As a rule, I mute most basketball telecasts and watch them accompanied by jazz. On college games, you get the lounge acts that are Dick Vitale, Clark Kellogg and Bill Raftery. In the NBA, you get suffocating Xs and Os from the likes of Hubie Brown and Doug Collins.
Well, I have finally found a basketball broadcasting team worthy of the Bill Evans Trio.
ABC/ESPN’s No. 1 NBA tandem of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy is as enjoyable of a three-man booth as I have heard in a long, long time.
They combine sensible play-by-play with smart conversation and minimal shtick.
(I am reminded of the basketball voice that was the best blend of plain talk and street shtick ever: Al McGuire. And here’s the difference between McGuire and, oh, Kellogg – McGuire sometimes would say stuff that sounded nonsensical, but when you thought about it later, it actually made some sense; Kellogg will say stuff that sounds nonsensical and will remain nonsensical for several hundred years.)
(By the way, while I’m in a good mood, let me spread some Couch Slouch love to ESPN’s Doris Burke. The last couple of years, she’s been the only female to ever work as an analyst on NBA playoff games; frankly, I would’ve thought this might cause anarchy in Sports Nation. But she speaks soundly and sensibly, and when she’s consigned to more customary woman’s work – sideline reporting – she shines with those somewhat needless in-game coaching interviews.)
(Note to editors: This is my one positive column of the year, to convince readers that I actually like something, because I’m always told that I never like anything.)
Breen, as the play-by-play leader, sounds all the right notes. Unlike serial screamers Kevin Harlan and Gus Johnson, Breen – in the tradition of, say, Dick Enberg or the incomparable Marv Albert – understands that a good game is a crescendo and reserves his most emotive calls for the biggest moments. Simply put, Breen’s voice rises as the occasion demands it – he has energy for 48 minutes, but he saves most of it for when it matters most.
Jackson speaks in no-nonsense language, with a clipped, succinct rhythm. He doesn’t waste words or our time. He is full of common-sense convictions. “Mama, there goes that man!” is the extent of Jackson’s shtick, and he uses it sharply and sparingly.
Then there is Van Gundy, the unlikely star of the group.
When Van Gundy coached in New York and in Houston, on the sideline he always looked as if he hadn’t slept in a month or seen the sun for a year. Who knew this ashen basketball lifer could offer such an entertaining broadcasting life?
Van Gundy is to basketball commentary as Van Gogh was to post-impressionism.
(Actually, when he was coaching, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Van Gundy sliced off part of his ear following a loss.)
Van Gundy is frank, refreshing and unassuming, with a sneaky sense of humor; for instance, he insists the network should not put up a graphic identifying Jack Nicholson when it shows him at Lakers games; “people should either know (him) or shouldn’t watch”.
Granted, at times Van Gundy seems completely out of touch with most pop culture or the world around him – I doubt he knows about the breakup of the Beatles or the Soviet Union – but that’s part of his quirky charm.
And unlike many coaches, Van Gundy’s not afraid to criticize anyone. He’s the perfect bar companion to watch a game – knowledgeable, without being a know-it-all, plus he doesn’t talk too much and he might even buy you the next round.
Most of the time, Jackson is deferential to Van Gundy, his former coach whom he still calls “Coach.” But some of their best moments are when they mix it up and disagree. When they argue, they jab at each other playfully; it feels organic and genuine (or as genuine as something can feel like on TV).
It’s a great, relaxing listen, and I can’t listen to enough of it. Besides, I was getting sick of jazz.
Ask The Slouch
Q. A la Milwaukee Brewers reliever Todd Coffey, who sprints in from the bullpen when called upon to pitch, do you get up in the morning to go to work and sprint to the couch? (Bob Ollerman; Ripon, Wis.)
A. First of all, I do not get up in the morning; second of all, when I do get up, I’m already on the couch.
Q. Do you really believe that Michael Vick is now dedicating himself to eradicating dog fighting? (David Clements; Elgin, Ill.)
A. When I got out of the joint, the only thing I cared about was hooking up my illegal cable box again.
Q. In terms of the surge of home runs in the new Yankee Stadium, you don’t suppose somebody buried one of Curt Schilling’s long-winded speeches by the right field wall? (Mark Price, Parma, Ohio)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
Q. Exactly what is your job? (Ray Bohannon; Katy, Texas)
A. I’m not sure, but the key is that I report to no one.