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Behind the baffling turn of events that led to Doc Rivers leaving ESPN/ABC for the Bucks

Coaches rarely shake the bug for long, and that was the case with Doc Rivers.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Doc Rivers’s previous foray into NBA broadcasting lasted a year.

In 2003-04, between getting fired as coach of the Magic and hired by the Celtics, he spent a season, mostly alongside Al Michaels, on ABC’s top NBA broadcast team.

That was practically a run of Mike-and-Tommy-level longevity compared with Rivers’s most recent stint.

In an unexpected and occasionally baffling turn of events, Rivers left ESPN/ABC’s No. 1 NBA broadcast team this past week to take the Bucks’ head coaching job. That Rivers, who was fired after three seasons as 76ers coach in May, would return to the bench was not a huge surprise. Coaches rarely shake the bug for long.


That he would do it so soon? Well, that was blindsiding to ESPN/ABC, which had revamped its lineup in August to bring aboard Rivers and partner him with close friend Mike Breen and Doris Burke.

One of the reasons ESPN/ABC moved on from Jeff Van Gundy — who had been with the network since 2007 and was an insightful, dry-witted analyst — was concern that he would bolt for a coaching opportunity. ESPN management was stung that Rivers barely made it past the midway point in the schedule before signing off.

Just a month ago, Rivers told me he was content in the broadcasting role.

“It’s been a joy for me,” he said, noting that it affords him to get a “bigger-picture look at all the teams in the league.”

He noted that the Bucks — along with two of his former employers, the Celtics and 76ers — were among the three Eastern Conference teams he thought could win the NBA title.

The news of Rivers’s decision wasn’t the only surprise in this saga. The source of the initial report on Tuesday night added a layer of intrigue, since it didn’t come from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski or The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the dueling Spy vs. Spy of NBA information peddlers. Instead, it was delivered by host Adam Lefkoe, almost casually, on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio show. “Are we ready for breaking news?” he said. “We have news in from CNN.”


That CNN — which hasn’t had much association with sports since, oh, approximately Fred Hickman and Nick Charles’s heyday on “CNN Sports Tonight” — would break an NBA story of such magnitude came as more than a mild surprise. It made fans skeptical that it was true, particularly since the ubiquitous Wojnarowski and Charania were silent on their X feeds.

But it was, of course, correct. The individual at CNN, if there was one, who got the scoop was never identified. CNN, which like TNT is owned by Warner Brothers Discovery, was focused on New Hampshire primary coverage Tuesday night, and passed along the news to TNT. Hours after Lefkoe announced it, CNN finally posted a story about Rivers going to the Bucks, but without a reporter’s byline. (Wojnarowski and Charania confirmed Rivers’s hiring within minutes of each other in the 11 a.m. hour Wednesday.)

ESPN management was disappointed with Rivers’s decision, according to a source at the network, feeling like he had taken to the analyst role quickly and would be thriving come the NBA Finals. But executives, according to the source, understood that probably not even Rivers expected a golden opportunity such as the Bucks job to open up so quickly.


(Although given that Rivers reportedly was consulting for the Bucks at least over the past several weeks, maybe he wasn’t all that surprised.)

ESPN’s plan for now is to keep Breen and Burke as a two-person team, though J.J. Redick will get a serious look at being added to the top team at some point. Analysts Richard Jefferson and Hubie Brown are long shots to be added to the No. 1 team.

On air, ESPN handled Rivers’s departure with good humor. At the start of ESPN’s broadcast of Wednesday’s Suns-Mavericks game, Breen mentioned the players that would miss the game, then said, “For ABC/ESPN, Doc Rivers is out. Our dear friend has decided life as an NBA broadcaster is way too stressful, so he’s decided to opt for a less stressful job, NBA head coach on a team that’s trying to win a championship. We thank him for all his many weeks of service, and we wish him all the luck in the world.”

Flemming staying

After some curious circumstances and consideration for at least two television play-by-play jobs in different markets, Will Flemming is remaining on WEEI’s Red Sox radio broadcasts for the 2024 season. In early January, questions about his status arose after Audacy, WEEI’s parent company, posted an opening on multiple job websites for “Red Sox Play-by-Play/Analyst Announcer.” Audacy Boston senior vice president and market manager Mike Thomas told me it was for “just building a bench,” but the posting sounded exactly like Flemming’s role. As it turned out, because Audacy is in financial straits, having filed for bankruptcy this month, it is not out of the question that the Red Sox take over their radio contract after the coming season. Audacy and WEEI, minimizing commitments, offered Flemming just a one-year contract. After applying for television play-by-play roles with the Tigers and White Sox (the Tigers actually hired White Sox broadcaster Jason Benetti, opening up that job, which this past week went to John Schriffen), Flemming decided to remain calling Red Sox games on the one-year deal. As previously reported, Hall of Famer Joe Castiglione will have a similar workload to last year, when he called home games and some road games in his favorite cities. Lou Merloni will be in the radio booth for 65-70 games, while Sean McDonough will call around 20 games — fewer than last year.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.