This is the second of three guest columns on this Thursday. This is quite timely.
Reader Ed Hannan has been watching ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals (or ECF as ESPN likes to abbreviate). He hasn’t been thrilled over the Alleged Worldwide Leader’s coverage. He provides some ways to improve its presentation to a point where it could be on a par with the NBA’s Network of Record, TNT.
First off, I’d like to thank Ken for the opportunity to write for his fantastic site. He’s phenomenal on Twitter and as plugged-in to the local and national media as anyone out there. I appreciate him giving me some prized real estate to write about something that’s been a hot topic lately both locally and nationally with the Celtics one game away from the NBA Finals.
The point, which is almost universally agreed-upon (I haven’t seen anyone write otherwise on Twitter or anywhere else in the blogosphere), is that ESPN’s NBA coverage is inferior to that of TNT. This is unfortunate as it is ESPN which has the rights to air the NBA Finals each year.
But why? Popular reasons are the banter among Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and host Ernie Johnson, legendary play-by-play announcer Marv Albert, and the loose, yet respectful tone TNT takes in its coverage.
ESPN is deemed inferior by many for a few reasons: Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy just aren’t as good as Albert and Steve Kerr; its pregame show and postgame show feature too many voices, some of whom (I’m looking at you Chris Broussard and Jon Barry) add nothing while Michael Wilbon is a host, not a panelist, and Magic Johnson should not be the lead voice (he’s closer to a Shaquille O’Neal, although Johnson is improving); and there is no real postgame show (it is instead folded into SportsCenter).
I want to focus on two other areas that rarely get mentioned, but are major reasons ESPN’s coverage lacks in comparison to TNT.
The first is ESPN’s on-the-court interviews with coaches at the start of the second and fourth quarters.
Doris Burke is a capable sideline reporter (she’s actually better at it than TNT’s Craig Sager since she knows basketball as a former Providence College star and works both college and pro games for the World Wide Leader) who asks coaches great questions without being afraid to follow up (Sager’s ongoing dialogue with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is embarrassing to TNT and the NBA).
She’s not the problem. It’s ESPN’s inane decision to air the interviews in their entirety even as play resumes via split-screen without putting the score on the screen. Instead, in Game 5 of the Celtics-Heat series on Tuesday night, ESPN showed stats for the previous quarter.
This is inexcusable. The number-one thing people need to know when they are watching a sporting event is the score. Not giving viewers what they want is deplorable. But it happens every game, so it’s not going to change anytime soon.
It also happens during rare takeout interviews with players that air during the action, when they will actually cut away from the game for a taped piece filmed several hours, or even a day before the game, again without showing the score on the screen.
If that’s not bad enough, when the game is taking place, viewers are subjected to the huckster voice of Mike Breen. Breen has the pipes to be a credible play-by-play guy, and he generally earns positive reviews on Twitter and from media critics, but he’s got a little too much Jack Edwards in him for my taste.
He gets overly excited for LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade alley-oops or any play made by a superstar. Take, for instance, Wade’s block of a Paul Pierce shot in Tuesday night’s game. Breen started screaming as if the Heat had just won the NBA Championship. Problem is, Wade blocked it to Rajon Rondo, who redirected it to Mickael Pietrus for a critical three-point shot in the fourth quarter. That was treated as an afterthought, which is just wrong.
It seems as though we’re going to be stuck with ESPN’s coverage of the NBA for at least a few more years, but there are things it can change to make viewing a more enjoyable experience, and we are here to help.
- Redo the pregame/postgame studio show. Get rid of Broussard and Barry, who certainly have a place on ESPN, but not part of the pregame/postgame show. In their place, I would add Tim Legler, Jalen Rose and Stephen A. Smith, and make Wilbon the host. He’s the best host they have, but Legler and Rose are not shy about sharing their opinions, having spent many years on various ESPN platforms honing their craft. I would find a way to integrate the polarizing Smith, who knows the NBA better than perhaps anyone covering it for the network, and make sure Magic Johnson is at least a featured element.
- Bring back Hubie Brown. He’s the best NBA announcer they have, having been the head analyst at CBS, TNT and ABC before being demoted to his current No. 2 slot. Why he’s not part of the main announcer team is beyond me.
- Tone down Mike Breen. He is the best play-by-play guy covering the NBA (Dan Shulman is busy with MLB work once the NBA playoffs roll around) but he needs to get away from the breathless praise of every dunk, breakaway layup, alley-oop or blocked shot Wade, James and other megastars like Kobe Bryant make.
- Focus on the game. Either take fewer commercial breaks or air the coach/player interviews in the pregame and at halftime. But if you’re going to show them during the game, at least make sure the score is always on the screen.
ESPN has the resources to improve its NBA coverage and this year is certainly one of transition after losing Mark Jackson to the Golden State Warriors and retooling its studio show. It needs to spend the non-lockout-shortened summer making tweaks that will make these ideas a reality.
Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go to the store to make sure my fridge is stocked for tonight’s Game 6.
Ed Hannan is a former newspaper reporter who has covered the Boston Celtics, Pawtucket Red Sox, Providence Bruins, University of Rhode Island football and basketball, Brown University football, and the Campbell’s Soup Hall of Fame Tennis Championships. He is an avid sports-media watcher who has taken the first two days of March Madness off for the past quarter-century, claiming that the day CBS releases its announcer pairings should be a national holiday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading. Another guest column is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET today.