Madness TV: Raftery, Lappas, Jimmy Jackson and Avery Johnson excel; Westwood One wastes money


david halberstam round profile

A general rule of thumb when hiring analysts is this. Coaches are better than players. If it’s to be a player, a good practice to follow is quarterbacks for football, catchers for baseball and point guards for basketball. These positional ex-players often have to think like managers or coaches.

The pleasant surprise this weekend was Avery Johnson who coached in the-NBA and in college after his years as a point guard. I had not heard him other than in a studio setting. Analysts are most appreciated in tight games late when every play is paramount.

Unfortunately, Avery isn’t blessed with a mellow and sonorous timbre. His voice is rather thin and scratchy, exacerbated by years of screeching from the sidelines. If you can get past it which I did, his commentary was pertinent, helpful and refreshing. To me, it’s about substance.

In tight games, he took viewers through strategy, stoppage after stoppage, play after play. It was as though he was still coaching. Avery didn’t go over viewers’ heads with complicated terminology. He also threw in anecdotes to keep things interesting from a human angle perspective.  (See rankings below.)

First, Best and Worst:

CBS/Turner’s best decision. Cutting down the number of games that each broadcast team works in the opening round, from four to three. It’s a long day.

CBS/Turner’s smart decision.  Giving Avery Johnson and Brendan Haywood a shot. Both showed promise.

CBS/Turner’s worst talent decision was allowing Chris Webber and Reggie Miller to ‘opt out.’ If that wasn’t bad enough the production honchos had Dan Bonner work alone. On air, he was a turtle without a shell. Flat out awful with little or nothing to add. Last year, Miller sat near him and added some heft which Bonner direly misses. Not once did he diagram a play for the audience. Was management nipping at the bottle, assigning him to the Elite Eight and the Regional Finals? Anyone on this list would be better. My wife played college ball at Barnard. She’d be better too. Goodness!

Happenstance  Unfortunately, Jim Spanarkel was sidelined by Covid protocol which left Ian Eagle with no analyst. Grant Hill filled in for Spanarkel and Jim Nantz worked alone with Bill Raftery. Spanarkel was sorely missed. He’s terrific and works well with Ian. Grading Grant individually as a solo analyst, he’s behind Raftery, Lappas, Jackson, Johnson and Lavin. (see below)

Interesting that Dave Pasch and Jason Benetti worked network radio for WW1, given the fact that they’re employees of ESPN.

If I had to line-up the weekend TV commentators, my kneejerk list top to bottom looks like this:

Bill Raftery Getting a little throaty as he creeps up in age, 78 soon. Raf though still has it. He’s sharp. The ex-Seton Hall coach combines the basic elements that enable him to excel in the analyst’s role. He’s knowledgeable and has his pulse on the action in the trenches, albeit sometimes, not often, he goes over the heads of viewers. Bill is quick with one-liners that resonate with viewers, knows when to turn up the intensity and when to back off.

Steve Lappas The former Villanova and UMass coach has never been given his fair due at CBS. Most of his work is on its low rated CBS Sports Network, over cable. Steve’s a teacher by trade and has had coaching success at the high school and college level. Lappas is passionate, intense, instructional and funny. And that fiery emotion of his is contagious. He keeps things simple. When a big man in the post had five assists all season, Steve spewed. “Double him. He obviously can’t pass.” 

Jimmy Jackson played for twelve NBA teams after starring at Ohio State. He knows his stuff and talks from the perspective of someone who’s been around many coaches and learned the game eclectically. His instincts are good and he’s a comfortable listen. The man is good as a game analyst and in the studio. Jackson also does the NBA for Turner and college ball for Fox. In other words, he’s all over the place – in a good way. Jimmy gets to work through the regional finals. Well deserved.

Avery Johnson Avery tells viewers what exactly is needed from both teams. He sounded relaxed. I felt as though I was sitting next to him in the stands listening to his analysis one on one. Nothing was forced. He’s an absolute keeper. (also see above.)

Steve Lavin Silky smooth. He’s Mr. Hollywood. Keeps things simple. Rarely gets complex or very critical. He does couch his comments though because he might want to coach again. Lavin spent years at ESPN after his years coaching UCLA and before coaching at St. John’s. After leaving Queens, he was hired by Fox and now moonlights for CBS/Turner during the tournament. Don’t expect anything terribly controversial or derogatory from him. Lavin covers the meat and potatoes well.

Grant Hill  I don’t know what to tell you about this guy other than he tries hard. But he’s still not found his own style, comfort or rhythm. Too many of these analysts emulate the vocal intonations of bellwether Bill Raftery. As the great Red Barber told a young Vin Scully, be yourself. Grant isn’t. He did show some individual personality this weekend when he worked solo with Ian Eagle. But when the network segues to commercial breaks, his outbursts are so not Grant Hill. He sounds contrived.

Debbie Antonelli She’s the top analyst among women covering the men’s game. Can dig into the X’s and O’s as well as any of the men analysts. Antonelli is a student of the game who’s been around for years. For whatever reason, she doesn’t get the play of Doris Overrated Burke. To me it’s inexplicable. Here’s the best compliment I can give Debbie. When I listen to her, I don’t say wow, she’s pretty good for someone who wasn’t around the men’s locker room. Antonelli is just plain good no matter if she’s calling men’s or women’s basketball.

Steve Smith A heady player at both Michigan State and in the NBA. Steve breaks down plays and players confidently and doesn’t often step on his partner. He’s laid back. This weekend, Smitty worked with Lisa Byington. I think he made her feel comfortable on the big stage. In one game, he pointed out how two defenders were guarding the screener and got burned by the shooter on a pick ‘n roll. In the implausible upset by Abilene Christian of Texas, hands were wringing in the final minute of the suspenseful finish. It was then that Smith should have helped his inexperienced partner, Byington, with resets.

Brendan Haywood The 7′ even 15 year NBA vet sounds relaxed. He keeps spewing the kind of natural comments you’d get if you, your buddies and he were watching the game together. Brendan can be critical but gently so. He does jump on his play-by-play partner a bit too much. Haywood has a good future as a broadcaster but will need some discipline and reps. In DC, he does studio work on pre game programming leading up to Wizard games.

Dan Bonner There’s nothing I picked up from him all weekend. Not one thing. Most all his comments were repeats of what I just saw. If he’s an analyst, I’m a shrink. He doesn’t share with viewers what to expect in the game, strategic adjustments or what to look for on the next play, likely because he doesn’t know.  Going into the second half when asked by Kevin Harlan how the trailing team can come back, he said ‘get back on defense.’ Are you sure, Dan? Really! Yikes.

Westwood One coverage of the tournament is overproduced. Twice bankrupted company squanders dollars on excessive and superfluous analysts who add little.

Westwood One which has weathered two bankruptcy filings during the last fifteen years continues to overspend needlessly on production of its coverage of the NCAA Tournament. Paying analysts who add little or nothing to the broadcasts is unnecessary. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face. Radio doesn’t have the natural runway for an analyst on a fluid basketball broadcast. It’s a play-by-play person’s medium. Connect the dots. What the network seems to forget is that listeners want the score and time remaining. The rest is really excessive at best and disruptive at worst. They don’t need shallow analysis from the likes of Austin Croshere, Dan Dickau and Kyle Macy. In fact, fans don’t need any analysis at all.

Joe Tait, arguably the NBA’s best ever radio announcer, worked alone for almost  all of his 40 years calling games. It’s the way he preferred it. Basketball on radio is a one man game. Few who listen don’t want to hear about hedging, slipping screens or pin downs when they’re driving 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Just let the play-by-play announcer paint a graphic picture. No empty comments are required.

The NCAA got into a major feud with Westwood over over unpaid rights fees that were reportedly due in 2020.There were suits and counter-suits with little resolved. With no other choices and no bids from WW1’s competitors, the NCAA at the eleventh hour agreed to allow Westwood to run the broadcasts this tournament. A request for proposals (RFP) will be issued after the tournament.

The whole brouhaha left both organizations scarred. But wasting money on an overproduced broadcast is self-destructive.

If ESPN had a greater commitment to radio, it could easily pluck the rights from Westwood in 2022. I’m not sure that the top honchos there want to invest more in the medium. ESPN has already lost well over $50 million in purchases of AM stations that are worth a fraction of what it paid for them.

Fox Sports Radio is licensed to iHeart which has shown no interest in play-by-play. So it’s possible that Westwood could be back next year if no other bidder surfaces. Westwood loses money on the deal and would like to drive down the rights fee. The process should start by shaving many thousands off its production costs to pay for extraneous commentators.


David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Michael Green
3 years ago

I never have understood the emphasis on analysts on radio for ANY sport. Too often, the analyst actually detracts from the description, unless the play-by-play announcer can really weave it together. Jack Buck and Hank Stram were the longest-running exception I can think of, and Harry Caray talked about how when he started out with Gabby Street, Gabby was ideal for telling a story or giving history, and getting out of the way for the play-by-play.