Yes, as we've been told a million times, the NBA is fantastic, but not the way it's presented on CBS. The network 1) airs most of the playoff games after all sensible Americans have gone to sleep; 2) drags the finals well into June, so as not to affect its ratings performance in the important May "sweeps" month; and 3) puts Rough Tough Tommy Heinsohn next to Dick Stockton at the mike. The way CBS treats the NBA, you would think it was a rerun of The Untouchables. And can't they hire a basketball analyst who doesn't sound like a fight manager?
On the other hand, CBS is to be commended for showcasing Stockton, who on a good day (or late night) can turn play-by-play into something approaching an art form. He is much more than the screamer and stat nut he used to be when he took over in 1981. "Now I realize it's a frenetic game and you've got to give people a chance to breathe," he says. His pace and tone in a big game are fitting and proper.
But good technique is not Stockton's only asset. He also possesses a deep knowledge of the game and a pleasant earnestness, both of which come through the tube. He is bright and open and nice in a Gee-I-wish-you'd-like-me kind of way. Last month, when Stockton received an alumni award at Syracuse, Pat O'Brien of CBS said: "He is always on his game and is thoroughly a joy to work with and to travel with. On that note, as I've never seen him let down at work, I've also never seen him pick up a dinner check."
Instead of dumping on O'Brien in return, Stockton says he does, too, pick up dinner checks. (With an annual salary in excess of $400,000, he can afford to.) Stockton is married to Lesley Visser, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe, which occasionally takes a jab at him in its TV-sports columns. Born Richard Stokvis, he changed his name to Stockton in the mid-1960s for his first TV job, at KYW in Philadelphia. At his next stops, Pittsburgh and Boston, he became a Jack the Ripper of the airwaves. "I wanted to be the next Howard Cosell," Stockton says, "but eventually that kind of role began to hurt me inside. I didn't want to walk into a room and have people turn their backs on me."
Interestingly, Stockton's one shortcoming in the playoffs has been his reluctance to criticize when criticism was merited. CBS seems to have developed a see-no-evil mentality. When Sixer fans almost sacrilegiously booed Dr. J during the series against the Celtics, Stockton ignored it. His remarks also could have been more pointed against the gratuitous violence we have seen in the finals. The hard comments were usually left to Brent Musburger.
On balance, though, Stockton goes to the hoop very well. So does producer Michael Burks, who is responsible for those wonderfully revealing off-the-ball replays CBS shows after commercial breaks.
As for Heinsohn, he is in danger of fouling out after two years as Stockton's sidekick. The problem is that, like Bill Russell before him, he's a very difficult listen. Tommy fractures the language, often lapses into basketballese and has trouble saying what he means. What's worse, he has a warehouse full of Tommy gun salvos and clichés such as, "You gotta wonder how the stamina factor will affect the Celtics here, Dick" (translation: Boston might get tired). The truth is, it's our stamina factor that's being affected. Stockton may be skillful and the replays special, but the NBA on CBS doesn't live up to its fantastic billing.