Sage Steele is now the longest tenured member of the NBA Countdown team at ESPN. The statement alone surprises Steele — it’s a position she never expected with a company that had already made her dreams come true.
Steele joined ESPN in 2007 after turning down an offer to join the company three years prior during the pregnancy of her second child — spitting in the face of the doe-eyed 12-year-old who once dreamed of anchoring Sportscenter. Steele had climbed the rungs to an anchor position and a Baltimore Ravens beat reporter job with CSN Mid-Atlantic, but the timing wasn’t right to cash in her chips.
Steele recalled the advice of the late Stuart Scott back in 2004 — before they were even colleagues — while she was turning over the offer in her head.
“I was a different human being, I feel like,” Steele said. “You have to believe in you before anybody else can. He said, ‘Girl, you better be ready for the grind of ESPN.’ And I took the advice to heart. I felt like I needed to be all-in mentally. As a Mom, it’s a little different.”
Against the advice of her agent, Steele leaned on her Army upbringing and clung to her core values — family comes first.
“If you’re true to who you are, it’ll work out, and three years later they called back,” Steele said. “They didn’t have to, but I also was a better broadcaster three years later. I’m thankful I got that second shot.”
Steele helped celebrate Scott’s life and career at the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame induction on Friday. As a tribute to Scott, Steele put on a Carolina jersey with “S-Squared” on the back — that was how Scott introduced the two the only time they shared the SportsCenter desk — bookending a bet she won in 2012 that forced Scott into Steele’s Indiana colors.
“He was so dedicated to his girls,” Steele said. “Spending time at our daughter’s dance competitions. That’s where we really bonded. My girls would go over to his place and try on his clothes and we’d laugh. I miss my friend Stu.”
Steele moved her family to Phoenix, Arizona, this summer in order to alleviate the greatest stress from her first two years at Countdown: the guilt of leaving her family behind in Bristol, Connecticut, while she worked in Los Angeles. Growing up in a military family — her father, Gary Steele, was the first black football player at West Point — Steele lived all over the world, including Greece and Belgium. As a teenager, her family settled in Colorado Springs, and she fell in love with the NFL and the Denver Broncos.
She remembers watching Larry Bird’s Celtics against Magic Johnson’s Lakers on the one English-speaking channel in Europe during her time abroad. But the turning point for her as a basketball fan was watching the 1987 NCAA National Championship game between Syracuse and Indiana on base at Fort Carson. Her Mother was fond of Rony Seikaly because of his strong Greek ties, but Steele was taken by the team in crimson red.
“I still love Keith Smart,” Steele said about the man who crushed the Orange’s title hopes on a buzzer-beater. (Footnote: I’m from Syracuse, and I bleed Orange, and Steele was impossibly nice about this coincidence. She even told me to pass a hello along to my father, who still curses Smart to this day for hitting that shot.)
Her father was reassigned to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, Indiana, during her senior year of high school. This tinkered with her plan to attend the University of Colorado Boulder and pour herself into their towering football program — without in-state tuition prices, Colorado was out of reach financially — and Steele’s parents pointed her instead toward the state universities of Indiana. What she didn’t know was basketball in Indiana rivals what John Elway means to Colorado. Steele rekindled her intuitive affection for Hoosiers basketball and chose Indiana University Bloomington.
“In that first year, I really grasped what Indiana basketball was to that state. I was sold on the Hoosiers,” Steele said. “And Indiana just started the sports communication major there, which was perfect timing.”
Steele met Jalen Rose years before sharing the desk at ESPN while working the Indiana Pacers beat at a prior stop during her career. Steele felt the need to apologize to Rose for “screaming awful things at him” when she was a student and the Fab Five came to Assembly Hall. Now it’s her job to set Rose up for talking points.
Before Steele took over the host job on NBA Countdown, there was a noticeable void on set. Inside the NBA at TNT has Ernie Johnson, one of the preeminent voices in sports broadcasting, conducting a devilishly entertaining program recogniable outside of the sports media lens. Meanwhile, ESPN had miscast some of its best talent, namely acclaimed columnists Michael Wilbon and Bill Simmons, in pseudo-host roles which played like they were reading stale cue cards.
“I do think it’s sometimes taken for granted what the job is,” Steele said. “There’s no teleprompter. Nobody’s writing anything for me. It’s something that the host should come in and do themselves, and obviously it’s a collaborative effort with the producers and analysts.
“I always thought the show would be better with a host because Wilbon and those guys are so good at being analysts,” Steele said. “Let them be them and be who they are. … I just love being able to set these guys up and let them do their thing. It’s so fun — I have to remind myself I’m on TV and not watching with my hand on my chin at home.”
Throwing big bucks at high-profile analysts and asking them to shout over the top of one another was a fruitless effort for ESPN. The company didn’t have Johnson, nor did it have Charles Barkley, Kenny “The Jet” Smith and Shaquille O’Neal, an impossible collection of talent and chemistry, creating an explosive sports and entertainment blend enjoyable for all ages.
ESPN isn’t TNT, and the former’s studio show would never stoop to the raw flare and cheap tricks of the latter’s. What ESPN needed, then, was a host who could pilot a tight, extensive production that rivaled Inside The NBA in quality alone — essentially zigging while the other zagged.
Promoting Steele to Countdown host before the 2012-’13 season was ESPN’s way of looking in the mirror and correcting a problem. ESPN was right to bet on its homegrown prospect — an affable, tireless worker who has since revitalized the set.
“I’m such a huge fan,” said Mike Breen, ABC/ESPN play-by-play announcer. “She’s a tremendously hard worker. She loves the game and that’s the No.1 criteria for that job. She’s opinionated. She’s not afraid to play devil’s advocate. She’s got a great energy about her and she’s a sponge. I think the world of her.”
“I’ve just tried to be me — good, bad or ugly,” Steele said. “I’ve always been a little different, even in the way I look which is untraditional for a host role — or so I’ve been told. It’s easiest to be you.”
One of the perks of being the host of NBA Countdown is that Steele has summers off, but Steele doesn’t view it that way. She misses navigating the beats and picking up scoops — actually working alongside the players and coaches. Steele is a people person, and she loves covering the conference finals on site for this reason.
Over the summer she attended USA Basketball camp at Las Vegas. She’s traveled the country talking to players and coaches in training camp this month. Steele said she needs that interaction, and that she finds herself rooting for a common person throughout the league — the ones who are most easily misunderstand and subsequently pressed hardest by the media and fans.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Russell Westbrook and I smile when people talk about who they think he is versus who he really is,” Steele said. “Chris Paul, as well. I don’t do the feature stories as much as I used to, but it’s also helpful to have that perspective. Everybody wants to say ‘Ballhog Russell Westbrook,’ but nobody was more thankful to have Kevin Durant back than Westbrook.”
One of her favorite experiences this fall was sitting down with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich for 20 to 30 minutes. She had been pushed to finally meet him by analyst and former coach P. J. Carlesimo. Steele wants to show the people she’s covering that she’s a real person too.
“I’m not some robot on television,” Steele said. “I hate it when all of media is stereotyped. There’s a lot of really good people. But sometimes I understand why they don’t like us. I enjoy when the players say, ‘Oh, you’re normal.’ Sometimes it’s a matter of shaking hands and looking people in the eyes.”
Steele maintains her objectivity on air, but her soft spot for the Pacers isn’t hard to find. She has memorized the date of Paul George’s gruesome leg injury on Aug. 1, 2014. She thinks George can be better than he was before the injury, and she cites his personal maturation — he became a father last May — as the driving force in his full recovery. If only, she said, he would give in to Larry Bird’s vision for the team.
“Paul is a great kid,” Steele said. “I think it’s interesting he’s been so vocal (about being moved to power forward). I don’t like it. Come on, Paul, let’s buy in. It’s a way different team. And it’s really Paul’s team now. I think he feels some pressure… and he wants to be in the best position and feel comfortable. But he needs to trust Larry.”
Her Pacers battled LeBron James’ Miami Heat teams in three consecutive postseasons, including the 2013 and 2014 East Finals, the latter coming in Steele’s first season with Countdown. James was at the height of his powers, of course, and despite their best efforts, the Pacers never toppled the Heat. But Steele believes the rivalry brought something special out of James, and the annual rumble, pinning one of the league’s prominent markets against one of its proudest cities, was great for James and the NBA.
“I wonder if that’s what LeBron would say, that it was a turning point in his career,” she said. “I just remember saying, ‘Damn it, it’s over.’ You love to see greatness. We’re pretty lucky to be covering this sport at this particular time.”
Steele’s career, like so many in her field, has been about good timing. Here she is, the face of ESPN’s NBA coverage, and a prominent example of ESPN’s willingness to give creative people of either gender and any color a chance. The NBA is a cash cow for everyone affiliated; ESPN and Turner Sports both renewed their TV deals with the Association for staggering figures through 2014-’25. As NBA Countdown breaks ground on its third season with Steele manning the controls, and with one of the most highly anticipated seasons in NBA history on the horizon, ESPN must appreciate the stability Steele has supplied its studio show.
Joe Mags (@thatjoemags) covers the NBA for Crossover Chronicles and pop culture for The AP Party at Bloguin.