The Brookyln Bridge is still a shadowy relief against a matte black sky out the window when Get Up producer Paul Hembekides shakes my hand. It's 5:30 a.m. and he's been at ESPN's Seaport studios since 4 a.m. uploading his number-focused brain with ones and zeroes.
"Half this job is just getting up and doing it," he says. Hembekides traffics in statistical information. He takes it seriously and his purest dopamine rush comes when a friend or colleague cites one of his nuggets without knowing its origins.
Get Up regular Dan Orlovsky calls him The Weapon. As big a one as there is at the network if you can learn to speak his language and he yours. That's how Hembekides views himself, too. One colleague describes him as Rain Man-esque.
If Tony Reali made his bones as Stat Boy, Hembekides is the Stat Man, who over time has taken on both a larger role on broadcasts and behind the scenes. Mike Greenberg tells me he's seen "Hembo" get recognized at the airport.
"He's everyone's right-hand man," Greenberg says. "There's literally no question to which the answer is not: ask Hembo."
This was never part of the plan. The 29-year-old wanted to be a teacher and a coach. He earned a masters in education from La Salle. But then he met an ESPN recruiter and dressed for a job he wasn't quite sure he wanted, showing up in a suit and tie for an informal meeting while his classmates opted for polo shirts.
The no-nonsense approach earned him a spot as an entry-level researcher. In the first few months of 2015, while he was still relatively new to Bristol, an opening materialized on Mike & Mike. "No one wanted to wake up at 3 a.m.," he jokes. "But it wasn't the type of thing you turn down. I grew up listening to these guys."
His stature grew over time on ESPN Radio's flagship program. When Greenberg left for what was billed as the flagship morning television show, Hembekides came with him. This is the routine now: Waking up well before dawn, catching up on the previous night's action through highlights, and rolling up sleeves to figure out how to add layers to a conversation without slowing it down.
The offices, which will soon be bustling, are nearly empty. There are two other producers -- David McKinnon and Allie Leogrande --diligently preparing a rough outline. Hembekides shows me what's been sketched out so far. His job is to populate it with richness. There's a Tom Brady segment. A portion on the NFL's CBA. NBA uncertainty. Later that night, Rudy Gobert's positive test will come in and the new normal will begin. We don't know that now. It's a morning from a simpler time.
The top of the hour approaches. The tenor and tone of the area changes, becoming more serious. "This is the most important part of the day," he explains. "Ordering breakfast for talent."
There's a familiarity and fraternity early in the morning that trickles down to the frittata level. Hembekides describes trying to surprise Domonique Foxworth with bizarre foodstuffs, the most memorable being an unappreciated crab salad on pumpernickel sandwich.
"He's sneaky funny," Laura Rutledge says, a sentiment echoed by multiple co-workers. It's important insight because, on first impression, he does not make an effort to hide his seriousness or maturity. He is the platonic ideal of someone tasked with increasing workplace efficiency. This is a point of pride.
"If you can get slightly better than you were yesterday, you can do something great," he says. "I want to reach my 100th percentile." Hembekides believes this is the best way to promote his Christian faith, which he wears openly.
The production meeting begins at 6 a.m. sharp. Greenberg, Brian Windhorst, Keyshawn Johnson, Rutledge, Emmanuel Acho, Josina Anderson, and producers link up remotely with the rest of team in Bristol. Every morning is like a split-squad spring training game.
Hembekides is working on a comparison between Dak Prescott and and Jalen Hurts. Acho sent him a text last night flagging the topic. He also begins populating talking points for Anderson's segment, compiling a list of the highest-paid wide receivers in the NFL to show while she's speaking.
His role is two-fold. The best information in the world isn't as valuable if it can't be expressed to the viewer in a way an average fan can understand. That's the X he's solving for. One of his colleagues describes him as a "stat dork with an artful mind."
"Sometimes as analysts we can get into the weeds," Bobby Carpenter says. "Hembo is good at helping us frame our picture. He's a curator. We have all this information and need to make it digestible."
Oftentimes, that process will start with a difference of opinion on a topic. Oftentimes it will end there, too, because he can find information to back virtually any stance. "My job is to support those on-air," Hembekides says. "It's not to present the data that supports my opinion on a topic. It's to present what supports theirs."
Contrary to what a now-defunct show title claimed, numbers can lie. I bring this up to him. His rebuttal: "Numbers alone can't mislead you if you don't allow yourself to be misled."
Shortly before 6:30 a.m., Windhorst drops a bomb. He's been told to brace for games without fans as coronavirus fears ramp up -- and, even more dramatically, the suspension of the season should a player test positive. Hembekides adroitly adds a note on the latest date an NBA season has ever ended in a calendar year, as well as pointing out the Baltimore Orioles played a game without spectators due to civil unrest in 2015.
Johnson teases a point he'll make during the show about Jameis Winston and how the public may not be fairly evaluating on-field struggles due to off-field personality. Hembekides pulls together a packet illustrating how even Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Palmer posted sky-high interception numbers in Bruce Arians' offensive system.
LeBron James' usage is discussed. Windhorst suggests that the switch to point guard will prolong his prime. Hembo reveals a stunning chart. James is playing the position 57 percent of the time this season, compared to only 1 percent for his entire career.
Where is he getting this stuff, I wonder.
There are big personalities in television. Ego runs rampant. Hembekides is seemingly all-knowing but doesn't come off as a know-it-all. "An incredible amount of self-confidence but no arrogance," says Orlovsky. The producer himself is quick to point out access to proprietary tools and subscriptions he wouldn't have without ESPN make things easier.
"I feel spoiled," he says.
Post-meeting, the activity ratchets up even more. Hembekides and talent go over talking points. It resembles the detailing section of an assembly line. There's very little wasted energy or breath. Time is limited. But they've done this dance before.
Part of the reason why the process can be trusted is because of a 24-7 approach. Hembekides' morning conferences are the portion of the iceberg visible above the water. But a tremendous amount of back-and-forth has happened the night, day, or week before.
Colleague after colleague speaks of his constant readiness. Air time may be 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. but he's always producing -- and being mindful of fulfilling that goal of efficiency.
"I delete every one of my text messages that aren't close family or friends or Hembo's," Orlovsky says. "You never know when you'll want to go back and find something. Sometime he'll get mad at me because I'll watch tape of every game and track something and he'll look at me and say 'Hey, there's an easier way to do that. Just call me.'"
Says Carpenter: "He's a very linear thinker. He has his list he goes through. His mind is always moving a million miles per hour."
Eight minutes before the show begins, Hembekides takes his seat at a desk tucked away in the corner of the studio, along with other producers and on-air personalities waiting for their turn. He pulls up a text box on his computer and illustrates his ability to pepper the screen with Pop-Up Video-like tidbits. He's part of the conversation, only without a microphone. With tremendous power, though, comes tremendous responsibility.
He doesn't get nervous before shows anymore, but does feel heightened senes.
"It's like the minutes leading up to a baseball game," the former Division II second baseman says. "There's great anticipation. Every day there's a new chance to go 4-for-4."
Batting 1.000 is ideal but not entirely realistic. Hembekides once tried to use a dollar sign in one of his nuggets and the result was an MS-Dos-looking catastrophe. There have been a few spelling errors or informational misses, which are embarrassing for a few seconds but are eventually lost to time -- unless, of course, some sports blog picks the low-hanging fruit.
He recalls the biggest mistake he made at ESPN. While still on Mike & Mike, he came in the morning after Auston Matthews tallied four goals in his NHL debut and thought he discovered Wayne Gretzky had only done that once. Only after having the information disseminated across the network's platforms did Hembekides realize that was way off. The Great One actually scored four goals in nine games and five in four other.
It's one thing to make one's self look bad. It's another to make Kevin Negandhi, who cited the note on SportsCenter within the hour, look bad as well. This type of misery does not want company.
"Anyone should have been able to realize the best player to ever play would have done it multiple times," Hembekides explains, perhaps beating himself up a bit too much for a four-year-old misstep. "Being right is really hard. So many people think they are experts. It's hard to be right 100 percent of the time."
While this is true, the best producers have the muscle memory of making those mistakes. They are the opposite of cornerbacks in that way. And the drive to not do it again keeps them razor-sharp.
Now it's game time. The countdown is on. As Greenberg and Rutledge lead off the program, Hembekides is buttoning up the final buttons on the aforementioned Prescott-Hurts piece. He goes over bullet points with Anderson. They've decided to go less numbers-based. They want to be more real than abstract and to start a conversation.
Johnson delivers his take on Winston, dropping in the Arians interception figures. Those at home simply cannot appreciate the work that goes into baking the cake, they just know it tastes good. But getting the proper ratio of flour and sugar is essential. Balancing the educational and recreational is of equal importance.
Sneaky Hembo Time sneaks up. This is the portion of the show where an analyst tries to answer a trivia question crafted by Hembekides on-air. Greenberg tells me the idea grew out of listening to Casey Kasem. People do not want to be left hanging, so the payoff serves as a great tease.
Johnson cannot answer which NFL franchise has the worst winning percentage, even though he played in Tampa. A few seconds of camera time are earned for a victory pose. It's mostly fun and games, but there's a very real part of Hembekides that wants to stump the so-called experts.
His phone buzzes. It's a one-word text from Pat McAfee. SAVAGE.
"I’ve done something with almost every network at this point," McAfee says. "All the humans I’ve gotten to work with have been good people, but rarely had anybody tried to make me a better on-air personality. I think Hembo is so well-revered and respected because no matter what your style is on television, he wants to make you better.
"He would listen to what I’d say about a topic and instead of telling me, 'That’s good' or, 'You're wrong,' he would go to work on his computer to find a stat or a quip for me to help solidify my overall thoughts. It made my style and delivery about 10,000 times better."
Rutledge echoed the admiration for team-building: "My favorite thing about Hembo is his role as an encourager. From my very first time on Get Up until now he has worked to find paths for success for me and offered kindness throughout."
Hembekides was approached about joining Greenberg on Get Up the day after the show was announced at upfronts. It was as clear to him as it was to everyone that it'd be of vital importance to the network. The early days played out under an intense microscope. The critiques came fast and furious.
"Unless you had your head buried in the sand, you heard it," he says. "I never allowed that noise to get me down. I took ownership and accepted responsibility for my part. As long as I was keeping up my part of the bargain, I felt good trying to find footing amongst all this scrutiny. We've found a formula that works and there were enough people willing to do their part until it truly clicked with us and the viewers."
Get Up is not unique in needing a few gather steps to find its footing. Eventually the cylinders began to fire and detractors diminish. Currently on a streak of 12 straight months of viewership growth, it's emerged as an even more vital part of the network's programming plan through the pandemic.
Seeing the production in person, it's clear this is the big leagues. Every morning there is star power. It sets the conversation for the day in clear, measured tones. Macro credit belongs to the architects up top for the approach. On the micro side, one can see how it filters down to the worker bees.
Hembekides' pollination is all over the place. Greenberg points to a recent "down-barrel" on Ryan Tannehill that the producer spearheaded.
That morning, a Rutledge essay on the forgotten Jalen Hurts runs with illustrative stats to make a person re-consider what he/she missed from the prospect.
"I'm constantly amazed at his creativity," she says. "His ability to find info and illustrate points our viewers wouldn’t otherwise know is essential in a world where fans have so much already at their fingertips."
The advent of gambling and fantasy have dovetailed to make a numbers-focused role and approach even more valuable. Look no further than any organization in pro or collegiate sports. Their decisions are driven by them. There's as much science as there is art in sports. And Hembekides blends both into his role.
He is comfortable and appreciative of his place in the system. There is a quiet power in the position, even if it's pretty far afield from his dream job: shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies. Or second baseman if his arm isn't strong enough. Buster Olney believes Hembekides would have a future in a baseball front office. Greenberg wouldn't be surprised if a general managing position materialized down the road.
A natural goalsetter, Hembekides is ready with an answer when quizzed about the future. "Whatever job I have next, I think I will be the first person at the network to have it."
It makes sense. A unique weapon should be used in unique ways.
The show is humming now, launching into its second hour. The sun has come up and is now reflecting off the East River. Another day at ESPN's New York studios is hitting second gear. As I exit out into the world, I realize a very honest person started things off with a half-truth.
There's no way he believes half his job is waking up and doing it. He cares way more than that and it shows. One doesn't have to be a numbers guru to understand that.