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Bang and LOL: The Present and Future of Broadcasting at the NBA Finals

Mike Breen is bringing his all-caps cool to Warriors-Raptors, while ESPN is experimenting with a telecast that feels a lot like living-room banter

NBA: Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

You can tell a lot about a play-by-play announcer by the way they deal with excitement. Tonight, Mike Breen watched Pascal Siakam dribble between his legs and blow by Jonas Jerebko. Breen’s voice rose. “Siakam FINDS SOME ROOM AND BANKS IT HOME,” he said.

A moment later, Breen twisted his inner volume control to the right. The next words out of Breen’s mouth—“Pascal Siakam with a dozen”—sounded like he was giving out his credit card number over the phone. Some other announcers would’ve stretched the big moment. For Breen, it seems like getting us excited is less interesting than bringing us gently back to earth.

Breen, who is calling his 14th NBA Finals, is sometimes an easier announcer to admire than he is to love. The way to love him, I think, is to love the way he controls a game. Marv Albert suppressed his inner mad man by learning to speak in italics. Breen has a different trick: He makes his voice bigger without getting much louder. “Curry, corner three—IT’S GOOD. … Leonard for three—KNOCKS IT DOWN. … Green for three—BANG.” Breen talks in all-caps without resorting to exclamation points.

A key to Breen’s sense of control is that you don’t feel that many details will slip by him. In a postgame interview after Game 1, Siakam mentioned his father, Tchamo, to Doris Burke. It was Breen who quickly reminded the audience that Tchamo Siakam had died, and that the line, uttered after the game of his son’s life, had more resonance than the usual shout-out.

Breen has a command of facts and numbers, and an even better way of easing in one or two just as a game is drifting into commercial. “Seven lead changes,” he said at the end of one quarter. “Toronto by four.”

Breen’s sound is tuned to the energy of the modern NBA, but his language can be strangely, charmingly old-fashioned. Fred VanVleet, he said at one point, “puts a little English on it.” Steph Curry “glides inside.” Tonight, after halftime, Breen reintroduced his ESPN crew by saying, “Mike Breen on hand …” “On hand” feels like a salutation from another generation of network blazer.

Announcers exert control in different ways. Jim Nantz’s style is almost ecclesiastical. Breen is more charming. He’s a chronic chuckler. Nobody has laughed at Jeff Van Gundy’s and Mark Jackson’s jokes more often, including their families. Tonight, Breen laughed when Van Gundy said he would take advantage of a Taco Bell promotion.

For years, my image of Breen–Van Gundy–Jackson was a lot of playful bickering. Now, they’re as chummy as Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Though it’s Jackson who gets mentioned for NBA coaching jobs, during ESPN’s pre-Finals conference call, he gave a hearty endorsement of Van Gundy. On the same call, both Van Gundy and Jackson demanded that Breen get the Curt Gowdy Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame. Calling 14 straight Finals seems like enough of a reward for now.

Game 2 of the Finals was an interesting test of the Breen method. Both teams went three-plus minutes of the fourth quarter without scoring. Other announcers would have compensated by turning up their volume or opining about bad shooting from courtside. Breen stayed right where he always stays until Andre Iguodala hit the game-sealing 3. (“IT’S GOOD.”) It’s not Breen’s fault, but the broadcast felt incredibly flat.

Wednesday night, Breen had the opposite challenge—a 14-point Raptors win had a ton of highlights. In one sequence in the fourth quarter, Breen called coast-to-coast blocks. “VanVleet to Ibaka,” he said. “BLOCKED BY BELL.”

And on the other end: “Here’s Cook ahead of the pack. One man to beat. Gets inside. BLOCKED BY DANNY GREEN. SENSATIONAL RECOVERY.”

Seconds later, Breen was back to earth. “Danny Green feeling it. Kicks out to Ibaka …” That’s Mike Breen really letting himself go.

If you thought Game 2 was dull, imagine watching it as a 12-year-old. ESPN thinks about 12-year-olds all the time. They’re the hypothetical customers of the network’s post-cable future. For Game 2, ESPN put on an alternative telecast that the network hoped would serve as a welcome mat.

Full Court Press, which was available on the ESPN+ app, was an alterna-cast like Turner’s Players Only and ESPN’s Coaches Film Room. The hosts were Katie Nolan, Jay Williams, Snapchat SportsCenter host Gary Striewski, and YouTube videomaker Mike Korzemba. The foursome’s heads were shown below the action at the bottom of the screen. It was like Mystery Science Theater except their faces turned toward us, so we could watch them watch the game.

ESPN’s way of appealing to teens was to make the Finals look more like a video game. Graphics popped up on the court: a wagging finger after a block, waving foam fingers after a made basket. There was a mostly naked, flossing emoji named “Undie Van Gundy.”

All that’s fine. But the cool thing about alternative telecasts is they allow us to question whether the “real” telecast is tricked out enough. Using Second Spectrum technology, Full Court Press could anticipate players’ passes with white dotted lines. When Boogie Cousins guarded Kyle Lowry on the perimeter, the word MISMATCH hovered above them. When Iguodala hoisted his big 3-pointer, the number 36 appeared just as he released the ball—Iguodala’s shooting percentage from the spot. These felt less like gestures to teens than the data generation of NBA fans.

Forget the hypothetical teens, anyway. The commentary was understandable to any old who ever watched a game with a couple of semi-strangers. Nolan and Striewski were the hosts who try to make everyone feel comfortable. Williams was the guy who knows about basketball. Korzemba was the friend of a friend you’ve heard is funny but seems kind of shy for a few quarters.

In “real life,” I think I’ve inhabited each one of these roles. I felt like I could anticipate the conversational tics like Second Spectrum was anticipating the passes. Someone was going to ask, “What do you think Drake is going to wear tonight?” Someone was going to compare Kawhi Leonard to Jon Snow. Someone would ask, “Have you ever tried poutine?”

As Nolan told Variety, she wasn’t worried about being letter-perfect like the TV guys have to be. During the broadcast, she remembered that Iguodala got hurt in Game 1, but said she hadn’t checked the injury update to see how he was feeling. Williams spotted Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia waving a towel under the hoop. Williams knew he was a car dealer but couldn’t remember his name. It was all extremely naturalistic. In the context of the couch, it felt … real.

In the age of Players Only and Le Batard & Friends, it has become one of the great clichés of sports media to say, “I just want to have a good conversation.” The Full Court Press crew seemed to understand that good TV chat isn’t a conversation—not exactly. It’s a collection of solo acts where everyone tries to get jokes in (Striewski: “I’m well-rested in case Jeremy Lin needs a doppelgänger”); where the mood is determinedly light; where the participants are reluctant to be nerdy unless nerdery is specifically asked for. In the second quarter, Nolan told Williams, “Say something smart about the game, Jay.”

It was a great contrast to Mike Breen. There are people you admire because they’re perfect and people you love because they’re you.