Q&A with The Starters: An all-star homecoming

The Starters' Tas Melas (right) and J.E. Skeets.

NBA All-Star Weekend has seen just about every basketball media personality make his/her way here to Canada and while each person is unique, there are a few who stand out more than others.

Take, for example, NBA TV’s The Starters, a daily talk show that originated as the most popular NBA podcast in the world called “The Basketball Jones” right here in Toronto.

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Sportsnet got a chance to catch up with Tas Melas and J.E. Skeets, the Starters’ original founders, before the all-star festivities began to ask them a little bit of everything as they returned home to cover an event they couldn’t fathom would ever come to Toronto when they first launched their podcast a decade ago.

Sportsnet: What was it like to initially leave home, go down to the NBA TV and Turner studios in Atlanta to do the new gig then come back here for an event like this? Could you ever have imagined?

Tas Melas: Absolutely not. It doesn’t seem real, to be honest. I think until Saturday, Sunday — we’ve been here for several days — it’s still not really registering. Until, I think, the ball tips and we’re in the Air Canada Centre…it feels like we’re back home but it doesn’t feel like All-Star Weekend is here quite yet. No one could ever have imagined it.

SN: What was it like when you first got down to Atlanta? How were you received?

J.E Skeets: It was tough. It was like going into any new place. You’re the new kids. You’re trying to figure out where you fit in this huge corporation — NBA TV and Turner.

And [laughs] we’re so different, there’s no doubt, in sports broadcasting that we glaringly stand out so I think a lot of people — and I’m talking mostly the former players on TV as analysts — were just trying to figure out, ‘Who are these guys? What’s their story?’ That takes a while, and it did.

I’d say it wasn’t until that second year that we started to build relationships with those guys. They see the work we’re putting in and then, if anything, they’re our biggest champions, our biggest supporters because they know how much work we put in. It’s such a different show from what they’re doing and they seem to like it [laughs]. A lot of these guys now want to come on our show when in the first year it was, ‘Who are these guys? Why are they here?’

TM: The same goes from the fan perspective as well. We look different, we’re not former athletes, so we just stand out like a sore thumb and it takes a while for people to adjust.

SN: When you guys first started, did you ever think a couple guys from Toronto just talking hoops in your condo could’ve turned into the biggest basketball podcast in the world?

JS: I mean, no, quite frankly. I don’t think we sort of had any idea or long-term idea of where the show could go, but it didn’t take long to realize that we were decent at what we could do with the show and what we could make, and that people wanted something like the show — I think that was the biggest thing. And they didn’t care if it was two Canadians talking about it. They just liked the concept of the show — the idea, the content — and it didn’t really matter.

I mean, for the longest time people didn’t even know we were Canadian — which is weird because we talked about the Raptors a lot. A lot of international people just assumed that we would be Americans because we’re talking about basketball.

SN: I know you guys still sort of do both, but your weekly Drop podcast in addition to your daily shows, but what was the transition like going from a podcast-only show, to a television show?

JS: We thought at one point they could be the same, and while we sort of can at times, if you really want to do TV really well and you really want to do podcasting really well, they’re two separate mediums.

And while we tried to make them one for a good chunk of time, it became clear that they really are at their best just when you focus on making a really good TV show and when you focus on making a good hour-long, hour-and-a-half long Drop podcast, which is what we do now.

SN: Some of your most popular content when you were here in Toronto was your skits and musical numbers. That sort of stuff isn’t featured as heavily in the new show, any plans on bringing that stuff back?

JS: What we try do now is to do stuff like that in a live format, for a number of reasons. The biggest one is how much time and work goes into doing those separately, because we’ve got a daily show to make Monday through Friday, and the Drop podcast, so a sixth show as well. So trying to do those things in a live setting. They’re different, but we can do it. We’ve had success doing little stunts — like a guy dressed as a pickle coming through our set and stuff.

TM: Doing stuff off time, off hours, or separate from the television production also takes away from the actual show. So you don’t want to be exhausted.

There’s how many hours that must be put into a television show, and there’s a ton of hours that have to be put into those separate skits which we were able to do a little bit more of in the past, but we try to merge the two and get the most out of our television show. That’s the bread and butter, it’s Monday-Friday, and we’ve got to make those shows the best as possible. So that’s what we’re focused on.

SN: Is NBA All-Star Weekend your favourite event to do? I know you guys have been doing Summer League and have looked to be having a great time, as well.

JS: Recently NBA TV has been sending us to Vegas for a very long time — it can be very long in Vegas when you’re there longer than three days — but I’d say [All-Star Weekend] is more fun to me. I mean it’s the stars. It’s the best basketball players in the world for a weekend converging in one city and just all the hoopla around it is pretty exciting.

Summer League is a whole different beast. There are die-hard basketball fans, no doubt, but these guys are trying to make the league and you get the rookies and stuff like that. They’re different, but all-star is still, by leaps and bounds, more exciting, that’s for sure.

SN: What do you think the impact of this weekend will have on Canadian basketball going forward?

TM: It’s happened throughout the NBA world over the last few years where Toronto has grown as a basketball city in many peoples’ minds, but this solidifies it, I think, in the younger players’ minds who may have come here once in their career. They come see it as a glamorous city, see it in the same realm as a New York or real cities that people tell them they should visit.

I think for the vets over the last several years it was solidified after those amateurish years that people didn’t think this was a basketball city, but I think it’s more so for the young players that look at this town now and say, ‘Wow, that’s a great city.’ Put it in the same category as the other big cities as a basketball town.

JS: And I think it’s huge, too, for even just the young fans. They get to go to NBA Centre Court. That stuff, if you’re eight years old and you’re still into all sports and you get to go to that and see that and get autographs from players, the NBA does a really incredible job of trying to get all of these stars here out to the public as much as possible.

If you’re a young fan and you’re suddenly getting an autograph from DeMar DeRozan at a Foot Locker, that’s big. If you take a photo with him, it can have quite an impact on your allegiance to a team, to a player and to a sport.

TM: Yeah, like Andrew Wiggins is doing events in Vaughan. I saw him last month and he mentioned the fact that kids get to see the stars and get to connect with them and they’re right there, it’s real close. A kid may never get a chance to go to the Air Canada Centre. He was out in Vaughan interacting with fans. So again, it’s a real basketball town and the stars should come here.

SN: You guys were obviously big Toronto Raptors fans when you were doing the podcast and mentioned your season tickets quite a bit, do you still have them?

TM: No.

JS: We wish we did [laughs]. We wish the Raptors were playing when we were home here for the week, but they’re on the road trip for all-star break. So we can’t even see a game over here — at least a Raps game.

SN: Would you still consider yourselves to be big Raptors fans?

JS: We’re still huge Raptors fans. We get a lot of Raptors gear, and all I cared about was trying to get to a game while we were here. We’re not fooling anyone. Everyone knows we were basketball fans when we started the show and you’re not going to lose your fandom just because you’re on a show. That to me is silly. I think people would look right through that and go, ‘That’s fake.’

We basically make fun of each other about how much the other guy brings up the Raptors.

SN: Thoughts on where you think the Raptors are finishing this season?

JS: They’re gonna be in the playoffs, again. I am confident, knock on wood, no injuries, of course — because that’s always come into play the last couple years down the stretch — but if they’re not injured or at least are fairly healthy, they’re going to win their second playoff series ever. I feel good about that, I feel confident about that.

TM: I agree. There’s a different attitude to this team. Last year has left a bad taste in their mouth, and Kyle Lowry is a different player, and the second half of last year was pretty abysmal and the playoffs were pretty abysmal, but I think he learned from that.

This is the best Kyle Lowry we’ve ever seen, this is the best DeMar DeRozan we’ve ever seen, you’ve got the attitude of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph, even, I think, just across the board, this team is better. Even if they don’t end up with the same amount of wins, there’s just a bit more of an attitude, they’re a bit tougher. They’ll get to the second round.

JS: They need to win Game 1. If they win Game 1 I feel good, if they don’t then we’re right back to square one.

SN: Despite the Raptors’ success, the city has been reluctant to jump on board. Why do you think that is?

JS: They were playing really well around this time last year, too. Maybe that attitude changes if they’re playing this well and if they’re doing this in March and early April then I think people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, this could be real here,’ because they’ve been really good the last couple all-star breaks and then they’ve played less than .500 ball.

Really, until they win that first game, or that first-round series, it’s going to be tough for people to put trust in them and I don’t think you can really blame them, right?

TM: We were talking to Masai Ujiri about this. It’s the balance of do we keep going with this great chemistry that we have here, or do we mess it up a little bit with a new part, because he’s looking for a power forward, he told us that and everybody knows that.

SN: Thanks a lot for doing this guys.

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