Michael Holley on His Brotherly Love For Michael Smith And a Show That's Been a Long Time Coming
By Kyle Koster
For whatever reason, a vivid collegiate memory remains in my otherwise smooth brain. I am holding a tray full of Freshman 15 fuel. My eye catches the big, standard definition communal television. Michael Holley is making some point on the OG sports-shouting show. He stands out, with dreads and a nose ring and a propensity to accumulate make-believe points.
Almost two decades pass. Things change. A lot. Holley covers a what feels like a zillion Boston championships in print, on broadcast, and on the dial. He takes the nose ring out. He gets a haircut and the signature locks refuse to grow back. Then he pops up again on the national level, as co-host of Brother From Another, the first daily show produced exclusively for Peacock, with his good friend Michael Smith.
Finally, he joins The Big Lead to talk about his new endeavor, the importance of trust, how things have changed, and how they've stayed the same in the past 15 years.
Kyle Koster: What have sports fans missed out on by not having a show like this previously, with these two voices represented, commenting on current wider issues?
Michael Holley: One of the things that jumps out to me is the word "liberating." We're not trying to fill some template of sports talk. If Michael Smith thinks that Anthony Davis is the best player he's ever seen and Michael Holley thinks that too, we'll still talk about it. It's not like we need to come up with a different angle that's way out there or say something that you don't believe. More than that — and this is what I really enjoy — is that I don't have to compartmentalize myself on the show. It's just a real-life show that's not really a show. It's real life because it's real people talking.
The other day I said to Mike: I gotta talk about the Houston Astros. Everyone hates the Astros. I don't hate them. In fact, I hate people who hate the Astros and are mad about this scandal but stood by as the steroid era went on for 20 years. He said: okay, you're fired up about that. I'm not. So you talk about it.
In conventional shows, sometimes you talk about things that you don't really care about. I'm passionate about it and he's not. It's okay. We'll keep going. We'll talk about sports, our kids, our wives, movies, and music, it's just fun. I think that's what sports fans do anyway. On a sports network and a sports show, sometimes it's forced to get all these sports things in even if that's not really what's on your mind today.
Sometimes out of seven topics, six will be sports because they're the most interesting things. Sometimes it will be three sports topics and four from other areas. I feel good having the freedom to do that daily.
KK: What's the difference in becoming friendly with someone through your work together and beginning to work with someone you're already friends with?
MH: Chemistry and knowledge of who they are. The more time I spend in this business the more I value trust and chemistry. Chemistry is really important. If you're watching something you can see who has it and who doesn't. You can hear the same on the radio. That is essential, but trust is even more important.
Here's what I mean by that: I know that Michael Smith is not going to do anything on the air or behind the scenes that's bad for me. He's not going to do anything to make himself look good and me look bad. He's not going to do anything shady, and I'm not going to do that to him. How many people in the business can say that? Can we be honest here? At any place of business, sports media or otherwise, how many people can say that and know it's true? That can walk out of the room and know they're not talking about you?
If Michael has a problem with me, he'll say it to me and I'll say it to him. Nothing ever builds up. That's the difference between the work thing where you're friendly with someone as opposed to I know this guy. I can vouch for him. It's a completely different realm.
KK: Is it fair to say that sharing in the editorial control of the show allows you two to have congruent goals as well, so there aren't a ton of competing interests and agendas? Does it help?
MH: It's big and it's a great point. The thing about that is, we're aligned so that I know what he wants to talk about in theory but I have no idea what he's going to say about it. I don't want to know what he's going to say until it's time to talk. And I don't know how long we're going to talk about it. That's important because we're not preparing a response. Everything you're getting is in real time.
It's great for us because we know and trust each other and I know whatever he says is going to spark something in me for a conversation — whether that be two minutes or 15 minutes. The challenging part is for producers.
KK: So they're speaking with you asking what you want to do for the show and you're giving them the ol' don't worry about it, we'll riff it while they want a firmer grasp of where you're going to go?
MH: Man, it sounds like you're in our meetings. It sounds like you've tapped our phones. That's exactly how it happens. Now, to be fair, if I'm in their position, that's a very frustrating way to live. I'm thinking I need to have some sort of rundown, I have to have some form of communication. I have to be able to have graphics if they talk about LeBron James, for example.
What we'll do is give them the premise. I give them 8-10 topics, Michael gives them 8-10. They have a general idea of where it's going. They've figured it out really quickly. When we first proposed how we were going to do it I told them it'd be the most fun you've had because you don't necessarily have to stick to a script. You can use your creativity and your spontaneity to go wherever it's going and roll with it. It's fun. They've done a really good job of adapting.
KK: I think that most people nationally first saw you on Around The Horn and now they are seeing you again on a much different national show now. Do you think your career has come full circle and what's different now in the industry compared to 15 years ago?
MH: I'm enjoying it, I have to say. Michael Smith is the star here and I don't mind saying that. He was on national TV for 15 years consecutively. The last time I did Around The Horn was 2005 as a guest. I remember a tweet to him and it made me laugh that said Hey, Michael, congratulations but who's that other dude? [Laughs] So I'm the other dude now. I've been off the national stage for 15 years and, you're right, the business has changed tremendously. I remember on ATH there was no social media and journalists were barely working the internet to their advantage, myself included.
I know, personally, that I've changed as well. I wasn't married, didn't have kids. I was still developing as a journalist and developing a voice. I know more now and I'm less inclined to do things to get your attention. If I say something stupid now, I'm just saying something stupid. I'm not trying to do it with an agenda. I'm more secure now then I was then.
KK: And in a way you're probably able to attract a different generation or people who weren't watching back then. Do you think about making that first impression? People who have been following you as a writer know who you are but you're also opening yourself up to a new audience.
MH: I haven't. I probably should but I haven't. I think if I'm being myself — and that includes a lot of things. If they watch Monday and I'm not in a good mood that day, which will happen, they might come away thinking he's another jerk on TV. And that's the risk that I take. But I'm taking the longview that you will see that I'm being myself. That's somebody who is really excited about sports. That's somebody who nerds out over team-building. Somebody who loves music, whether it's Pearl Jam or The Roots or Stevie Wonder. Somebody who loves politics. So I think they'll see that. They'll see me and accept it or not.
I haven't thought about showing them a certain side because that goes against everything the show is supposed to be. It's supposed to be not only letting you behind the curtain, but tearing that whole curtain down and coming into our living room. It's inclusive. Men are invited. Women are invited. Whatever your politics are. Let's have a conversation. Let's not pretend, let's just be real.
KK: I don't want this to come off as a reductive question but it's easy to observe that two black guys weren't getting a show together on national television in 2005. How do you approach doing that show in 2020?
MH: You're 100 percent right. First of all, I love the opportunity. You asked me if I was trying to make an impression and I'm not. But I am grateful for the chance to not only — as you say, two black men being on TV doing their thing — but to do that with someone I love, to do that with my friend. It's mind-blowing in a lot of ways. The business has changed because that wasn't enough in 2005. It wasn't going to happen in 2005.
I'll tell you a story, it was around 2010 or 2011, right before Michael starting doing Numbers Never Lie. He was asked who he wanted to work with and he gave them a bunch of names. He mentioned Jemele Hill, he mentioned Bomani Jones, and he mentioned me. I remember being in the basement of ESPN in a room full of producers, mostly white men if not all white men, and they had an iPad basically telling us to audition.
One of the producers asked how are you different? So the reason two black people wouldn't have been on the air back then in this very twisted sports media world is two black people on the air would be seen as the same. And somehow that's not good TV.
KK: So just to clarify, they were asking how you and Michael were different from each other and not how you the two of you were different from the everyone else?
MH: Yeah. They were looking at it like why would we have you both on the air when you're pretty much the same person? Two black men on TV, no, we need to have a black man and a white woman, we have to have a black man and a white man. I didn't know where they were going with it, but wherever it was, it didn't feel good.
You know, I am nine years older than Michael Smith. He grew up in Louisiana, I grew up in Ohio. He likes things that I don't like. I like things that he doesn't like. Of course we're different. Would you ask Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann back in the day how they were different? Would you ask that with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth? No. Just sit back and enjoy the ride and you'll see the differences if you have that mindset, if you have that perspective. If you don't, you'll never see the difference.
I think we have come a long way as a business in a short amount of time. We have come a long way as a society, too. I'm not trying to say hey, we've made it because it's always a progressive journey. You're never all the way there but it is progressing.
Brother From Another airs on weekdays from 3-5 p.m. ET on Peacock, NBC's streaming platform.