
Fairly or unfairly, every NBA studio show gets compared to TNT’s acclaimed Inside the NBA, which regularly features freewheeling segments that have nothing to do with the games on TV. A perfect example is a 2018 segment where the crew pranked Charles Barkley to hear the word “doughnut” during a discussion of the laurel/yanny craze. It’s hard to envision anything like that happening on NBA Countdown, which Wilbon said is a credit to Barkley’s uniqueness as a host.
“Nobody’s going to be Charles. There’s one Charles,” Wilbon said. “There’s no need to act like we’re competing with them, because we’re not ... Their show gets to breathe. That’s their signature, it’s not out signature. The only thing that gets that kind of time to breathe on ESPN is football.”
After Thursday’s blowout loss to the Utah Jazz, it’s not clear if the Sixers will be able to keep pace with the high-flying Warriors, who have lost just four games this season and sit in first place in the Western Conference. While the game will feature two of the NBA’s biggest stars — Joel Embiid and Steph Curry — Simmons remains away from the team as he continues to wait for a trade out of Philadelphia.
“I know he can’t play there again. People keep talking about the need to rebuild his value, but I don’t see how that happens,” Wilbon said. “Philly is a passionate city not given to people who say I want out. He isn’t rebuilding his value in a Philly uniform. It ain’t going to happen.”
Golden State Warriors (21-4) at Philadelphia 76ers (14-12)
When: Saturday, Dec. 11
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Time: 8:30 p.m. tip-off
TV: 6ABC (Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Lisa Salters)
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic (Tom McGinnis)
Streaming: ESPN app (requires authentication), FuboTV (free seven-day trial), YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, DirecTV Stream, (all require a subscription)