Mike Breen, 60, is a good man with a penchant for basketball. He’s well liked and living his dream, calling NBA games on ESPN. Mike has street smarts, is sufficiently disarming and can be charming when need be.
He enhanced his visibility as an up and comer on radio, a sports sidekick to the devilish WFAN morning man, Don Imus. The I-Man, as he was popularly known, could be acerbic and demeaning. Unless you were quick on your feet serving as Imus’ co-conspirator, you weren’t likely to survive. Breen made the grade through Imus’ crucible, learning to exact retribution, tit for tat, instantly and with no fear. Imus was the puncher and Breen the counter-puncher. After a while of being belittled, bullied and berated by Imus, Mike built his strength, character and personality, not to mention his visibility.
He would do pre and post game shows at MSG and later onto the play-by-play mic at ESPN. Decades later, he is a Hall of Famer, winning the coveted Curt Gowdy Award in Springfield. He’s done 15 NBA finals, a record, six more than Marv Albert and Dick Stockton.
Like too many Americans who have no idea who Winston Churchill was, too many younger broadcasters have no clue who Ted Husing or Red Barber were and what the two men meant to football and baseball broadcasting respectively. Breen respects the history of broadcast sports, especially basketball. Last week, the Brooklyn-Knicks’ rivalry game at Madison Square Garden was carried by ESPN and it celebrated 75 years of the league’s play-by-players. The usual trio, Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy put on gaudy gold-colored ABC sports jackets of yesteryear and did a Manning-like megacast. It was enjoyable but overdone.
The announcers through the last three-quarters of a century deserved exclusive attention. Instead the ambient crowd noise at MSG of what was really a meaningless game was disruptive. Moreover, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton consumed way too much time.
Instead of announcers who meant so much to the league got only abbreviated references, men like Chick Hearn and Marty Glickman, two men who Al McCoy, says were the most effective broadcasters on the west and east coast respectively. McCoy himself is celebrating his 50th year in Phoenix.
Names like Joe Tait, Bill King, Eddie Doucette, Ralph Lawler, Johnny Most and others were referenced almost dismissively. I don’t blame Mike an iota but frankly it was shameful. (Breen, left)
The audio on the interviews with Marv Albert, Dick Stockton, Bob Costas and others was intermittent. The game itself was for the most part ignored and the picture evolved from the early days, somewhat grainy, representing Lindsey Nelson on NBC in the 1950s through today’s high resolution sparkling resolution today.
Breen did his best, assimilating decades of hoops on TV and radio into an economy of time. The game turned into a distraction as the crowd emptied its lungs when the Knicks pared the Nets lead. Breen had no choice but to apologetically suggest that the ESPN2 audience turn to mainstream ESPN if it wants to watch the game seriously.
I applaud the effort and hard work that went into the prep. Breen and Lisa Salter were excellent. It’s the one who pays the fiddler who calls the tune. ESPN deserves credit for undertaking the mission but there were too many omissions. The biggest booboo was stuffing in the superfluous. As the 4th quarter clock was winding down, Breen had to race to squeeze in as many names as he could. At that point, Breen sounded like he double parked on a Manhattan street
Here are notes of what they said:
- Jeff Van Gundy said that he grew up in the Bay Area, listening to the unique and beloved Voice of the Warriors, Bill King, a renaissance man. Yes, on-air King was emotionally charged, targeting officials, labeling them “the paragon of ineptitude.” In Manhattan, he could be found in the Russian Tea Room.
- Marv Albert who influenced hundreds of successful broadcasters beginning in the late 1960s visited yesteryear. He heaped praise on mentor Marty Glickman who developed the language of broadcasting the game and later took Marv under his wing. Albert took time to talk about another giant, Les Keiter, one of the more creative and energetic NBA voices. He too was helpful to Marv.
- As kids, Marv and his two brothers Al and Steve practiced play-by-play collaboratively in the basement of their parents’ home. All three Albert brothers are among the top 75 NBA announcers.
- In New York, the Knicks were not on radio fulltime until 1987. There were full seasons with no radio. It wasn’t until 1964-65 that the club was on-air every year. The NBA was hardly a dominant league it is today.
- Marv says he took “Yess! And it counts!” from early NBA ref, Sid Borgia. Jim McKechnie, Voice of the Syracuse Nats used it in the 1950s according to the late Dick Barhold who was a walking encyclopedia of broadcasting.
- Mike Breen told the story of a 1967 playoff game which when a labor disagreement caused a strike, two men behind the scenes left the truck to become the announcers, Chuck Howard and Chet Forte. The latter played college at Columbia.
- When asked one question, Bill Walton wouldn’t shut up. When Bob Costas came on later, he raised the name of Tom Tolbert, a Bay Area talkie, who asked Bill one question and the answer lasted 32 minutes. Earlier, Breen texted ESPN’s Dave Pasch, Walton’s partner on college basketball for tips on how to get Bill to take a breather. The man is over the top. In his shy college days, you’d have to scream fire to get him to utter a word.
- Unable to ask Walton a second question, Mark Jackson said, “It’s the easiest money I’ve ever made.” We might have Marty Glickman to blame. “Marty Glickman taught me to speak.” Walton said.
- Jackson importantly mentioned that local voices built value for franchises, market by market. Think about how Hearn built value for the Lakers, Albert for the Knicks and others.
- Dick Stockton was the voice of the NBA in the 80s, often thought of as the Magic-Bird decade. Dick recently retired. He rarely got the credit he deserved. At CBS, he was also saddled with playoff games that were on delayed broadcasts in primetime! Commissioner David Stern took care of it, moving the NBA to NBC in the early 90s.
- Stockton said he somewhat resents the reference to what was the Lakers-Celtics rivalry to Magic-Bird. “The NBA is a team game.” Dick says.
- In addition paying tribute to his CBS teammates like Billy Cunningham, Tommy Heinsohn and Hubie Brown, Stockton pointed out that CBS Director Sandy Grossman was the first in his position to use reaction shots. The old Forum was the perfect place, starting with Jack Nicholson.
- Young screamers on network TV should take tips from Stockton who never made a big deal of himself. He also talked about the responsibility of the play-by-player to react, just as viewers do at home or the crowd in the building does. Stockton and Albert did the same number of NBA Finals, 9.
- Van Gundy talked about the days when he was coaching and analyst Hubie Brown would come into the locker room to talk about his team, Knicks or Rockets. Brown would ask questions and would meticulously write JVG’s answers on a yellow pad. “I’m thinking, is he testing me?”
- Lisa Salters interviewed Lesley Visser, the first woman to cover the sidelines for CBS. Lesley is a brilliant writer and likely never missed a deadline in her life. She reminisced about the days of teams flying commercially and Larry Bird sleeping on the floor of LAX. Lesley herself is a coach for young inspiring women. She gave a shoutout to her teammates and talked about how she learned from watching CBS broadcaster Pat O’Brien. “CBS treated me like the kid sister that it had to take the park,” she said.
- Bob Costas who’ll be remembered for just about anything on sports television. He did the big Jordan shot that won his sixth NBA title in 1998.
- Asked about Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James, he gives the edge to the former. “Jordan helped the NBA erupt. You can argue about numbers, but based on overall impact, he gives the edge to Jordan. When Michael was playing, Costas says, “Little old ladies from Omaha asked to play a game of Bridge would excuse themselves, ‘I’m watching Michael Jordan tonight.’ Michael had a cultural cachet.”
- Costas added, “Michael had an influence on players fashion by the way he himself dressed, by his GP style”
Marty Glickman the progenitor of NBA voices
THE NBA TOP 75 BROADCASTERS
(42 Team, 33 Network)
TEAM BROADCASTERS – RADIO, TV, SIMULCASTERS AND ANALYSTS
In alphabetical order by team
- Al Albert (Nets, Nuggets, Pacers) (r)
- Steve Albert (Nets, Warriors, Suns, Hornets) (r)
- John Andariese (Knicks) (d)
- Jim Barnett (Warriors)
- Bob Blackburn (Seattle Sonics) (d)
- George Blaha (Pistons)
- Buddy Blattner (St. Louis Hawks) (d)
- Marc Boyle (Pacers)
- Skip Caray (Hawks) (d)
- Kevin Calabro (Supersonics, Trail Blazers)
- Bill Campbell (Philadelphia Warriors) (d)
- Ted Davis (Mavs, Bucks) (r)
- Eddie Doucette (Bucks +) (r)
- Jim Durham (Bulls, Mavs) (d)
- Walt Frazier (Knicks)
- Neil Funk (Bulls, Nets+) (r)
- Hilliard Gates (Fort Wayne Pistons) (d)
- Marty Glickman (Knicks, NBA’s pioneer voice) (d)
- Mike Gorman (Celtics)
- Chick Hearn (Lakers) (d)
- Steve Holman (Hawks)
- Hot Rod Hundley (Jazz) (d)
- Jim Karvellas (Knicks, Bullets) (d)
- Bill King (Warriors) (d)
- Stu Lantz (Lakers)
- Ralph Lawler (Clippers) (r)
- Slick Leonard (Pacers) (d)
- Al McCoy (Suns)
- Jon McGlocklin (Bucks) (r)
- Andy Musser (76ers) (d)
- Grant Napear (Kings)
- Jim Paschke (Bucks) (r)
- Gene Peterson (Rockets) (r)
- Jack Ramsay (Heat) (d)
- Bob Rathbun (Hawks)
- Eric Reid (Heat)
- Spencer Ross (Nets, Celtics, Knicks) (r)
- Bill Schonley (Trail Blazers) (r)
- David Steele (Magic)
- Joe Tait (Cavaliers) (d)
- Bill Worrell (Rockets) (r)
- Marc Zumoff (76ers) (r)
ALL-TIME NETWORK – TOP PLAY-BY-PLAY, ANALYSTS, STUDIO PARTICIPANTS AND SIDELINERS
In alphabetical order by network
- -Marv Albert (NBC, Turner) (r)
- -Brian Anderson (Turner)
- -Charles Barkley (Turner)
- -Rick Barry (CBS) (r)
- -Mike Breen (ESPN, ABC)
- -Hubie Brown (CBS, ESPN, Turner)
- -Doris Burke (ESPN, ABC)
- -Doug Collins (ESPN, Turner)
- -Bob Costas (NBC)
- -Ian Eagle (Turner)
- -Mike Fratello (NBC, Turner)
- -Kevin Harlan (Turner)
- -Tommy Heinsohn (CBS) (d)
- -Mark Jackson (ESPN)
- -Ernie Johnson Jr. (Turner)
- -Magic Johnson (NBC +)
- -Mark Jones (ESPN, ABC)
- -Verne Lundquist (Turner, CBS) (r)
- -Reggie Miller (Turner)
- -Brent Musburger (ESPN, ABC, CBS)
- -Pat O’Brien (CBS) (r)
- -Shaquille O’Neal (Turner)
- -Ahmad Rashad (NBC)
- -Doc Rivers (Turner)
- -Bill Russell (ABC, CBS) (r)
- -Craig Sager (Turner) (d)
- -Lisa Salters (ABC, ESPN)
- -Kenny Smith (Turner)
- -Dick Stockton (CBS, Turner) (r)
- -Hannah Storm (NBC)
- -Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN)
- -Lesley Visser (CBS)
- -Chris Webber (Turner)