Like it or not, TV is still considered an analyst’s medium.
The role of a second announcer evolved slowly, mostly in the 1960s. Few of the early telecasts were defined and established. It took lots of experimenting. CBS brought in Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford to help share more than just down and distance. Ray Scott, Curt Gowdy, Chris Schenkel and Lindsey Nelson were principal voices. Color was considered extraneous. The second voice, if any, was another announcer. Marty Glickman did the first TV game alone. Lindsey Nelson then joined him.
Baseball was only on NBC until the 1970s when ABC joined the party. Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola were on NBC and later on ABC, Jim Palmer and Tim McCarver brought the finer points of baseball to America.
The NBA Finals weren’t televised in full and live until 1971. For basketball, there were clear reasons, be they low ratings, few sponsors, a paucity of interest by the networks, limited visibility from cable, lack of technical advancement and only ten teams in the NBA until 1966. Replays, race issues, low attendance and more. The U.S. was a different country then.
On May 8th 1970, the Knicks beat the Lakers to win the first of their two NBA titles. The city celebrated happily after during the day and leading to the big game there were political riots and brutality on the New York streets.
The league is 30 teams deep today. In the mid-1960s, the NBA had only ten teams. For that matter, in 1965, Chicago was the second biggest city in America and no NBA team. By 1984 Los Angeles erupted in population to number #2. It wouldn’t be until 1966 that the Windy City, then #3, got an NBA team permanently. The Bulls arrived with push and support from the league. With no team in the number two market in the land, a TV contract would be tough to lock down. Chicago became a mission for the league. (In the early 60s, the Chicago Packers and Zephyrs were gone in a matter of a few seasons. From Chicago to Baltimore and now in Washington.)
It was in those years that Madison Square Garden put some heavy dough into the franchise. Willis Reed signed in 1963 and Walt Frazier in 1967. The trade for Dave Debusschere and the arrival of Bill Bradley were the chemistry the team and city needed. And how about a brand-new Madison Square Garden, opening in 1968?
The NBA erupted. Two league championships in New York 1970 and ’73 and the league was beginning to hum. Out west, Wilt and the Warriors in the Bay Area and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in LA.
Basketball on broadcast was electric. Folks tuned in. Bill King at the Cow alace in San Francisco, Marv Albert, a young Marty Glickman disciple at the Garden in New York and Chick Hearn who made the Lakers in Southern California with his unique nomenclature that he deserved a piece of the club. This was when cable TV and other communication vehicles were limited at best. Yet the broadcasts and broadcasters pumped spice into them. Johnny Most was an icon in Boston and Andy Musser in Philly.
As I watched along with millions of growing American teenagers, the subject of conversation about the NBA kept growing. Nothing happens instantly, it takes time. In the conversion from the old to new Garden in the mid-to-late 1960s, demand grew. Later in the 70s, Joe Tait in Cleveland and Eddie Doucette in Milwaukee became icons.
Radio and TV voices though were building an identity with their clubs. This is still early in the league’s national eruption.
Here are the top ten former NBA coaches who worked national TV as analysts. My humble opinion, the best, top to bottom:
1) Hubie Brown (1933)- A teacher extraordinaire, talks in an instructional staccato that viewers still love to imitate. He’s coming up on 90 this September, and is as sharp as a tack. He works a truncated schedule for ESPN. Brown still has a ton of juice and is as clear-sighted as they come. He ran several coaching benches including the Knicks, Atlanta and Memphis. He first established his credentials winning an ABA title with the defunct Kentucky Colonels.
2) Doug Collins – (1951)- Doug coached four NBA teams including Philly where he played exclusively in the NBA. His emotion on-air echoed distinctively through the cogency of his voice. You can feel how he was thinking. On-air, in-between his various coaching stints he held a mic for CBS, NBC, TNT, TBS, and ABC/ESPN. How about NBC? Doug had it covered. He also was a basketball analyst for NBC during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It’s his energy, knowledge and thinking like a coach that fans appreciated.
3) Steve Kerr – (1965)- is obviously a talented and accomplished man. A coach, executive with the Phoenix Suns and the son of an educator in Lebanon who was assassinated at the English speaking university. Steve has won four NBA titles as a head coach with the Warriors. If that’s not enough, how about five championships as a player, a combination of 3 with the Bulls and 2 with the Spurs. As a broadcaster, he was assigned to Final Four coverage on CBS too and on the NBA partnered alongside Marv Albert.
4) Jeff Van Gundy – (1962)- is a mix of entertainer, nonchalant team member and an unpredictable quipster. He’s good too at keeping the trio with Mark Jackson and Mike Breen fluid. Finds agitating commentary stimulating. What’s helped him is that at ESPN it’s a three-man dialogue where as an iconoclast, he keeps things interesting. JVG is stubborn too. The ex-Knicks’ and Rockets’ coach triggers the trio of Mark Jackson. Jeff and play-by-player Breen. The three-man team on ESPN is fun to watch.
5) Mike Fratello – (1947) Disciple of sorts of Hubie and a New Jersey native. It’s redolent in Fratello’s accent. If there’s a voice among NBA broadcasters who tells a story it’s Mike’s. Marv Albert was good to him, recommending Mike for broadcast opportunities when he wasn’t coaching. How about capping it in Memphis, after Atlanta and Cleveland? He had a couple of stints with TNT and he seems to be embraced locally too in Miami, LA for the Clippers and other clubs. Yes, peripatetic!
6) Mark Jackson – (1965) He deserves another shot in the coach’s seat. Did Mark set it up for the Warriors? It was he who Steve Kerr followed? Jackson has a knack of what to address and when. The current threesome is unprogrammed which makes them fun. What they’ll say is unpredictable. He can have a big heart but rarely holds back. He’ll share exactly how he feels. He’ll tell it as he sees it. Jackson was a teammate of Chris Mullin on Lou Carnesecca’s 1985, St. John’s Final Four team.
7) Tommy Heinsohn – (1934-2020) A big, husky New Englander, spent years-and-years in Boston. Tommy coached Boston too. For that matter, he led the Celts to the NBA title in 1974. He did it all. Local color man on the telecaster, most years with play-by-player, Mike Gorman. In the 80s, he did many seasons nationally with understated CBS voice, Dick Stockton. Tommy’s gruff voice was catchy and Bostonians loved him.
8) Bill Russell – (1934-2022) Unusual character, arguably the best team player on the floor, Red Auerbach believed in him on the court and off. The first overpowering big man and focused on defense. But Big Bill can sound haughty, disdainful, and high-and-mighty. Bill won two of his 11 NBA titles as a player-coach. Worked later with Keith Jackson on ABC’s NBA package in the 1970s. (Keith also did baseball for the network, one season, 1965. His partner was the iconic Jackie Robinson.) When a game was headed down to the wire and both men’s mics dropped to silence. Russell said, “I’m not going to say another word. This game is so good to watch. Let’s just sit back and enjoy.” Try to do that today. (Brent Musburger with Russell)
9) Billy Cunningham – (1943) Billy was a smart fellow who struck me as one who always wanted his next nickel. He’s a Hall of Famer, coached Philly and did color on CBS, teaming mostly with Dick Stockton. Interestingly, he followed Tommy Heinsohn on CBS’ NBA list of NBA announcers. Then the dough came rolling in. He and Lewis Schaffel bought the management interest and rights in the league’s Miami Heat. Both were bright and savvy. They started by bonding in high school at Erasmus in Brooklyn.
10) Matt Goukas, (1944) the former Orlando mentor made it to the top of the NBC-NBA chart during the Michael Jordan Bulls era in the 90s. For that matter, Matt, who spent time on the Magic telecasts too spent four NBA finals working with Marv Albert and the overbearing Bill Walton.