ESPN's Christmas NBA slate will kick off with Celtics-Raptors at noon. Adam Amin and Richard Jefferson will be on the call, and Canada native Ariel Helwani is doing sidelines. The Big Lead caught up with Helwani, a seasoned MMA reporter, who is essentially pinching himself about this opportunity to call a game between the defending NBA champions and a legendary franchise.
"It is my wildest dreams," Helwani says. "I was actually talking to my mom about it today. If you had told me in Christmas of 1994 when I'm sitting at home with my brothers watching a game and fantasizing about it, that 25 years later I'd be working a marquee game -- in my home country, no less -- I would have told you that you're a complete liar. It's really surreal."
When asked if that would've even been the case in 2017, Helwani answered, "I definitely dreamt it and it was part of the goal, but for it to happen this quickly -- you believe in yourself, but I just didn't know what the process would be like."
Helwani arrived at ESPN in June of 2018 and was up front with management that doing sidelines at NBA games was a dream for him. He'd wanted to work for ESPN his whole life and as soon as he got into MMA reporting he wanted to do that there: "To me that's the pinnacle. It's the Worldwide Leader in sports. It's the gold standard in sports television and sports journalism."
To borrow a hoops analogy, the sports media industry is gradually moving from strict specialization to more valuing of position-less basketball.
Helwani says, "I told everyone that I wanted to prove to them that I'm not just an MMA guy. If I wanted to just remain an MMA guy I would've stayed at [SB Nation's] MMA Fighting, because I had a great job there and they treated me really well."
Helwani has been an NBA junkie before he even knew what MMA was -- the UFC wasn't founded until 1993, and the term mixed martial arts was still several years beyond that. Shortly after he arrived to ESPN, he sought out Tim Corrigan. Corrigan leads the NBA at fiefdom at ESPN, overseeing the network's game and studio production of the league, and also working in the truck for many of the A-team games with Mike Breen on the call.
"I'd heard that Corrigan's a straight shooter," Helwani says. "I really like straight shooters. My kind of people."
They had a meeting last September, and Corrigan was up front that there were no openings on the NBA team at the moment. Nevertheless, Corrigan called Helwani two months later and invited him to work sidelines for the G-League Showcase. Helwani had a prior commitment, but they reconnected before Summer League. In a stroke of luck, Helwani was already assigned to be in Las Vegas over the July 4th holiday for a UFC event, and he joined the team with Jorge Sedano and Vince Carter.
Helwani got good feedback, but was nonetheless pleasantly surprised when an email arrived in October telling him something to the effect of Hey, here are your games for the first half of the season. He was assigned to Pelicans-Mavericks opening week, which would've been Zion Williamson home opener, on the team with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, both of whom he has great admiration for. "Just to hear them say my name, and go out to dinner with them and pick their brain, and see how they prepare, was absolutely surreal."
He was also assigned to a Cavs-Wizards game with Doris Burke and Ryan Ruocco, and then the Raptors-Celtics on Christmas. "I just can't believe I'm getting to do all this, in addition to the MMA work," Helwani says. "I never want to leave MMA. But, if I can figure out a way to do both, that would be the dream."