Alan Williams was the first person to brave the anchor desk, tucked away on a chilly set at the University of Southern California that was darkened, save for the spotlight on Williams in his black suit and blue-striped tie. Almost involuntarily, he lifted a hand from the desk’s shiny surface and nervously scratched his face.
Williams, a former N.B.A. player, read from a teleprompter, his deep voice booming robotically in the nearby control room, where U.S.C. students monitored his volume and made sure the camera was level. He bobbed his head up and down, much like the aliens inhabiting human bodies in the 1990s movie “Men in Black.”
“Hi, everyone!” he said as he looked into a camera. “Welcome to ‘Sports Extra.’ I’m Alan Williams. The Miami Heat have evened the series against the Denver Nuggets. The Miami Heat’s tough-mindedness is really led by Coach Erik Spoelstra. And their identity truly proves Heat culture. Goodbye.”
The camera stopped rolling, and Williams loosened his shoulders.
“Oh god, did I go too fast?” Williams muttered. He looked around the set. Five other current and former professional basketball players quietly lingered in the corners. After a woman off to the side reassured Williams that he was fine, he responded with relief: “Man, I was about to say. Silence?”
This drew laughter from the set and scattered applause from the players, who, like Williams, were wearing crisply pressed, stylish suits. Williams did another, smoother take, prompting one of the suited men to yell, “That boy good!”
Williams, 30, and the men were at U.S.C.’s journalism school this month for a two-day N.B.A. players’ union camp called Broadcaster U., now in its 15th year. They learned how to host a studio show or podcast, do color commentary and rapidly dole out hot takes for an on-camera sports debate. Former N.B.A. players like Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Shaquille O’Neal have gone through the program.
While superstars typically compete for more than a decade, the average N.B.A. player lasts only a handful of years. Dozens of players will get their start at the N.B.A. draft on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but most of them will eventually have to find a new way to make a living. Crossing over into film and television has proved to be a viable, and often lucrative, alternate path, even for players who weren’t big stars.
With a new television deal looming for the N.B.A., and streaming services and social media changing how fans engage with the game, there will likely be more opportunities for players to cash in.
Williams played for the Nets and the Phoenix Suns from 2015 to 2019. Last year, while playing in Australia, he occasionally provided color commentary for the National Basketball League there.
“I know that my time is coming to an end soon,” Williams said. “I want to be as prepared for the next step as possible.”
Brevin Knight, a former N.B.A. point guard who went through the program in its inaugural year in 2008, is now a color commentator for the Memphis Grizzlies.
“When you are done playing, you would like to take a little bit of time just to take a deep breath,” Knight said. “But I’ll tell you: The spending habits keep going and you always need something coming in.”
Some camp attendees have already undertaken pursuits beyond the court. Norense Odiase, 27, plays in the NB.A.’s developmental league, the G League, and has a self-help podcast called “Mind Bully.” Will Barton, 32, has been in the N.B.A. since 2012 and has released several albums for his singing career under the name Thrill. Craig Smith, 39, spent six seasons in the N.B.A. and has written a children’s book.
Smith was next up at the anchor desk after Williams, and he bounced in his seat. The words on his teleprompter were in all capital letters, though they were not supposed to be read that enthusiastically. Someone must have forgotten to tell him.
“Hi, everyone!” Smith nearly shouted. “Welcome to ‘SPORTS EXTRA!’ I’m Craig Smith! Just about 24 HOURS until Game 3 of the N.B.A. finals!”
He even stomped his feet a few times.
Smith said he has been inspired by the many players who have started podcasts and especially by LeBron James and Stephen Curry, who have used their fame to create production companies.
“It influences me a lot because I feel like we have a real voice and I feel like we have power that comes with it, being that we’re more than just ‘shut up and dribble’ players,” Smith said. “We have meaning and people want to hear what we have to say.”
Hours later, Rob Parker, a Fox Sports host and an adjunct professor at U.S.C., gathered the players for what might be called Hot Take O’Clock to show them how to throw verbal bombs. He shared directives like “Don’t stay in the middle of the road” and “Make stuff that you can pull out — ‘Meme-able.’”
“It’s OK to be wrong,” Parker said, adding that if they could be right all the time, they “would be in Las Vegas making money.”
Parker frequently debates Chris Broussard, a Fox Sports host, on their radio show “The Odd Couple.” Williams asked Parker if he had ever disagreed with Broussard just for argument’s sake. Parker said no, and that he and Broussard discuss topics before their show. They use the ones they disagree on.
“If we all agree that LeBron is the greatest player ever, what conversation are we having?” Parker said. “Do you know what I mean? There’s nothing going on here, and no one’s going to watch it.”
Parker led the players in mock debates, as if they were on ESPN’s “First Take” or Fox Sports’s “Undisputed.” Those are among the most-watched programs at their networks and have turned their hosts into household names.
Odiase and Smith argued about whether the Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler needed to win a championship to get into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Odiase said no; Smith said yes.
“How many guys have taken a team of seven undrafted players, the eighth seed, to the N.B.A. finals?” Odiase said.
“Is it Jimmy or is it Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley?” Parker interjected, referring to Miami’s longtime coach, Spoelstra, and its president and former coach, Riley.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Before Jimmy got there, did they win without LeBron?”
“Yeah, with Shaq and D-Wade,” Smith retorted, referring to O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, who won a championship in 2006 with Riley as coach.
This rebuttal, undercutting Odiase’s argument, elicited laughter from the control room. Parker ended the segment and complimented Odiase and Smith for having a lively debate.
“I do not believe nothing I’m saying,” Odiase told Parker afterward. Later, in an interview, Odiase said he felt “very uncomfortable” arguing a point he did not support, though he believes it happens “a lot” in sports media.
For current and former players, taking part in hot take culture means having to critique players in ways they might not like if the comments were directed at them.
Barton said that he gets frustrated sometimes when analysts “go too far on a player, especially if you haven’t played or you don’t really know what the guy’s going through.”
He continued: “I feel like a lot of guys try to do that so they could go viral or feel like they’re a bigger asset to whatever company they’re working with because it’s entertainment.”
The players also pretended to be analysts for an N.B.A. finals game. Jordan Moore, the radio voice for U.S.C. men’s basketball, did play-by-play. But first, he had advice.
“Worst broadcast is if I go, ‘Oh, what a shot by Jimmy Butler!’ And you go, ‘Man, what a shot!’” Moore said.
He added: “You all played in this league. You played with these guys. You have advance knowledge. That’s what you need to tap into. I could never get your job.”
The most earnest session was about podcasting. In 15-minute chunks, the players exchanged stories about their lives: playing on the road, dealing with fans, growing up.
Shelvin Mack, 33, who played in the N.B.A. from 2011 to 2019, asked Robert Baker, a 24-year-old in the G League, what it was like to play for Harvard. Baker recalled a game against Kentucky.
“My nerves was cool,” he said. “Tip off, I was warming up well. I was hitting shots, and then they played the intro type of song, I said, ‘Oh.’”
Mack said, “You froze up?”
“Yeah, bro,” Baker said, adding, “Tough day.”
The players receive reels with their best moments from the camp that they can send to networks in the hopes of getting hired. Williams said the potential financial rewards of broadcasting appeal to him, though he’s “comfortable” financially. Odiase said this alternative career is a way to tap into his other skills and interests beyond basketball.
“It’s learning all aspects of yourself to grow after the game,” he said.