They ought to rename the NBA playoffs on CBS "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." The good guys are Dick Stockton and Brent Musburger, the excellent play-by-play men. The bad guy is the mumbling analyst, Bill Russell. As for the ugly, how about those documentary shots of Tree Rollins having a mid-game snack on Danny Ainge's right middle finger?
It hasn't been a flawless victory, but in NBA playoff coverage CBS has cleaned the clocks of ESPN and the USA Network, the two cable services that are also carrying postseason hoops. Among the reasons for CBS' supremacy are the knowledgeable Stockton, its top play-by-play man, and Musburger, who got cabin fever from having been in the studio the last two years and has made a temporary return to the booth. Stockton, a Cookie Rojas of the mike in that he acquits himself well at any position, is far less strident and verbose than in previous years. He and NBC's Dick Enberg have become the standards by which other basketball play-by-play announcers are measured. Meanwhile, Musburger has been a pleasant surprise. Where's the gushing of three years ago, the shilling for the NBA? Gone the way, presumably, of Musburger's list of nicknames such as C.J., D.J. and Chocolate Thunder. Musburger's new call of the game is concise and restrained. It's as though he peeked at his 1980 tapes and atoned.
The same can't be said for Russell. He's the Grover Cleveland of announcers, having been at this business on two different networks over two different terms, and he still makes you feel uncomfortable. Russell a) doesn't believe in enunciation, b) can't get out of a comment before the next basket is scored and c) can't be understood more than 50% of the time. He still comes up with precious nuggets—example: blocked shots merely indicate a breakdown in defense—but the gold mine is beginning to tap out. Sadly, the game seems to have passed him by. Kevin Loughery, the Atlanta coach who has been moonlighting in the booth with Musburger, does know the players and is a marked improvement over Russell, although both men rely on crutch lines to fill air time. Russell: "They've got to play better defense, Dick." Loughery: "That was a great shot by——, Brent!"
CBS' work in the production truck, especially when Producer Bob Stenner and Director Bob Fishman are on hand, is excellent. Stenner and Fishman reported the Tree-Bites-Man incident from every angle, even showing replays the following weekend that suggested Ainge may not have been an innocent party.
All is not perfect in the replay room, however, where gluttony is the order of the day. Every TV crew covering the NBA, except the Stenner-Fishman team, force-feeds us replays at the expense of live action. Never mind that replays should only be shown next to commercials or just before foul shots; if producers have slick, computerized machines, they're jolly well going to play with them. One possible improvement: Use fewer replays of stock occurrences like dunks, most of which look the same anyway, and run more replay "packages" of off-the-ball movement, such as opposing centers manhandling each other.
USA owes its viewers a more impartial national team than Eddie Doucette and Jon Mc Glocklin, the Milwaukee Bucks' announcers during the regular season. Doucette came across as a shameless homer one night in the Celtics series. Al Albert, USA's East Coast play-by-play man, often sounds like Rich Little trying to do Al Michaels. ESPN announcers Roger Twibell and Sam Smith are, respectively, cliché-ridden and machinelike in turn. ESPN also relies on an insipid halftime feature called "Hot Shot," in which pubescent youngsters shoot baskets from various locations around the court. It's similar to H-O-R-S-E, but it's more akin to B-O-R-I-N-G.
The saving grace for ESPN is studio analyst John Andariese, who's certainly more candid and perhaps more knowledgeable than anyone else in TV now covering the NBA. Andariese had a two-game trial at CBS in 1977. Inexplicably, the network cashiered him. ESPN's and USA's coverage has come a long way in the last few years, but one Andariese and a few more cameras aren't nearly enough. The NBA title still goes to the big black eye.