As the NBA playoffs have wound their way to the Finals, two clips in particular have been circulating with particular vigor in tweets, meme pages, and group chats. One is an interview, years old by now, in which a young Jaylen Brown bashfully declares that he’ll have five championship rings by age 28. (It’s been gleefully shared because Brown is currently at zero, his Celtics are freshly eliminated, and his 27th birthday is approaching this fall.) The other, from the beginning of this season, features Nuggets star Jamal Murray venting about the chip on the Nuggets’ collective shoulders.
The constant connecting those two videos—one hilariously negative, the other inspirational—is the interviewer: Turner Sports personality Taylor Rooks, who over the last half-decade has built a reputation for getting even the most typically taciturn athletes to let their guards down—and convincing the loquacious players who have seemingly said it all to offer something uniquely revealing. Of all the major sports leagues, the NBA might be the one best consumed via—or at least with a strong helping of—social media. And, for a number of reasons, no contemporary broadcast figure seems to understand that dynamic quite like Rooks.
On a warm Wednesday afternoon in May, on the eve of the Finals, we meet at her apartment in New York to talk about the unique space she’s come to occupy in sports media. She’s only arrived back here from covering Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami earlier this morning; she has a day off before heading out to Boston for Game 5.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like I really live here,” Rooks says, pushing a hand through her braids as she reclines on a plush green couch under a framed picture of Pam Grier in the guest room. “My clothes are here.” It’s not a woe-is-me appeal, to be clear—just a statement of fact. Last fall, she estimates, she wasn’t home “more than four days in a row;” this NBA playoffs-heavy week is par for the diamond-medallion-certified course.
Rooks, newly 31, grew up in the Gwinnett County suburbs of Georgia, where, as she puts it, “You either watched football or you moved up north.” Of course, she wound up doing both. “I’ve always felt like life was bigger than where I was,” she says. “And sports and talking to people is a thing that I loved and felt like could be a vehicle to show me.”
She majored in broadcast journalism at University of Illinois and began working at Bleacher Report and Turner Sports. Over time, The Taylor Rooks Interview slowly but surely grew into its own category. The path to becoming a destination interviewer, she explains, is simple: show and prove. You need to land one good subject, and then—she says with steely determination—“You have to crush it. Body it.”
She’d use each new interview as a calling card to cold DM potential subjects—everyone from Snoop Dogg to Jimmy Butler. Butler ignored (or, she generously offers, just didn’t see) her initial message. She’s since interviewed him several times, and he sat down for the premiere of her Bleacher Report series, Take It There (now known as Taylor Rooks X). (They played Spades; Rooks has the scorecard, upon which Butler wrote “Fuck You” after losing, framed in her apartment.)
She positions herself as both a journalist and a peer—someone who, unlike your traditional (older, whiter) beat reporter, understands something deeper about her subjects. “People feel like they’re talking to somebody who is relatable and familiar and—not ‘on their side,’ but [also] not going to fuck you over,” Rooks says. “I’m just going to ask you questions and you’re going to answer them how you want.” Her sitdowns sometimes have a way of seeming eerily prophetic—Bam Adebayo told her, at the start of the season, that he hates playing the Celtics. More often, they resonate for reasons extending far beyond sports. That Adebayo interview went viral because of the moving way the Heat star spoke about reconnecting with his estranged father, while a chat with Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie gained traction for its appeal for young men to check in with their elders.
I note that her style is most reminiscent of the warm rapport hip-hop radio veteran Angie Martinez is famous for bringing to her interviews. “She does such a great job of listening to her guests and empathizing with them and getting them to think about what they just said in a different way,” Rooks says of Martinez. “And I don’t think a lot of people do, like, those three levels. And everyone’s really comfortable. You can tell they want to talk to her.”
In a sports context, I suggest, Rooks’ closest analog might be Ahmad Rashad, the NBA Inside Stuff sportscaster who, over the course of their twin careers, developed into something of a Michael Jordan whisperer. While Rooks doesn’t have her MJ just yet, she’s got a contact list miles long—she can casually drop that she’s known Jayson Tatum since he was 15, from her college basketball days, and that she’s interviewed Kevin Durant “probably five times at this point.”
Rooks lights up at the comparison, animatedly revealing that she’s modeled her career after Rashad’s, even if people don’t often pick up on their similarities for one particular reason. “I would say he’s the closest to what I’m doing for sure, but if anyone doesn’t compare me to that, it’s because I’m a woman,” she says with a wry laugh. “That’s literally the only reason.”
Of course, forging close relationships with her subjects brings other challenges. But Rooks feels that those relationships are exactly what makes her interviews pop. “When I’m interviewing somebody that I know, I always talk about our relationship or some experience that we’ve had in the interview, normally at the top, just so people understand this is someone I know, this isn’t me trying to hide that,” Rooks says. “And that tends to quell the fear. But I could be best friends with someone I’m interviewing—I’m still going to ask them the questions that I feel like the viewer wants to know.”
More than ever, she’s tending with the fact that, as an increasingly public person, her opinions are themselves occasionally newsmaking. “I don’t know if I love that personalities or journalists having thoughts on something becomes news,” she says. “Obviously, I understand how that happens. But I do think we’re inching a little further and further away from the athlete and the game always being the story. There’s articles about something that you said, but you weren’t saying it because it was news—you were just reacting to the news. And I don’t think my reaction to the news is news—but people do.”
To a degree, Rooks has been dealing with this dynamic since she was a college reporter. “But obviously now, it’s way bigger than what I thought it would be,” she says.
That’s thanks in part to where we’ve seen Rooks in recent months: here she is chatting it up at a Hawks game with fellow Gwinnett native Quavo, and there she is popping up in a Jack Harlow video filmed at the Kentucky Derby (“That’s one of my best friends in the whole world,” Rooks says of Harlow. “I tell him everything. I’ve been able to have so many really cool opportunities just because Jack believes in me and always wants those close to him to shine.”). Here she is attending Jay-Z’s post-Oscars Gold Party, there she goes modeling for Drake’s OVO clothing line. “Doing a lot of that stuff, being at the places I go, being friends with whoever I’m friends with—it all lends itself to the work,” she explains. “Work is the main thing, will always be the main thing. Doing a good interview, being a good journalist, being strong on air. But being in these other spaces make people want to be a part of the main thing. I think I have to have them both. I never want people to think that one is a side effect of the other. It’s the work.”
Rooks is still quick to admit that “every interview isn’t there yet.” (“I would say the majority of them, but they’re not all hitting,” she clarifies.) And reviewing the game tape on the ones that do take off still leaves her with notes. “I interviewed Charles Barkley and he talked to me about how he hadn’t spoken to Michael Jordan in a really long time, and we’re talking about that call,” she remembers. “And I was really proud of how that exchange went. But I wish there were three more questions that I asked.”
When it comes to working on her craft, she’s taking particular inspiration from Drake, a friend and himself our reigning king of high-quality ubiquity. “The number one thing Drake has shown me through our friendship and watching how he lives is that there is always more,” she says. “Always. You can always evolve and improve from what you’ve previously done. Longevity and greatness is attainable.”
Longevity means broadening her range. Last fall, she began serving as the features reporter for Amazon’s new Thursday Night Football broadcast—an effort to assure she wouldn’t be seen as just “the NBA girl,” as she puts it.
But there’s still an NBA season to finish up. Perhaps thanks to that viral conversation with Murray, Rooks is convinced—even before she knows that the Heat are coming out of the Eastern Conference—that the Nuggets were taking it all. If she’s right, then that’s another Taylor Rooks interview worth memorializing. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I had the perfect interview,” she admits. But that won’t stop her from chasing it.
Photographs by Hajar Benjida
Hair and Makeup by Elliot Valle