Voices

Taylor Rooks Would Like a Word

By Stephen Douglas
facebooktwitter

Taylor Rooks wants to talk to you. There’s no problem, it’s just that her goal is to share stories and put human beings first. So if you’re half as good at your job as she is at her job then she is going to end up talking to you. 

“I want people to identify with people, not just the issues people have,” Rooks explains. “To me that is the beauty of interviewing. You can't have that connection and that emotion when you can only talk to people for two minutes on a quick hit before you go to the next topic. There’s no real depth to that. So when I can sit and we’re open and there’s an exchange of information, that is so exciting to me. And that, at this point, is really the only thing I feel is purposeful for me. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

That connection exists on every level of Rooks’ interviews which you can currently catch on Turner Sports and Bleacher Report. It starts with the connection between herself and the subject and it makes sense because Rooks is incredibly easy to talk to, whether you’re interviewing or being interviewed. “Everybody just wants their voice to be heard,” she says, “and it’s important that interviewers give people that space.”

The fact that Rooks understands the art of the interview is clear. She seems to have mastered it early, well before she had any idea it would actually be her career.

A decade ago she was just a college kid with a blog who knew she wanted to work in media. Now the NBA’s biggest stars are willing to be as open and honest in conversation as Kevin Durant on his burner. The secret, according to Rooks, isn’t much of a secret. “I feel like if you talk to people and it is just a friendly conversation and not like it’s an interview, they will say literally whatever. I know that sounds so simple, but that’s what I try to do.” 

Rooks took advantage of every opportunity she could while she was in college at the University of Illinois. Before she even knew what she wanted to do in the media, she was interviewing anyone who would give her time for her Online Sideline blog. She talked to family friend Steve Atwater, her great uncle Lou Brock, and everyone at Illinois, from student managers to players to fans to the guys on the end of the football team’s bench. 

She had no way of knowing that could turn into a career. “There was nothing in the sports space that showed me [if] you love doing this, you could only do this,” Rooks said. “That belief in me that it’s okay if the lane you want doesn’t exist. I had to learn that. Everyone else’s path doesn’t have to be your path. If there’s something you like and want to do you can attack that. You don’t have to have some blueprint that you can look at that says it’s okay to do this.”

Rooks first real break came when she and a friend talked the NBA into press passes to the 2012 NBA All-Star Game in Orlando. They made the drive and Rooks again interviewed every person she could and put it on her blog. Within a week Fox Sports and Scout were on the phone trying to hire her. Seeing online media try to lock down someone after they go just a little bit viral isn’t unheard of, but how many times does it work out? These sites all saw something in Rooks and nearly a decade later they can all say they were right. By the time she graduated she had already worked for FOX Sports, CBS Sports, and The Big Ten Network — where she would have a full-time job waiting. 

Rooks excelled at Big Ten Network in a traditional sports media role before moving to SNY, where in 2016 she started her first podcast, Timeout with Taylor Rooks. “When you start out in journalism you have this idea of what being a journalist is,” Rooks says. “That was sitting at a desk and telling everybody the news and reading highlights and that absolutely is journalism. There are people who are so amazing at that. The best in-studio at being hosts informing people the news of the day. So I started out doing that. I thought it was great.”

After a few years entrenched in the New York sports scene she joined Turner and Bleacher Report. “I really wanted things that gave me more of a voice and something that was just my vehicle.” That vehicle hit another gear in the last few weeks as she launched a new video podcast series on Bleacher Report called Taylor Rooks And. So far she’s interviewed Ja Morant, Quavo and Michael B. Jordan. 

“I want content that reaches everybody and I want people to feel like they missed out if they didn’t see that content,” says Rooks. “That’s one thing when I think about Oprah. She was an experience. Everybody was watching her at the exact same time. Not because she was on TV, but because she was necessary to the conversation.” 

That’s how high her aspirations lie. On a Howard Stern and Oprah level.

“Eventually, I would love to do a complete takeover. I want to talk to everybody. I want to also give my opinion and have my voice. And that’s really cool about the media landscape we’re in right now. Five years ago, eight years ago, if you covered sports, you only covered sports. If you said anything else people thought you weren’t serious. But now it’s very personality-driven.”

Last summer Rooks penned an epic GQ piece about living inside the NBA bubble. “I was really thankful I got to write that GQ article because I miss writing and to be honest, I don’t think people thought I could write. So I was really happy when they asked me to do that.” 

In the piece she revealed Damian Lillard was drinking wine every night before he scored 50 points, Masai Ujiri was keeping Kawhi Leonard up with late night workouts from the room above him, and George Hill missed a National Anthem because he was in the bathroom. Rooks was there to ask the questions no one else thought to. 

“The key to asking good questions is actually good writing. So I was happy that I was able to write and bring that story to life and do all those different interviews to take people on a cohesive journey throughout that article. The Bubble brought me a lot of really good things I was thankful for.” 

Being in the bubble was a unique experience that Rooks hopes never happens again, for obvious reasons, but she has decided to let the positives shape her experience. “Some people hated the bubble. I loved the bubble because we [got] to have the best athletes everyday so closely. One day people are going to do documentaries about the bubble, right? And you have this first-hand account of talking to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler and Damian Lillard literally every single day. There were so few people that were able to do that. You had a courtside seat to the playoffs. It was nuts.”  

Even though she missed her family and friends and good sushi, it was the perfect situation for Rooks. She’s an NBA insider, but in a different mold than Adrian Wojnarowski or Shams Charnia. Maybe because she asks questions with a camera rolling and you see the answers come right out of the source’s mouth. 

For Rooks transparency is key. “These guys see the tweets,” she explains. “They see the Instagram comments and they disagree with them and every single guy wants to do what Kevin Durant does on Twitter, they just don’t. So if they’re in an interview setting and they can, they will.” 

In turn, Rooks tries to be honest, both in interviews and on social media because it helps with that connection. “I try to be open online all the time because I want people to see my openness and encourage them to be open as well. I actually think it helps that when I interview people that they think they have a full scope with me. I don’t want to post just work because I don’t want to just talk to them about work. I want them to think, 'Oh OK, she is a cool person. She is not just what she does so she’s not going to think I’m only what I do.' That’s very important to me.”

It also comes with its downsides. “I think that the other 100,000 people online that aren’t my peers or athletes that see me feel like they know me which makes them in turn feel like they can say whatever they want to me. We know that social media is a double-edged sword and you kinda have to take the good with the bad. The right thing would be that there was no bad, but it’s a part of it. And it takes a while and there are days when you’re not fully there, but you really can’t care about what the Internet thinks. The internet is so fleeting and I say that about the good and the bad.” 

Rooks seems to always focus on the good. “The only thing you can control is the work that you put out and what you say about yourself. That’s something daily that I think everybody kind of struggles with.” Obviously, she’s doing a good job because those connections keep growing and branching out from sports.

“People don’t think I’m a person who interviews to get headlines or to get them in trouble or to get them to say something crazy,” Rooks says. “That’s not really the nature of the work that I do and I think guys know that so they feel more open to A. Do the interview, B. Give me time, and C. Be as natural as they can because I’m not looking to getcha. I think the best stuff comes from when they’re able to be open in that way knowing that it’s okay to say certain things.”

She makes it sound so easy. Just make people feel at ease and open up and ask good questions and then everything falls into place. It has worked pretty well so far as Rooks built an impressive resume and reputation. The kind of things that make people say yes to interview requests.

“The most important thing you can have in journalism is your reputation and being good to people and kind to people and people wanting to work with you,” Rooks says. “I know so many people in this space that are really, really good, but sometimes people don’t want to work with them and I just don’t ever want to be that person. I want every single person to have an experience with me to be positive.”

Those positive experiences begin from the minute the subject of the interview shows up. "The most important part of interviews are the ten minutes before,” Rooks explains. “Whenever I get on a Zoom, I try to pad in some time just to talk to them so that they feel a bit more comfortable. You can gather so much about them from their background.” Over the last year-plus she got a lot of mileage out of quarantine hairstyles. 

For some people the conditions of the pandemic may have destroyed the personal feeling of an interview, but Rooks adapted. While she missed the in-person connection, which she is getting back to with her new Bleacher Report series, you wouldn’t know it and Rooks never showed it. 

“You don’t feel as rushed,” she says. “In person, people are just trying to get out of there eventually, but when you’re sitting at home they will give you as much time as they have. That I think has helped as well. I thought that was a bit of an advantage. I don’t know how you still create that connection. To me the key is really talking about other things. These athletes really like talking about themselves. If they can talk about themselves and something that isn’t their sport they will go on and on because they’re always only asked about themselves in the lens of their sport.”

In person, over the phone, or on a video call, it’s about finding that connection. “If you just start with things that have nothing to do with what they do for a job, if you’re asking about their family or these shoes they wore and then you very slowly get into what you’re trying to talk to people are so at ease they will say honestly anything to you. So I’m always going to try to construct my interviews like we’re just talking.”

It’s a good tip. She shares a lot of good tips, actually. Rooks has no problem telling you exactly how to do what she does so well. Probably because few can pull it off, even if she thinks they can. “I believe this about every single person. I don’t think I have any limits. I don’t think anybody has any limits. We can all do as much as we want to do if we allow ourselves the space to do it.” And that’s why if you follow your dreams, maybe someday she’ll interview you. 

facebooktwitter