Q+A: Jay Harris
The daily SportsCenter anchor talks shop with SLAM.
A couple of weeks ago, SLAM editor-in-chief Ben Osborne was on a speaking panel at an Athletes for Charity event with ESPN’s Jay Harris. After expressing their mutual respect, Jay agreed to do an interview with us. The 6 p.m. SportsCenter staple took some time out before a recent show to answer our questions. Harris has been with ESPN since 2003, and became the weekday SportsCenter co-anchor in 2006. He discussed the NBA Playoffs, balling in Bristol, and shared some of his memorable experiences at ESPN. He even gave a little advice to those who wish to become a sportscaster someday. Enjoy.—Ed.
by Cris Jones / @heirjones
SLAM: Are there any moments that stick out in your mind that define your time at ESPN?
Jay Harris: I’ve had a lot of good NBA conversations. A couple in studio chats with Dwight Howard. I kind of shamed him into following me on Twitter. During an interview segment I was like, “look Dwight, I’m following you, and you’re not following me.” And he was like, “uhh, uhh, see, I was following the fake Jay Harris. I thought it was you. And, and, I’ll follow you now.” It was pretty entertaining. I had a nice chat with LeBron when he won his MVP. I had a good chat with DWade. But he wouldn’t put me in his “five.”
SLAM: I wonder if he even uses T-Mobile. I wouldn’t use that service myself.
JH: [Laughs] I should have asked on TV. I had a real funny chat last year with (NASCAR driver) Jimmie Johnson, after he won his fifth straight title. When we did the four-hour marathon after George Steinbrenner died, a producer got in my ear and said, “Donald Trump is coming on. You’re going to talk to him next.” That was kind of cool. Those things make you say, “my goodness, what am I going to say?” But you don’t have time to get scared. Because the lights are going to come on and you have to say something. And it needs to sound intelligent.
SLAM: So you guys come up with the questions and everything?
JH: On the spot. It depends. Right now, we are working on a show and the coordinating producer has talked to analysts and talent producers to help book guests. And a lot of times, the analysts will come with topics they want to discuss, so the coordinating producer will come up with the questions. Many times we have a particular guest, and the producers will leave it blank and up to us. It just depends, but a lot of the time it’s on the fly and falls on us.
SLAM: So you mentioned Dwight Howard, do you think he was deserving of a third straight Defensive Player of the Year Award?
JH: I think he is deserving. Just by the nature of his numbers. If he’s there, you’re not going any where near him. And you can’t say that for every big man. Sometimes there’s a big, slow, lumbering guy down there, and you say, “I’m going to go at him.” Dwight can shut you down.
SLAM: Do you think wing players get a fair shot at that award any more?
JH: I don’t necessarily think wing defenders or smaller players are getting a raw deal. Unfortunately, they’ve come along in the same era with this man-child in Orlando. It’s like when Michael Jordan was winning all the titles and you felt bad for Stockton and Malone and those guys. But they were just unlucky to come along when Mike was determined to win everything in sight.
SLAM: So I read that you played ball in high school. Do you still hoop now?
JH: I play every now and then. I don’t feel as good the next day as I used to, but I still try to get out there and play.
SLAM: There’s a court on the campus in Bristol, right?
JH: Yup, right outside of the cafeteria. What? Are you trying to play? Challenging me to one-on-one? C’mon! Bring it!
SLAM: I’m down. Who’s the best baller of all the analysts? Excluding ex-NBA guys, of course.
JH: Tough one. I’d have to say (former NFL wide receiver) Cris Carter. I’ve never seen him play, but I heard he can play. He plays a lot.
SLAM: What about the non-athletes? The Brian Kennys, Scott Van Pelts, yourself.
JH: Hey, hey, hey! What do you mean, “non-athletes?”
SLAM: [Laughs] Excuse me, the non-pro athletes.
JH: [Laughs] That’s a very good question. We have a lot of guys who are very athletic. We do all sorts of leagues. We have intramural basketball leagues, we have intramural softball with all the employees. There’s some serious sports played. We’ve got a lot of jocks here, ex-college and ex-high school athletes. Some of the production assistants can really play. We do a basketball league three nights a week at a local high school. There’s some real games played. I don’t know if I could tell you that someone is the best. But there are a lot of good athletes around here.
SLAM: Working at ESPN means you have to be adept at covering all sports, but would you say you’re a basketball guy at heart?
JH: Growing up in Chapel Hill, NC, I’d say yes. Football’s a close second, tied with golf.
SLAM: I know you have to be objective in front of the camera, but when you go home what NBA team are you rooting for?
JH: I’ve been a Celtics fan for years. I had my Mike period, when I was a Bulls’ fan. I don’t know how I grew up a Celtics’ fan in North Carolina, but I did. I liked John Havlicek a lot. I was always a Dr. J fan because we shared the same birthday of February 22.
SLAM: Who is your MVP this year?
JH: Oh, it’s got to be Derrick Rose. I don’t think there’s any argument. I mean, you could make an argument for Dwight Howard. But for his all-around game, and the way he plays it, it’s Derrick Rose. Hands down. He’s a throwback player. The kneepads, and what he can do with the ball. He’s like a power forward in a point guard’s body. He will maul you, and you can’t do anything about it.
SLAM: Was Lamar Odom your pick to win this year’s Sixth Man of the Year Award?
JH: I wish I could say I paid attention that closely, but I didn’t. Lamar’s deserving of the Award, but he needs to be leading a team, as skilled as he is. I think it’s great that he won, but he should be starting and leading a team. He should have gotten an “82 game starter on some other team” award.
SLAM: What teams did you have slated for the Finals before the Playoffs started? And have you changed your mind since then?
JH: I’ve always leaned towards Heat/Lakers. I wanted to go Celtics, but I felt like they would run out of gas. But after the first two games, I’ll stick by my guess. I want to see the Heat in a situation where it’s a minute left and tight. We’ll see how they react to that. But they seem to have finally figured out how to play with each other. Chris Bosh has rounded into his own in the low-post, as well.
SLAM: Did you have a fourth three-peat for Phil, or the Heat winning it all?
JH: I was leaning towards another three-peat, because to put all of that on the Heat in their first season appeared to be too much. But, now—with the way they’re playing—I could really see them doing it.
SLAM: In this post-season, what player are you giving the ball to, down 1, with 10 seconds on the clock?
JH: Dwyane Wade.
SLAM: Surely thought you were going to say Kobe.
JH: The way they’ve come out of the gates so slowly—I mean—he’s still Kobe. But DWade has a pep in his step right now and a little thing in his eye. Kobe’s my No. 2.
SLAM: Were you heavily involved with the media outlets at Old Dominion as an undergraduate?
JH: Nah, man. I was Mr. Extra Curricular, campus leader, fraternity, student senate kind of person. I did a little stint at the campus radio station, and an internship at the local NBC affiliate. But I didn’t do a whole lot of journalism stuff. Not as much as these kids that I meet these days. I didn’t do any of that.
SLAM: What does your day at ESPN typically entail? Besides the 6 p.m. show.
JH: We have an ideas meeting at 11:30 a.m., where we get together to talk about how we want to cover the stories of the day. And we go over the SportsCenter shows that have already come on during the day. We’ll figure out how we want to forward a story from earlier, and how we want to position it. We’ll preview a story for the night, and a producer takes that and throws it into a computer to create the run down and assign stories. And Brian (Kenny) and I sit around and write for most of the day. Researchers find stat nuggets, while production assistants cut the video. We write, write, and write. We cut promos, and do live cut-ins between shows. That’s what we do until the show goes on the air. And a lot of days, the show goes on air as scripted. And a lot of days, we’ll get to 5:10 p.m. and some news will cross that says “Brett Favre has decided to come back for another year,” and the whole show is scrapped and we start fresh.
SLAM: What advice would you give to someone who someday hopes to be an anchor at ESPN?
JH: I would say, write. Anyone can pick up a microphone or put on makeup. But I would say, write. Don’t try to become an anchor, be a storyteller. That’s half of the battle.