ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” is the latest, and so far greatest, entry into the great sports void in our viewing landscape, an event big enough to bring us together in front of our television sets in a way we haven’t had reason to do for more than a month now.
And when you consider last week’s WNBA draft as the model for the virtual modus operandi we eagerly anticipate when the NFL Draft begins Thursday, the fading memory of real sports action is beginning to take on some color again.
While it remains far too premature even to imagine an actual game, the conversation creeps forward, a reflection not of our insensitivity to the life-and-death struggles so many of our citizens deal with daily, but of the hope for an eventual path out of this coronavirus pandemic to what might be there for us on the other side.
For all the many facets that drive our sports obsessions, relief from times of national tragedy has always been among them. Simply put: We all miss sports when they’re gone, be we players, fans, camera operators, concession workers, owners, coaches, referees, trainers, broadcasters et al. Our agony is a great equalizer.
“The other day there was this video, the Arizona Cardinals made it, and it was a video that encompassed all the Arizona teams, it was kind of like, 'Hey we miss playing, we miss you, we know there are more important things going on,’ but touching on the idea that we’re going to be back soon,” said Mike Breen, one of television’s leading NBA voices, in a recent phone conversation. "As I’m watching it, I’m getting emotional watching the video.
“It was so well done, and it had me thinking. That first game back, I’m going to have to really control my emotions.
"It shows you how important sports is to all of us, and not just for the games, but for the camaraderie, the relationships we all miss so much. Not that we take it for granted, but it really has hit home how important it is to us. I think it’s going to be an incredible wave of emotion for all of us.”
Breen knows from emotions, including very strong personal ones when he was named winner of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Media Award back in February, putting him alongside reporter Michael Wilbon as a member of the 2020 class.
Breen was boarding a plane and missed a call with the news, but once in the air and back on WiFi, he could barely process it. It was a battle to stifle those emotions.
"I know the guy sitting next to me was probably thinking, 'You OK, pal?,’ figuring he got stuck on one of these flights with a guy crying next to me,” Breen said.
"It was wonderful. For me, the beauty of it has been hearing from so many people. Some who I see on a regular basis, some I work with, family, friends I haven’t heard from in a while. And that’s been the most wonderful part, reconnecting and hearing such nice things from people, being able to thank so many of them.
"There are so many people responsible for it. I’ve always tried throughout my career to express my gratitude, all the help I’ve received.”
Broadcasters are on the front lines of restarting games in the aftermath of grief. From 9/11 to the Marathon bombings, their voices are the ones that speak both to us and for us. Breen has become one of the NBA’s most trusted among them, there to guide the audience through the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, on the call for the first game played following the helicopter crash that claimed the life of Bryant, his daughter, and seven others. It seemed at the time that the shocking loss of Bryant, who headlines this year’s Hall of Fame class, would be the one sports story to eclipse them all.
Yet once again, life got in the way.
"It’s been the strangest season obviously, for so many reasons, No. 1 with the suspension of play, what’s going on in the country,” Breen said. “Basketball has been such an important part of my life, but it really has taken a back seat the entire year to so many more important things, starting with the virus.
"Go back to early in season, when David Stern passed away. Everyone who has ever earned a nickel form the NBA owes him a debt of gratitude for what he did, his business sense and vision, giving us a wonderful life. That was hard. He was one of those people you just thought was indestructible.
"Then somebody so young and vibrant who meant so much to the game, dies young, tragically, and the circumstances with his daughter and seven others, it’s heartbreaking.
"It’s been a rough season, for anyone who loves the NBA and knows the NBA. It makes you think of the important things in life.”
It makes you yearn for the simpler ones, too, like the joy of Breen’s signature call of "Bang!” on a field goal, which you can find on his current YouTube PSA video, when he closes the call for social responsibility by making a shot of his own.
Driveway basketball, vintage clips of Michael Jordan, and live call-ins of draft picks may be all we have at the moment, but welcome they are for allowing some measure of sports to drift back into our consciousness.