When someone associated with the NBA is asked whether the sport is approaching a high point in its history, it requires not cynicism but good old-fashioned common sense to realize that person is probably going to answer in the affirmative.
So when such a verbal alley-oop was thrown to Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, reunited with Mike Breen on ESPN/ABC’s top NBA broadcast team this season, during a conference call this week, it was hardly surprising that both agreed with the notion.
What, you expected them to say the George Mikan era was the pinnacle?
“I really believe it’s an extremely high point,’’ said Jackson. “And it’s a job well done by everybody involved — the players, how they represent the league, obviously ownership, coaches, management, and an incredible job done setting the table by Commissioner [David] Stern and then following up and finishing by Commissioner [Adam] Silver. So, an outstanding job across the board. And it’s an awesome time to be an NBA owner, player, coach, management. It’s just an incredible time.”
Van Gundy agreed with the these-are-the-good-old-days sentiment, albeit with a word of slight caution.
“I just think we have to keep the fan in mind,’’ he said. “And I think sometimes when you’re in this prosperity era, where everything is going well, we can lose sight of who are the main reasons for our successes — the great players, the people who drive the business aspect, but it’s also the fans that continue to buy the product.”
Obligations and affiliations aside, Jackson and Van Gundy do have a long mutual history of candor, which earns them the benefit of the doubt. Besides, they do have a point — the league is at a remarkable (and lucrative) place in its history.
For fans of a certain generation, nothing will surpass the appeal of the league in the 1980s, during the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson heyday. And ratings peaked a decade later — the highest-rated NBA Finals of all time occurred in 1998, when Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in a series that averaged an 18.7 on NBC.
Last year’s Finals between the Spurs and Heat averaged a 9.3 for ABC, a strong number (and one higher than the Royals-Giants World Series will ultimately draw), but one that also reflects today’s increased entertainment options.
With Steve Ballmer completing a $2 billion purchase of the Clippers in August, and ESPN and Turner extending their rights deals for nine years at $24 billion beginning in 2016-17, the league is rolling in cash and cachet. But as Jackson notes, it’s the star power of the players and the appeal of several legitimate contending teams that are at the core of the league’s success.
“There are so many stories because no longer can you say, well, this is a team that’s going to run away or these are the two teams,” said Jackson. “I think there [are] seven teams with a legitimate chance to, at the end of the day, win it all, and I think it’s great for basketball and it’s great as a fan.”
I’ll admit it if you will: Tim McCarver is missed on Fox’s World Series broadcasts. The longtime color analyst semi-retired following last year’s World Series — there was actually a gentle nudge from the network involved in making the change.
He told me last October he still hoped to call games somewhere this season, and did end up working as an analyst on 30 St. Louis Cardinals local television broadcasts.
McCarver had lost something off his fastball in recent years, understandable given that he is 73. But it should never have been forgotten how sharp and even prophetic he was in his heyday.
Having recently watched all of Fox’s broadcasts from the 2004 American League Championship Series, it was striking how on point McCarver was in explaining what had happened and what might happen, even predicting Johnny Damon’s breakout from a series-long slump in Game 7. Damon, as some around here may recall, hit two home runs, including a grand slam.
Of course, that didn’t stop many of us from pining for a replacement for McCarver over the years. He could come across as condescending even while relaying the most fundamental baseball knowledge, and he was at the forefront of the national media’s habit of praising the great Derek Jeter for attributes that he didn’t actually possess, such as defensive range and calm eyes.
Any past declarations that McCarver should go now fall into the category of be careful what you wish for. Much of that is due to the uninspired choice as his primary successor.
Harold Reynolds’s greatest attribute — other than perhaps his ability to cultivate relationships with network executives — is his bland affability. It works for him on the MLB Network’s enjoyable, mellow offseason morning show, “Hot Stove.” But that affability becomes irritating over the course of a ballgame — or a season’s worth of ballgames — when it becomes apparent he has little insight to offer.
Reynolds’s presence did lead to a funny moment during Fox’s broadcast of Game 2 of the World Series Wednesday night. When Reynolds and play-by-play voice Joe Buck had a disagreement during the top of the sixth inning, Buck kidded that Reynolds should just “go back to the MLB Network.” Buck said it facetiously. But viewers could not be faulted if they wished it were true.
Bosworth up next
ESPN has released its usual batch of exceptional “30 for 30” films this fall. Next up is “Brian and The Boz,’’ a look back on the rapid rise and fall of University of Oklahoma and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth — or more accurately, his quintessentially ’80s alter ego, “The Boz.” It premieres Tuesday. I’ll watch, though I’d tune in even if the film were nothing but a continuous loop of Bo Jackson running him over . . . Expect WEEI to announce soon that Jerry Thornton, the Barstool Sports writer and stand-up comic, will be taking on a more prominent role at the station, most likely as the daily third voice on the afternoon drive “Dale and Holley” program.