John Tesh jolted awake at 2 a.m. humming a tune.
“Da-da-da-da-da da-da-da ...”
It was July 1989. The setting: a hotel room in the tiny Alpen village of Megève, France. Tesh was a cohost at Entertainment Tonight, but he’d taken a leave to cover the Tour de France. His role on the race was similar to his job in the early to mid-’80s at CBS Sports, where he worked as both a broadcaster and composer of themes for such events as the Super Bowl and the Pan American Games. Upon his arrival in France, Tesh learned NBC would begin airing NBA games in the 1990-91 season and needed a theme song for the broadcast. Even as he busied himself producing synthesizer accompaniment to footage of cycling’s Super Bowl, Tesh found himself consumed by thoughts of a basketball jingle.
Roused by the catchy melody running through his mind, the 6-foot-6 songsmith leapt out of his hotel bed. “It was one of those lightning-bolt moments,” says the 68-year-old, calling from the Los Angeles studio where he records Intelligence for Your Life, the nationally syndicated radio show he cohosts with his wife, actress Connie Sellecca. Tesh could hear the song in near-complete form, as if the composition were handed down by the jock-jam gods: the muscular interplay of piano, strings, brass, and guitar; the fast-break tempo; the distinct sections, with one throttled back to allow for a broadcaster’s voice-over.
Tesh had his NBA theme. What he didn’t have was a tape recorder. He feared that if he went back to sleep, the idea would evaporate by morning. Thinking quickly, he called his home in L.A., got the answering machine, and left a momentous message at the sound of the tone: Da-da-da-da-da da-da-da . . .
That song, “Roundball Rock,” would become the soundtrack to a golden age of the NBA. As NBC saturated its high-drama telecasts with the irresistibly pulse-pounding theme, Michael Jordan won six championships with the Bulls, the Dream Team dominated the globe in the 1992 Olympics, and the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers became just the fifth team in league history to three-peat. During NBA on NBC’s remarkable 12-year run, from November 1990 to June 2002, Tesh’s jingle aired an estimated 12,000 times, sufficiently lodging itself into the heads of even casual basketball viewers.
Now, nearly 30 years after the premiere of “Roundball Rock,” and days away from the NBA’s grand reopening in Orlando, NBC producers and broadcasters, the denizens of NBA Twitter, one of the few active NBA veterans old enough to remember the ’90s, and the modern-day Renaissance man affectionately known as “Teshie” look back on the haphazard creation and unlikely evolution of the GOAT sports theme.
Part 1: “Can We Get Some Tesh Music?”
John Tesh (“Roundball Rock” composer): What’s really funny is that when I wrote the NBA on NBC theme, I’d never been to an NBA basketball game. I probably could name only three or four NBA teams. I didn’t watch sports very much. I was a walk-on lacrosse and soccer athlete in college at North Carolina State University and I’ve finished five New York City marathons—but I was never one of those guys who sits in his basement memorizing baseball statistics. Back in 1981, when CBS Sports producer Terry O’Neil hired me, I told him, “You’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t know sports.”
Terry O’Neil (CBS Sports producer, 1981-86; NBC Sports executive producer, 1989-93): In ’81 I began building programming for CBS Sports. John was in his 20s and had been a news anchor at the local CBS New York station. I hired him to do features on the weekends for the anthology sports programs Sports Saturday and Sports Sunday that were our answer to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. We had no events and no budget and were in a complete mess.
Tesh: Back then, ABC had many of the premier sporting events. CBS, on the other hand, had fishing championships and strongman competitions. The network really wanted to change its image. So it started buying up events such as the men’s college basketball tournament. I spent a lot of time covering triathlons, speedskating, downhill skiing, figure skating, track and field, the Coors Classic bicycle race—and the Tour de France.
O’Neil: The Tour de France was first on my acquisition list. It had failed on a couple of other networks previously. I realized that the coverage had to be much more intimate and evocative than it ever had been on the other networks. We assigned John to it as a commentator. He insisted on bringing his synthesizer with him to France.
Tesh: I often worked the Tour de France with producer David Michaels, who is the younger brother of sportscaster Al Michaels. David knew that I had a music background, and he said, “Why don’t we cover this race as if we were making a feature film? You’ll write the music and do the announcing.” I’d get these notes from David like, “Hey, can you compose a piece for a bicycle crash, a piece for the cyclists speeding downhill, and a piece for a shot of a mountain?”
David Michaels (CBS Sports producer, 1981-90; NBC Sports producer 1990-present): John and I went together like peanut butter and jelly. We’d talk about the idea for a particular sequence and what the story line was. He’d have his synthesizer and he’d come up with some crazy idea for music and ask, “What about something like this?” And I’d go, “Wow!” Then I’d take that reference track and edit to it. It was amazing. In my entire career in television, I’ve never had a collaboration like that. Original instrumental music written on the spot? I’ve never heard of that happening anywhere in TV.
O’Neil: We would sit down to edit a piece of footage, let’s say a big cycling crash, and we would need a musical exclamation point. John would say, “I could bamp that right there.” And we’d say, “Bamp? What do you mean?” And he’d sit down with the keyboard and he’d go, “Bamp!”
Tesh: Producers started asking me, “Can you do a theme for tennis?” or “Can you do a theme for the Masters golf tournament?” This was the 1980s. So the music that I was writing for these broadcasts was that ’80s sound of slick synthesizers and driving drum machines. That music started catching on with producers. They would say, “Can we get some Tesh music here?” Basically what they were describing was big, bombastic, exciting music.
Michaels: John’s music always came from much more of a visceral than a cerebral place. He would show me something, and I would say, “How the hell did you come up with that?” He could just pull stuff out of the air.
O’Neil: Every time I needed a musical theme for anything, I would always call John. For the first Super Bowl I produced at CBS in 1982, Super Bowl XVI, John did the theme. We cut together highlights of all 15 Super Bowls that preceded it with Tesh music leading up to the kickoff. We broadcast the Pan American Games in 1983 for the first time. I called John and said, “We need a theme. And by the way, you’re going to be covering track and field, swimming, and hosting in the studio when Brent Musburger’s not around.” A couple of days later, a piano demo would appear on my desk.
Tesh: What helped me compose for sports wasn’t watching sports on TV. It was being on the scene as a sports reporter, being fully immersed. Standing in the middle of a downhill run in Wengen, Switzerland, as Bill Johnson skis 60 miles an hour on his way to winning the World Cup. Or riding on a motorcycle next to Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault as they’re battling in the last half mile of the Tour de France. That personal experience, that visceral feeling I got from being plugged into sports helped me write music that captured the intensity of competition.
Part 2: “Awakened by the Thought”
Tesh: By 1986, I had left sports and was working for Entertainment Tonight. But in July 1989, I took a couple of weeks of vacation from ET and did another stint as an announcer for the Tour de France. We were in a small hotel in Megève, France, a town of about 4,000 people. I had heard NBC was looking for a theme for their new NBA broadcast.
Jim Bell (NBC producer, 1990-2019): It was a time of big change at the network with Dick Ebersol taking over as president of NBC Sports in 1989 and the NBA moving over to NBC from CBS. Right around that time, CBS became the national network TV home of Major League Baseball, which had long been an NBC property. It was crazy. To have lost baseball, which was part of NBC Sports’ DNA, was kind of a psychological blow internally. But that wound would be healed and then some by the NBA on NBC. You had Jordan, you had Magic—all these amazing stars at or near their prime.
O’Neil: When NBC acquired the rights to the NBA, I called John immediately. I said to him, “We have a pregame show we’re launching called NBA Showtime. It’s going to be Bob Costas in the studio. And then we’re going to broadcast the games with Marv Albert and Mike Fratello in the booth. What can you do?” Typical Tesh, he said, “All right, just give me a few days, big guy.”
Tesh: The Tour de France was in its final stages, but all I could think about was the basketball theme: “What’s it going to sound like?” I’m a big believer that when I place a thought in my mind, whether I write it down in a journal or whatever, while I’m sleeping my subconscious mind works on it. And sure enough, that’s what happened.
Michaels: That’s how it always worked with John. He would commit his mind to doing crazy stuff musically, and a composition would just completely pop into his head.
Tesh: In the middle of the night, at 2 o’clock in the morning, I got a theme in my head. I was awakened by the thought. And I knew if I went back to sleep, it would be gone. My synthesizers were in the production truck. I didn’t have any manuscript paper. But even if I did, with a musical theme, when you write down the notes, you don’t always capture its essence. I didn’t have a tape recorder with me. And no cellphone. I had nothing—nothing! The only way to record the idea was to call my Radio Shack answering machine back in Los Angeles. It took me two messages to get the whole thing out.
Tesh on the answering machine message: Hi, this is a message for me about the NBA theme. Here’s an idea. It goes like this: “Da-da-da-da-da da-da-da . . .”
Tesh: Then I heard “beeep!” The machine cut me off. I called back and said, “Here’s the middle section.” Once I had those two sections, I knew from experience that the theme needed a section of just drums and bass guitar and strings so Marv Albert or Bob Costas could talk over it. So you put that 30 seconds in there and then come back and do the theme one more time and end with a big “BA-BA DA-DA-DA BAAA!’
When I woke up the next morning, true to form, I had forgotten what the theme was. A week later, when I got back to Los Angeles from France, I eagerly checked the messages on my answering machine. Though the recording was muffled, the theme song was there. I unplugged the machine from the phone, put it on top of the piano in my apartment, and figured out what I had sung. The song that made it to television is identical to what I sang into the machine. Even the key is the same—A minor.
Part 3: “We Couldn’t Miss”
Tesh: Back in the ’80s, composers would often send in a piano memo as their demo submission. They would sit at an upright piano and say, “OK, the strings will be doing this here ... ” I wasn’t about to do that. I thought no matter how great the NBC executives are at imagining things, it would be so much more effective if they could hear the complete theme with all its different movements. In my recording studio in Los Angeles, I played the string parts and the brass parts on synthesizers, using a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 and a Roland [MKS-80] Super Jupiter. I used a Synclavier sampling synthesizer to layer the theme with various instruments—trumpets, low brass, violins, cellos, violas, and so forth.
O’Neil: I dealt with a lot of songwriters and composers. I dealt with John Williams, who composed Olympics music for NBC. I dealt with Marc Cohn, whose famous hit is “Walking in Memphis,” who did a song for the Olympics. I dealt with Dan Fogelberg, who wrote “Run for the Roses” for the Kentucky Derby. More than any of them, Tesh was so production conscious and so committed. He thought like a producer. His music was always written with a keen sense of video cutting. I could hear the video cuts occurring in his music.
Tesh: When I turned in the demo to NBC, I turned it in on a VHS tape. I got a buddy of mine from CBS to send me tape of the 1988 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Pistons, and I went to an editing house in Los Angeles. A video editor there was helping me put together the tape of the song married to NBA footage, mostly fast breaks. But something just wasn’t quite right. The editor realized what it was—the song was slightly slower than the pace of the game. So I went back and increased the song tempo to 132 beats a minute—what I had determined to be the average dribble rate of a fast break in basketball—which is a little faster than a Donna Summer disco song. Once the song was synced to the game footage, it was as if the theme had been there all along. When Dick Ebersol and [NBA on NBC producer] Tommy Roy received my tape, they didn’t have to imagine how the theme would play on air. They could actually see it.
Before I turned in the tape, I slapped a title on. I had heard an announcer, I believe it was Dick Stockton, say something during a game like, “This is great roundball!” I said, “Oh, that’s it—‘Roundball Rock.’” In my mind, the title was nothing more than a placeholder, something to differentiate it from all the other basketball themes that had come before.
Tommy Roy (NBA on NBC producer, 1990-94): Tesh had sent his tape to Terry O’Neil, who gave it to me to include in the batch of candidates. Initially there were about half a dozen. I narrowed it down to two. One was a traditional, big-sounding sports theme. The other was “Roundball Rock.” In a meeting with Terry, we were going back and forth about which one to go with. We would play one and then play the other. Both were quite good. “Roundball Rock” wasn’t like the traditional sports theme of the time. It was different in a good way. It has a very memorable melody. You hear it one time and you can hum it. And when you’re looking for a piece of music to brand your product, you want something that’s very memorable. In terms of branding, it was about as good as you could ask for in this business.
O’Neil: You know what it reminded me of? Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra. I listened to ELO a lot in those days, and we often used their music in sports television. The way Tesh married pop and rock, keyboard with guitar and strings, I saw a lot of Jeff Lynne in John’s work.
Tesh: Within a couple of days after I dropped off the song, I got the call from Dick Ebersol. It sounded like he had me on speakerphone in a big conference room full of executives. He said, “John, we love the theme. Congratulations. This is great work.” The one note he had was that he’d like the theme orchestrated. So I had an orchestrator write out all the parts for the strings and the brass and the woodwinds, and I hired a contractor to assemble an orchestra, like 18 to 20 pieces. Then we went to Capitol Records, into a studio where Frank Sinatra and many others recorded, to finish the song. It cost me about $15,000 to record “Roundball Rock.” I was impetuous. I wanted to do it myself. It seemed like a good investment, since I stood to collect royalties every time the theme was played. And I had a history of putting money I earned as a broadcaster into musical opportunities. Three years later, my wife and I would take a second mortgage on our house and put up $1.2 million to do Live at Red Rocks when nobody else would fund it.
I was very hands-on during the recording. I approved which microphones were used, how close the mics were to the cellos—all of that stuff. I had a good sense for what the guys at NBC wanted. I was worried that if I walked away and let the orchestra play the theme however they wanted to play it, it might be too wimpy, too soft. A theme needs to pop out and grab you in the first 12 seconds. And that 12 seconds needs to stick in your mind. This one also needed to say, “It’s time for basketball!” That’s what I was looking for emotionally.
Things got very technical in the studio. I was listening to the song on five different sets of speakers. I went into a room and played it through a television speaker. We used compression techniques to make it loud for TV. I grabbed a microphone and did a fake 30-second announcement: “Brought to you by …. ” I wasn’t thinking, “Wow, I’ve got a hit!” I was thinking, “How is NBC going to be able to use this?”
O’Neil: Tesh gave us the main theme and we loved it. Then I said to him, “John, can we have a three-second version, a five-second version, a seven-second version, and a 10-second version?” He gave us a whole musical menu. A version for coming out of a thoughtful interview, a version for rolling out to a commercial with a replay of Jordan dunking. He also gave us just the music bed, without the big orchestrated top layer, so that Bob or Marv wouldn’t have to compete with music when narrating a highlight package or reading a sponsorship ID.
Tesh: I did about 10 different versions. One for going to commercial, one for coming out of commercial, one that was just a quick “BA-BA DA-DA-DA-DA!”
O’Neil: Once we had the theme, we paired it with a video concept. That first year for the pregame show introduction, we individually shot Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan, and had them pass a basketball in and out of frame as if they were passing to each other. For instance, Bird flips the ball out of frame and Jordan reaches to that same side of the frame and catches the pass. Once we had John’s music and we had the video sequence with Magic, Bird, and Jordan, it felt at that point like the NBA on NBC couldn’t miss. We truly couldn’t miss.
Part 4: The “Opening Hymn”
Tesh, in his recently published memoir, Relentless: It’s November 3, 1990. I’m sitting in an airport sports bar in Atlanta, bound for a destination I cannot recall. The bar is jammed. There are no fewer than 10 large-screen TVs set to full volume as NBC Sports debuts their coverage of their new sports television franchise. From the TV, deep-voiced guy: “Stand by for the debut of NBA on NBC! The Los Angeles Lakers versus the San Antonio Spurs is next.” At the top of the 3 o’clock hour, all of the big screens in the bar dip to black. The NBC Sports logo bursts with shimmering brilliance onto the screens. The bar fills with a trumpet fanfare and a thunderous timpani roll as my answering machine message, now an orchestral piece, fills the room. … I’m pinching myself, but this is real. And it’s absolutely the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.
O’Neil: When I got to NBC in ’89, Bob Costas and Marv Albert were already there. We recruited Pat Riley during his gap year between coaching the Lakers and Knicks. He joined Costas in the studio. And we recruited Mike Fratello to do color commentary. It was a group that fell together easily. And the soundtrack of the whole thing was “Roundball Rock.”
Marv Albert (NBA on NBC play-by-play broadcaster 1990-97, 2000-02; NBA on TNT, 1999-present): The song just appeared one day. And then it was everywhere. NBC used it during breaks, during promotional announcements—and it really caught on.
O’Neil: We didn’t use it just as a theme to open the pregame show or as a theme just to open the game broadcast. We used it as bumper music in and out of commercials throughout the entire game. From the minute you tuned in and throughout the three or so hours that followed, this was the soundtrack of NBA basketball. It gave great continuity to the presentation.
Roy: “Roundball Rock” got on the air a lot. When you have a great piece of music, you want to use it as much as you can in the broadcast to continue the branding. The broadcasters heard it all the time over their headsets.
Hannah Storm (NBA on NBC host, 1992-2002): Whenever I’d hear it, my endorphins would start flowing. I had an almost visceral reaction to it, because it was “Lights, camera, action—roll ‘Roundball Rock’!” It had that quality of: “Buckle up! We’re going to have some fun.”
Albert: It would psych me up for the broadcast. Before that, one of the only songs that would stir me in terms of sports music was “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project. Calling games at Chicago Stadium and the United Center, the song would start, Ray Clay would be at the PA, and the Chicago Bulls would come out. I’d get chills. I started getting the same feeling when I’d hear “Roundball Rock.”
Jim Gray (NBA on NBC sideline reporter, 1995-2002): When we’d rehearse, it hyped me up. I had the same feeling when I was growing up watching The NFL Today. I’d hear that theme and see Brent Musburger come on the screen, and I’d get goosebumps. So when I’d hear “Roundball Rock” in my ear, I would think, “Wow, everybody at home now is getting excited. Here comes the NBA on NBC!”
Albert: A nationally televised NBA game was much more of a big deal back then.
Gray: When the NBA on NBC came on, that was the game of the week. Everybody who was a basketball fan was watching that one game. So “Roundball Rock” became this shared experience.
Storm: The song became evocative not just of the NBC pregame show or the Prudential Halftime Report but epic battles and sports entertainment of the highest form: Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley. It became part of the shared fabric of basketball.
Tyson Chandler (19-year NBA veteran): When I hear that song, the first thing I think of is happy moments, waking up in the morning in the ’90s, watching NBA basketball, trying to be Barkley or Pippen or Reggie Miller in my backyard. The NBA on NBC is what made me become a fan of basketball, a fan of so many different players, because you were able to watch different teams, no matter what region you were in. And when you heard that song, you just knew what time it was. It was like hearing my man [Michael Buffer] say, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before a boxing match. When you heard “Roundball Rock,” it was like, “All right, it’s game time.”
Rob Perez (NBA Twitter personality, Action Network senior NBA producer): If the NBA was a religion, “Roundball Rock” would be the congregation’s opening hymn. For those who follow the NBA, that song has been the “Hallelujah” chorus.
Bell: “Roundball Rock” was on during NBC’s “Must-See TV” era, alongside the opening themes to Seinfeld and ER and Friends. It was a special time for the network.
Gray: All the pieces came together. Marv Albert, one of the great basketball voices of all time. Bob Costas, the most brilliant broadcaster of our time. Hannah Storm did a terrific job. Ahmad Rashad got tremendous access to a lot of players, specifically Michael Jordan, which really helped the broadcast. Doug Collins was sensational. And Steve “Snapper” Jones and Bill Walton were incredible.
Albert: I met John Tesh at the Olympics in ’92. I was calling basketball and boxing for NBC. John was part of the gymnastics crew. The basketball people and the gymnastics people, we shared a greenroom area, where everyone would eat together and stuff like that. And people would sort of kid John about the song: “Hey, we love that sound!” He got a kick out of it.
Perez: If you’re a basketball fan of a certain age, you will always remember the first time that that song hooked you. And for me it was the 1992 Knicks-Bulls playoff series. I was 5 and a half years old. NBC would always do these superdramatic montage intros before each game, with either Marv Albert or Bob Costas doing the voice-over. It was the sports equivalent of an Academy Award–winning film that was 90 seconds long, with dramatic music in the background. And then Marv Albert would say, like, “Game 7 is next.” Then you’d hear a fanfare and see lasers trace the graphic of the NBC logo. And then: the beat drop of “Roundball Rock.” I can remember thinking, “All right! Now I’m gassed up! Let’s play! Let’s get this on!” I was ready to run through a freakin’ wall!
Sean Keane (comedian, Roundball Rock podcast cohost): What kills me most about “Roundball Rock” is its little fanfare introduction. It’s like NBC is announcing a medieval charge. You half expect to see a bunch of guys come out with lances.
Joey Devine (comedian, Roundball Rock podcast cohost): It’s like if [Italian disco producer] Giorgio Moroder wrote the intro song for the Black Knight at Medieval Times.
Gray: When NBC did those pregame teases or went away to commercial with a replay of a sweating Patrick Ewing blocking a shot, “Roundball Rock” just amplified the moment. It’s like when you hear the Olympics theme “Bugler’s Dream” and you see Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton or Mark Spitz on the victory platform—the song symbolized excellence, that these were people of the highest athletic achievement. And that’s what “Roundball Rock” did for NBA basketball. It made the Hall of Fame players who were out there putting on a tremendous performance seem even greater. When you heard it, you knew you were about to watch Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley or Clyde Drexler or Kobe Bryant.
Albert: As a kid I played the piano for about 10 years. I could give you the opening bars of “Malaguena” or “Autumn Leaves.” So I’m no music expert. But you know what is so good about “Roundball Rock”? It’s like a crescendo. It was the perfect sound as the NBA was reaching a new high. The song somehow became even more perfect when you considered that you were about to see a big game, often a big Jordan game.
Michaels: I had to listen to it 458,000 times, but still—that theme was just perfect for the sport, especially at that time. The NBA was really taking off.
Tesh: The song played something like 12,000 times on NBC from 1990 until the NBA on NBC ended its run 2002. I often joke that it put two of my kids through college.
Part 5: “A Life of Its Own”
Tesh: When ABC was taking over the NBA contract from NBC [in 2002], I offered them “Roundball Rock.” There were emails going back and forth. I said, “Hey, listen, I have connections to some pretty high-level musicians, because I worked at Entertainment Tonight for years. I could probably get Billy Joel, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Sting to play on this thing. And it would be great to launch your first NBA season.” ABC said, “No thank you.” They made it really clear that they were not interested because their tone was like “Stop bothering us!” I actually understood their thinking. NBC had really established a brand with their basketball coverage, and ABC didn’t want people to think they were watching NBC. So “Roundball Rock” disappeared for a time from network air. But once YouTube and social media came around, the song started to take on a life of its own. There’s a video of someone playing it on ukulele. Somebody played it on melodica through his nose on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Perez: I’ve seen all that stuff. Any content on social media involving the NBA on NBC theme, I have bookmarked it, favorited it, and retweeted it. “Roundball Rock” has been my personal cellphone ring since ninth grade.
Tesh: I got word in 2004 that Nelly wanted to sample “Roundball Rock.” I didn’t know who Nelly was. I thought it was Nelly Furtado! Of course, I had to approve the use of the sample. One of the things I said was that I didn’t want “Roundball Rock” to be a part of anything that has cursing all over it. And Nelly’s manager was like, “Oh, that’s fine. It’s for a song called ‘Heart of a Champion,’ a tribute to athletes.” I had in the contract that Nelly had to send me a copy of the song for approval. Sure enough, I got the CD in the mail, stuck it in my car stereo, and there were F-bombs all over it. I said, “No, no, no, no, no. Sorry, you’re going to have to take the F-bombs out.” And he did.
Perez: “Roundball Rock” has survived every cultural and technological evolution since 1990. As far as what makes the song so memeable, you can probably trace it all back to the video of Tesh playing the song in Catalina.
Michaels: I produced and directed John’s 1997 Avalon concert on Catalina Island. As we were scripting the show, John told me that he wanted to share the story of writing “Roundball Rock.” He wanted to play the answering machine message with the machine sitting right there on the piano. I was like, “Cool, sounds like fun. Something a little bit different.” He has always been a great storyteller—and it’s so John to include a prop like the answering machine.
Bill Simmons, from a 2009 ESPN column: See that YouTube clip embedded at right? … It’s John Tesh performing on Catalina Island in 1997, only he’s dressed like a waiter on a cruise ship and looks like a mutant James Van Der Beek. The clip starts with Tesh pontificating to the crowd, then playing a message that he left for himself with ... (wait for it) ... the original beats for the NBA on NBC music. I think he means to be ironic, but there’s something nonironic about his quest to be ironic. Again, he’s dressed like a waiter on a cruise ship. And I thought the clip ended there, but no! At the 1:15 mark, Tesh starts emphatically dribbling an invisible basketball as the crowd applauds in rhythm—you heard me, air dribbling—then prances over to his real piano and bangs out the NBA song with a 25-person orchestra.
Devine: I often wonder about that video where Tesh is playing “Roundball Rock” on Catalina Island: Does he know holding the microphone to the answering machine is funny, or is he thinking, “This is my great moment”?
Keane: Tesh is perfectly in on the ridiculousness of the “Roundball Rock” spectacle, but he’s not winking. Here’s this giant man who unapologetically loves weird, overblown electric keyboard music. He’s best friends with Yanni. So all of that is funny. But also: The crowd goes crazy.
John Smith (top YouTube commenter on the “Roundball Rock” video): This should be Jesus’s theme song when he comes back.
Perez: That video is the epitome of the 1990s. And when you attach the nostalgia for ’90s basketball, it’s a perfect storm of content. The video was shared by so many people that it became a part of the culture. And then SNL did the “Roundball Rock” sketch.
Tesh: In 2013, one of my friends at NBC says to me, “Hey, watch Saturday Night Live tonight. You’re on. They make fun of you and your NBA theme.” So I watched it. Jason Sudeikis totally nails the impression of me, nails my voice—everything. And the outfit that he and my fictional brother Dave Tesh [played by Tim Robinson] have on is an exact replica of my outfit from the Catalina Island concert.
Tim Robinson (“Roundball Rock” sketch costar and cowriter): John Tesh’s brother was a back-in-Chicago-days bit before SNL, around the time everyone was watching and sharing the clip of Tesh playing his answering machine recording of him doing the sounds of “Roundball Rock” with his mouth live on stage. We tried it a bunch of times before it actually made it to air. It was a waste of a lot of breakaway glass smashed with tiny hammers.
Devine: The SNL sketch doesn’t make fun of John Tesh. They’re using Tesh to make fun of uncontrollable rage and songs that shouldn’t have lyrics having lyrics.
Tesh: Vince Vaughn, who plays an NBC executive in the sketch, refers to me as “Tess.” He has no idea who I am! He’s just reading off the cue card: “You guys know Tess.” It’s so funny. My friend was texting me saying, “Are you mad? Are you gonna call SNL?” I said, “Are you kidding me? What are you—stupid? This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me!” I play the video of that sketch for the audience at every concert.
Devine: One great thing about John Tesh is that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s OK being the butt of a joke but he’s also kind of not funny when he’s trying to make a joke, which is somehow funnier. I was watching this great interview with Tesh on Late Night With Conan O’Brien where Tesh is trying to be funny, and Conan just keeps turning the tables on him. Conan keeps talking about how tall Tesh is and he keeps calling him a freak. But Tesh loves it, loves how mean Conan is being to him. In another appearance on Conan that aired around Thanksgiving, Tesh plays “Roundball Rock” on a keytar while standing in a pen of turkeys.
Tesh: In 2018, Fox Sports came to me and said, “We’d like to license ‘Roundball Rock’ for our college basketball coverage.” I said, “Sure, that sounds good.” So Fox started playing it, and Twitter blew up with people who were glad to hear it again. But 10 or 15 percent were angry at me and angry at Fox, like, “This is the NBA basketball theme! Why are you using it for college basketball?” It seemed sacrilegious to these people to see it on a different broadcast. I was basically like, “Hey, I’ve got grandchildren to spoil. Leave me alone.” [Laughs.]
Storm: “Roundball Rock” defines an era—one of the greatest eras in any sport ever. That’s why it’s so hard for me to hear the song now on Fox. It seems so out of place. I love it—and yet … something is wrong because it belongs to another time.
Albert: When I called games during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, NBC used “Roundball Rock,” but sparingly—open with it, go to break with a couple bars of it. I did the games with Doug Collins, and we got a kick out of hearing it again. It does seem wrong playing it with another broadcast. To me that song is the NBA on NBC. Even with the Olympics on NBC, as much as I love the sound, it’s gimmicky to use it there. It seemed like it only belonged with the NBA on NBC.
Chandler: That song evokes an amazing, great feeling, but I’m not so mad that the NBA broadcast doesn’t still use it, because everything evolves. Like any classic song, it never goes away and never gets old. I can go back to it, and it still brings back a memory and a feeling. It’s timeless.
Perez: All the internet parodies and memes and videos have given “Roundball Rock” the longest shelf life of any sports television theme song. They’re a testament to the longevity of the song and the impact that it has had on culture. It still matters to people after three decades.
Mark Hinog (SB Nation social media producer, 2015-18; Dime Magazine, 2018-20): In 2018, I was recently laid off from SB Nation. Basketball season was about to start and I was bored. The Kawhi Leonard laugh was blowing up [on social media]. Something in me was like, “Do something with the Kawhi laugh.” In the past, I had mashed up Kanye West’s a cappella rap “I Love Kanye” with “Roundball Rock.” This time I set the Kawhi laugh to “Roundball Rock.” I posted it to Twitter with the message “HAPPY NBA DAY.” I didn’t think it was going to blow up, but the nostalgia factor of “Roundball Rock” is powerful. And the video actually got me a job with the social media team at Uproxx’s Dime.
Samuel Grubbs (TikTok star): With sports on hold during quarantine, I had seen a couple videos of people bouncing a ping pong ball off of pots into a cup. That was cool and all, but I wanted to appeal to the huge audience that was like, “I miss the NBA!” I immediately thought, “Could I time a trick shot to ‘Roundball Rock’?” From start to finish, it took me four days to film. I made 1,569 attempts. Using that song made the video resonate with people on a deeper emotional level. Those opening beats are just iconic. A couple of seconds of it and—boom!—you’re thinking basketball. John Tesh saw the video and reached out to me. When I saw his email, I was like, “No way!” He was super encouraging. He said, “I absolutely love what you did.”
Tesh: When I play “Roundball Rock” live these days, it’s about a 12-minute segment. I play clips of YouTube users interpreting the song on various instruments. I play the video of the SNL sketch. I say to the audience, “I have a basketball signed by the Los Angeles Lakers. Is there anybody who wants it?” The hands go up, and I pick a kid to come up. I say, “Here’s your basketball. Congratulations!” The audience applauds. And I say, “Well, it’s not signed by the Lakers. We don’t know anybody there. But the band signed it!” And they’re like, “Awww, maaan.” So I ask the kid, “What are you doing at a John Tesh concert?” Every single time I either get, “I have no idea,” or “My parents dragged me here.” It’s the funniest thing. Then I tell them that we can’t legally start the song without dribbling the basketball.
My live audience is mostly women. And there’s always a guy in the third row I can tell brought his wife because he wanted to get some relationship currency. He’s sitting there with his arms folded as I’m playing love songs. When I start telling the story about this sports theme I wrote that’s my most recognizable composition, I can see this guy trying to figure out what’s coming. And then I launch into “Roundball Rock,” and it’s funny to watch the revelation come over this guy. Suddenly he’s on the edge of his seat, saying to his wife, “Listen to this, honey! This is my theme! Hey, I think I like this guy, Tesh.”
Perez: Once in a blue moon, you meet a couple in their 70s who were high school sweethearts but they love each other more now than the day they met. That’s the only way I know how to describe the relationship between the NBA and “Roundball Rock.” The NBA got married to “Roundball Rock” in 1990 and they’ve loved each other for 30 years.
Tesh: About 10 years ago, my stepson Gib says to me, “You and I have plans tonight.” So we get in the car and I see we’re getting close to the Staples Center. I say, “Wait a minute. What’s going on?” Gib says, “We’re going to fix something.” I say, “What’s that?” He goes, “You’ve written what’s been called the greatest basketball theme of all time, and I know for a fact that you’ve never been to a professional basketball game.” He had bought these great seats five rows from the floor. So we have our beers and popcorn, and Gib has a Lakers jersey on. I turned to him and said, “Wow, these guys are huge!” He just looked at me and goes, “You’re an idiot.” [Laughs.]
Jake Malooley is a writer and editor based in Nashville.