The NBA “Best Of Summer Tour” is taking a brief break.
Crossover Chronicles senior writer Joe Manganiello — also an AP Party contributor — covers Syracuse football for the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times and has business to tend to this week. He’ll be back in a few days.
In the meantime, we’re going to take something of a detour — we’ll still look at NBA history, but in the realm of television.
Older fans are well aware of how tumultuous the world of NBA broadcasting has been over the long march of time, but younger fans might not realize just how volatile the NBA broadcasting business really was in past decades. Even when the chaos of the 1970s and very early 1980s subsided, and the NBA became a much more attractive national television product due to the shared influence of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, basketball broadcasters — especially at the network level — failed to find long-term stability in the courtside booth.
It’s true that football’s main-event feel and its breaks between plays enable single moments to stand out more. It’s true that baseball’s slow build to a tension-drenched crescendo in the World Series enables the play-by-play voice to embed itself in the public memory. Yet, those factors alone don’t quite explain why NBA calls of defining moments do not penetrate the public consciousness to the same extent. This is and has been a different kind of broadcasting realm compared to football and baseball.
It’s not that highly talented and decorated announcers haven’t manned an NBA booth for the Finals over the years; what stands out about the history of the NBA on television is simply that great voices have not stayed beyond a single decade (though one is about to change that).
Here are five highly improbable facts about the history of the NBA on television in the United States, facts that fans under 35 might very well not be aware of:
5 – THREE BROADCASTING LEGENDS CALLED THREE STRAIGHT NBA FINALS… WITH THREE DIFFERENT PARTNERS
Here is footage, with audio, of the 1973 NBA Finals:
The 1974 NBA Finals:
The 1975 NBA Finals:
Two of the greatest college football announcers of all time, and one of the greatest NFL play-by-play men who has ever lived, called three consecutive NBA Finals.
Keith Jackson. Pat Summerall. Brent Musburger. The early- to mid-1970s showcased three towering broadcast talents. What’s more is that all three of them had different partners as analysts: Jackson had Bill Russell, Summerall had Rick Barry and Hot Rod Hundley, and Musburger had Oscar Robertson. Summerall and Musburger worked for CBS, so one might wonder why Barry (1974) didn’t work in 1975. Simple: Barry had an NBA Finals to play in 1975 with the Golden State Warriors. When Barry wasn’t playing in the Finals during the latter half of the 1970s, he called the Finals for CBS with Musburger (and sometimes a third analyst).
More on the revolving-door nature of the NBA broadcast analyst position comes along a little later in this piece.
4 – MARV AND THE CZAR CALLED ONLY ONE NBA FINALS WITHOUT ANYONE ELSE IN THE NBC BOOTH
When you think of the NBA on NBC, you think of Michael Jordan more than anyone else. Then you think of John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock.”
In terms of announcers, though, which two men are most intimately and immediately associated with the NBA on NBC? It’s gotta be the pair of Marv Albert and Mike Fratello, right? Fratello became “The Czar of the Telestrator,” or just “The Czar,” because Albert gave him the nickname. The longtime pairing of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy enjoys great chemistry. Dick Stockton meshed well with Tom Heinsohn and Hubie Brown in the 1980s. Yet, was there ever a pair of broadcasters that had as much fun together on the air as Marv and The Czar? It’s doubtful.
Yet… they called only one NBA Finals exclusively by themselves.
It’s a detail lost in history, but Magic Johnson — one of many supremely intelligent basketball players whose knowledge simply didn’t translate well to an NBA broadcast booth (more on that later in the week) — joined Marv and Fratello for the 1992 and 1993 NBA Finals. When Fratello gave coaching another shot with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 1993-’94 season, The Czar’s Finals run with Marv ended at three years, and only in 1991 did the two men have the booth to themselves.
Who woulda thunk it?
3 – MIKE BREEN STANDS ALONE — DESERVEDLY, BUT SURPRISINGLY
Marv Albert is, one would think, the most iconic NBA play-by-play TV voice of the past half-century. Dick Stockton carried the NBA on CBS banner with distinction in the 1980s, but Marv has been a better broadcaster for a longer period of time, showing more personality and depth on the air.
Brent Musburger got to call six NBA Finals and anchor many more Finals series with CBS during its heyday in the mid-1980s. He was a part of 14 NBA Finals network telecasts in a span of 15 years.
Yet, with his call of the 2015 NBA Finals this past June, Mike Breen called his 10th Finals on television, surpassing both Albert and Stockton (9 Finals TV calls apiece).
Breen is an excellent broadcaster, so he is worthy of the distinction of being the NBA Finals play-by-play TV voice with the most longevity. Yet, it is surprising that Marv and Brent did not compile larger totals. For Albert, the reason his total stopped at nine was the sex scandal that removed him from the NBC booth before the 1997-1998 season. For Musburger, the ascendancy of Stockton was one reason; CBS’s loss of NBA rights to NBC before the 1990-’91 season was the other.
2 – ANALYZE THIS: FOUR YEARS HAS BEEN A STANDARD-LENGTH FINALS RUN ON TELEVISION SINCE 1976
The NFL and Major League Baseball have enjoyed periods in which analysts became signature parts of national telecasts. John Madden is the icon in this regard. Merlin Olsen carved out a similar (if less memorable) presence. Cris Collinsworth is and has been a first-rate analyst for years, comfortably ensconced in NBC’s modern NFL booth.
In baseball, Joe Garagiola was a playoff fixture for a long time. So, in subsequent years, was Tim McCarver (for three different networks — ABC, CBS, and then FOX).
The NBA just hasn’t produced the same level of consistency in the lead analyst spot over a long period of time (though Jeff Van Gundy is, like Breen, breaking barriers in terms of longevity).
Consider this: From 1976 through 2006 — a span of 31 seasons and 31 NBA Finals — the longest uninterrupted run as lead Finals analyst on network TV was four years.
Rick Barry sat in the lead analyst’s chair from 1976 through 1979. Bill Russell occupied that chair from 1980 through 1983. (Barry was not part of the CBS team in 1980; he rejoined in 1981, but after an infamous and ugly incident on the air with Russell during the 1981 Finals, he was not brought back by CBS for any future Finals appearances.)
From 1984 through 1987 — CBS’s golden age in terms of matchups and the popularity of its product — Tom Heinsohn worked alongside Dick Stockton as the No. 1 analyst.
Fratello, with NBC, enjoyed a three-year run. Matt Guokas, from 1994 through 1997, lasted for four years but was not brought back by the Peacock for the 1998 Finals. Doug Collins worked that series as Bob Costas’s main analyst (with Isiah Thomas). In 1999 and 2000, Collins worked with Costas in a two-man booth, and when Marv Albert returned in 2001 — having served his punishment by NBC after his 1997 scandal — Collins worked with him in a two-man booth. In the 2001-2002 season, though, Collins moved back into coaching with the Washington Wizards. The four-year cap remained (unintentionally, improbably) intact.
Over 31 NBA seasons, no analyst lasted more than four straight years in a Finals booth on network TV. That’s quite improbable… but hey, it’s the NBA on television.
1 – EASTERN CONFERENCE COACHES AS NBA ANALYSTS: AN UNINTENTIONAL STREAK OF CONSIDERABLE PROPORTIONS
Yes, Bill Russell did coach the Seattle SuperSonics in the mid-1970s, but we all know he coached the Boston Celtics first and made his name in New England.
Yes, Jeff Van Gundy did coach the Houston Rockets in the mid-2000s, but we all know he coached the New York Knicks first and made his name in the Big Apple.
Yes, Hubie Brown did coach the Memphis Grizzlies in the mid-2000s, but we all know he coached the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks first and made his name in the Eastern Conference.
If one uses the information above to make the (reasonable) claim that Russell, Van Gundy, and Brown were and are Eastern Conference coaches first and foremost, this next claim can be seen as fundamentally accurate:
From 1972 through 2013, any former NBA head coach who appeared as a lead TV analyst for the NBA Finals had coached in the Eastern Conference and/or established his coaching reputation in that conference.
Bill Russell. Tom Heinsohn. Billy Cunningham (1988). Hubie Brown. Mike Fratello. Matt Guokas. Doug Collins. Doc Rivers. Jeff Van Gundy.
These are the NBA head coaches who were lead analysts on NBA Finals telecasts from 1972 through 2013.
Keep in mind that Fratello had not yet coached the Memphis Grizzlies when NBC brought him aboard for the 1991 Finals. Keep in mind that Rivers had not yet coached the Los Angeles Clippers when ABC brought him aboard for the 2004 Finals. It’s an accident of history that NBA coaches on Finals telecasts have happened to originate from the East, even though they might have later coached in the West.
It was only in 2014 — when Mark Jackson, having finished his two years with the Golden State Warriors, became a coach primarily or solely associated with a Western Conference club — that this “East streak” for analysts was broken.
Much more on NBA television through the decades is coming your way this week at Crossover Chronicles.