Rachel Nichols Highlights from 9 Years at ESPN

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IJanuary 26, 2013

Rachel Nichols Highlights from 9 Years at ESPN

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    Nine years after being hired as an ESPN sports reporter, Rachel Nichols will be leaving to work with CNN and Turner Sports (via USA Today). The woman has been an ESPN institution since 2004. She, along with other prominent female reporters like Erin Andrews and Pam Oliver, has been providing hope for young girls with dreams of working in sports journalism.

    In honor of her work at ESPN, it only seems fitting to do a retrospective of some of her biggest interviews and most interesting stories. She’ll be doing more or less the same job at CNN, but this is the end of an era. It deserves a little commemoration.

Sunday Conversation with LeBron James

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    Nichols caught the King of South Beach soon after he won his first ring last June. This one was nothing like “The Decision,” where James manipulated America into believing he was worthy of that much attention. Nichols was able to bring out a calmer, happier LeBron that we had not really seen since his days in Cleveland.

    It wasn’t exactly a hard-hitting interview, so Nichols wasn’t afraid to joke around with the King. How many people would have the nerve to ask him about the “give LeBron James a dollar, he’ll only give you back three quarters in change” jokes? CNN should be excited to be getting that level of spunk.

Jeremy Lin Conversation

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    Lin sat down with Nichols at the height of Linsanity last February. Again, Nichols wasn’t trying to nail Lin. She just wanted to get a sense of his life and point of view. She asked him about his tough times trying to break into the NBA, how he thought race was playing into the hype and how he was handling the pressure.

    Most importantly, she got Lin to laugh by asking him if he was “the Kim Kardashian type (in response to gossip that the two were dating). Nichols has always had a knack for making her interviewees feel comfortable, a skill that will always serve her well.

E:60 with Ray Lewis

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    “How do I live life, with no confirmation of a father? How do I go out and compete in sports and never hear my father’s voice?”

    Lewis opened up to Nichols, which is saying something for one of the toughest, nastiest personalities in football. She told the story of a fatherless boy (Lewis’ father was alive, but he was absent and irresponsible) who channeled his anger into beating his father’s athletic records.

    It didn’t hurt that Lewis is an intense man who can sell a story. Nichols was able to lead him and his family through his life like an expert storyteller. It’s sports journalism at its finest.

Chuck Pagano Conversation

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    Chuck Strong was one of the most heartwarming stories of the 2012 NFL season. Pagano appeared to keep a good attitude throughout his ordeal, always giving off the aura of a man in good spirits. Nichols captured that, showing him laughing before delving into his leukemia treatment.

    Nichols wasn’t afraid to ask the tough question: “Did you ever for one second let your mind go to, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen if?’” Discussing mortality in conjunction with sports is never easy. Luckily for Nichols, Pagano isn’t the type to think like that. And luckily for Pagano, Nichols gave him the opportunity to tell the world he was going to be just fine.

E:60 with Georges St.-Pierre

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    You can’t pigeonhole Nichols. She mostly covers basketball and football, but once in a while, she branches out to cover, say, UFC superstar St-Pierre. Nichols found a fascinating story in a muscle-bound fighter who was mercilessly bullied as a kid.

    She had St.-Pierre walk her through the way kids would beat him up while standing outside his elementary school in Saint-Isidore, Quebec. Again, Nichols was able to capture a side of a tough guy the audience probably had not seen before. For the record, you can sum up most of the Nichols' work that way. And that is not a bad thing.

E:60 with Robert Griffin III

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    Nichols has a knack for finding the most dramatic events in an athlete’s life and milking them for all they’re worth. It makes total journalistic sense. This profile of pre-Redskins RGIII made the wise choice to mention his father, Robert Griffin II, and his six-month deployment in Iraq. For an athlete like RGIII, who, at the time, lived a relatively drama-free life, this added a little spice to the story.

    The rest of the piece focused on Griffin’s game and NFL prospects. Nichols was still able to find new angles, like addressing the RGIII doubters (which there were few of at the time). Again, nothing groundbreaking—just solid sports journalism.

Charles Tillman Demonstrates the 'Peanut Punch'

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    Watching Nichols playing running back while Tillman demonstrates proper football-punching techniques is adorable. Like, Nate Robinson trying to guard anyone above 6’0” adorable.

    This wasn’t even a real interview; it was just a brief talk with a professional on the secrets of his trade. Tillman was a good sport and Nichols was up to the task of playing off their size difference while still educating her audience. You work with what you got, right?

E:60 with Cruz Control

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    In addition to being an ace reporter, Nichols has moves. She proved that while salsa dancing with Victor Cruz and simultaneously became the envy of every Giants fan in the world. The salsa touchdown dance is Cruz’s most identifiable move, and Nichols was smart to lead with it.

    Cruz’s story is relatively straightforward: The kid who was always told he was too small and slow helped lead the Giants to an improbable Super Bowl victory. Nichols kept it simple, opting to frame her piece around the dance his grandmother taught him. Nice touch.

Thank You, LaMarr Woodley

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    This one was ripe for a Nichols profile. Woodley donated $60,000 to his high school in Saginaw, Mich. to erase a “pay to play” fee of $75 per person that had been instituted due to financial issues. The kids and faculty were all so grateful, they wrote him over 100 thank you letters.

    The piece wasn’t too remarkable, but Nichols adeptly captured the desperation of the neighborhood. She got a high school kid to talk about a friend he just lost who was shot in the face eight times on camera. Any reporter who can get someone to talk so candidly has to be doing something right.

Jimmy Graham’s Unlikely Path

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    The Blind Side could have very easily been written about Graham. He had a deadbeat mom who put him in the hands of the state, where he lived for nine months before a Good Samaritan adopted him and gave him a chance. It’s a sad and inspiring story told beautifully by Nichols.

    She may have over-dramatized Graham’s story (though not by much), but it has the same emotional impact as the Lewis piece. You tend to get invested whenever you watch one of her interviews. That could be more because of the athletes’ stories than her, but she’s still the common denominator.