Jeff Pearlman

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Sage Steele

#230
The NBA Countdown host, former SportsCenter anchor and one-time Army brat knows embarrassingly little about Diff'rent Strokes, but can offer a masters class on journalism, professionalism, motherhood, persistence, Celine Dion and living the dream. POSTED October 27, 2015

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I love Sage Steele.

No, I don’t love Stage Steele, in some weirdo, “Dear Sage, we should meet and hang out because I’m really cool and you’re really cool” sorta way. I love Sage Steele because, as televised sports media continues to bring forth loudmouths and dunderheads and attention-seeking dolts, she is as respectable and legitimate and insightful as it gets. And I friggin’ love insight.

If you watch professional hoops, you certainly know of Sage, who hosts the Friday and Sunday editions of NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC. But you probably don’t know that Sage was a military brat; that Sage lived in four countries by age 11; that Sage told her family of her future plans of sports casting … when she was 12; that Sage wrestles elephants and knows all the words to every Menudo song and once boxed Mr. T to a draw (OK, those last three aren’t true—that I know of).

One can follow Sage on Twitter and Instagram, or just turn on the dang TV and see her face throughout basketball season. It’s an honor to introduce Sage Steele as magical Quaz No. 230 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Sage, I’m gonna start with one that has nothing to do with sports or media. Earlier this year, in a guest blog post for People’s Celebrity Babies section, you wrote about being a new mother a decade back, and two middle-aged women approaching and asking if you were the nanny of the infant girl who happens to be your daughter. You write that you were “devastated”—and I was wondering why. I don’t mean to belittle your feelings at all. Like, not at all. But in the piece you explained that you are an African-American woman in a mixed marriage, with three kids who were extremely light skinned. And, if we’re being honest here, across America it is surely far, far, far, far more common to see a brown-skinned nanny pushing around white kids than a brown-skinned mother pushing around her white kids. I mean, it sort of seems like an understandable mistake. So … what am I missing?  

SAGE STEELE: I’m actually glad you asked this question. There are so many layers to this. First of all, yes, it is more common to see darker-skinned women as a whole working as nannies versus white women, but I, personally, can’t imagine ever asking someone that question. You know that old saying, “Some things are better left unsaid”? This is a perfect example. If they were that curious and just had to know, there are better questions to ask to find out. Even if they had just asked how old my daughter was, it likely would have been easy for them to figure things out by my answer. I also think that in today’s day and age—and, yes, even 13 years ago when this happened—mixed marriages are so common … especially in the Washington, DC area where we lived at the time, so to assume that I was the nanny based on the color of my skin is pretty presumptuous and close-minded. But maybe the biggest point here is … why does it even matter?

J.P.: I hate how women are treated in sports media. Not all women, obviously. But it seems like you can be a guy and be 60 and look like a pile of pudding and you’re safe, and women need to be perky and blonde and young. Again, obviously not all women. But how do you not wanna scream and say, “We need to fix this!”? This is a topic that comes up a lot, but its probably pointless because I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

S.S.: The double standard has always existed and likely always will. I’m not ignoring the issue, I’m just being realistic. However, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who became a television sportscaster by accident, so the fact that this is a visual medium is something we are all well aware of before we start down this path. Now, that doesn’t mean that I’m not annoyed at times when the only comments I get are related to how I look or what I’m wearing … it just means that there are so many amazing parts of my job that I try to take the good with the bad. You’ve gotta maintain perspective in this industry, and if that’s the worst part about being able to work in sports—my dream job—than I can handle it.

Social media has definitely taken it to another level, and it can certainly be ugly at times. But I really try to focus on the good—and the good part of the “pressure” to look my best is that it has forced me to be healthier. From the way I eat to the amount I exercise, I’m better for it. Most of all, my kids see their mom (and dad, who is in amazing shape at age 44) working hard to be healthy so I can be around as long as possible for them … and they, in turn, are establishing good habits as well. #perspective

Sage's nephew, Colt, pointing excitedly to either his aunt or the Clippers' center.

Sage’s nephew, Colt, pointing excitedly to either his aunt or the Clippers’ center.

J.P.: So I know you were raised in an Army family, I know you grew up in Greece and Belgium until you moved to Colorado Springs in seventh grade—but your path really rivets me. How did you get here? When did the journalism bug bite? Was there an ah-ha! moment? A realization this was your career? A moment when you feel like, looking back, you made it?

S.S.: Yeah, I’m a self-proclaimed Army brat. Proud of it. I lived in four countries by the time I was 11-years old (along with Greece, Belgium and five states in the U.S., I also lived in Panama—all before I graduated from high school). When we returned to the States the summer before seventh grade, I will never forget watching the 1984 Olympic Games on TV as we were moving into our new house. I was in awe of the athletes and their ability to maintain poise under what I considered (and still do) to be unthinkable pressure. I knew I’d never be a good enough athlete to make it to the Olympics in any sport (track and equestrian show jumping were my sports) so I decided that being a sportscaster would be the next best way to be as close as possible to the competitions.

I remember announcing my intentions at dinner one night just before my 12th birthday—my parents and two younger brothers were my witnesses—and sometimes I’m still amazed that my dream actually came true. It obviously took a ton of work, years of ups and downs and doubts and fears and struggles just like everyone else in other professions. But I knew at a young age that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

As far as when I “made it”? The first time I was actually on TV was a big deal—1995 at my first TV job in South Bend, Indiana. Then I anchored my first real sportscast in 1997, working at the CBS station in Indianapolis, and covered my first NFL game that year too—both of which were amazing accomplishments. But since ESPN was always my ultimate goal, the first day I co-hosted SportsCenter was probably the pinnacle!

J.P.: The wife and I just finished watching the last episode of Hard Knocks with the Houston Texans. On one of the days Carli Lloyd visits to talk to the players—and they embrace her, show respect, decency, etc. I was thinking, “No way, 20 years ago, does a pretty young female athlete show up to speak in a pro locker room and not get heckled, catcalled, etc … etc.” You came up in the mid-90s. What were your experiences like as a young woman in sports, and have you seen attitudes change?

S.S.: Overall, I’ve had pretty good experiences. I remember being somewhat shocked working in Indy when I had my first opportunity to break a story. I was 25-years old, covering the Colts, when the player suddenly backed out of the interview and told me the only way he would talk to me on camera is if I went out on a date with him. It took me all of one millisecond to tell him that I was no longer interested in doing the interview … and after I hung up, he called back a few minutes later to tell me that he was just kidding. I interviewed him later that day and it was never brought up again.

Through the years, there were several “moments” while working in NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League locker rooms, but after a while those moments were few and far between because the players and coaches I covered realized that I wasn’t in this business to meet some rich, famous athlete and go on to live happily ever after. It helped once I got married, and really helped once I started having kids. Walking around football fields, locker rooms and even onto team charters with a huge basketball-sized belly was a turn-off to all of them—and it was awesome! But most of all, I got to see the gentlemanly side of so many athletes. I didn’t get special treatment, they were just respectful to me, and I am thankful that overall, my experiences over the last 20 years have been very positive. I’m also one to defend these guys because too many of them get a bad name thanks to the handful of idiots who make headlines.

J.P.: I had always dreamed of working for Sports Illustrated, and when the magazine hired me I sat in my shithole apartment and cried. ESPN was your dream, and you were hired in 2007. A. How’d you land the gig?

S.S.: Funny story. I actually received my first job offer from ESPN in 2004, but turned it down. At the time, I was very pregnant with my second child, I already had a 21-month old at home, and my husband and I wanted more kids. I had heard through the grapevine that working at ESPN wasn’t for the faint of heart, and considering the fact that I would have been starting just a few weeks after giving birth, I knew that there was no way I would be mentally ready for that kind of pressure.

So, much to the chagrin of my agent at the time, as well as some friends and family, I said, “No thanks” and re-signed for three more years at my then-job (anchor/reporter at Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic). Trust me, I was scared that I was possibly throwing away my only chance to fulfill my dream of working at ESPN. Scared to death. But I just knew in my gut that I was making the decision for the right reason—my family.

Three years and one more child later, ESPN made me another offer, and that time I jumped at the chance. Taking that job truly was a dream come true. Twenty-three years after I announced to my family at the dinner table that I wanted to be a sportscaster on ESPN, I was on my way. It was surreal. I was surprised that they still wanted me after originally turning them down, and even before that, I tried to land job there for about four years but was repeatedly told that I wasn’t ready, that I was too green (and they were right). But this time, I knew I was ready. I knew I had worked really, really hard and had tried to always do things the “right way,” and it was unfathomable that it was all paying off.

I’ve now been at ESPN for 8 1/2 years—which is crazy. Remember, as an Army brat, many of us thrive on change, and that’s me in a nutshell. This is by far the longest I have ever been associated with anything in my entire life. Its kinda crazy, but really awesome and I am confident that I will never lose perspective. Being able to say that you achieved your dream, landed your dream job, the same exact job that you wanted since you were 12-years old is so rare. Its a true blessing!

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J.P.: Your brother Chad is the vice president of PR for the Baltimore Ravens. You’re a biggie at ESPN. So, I absolutely have to know, what are Thanksgiving/Christmas dinners like when the Steele family gets together?

S.S.: Not many people realize this but I covered the Ravens as the beat reporter and host of their magazine show for five seasons (2001-2005), and Chad was their PR guy for the final four of those seasons. So, needless to say, we’ve had some very interesting conversations over the years.

I’ll never forget when they hired him in April of 2002. I was at a pre-draft event for the team and after it was over, then-head coach Brian Billick came over to me and … I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically asked me if Chad and I were going to be able to maintain our professionalism despite being siblings working on “opposite sides.” I remember taking a deep breath and biting my tongue because I didn’t appreciate what he was insinuating, but what I did say was two-fold. First, I reminded Brian that I had already been covering his team for an entire season, and they knew I was in it for the long haul when they decided to hire my brother (who had interned for the team in the late 1990s), so that was on them. But more important, I made it very clear to Brian that all the Steele kids (there are three of us) were raised to do things the right way. Individually, we had worked too hard through the years to jeopardize our reputations by giving anyone even an opportunity to perceive any favoritism, conflicts of interest or anything else.

Looking back, we probably went overboard to make sure no one had anything on us, and we legitimately never once crossed any lines that would have put the other in a bad light. It wasn’t always easy for either one of us because we knew that there were always a few who thought I had an advantage when it came to covering the team, and that hurt both of us. But as any good reporter knows, if the PR person is your lone source of information, you have serious issues. No offense to my brother or anyone else in his position, but my “sources” were players and other coaches. Enough said. So we just learned to ignore the haters, because we knew that we both were true pros.

However, there were also so many positives. Its rare to be able to work in such close proximity to a sibling, especially in the sports world, and I must say, it was pretty cool to be able to watch my brother in action. For the first time in my life, he was more than my annoying little brother. He was always a true professional during our time together. He was (still is) damn good at his job, and that compliment comes from his highly critical big sister. It was also quite evident that the players not only liked him, but respected him, and boy did has he had his hands full through the years with stars like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Deion Sanders, Derrick Mason, Jamal Lewis … the list goes on and on. I will never forget those years because I got to witness his growth as a professional in a tough, unique environment. But most of all, I got to get to know him as a man, not just a sibling. He was waiting right outside of the doors of my hospital room in downtown Washington, DC the night I gave birth to my first child, waited for hours on end, and cried when he got to hold her when she was just 5-minutes old, and he has been there ever since for all three of my kids. Family always comes first to Chad, and always will. I miss those years for many reasons, but most of all, I miss getting to see and travel with my little brother (all 6-foot-7, 240 pounds of him).

Sage and Chad, back a few years.

Sage and Chad, back a few years.

J.P.: During your time as an undergrad at Indiana University you waited tables at Colorado Steakhouse. You later told Vigilant Sports’ Scott Agness that “everyone should wait tables” because of the things you learn. Please explain …

S.S.: Yes! In my opinion every American teenager needs a good six weeks of military boot camp to teach/remind him/her how to be responsible, accountable, respectful adults. And everyone should know what it’s like to wait tables. In my humble opinion, having to learn to multitask, speak to strangers, deal with rude people, bite your tongue when necessary and learn the definition of true customer service is priceless. I’m a very generous tipper because of all of those years as a server, but I also have pretty high standards and will let them know if they suck. I usually find a nice, friendly, passive-aggressive way to tell them that they dropped the ball, but I think the best way to let them know is to put a little note below your signature on the credit card receipt to tell them why they got a crappy tip. That way at the end of the night when they have to turn in all of their receipts, their boss sees it, too.

Accountability. What a concept …

J.P.: You made your SportsCenter debut on March 16, 2007, and you seem to consider it your all-time TV nightmare. So … hey! Please tell us what happened. Details!

S.S.: All I’ll say is that I wasn’t prepared. It was the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and I was hosting the 6 pm ET SportsCenter… a show that was always slotted for one hour, but turned into a 2 hour, 45 minute extravaganza to cover all the results that were streaming in. I now know that it would have been a crazy show for any ESPN veteran, much less a rookie like myself.

I was hosting with the incomparable Jay Harris, whom I had just met, and after the carnage we walked out of the studio and he just hugged me as my eyes welled up with tears, convinced that, in my opinion, I had just thrown away the one and only chance I had to make a first impression. Jay told me on the long walk back to the newsroom that none of it was my fault, and that I would be fine. I won’t go into all of the gory details but I will say that there was one executive who is still there today who called me into his office and apologized for setting me up to fail.

Eight and a half years later, I think about that moment a lot because I’m not sure I would have made it had he not said that. But from there, my career path at ESPN (as far as my assignments were concerned) changed drastically. I went from being told that I would be a full-time SportsCenter host to doing early morning updates on Mike & Mike in the morning and First Take. At one point, I was so convinced that they wouldn’t renew my contract that I began selling skin care products on the side to prepare for having to find a new job, a new career. So I would work all morning and into the early afternoon, come home and spend some time with my kids—who were ages 5, 3 and 1—and then go host these skin care parties at friends’ homes at night to try to secure a backup plan financially.

When our first child was born in 2002, my husband gave up his career to stay home because we didn’t want to put our kids in daycare (going down to one salary was a big stretch financially at the time, but our decision was based on whose career had the best earning potential for the future of our family, which is why I kept working), so I became the breadwinner and once things started going south at ESPN, I was scared to death about the future of our family. Eventually, I was given an opportunity to do some filling in on SportsCenter when ESPN launched the live daytime shows in the fall of 2008, and that was the beginning of a slow-but-steady climb. It started with trying to regain my confidence, which was a good two-year process—and then some. Good thing I found it, because I was a horrible salesperson.

With Jalen Rose.

With Jalen Rose.

J.P.: You’re the host of NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC. Which seems like a pretty sweet gig and also reminds me of this: Back in the day, I used to hang a lot with a guy named Russ Bengtson, my pal and the former editor of Slam Magazine. And he was a hoops fanatic—until the sports just seemed to burn him out. It was always the same storylines, just different names on the jerseys. You have the underdog no one believed in, the superstar from nowhere, the hometown kid, the Euro gunner, the guy deemed the next “FILL IN THE BLANK.” So, Sage, I wonder if you ever find yourself yawning, or drooling, or doodling, or wishing to never again see another ball. You know what I mean?  

S.S.: I know exactly what you mean but I can honestly say that I never feel that way. I truly feel so fortunate to be in this position because I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. I know that for the countless people who doubted me, didn’t support me and laughed at me, there are so many who did support me and who truly are happy for my success because they know that nothing was given to me, and I have the resume and grey hairs to prove it (thank goodness for good hair-coloring kits). Then again, so do so many other people, many of whom may have overcome even more obstacles than I have.

But by the grace of God and lotsa blood, sweat and tears, I’ve been able to do so much—so much beyond what I even dreamed possible when I announced at the dinner table in 1984 that I wanted to be a sportscaster. Now that I’m older and have better perspective, I really do try to sit back and smell the roses quite often. Who knows, all of this could be gone tomorrow. I continue to mourn the loss of my dear friend, Stuart Scott. His battle against cancer taught me so much, and is a great daily reminder for me and my family to never take anything for granted. Maybe that sounds cliché, but its so true. I’m the luckiest girl I know.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SAGE STEELE:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Donald Trump, Herman B. Wells Library, Haywoode Workman, Prince Harry, almonds, Ron Oester, Kylie Jenner, Julia Ghoulia, go-karts, Ian Botham: Almonds, Herman B. Wells Library, Haywoode Workman, Ron Oester, Prince Harry, Donald Trump, go-karts, Julia Ghoulia, Ian Botham (had to Google him but he still beats out #10), Kylie Jenner.

• Your husband is caucasian. I was wondering if, in 2015, people still look. Like, are there ever glares of disapproval? Or curiosity? Or … whatever? Or have we mostly moved past that?: Yup. We still get looks. Most of the time the looks (and negative comments either in person or on social media) are from African-Americans though, which has been particularly hurtful. Diversity is quite the popular word these days, but then when I find out that many people who push for diversity and acceptance really only approve of it when it’s on their terms, I have a problem with that.

As for my husband, we met in college at Indiana University and have been together for nearly 23 years, married for 16 years this month, so we don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. I will say that my perspective is somewhat unique—I come from a bi-racial marriage and my parents went through hell when they got married in 1971. My father is black, my mother is white (half Irish, half Italian) and neither one of their families were particularly thrilled with their relationship—especially my mom’s parents. Times were different then—much tougher than they are today—so Jonathan and I fully realize that what we have experienced, and continue to experience, is nothing compared to what my parents have gone through. They’re an amazing example—44 years and counting! #perspective

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. It didn’t really enter my mind until I became a mother, and then every time I traveled for work, I would leave a hand-written note to my kids in the glove compartment of my car when I parked it at the airport. It was a note that just told them how much I loved them, and I figured that eventually when the tow company went to get my car that my husband would go through it and find the love note and give it to my kids so they would know that I was thinking about them up to the very last second. I know …. I was nuts. I have since chilled out a bit, but can’t help but think that as often as I fly, I’m obviously increasing my chances of dying in a plane crash. Hopefully if that happens, all of my miles and status on American Airlines and Delta will be transferred to them and they’ll take one helluva trip in my honor!

• One question you would ask Renee Zellweger were she here right now?: Why, Renee? WHY?

• What’s your biggest singular on-air screwup?: How much more space do you have in your column? I seriously have too many to count but here’s the one that my friends refuse to let me live down: I was filling in for Dana Jacobsen on First Take back in 2008 and I was interviewing Mark Wahlberg about some new movie he was starring in. At the end of the interview, when I thanked him for joining us, I accidentally called him “Donnie”—and this was long before Donnie resurrected his career. Mark was definitely the superstar in the Wahlberg family. Oops. Needless to say, he caught my mistake and totally called me out on it by laughing and busting on me for quite obviously having been a fan of New Kids on The Block back in the day. So busted.

• I never bought Arnold Jackson kissing Lisa. I mean, they hated one another for years, and suddenly they were smooching when Willis wasn’t around. Your thoughts?: Which one is Arnold Jackson? See—this is what happens when you live in Europe with no access to American TV shows—you miss out on some of the classics! So funny … I’m always so clueless.

• Five greatest broadcasters whose last names begin with the letter S?: Vin Scully, Pat Summerall, Stuart Scott, and everyone with the last name Steele: Samantha (Steele) Ponder, Michele Steele, and of course, yours truly!!

• In exactly 27 words, make a case for why the 76ers were wise to select Shawn Bradley ahead of Anfernee Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn in the 1993 Draft: Nine years after the Trail Blazers took Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan, the Sixers were just trying to make Portland feel better about themselves. (They failed).

• Why is your first name Sage?: Because my parents just didn’t think that Parsley Steele, Rosemary Steele, Thyme Steele, Salt Steele, Pepper Steele, Paprika Steele or Cumin Steele had the ring to it that Sage Steele did. Does. My mom did admit that they considered naming me Stainless for a minute, though …

• Would you rather change your name, permanently, to Luther Wright Steele or spend two weeks having to share a cruise cabin with Celine Dion and her 10 closest friends?: Celine Dion. No brainer. I will admit to having a few Celine tunes downloaded on my phone. Her Christmas albums are the bomb! But I also have Tupac, James Taylor, Notorious B.I.G., Adele, Bruno Mars, Journey, Earth Wind & Fire, Ed Sheeran, LL Cool J, Straight No Chaser, Maroon 5, Dr. Dre and countless others on my playlist. So good luck figuring me out.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life