Within the first two minutes of the Grantland Basketball Hour, legendary WWE announcer Jim Ross voiced over an animation of Kevin Love coming to Cleveland and the show had “rented” John Tesh’s Roundball Rock.  Freed from the shackles of ESPN NBA Countdown and back from his three-week suspension, the Grantland Basketball Hour is Bill Simmons’ personal television playground.

After the debut episode of the GBH, it’s exactly as advertised.  It is basically Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose’s video and podcast work from Grantland airing on television with a few add-ons.  Rose’s bat even came with him to television for the first time, spawning a million questions of “Why is Jalen Rose holding a bat?

(From what I’ve been able to ascertain, Rose has the bat because he speaks truth at Grantland and needs it if people get upset with him, or because he loves baseball, or because he stole Patrick Ewing’s television.  Whatever the case – Jalen Rose’s bat is the biggest sensation since the inanimate carbon rod.)

As for the mechanics of the show itself, Simmons and Rose were joined by a different guest for each segment who sat between the pair in a business casual setting.  Jeff Van Gundy, Zach Lowe (who got two segments!), and Michelle Beadle all made appearances.  Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a short interview as well where he and Simmons professed that their hatchet had been well and truly buried.

There were some awkward moments, as you might expect from a new program.  The show has a small studio audience for some reason.  Once when Simmons was in the middle of a question, the music abruptly forced him to a commercial break.  (Is this thing actually live?)  And there were lots of crude animations.  If you’ve ever wanted to see cartoon Rajon Rondo carrying a Connect Four game at a subway stop, your prayers have finally been answered.

It’s clear that ESPN is targeting a younger audience with the Grantland Basketball Hour and trying to offer a clear alternative to the more established Countdown offering.  The more free-flowing and relaxed nature is a nice change of pace on television from the rest of ESPN’s very weighty and very serious talking head content.  It’s reminiscent of ESPN’s terrific Last Call set at their World Cup coverage in Brazil this summer.

In this environment, Simmons thrives.  He looked 1,000 times more comfortable on his Grantland set than he ever did on Countdown.  He gets to play the host/pundit/grand poobah role without having to pout over Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon cutting into his airtime.  You can almost see it as a viewer  – there’s a massive weight off Simmons’ shoulders.  He appears looser, happier, and people laugh at his jokes, some of which even have visual accompaniment dedicated to getting them over.

In a vacuum, the Grantland Basketball Hour is a decent basketball show.  But this show does not exist in a vacuum.  It exists as an outlet to get Bill Simmons off NBA Countdown and provide him his own show that stars his friends.  It exists because ESPN will hope that it keeps their most important individual talent content when he’s coming off a controversial suspension with his contract is up at the end of the year.  It exists so that when Simmons thinks about walking and starting his own venture next year, ESPN can say to him that they gave him his own television show and that he will never duplicate the success or the reach of Grantland, 30 for 30, and the BS Report anywhere else.

As for whether or not you’ll want to watch the Grantland Basketball Hour?  That depends on your affection for The Sports Guy.  Because at the end of the day, this is a basketball show that’s designed for Bill Simmons as much as it is for you.

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