A media columnist’s confession: When the choice is between a national broadcast and Comcast SportsNet New England’s presentation of a Celtics game, the remote control leads me to the latter pretty much every time.
Sure, I’ll DVR the national broadcast, be it on ESPN or TNT, and I’ll almost always click over to watch TNT’s studio programming.
Shaquille O’Neal, the big-name addition to TNT’s yet-to-be-duplicated “Inside The NBA’’ program, is often about as animated as he was when he pretended to be a statue in Harvard Square.
But as long as Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, and the inimitable Charles Barkley are around to deliver insight and humor with their easy chemistry, it remains the best studio show on any network, no matter the sport. The search for the next Barkley has been as long - and as fruitless - as the search by various NFL rights-holders for the next John Madden.
Chemistry is also a primary reason I’ll take the duo known to Celtics fans simply as “Mike and Tommy’’ over any pairing a national network has to offer (though ESPN/ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy is always a welcome voice, deftly mixing a coaching lifer’s candor with self-deprecating humor). Mike Gorman and Tom Heinsohn are in their 31st season together calling Celtics games. Although sometimes such familiarity might bring a sense of staleness, it works to the opposite effect for them. To fans of a certain age, they are as much a symbol of the Celtics as the parquet floor, and their appeal is reflected in the Nielsen ratings.
The networks take over broadcast rights to all playoff games for the second round and beyond, but when viewers had a choice in the first round, CSNNE averaged a 6.76 rating for the six-game series with the Hawks, approximately double what ESPN and TNT averaged (in the 3.4 range) during the five games broadcast nationally in the Boston market.
Save for maybe Marv Albert, no one on the national stage, in college or pros, on radio or television, calls a better basketball game than Gorman. If you think it’s as easy as he makes it look, I’m going to presume you have missed the times when Gary Tanguay filled in for him in previous seasons, or when Jon Meterparel stepped in this season for the excellent Sean Grande on WEEI’s broadcasts and called every possession as if it were the final seconds of Game 7 of the Finals with the fate of the galaxy at stake.
I always thought hockey was the most challenging sport to call, but there is accumulating evidence locally that basketball is pretty high on the play-by-play broadcaster’s degree-of-difficulty scale.
Gorman has the additional task of reining in Heinsohn, who can be, let’s say, excitable, particularly when he hears a whistle. Heinsohn is an acquired taste, perhaps one fans with a low tolerance for griping about referees or who desire a stronger dose of objectivity never acquire.
But if the viewer can get past Heinsohn’s fixation on the referees, born from his years stomping the sidelines as a coach, an appreciation will grow for his almost casual brilliance in identifying why a play did or did not work.
Combine that with the institutional knowledge Gorman and Heinsohn bring - their first season together, 1981-82, was Larry Bird’s third as a player - and the experience of watching the Celtics in the playoffs isn’t the same without them.
There is an element of nostalgia with at least part of the team TNT has used to cover the Celtics-Sixers matchup. Dick Stockton, who has been the play-by-play voice for the first three games alongside Chris Webber (Mike Fratello joined them for Game 1), called Celtics games on WBZ-TV in 1973-74, and was paired with Heinsohn as the No. 1 team on “The NBA on CBS’’ from 1983-87.
To hear Stockton’s voice on this series is to flash back to the ’80s heyday of the rivalry. He still has the great pipes, though he can be mistake-prone (such as referring to nine-year veteran Marquis Daniels as a third-year player Wednesday night).
Webber, a charismatic presence in a studio role, struggles to offer cogent analysis in the flow of the game. In truth, the most accomplished analysts in this series happen to be coaching the teams: Doc Rivers and Doug Collins.
Webber’s most curious comment so far came Wednesday night, when he was discussing Rajon Rondo: “Tonight, Rondo will play actually the point guard, the 2-guard, and the 3-guard because of other players being hurt.’’
ESPN will have Friday’s game, with Dave Pasch, Doris Burke, and Holly Rowe on the scene in Philadelphia. Chances are they’ll be an upgrade on Stockton and Webber. And a long way from Mike and Tommy.
Spotting the games
Major League Baseball’s new one-game wild-card matchups will air on TBS, while two Division Series games in the 2012 and ’13 postseasons will move from TBS to MLB Network.
But there is a downside to the news: Because MLB Network reaches just 69 million of the nation’s 114 million households, that leaves 45 million that won’t be able to see those Division Series games. They will not be on another channel in a given market.
This year’s wild-card games will be played Friday, Oct. 5, two days after the end of the regular season. Any tiebreaker games will be played Oct. 4 and also will be aired on TBS.