About a half hour before we were supposed to meet, NBA analyst and podcaster extraordinaire, Nate Duncan, gave me a heads-up that he would be wearing a green polo so I could recognize him. I laughed. Anyone who listens to the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast would know Duncan is 6’8” from his ads for various products and clothing services. In a coffee shop filled with what I gathered to be moms and programmers, I wasn’t exactly worried I wouldn’t be able to recognize him. When I stood up to shake his hand, it felt like I might as well have stayed seated for all the difference it made.
It was jarring to meet Duncan in person. As soon as I heard his voice, it dawned on me that I’ve spent probably hundreds of hours listening to it without knowing the face. It didn’t occur to me that it could belong to a walking being. What I also didn’t expect before meeting Duncan revealed a prejudice I didn’t realize I carried: that stat-junkies couldn’t possibly be lean and muscular. I realized that Duncan’s robotic, oddly-soothing baritone that’s kept me company after so many NBA games belonged to someone whom I would definitely want on my side in a bar fight.
The playoffs are understandably hectic for Duncan, and I had just caught him before he headed to Oracle Arena for Game 1 against the Utah Jazz. I knew they were getting swept. But that’s not why I wanted to talk to the former attorney turned NBA luminary. Between the time we had scheduled the interview and actually meeting, ESPN had just experienced a brutal wave of layoffs that hit some of their most popular NBA writers. Downsizing has long been the name of the game in journalism, but Duncan has positioned himself in a unique position for a basketball analyst: he is his own boss.
I started listening to Duncan’s podcast in the middle of the 2015 offseason, when I needed an NBA fix that didn’t involve watching new draftees and D-League players compete on mid-afternoon livestreams. I went to the vibrantly active NBA subreddit for recommendations, and found that these hardest of hardcore basketball nerds mentioned the Dunc’d On Basketball podcast in reverent tones. It was almost like a missionary praising their basketball deity, happy to introduce you to the light. Either that, or like a music snob that tries to stop you from listening to that trash on the radio. With the cache he had built amongst fans and shoutouts received by respected NBA voices such as Zach Lowe and Haralabos Voulgaris, I assumed he had been a staple in the community forever. I assumed he simply didn’t care that his microphone made him sound like he was broadcasting from the bottom of a giant tin can alongside co-host Danny Leroux.
Duncan’s show actually premiered just a few months prior, in April of 2015, but the quality and detail of Duncan’s prior sports writing and live Twitter analysis garnered him a moderate following that allowed him to progress from blogging, to writing for titans like Sports Illustrated and ESPN. By the time he launched the show, his acumen had already earned him a brief gig as a scout for an NBA team.
Duncan caters to new generation of team-agnostic fans, who are less interested in hot takes on team drama than they are in the league’s function, trades, salary cap maneuvering and collective bargaining agreement. Duncan himself traded in his Bulls fan card as he began covering the league full time. He notes that traffic is at its highest during the mid-season trade deadline and offseason free agency, beating even the Finals themselves. He also has no time for soap opera journalism.
“I wanted a show that didn’t really exist.” Duncan explained “If you look at it, probably over 50 percent of NBA analysis is on stuff besides why are these teams winning and losing”
He suddenly gets animated for the first time since we sat down, doing a patronizing imitation of a fan salivating over whether or not Kevin Durant texted Russell Westbrook about his departure or if he told him in person. He appreciates my comparison to pro-wrestling. We get distracted and fall into a rabbit hole regarding the Clippers constant tendency towards meltdown, and the preposterous notion that Chris Paul somehow isn’t clutch.
“We love to have pattern recognition,” he said. “As humans that’s something we’re wired to do. We want to ascribe some sort of motive. They’re just not mentally tough enough, there’s some inherent characteristic about these guys from a mental perspective—that—they just can’t do it.”
Duncan stands out from his peers specifically for dismissing such narratives in favor of good ol’ X’s and O’s. It’s garnered him a niche, but dedicated audience. Originally, he thought the show would only be sustainable since he was also working as an attorney, but as of October 2016, the popularity of his show has garnered enough sponsorship for him to transition between the careers fully. His downloads now range from 50,000 to 100,000 per episode and his audio quality thankfully followed that same upward trajectory. He’s now launched a Patreon, a subscription service where artists, podcasters, musicians and more can connect directly with their fans for financial support. Duncan and Leroux’s output is already massive, with podcasts being uploaded on weekends and at unholy hours after late night games. You can expect five a week for free, but a $7 per month subscription fee gets you an extra, exclusive podcast, private periscope broadcasts, and live Q&A sessions, not to mention the interactive Twitter livestreams during games.
By definition, serving a hardcore niche doesn’t exactly get you drive-time sports radio numbers, but it has its perks.
“[People on Twitter] are not just calling me gay all the time.” Duncan chuckles with some pride. “Compared to some of the stories my friends in the business have, I’ve been very lucky in terms of my following and the interactions I’ve had.”
Photo Credit to Front Office Sports