It’s a curious reality, one that has vexed more than one sports television programming executive who has hired him over the years. But it is also the stone-cold truth: Magic Johnson’s effortless charisma as the maestro of the 1980s “Showtime” Lakers has never translated to television.
Sure, when the red light goes on, his famous smile is still ever-present, as if he’d just thrown a mind-bending no-look pass to James Worthy. And his demeanor is unfailingly engaging.
But for someone who knows the intricacies of the NBA and the sport itself so well, he’s never had much to say. And on the occasions when he has had an interesting opinion or genuine insight, he hasn’t always had the easiest time articulating it.
Johnson’s abundance of personality was a part of his charm when he was playing basketball. Yet it was mostly absent when his job was to discuss the sport. Which is why his announcement Thursday that he’s leaving ESPN/ABC and its “NBA Countdown” studio program leads to a scenario that would have been unthinkable during his playing days:
Johnson’s departure from a team might be exactly what is needed to make it better.
Johnson, whose various business interests include part-ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said in a statement that he had chosen to leave because of other commitments.
“I love ESPN,’’ he said. “Unfortunately, due to the nature of my schedule and other commitments, I don’t feel confident that I can continue to devote the time needed to thrive in my role. I will always feel a strong connection to the ESPN family and I enjoyed working with them very much.”
(Conspiracy theories sprouted quickly that Johnson didn’t enjoy working with everyone very much; Deadspin reported that he essentially lost a power struggle with fellow panelist Bill Simmons. I’ve been told the exact opposite, that Johnson and Simmons got along famously despite their opposing Celtics/Lakers allegiances.)
Before Johnson’s departure, ESPN had already begun its seemingly annual tinkering with the cast in its ongoing if unacknowledged quest to match the camaraderie and success of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,’’ the standard-bearer for all sports studio programming.
The network announced Wednesday that former Sixers coach Doug Collins, a superb color analyst, would join “NBA Countdown,’’ while Michael Wilbon, the de facto host, would no longer be a regular part of the program. The network said Wilbon would continue to be a significant presence “across all platforms” on its NBA programming.
Then, in the hours before Johnson’s announcement Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch reported that Doris Burke, so excellent in the often thankless job as sideline reporter, would be joining “NBA Countdown’’ on some Wednesdays during the season.
Burke’s role sounds similar to what Wilbon’s was — an analyst more than a conventional host, but the panelist responsible for keeping the show moving and getting in and out of commercial breaks.
Burke should be a welcome addition, and with the departure of Johnson and Wilbon — who was habitually deferential to Johnson, sometimes at the show’s expense — there is an opportunity for ESPN to do something special.
Holdovers Simmons and Jalen Rose, who joined the show last season, have the kind of chemistry ESPN covets, most recently evidenced by the casual, hilarious, and insightful team preview videos the two have been appearing in on Grantland.
When Burke isn’t part of the program, putting Simmons and Rose with a host such as Rece Davis — who effortlessly meshed with them during ESPN’s NBA draft coverage — would be ideal, but the versatile and underrated Davis has college basketball commitments in the winter.
It’s tough to predict how Collins, a force of personality in his own right, will fit into the Simmons/Rose dynamic. Avery Johnson is also expected to be part of the program in some capacity, and Deitsch reported that P.J. Carlesimo (who popped up alongside Mike Gorman on Comcast SportsNet New England’s Celtics telecast Wednesday) could also be in the mix for a role.
However it ultimately plays out, the transactions of the past two days have been positive steps for “NBA Countdown.”
And that’s with the still-strange-but-true acknowledgment that removing Magic Johnson from anything basketball-related could make it better.
Back to NESN
Don Orsillo, who again proved his bona fides as a national play-by-play announcer with his excellent work on TBS during the Athletics-Tigers Division Series, will contribute to NESN’s programming on game days now that Fox takes over coverage of the American League playoffs. Dennis Eckersley, who was paired with Orsillo and the chattering Buck Martinez for that ALDS, will be a studio analyst on NESN for Games 3, 4 and 5 of the ALCS. TBS, which is broadcasting the NLDS, may have further plans for him . . . The Red Sox, by the way, ended the season with a 7.3 rating on NESN. That was fifth overall in baseball among regional networks and second in the American League to the Tigers. NESN has also had strong numbers during the postseason on its studio programming, including a 1.9 for the Game 1 postgame show.
New Marshall in town
Donny Marshall, who was let go by Comcast SportsNet New England after serving as a Celtics analyst for the network from 2005-12, has landed at the YES Network as a Nets analyst. In retrospect, it’s a natural landing spot for the former UConn star. He played briefly for the Nets, is friends with coach Jason Kidd, and brings familiarity with a couple of new Nets named Pierce and Garnett. For what it’s worth, there has been a surprisingly high volume of complaints about Marshall’s departure from CSNNE directed to this address, largely from female viewers . . . Disappointing to see that Channel 5 didn’t send Mike Lynch to cover the Red Sox’ two road games in the Division Series. Channel 4’s Dan Roche and Channel 7’s Joe Amorosino were on-site in St. Petersburg as the Red Sox wrapped up their first postseason series victory since 2008.