How Mike Breen & ABC/ESPN covered NBA Finals Game 7
Mike Breen is a night owl. On the night before calling an epic Cleveland Cavaliers victory in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Breen joined fellow ESPN announcers Doris Burke, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, his producer, Tim Corrigan, and game director Jimmy Moore, for one last group dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in San Francisco before heading back to his hotel room to update his game notes (see the photo below). He finally shut down for the night shortly before 2 a.m. PT. Six hours and 13 minutes later, Breen was up again to start one of the memorable broadcasting days of his career.
Of the 11 NBA Finals Breen has called during his broadcasting career, Sunday was his fourth Game 7 (including calling the Knicks-Rockets in 1994 as a Knicks broadcaster). And it may go down as his biggest game, given what it represented for LeBron James and the city of Cleveland, as well as Golden State’s argument for being the greatest single-season team of all time. “Thrilling game,” Breen said by text at around midnight ET Sunday as he was leaving Oracle Arena. “Every possession so important. I thought the crew did extraordinary work.”
The goal of any A-level sports television group is to match the moment, and ESPN/ABC’s group was exceptional on Sunday night. In the key moments of the game—LeBron’s block of Andre Iguodala, Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead three-pointer with 53 seconds left, LeBron’s attempt at a tomahawk dunk and hard fall to the floor—the production team offered keen observations and multiple replays including a close-up so fine that you could clearly see the American flag on the backboard during that blocked shot.
There were a number of things that stood out for me in the final minute, including Van Gundy sharply informing viewers that Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue’s substitution of Tristan Thompson for Richard Jefferson with 1:09 left would give the Cavs more space in the open floor; Irving then hit that three-pointer 20 seconds later. On Golden State’s ensuing possession, Jackson noted Kevin Love’s outstanding defense on Steph Curry. “What a spectacular job by Love,” said Jackson (which you might have missed given the commotion and how loud it was).
Corrigan also smartly went back to replays of Irving’s three-pointer with 10.6 seconds left after James hit one of two free throws to give Cleveland a 93–89 lead. The replays showed how Curry ended up on Irving (which is what Cleveland wanted), giving viewers a sense of how clutch the shot was.
Breen told SI.com on Saturday night that he had thought often about how he would call the closing seconds of the game. “It’s important to put it into perspective,” Breen said. “To try and wing it, I’m not talented and bright enough to do that. For me, preparation is what you need to do on something like that. Do you want to have the exact words written down? No. Spontaneity is a major part of what we do, but if you don’t think about what you might say in that instance, I don’t think you are doing the right preparation. It is too important.”
You can argue Breen could have stayed silent longer after calling the final moments (“Final seconds. It’s over! It’s over! Cleveland is a city of champions once again! The Cavaliers are NBA champions!”), but given the historical nature of a Cleveland victory, there was value in letting the audience know that the Rust Belt city’s sports heartbreak had ended. It was another professional job by an excellent announcer.
ESPN used 30 cameras and 28 replay devices in-arena for the Finals, but the shots of Cleveland fans celebrating in that city were just as valuable. The production also benefitted from James crying during his on-court interview with Burke. “Cleveland,” James screamed through tears. “This is for you.”
This was Corrigan’s fourth NBA Finals Game 7 as a producer and he said late on Sunday night the one thing he knew on James’s block was that he wanted to make sure the audience saw a wide shot so viewers could get a sense of where James had come from to make the play. They had four replays of the play. What stood out for the producer as the game ended? “LeBron going to the floor and his emotions,” Corrigan said. “To me those are the powerful shots. The guy just collapsed.”
Terrific work by ESPN, which is what we have come to expect with this crew.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Whether or not you liked Fox’s production in its second year (of a 12-year-deal) of broadcasting the U.S. Open golf championship, you can’t argue that the network delivered tonnage this weekend. Fox was scheduled to air 36.5 hours of golf prior to the event and ended up airing 47.45 hours total, including 39 hours live. The programming hours (all times Eastern) they delivered:
• Thursday: 10 hours: (10 a.m.–5 p.m. on FS1; 5 p.m.–8 p.m. on Fox)
• Friday: 13 hours: (8 a.m.– 5 p.m. on FS1; 5 p.m.–9 p.m. on Fox)
• Saturday: 13.5 hours: (7:30 a.m.-11 a.m. on FS1; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on Fox; 8 p.m.-9 p.m. on FS1)
• Sunday: 11.25 hours (7 a.m.-8:30 a.m. on FS1; 11 a.m.—8:45 p.m. on Fox).
That’s an impressive enterprise and from my viewing (which was stops and starts over the weekend), Fox had much better chemistry between its lead hosts (Paul Azinger and Brad Faxon in for Greg Norman) and fewer graphic issues. As a viewer, I particularly appreciated how many different replays they had of Dustin Johnson’s final putt, as well as showing his brief conversation with Jack Nicklaus coming off the final hole.
On Sunday night, I asked Mark Loomis, the coordinating producer of Fox’s USGA studio and event production, what he think worked with this year's coverage, and why.
“The technology, especially the Flight Track overhead ball tracer, all of the ground-level shot tracers, and the on-screen yardage posts,” Loomis said. “Those elements helped make the pictures the most descriptive they've ever been. The announce team sounded like they work together every week and that was a goal for us coming in. Adding Curtis [Strange] and Paul [Azinger] to the group we already have—[Joe] Buck, Faxon, etc.—made everyone better. We told the story of the Dustin Johnson controversy head-on and gave all sides—ours, the players’ and the USGA’s. Mostly, we're proud of the fact that less than three years ago there was no such thing as Fox golf and today, we'd put our coverage up against anyone's.”
1a. Once again, as he did last year, I asked Dick Friedman, a former SI senior editor and current contributor to SI Golf, to serve as the primary Media Circus reviewer for the U.S. Open coverage. Here is his review:
At the U.S. Open, the adage holds, par is a good score. In its second year covering the event, Fox Sports shot a very solid par. (This after a disastrous triple bogey in 2015 at funky Chambers Bay.) There were two notable new faces. As lead analyst, Paul Azinger replaced Greg Norman, and Curtis Strange became the No. 1 on-course reporter. Unlike the Shark, ‘Zinger is a TV natural. He quickly settled into a rhythm with booth mates Brad Faxon and anchor Joe Buck. They were strongest at taking the temperature of the competition. They could be blunt: Faxon accurately termed one pitch by Lee Westwood as “terrible.” (As opposed to the oft-heard golfism, “not his best.”)
On Sunday, as the leaders numbingly stumbled, Fox received manna from heaven—Controversy Now!—when eventual winner Dustin Johnson’s ball moved on the 5th green. Penalty or no penalty? Buck, accustomed to NFL and MLB booth reviews, adroitly played ringmaster. Azinger, Faxon and Strange debated whether it was an infraction, but more to the point (and to Fox’s credit), they were allowed to flay the USGA for leaving Johnson hanging by choosing not to make a decision until round’s end. As the trio sharply noted, on-course strategy—to drive or lay up at the reachable par-4 17th?—could depend on this stroke of Damocles. Better yet, Fox stayed on the news by showing the tweets from pros such as Jordan Spieth outraged by the decision-making process. (We are left to contemplate the TV and social-media donnybrook that would have broken out had the competition ended with D.J. ahead by a stroke.)
As for bells and whistles, Fox played within itself. It no doubt helped that unlike last year it had a classic, familiar course to work with. Information on yardage and club selection, sometimes given short shrift last year at Chambers Bay, was routine at Oakmont. Even with the tracer technology, it was still sometimes hard to judge the eventual landing spots of drives from the vantage points behind the tee boxes. But we certainly got revealing perspectives of the brutal bunkers and severely canted fairways. On the greens, graphics gave an idea of the flow. However, the best illustration of the putting-surface challenges came from reporter Ken Brown, who in an amusing “Brownie Points” feature went out to the first hole and simply rolled a beachball onto the green ... whereupon it kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling. Even in a high-tech millennium, sometimes the best solutions are the low-tech ones.”
1b. Fox said it went from 5:42 p.m. to 8:18 p.m. ET with only two commercial breaks for the final round of the Open, including an uninterrupted portion from 7:24 p.m.– 8:18 p.m.
1c. Excellent decision to show critical tweets from current players regarding the decision to penalize Johnson one stroke for an incident on the 5th green. Fox is often soft on rights-holder partners compared to ESPN, but this was the correct call.
1e. One of the great sports media subplots of every NBA draft is watching how often Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski beats ESPN’s army of talent on pick selections and trades. With an eye toward competing with ESPN’s TV broadcast, Yahoo has invested a ton of resources to host a live NBA draft show on June 23 starting at 7 p.m. ET. The show will be available via the front page of Yahoo, Yahoo Sports, and The Vertical, the company’s NBA microsite. On-air staffers include host Chris Mannix (based in New York City), analysts Bobby Marks, Mike Schmitz, and Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean. The reporters onsite at the Barclays Center include Wojnarowski, Jonathan Givony and Shams Charania. The Vertical will have a camera at Barclays and expects to get interviews with draftees during the broadcast.
1f. SI.com will have its own live NBA Live Draft Show from New York City featuring host Maggie Gray and basketball writers David Gardner, Ben Golliver and Luke Winn.
1g. “Find a new act.” Some shade from ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on professional LeBron James haters enabled by sports outlets.
2. On Monday Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reported that ESPN will buy the second half of the Big Ten’s media rights package, paying an average of $190 million per year over six years for essentially half the conference’s media rights package. Per Ourand, two months ago, Fox Sports agreed to take the other half of the package for an average of $240 million per year. CBS Sports also has told the conference that it will renew its basketball-only package for $10 million per year.
2a. From Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp: ABC drew 3.42 million viewers for the premiere of Part 1 of O.J.: Made in America. That figure ranks second among all 30 for 30 premieres, behind only ESPN’s debut for “You Don’t Know Bo” from Dec. 8, 2012 (3.6 million). Karp noted the ABC premiere for the Simpson doc was below the 5.11 million viewers that FX drew for the first part of “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” on Feb. 2, which was a Tuesday night. Part 2 of the Simpson doc series premiered on ESPN with 1.75 million viewers.
2b. Amazing photo from Rogers Sportsnet features reporter Christine Simpson featuring Wayne Gretzky and other Canadians watching Simpson during the Ford Bronco escape:
2c. NBC drew 5.83 million viewers for the Belmont Stakes, down from 18.6 million viewers who watched American Pharoah win the Triple Crown.
2d. The U.S. Men’s National Team’s win over Ecuador in the Copa America quarterfinals drew 3.5 million viewers on Univision’s networks and 2.132 million on FS1.
3. Episode 62 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger, who last month reached a multiyear contract extension with ESPN. Musburger will remain the signature college football voice of the SEC Network and continue with college basketball assignments. “Someone had to stay at ESPN,” Musburger said. “We can’t all head for the exits.”
As part of the podcast, the 77-year-old Musburger discussed why he re-signed with ESPN; calling games for the SEC Network; how he was ahead of the curve on discussing gambling on broadcasts, and other issues. Musburger said he misses calling the national college football championship game but said ESPN “had to move on and get younger and they did.”
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me. Hope you enjoy.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Orlando native and WNBA player Shavonte Zellous on the agonizing phone call she made to her sister after the Orlando massacre.
• From The Economist’s new magazine, 1843: How I used math to beat the bookies
• From SI’s David Gardner: After his mother's murder in the Charleston shooting, Chris Singleton said love is stronger than hate. Then he lived it.
• This is truly an amazing read given what we now know about OJ Simpson. From Sports Illustrated in 1979: “All Dressed Up, Nowhere to Go.” The last line.
• Via Roy Firestone: “My Regrets About How I Asked O.J. Simpson About Domestic Abuse.”
• From Bleacher Report’s Luke Cyphers and Teri Thompson: How Four Teens’ Hoop Dreams Turned Into a Nightmare, Sparking a Federal Probe.
• The Los Angeles Times front page story (published June 18, 1994) on the events of 22 years ago today involving O.J. Simpson.
• ESPN’s Wright Thompson on the father Cristiano Ronaldo never really knew.
• Reports the L.A. Times: A charity became a lucrative source of income for USC's Pat Haden, relatives.
• One man’s quest to get Americans to care abut rugby.
• Via James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail: How Auston Matthews became hockey’s hottest prospect.
• ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein had a fun oral history of the 2006 NBA Finals.
• Michael Wilbon, writing for The Undefeated, on rooting for O.J. Simpson over the LAPD.
• From Vice Sports: In Oakland, a Team And A City On The Verge Of Gentrification.
• Akron Beacon Journal Cavs writer Jason Lloyd offers 52 thoughts on LeBron James, Cleveland being a champion
Non-sports pieces of note:
• From Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal: how to get self-doubts out of your head.
• Via GQ: A superbly written profile of Kim Kardashian that will leave you feeling like Jimmy McNulty and Bodie Broadus in The Wire episode, “Final Grades”
• From Denver Post staffer Nick Grokem’s Twitter feed: “Let me tell you a story about the Denver Post, a place I love like a family (which means sometimes I hate-love it)”: https://twitter.com/nickgroke/status/744009624437796864
• Eight hundred feet above New York City.
• Via the New York Times Magazine: Can Netflix survive in the new world it created?
• From Buzzfeed: Who Owns Star Trek?
• BBC Panorama on Sebastian Coe winning the presidency of the International Association of Athletics Federations with the help of the man at the centre of the sport's doping scandal.
5. NBC named its Olympic hosts (in addition to Bob Costas) for the Rio Games. They include Al Michaels, Dan Patrick, Rebecca Lowe, Liam McHugh and Carolyn Manno. Michaels will serve as a host during NBC’s daytime coverage on weekdays and weekends. Patrick and Lowe will work across both NBC and NBC Sports Network. McHugh and Manno will handle NBCSN hosting duties.
5a. NBC also announced that Today co-anchor Hoda Kotb will join Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira as hosts for the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Summer Games on August 5 on NBC. It’s an interesting philosophical shift as no traditional sports host will have a significant role in the opening ceremonies.
5b. The opening show guests for HBO’s Any Given Wednesday With Bill Simmons will be Ben Affleck and Charles Barkley. The show airs from 10 p.m.–10:30 p.m. ET/PT) every Wednesday, plus repeats. Also, Katie Nolan interviewed Simmons for her podcast this week.
5c. New York Times writer Richard Sandomir reported that NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Emrick will call a game with Bob Costas for MLB Network when the Cubs play the Pirates on July 8 at PNC Park.
5d. Here’s the first video project from NFL Network reporter Alex Flanagan’s youth sports media company, I Love To Watch You Play.
5e. The Globe and Mail reports that Ron MacLean is heading back to Hockey Night In Canada.
5fe. Fast Company profiled ESPN’s impressive technology efforts.
5g. The Viceland network’s VICE World of Sports will air its season finale on June 22 with an episode called “Seven Generations” that focuses on a high school basketball rivalry on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Said producer Evan Rosenfeld: “Having produced docs for ESPN (The U, Broke) and HBO (Kareem: Minority of One), I really feel that we doing something really different when it comes to this genre. We connect our stories to elements bigger than the game.”
5h. Washington Post columnist Colbert King and son Rob King, who heads up SportsCenter, on what they learned from each other.
5i. L.A. Times writer Andy McCullough interviewed Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com about covering baseball in Latin America.
5j. Brewers announcer Brian Anderson gets choked up on air talking about Vin Scully.
5k. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins did not mince words: “Stephen A. Smith is a pig,” she tweeted on Friday. The film director Brian Koppelman also declined to hold back. Wrote Koppelman the same day: “Stephen A. Smith should delete his career.” MTV News senior national correspondent Jamil Smith tweeted: “The sexism in Stephen A Smith’s remarks here is stunning.” There was also this Slate story and headline (“ESPN: A Women’s Job Is Being Pretty, Keeping Quiet, and Representing Her Husband”) and this Washington Post story and headline (“Stephen A. Smith mansplains how to be a good NBA wife to Ayesha Curry”). There were pieces written by the Huffington Post, New York Post, Deadspin and plenty of other outlets.
Fresh off being an apologist for domestic abuser Floyd Mayweather and declaring he could have won the O.J. Simpson criminal case, Stephen A. Smith uttered some sexist nonsense last week on Ayesha Curry. In short, he explained how an NBA wife should act and why Curry should be more like Savannah Brinson, who is married to LeBron James and who no one was talking about other than Stephen A. Smith.
Ayesha Curry is a public figure and is fair game for criticism, but the noise from some defending Smith under the guise that we’ve become too politically correct is gobbledygook. Smith has the freedom to say anything he wants on First Take and his Twitter feed. This has long been established. In turn, his employer has the charter—and hopefully the common sense—to make a statement when they feel he goes over the line, and particularly, when he insults the hundreds of women he works with at his company. ESPN’s female staffers can’t openly criticize Smith en masse because the company has made it clear that it won’t tolerate ESPN-on-ESPN crime the way they tolerate (sorry, celebrate) Skip Bayless calling James a b----. Instead, what you mostly saw were some clever staffers, such as ESPN’s Mina Kimes, the company’s best sports business reporter, make a statement without mentioning names. To its credit, ESPN Radio’s The Trifecta show did discuss it on Saturday. Here’s what I didn’t see: Any senior managers at ESPN publicly disagreeing with Smith’s comments.
As ESPN staffers will tell you, First Take has always had little management oversight. The hosts have long run the asylum, while ESPN execs who know better look the other way. If it wasn’t so predictable, it would be depressing.