An Interview with Tas Melas of NBA TV’s The Starters

Tas Melas, Trey Kerby, J.E. Skeets, Leigh Ellis, Matt Osten, and Jason Doyle. You can catch the Starters on NBA TV at 6:00 PM EST.

I was searching for NBA podcasts in late 2006 when I came across The Basketball Jones. It featured three Canadian friends (Tas Melas, J.E. Skeets, and Jason Doyle) who met in college, (or university as they call it) talking about professional basketball in an irreverent, humorous tone—a refreshing contrast to the talking heads of the major cable stations.

In 2010, they were hired by The Score—a Canadian sports network which consequently led to NBA TV moving them down from Toronto to Atlanta where they host the show, renamed The Starters.

I sat down with Melas (via Google Hangouts) in mid-October.

Godfrey Chan: How long long have you been friends with JE Skeets?

Tas Melas: A decade. Somewhere around that margin.

Was he somebody you knew from college?

Us Canadians we call it “university” sometimes. It was in college where I met Skeets along with Jason Doyle, and Matt Osten, our two producers. We started to like each other.

I’d say six months out of school we decided, “Hey let’s do something together.”

What was your day job at the time?

I was archiving footage at ESPN JR TSN Canadawatching games from the night before and grabbing anything that could be used at a later date for features. Jump shots, nice reactions by Kent Bazemore on the benchthat kind of stuff. So I was archiving footage for TSN for a few years in a couple different capacities.

So you were always in the sports business.

My two passions that melded together were sports and media. I got into broadcasting from 2001-2005 at school, and while there, I jumped into a couple of opportunities where I was working for Hockey Night in Canada for CBC. Immediately after that, I jumped over to TSN.

Was there a specific moment that made you guys realize that this could actually be something more than just a hobby?

There was no eureka moment. There were a couple moments that stick out to me.

Early on, somebody from Hong Kong emailed saying they really liked our show. That was two months in. We said, “OK, people really want our show.” The feedback kept us going no matter how bad it got at points.

There was a four-year period where nothing happened. I wouldn’t say there was anything that made us feel like “Oh yeah this is gonna happen,” until we signed a contract to actually start working.

There were opportunities that would seem promising, but unless it was concrete, until we signed that actual contract with The Score in March 2010, there was nothing that would get us excited otherwise. We had seen several opportunities fall through.

That was March 2010 and that was our second year of doing live video, in person, daily. Every other year, we’d change our format or location, so the second consecutive year going back to the same format, we thought, “We didn’t make a huge change, and unless we get better resources and get paid for this, there’s no where to go from here if there aren’t any nibbles.”

We may have gone our separate ways at the end of that NBA season. That March of 2010 was huge. Because literally, three months later, I’m not sure where we would’ve gone.

How did the contract with The Score happen?

A guy who worked there (Scott Carefoot) was an NBA writer. He knew of us and set up a meeting with one of the higher ups a year and half or two before we signed. So that didn’t really go anywhere.

We were just persistent and got onto that person we met with and eventually it turned into a five video contract, but beyond that it was nothing and it just sort of flamed out.

We basically went to the Score, (and a big kudos to Matt Osten who joined us after a few years of just the three of us doing it) Matt was the fourth cog to get it in people’s faces. He’s a lawyer so he’s convincing. He did a good job with the Score even after those contracts didn’t really work out, proposing we get on full time.

When we didn’t get the response we wanted from them, we brought on the BJ Army. We told them to “sick em boys.” We told them to email them as much as possible. I’m sure a lot of people at the Score really hated us for flooding their email accounts, but just seeing the way our fans were really passionate about what we do and the way we moved them to do that just shows how strong our fan base was. Even if it’s a small, niche internet audience, it’s powerfulso that combined with our persistence, led by Matt, we made it happen.

Out of all of the NBA players you’ve interviewed, you’ve met who are the ones that you’d want to hang out with the most?

Dirk Nowitzki is a hilarious man. He just wouldn’t stop. He’s just a laid back guy. He just sat horizontally in his chair while we were interviewing him during All Star weekend. He’s just a really relaxed guy even with microphones two inches from his face. He’s as cool as a cucumber. Just hilarious.

Honestly, I’m not just saying this because I’m in the business now, but these guys are a lot more bright and intelligent than people give them credit for in general. I don’t really go down to all of the arenas, but being with them at All-Star weekend, sort of one-on-one interviews here and therethey’re smart, engaging individuals.

They’re also more happy on All-Star weekend, it’s a little less of a grind, if you ask me which one or two, there’s a bunch.

Zach Randolph would be a cool guy to hang out with. He’s a really really kind loving guy. Tyson Chandler was another one. I could go on and on. They’re all for the most part pretty endearingpretty cool guys to hang out with. I don’t know if it’s specific to basketball players.

I’ve been told this about hockey players, how they’re salt of the earth type guys, not having it go to their heads. Basketball playersnot to put them under the same umbrella, but I would hang out with most of them. And wouldn’t regret it afterward I don’t think.

Have you met LeBron? Is he in another stratosphere?

I don’t think he’s in another stratosphere. I actually have not met him. We’ve been at All-Star weekend and we tend to try to get as many interviews as possible inside that small media event – 45 minutes is usually allotted for each. It’s usually 12 members of the team. We usually want as many responses with the type of questions we can get. We usually compile it into one video.

It’s usually not worth just hanging around LeBron’s table. It’s a sea of media around them. We’d be waiting 20-25 minutes while we could’ve gotten Brook Lopez or Ryan Anderson who’s there for the 3-point contest. You can jump in grab Melo, but really the throng of media is too much to deal with.

You know I never met LeBron, but for a guy who came into the NBA at 18 years old, being on ESPN a couple years before that, I think he’s pretty level headed. I don’t know if Gloria James has done a good job, or if the friends he’s kept as his circle since then have done a good job of keeping him grounded to a degree. That’s my opinion from the outside.

During your workday, how many games do you actually watch?

Without a DVR, I wouldn’t be as good at my job. I just wouldn’t be as knowledgable. Any night, because there are at least two games, I watch two to three. I get them in because of the DVR.

And I like watching games. You have options now with League Pass to watch them in like six minutes. I think there’s a VIP package coming this year (don’t quote me on this) that could be 20 minutes. I don’t like watching it that way. I tend to watch one game live at around 7:00-7:30.

If it’s a bad game, I bounce to another game. Then I watch every single highlight. And while I’m watching, because of the world we live in, I’m on Twitter the entire night.

I get all the plays that become socially viral. We’re assigned games while we’re in the office because we think that [for example], the Clippers/Grizzlies game is probably the marquee game of the night. We’ll watch it, but if Chris Paul doesn’t end up playing, and the Grizzlies win by 30 and we find out that during the Bobcats Magic game, Aaron Afflalo is going off for 40, that’s going to be a bigger story.

So let’s flip over. So we keep it fluid each night, so whatever’s the bigger story, we’re able to just jump over to that game. The good thing about our show going to NBA TV this year is that we’ll be able to compile everything.

So if it’s Aaron Afflalo going for 40, Big Baby crying on the bench or Chris Bosh spraining his toe kicking a garbage can, that’s the type of stuff we want to talk about.

We have the visuals that will be able to air at the same time. That’s something that fans have always asked from us. It’s obviously natural we’re talking about sports, so it’s great to have those resources and I think it’ll really augment the quality of the show.

How did you get on NBA TV?

It’s a natural fit. We sort of had a relationship through the Score. We were sending them segments once or twice a week two years ago. They simply knew of us through the blogosphere and I think we both determined that we were the perfect fit.

As goofy as we are, we’re also quite hardcore at the same time and there isn’t another outlet that would really want to air hardcore basketball analysis.

The way NBA TV worked I think it was forward thinking—letting four fans that have no NBA experience on their air that are simply socially aware and know the internet very well work for them.

They’ve always been very forward thinking in terms of the web. Kudos to them for seeing what we see in ourselves, and being the first. It’s a huge move in the sports world to move 14 people (I’m talking about our families and our loved ones) and six of us who are on the show.

In the sports broadcast world, I don’t know of another situation where that’s occurred. Bringing six people from another country to work on a show exclusively where we’re definitely getting the resources but it’s the same group creating the same show. I think it’s pretty unheard of from what I know. I think they realize that these guys are making a great show on their own, and with the resources of The Score, for a couple years, they listened to our show and knew that we’re great for the game and we could make it even better show with their resources.

I think it’s a match made in heaven at this point. I say that now a couple weeks before, but we’re extremely pumped.

I’m biased, but I find that basketball has the best bloggers. Thoughts?

I definitely find that true. That may be why the NBA is so savvy—because they had such a strong following on the web for so long—writers that people want to read that aren’t part of national publications.

It maybe made them understand the web a little more—to not remove highlights that were posted by users, like other leagues tend to do. The higher ups in a way realized that it’s only good for the game if people are speaking intelligently about the game.

Obviously, there are terrible bloggers out there as well, but they think positively of the web and their writers and obviously us, so yeah I definitely think of the four major sports, (I’m biased because I generally read basketball writers—a bit of hockey, football, and baseball—just the mainstream guys,) the quality of the basketball catalogue of guys and girls is just a little deeper, and it started a little sooner.

Maybe it’s because the NBA didn’t have the popularity of baseball or football and found another way. While baseball and football have sat on their traditional laurels, the NBA had another way to become popular. The allowance of highlights that go up is huge. It spreads word of the game while other leagues make users take those highlights down. I don’t know if that’s changed recently, but it only spread the word.

And people like us who have a podcast, it’s kind of an extension of highlights. We basicically sort of digress about those highlights and just yap. They realize it’s good for the game. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when I was like, “Football’s got a deeper source of writers”. I think basketball’s always been the bar for bloggers.

Who are your influences?

I’m terrible with this question. I don’t know. I always loved the media, but I’ve never been a broadcaster type. Maybe that’s why I don’t really have influences. I’ve always wanted our show to remain grassroots, not in terms of exposure of distribution, but in terms of the feel—not being stodgy or stuffy. And I never wanted to put on a broadcaster’s voice [Melas lowers his voice slightly imitating a stuff broadcaster] I just want us to always be us. Otherwise it just wouldn’t feel very fulfilling.

Basically our show has turned into us being friends with our fans in a way. And I never want to sort of leave that. I love the media because I feel like I have something to say but I also want to be able to say it in my own tone and way without sort of becoming sort of a newsie broadcaster person. Obviously I’ve been influenced, that’s why I’ve never been able to really pinpoint someone in the media field or sports broadcasting where there’s a person I want to emulate. Not say I’m a lone wolf here, but I just never have a good answer for that question.

You’re going to have to stop cursing, I assume.

Yes, for sure. Skeets has a little more of a sailor mouth than I do, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference.

The tone will remain.

People are always worried and are resistant to change, and they think “Oh, you’re going to be on a network, and wear suits and will not be able to swear, you’re going to become more like them.”

NBA TV’s been incredible in terms of wanting us to be us and allowing us to be so comfortable. They have fans of our show within the people who are guiding us and are basically our bosses.

They don’t want us to change. Like you said, the tone will remain the same. We always sort of thought, “Maybe we should cut out the swearing, because eventually we would like to be somewhere where we can’t swear, and didn’t really deem it a problem. Dropping an F-bomb to me every once in a while is not really a big deal, but not dropping an F-bomb is not really a big deal either.

I don’t think it really influences our show that much. The tone makes our show. To me I could care less. It’s such a small percentage of words that come out. There’ve been people who are worried about it, but people will worry about anything. People swear too much, I’m sure. It’s not a big deal.

What would be your ultimate goal for the Starters? Court side access? Calling a game?

Being able to do what we want to do. What that is at this point, I don’t really know. We’re not a play by play and color guy. I could see some people do live chats over the game, and there’s technology for people to flip on a URL and hear people talk over a game. Obviously there are rights issues with that, but I think that’s a cool idea to me.

Rights issues and the way the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is constructed doesn’t lend itself to that. But I would think that is sort of the way sports are going. I can definitely see that happening. I don’t know how good we’d be at that.

Like we were saying how the NBA blogosphere is really solid, I think the NBA broadcasters are really good as well. I think they’re pretty decent when you line them up against the other sports. Anyone who thinks they can just do their jobs are probably fooling themselves by a few degrees. But I do think that sort of is a possibility in the future depending on how much access the league wants to give people other than their main broadcast team. I possibly can see that in our future.

Other than that, I think courtside access at different times of the year. I don’t think it really benefits Skeets or I to go down all the time because we lose the vibe of the league even if it is for one night. I know it sounds a little extreme, but you miss out.

When I lived in Toronto I had partial season seats for 12 years (2001- 2013). As soon as I went to a game, I’d go home and catch up on anything I missed. As much as I loved the live experience, the more live games you take in, the less you take in about the league.

And the league is bigger than the Toronto Raptors, or any team. If you’re a real ambassador for the game, which is what I like to think ourselves as, I think it’s a little detrimental to be going to games all the time.

I was a fan of the Raptors specifically before starting our show and there’s a lot better basketball than the Raptors. It was nice to start watching League Pass. I really can’t pinpoint anything other than commenting on the games in the future. Probably not from a traditional standpoint but other than that it’s about creating a daily show at this point.

If you’re creating a weekly show then you have more time for those sort of features that you’d get if you were to go courtside or have game access. It’s a different animal. What I was getting at with having to be home and catching up and reading and watching and not being able to do that going to live games, it sort of lends itself to the daily show.

If you want to be an “expert”, it’s really less about what goes down in the arena and more of the sport as a whole. I think it’s possible that when the league evolves where we have independent commenting on games, sort of like TNT has their Overtime Channel, where you can watch four cameras, or I could see voiceovers talking over those feeds as well.

One other small thing, what I’d like to see in general is an all audio channel of just in-arena sounds, like we talked on our show before. No commentary. Just from a fan perspective. Microphones at either end by the scorer’s table just somebody controlling the mics that are filtered through a digital channel or a website. We don’t need to hear the commentators all the time. We can just hear shoes squeaking, trash talking and some serious swearing. The profanity might be a problem.

Seven second delay.

Yeah, they could do it for sure. I think people probably assume the NBA’s worse than it is for it’s profanity as well I’ve been courtside once. But from my expert opinion being at courtside once, but I’d love to see a channel like that.

You can catch the Starters on NBA TV at 6:00 PM EST, stream at live at NBA.com, or subscribe on iTunes. 

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