The former New Jersey Net and 2016 NBA champ wants to follow in Michael Strahan’s and Nate Burelson’s footsteps as a crossover star.
When standout NBA small forward Richard Jefferson finished his tenth season in the league, he had made two Finals appearances with the New Jersey Nets, played a year with the Milwaukee Bucks, and played two more with the San Antonio Spurs.
At that point, the YES Network’s Nets producer, Frank DiGraci, asked him when he was going to retire to become a YES analyst.
DiGraci asked that question every offseason for seven more years while RJ maintained staying power as a veteran role-player for Golden State, Utah, Dallas, Cleveland, and Denver, knowing that Jefferson was made to be an NBA broadcaster. After the veteran finally called it quits following the 2017-18 season, he did indeed join YES as an analyst for 2018-19.
Since then, the 41-year-old has only spread his wings in the sports and entertainment space, calling college hoops for FOX Sports and Pac-12 Network, doing NBA games and studio analyst work for ESPN on NBA Today, and making appearances in the Hollywood world for Extra. Jefferson is trying to follow in the footsteps of versatile crossover former athlete superstars like Michael Strahan and Nate Burleson, who have made huge names for themselves in their post-playing careers in mainstream network news on Good Morning America and CBS Mornings, respectively.
“Nate Burleson, what he’s been able to accomplish has been special,” Jefferson told Boardroom. “Michael Strahan was always just kind of that north star that everyone could point to, because he was such a trailblazer for athletes post-career. But as I’m trying to do this, it’s more of just finding a way to establish yourself as a legitimate person in this industry.”
Jefferson first met Burleson through legendary NFL studio host James Brown, whom he ran into once on a train. Brown told Jefferson that he loves what he’s been doing and invited him to the CBS set to watch them work one Sunday. RJ woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the Manhattan set to see how the all-day show operates.
“I’m trying to see what these guys do and how they prep,” Jefferson said. “And that’s when I had the opportunity to meet Nate and watch his professionalism, watch how hard he works, watch his confidence in the way he approached the entire thing. Every time he makes a successful move, it opens up another pathway for an individual like me.”
Ian Eagle has witnessed Jefferson’s progression for the last 20 years since he was a rookie with the Nets, and the two are now co-workers at YES. RJ has the utmost respect for what he, Sarah Kustok, Michael Grady, Ryan Ruocco, DiGraci, and director John Filippelli do, and Eagle considers him a natural as a broadcaster and analyst because of his combination of honesty, likability, and insight.
“Where I think viewers have seen the development is how smart RJ is,” Eagle told Boardroom. “He’s got that kind of unique skill-set. As an analyst, I think initially he was trying to figure out where he fit in. Would it be X’s and O’s? Would it be stories? What he determined was it’s a little bit of everything. He’s really good at this, and he’s figured out pretty quickly what works and what will garner attention.”
That included a game against the Knicks in 2019 with Ruocco, where he said that when the Knicks were the only team that wanted to sign him, that was a tell-tale sign that he should retire. The story went even more viral when it elicited an official denial from Knicks public relations.
Filipelli, Jefferson said, was someone who’d always pushed him to expand his repertoire to other responsibilities beyond analyst work.
“He’s one of those people that was like ‘Richard, I think you’re ready to host,'” Jefferson said. “And I was like, ‘dude, what?’ And he’s like, ‘yeah, I think you’re ready to try this.’”
That’s led to hosting duties on everything from YES, ESPN’s The Jump, and Extra along with his role on the “Road Trippin'” podcast with Channing Frye and Allie Clifton.
“Richard’s versatility is a tremendous asset,” said David Roberts, ESPN’s senior Vice President of NBA and studio production. “His in-studio work as an analyst and host, along with his outstanding work providing distinctive commentary during our game telecasts, proves he is one of the most talented and well-prepared NBA experts in the industry.”
One of the gifts Jefferson said athletes have is when they put their minds to something, they understand the journey and how long it takes and the effort and years they need to put in to achieve their goals. But sometimes to get those years of experience, they have to create their own opportunities.
Jefferson began to manifest that at the 2019 NBA Finals in Toronto, when he met up with Rachel Lindsay, the former The Bachelorette star and current Extra correspondent and podcast host. She said he would be great as an entertainment host and reporter, and knowing that he was looking for new opportunities, ultimately made that connection.
RJ further proved his crossover chops during the pandemic when he hosted IG Live shows with different celebrities alongside sports host Kayla Johnson.
They ended up interviewing dozens of celebrities, including Jack Harlow, TI, Lil’ Dicky, Mike Epps, and Joe Jonas. They talked about sports, favorite teams, movies, shows, and records they wanted to promote.
“It was so much fun,” Jefferson said. “A lot of it comes from creating the opportunity from the place that you want to be in. Now when I go to Extra or I go to tell someone else, ‘hey I wanna do stuff outside of sports,’ and they’re like, ‘oh do you have any experience?” Now it’s like, ‘well a matter of fact, I do.’”
Jefferson did one event with Extra to date before the NBA season started, and he’s looking to do more.
“He’s just very curious, naturally curious,” Eagle said, “which is the reason why he’s ventured off into so many different areas. He’s not going to paint himself into a corner. He wants to do it all and he’s capable of doing it all. He’s got that kind of unique skill-set.”
As much as Jefferson’s already done, he’s only in his third year in the broadcasting industry and compared his experience level to a novice. But he’s always looking to develop more skills and will continue to create opportunities for himself as he looks for a permanent home in the sports and entertainment world.
“For me now, it’s about finding what the place is that I want to do and dedicate the majority of my energy to,” Jefferson said.
While he loves working for ESPN and YES along with his side projects, eventually he wants to find that one thing. Whether it’s got his name on it or he’s just a part of something bigger, he wants that one thing to watch, work and grow with for five to 10 years.
“I don’t know what that project is,” he said, “but the goal is to keep working so that when that opportunity presents itself, you can spot it. You just gotta be ready when it presents itself.”