Pint size Rachel Nichols played soccer growing up because it was low to the ground. In basketball, her indoctrination included watching Michael Jeffery Jordan as a member of the Chicago Bulls. Nichols went to Northwestern University and had a front row seat to Air Jordan.
“I got to sit there behind a notebook, and he occasionally spoke to me and I would be terrified. I didn’t talk for like the first three or four practices that we covered. I was just trying to not get noticed and learn and do. By the fourth time, he just looked at me in the middle of a press clump of people and was like, “What, you don’t speak? Do you not speak?”
Nichols likely responded with some ridiculous question because she was so nervous. But that experience actually helped her when it was time to do a formal sit-down interview with No. 23.
“I was like, okay, I’m good. There have been moments along the way where I felt like I’ve gotten to at least get a little peek about these people who have done extraordinary things, and that feels special.”
She met Scottie Pippen during those days. At the time, Rachel was 19-years-old interning for a newspaper and trying to get up the courage to ask him questions. Twenty years later, Pippen would join Nichols on her groundbreaking daily NBA talk show on ESPN, The Jump.
She recruited Hall of Famers like Pippin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tracy McGrady, and Paul Pierce to be on the show with her, along with many other notable names in the NBA. The Jump was widely considered appointment viewing for not just fans, but players and coaches as well. Countless players cycled through. They’d sit around and talk basketball as friends and provide great conversation.
“It’s nice to feel you’ve been around long enough to have earned people’s trust,” she said. “I watch about 200 basketball games a year. You do that enough and people understand that you’ve done the work.”
Nichols’ professional career covering the NBA coincided with Kobe Bryant’s ascension in the league.
“It’s harder when you’re starting. It’s hard to get people to trust you. And Kobe’s rookie year, it was not a picnic for either one of us. His teammates didn’t love that this kid was there and, in some cases, showing them up,” she said. “I went to LA to do a story on him. I can tell you exactly where we were sitting, on a bench, and it’s like one of those time lapses where practice ends, and everybody slowly leaves.”
“And the lights didn’t actually go out but that’s how it felt. We just talked and talked about what it felt like to be the kid that nobody wanted there. It created this early bond between us, and to see what he became was very special. It’s crazy over a 20-year basketball career to have a front row seat to someone’s life, and especially his life.”
The Jump hit the scene in 2016. Nichols created and hosted the show, her elevator pitch was that it should be an afternoon basketball show, sitting around with your friends, talking about hoops, “except what if one of your friends was Tracy McGrady.” She really wanted T Mac on the show and the executives made it happen.
“There wasn’t much convincing because they did it. But they were like, “How is he on TV? And I told them we haven’t tested him, but we don’t need to. We can teach him how to be on TV. We can’t teach him to be a Hall of Famer.”
The Jump began as a six-month trial and went on to enjoy a five-year run. It went from a half hour to an hour over time as well. On top of that, it went from just in the season to year-round programming.
From MJ to Kobe to Lebron, Nichols has seen it all in the NBA. She’s experienced full circle moments as well. She saw Lebron go from kid to king. She saw Kobe go from good to great. And she watched Jordan transition from player to owner. She covered Jordan the player in both Chicago and DC. Nichols vividly remembers the beginning of his ownership stint in Charlotte.
“I was sitting in his office, and we were talking about old stuff and at the end of it, I asked him to come downstairs and join us on set. He just looks at me and says, I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have to.”
The Emmy award winning journalist has always been one of the best in the business. Her track record speaks for itself, and she’s earned her respect from viewers and those she’s covered.
“If you’re around long enough, people think, “Oh, she must be good, she’s still here.” I’ve been doing it for a long time. That is a big part of it. I am super lucky.”