For those not familiar or too young, Chris Webber, 46, was the NBA’s overall, number one NBA pick in 1993. He played collegiately at the University of Michigan and is one of the school’s famous Fab Five. He was taken by the Orlando Magic in the draft but was traded immediately to the Golden State Warriors where he won Rookie of the Year. In his career, Webber played for five teams earning All-Star and All-NBA honors five times.
Webber and Marv Albert, 78, make up the TNT #A team. Albert is a winner of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s prestigious Gowdy Award that recognizes broadcast excellence. He is considered by many as the Voice of the NBA. Albert did his first NBA game 57 years ago this January.
To determine how well they do their jobs, I studied two of their recent broadcasts, 76ers at Celtics on December 12th and the Rockets at Clippers on December 19th.
On both occasions, audiences were fortunate to be treated to competitive games and big named personalities. The Sixers won in Boston, 115-109, and the Rockets were victorious on the road, 122-117. By osmosis, a good game overpowers a viewer’s experience and dwarfs the importance of the announcers’ performances.
Here are my observations:
- Webber was impressively knowledgeable about the intricacies and inner-workings of both teams. He comfortably and intelligently broke down both rosters, alternately identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Chris let viewers know what both teams do well and where they lack. It’s evident that in addition to what his well trained eye absorbs, Webber also studies scouting reports. For example, he pointed out that the strategic report on the 76ers’ Joel Embiid suggests that defenses constantly make him run the court because of his tendency to tire. Joel struggles to sustain the late energy that’s required at crunch time.
- Albert and Webber shared many tidbits of information throughout the game. But I found that the fast-paced nature of the NBA limits the extent of graphic support for numbers and run-of-the-mill factoids. Thus, scraps of information that roll freely off announcers’ lips are forgotten in a heartbeat. It’s always been that way. And in today’s complicated world, it’s much worse. Maintaining mental bookkeeping of everything we hear in a game is impossible. Diversions are ubiquitous, spawned by technology, multi-tasking and limited attention spans. Viewers process information differently in 2019. As ESPN’s Boog Sciambi said on these pages, announcers can’t call games today the way it was done fifty years ago.
- Webber focuses on teaching fans about the players and the participating teams. There were a few global take-aways that resonated; how energy can’t be taught, how starters usually play the first eight minutes of a half before going to the bench and why the old hook shot is virtually impossible to stop. Chris plausibly pointed out that the offensive player puts his shoulder between the defender and himself making it extremely unlikely the shot will be blocked.
- Albert and Webber tend to let the game come to them. Webber aptly offers pointers early to help fans appreciate their viewing experience. He profiled select players and how he assesses their games. One example is when Webber labeled 6’8” Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell as one of the most ‘underrated isolation players’ in the game. Chris said that Harrell has good footwork and handles the ball well against big men. During the telecast we did indeed see Harrell employ his multiple capabilities in isolation plays to score.
- As expected, both announcers were basketball-centric. Yes, it is reassuring that Marv and Chris were laser focused, but for the average viewer it can get tiresome. There’s more to a telecast than nuts and bolts. While the flow of an NBA game is about rhythmic repetition and the two voices efficiently captioned what they saw, everyday viewers want more. The NBA’s fan participation won’t grow through the same old, same old. In today’s world, more is needed than old-school broadcasting. Viewers want current-generation entertainment and attention-grabbing stories. On that front, Albert and Webber fell short. NBA television ratings through the first third of the season are down considerably. A sprinkling of human interest, heartwarming tales would better personalize viewers’ experiences than early-season numbers.
- There were very few anecdotes about the players. One was more factoid. We were told that Houston’s Russell Westbrook experienced a growth spurt right before his freshman year at UCLA and the other more a thumbnail. Boston’s Enes Kanter loves wrestling.
- In the Clippers game, we got a little bit of comic relief when actor Billy Crystal joined the broadcast. He shared some funny stories including the time when he got a Major League at bat during a spring training game. He was assigned as a DH, or as Crystal called it the “Designated Hebrew.”
- Studio personalities Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley had passionately talked about Embiid’s lack of intensity and were both critical of his frivolous behavior on the court. On the 76ers telecast, Webber also reminded the audience of this tendency, yet pointed out that Embiid was much more intense against the Celts. During the Clippers game, Webber shared with the audience that Clippers coach Doc Rivers was urging his team to play with greater effort and more physicality.
- Webber does a nice job capturing emotions and fortitude. For instance, he recognizes the perseverance of the Rockets’ Ben McLemore. Ben was almost out of the league and is now playing significant minutes for a very good team.
- The commentators, particularly Chris, did a good job elaborating on critical developments when warranted. Once was when the Clippers’ Lou Williams was ejected early in the 4th quarter for arguing what the voices believed was a bad call. Webber mentioned how “Sweet Lou” doesn’t generally get riled up but did then. The other is when the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley was ejected late in the game. At that point, Beverley and Westbrook jawed at each other while Pat was escorted out. It resulted in double technicals. The commentators were right on top of the acrimonious history between the two which includes a time when Beverley injured Westbrook’s knee. (In November after a previous matchup between the players, Westbrook went off: “Pat Bev trick y’all, man, like he playing defense. He don’t guard nobody, man. He just running around, doing nothing.”)
- Marv, kidding at one point, raised the noted physical matchups between partner Webber and Dennis Rodman. Webber told the audience that the confrontations were pushing and shoving, no punches.
Marv Albert and Chris Webber do a fine job of covering the game. Webber is especially good at anticipating and addressing issues that knowledgeable fans are likely thinking.
But it might behoove the production people and the talent to add a little more lighthearted humor, the kind of back and forth that make Turner’s Inside the NBA wildly popular. To the average fan, the game coverage can get a bit stale.
Webber and Albert may be the #A team for TNT, but they get a B+ for their performances in December.