There’s a certain rhythmic balance in broadcasting, incisive commentary maneuvering inside and out of the nuts and bolts play-by-play. I used to turn the sound off on my television and time the radio broadcast for Knicks games to match the on-screen action. Radio play-by-play, by necessity, replaces the visual and harps on detail, something that’s lost on television. At times it’s cumbersome and overwhelming, like some overzealous auctioneer. What’s earned in detail is lost in jumbled basketball jargon. Who’s where? Who passed to whom? Wait, what? Less is more, as they say. I eventually abandoned my plight only because the nailing down the timing between television and radio was predictably difficult. I guess I got more satisfaction out of accomplishing the feat than the intended purpose of the whole exercise in the first place.
The allure of television broadcasting comes in two forms: the freedom to hear your own narrative, with the play-by-play guy filling in the inconsequential nitty-gritty – wait, he plays for that team now? But it’s just enough tangible fact to throw around the water cooler as to feign a higher knowledge of sport. The color man, meanwhile, has the freedom to color. On radio, we’re left with pithy one-liners and third grade analysis that’s a consequence of squeezing well-meaning insight into some brief respite in the action – the point guard dribbling the ball up the court at a walking pace, the brief outro before commercials.
ESPN’s current flagship broadcast team of Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy has been wildly successful. Breen’s familiar “BANG!” coupled with his nuanced ability to rein in JVG’s otherwise colorful and entertaining diatribes is representative of his game management skills (from the booth, that is). And Van Gundy, he’s unparalleled in honesty, which manifests itself in criticism, for the most part. Remember the flopping rant? Sure, it was over the top and distastefully high-browed, but the basis for his flippancy was judicious. Flopping is a huge problem in the NBA, and his outward revulsion bore the conversation, that, remarkably, may lead to fines for flopping.
But even though I’m usually better off for having absorbed JVG’s insightful commentary, I’m woefully one-sided. Even if his no-holds-barred style is endearing and unique in that he actually did coach superstars and crucial NBA playoff games, he’s chained to his own coaching, and therefore broadcasting, style. And we trust it too, because it stands alone. Mike Breen is always nonpartisan, too non-confrontational, so he’d never fully challenge Van Gundy’s capricious rants. Although many critiqued Mark Jackson for adding nothing of value other than haphazard phrases such as “hand down, man down!” and “Mama, there goes that man!”, he was opposition. At the very least, his mere presence lent itself to occasional disagreement, which thus allowed the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions, as opposed to accepting the force-fed ramblings of one man.