The NBA Finals are shaping up to be the most-watched championship series since 2004, averaging more than 15 million U.S. viewers. And three games in, one member of the ABC/ESPN broadcast team looks especially overmatched on that outsized stage – a not-ready-for-primetime player.
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In his playing days, Mark Jackson was a crafty passer and capable of delicately looping his high-arcing teardrop shot over taller opponents. Today, all the finesse has disappeared into an endless stream of babble.
As an analyst, the one-time point guard has become the master of the meaningless, uttering limp observations and silly catchphrases – “Mama, there goes that man!”; “Hand down, man down”; “Energy and effort” – that, content-wise, amount to little more than empty calories.
Jackson’s partner, former coach Jeff Van Gundy, certainly can be irritating, generating some of the most vitriolic email that comes my way. Yet his opinions and one-liners – wrong-headed and strained as they sometimes are – come across as clear and forceful in comparison to Jackson, and his criticism usually is pointed. He also can be funny, such as his rant about not allowing people sitting courtside to have drinks, resulting in an impromptu exchange Sunday night with comic George Lopez. “You’re scary when we have time to kill,” play-by-play guy Mike Breen quipped.
Rounding out the trio, nobody will confuse Breen with Marv Albert, but at least he has a terrific voice and knows how to convey a sense of excitement – never better than during Dallas’ furious, come-from-behind rally in Game 2. Besides, insight and analysis aren’t his primary roles.
That leaves the frustrating Jackson, and this rap on him has nothing to do with him being a former athlete. There are better analysts with similar résumés – Charles Barkley, Steve Kerr, even Jackson’s former teammate Reggie Miller – over at TNT.
The strange part, frankly, is that ESPN hasn’t developed a deeper bench, either on the sidelines or for the halftime show, on which anchor Stuart Scott can’t resist indulging in the kind of cutesy shtick – like labeling a LeBron James throwdown a “stank dunk” – better suited to the wacky latenight editions of “SportsCenter.”
At times, it seems as if Jackson is reading from a book of modern basketball clichés. Yes, the Heat were the aggressors, but how many times can you reference that they’re “attacking” either “the rim” or “the painted area?”
By contrast, Van Gundy exhibited genuine insight when he pointed out early in Game 3, in regard to the style the teams were playing, “Dallas is up, but Miami’s winning” – just as studio analyst Jon Barry accurately predicted the latter’s strategy, suggesting the Heat would compensate by driving more after settling for outside shots in losing Game 2.
Thus far, the Finals have been a major boon to ABC, with initial ratings up over last year when the Celtics and Lakers played. Not only does that create a showcase to market the network’s new programs to millions of viewers who will scatter once the playoffs end, but ABC clearly is cashing in by peddling ads to movie studios eager to plug male-oriented summer fare such as “Green Lantern” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
The games also have been extremely entertaining, with a couple of down-to-the-wire finishes and a medley of circus shots by Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade. Throw in all the rooting interest – mostly against the Heat – and barring a Dallas fold and a 4-1 finish (unlikely with the Mavericks hosting the next two games), this ought to be difficult for the network carrying the series to screw up.
Granted, nobody truly committed to watching the Finals is going to boycott them because they don’t like the broadcasters, but that doesn’t mean a lot of them aren’t muttering under their breath and gritting their teeth. When fans tune in to see the NBA’s best, why should they be treated to the broadcasting equivalent of the Continental Basketball League?
Because Mama, there go that man’s lips again. Is there any way to get him to actually say something?
You can email Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter at @blowryontv