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See you later: When the NBA Finals were not broadcast live

Julius Erving drives to the basket in the 1980 NBA Finals between the Sixers and the Lakers.
Julius Erving drives to the basket in the 1980 NBA Finals between the Sixers and the Lakers.Manny Millan/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

Editor’s note: While the games are on pause, the Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” stories from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This column by Leigh Montville on the final game of the NBA Finals not being broadcast live appeared on Sunday, May 18, 1980, under the headline, “Tape delay of playoffs causes this viewer to lose control.”

The banner read “11:30 STINKS” and it hung from the balcony at midcourt last Sunday afternoon at the Spectrum. I did not know what the message meant.

“It means, dummy, that when these two teams return here Friday night for the all-important sixth game of the playoffs, the game will be showed to most of the country by CBS on tape delay at 11:30 at night,” I was informed.


"Whaaaaa?" I think I replied.

I did not believe then that a television network could be that narrow-minded, that insensitive, that stupid. I still don’t believe it, even though the deed has been done.

The sixth game of the NBA playoffs was treated as if it were another “McCloud” repeat, a seven-year-old “Columbo” show, a damned one-star, failed motion picture that has been hacked into 57 pieces and shown to half-awake insomniacs. A year of pained listening to Brent Musberger’s inanities, to Bill Russell’s cackle, to Hot Rod Hundley’s “off the glass, baby,” was thrown away as nothing. Take it. Shove it. Eat what we give you and like it. CBS has bigger things to do than reward such perseverance.

Don't the people who make these decisions have any feeling for a situation like this? Don't they understand their public? They say they made this decision because they will attract more viewers during this "important" ratings period with their normal programming, in this case reruns of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Dallas."


Maybe so, but don’t they have any ratings service that will tell them about the passion, the interest of their viewers? Do they think there would have been more people howling if J.R. Ewing missed a night instead of this one-time attraction? Don’t they know how mad the average sports fan was? Don’t they know how seriously they stepped on a lot of sneakers in this country?

I will tell them.

A delayed-tape presentation of a sports event is almost worse than not presenting the event at all. It is dried milk as opposed to normal milk. It is mashed potatoes without butter or salt or pepper. The flavor, the excitement are taken away artificially. Even if the viewer doesn’t know the score, if he has steeled himself for the 2½ necessary hours in an airtight bunker, impervious to news reports, wire reports and loud-mouthed friends and family . . . even if he has done all that, hard as it may be, the game is not the same.

It already has taken place. It is done. It is finished. I watch a game, any game, and I know I can affect what is happening. I know in my mind that I really can’t, but I know in my heart that I can. I can make certain things happen, just by going to the bathroom. I can make things happen by opening a beer. There are certain ways I can sit on a couch and make a foul shot miss the basket. There are certain places I can sit on my floor to spark a 10-point comeback surge.


There are ways — and I refuse to divulge them at this time — that I can make certain teams win and lose championships just by the clothes I wear. I know. I have seen it work many times.

But I can’t do any of that when the game is on tape. How do you root for something that already has happened? How do you control Julius Erving when you know that he is not doing what you are watching him do, but has shaved and showered and probably is drinking a beer and watching the same thing you are watching? Even he can’t influence what he sees anymore and he sees himself.

The sixth game of the NBA playoffs was not a show, it was news. Don’t CBS and its affiliates understand that fact? It was bought news, to be sure, and they bought it, but it still was news. It was live. It was — and I hate to use the word about any sports event, but if you watch an entire season and especially watch the playoffs and talk about them a lot, what else do you say? — important.

What will happen at CBS if the hurricane strikes or the sky falls or if someone drops The Big One during prime time? Will we be told to flee from our homes only after we have watched a little “Dallas” incest or a few car-and-truck chases? What will happen if the deadly giant tarantulas finally come marching down Main Street? Will the network at least give us a little message on the bottom of the screen, “30-FOOT TARANTULAS OUTSIDE, NEWS AT 11”? Maybe we’ll get one of those blurbs between the commercials, “Tarantulas cited in Waltham, water unfit to drink, Sox win and Harvey says it will be a beautiful day tomorrow, stay tuned for the late news.”


ABC pulled the same stunt with the US-Russia hockey game in the Winter Olympics, using the ironic reasoning that a live telecast of one of the largest news events of this year would disrupt local news programs because the game began at 5 p.m. Now CBS has done its job and there is no doubt that NBC, if it ever could find a program that drew any kind of audience, would not hesitate to follow suit.

I submit this as one passionate howl against the procedure.

I also submit the following bill: $1 for cotton, stuffed in ears to keep anyone from telling me the score Friday night; $2.50 for a copy of “The Green Ripper” by John D. MacDonald to occupy my waiting time, and $132.57 for dental work for my oldest child who was rapped in the mouth after he burst downstairs at 11:25 p.m., removed my cotton, threw my book into the air and told me the Lakers had won the series. Please remit at once.