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Jimmie Johnson on Being a Six-Time NASCAR Winner; Dave Koechner Weighs in on Sports News; Coaches Behaving Badly; Kobe Bryant Prepares to Return to the Game

Aired December 6, 2013 - 22:30   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on UNGUARDED with Rachel Nichols...

Uncertain. NBA superstar Kobe Bryant on returning to action eight months after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

RACHEL NICHOLS, HOST: Did you ever really think, "I'm done. I'm going to retire now"?

KOBE BRYANT, NBA SUPERSTAR: Oh, yes. I mean, that night, absolutely.

ANNOUNCER: Unhinged.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey! Champ here from "Anchorman 2." I'm all about having fun. And we're going to have some fun tonight with Rachel Nichols. Rachel! Whammy!

ANNOUNCER: And Unexpected. Six-time champ Jimmie Johnson may be the king of NASCAR, but he reveals just how much sway that holds when he's cruising his own neighborhood.

NICHOLS: Are you a good driver in regular street?

JIMMIE JOHNSON, NASCAR CHAMP: I think I am, but my wife is going to tell you a totally different story.



This is champions week for NASCAR. The week the sports who's who all gather in Las Vegas to celebrate the season, put on a glitzy award shows and, this year, pretty much worship at the feet of Jimmie Johnson, who just won his sixth championship.

But if you hear the word "NASCAR" and expect some stereotypical good old boy, you're definitely going to want to watch this. Before he left for Vegas, Johnson stopped by our CNN studio, and he revealed he's anything but a cliche.


NICHOLS: So, you finally had a little time to let this sink in.


NICHOLS: You mentioned after you won that Michael Jordan won six titles and you got a text and tell him you're in the club now. Did you get a chance to do that?

JOHNSON: I did. I sent when him a text. I said, now what? He said, "Go get seven," so it's time to go chase down seven.

NICHOLS: You're now one title behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty. Richard Petty, what does he make of you?

JOHNSON: I feel so fortunate to be in our sport at this time and have the opportunity to see the king. And even before the race, he's one of the last people I talk to. I'm putting my belts on, putting my helmet on. He sticks his head in the window and says, "Hey, boy, you better enjoy it. It's going to be over before you know it."

I sat there and thought about it a second and put my stuff on, and so I was so nervous about the race and what could hopefully take place that my mind wasn't around enjoying the experience. So he helped me think about that for a second.

NICHOLS: You're not a typical stock car driver. You're from California.


NICHOLS: You don't have an accent. You're a little bit of an outsider.


NICHOLS: And I think people even who aren't big racing fans can identify with a new kid at the school, doesn't quite have a seat at the lunch table. We were just trying to break into elite racing, and how much sort of connections and...

JOHNSON: With the humble beginnings that I had, my parents couldn't afford my four-wheel racing career. For me, it was really about working connections. I mean, I walk around and pass out business cards and try to meet people, and people just laugh.

NICHOLS: So you're walking around some cocktail Chevrolet event.


NICHOLS: "Hi, I'm Jimmie Johnson. Hi, I'm Jimmie Johnson."

JOHNSON: Yes, I would do that. People still have those business cards that I had, this little cheesy business card. At the bottom it said professional race car driver. Someone will pull one out every now and then. And I'll get a good laugh out of it.

NICHOLS: What was that experience for you, trying to break into this culture and the acceptance for you, especially from fans from the beginning to now?

JOHNSON: The fan perspective, there's -- I'm not popular in the Deep South. There's definitely that aspect to it but, you know, you can't make everybody happy and I've got a great strong fan base nationwide that I'm very proud of.

NICHOLS: Is that strange for a six-time champion? A lot of other drivers say, "Hey, we are watching history. This is the best guy ever." And, yet, in the heart of your sport you just said, "I'm not popular in the Deep South."

JOHNSON: No, not really, because I'm a sports fan. I go to sporting events. My team comes out, I cheer. The other team comes out, I boo. It's just -- it's how it works. And that dawned on me maybe year two or three. And life's been a lot easier since then.

NICHOLS: It bothered you at first?

JOHNSON: It's hard not to, because I took it personally. Like, you don't know me. Why are you booing me? And then I realized it's just a sport. You know? And until somebody knows me and meets me, if they don't like me then, then I should be concerned.

NICHOLS: What's the most fun thing that you've done to go celebrate being a Spring Cup champion? I heard that one year one of your off-season activities was to take a buddy, a private plane and a bottle of Grey Goose and go hit both the AFC and NFC championship games.

JOHNSON: We did do that. That was a big night. The Grey Goose was the project. And we caught both games. We had a little weather delay that kind of messed things up but that was -- that was quite the experience.

My daily enjoyment's really having some old cars. I've got a '67 Camaro that I love and have restored. My '49 pickup truck.

NICHOLS: Are you a good driver in regular street?

JOHNSON: I think I am. But my wife is going to tell you a totally different story.

NICHOLS: Oh, come on. It doesn't matter if you race cars for a living. Your spouse is not impressed with your driving.

My wife does tell me I ride too close to other cars. So if somebody's tailgating on the interstate, it could be me.

NICHOLS: A lot of fun there with Jimmy Johnson.

But of course, there's a very serious side to what he does. Take a look at this. After the break, he'll tell me what it was like being in that car.

And Kobe Bryant, he's about to return to the court, but first, he sat down with UNGUARDED to reveal just how dark things got for him this past year.


BRYANT: The moment you're in just feels like the darkest moment to you.



NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols and welcome back to UNGUARDED. We've been talking to Jimmie Johnson, six-time NASCAR champion and also a relatively new father to a 3-year-old and a baby. Two more reasons to perhaps think twice about getting into a race car.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch this car move. Right here. Something breaks on that car. He just clears the track.

NICHOLS: You had that awful crash at Watkins Glen. I know in 20013, one of your best friends, Blaise Alexander...


NICHOLS: ... died from a crash in a stock car crash. There's all kinds of people who do dangerous jobs. But at this point, you don't have to be one of them.

So how do you put into perspective driving and the dangers that you go through every weekend with that family that you have?

JOHNSON: Yes. The family aspect changes things, and there are -- there are risks. I mean, it -- I guess I've grown comfortable with the risks. My wife has, as well. When we first started dated, I tried to show her all the safety things that exist in our sport.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Indy car is sad to announce that Dan Wheldon has passed away from unsurvivable injury.


NICHOLS: There's a photo of you watching TV when Dan Wheldon died. Obviously different sport, different safety issues.

Still, you are sitting there watching TV, watching someone you know who has very young children.

JOHNSON: Yes. Dan's crash, that rocked us. You know, I've always had a fascination with Indy car, and I thought that would be my path growing up and wanted to run the 500. And my wife and I were talking about maybe trying to do the double, and that really shut down that idea and notion.

NICHOLS: Your friend Blaise died the same weekend that you had your first NASCAR event.

JOHNSON: Yes. That was a crazy, crazy day because the next day I'm on track. And I drive down the front stretch and see his skid marks lap after lap after lap.

If you look on the driver's side bumper of the race car, there's a little sticker up there with a little flame around it. It has "B.R.," and that's for Blaise.

We used to have a good time on the racetrack and, honestly, we'd shoot each other the bird when we'd passed one another. So when I think back about him, I can see him shooting me the bird.


JOHNSON: It's great.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do I think he's an athlete? Absolutely not. But I give him credit...

NICHOLS: You don't think he's an athlete?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not an athlete. He's not.

NICHOLS: Time out. That's a whole other -- You don't think Jimmie Johnson is an athlete?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. He sits in a car and he drives.

NICHOLS: What did you think when you heard that?

JOHNSON: It's going to come up. It's forever going to come up. And I don't -- I'm not upset over it. It doesn't bother me.

NICHOLS: I mean, do you sit around and say what's a sport and what's not a sport?

JOHNSON: I honestly don't. I've -- maybe watching curling in the Olympics, but even then I'm just pissed off at the whole world of curling, so I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. Because I know what my sport is about, and I know the demands and how physical it is and what -- what I go through.

NICHOLS: And it's hot in there.

JOHNSON: It is hot, oh, yes. Four layers of clothes. It's 110, 115 degrees in the car. And then, you know, the demands, the physical demands inside the car send your heart rate to 140, 150 depending on who it is. And then you're doing that for three and a half, four hours.

NICHOLS: So you lose weight every time you drive, I assume.

JOHNSON: You do. I do lose a couple pounds.

NICHOLS: You're going to put that on in beer weight celebrating this time?

JOHNSON: There is a chance that that will happen. I'm off to a good start.


NICHOLS: If you look on Jimmie's Twitter feed from Las Vegas right now, you'll see he's been recreating scenes from the movie "The Hangover." So my guess is he has, indeed, been working on that drinking.

Of course, there is a lot more going on in the world of sports this week, including the crazy money contract that former Yankees infielder Robinson Cano just got from the Seattle Mariners and Curtis Granderson going to the Mets. We're going to talk about those deals and much more with my panelist from the new movie, "Anchorman 2." We welcome Dave Koechner, who isn't a sportscaster, but he sure plays one on TV, the one and only Champ Kind.

And next to him, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Yesterday in Tallahassee, the district attorney Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would not be facing sexual assault charges. We're going to leave the issue of Winston's guilt or innocence aside, but what bothered a lot of people was the tone of this press conference, which was punctuated by the D.A. cracking jokes and laughing.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was there a sexual assault?

MEGGS: Well, that's kind of the -- why we're here.



NICHOLS: All right. So regardless...



KOECHNER: That's disgusting.

NICHOLS: I mean, what do you think?

KOECHNER: That's disgusting.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Nothing but laughs down there in Tallahassee. It's just bizarre. I have never -- I have never seen a news conference like that but...

NICHOLS: And you've seen a lot of these. TOOBIN: I've seen a lot of these and, you know, we are left in a situation where, who knows what happened?

KOECHNER: I have three daughters, so it seems like whatever your opinion about whether or not it was a sexual assault, why don't you keep that to yourself? Otherwise, you're going to laughed at at a press conference. It's laughable that it would even be thought about. That's disgusting.

TOOBIN: And it's also celebrity. It's not just athletes. It's celebrities are treated differently in the legal system. Sometimes actually more harshly. Not here. This looked like, you know, the old boys' network gathering around the quarterback and saying, everything's OK for the Heisman.

NICHOLS: You have this message, not only in the press conference, but the accuser in the situation complained that the Tallahassee Police Department when she initially tried to file the claim told her, "Hey, come on now. He's the quarterback at Florida State."

KOECHNER: Isn't that witness intimidation? Where's that point? When they say, "Come on, he's the quarterback. Leave it alone." What is that -- what is that...

TOOBIN: It's not...

KOECHNER: Where do I file that?

TOOBIN: You would file that under...

NICHOLS: Police misconduct.

TOOBIN: ... American life 2013.

NICHOLS: Do you think this is going to affect Jameis Winston's Heisman trophy chances? Because there's a line in the Heisman trophy literature about integrity. It is actually part of the awarding of the trophy. Again...

KOECHNER: So they have to go back...

NICHOLS: They have to take some away? Is that what you're saying?

KOECHNER: Retroactive Heismans taken away?

TOOBIN: That's interesting. O.J., that's one of the things he gave to the Goldman family that they actually got in their civil judgment award is the value of the Heisman.

NICHOLS: How long did you get here before you brought O.J. into this?

TOOBIN: Hey, no.

NICHOLS: We have you on the show. You bring O.J. up.

TOOBIN: The birthplace of my career. What can I say?

NICHOLS: I love it. All right. Don't go anywhere, guys. We have a lot more to talk about, including some recent bad behavior in the coaching ranks.

Plus, Kobe Bryant's opinion on his new mega contract. Not surprisingly, it's a little different than most other folks'.


NICHOLS: Is this a good deal for the Lakers?

BRYANT: Well, I think it's a great deal for the Lakers.



NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED and we're going to pick up right where we left off with my panel: "Anchorman 2" star Dave Koechner and our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Guys, we've seen some controversial behavior by coaches lately. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin had his foot in bounds on a Ravens return, preventing a touchdown. And Nets coach Jason Kidd intentionally spilled soda on the court to give his team extra time against the Lakers.

Now, I sat down with Kidd to get his side of the story.


JASON KIDD, COACH, NETS: Whatever it takes in the sense of helping those guys to get a play, you know, I'll do it. As a player, I did it. I ran into a coach. Is it cheating? You know, so, it can go either way.


NICHOLS: Is this cheating? Is it gamesmanship? Is it different if you're a coach versus a player?

TOOBIN: I'm kind of on the gamesmanship side of it. You know, I have inspected very carefully the Tomlin -- the various tapes, and if you look, his foot goes on the sideline. Jones is 40 yards away, and he's not even on the sideline yet.


TOOBIN: So I mean, was he thinking...

NICHOLS: You're saying that...

TOOBIN: What's did big deal? I mean, he got fined. We shouldn't turn these game -- these sports into litigated events.


KOECHNER: Jacoby Jones said that was gamesmanship, right? Said it didn't bother him. And by the way, if you just change a little bit and make it Jackoby Jones, I think it would be a great detective series.


KOECHNER: Jackoby Jones this week on CNN.

NICHOLS: I will say that...

KOECHNER: Goes inside gamesmanship in the NFL.

NICHOLS: New programming alert.

KOECHNER: Jackoby Jones.

NICHOLS: I will say the NFL does not agree with either one of you. The NBA does not agree with either one of you. They fined both of those coaches heavily. And part of the thinking is, these are coaches.

TOOBIN: I just think, you know, trying to parse these things, you know, the old rule: let them play and that includes the coaches. I'm for that.

NICHOLS: All right.

KOECHNER: I wonder if we see more of it now because there's so much more coverage. Back when I was a cameraman at the NFL, we had like seven cameras on the whole field. And now, there's like 14 or 15 and there's one above and everything else.


KOECHNER: So it's really changed, right.

NICHOLS: You weren't looking for guys...

TOOBIN: All of which suggest the idea that you could get away with something is ridiculous. That's why I'm slightly more sympathetic to Tomlin.

NICHOLS: Well, I do want to ask you guys about today's big news story. Now former Yankees second baseman Cano jumped to the Mariners for the third largest contract in baseball history. Ten years, $240 million.

And it was amazing watching the reaction this afternoon. There are people who are saying, Cano's a traitor. Shouldn't have left. A backlash against him.

NICHOLS: And people are upset about that. KOECHNER: Things change. What are you going to do?

TOOBIN: I'm a Mets fan, so I know...

NICHOLS: And I'm sorry about that.

TOOBIN: ... that the Curtis Granderson deal will turn out Yes. And I know that the Curtis Granderson deal will disastrous but only four years. It's not a decade. Can you imagine that they're going to be paying this guy $20 million a year when he's 41 years old?

NICHOLS: Jay-Z, who clearly needs more money -- we all know that -- was the agent on the Cano deal. So makes out with a percentage of that but he's just starting out as a sports agent.

KOECHNER: Is he representing only athletes?

NICHOLS; He is representing -- wait, what do you mean? Are you looking for some action?

KOECHNER: Why wouldn't I? His first deal as a sports agent is the third largest in history?

TOOBIN: That's what you got for "Anchorman," 240 million.

KOECHNER: It pales in comparison to my salary.

NICHOLS: Now this came up with Kobe Bryant, recently, as well. Because he just signed a major contract extension that will make him the NBA's richest player at 37 and 38 years old.

TOOBIN: Kobe Bryant last played, I believe, during the Bush administration.

NICHOLS: Come on.

TOOBIN: No. But I mean...

NICHOLS: It's only been eight months.

TOOBIN: That's a long time for a guy his age. I mean, I just -- you know, I don't blame the athletes. I mean, someone wants to give you the money, what the heck? Take it. I just -- you know, what do they think they're getting at?

It is a balance, right? LeBron James took less money to go to the Miami Heat, and he said, "It's more important to me to win a championship because he took less money. They could sign Chris Bosch and remember at the time he hadn't won anything yet. So in the end he's probably making more money now with all the side endorsement deals, because he signed for a little less money. So is it smart sometimes for athletes to do that?

KOECHNER: It's a different business strategy, so yes. It works out for both. But I -- you know, why wouldn't Kobe do that? Of course, the boss said, "I want to give you a raise." What are you going to do?

TOOBIN: No, right.

KOECHNER: "No, don't you dare give me a raise." That's ridiculous.

NICHOLS: All right. Well, that will have to be the last word for now. Please come back soon.

And you do not go anywhere, because you know, if there's a big story, we're going to get the key players for you. And Kobe Bryant is going to sit down and answer that criticism about his contract right when we come back.


NICHOLS: Welcome back. Kobe Bryant is just days away from returning to the court. It's been a long, emotional road for the Lakers superstar, who tells me just how close he came to retiring after tearing his Achilles tendon last April.


NICHOLS: So the night that you got hurt, you did all the soul searching, the Facebook post...

BRYANT: The rant.

NICHOLS: This is the worst thing ever. Wondering if you should just pack it in, right?

BRYANT: Right.

NICHOLS: Now that you're basically almost out the other side, you look back through this whole experience, how would you describe it?

BRYANT: Well, I mean, it's one of those moments. You know, I think we all have moments like this in life, where it just seems like that day's never going to end. You know? It seems like the moment that you're in just feels like the darkest moment to you. You know? You personally feel like I don't know if I can do this again. I don't know if I can come back. You know? And you have to issue that challenge to yourself and try to respond to it.

NICHOLS: Now, this past week you're running around all over. You're introducing your new Kobe 9 shoe.

BRYANT: That's right.

NICHOLS: I mean, you talked when you first got hurt about, "Hey, maybe, I should just retire." You know, we look at Michael Jordan's postretirement. He went into the merchandising, had his own shoe line. Could you imagine this, you know, being your full-time right now? Did you ever seriously consider it? BRYANT: Well, yes. I mean, that night, absolutely. Because it's -- you know, you're tired and I just finished my 17th year in the NBA. Seventeen years, and my body's hurting and now I just ruptured my Achilles. And I know the amount of work it's going to take to try to get back to play. And it's like, do I really want to do this? You know? So I mean, the finality becomes more realistic.

NICHOLS: And as you said, I mean, look, you are getting on to that 20 years of tread on the tires. Then you have this injury.


NICHOLS: Trying to come back now. How good do you think you can be?

BRYANT: Well, I think I'll be OK. My game has to evolve. I'm not going to be as explosive as I was, you know, three, four years ago, five years ago, maybe even last year, for that matter. You have to be willing to make those adjustments. And you know, honestly self- assess and figure it out from there.

NICHOLS: What do you think it's going to be like when you do step back out on the court?

BRYANT: You know, I don't know. I've given it some thought, and just for the fact of trying to compose myself and say, "Well, I have a game to play," so I have to try to detach myself as much as possible from what's going on.

NICHOLS: Can you do that?

BRYANT: I'm going to try. I'm going to try. I'm going to try, but it's hard. It will be hard, for sure.

NICHOLS: I bet. And you just signed a contract extension that got a lot of press.


NICHOLS: Two more years, $48 million. And you will still, as a team, have cap room. But look, you do take up space with this contract.

BRYANT: Right.

NICHOLS: And if you took up a little less space, then you'd be able to sign more players.


NICHOLS: You are competitive.


NICHOLS: You want to win another title. Was there any point in your mind where you said, "Hey, maybe I should take less money so we can sign more guys?"

BRYANT: Well, yes. The Lakers know that about me and felt like they could, you know, take care of me the way they wanted to take care of me in terms of rewarding for past performance and future performance, whatever it may be, and still build a championship contender. So they felt comfortable in being able to do that, and I'm not going to argue with that, that's for sure.

But at the same time I still think it's kind of -- it's weird, because players are put in a position where they have to have those conversations. Like, well, the owners want to complain about the cap, but they're the ones that instituted the cap to begin with. So don't complain about something that you instituted.

NICHOLS: And talk about sacrificing for the team.

BRYANT: Right. Because then the player's put in a position where he has to make a choice based on public perception. And I don't think that's fair.

NICHOLS: All right. You once said, "If you see me in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear."

BRYANT: Right.

NICHOLS: Is that still going to be true when you come back?

BRYANT: Yes. The bear's having a hard time. I'm -- I'm beating the bear pretty good right now. He's going to get me one day, but today ain't that day.


BRYANT: I'm not sure exactly how Kobe is going to look when he comes back, but I can tell you, you do not want to be the bear in that situation.

That's it for tonight. But you can follow me on Twitter, like us on Facebook or visit us on the web at And of course, you can join us again next weekend, UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is just the start of the story. Good night.