Former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Ryan Hollins was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. The 10-year NBA veteran discussed his various stints around the league, some of his favorite former teammates, his transition to broadcasting, life at ESPN and more. Listen to the conversation above or read a transcribed version below.
There are much bigger concerns than sports right now and we hope everybody is staying healthy. But we are a sports podcast and website, so we do look at things from that angle. I have to ask: What’s it like working at ESPN when there are no sports to cover or discuss?
Ryan Hollins: Man, it’s tough. We really don’t know what to do next. Everybody’s kind of waiting and hoping that the NBA season doesn’t get canceled in full, and just seeing what the next move is. Hopefully, this virus can get contained, essentially, so we can move forward.
We’ll get back to your broadcasting career in a bit, but let’s discuss your upbringing. Growing up in Pasadena, when did you first get into basketball?
RH: I would say probably around the first or second grade. My dad put a basketball hoop in the backyard. I remember my neighbor picked me up from school, which was really odd because he’d never picked me up from school before so I knew there was something going on. When I got home, there was a hoop there and from that point, it was on. I remember my first basketball memories where I started understanding what was going on in the game; it was the  Finals with Shaq going one-on-one against Hakeem. And I remember seeing those two go at it and, being a tall kid at the time, I really fell in love with the game of basketball. I was pulling for Shaq, my dad was pulling for Hakeem; it was something we really bonded over. Then, UCLA won the national championship in 1995 and, from that moment on, I knew I wanted to be Bruin. It was those two moments combined that really just got me hooked onto the game of basketball.
As you were growing up, did you have a big growth spurt at some point or was it pretty gradual?
RH: I would say my freshman year, I came into the year 6-foot-2, which is really tall but regular; nothing crazy. By the end of the year, I was 6-foot-5 in the exact same school year. Then, I came back the next year at 6-foot-7. So, people were freaking out like, “Wait, weren’t you just 6-foot-2?” (laughs) What was funny was I just looked like a big kid. Like, there was no facial hair, no deep voice, no nothing, but I was standing about 6-foot-5. That’s when certain people could see like, “Man, that’s not normal, dude. You’re gonna end up being really, really tall.” And… I was! It just a late spurt for me.
In addition to basketball, I read that you competed in the high jump too. How did you get into that?
RH: It was funny. A good friend of mine went to my rival high school, PHS, and he was doing high jump. He was bragging to me about how he jumped 5-foot-8 and I go, “I can beat that.” He goes, “No, you can’t. It’s harder than it looks.” He talked trash to me, so I went out and joined the track team to do jumps. One thing led to another and I started to progress. After basketball season, in your senior year, you really don’t have anything else to do. You’re kind of sitting around and I really hadn’t had that experience for the majority of my life. There was no spring ball or no summertime [sport], you’re really done so track just made sense. I was like, “Hey coach, I’m gonna join the team.” Next thing you know, I’m improving and I end up taking third in the state in high school, which was a wild experience because I never expected that to happen. (laughs)
You cleared 6-foot-10 at the Pac-10 championships in college. Did you enjoy competing in the high jump while at UCLA, and how much did that help you in terms of your basketball development?
RH: It was cool, jumping at UCLA. I had some of the funniest times of my life doing that, honestly. What was crazy is, I was athletic – I could jump a little bit – but I couldn’t fly. I remember when I came back from track and field, I was literally flying on the court when I was jumping, but it took a while for my muscles to get used to it. Ultimately, honestly, I don’t think I become a pro basketball player if I don’t do track because the muscles that I developed were [so important]. I mean, it was insane the way that I was jumping, and I didn’t really necessarily expect it. It was like, “Whoa, where did this come from?”
Fast forward to your draft night. You were picked No. 50 overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in the 2006 NBA Draft. What was that night like for you since you had to wait until the final 10 picks to hear your name?
RH: Yeah, draft night was fairly stressful for me. My agent told me that I could go anywhere from 10th in the draft to 50th, realistically. I had tested well, I was strong, I jumped well, I benched well, I made jump shots. I was just kind of blowing away the draft [workouts] to the point where I remember being up in Portland and Nate McMillan kind of stopped the workout and brought me into the office and was like, “Hey, I love you. I want you to be a part of our team.” I remember the Nets’ workout went crazy like that. At the Sonics’ workout, I think I jumped from the free-throw line off two feet. I was really blowing through a lot of these workouts. I didn’t know where I would go, and my name drops all the way to the 50th pick. What’s funny is that my agent told me to work out for the Charlotte Bobcats; it was one of my last workouts, it may have even been last. I remember telling him, “Why am I working out for Charlotte? All they have is the third pick and the 50th pick. I know I’m not going to third and I know I’m not going 50th either… I don’t want to do the workout.” He convinced me to go and do the workout, and they ended up being the team that took me.
It was a crazy experience just emotionally, sitting there waiting and not knowing when you’re going to be drafted with your friends and family there. And what’s even crazier is, I get drafted during a commercial. I was mad, bro; I was mad and someone told me I got drafted and I said, “Yeah right, man.” When my name went across the bottom of the screen, I was stressed, but I was happy. Then, a few moments later, [Charlotte’s] Bernie Bickerstaff and Michael Jordan call me on the phone. I’m like, “Dude, is this real?” Dude, it felt like a video game, bro. Like, Michael Jordan is on the phone talking to me! I just couldn’t believe it. [He] was like, “Welcome to Charlotte!” Wow!
Thinking you could go as high as No. 10 and instead of going No. 50 had to make you hungry. It’s rare to see someone have a 10-year career in the NBA after being one of the last picks in the draft. Did that experience motivate you?
RH: It was absolutely motivating. I knew that the scouts had really missed out on something. I had a real chip on my shoulder and I knew I was better than a lot of the guys that were getting drafted ahead of me. So, for me, the motivation was crazy. Honestly, every team that didn’t draft me, I had [them on] a hit list and it was like, “Yo, you’re going to know my name and you’re going to see me and I’m going to catch you during the year.” My goal was to make the people that didn’t come and make me eat a lot of those words. When it came to the draft, that was my mindset; I had to go in and prove myself. And it ended up working out.
Was there a specific season that was the most fun for you? Whether it because of individual success, team success or just the guys you played with, is there one season that stands out?
RH: If we’re saying the most fun, I gotta say the Lob City Clippers [from 2012-to-2014] I’d never had a season that fun, that enjoyable. I mean, with every game, we were blowing teams out of the water. We weren’t beating teams, we were blowing out the NBA. We had two units that could come in and play at a high clip. Both of our units could have started. I mean, this is who’s off the bench: Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford. We could’ve, easily, started anywhere in the league at that time. Man, it was just nuts. We would come in and, I swear to God, it didn’t even feel like basketball, bro. We were beating so many different people that it did not feel like basketball. It was a blast, man. I mean, it was like 10 dunks a game. I remember being in STAPLES Center and hearing the crowd just scream and I was like, “Yo, you don’t get this [often].”
You know when there’s a once-in-a-lifetime dunk? Every once in a while, a dude gets dunked on or something crazy happens. That would happen five or six times a game! I mean, Blake [Griffin] would literally jump over guys. DeAndre [Jordan] would catch something off the rim. I would get a dunk. Eric Bledsoe would come down and get a dunk. Jamal would go through somebody’s legs. Matt Barnes would race down and get like a highlight block or hit a corner three. It was a highlight the entire time! The crowd would be so loud. Our goal was funny. About five-to-seven minutes in, our whole five would get in off the bench and our goal was to make sure the starters never had to come back in. Half of the time, they didn’t have to come back in! Teams, literally, when they started playing us, they would leave their stars in the whole entire time because we were just blasting teams off the bench. It was crazy.
That team was so much fun to watch. On the opposite end of the spectrum, was there a season that was the worst or most frustrating for you to get through?
RH: The toughest one was the second season when I went back to Cleveland because I want to be moved, I want to be traded, and we had voiced that to the front office coming in. Semih Erden was drafted – or he was stashed – and then came in. Chris Grant kind of told me, “Hey, this guy’s here to take your minutes and to play.” And I’m like, “Well, move me because the Celtics want me and I want to play for the Celtics. Why don’t you let me go?” And they would not move me. Going to a team when, in the back of your mind, you don’t want to play there, you don’t want to be there, the team is losing and your minutes are up and down… I was never committed or bought into the team. It was just crazy coming into work every single day, knowing that.
Then, when I got moved [to Boston], I went from maybe the worst scenario to one of the best scenarios because I got a chance to play with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass and all of those guys, and I got to play for Doc Rivers. We won and had more success than I’d ever seen in the NBA. I really felt like I was a part of something there, so, ironically, that was like the tale of two seasons. Everybody forgot that I was in Cleveland earlier that year when I played for Boston. All they remember is Boston.
Going from worst to first is always nice. But your first season in Cleveland was right after LeBron James left the Cavaliers and the team went from 61-21 to 19-63. That seemed like such a strange year.
RH: It was tough. It’s like breaking up with your ex and you’re not quite over your ex, so all you talk about is your ex. They were like, “We’re so glad he’s gone!” But you’re mad that he’s gone. You know what I’m saying? That was a weird thing. Like, as a player, you want to move on. I remember when we played the Heat, it was more so, “Do this to LeBron. What about LeBron?” It was so selfish, to me, from a fan standpoint that no one cared about us. Like, all you care about is LeBron losing rather than worrying about us as players – guys like Anthony Parker, Anderson Varejao, Joey Graham, all those guys that were on the team. For me, that’s what was really frustrating and selfish from the fans’ standpoint. I will say, though, that season was really tough. From a schematic standpoint, the entire team – JJ Hickson and all those guys – were built to play off of LeBron and then you take LeBron away and we didn’t have anybody to create shots for us. So, we just really, really struggled to score. Then, Andy ends up getting hurt; there were a number of injuries in the front line. Antawn Jamison did what he could, but we struggled because taking LeBron out of the equation was incredibly tough and there was no one really to replace him.
What was it like being in the building when LeBron returned to Cleveland for the first time to face the Cavaliers? Watching on TV, it seemed like such a wild, hostile environment.
RH: I’ve never seen anything like it. Man, your head was on a swivel the whole night. I can’t even… It’s hard to even relate that experience to anything else because nothing in my life compared to it. When LeBron first came in, there was such anticipation and the boos were so loud. They sounded like one big roar. Usually, it just sounds like, “Boo! Boo!” Like, you can single out each one individually. This was like a vortex, bro. It was insane and it lasted probably 5-to-10 minutes straight. I had never in my life heard anything like that. And when he came in, it was just a weird atmosphere and everyone was uncomfortable.
I think LeBron was still kind of growing into his own at the time and I remember during the game – they ended up beating us, they pulled away – LeBron tried to create like this Michael-Jordan-like moment where he comes over to our bench and starts talking to our bench. He was talking to Boobie Gibson, and [I was thinking], “LeBron, that’s not a genuine situation. Why are you over here?” Like, it just looked so forced and so bad. I think, for LeBron, he had so much maturing to do because of where he came from. Before, LeBron was always used to things being handed to him. And LeBron really grew into his own and let those moments just organically happen. But he’d been used to doing so many amazing things, so I think that was part of his struggles. He was young, man, and he had to find his way. But, I mean, that night in itself was just wild because it was just bigger than basketball. And you had a lot of people there that still had LeBron’s back; I would say, man, every 5-to-10 minutes, there was a fight breaking out in the stands. It was wild, bro.
You played for nine teams in 10 NBA seasons. That’s tough from a basketball standpoint with many new coaches and teammates, but also from a personal standpoint – constantly moving and not settling down. What was that like?
RH: It was incredibly tough. I got used to it halfway through my career and some guys aren’t fortunate to get that far. But I would say the toughest thing was that you never have a rapport with one coach or certain teammates, so you don’t get into a groove. So, a guy like myself, I never know how good I could have been because I was always learning different terminology, different strategies. Now, obviously, as an analyst, it worked out because I can spot what a team runs, why they run it, how they run it, what makes them special and I understand the coaching aspect. But as a young player, trying to figure the game out, [it was hard]. One coach wants me to set my screen and hold it. Then, the next year, I’m getting told to set my screen and slip. You know what I’m saying? Or, “Hey, we’re running pick-and-roll. All you do is pick a roll.” Then, you get with Kurt Rambis and he’s like, “All we’re doing is posting up this year.” It was tough. Every single coach and play is absolutely different, so that was the craziest part. People don’t know, but that’s what it’s like being a pro. Later in my career, those adjustments came immediately because I knew what worked. “Hey, you’re supposed to defend and run and do X, Y, and Z.” [I was able to] be a couple steps ahead rather than be a couple steps behind. But as a young player, that was very, very hard.
It makes sense that it helps you as a broadcaster. Another benefit is that you played with many different teammates over the years. Because of that, I want to play a game. I’ll throw out a superlative and then you tell me which teammate comes to mind and why. Let’s start: Best leader?
RH: Kevin Garnett. He had command of the team – from the coaching staff to the locker room to the trainers. He’s a basketball purist and we just did things the right way with Kevin at the helm. I’ve never seen a leader like him, and I really see his importance to the game. I mean, I probably don’t play another season in the NBA [after 2011-12] if it wasn’t for him, because he taught me how to win in the NBA. He taught me how to approach shootaround seriously, how to prepare for the game, how to close games out, how to calm yourself down in big moments. I mean, he really changed everything I did for the better, man. I attribute a lot to him. And I wouldn’t have been the player that I was without him. Even just for him to do something as simple as instilling confidence in your teammates… I didn’t think you could play team basketball in the NBA. And he taught me that. That was leadership.
Great answer! Funniest teammate?
RH: Man, I got a couple who are tied for funniest: Jared Dudley, Lance Stephenson and Tony Allen. Those guys were just hilarious, man. Every day, there was something, and sometimes it was happening literally in the game. Shoot, Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre [Jordan] are probably tied for that too; they’re hilarious. And, obviously, you see what Blake has shown in the comedy world. There were so many guys, to me, who were absolutely hilarious.
RH: Let me think… Maybe JJ Redick, possibly? I mean, obviously, basketball-wise, but I will say JJ is really analytical and you’ll see him on the plane and he’ll have, like, The New York Times in hand or he’ll be reading a book. Most of us were listening to some tunes or watching a movie, but he’s got a book in hand. There were a couple guys like that. I’m probably missing a few here, but JJ definitely comes to mind.
RH: KG, I will definitely throw in there one of the hardest workers. Let me think who else, man. You know, intriguingly, all of the fellow journeymen and the guys who came from the G League, those guys go really hard. All of those G League guys were just working their butts off. Who else? I would say someone who gets slept on when it comes to his work ethic is Paul Pierce. I would pride myself on getting to the gym really early or coming back at night to do stuff. I remember, for some reason, I came into the gym about 6:30 a.m. after a road trip; I’ll tell you, Paul Pierce was in that gym after a road trip and he probably got started around 5:00 a.m. People just didn’t see when Paul put work in. But Paul had a way of being obsessive about the way that he worked at his craft, and it wasn’t for everybody to see. But one thing about Paul: If you play against Paul, he plays in slow motion, but Paul is an incredible athlete. He’s always deceptive. He always wanted people to think [different things]. “Oh man, think I’m slow! Think I can’t jump! Think I can’t shoot!” Then, you look up and he’s killing you. So, Paul Pierce is, to me, definitely one of those guys.
Best trash-talker? (I think I know the answer).
RH: KG, for sure. You’d hear him across the whole arena. He would talk wild and say anything to anybody. He talked to the referees. He talked to opposing players. He had trash to say to LeBron. He had trash to say to literally everybody. It’s hard to shut him up. He’s just going to try you mentally. Before the basketball even starts, he’s going to test you mentally and see where you stand with him, so KG is for sure the best trash-talker that I played with.
Favorite guy to party with?
RH: I gotta think… Who was the best guy party-wise? I would say the veterans who pay, man. (laughs) Yeah, if you went out with a Chris Paul or a Jason Terry or if Jason Kidd showed up somewhere, everything was paid for. There’s like five limos outside, bottle service and everything is taken care of whereas, with the regular guys, you’re kind of on your own. But those max-contract guys and super veterans with 10+ years, you’re going to be taken care of at whatever event you go to with them. That’s going to be an A++ event!
You made the transition into broadcasting after taking the Sportscaster U course at Syracuse University. So many of today’s athletes-turned-broadcasters took that course, which provides hands-on experience like mock interviews and mock color commentating. How helpful was that for you in figuring out your post-NBA path?
RH: The course was everything because I got to see whether I want to do this or not. It was like, “Alright, go do it and let me know if you have a passion for it. Does it drive you crazy? Is this something that you want to be good at? How does it make you feel?” When I first started getting my tape and my film back from broadcasting or getting in front of the lights, that drove me nuts. And I was like, “Man, this is something that I want to do. I really want to be good at this.” Broadcasting just gave me the “itch,” like they always talk about. I got the itch from broadcasting and Sportscaster U, so that experience really got me going.
You’ve told me that you love the competitiveness that comes with this job, like when you’re debating someone head-to-head. A lot of guys leave the NBA and can’t find a way to replace that. Do you feel like your role with ESPN sort of fills that void for you when it comes to competing?
RH: Yeah, it does. It does, for the most part, because I always have in the back of my mind that somebody’s watching. There’s an executive or general manager or producer that’s watching from another show when I get on. Whenever you play in the NBA, [it’s the same thing]. Even when we warm up, the veterans will tell you that all 29 teams watch you warm-up before you play, so don’t go out sandbagging anything – there are guys with a pen and pads just watching you warm-up, seeing if there’s something that they’re missing from what you do. “Hey, can the guy shoot a three?” They’ll watch him shoot threes in his warm-up routine. Anything that I go on television-wise, to me, that’s always a tryout. Even when I’m posting content, I’m posting it for my boss. I’m not posting it for my friends or the fans, even though that’s nice [that they’ll see it]. I know that the boss is going to see what I’m doing and hopefully enjoy the content I put out, and maybe I’ll get an opportunity that’s even bigger from the network.
You were obviously on TV throughout your NBA career, but it was different. Now, people see your personality and hear your opinions instead of just watching you play. I’m sure people sort of feel like they know you now. Was that something you had to adjust to early on?
RH: Yeah, man, I would say it’s two-fold. For one, it’s like a breath of fresh air that I get to express my opinions. I get to say things that we would normally say in the locker room; I can just be honest and speak my mind. I can say if I think this guy is better than that guy. When you’re a player and you say that, it’s bulletin-board material – you don’t want to be the topic of discussion and it’s very, very frowned upon. That’s not what you want to do. Now, in broadcasting, if I felt like a team did a good or bad job, I can go out and say that, so there was a strong level of refreshment. I would say, though, it is a little tough because a lot of people in today’s day and age, in a social-media era, people see you from your biggest clip. There’s not too many guys like you that are die-hard and that know our personalities. So, if you saw 30 seconds of Ryan Hollins on First Take or on Bleacher Report, that’s who you think I am because a lot of people don’t know who I am. And some people go, “Oh man, you’re this or that,” or they’ll talk to me and they want to start debating something or talking about something. And it’s like, dude, I don’t want to talk about LeBron and MJ! (laughs) But people think that’s what I’m all about. I’m actually very analytical and, really, a basketball nerd. In my mind, if we want to break down the game and the Xs and Os, great! But people just get fired up and want to hear them talk about “who’s the greatest of all-time?” or “who’s the best?” and that’s not always what I’m looking to do.
In your job, you’re debating and coming up with takes. And whenever you’re sharing your opinions, they can be polarizing at times. I’ve seen your name trend on Twitter after you give a certain take or a certain clip goes viral like you said. What’s it like dealing with that aspect of that job, where you say something polarizing and everyone reacts?
RH: For me, it’s frustrating in a sense. Well, it has become a frustration – and I’ll say this – from the bosses aspect. It’s frustrating to me what my bosses or the executives or the people that make the calls [think] – and not in a disrespectful manner. But if I go on SportsCenter, my job is to break down what the average fan didn’t know and educate the fan. If I go on First Take, my job is to debate and, essentially, push news or push media. If I go on the show Now or Never, it’s a culture-based, fun type of show. Every show brings a different flavor to it. So, for me, if our job is to debate or create breaking news somewhat, it’s not about what you say, it’s how you say it, so I’m going to break news. And I think for me to be stereotyped or locked into that [role] where people kind of buy into a 30-second clip and [think], “Oh, is Ryan Hollins a guy we should be scared of?” To me, you haven’t done your homework, you haven’t read your scouting report. That kind of frustrates me – I guess you would say being labeled in that sense by some people or the bosses. Because, look, I feel like the fans are going to be the fans. The fans are going to take whatever the media give them. But thinking that someone isn’t qualified to do a job or puts them in an awkward situation, I think that frustrates me in that element. Always [being like], “Oh, what is Ryan Hollins gonna say?” No, I’m gonna go home and do my job, what’s required of it. I think that part, for me, has been frustrating a little bit.
That makes sense. I worked in radio and that work was very different from what I do now. In that world, you’re debating and forced to take sides. There’s also the idea that you need two people to disagree about something because it’s much more entertaining. In broadcasting, you sometimes want to say something that gets people to react and call-in and things like that. Sometimes, you have to pick sides to make things more interesting. Is that part of it too?
RH: No, well, what’s interesting is that we’ll be in a pre-production meeting and myself and Max [Kellerman] and Stephen A. [Smith] and Will Caine and whoever, we’ll actually agree. We’ll agree more times than not on 99 percent of the subjects, but there’s an angle in which we don’t agree. So there’s nothing that’s manufactured, I would say, but it is for TV. Because if I went on [about certain topics], I could put you to sleep. I could talk about the Triangle offense and the read versus the backdoor versus flashing to the basketball and how to get a non-shooter open versus a shooter… We could run all those things, but people would fall asleep and they wouldn’t want to watch it. And I think just, like, my strong disappointment is that people would judge something that was just written in a headline like, “Ryan Hollins said Rajon Rondo is better than Chris Paul.” Well, did you hear the other 20 minutes where I broke down why I said that? “Ryan Hollins said LeBron James is this or that.” Did you hear the other however-many minutes? It’s funny, even when I’ll say something like when I felt like Giannis [Antetokounmpo] was not the MVP, there’s a majority – a strong number of people – that felt the same way that I felt. But somehow, Ryan Hollins ends up being the basketball idiot! But I think that’s part of the portrayal. To me, that’s a frustrating part in that. I’m always going to feel confident in the things I say and why I say them. I just would look for justice and why it’s backed up. But I do agree that there’s frustration there. Someone just sees a certain clip and they take away something out of the clip instead of [watching the whole conversation]. It isn’t given justice.
Also, the people who agree with you just continue on with their day. It’s the people who disagree – or who already have something against you, for some reason – who get worked up and call you out on social media. When you say something polarizing and there’s a big reaction, do you block it out? Does it bother you?
RH: I don’t mind it until it starts messing with my money. And I’ve had some of these situations mess with my money. And I’ve had to reach out to people. Maybe I’m just old school or I still have a hooper’s mentality where [I’m] like, “Hey, Coach, if I mess up in the game, pull me to the side, let’s have a pep talk.” Like, “Hey, this guy’s off limits or whatever.” You know what I’m saying? And it’s messed with my money in that I’m judged on, “Oh, he’s gonna say this,” or, “He may do that,” and, to me, that’s the frustrating part – when it actually messes with financials or messes with opportunities. Where it’s, “Oh man, can this guy talk to this guy?” or, “How does he feel with the players?” When I see a player or a coach, they come up to me and say, “Man, you told the truth.” Or if a guy has a frustration… I mean, I’ve talked to some megastars. I’m not gonna say names, but guys have hit me and say, “Man, I didn’t agree with what you said or why you said it.” And I said, “My bad, brother.” I may even say (and I won’t say any names): “Hey, listen, I’m actually a big fan and advocate of yours. But did your people come back and run [to you] when I say you should be MVP? Or when I said certain positive things about you? They just ran and took the one negative angle that was said.” So, I think it’s a part of the game, [these] learning experience. I don’t mind it. I will be honest. But I would just love if people would actually dive into what is said a little more than just the 30-second clickbait, you know?
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