Inside ESPN's decision to leave Mark Jackson on call for Warriors series
There are some delicious narratives for the upcoming Western Conference finals between the Rockets and Warriors, including Houston guard James Harden dropping a four-word salvo (“They ain’t that good”) in January that NBA media will no doubt be revisiting once again this week.
You want another storyline? Well, here’s one that will that get plenty of airtime ... as in actual airtime. One of the ESPN/ABC analysts for this series is Mark Jackson, who was fired as the Warriors coach last June after putting up a 121-109 record (.526) and two postseason appearances in three seasons as Golden State coach.
Jackson’s appearance in the booth raises an interesting question, one that was brought up Monday by my estimable colleague Chris Ballard, who asked why ESPN would place Jackson on the call of the series. Ballard suggested it was an unnecessary distraction.
Fair question, and one worth asking ESPN. So I emailed ESPN senior vice president and executive producer Mark Gross, the network’s point person for its NBA coverage.
“We never considered removing Mark from calling this series,” said Gross by email on Monday. “We have no problem with a former coach calling a series or game. As a company, we’ve had Jon Gruden calling Raiders and Bucs games, in addition to calling a Redskins game (Gruden’s brother Jay is the head coach of Washington). We also had Terry Francona calling a Red Sox game. In Mark’s case (just like the other guys mentioned above), he’s a total pro and will certainly be objective in his opinions and insight and not make it personal during the broadcast. We have all the faith in the world Mike [Breen], Jeff [Van Gundy], and Mark will be calling their usual great game.”
As I told Ballard, not only do most sports networks have zero issues here, they would most likely embrace the connection to get some additional publicity. On face, I can understand that thinking if I’m a network executive. The larger question, and one you should ask yourself as a viewer, is whether Jackson can be fair in his assessment of the series, as well as honest with viewers given his previous financial ties and how his relationship with the Warriors ended.
“There was a conversation with Mark prior to the season as we were putting the talent assignments together to make sure he was comfortable doing Warriors games,” Gross said. “Mark had no apprehension about doing Warriors games all season. We were comfortable with Mark calling Warriors games from the moment the schedule was set. I think it was evident fans have great respect for the job Mark did with Golden State by the great reception Mark got in the arena before working his first Warriors game. We have absolutely no concerns with Mark working this series and has already worked some Warriors games during the regular season.”
If the Warriors advance past the Rockets, Gross said it will be the core of Breen, Jackson, Van Gundy and reporter Doris Burke again. I’ll be curious what people think of Jackson’s call, and feel free to pass along your thoughts to me on Twitter.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the biggest sports media stories of the week
1. The NBA draft lottery is compelling television, at least for fans of teams that have a pick in the lottery, and this year’s telecast airs Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET prior to ESPN’s coverage of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The network’s production staff has worked on the show for about a month—the setting moved from Times Square to a ballroom at the New York Hilton Midtown—and the new setting additional work for ESPN including where to place its set, how many additional cameras to bring in, and the best logistics to interview potential draftees and NBA executives. “One of biggest challenges is you are rehearsing for something that is kept top secret. We don’t know the teams when they are coming out of the envelope,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Jay Levy, who is ESPN’s point person on the coverage. “So it’s not like you can have full preparation on our end. A lot of what we learn, we learn when the viewers learn it and we are reacting to it.”’
ESPN has access to the dozen or so projected lottery picks who will be on-site and some of ESPN’s work on lottery night is in fact for future SportsCenter segments and the actual NBA draft telecast. ESPN historically shoots its teases and bumps and openers for the NBA draft telecast at the NBA scouting combine but with so many top players opting not to participate, Levy said ESPN will get access to eight players on Tuesday and Wednesday at John Jay College. Levy said draft lottery viewers should expect interviews with Russell Westbrook, who is on hand for the Thunder; Larry Bird, who will represent the Pacers and possibly Alonzo Mourning, who is there on behalf of the Heat.
Mark Jones will serve as the host of the draft lottery, Jay Bilas will work as an analyst and Heather Cox will be the lead interviewer. Brian Boyle is the lead producer and Mike Schwab is the director. Levy said Cox will interview projected Top-3 picks Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns and ESPN will also have a feature on Emmanuel Mudiay, who played in China this year.
2. No one was rooting harder for American Pharoah to win the Preakness Stakes than NBC executives. One year ago, after California Chrome won the first two Triple Crown races, NBC drew 20.6 million viewers for the Belmont Stakes, the second-highest Belmont Stakes viewership on record, trailing only the 21.9 million viewers for NBC’s 2004 broadcast featuring Smarty Jones. Networks sell off the previous year’s viewership so NBC no doubt drew better ad rates for this year’s campaign. How would a potential Triple Crown horse impact NBC’s horse racing coverage. Well, keep in mind that NBC owns the rights to the Breeders Cup and the Travers Stakes. A win by American Pharoah would set up the rest of the year and possibly the following year with an added interest in horse racing. “This is not genius thinking but I believe that a TC would be great for the sport,” said NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus. “I think it would spur more interest in the events that are not the Kentucky Derby.”
3. The final weekend of the Premier League always present the host broadcaster with significant opportunity given relegation drama. Thus, NBC Sports will once again telecast 10 matches on 10 different NBCUniversal networks next Sunday including NBC picking up Hull-Man United (10 a.m. ET), which features Hull in relegation danger, two points behind Newcastle United. Arlo White, Lee Dixon & Graeme Le Saux will be on the call. The network will keep the viewers up to date on the relegation situation with in-game updates, including replays of significant events that have an impact on the relegation picture. Studio coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET with an hour-long pre-match show on NBCSN.
3a. After the matches are over, NBC will air a two-hour Goal Zone post-match show, including emotional scenes from around the grounds, the trophy ceremony for Chelsea from Stamford Bridge, and all the key highlights and interviews from the final day of this season. That will be followed by a 30-minute show dedicated to the Chelsea’s path to the Premier League title.
4. Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand profiled former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol.
5. CBS Sports Network is giving Adam Schein his own daily show. The program, which is unnamed at the moment, will begin airing later this summer weekdays from 6-7 p.m. ET. The show will offer Schein’s take on the news as well as guest interviews. The commentator will continue to host his other CBSSN shows, That Other Pregame Show and NFL Monday QB, as well as his Sirius XM sports show. Schein, however, will no longer be working for SportsNet New York (SNY), the New York City-based cable sports outlet that broadcasts the Mets.
5a. ESPN has hired Dianna Russini of NBC Washington to work as a SportsCenter reporter.
5b.Turner Sports NBA broadcaster Kenny Smith on why he thinks Shaquille O’Neal has found a comfort zone on Inside The NBA, “We are the masters of inclusion – Ernie, myself and Charles,” Smith said. “So we know what his strong attributes and we will keep him there. We all have weaknesses and we just stay away from them but at the same time we make fun of them. So the things that you are not good at actually enhance the show as well.
5c. Daniel Ellison’s piece for Grantland on working for David Letterman in the 1990s was sensational.