By Lior Kozai
“I got a wedgie from Shaquille O’Neal, live on the air,” says Phil Elder, known professionally as J.E. Skeets, while recounting his proudest moments on American television.
He’ll tell the story at dinner parties for the rest of his life.
Skeets and his longtime friend Tas Melas, along with co-hosts Leigh Ellis and Trey Kerby, sit at a desk every weekday at Turner Studios, in Atlanta, Ga., putting their creative brand of basketball fandom on display for NBA TV’s audience. Behind the cameras, Jason Doyle directs and Matt Osten produces.
Since debuting on NBA TV in October 2013, their show’s been called The Starters. But before Skeets, Melas, Doyle and Osten arrived in Atlanta, they got their start in Toronto at Ryerson’s School of Radio and Television Arts, where they worked on their fourth-year thesis together.
Melas did an internship at CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, where he wrote copy and poured coffee for Don Cherry, the bombastic host of Coach’s Corner. Cherry once criticized Melas for giving him non-black coffee when it was, in fact, black.
Osten says the hands-on experience at Ryerson gave the students, including Skeets, the opportunity to create their own radio shows—a key moment in Starters’ lore. Doyle says the program taught him “everything that goes into making a show.”
While each had a different Ryerson experience, they all agreed on one thing: the best part of university was meeting each other.
In January 2006, a year after graduating, Skeets, Melas and Doyle began a weekly podcast called The Basketball Jones (TBJ), at a time when hardly anyone knew what podcasts were. They woke up early every morning to record before going to their full-time day jobs.
For their first three years on the air, nobody made any money off TBJ. “We believed in our own abilities to make a fantastic show,” says Melas. “But we didn’t have a business mindset, by any means.”
What TBJ did have was unmatchable enthusiasm and skill.
“I always knew that what we were doing was pretty high quality,” Skeets says. “But I’d be lying to you if I thought, in 10 years, I would be in Atlanta, still with all my friends that I created the show with, hanging out with Grant Hill.”
Some people are meant to be teachers, lawyers or social workers, but The Starters’ true calling is talking basketball.
When he started writing, Elder began going by “J.E. Skeets” because he feared his bosses would find out he was basketball blogging on company time. When the podcast started, he kept the pseudonym for similar reasons.
“I’d be lying to you if I thought, in 10 years, I’d be in Atlanta hanging out with Grant Hill”
After about a year, to keep up with a growing audience and to show then full scope of their skills, the podcast switched from a weekly to a daily format, and the crew soon added a video show to complement the audio version. As production increased, so did the team’s workload, so the team expanded accordingly.
In 2009, Osten joined. After graduating from Ryerson, he studied law at McGill University. He finally brought a business-oriented approach to the show, which was necessary to supplement the “production mindset” others already had, Melas says.
“The biggest thing was just treating it like a job,” Osten says. “I basically sat down and was like, ‘Who do I know, in Toronto or otherwise, that either would be interested in this or could get me in front of a person who [was].”
Unsuccessfully, TBJ pitched to several networks. But theScore, a multimedia sports network, displayed interest. In March 2010, the network committed to picking up the show; within a year of Osten’s joining, the show had found a home, and for the first time, TBJ would be paid for their work.
“It was a long and arduous process to convince a media station that we were worthy of being aired,” Melas says. “If we didn’t get that Score opportunity, I think we would’ve all quit.”
From then on, TBJ became their job.
“That was a game-changer, because now, it was total focus into writing for the show and taking the show to bigger and greater things,” says Skeets over the phone. “It was pretty impeccable timing, and obviously gave a huge boost of energy to the show’s life.”
In 2010, TBJ added Trey Kerby, a bearded basketball blogger known for his eclectic style, and in 2012, Leigh Ellis, a perpetually plaid-shirted Australian import, joined up. For three years, TBJ plied its trade on theScore, solidifying their style, production techniques, and ideology.
In 2012, theScore was purchased for $167 million by Rogers Media, the parent company of Sportsnet, and after that NBA season ended, TBJ ended too.
So, when NBA TV came calling, they had to pick up the phone.
John O’Connor, an executive producer who oversees The Starters as well as NBA TV’s other programming, says the show drew the attention of Turner, the network that produces NBA TV, because the hosts are just like regular basketball fans.
“The Starters adds a lot of levity to the network, and it’s important,” O’Connor says. “They can get serious when they need to, but most of the time, they’re just having a good time out there like any fan would.”
But as pleased as O’Connor is with their content, it’s The Starters’ work ethic, which has impressed him the most.
“There are some nights when we all want to check out, and they’re challenged every night to come up with new, creative ways to do their shows, and they do it,” he says.
After nearly five seasons on American television, the core elements of the show remain largely unchanged. The lovable quirks, passion for basketball and outright silliness that drove the show’s rise have endured. Their strong work ethic has, too.
Doyle and Osten have both had their roles altered far more than the men on camera.
“For both of us, it was a complete change from TBJ to The Starters,” Doyle says.
“[Before NBA TV] we’d very often just come in and record,” Osten says. “There’s a lot more pre-production now.”
NBA TV has also allowed its original members to run the show at their own discretion.
“You make that type of move, and you immediately start thinking, ‘Well, what are they going to change?’” he says. “But to their credit, they trusted us.”
“I got a wedgie from Shaquille O’Neal, live on the air”
One change that certainly hasn’t hurt is access to a wide pool of high-profile guests, from NBA players to celebrity fans. Many of the group’s co-workers at Turner are former basketball stars, which often makes Skeets marvel, like he did at the NBA’s all-star weekend in Los Angeles in February.
“Grant Hill’s right beside us, and we’re talking to him about playing with Steve Nash,” Skeets says. “And Chris Webber’s over there, and we’re talking about his Hall of Fame chances. And earlier in the week, we’re hanging out with Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace.”
“I pinch myself in those moments,” Skeets says. “Those were some of my favourite players growing up, and I’m just a colleague, I’m just a friend.”
Moments like those make Melas feel like The Starters has finally made it. Kyrie Irving and John Wall have praised the show, while other stars have been featured in programming; this season, Stephen Curry trained Leigh Ellis in a three-point shooting segment.
On March 6, the original TBJ members—Skeets, Melas and Doyle—recorded their 2,000th career show together, and a week later, The Starters aired its 1,000th episode. At NBA TV, the format has largely been consistent from the start.
Each Starters episode opens the same way. “I’m J.E. Skeets, and alongside me as always is Tas Melas. To his right, the international man of mystery, taking it to the Maxx, Leigh Ellis,” Skeets says.
“Friends,” Ellis responds, to which everyone replies, “Leigh-Leigh.”
“And last, but certainly not least, over yonder, is the bearded one—that’s Trey Kerby,” Skeets continues.
“A-YO,” Kerby screams. And, as expected, everyone yells the same thing back.
While many shows have formats, which quickly grow stale, The Starters always manages to keep their programming exciting; the repetition becomes part of its appeal.
Each day, thousands of people tune in to watch the show on TV and on YouTube, where episodes are posted daily. And when The Starters reached 1,000 shows, the congratulations came rolling in.
“Skeets, Tas, Trey, Lee—AKA The Starters. Big congratulations on your thousandth show,” Indiana Pacers star Myles Turner said in an NBA-produced video.
“One-thousand episodes?” cracked Kevin McHale, an NBA Hall of Famer. “I didn’t think they’d make it to 10.”
While Skeets, Tas, Trey, Leigh and Osten are always pinching themselves over the chance to hobknob with the NBA’s greatest players, Jason Doyle, the director, is just happy to be doing something he loves with people who mean a lot to him.
Doyle likes basketball, just not as much as the others do.“I picked the people, rather than the subject matter,” he says. “I wanted to do a show with Phil, Matt and Tas.”
“The ultimate thing about it is that we’re together,” Osten says.
“In the office, sitting around the same oval table for six to eight hours a day. Sometimes those hours fly by, and sometimes they don’t, but what is pretty consistent is that every day, you’re going to leave having laughed pretty hard at least once, if not many more times than that.”