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Michael Marsicano
Michael Marsicano

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A Face From Radio

Mike Breen has become the definitive voice of the NBA on TV, and he has the radio — and a missed basket — to thank

Mike Breen was in a panic. It was June of 1994, down in Houston — Yooston, as he would say in that Yonkers accent — and John Starks was setting up for a shot that could win the Knicks a championship.

"And I’m going to blow the biggest call in Knicks history," said Breen, sitting in a 1950s-style diner in San Francisco where he likes to go to get milkshakes when he’s in town for work. The Knicks were up three games to two in those NBA Finals, but down a bucket in the final seconds of Game 6. Breen was seated at one end of the courtside media row. Way down by the far end, Starks dribble-lunged off a Patrick Ewing pick, planted his feet, and took aim.

A successful 3 would win the game, win the title, win the soul of New York. It would be replayed forever. Kids would act out the play on driveways as their friends imitated the call. But Breen couldn’t see, from his angle, whether Starks’s feet were behind the 3-point line.

"What you normally do is look at the refs," said Breen, leaning forward across the table in the padded booth and peering anxiously to one side, reenacting the moment. "But the refs are blocked out too. So I have no idea. If that shot goes in, I’m gonna have to pause and wait to find out, when I should be screaming" — here his tone grew slightly deeper, more staccato, more crazed — "the Knicks win the championship!!!!!"

Even 22 years later, in a kitschy diner thousands of miles from Madison Square Garden or Yooston, this suggestion of an alternative Knicks history, coming from this voice, was a lot to process. The sense most closely linked to memory is supposedly smell, but whichever scientists determined that clearly didn’t grow up listening to sports radio. The cadences, the chuckles, the familiar crackle of dead air — it all imprints directly on the psyche. Neurological bandwidth that should be used instead to file away, say, loved ones’ birthdays devotes itself to storing every voice crack, each memorable call.

But Breen’s possibly botched description of Starks winning it all will never be one of them. Starks’s feet were behind the 3-point line, sure, but his feet didn’t wind up mattering: His attempt grazed off Hakeem Olajuwon’s outstretched hands and petered out as an air ball. The Rockets won the series in Game 7 three nights later. There would be no championship for New York, and there would be no Dewey-defeats-Truman mishap for Breen.

"In a way," Breen said, mostly kidding, "John Starks’s missed shot may have saved my career."

Last week ESPN, which owns NBA rights through 2025, announced that it had signed Breen to a new long-term deal as lead play-by-play guy. This is Breen’s 11th season calling the Finals, more NBA championship airtime than legends like Dick Stockton or Breen’s longtime idol and mentor Marv Albert enjoyed. Not that his work as the national NBA voice has been limited to the Finals. Breen called Ray Allen’s legendary 3-pointer in Game 6 in 2013 (in that one, at least he could see the ref), but he also saw Frédéric Weis drafted and dunked on, narrated the Malice at the Palace fiasco, and unleashed a rare double-bang! courtesy of Steph Curry. And all of that national airtime is a cushy side-hustle compared to his true labor: being the man burdened with chronicling the New York Knicks.

Breen has been calling Knicks games, first on the radio and now for the MSG Network, since 1991, through the glory and the heartbreak of the Ewing era, the tabloid frenzy of the Isiah years, and the adorable optimism of Linsanity. Both of his jobs are high-wire acts: Being a national NBA broadcaster exposes one to all manner of scrutiny at particularly dramatic moments, while covering the Knicks every day involves avoiding getting fired while telling the truth about a team that has won one playoff series in 16 years.

But Breen, who grew up the fourth of six boys, was the sports update guy for Don Imus, and has been tight with Yankees announcer Michael Kay since college, is adept at managing intensity and sidestepping abuse. It’s part of the reason a Yonkers boy who grew up zealously following all of his favorite sports has now quietly become a definitive voice of one of them.

It wasn’t hard to spot the Breen house in late-’60s Yonkers. "Back in the day we didn’t have a clothes dryer," said Breen. "Everything was hung up outside. Two long clotheslines, and it would be nothing but sweat socks." Sports "were not optional" in either Breen’s family or in his neighborhood, an Irish Catholic enclave north of Manhattan around which children roamed in constant search of wiffle ball games.

Breen’s father, John, was a former Marine, a union steamfitter, and a New York Baseball Giants fan who couldn’t stomach the thought of rooting for the Yankees after his team headed to San Francisco, and threw in his lot with the Mets instead. Breen has a photo on his phone that he pulls out when people question how long he’s been a Mets fan. It’s him as a freckle-faced youngster wearing a Mets jersey and looking generally like a character in The Sandlot. "I wore that shirt every day that summer," he said. "I mean, every day."

Breen also loved the Knicks (his guys were Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Dave DeBusschere) and listened to the sports radio stylings of Marty Glickman and Glickman’s protégé, Marv Albert, who as a Knicks ball boy in the 1950s had pestered the announcer to critique his homemade tapes. In many ways, though, one of the most influential broadcasters in Breen’s life was his hobbyist neighbor.

As a teen, Breen would play wiffle ball, then go hang out in Tony Minecola’s basement. Minecola was older — a college student at the New York Institute of Technology — and he’d built a tiny radio studio in his house, call letters and all, from which he spun records to entertain the neighborhood gang. "Every once in a while, instead of sitting there listening, I’d wander in and watch what he’d do," Breen said. "And once he asked me, ‘Would you want to do a shift?’ I thought it was the coolest thing. That kind of gave me the broadcasting bug."

Breen knew he wanted to find a school with a proper radio station and maybe a basketball team he could walk onto. (He’d been a backcourt player and a self-described "good free throw shooter" for a Salesian High team that made the state semifinals.) He chose Fordham for its truly impressive radio program, despite the school basically being in his sock-filled backyard; a 14-minute drive on a good day. A few minutes of watching the basketball team go through full-court runs in practice changed his mind about trying out, and for a while, the college radio scene didn’t seem any more welcoming. The upperclassmen at WFUV, the Fordham campus station, were cliquish, guarded their precious airtime jealously, and, in the great tradition of college kids, had little to no interest in reaching out to some random freshman. "I was almost ready to quit because I felt so out of place," Breen said. "I was pretty shy. And then one day I walk into the station and there’s Michael Kay. I just sort of saddled up with him, and now I had a friend. So it changed everything."

"We would sit in the campus center and eat lunch," said Kay, "and he would talk about being the Knicks announcer and me being the Yankees announcer."

"Our friends would all laugh," Breen said, "Like, yeah, two idiots, like that’s going to happen."

But they were about as well-positioned for the opportunities as possible. "It sounds crazy now," said Mike McCarthy, a former MSG Network executive who listened to Fordham radio as a student at nearby Marist in these pre-WFAN days, "but back then, in New York, the only sports [talk] radio was WFUV, Sunday nights. To get your sports fix, that’s what you listened to."

The students who contributed to WFUV’s weekly One on One sports show in the early 1980s included Kay and Breen — who did indeed become the voices of the Yankees and Knicks — as well as Bob Papa, who now does New York Giants radio play-by-play; John Giannone, who’s a New York Rangers reporter for MSG; Charlie Slowes, the radio voice of the Washington Nationals; and Jack Curry, who covered baseball for The New York Times and now works for the YES Network. In hindsight, the Fordham radio station was like the Fab Five or Freaks and Geeks: an early assemblage of people who would turn into industry leaders.

The 3-point line didn’t exist when Breen went to Fordham, but he remembers that the Rams basketball team still had great outside shooting. Sitting in the stands with his buddies, Breen got in the habit of yelling "bang!" every time a Fordham player hit a long shot. The succinct call was a bit too abstract for radio, Breen felt at the time, but when he began doing more TV it eventually become the closest thing he has to a catchphrase.

So far this postseason he hasn’t really been able to take full advantage of the four-letter word, however. That’s because many of the games that have been covered by ESPN’s crew of Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson this spring have turned into blowouts, calling for less bang and more banter.

Near the end of Golden State’s lopsided Game 2 win over Cleveland, the trio chatted about anything they could think of — a survival tactic Breen’s become adept at over the years. "Mike Breen filling time by talking about a random Paul Simon concert in the waning minutes of a blowout," tweeted one observer. "Feels like a Knicks game." The loopiest few minutes, though, probably came in the Eastern Conference finals, during Cleveland’s 116–78 romp over Toronto in Game 5.

"It’s rare we get to see an entire quarter of garbage time," Breen remarked at the start of the fourth. "If you’re just tuning in," he said later, "it was never close from the beginning."

"If you’re just tuning in," said Van Gundy, "tune out!"

It was easy to imagine ESPN executives grimacing at this exchange, and it was also easy to imagine them loving it. Over the years, the trio’s repartee has been, at its best, illuminating and undermining, jaded and deeply felt, opinionated and deferential. They praise and they argue, they are charmed and they remain unconvinced, and — when the game’s final minutes drag on for forever — they conjure up small talk like well-meaning strangers. It’s the result of Breen’s early training: good radio that just happens to be on TV.

"Best TV show of all time?" Breen said. "The Wire."

"Great show," Jackson agreed.

"Hawaii Five-O!" announced Van Gundy. "Book ’em, Danno!"

A few minutes later, as the game devolved into scrappiness, Van Gundy changed the subject to the NBA’s failure to suspend Draymond Green. "We’re saying a kick to the groin is OK?!" he yelled. A few beats of silence followed, and then Breen, sounding extra chipper, said: "So, which season of Hawaii Five-O was your favorite?"

Talk to enough people about Breen and all sorts of random nuggets emerge, tiny portraits of a man who has spent a lot of time with a lot of people in close, strange quarters. Kay remembers him sporting, more than once, a white sweater decorated with reindeer, while Clyde Frazier, who would know, insists that Breen’s current-day wardrobe deserves respect. "He’s a very classic dresser," Frazier said. "If you look at the fabric and tailoring of his suits, it’s exquisite."

Before the suits, though, there was that childhood Mets jersey. Breen remains a huge — yooge — Mets fan, getting to as many games as he can. Dave Fried, Breen’s longtime statistician for both MSG and ESPN broadcasts, works Mets games as well; Breen barrages him with texts when he’s attending a game. "He won’t tell me where he’s sitting, because he’s afraid I’ll tell the director and they’ll shoot him for TV," Fried said. "But he’ll text me, like, ‘Why are they switching pitchers, is Matt Harvey hurt?’ I’m like, ‘Am I working for you today?’" When the Mets were in the World Series last October, Kenny Albert did Breen a solid and filled in for a Knicks game or two. Breen was in the stands at Citi Field for Game 5 of the World Series, hoping Harvey would come back out for the ninth. (He calls Harvey’s return to the mound one of the great moments in Mets history, but likens it to the Endy Chávez catch: the sublime, followed by the pits.)

All good play-by-play announcers are obsessive about their preparation, but Breen’s colleagues note that he spends his days, and even nights, in hotel rooms "studying" and poring over articles and box scores (and, in the case of several stints at the Olympics, pronunciations). He creates fact sheets about each team that are one step removed from A Beautiful Mind:

On game days, he talks to everyone — assistant coaches, players, local broadcasters, even officials.

"He loves officials," said Van Gundy. "He’s like the one American who is absolutely in love with officiating, and the nuances of officiating, who is not a referee." MSG Network producer Spencer Julien agreed that Breen can be counted on for two things in every broadcast: slipping in a Fordham reference and going on about some official. "He came to watch me ref," said Fried, who works high school basketball games in his spare time. "I’m running up the court in the first quarter and there he is, watching the game. I was like, Jesus. He made me nervous!"

Breen may not be a referee anymore, but he used to officiate. "You can laugh at that, but I was a damn good ref," declared Breen, who after college climbed the ranks from working fifth and sixth grade girls’ games ("Those were 80 jump balls and the score was 6–4, but I loved it," he said, though he once had to cheer an athlete up after one of his calls made her burst into tears) to men’s junior college games. Breen was chewed out by Lisa Leslie when he officiated a Celebrity Game during one NBA All-Star Weekend. "She was on a fast break and I didn’t call a foul, and she got so mad," he said. "Legitimately mad. I think she’s finally forgiven me."

"The NBA sends out a rule book and a case book for the refs," said Howie Singer, who directs the Knicks broadcasts on MSG Network. "The case book is examples — if this happens, then this would be the rule. And Mike used to sit on the plane and we’d quiz each other on the case book. This was not my idea. That’s Mike’s idea of fun."

Many New Yorkers can’t help but compare this Breen — the one who gets a kick out of reading NBA rule books, the one who sometimes verbally shakes his head when players do things like hang on the rim — with the Breen they heard on Imus in the Morning back in the late ’80s and ’90s. As with most humor, trying to describe the offensive and brilliant morning radio show, or Breen’s role on it, can be a challenging task; even Imus himself couldn’t really pull it off. "Once in a while Breen would start singing," Imus said. "And I admit, it doesn’t sound funny now, but it was hilarious. We’d be doing a serious sportscast, and he’d say, ‘…and it reminds me of a song…’"

After graduating from Fordham in 1983, Breen got a job at Poughkeepsie radio station WEOK/WPDH that involved attending school board meetings and county legislative sessions and putting together 45 seconds of tape to leave on the morning anchor’s desk. He spent more on gas money than he drew in salary, but he was on the air.

When an opportunity came up to be the morning anchor at the station, Breen took it. He kept himself otherwise busy by calling Dutchess County high school basketball games of the week and taking an analyst role on Marist College basketball broadcasts, but after about two and a half years he didn’t feel like things were progressing.

He asked his dad to bring home an application to the steamfitters union. But as his father reminded him, Breen’s plan all along had been to stick with the broadcasting thing for five years. He kept at it, and when he found out that a Fordham classmate was producing the WNBC program SportsNight, Breen put in a call. What began with a one-night-a-week production fill-in gig turned into a full-time job that allowed him to leave Poughkeepsie and get closer to the center of the sports radio world.

"Mike was very protective of the radio audience," said Singer, who interacted with Breen when SportsNight began being simulcast for television. "He wanted to make sure nothing would be on TV that wouldn’t translate on the radio. One time Dave [Sims, who hosted SportsNight, had a midday show on WFAN, and now does play-by-play for the Seattle Mariners] had these two female bodybuilders on, and they start flexing. And if you’re on the radio, all you’re hearing is Dave going, ‘Wow, oh boy.’ Mike was screaming at me, going, ‘This is not good radio! This is not good radio!’"

Imus in the Morning, WNBC’s popular morning show, was great radio, and Breen wanted in. He noticed that Don Criqui, who did the sports updates, wasn’t around on certain days because of NFL responsibilities. Breen thinks it was sometime in 1986 when, eager to get on the air, he asked the program director if he might need a sub.

"He says, ‘Let’s go ask him,’" Breen said. "So he brings me back to Imus’s office. He was still drinking back in that day. It was like, two in the afternoon, and he was in a foul mood: head down, slumped in his chair." The producer explained that Breen was a young producer on SportsNight who was hoping to fill in on Mondays and Fridays. "And Imus’s exact quote, and forgive me," Breen said, "was: ‘That’s fine, he can do it tomorrow, now get the fuck out of my office.’"

Breen showed up bright and early the next morning. "I am so juiced and so pumped that I’m going to get to work on the Imus show," he said. "I sit down and he’s having a banter with Charles McCord, and he keeps looking at me while he’s talking. Finally he turns off his mic and motions to Charles to keep talking, and he leans over to me and says, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ He had no recollection." (Imus’s version of the story: "So we thought, we’ll let Breen do sports, what do we care?")

When the newbie WFAN took over WNBC’s frequency in 1988, most of the WNBC staff, Breen included, lost their jobs. But WFAN retained Imus in the Morning and Breen was eventually hired back on a more full-time basis. In his sports updates, the polite-voiced Breen routinely doctored sound bites — adding background noise of people booing hall of fame speeches, or throwing in names of retired players and pornographers, mostly to see if Imus would notice. "You really had to pay attention," said Eric Spitz, the WFAN assistant program director at the time. "It could go right over your head if you weren’t really concentrating on what he was saying." Breen’s segments were two parts SNL "Weekend Update" and one part Bob Saget. He had a running gag about a heckler, and one about Warner Wolf loving cocaine, and another involving the caller "Bill from White Plains." Nothing about any of it was remotely politically correct:

"Oh, he was absolutely hilarious," Sims said. "Just fall-down funny. That dry humor. If he had gone out and said, ‘Hey, I want to change careers and be a stand-up comic,’ it wouldn’t surprise me." But Breen’s chosen career was taking off: McCarthy, the executive at the MSG Network, had recommended that the Knicks hire him. Breen served as a game night studio host on the radio for a year, and became the Knicks radio play-by-play voice in 1992.

"When Earl the Pearl was traded to the Knicks, they said it would never work, that we’d need two basketballs," said Frazier, who for years covered games with Breen on the radio and is now his partner on TV. "But when Earl came to the Knicks we never had a problem about who had the ball. If he was having a good game, I gave him the ball, and vice versa. It’s the same with Mike. His first game he was a neophyte. He told me, ‘Hey, Clyde, just say whatever you want, man.’"

For nearly a decade, Breen got to the Imus studio around 5 a.m., often after he had called a game the night before. Sometimes, he’d have to go straight from WFAN to the airport for a road game later that evening. "I slept in shifts," Breen said. If he wasn’t funny, Imus would ridicule him on the air, banish him, and sometimes temporarily fire him.

Breen has always been a by-the-book broadcaster, making his Imus persona all the more striking. "Chet Simmons, who was a legendary broadcast executive, came to me one morning," McCarthy said. "He said, ‘Mike, do you want the voice of the Knicks doing penis jokes?’" McCarthy countered that it was all great cross-promotion. (This segment was certainly delightfully meta.) Occasionally, in conversations with various team brass, from Lou Lamoriello to the Wilpons, McCarthy found that "not everybody had a great reaction" to being lampooned in one of Breen’s whimsical, brutal bits. And yet, everyone always tuned in.

Breen kids around about Starks’s missed shot salvaging his young career, but he’s solemn about what elevated him from the radio to TV a few years later. When Clyde Frazier’s Knicks won the championship in 1970 and 1973, Marv Albert was the one on the radio call. His influence spanned generations. He made the simple and universal word "yes" strictly off-limits. His familiar intonations remain, for many people, the enduring voice of not just a sport but an entire chunk of their lives. (Anyone who played NBA Jam understands.) And Albert’s 1997 guilty plea to assault and battery had the side effect of giving Breen a sudden unplanned promotion.

Advancing at the expense of someone he’d modeled his career after was awkward for Breen, and made worse by the guys on Imus. "They were killing him," said Breen, "and I wouldn’t partake in it, and Imus fired me. And it was only after Joel Hollander, who was the general manager at the time, said, ‘What are you doing to this kid? It’s his idol! You can’t expect him to make fun of him!’ that I got rehired. It was such uncharted waters."

Albert sent Breen a note wishing him the best. He was reinstated as the Knicks TV voice in 2000 before being fired in 2004 for being too critical of the team. All this shuffling made for some interesting combinations. Breen worked at the Olympics for NBC, including a stint calling ski jumping. He covered arena football. During the last few years of NBA on NBC, Breen occasionally worked with Bill Walton, who had made headlines with his public 1999 feud Larry Johnson.

"I’ll fight anybody, to the death, who says anything bad about Bill Walton," Breen said at the mention of nis name. "And here’s the reason why. I’ve told this story maybe 20 times, and 18 of them I wind up crying."

John Breen had started exhibiting signs of Parkinson’s, and by 2008 had also started to withdraw, not wanting to ask for help or be seen as weak. "My brother called me and said, ‘Did you know that the USS Midway is stationed in San Diego?’" Breen said. Their dad had served on the Midway, but hadn’t seen it since his discharge in 1955. They decided to go see the vessel, which had been turned into a museum, while their father could still travel. Breen called Walton, who lives in San Diego, to get hotel recommendations.

"Bill says, ‘Oh that’s great, but you’re not staying at a hotel, you’re staying at my house,’" Breen said, making his voice sound oafy and generous, like a cartoon bear. "I said, ‘Bill, that’s so nice of you, but I think my dad would be a little embarrassed.’ To my surprise, my dad said, ‘That’s great!’"

The Breens planned to buy tickets, but Walton called ahead and informed the museum that he was bringing "one of the heros that served on your ship." The Midway’s commander greeted them personally. "Bill walked every step of the way of the tour," Breen said. "Those knees and back — a 7-footer does not belong on an aircraft carrier."

If this were a broadcast, this would be the point when Fried would slide over a stat note. "Mike Breen," it would say, "now 19-for-21."

They stayed for three days. "And for three days," Breen said, "he did not leave my father’s side. When we left, Bill was not my friend, Bill was his friend. And it really was like, three of the best days of his life in those last couple of years."

Breen’s mother, Mary, who still lives in that house in Yonkers ("She’s a stubborn Irish Catholic," Breen said) has a big photo from that trip that her late husband loved: him and Bill Walton, chilling in a teepee. "Oh, he has a teepee on his property," Breen said, his smile coming back.

During Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the broadcast team paused to mention the passing of Muhammad Ali. "He lived with dignity," Breen said, "with a disease that leaves you undignified."

Like all middle-aged Irish Catholic men worth their salt, Breen is a softie. You can see it when he talks about his three kids and his wife, who he met on a blind date in the Hamptons in 1986 after surrendering to a matchmaking coworker at WNBC who wanted to set him up with her cousin. Or when he gets on the topic of babies. He still hasn’t gotten over what happened at an airport last year when he was traveling with ESPN colleague Doris Burke.

"This woman had a baby that was the cutest little thing," he said, "and Doris went over and said, ‘Aww, can I see?’ And Doris is holding the baby, and I wanted to do the same thing, and I would have been looked on as some freak stalker. And it’s not right! I love babies just as much! My kids make fun of me so much. I’m baby crazy." (Kay, who has young children, said that when his son was an infant he refused to let anyone hold him except for Kay, his wife, and Breen.)

Breen gets just as sentimental over his industry colleagues. He can’t mention the name of anyone he’s interacted with over the years, whether a cameraman or some radio old-timer, without spending several minutes singing their praises, often with his hand on his heart. He’s enormously cognizant of the people who have come up before and alongside him, even as his career has elevated him to a rare place.

"Mark and I kid him, but it’s true: He’s going in the Hall of Fame," Van Gundy said, "and rightfully so. At the end of this remarkable run … he’ll be, for this generation, the voice of the NBA. It’s quite an accomplishment. You think of it getting passed from Marty Glickman, to Marv Albert, now to Mike."

A few years back, Breen had the idea of getting all the TV and radio announcers for the nine New York–area teams together in one steakhouse. The hard part was finding a date: There was basically only one night when everyone was free, and even that was courtesy of both the Mets and the Yankees missing the playoffs. "It was one of the most memorable nights I’ve had in recent years," said Kenny Albert. "Just some of the stories that went around." Considering the quality of the storytellers, one can only imagine. "Being a play-by-play guy for a New York team," Breen said, "is an experience that’s hard to share. It’s hard for me to relate to it with my brothers, but I can relate to it with Gary Cohen or Michael Kay."

Game 3 of the NBA Finals is scheduled for tonight, and whether the Warriors move one step closer to capping off their historic season or the Cavaliers find a way to get back in the series, it’ll all take place in Breen’s words. "I don’t want to go gaga over him, because he’s my best friend," said Kay, "but he’s picture perfect. Sometimes after the finals I’ll text him and just say, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ He’s there for the big moment, he never fumbles. I’ve never seen him miss a big moment."

Fortunately for Breen, you can’t say the same for John Starks.

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