Yes, NBA TV ratings have slumped these past couple years, yet the league’s popularity overall has propelled in recent decades. This fall, the NBA will celebrate its 75th season.
National television coverage through the league’s first 35 years (1946-81) was choppy to say the least. When David Stern became commissioner in 1984, things changed dramatically. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan didn’t hurt. Neither did the enormous growth of cable television during the decade of the 1980s
While baseball and football have a long and storied history with the legacy television networks, the NBA doesn’t. Let’s take a look at highpoints and low-points of network coverage of the title series.
Consider these factoids through the years:
- Television started taking hold in American homes in the 1950s. The pictures were tiny and the sets were relatively expensive. Many antennas weren’t dependable. The black and white pictures would fidget and jitter. Eventually, technology improved, followed by the advent of color television. By the early 60s, TV became a mainstay of American entertainment.
- Before it failed, the fledgling DuMont Network had the NBA rights in 1954 with pioneer basketball broadcaster, Marty Glickman (left) on play-by-play. NBC held the rights from 1955-62, doing anywhere from only one to four games of the championship round. Glickman did play-by-play the first year NBC had the games, after which the announcing was handled by Lindsey Nelson and Curt Gowdy. In his autobiography, The Fastest Kid on the Block, Glickman says that NBA president, Maurice Podoloff, called him after NBC’s first season to tell him that the network wanted to go in a different direction, assigning Nelson the lead play-by-play job. Glickman says that Podoloff and the league’s influential public relations man Haskell Cohen were Jewish. Marty added that Podoloff felt the league would have too much of a Jewish identity around the country if Glickman remained the face of the NBA. Nelson and Gowdy were protestants, then the preponderant religion in America.
- The league was off traditional networks in 1963 and 64. From 1965-69, ABC had the rights but ran only some of the Finals, not every game. The prime voices were Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman. In 1965, ABC cut out early of game #4 with minutes to go. Boston won 112-99. From an NBA perspective, it was the equivalent of the Heidi AFL game three years later on NBC in 1968.
- The league was born in 1946. It wasn’t until 1970 that all games of the NBA Finals were on national television, ABC. Even so, game #7 (Knicks-Lakers) was carried in New York on a delayed broadcast after the 11pm news. The newly hatched Manhattan Cable, the brainchild of Charles Dolan, the dad of MSG’s Jimmy Dolan, had some 20,000 subscribers in Manhattan. It was permitted to run its own live production of game #7 and it was called by Glickman.
- In 1974, the NBA signed a deal with CBS which held the NBA contract through 1990, 17 seasons. During its first season. Pat Summerall was assigned the gig. Hot Rod Hundley was his partner. Pat employed his typical minimalist style, saying little. After just one season, Pat was taken off the assignment. Brent Musburger followed for the next six seasons. He made up for Summerall’s reserved style, presiding loquaciously. Chick Hearn criticized Brent in the lobby of a Texas hotel in 1975 within an earshot of guests, suggesting that Brent knew nothing about the NBA. After Brent and a year of Gary Bender, Dick Stockton took the play-by-play reins for CBS’ final nine seasons.
- Through 1971, there were Glickman, Nelson Gowdy and Schenkel. Keith Jackson and Bill Russell did the ABC games in 1972 and 1973. One comment by Russell stands out. Late in a tight playoff game, Russell, at one point said on-air, “Keith, I’m going to shut up now so that we can all absorb this great excitement without interruption.” I don’t remember Russell saying much more afterward.
- The NBA hit rock bottom from 1979-81. It was then that the weeknight broadcasts of the Finals ran on a delayed recording after the late news. For the NBA, it was a hard slap in the face but the league had no options. The NBA was dealing with drug issues and its image was tainted.
- Just after that period when CBS’ contract came due in the mid 80s, ABC executive Jim Spence had an interest in regaining the NBA rights. But the network had a new owner, Cap Cities, whose management was stodgy and basically unwilling to bid for the rights to a league that was considered drug infested.
- Through much of the 80s, CBS threw its energy into its new college basketball package and this too angered Commissioner David Stern (left). The NBA was second in the pecking order. In 1991, NBC acquired the rights and ran the games through 2002. By then, cable was huge and the new NBC deal coupled with its coverage on Turner solidified the league’s TV package. These were the glory years of the league, headlined by Michael Jordan. Marv Albert called the games with a flair from, 1991-96 and 2001-02. Bob Costas had the intervening years. During the 1994 Finals, the league and the network had to cope with the infamous OJ Simpson slow car chase. Some affiliates broke away entirely and others ran a split screen of the game and the nerve-racking chase.
- Albert’s last year on the NBA Finals was in 2002. It was also the last time that two male reporters patrolled the sidelines, Jim Gray and Lewis Johnson. Gray’s aggressive behavior wore out his welcome wherever he went on network television. Marv has meant so much to the NBA, particularly in New York. Yet MSG has still not recognized him by unfurling a banner in his honor from the Garden rafters. Marv called both the Rangers and the Knicks in both MSG’s old and new buildings from 1965-2004.
- Marv ran into his off the court indiscretions in 1997, he left NBC but did return for the Peacock’s final couple years it owned the rights. In all, Albert did nine title series as did CBS’ Dick Stockton who in the 80s covered the Lakers’ Showtime teams and the Magic-Bird rivalry. Stockton always let the game come to him, not forcing any prep notes into the broadcast.
- It’s interesting to note that during the three years Albert was sidelined and not covering the NBA Finals, (1998-2000) NBC used Bob Costas (left) to call the NBA Finals. NBC had Dick Enberg and Tom Hammond in-house but I was told by a reliable source that Stern insisted that NBC boss Dick Ebersol use Costas on the call. As such, Bob was on the mic when Jordan won his last championship in 1998.
- The NBA’s Heidi moment happened before the AFL had its infamous 1968 episode when NBC cut away from a tight Jets-Raiders game in the final couple of minutes. In Game four of the 1965 Finals, the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers 112-99. In the closing minutes of the game, ABC cut away to a previously scheduled program. The NBA paled badly in popularity then to both the NFL and MLB. My recollection of many of those ABC years in the 1960s was Chris Schenkel constantly promoting the program that often followed, The American Sportsman, hosted by Curt Gowdy.
- Keith Jackson worked with Bill Russell. Spence, the ABC executive, writes in his tell-all book, Up Close and Personal, “Russell became one of our major hits. He was refreshingly candid, his humor had a bite to it, his laugh was infectious, he has a good personal image, he knew the game inside out and most important of all, he knew it was only a game.”
- The league’s late commissioner David Stern told me that during the years that NBC had the rights, he was regularly on the phone with Ebersol, during the game, “producing the broadcasts together.”
- The best trio of NBA announcers ever, are working this year’s final, ESPN’s current crew, Mike Breen (left), Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. All three know the game. Breen knows the rules, has little ego and Jackson and JVG often share different opinions and kid each other. To the current generation, Breen will likely best be remembered as the Voice of the NBA because of his time in grade. This year’s Final is his 16th straight, already seven more than Albert and Stockton.
- In 2014, the NBA and ESPN signed a nine year renewal extension with the NBA at roughly $2.7 billion per year. The contract ends after the 2024-25 season.
The Five OLDEST coaches still alive today who won NBA championships: age in parenthesis, followed by team and year
Dick Motta (89) (Washington ’78)
Bill Fitch (89) (Boston ’81)
Bill Russell (87) (Boston ’68)
Al Attles (84) (Golden State ’75)
Lenny Wilkens (83) (Seattle ’79)
John Kundla was the living NBA coach ever. He won multiple NBA championships for the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s and lived until age 101. He passed in Minneapolis in 2017!