No one more intuitively understood the movements of basketball players within the live flow of the game more than Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
No more more completely grasped everything it takes to win a championship than Bill Russell.
No player married longevity with quality better than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Producing substantially as a core member of a repeat NBA champion at 41? You have to be extremely wise and resourceful to pull off such a feat.
Magic, Russell, Kareem — they’re three of the greatest basketball IQs we’ve ever witnessed in evidence on the court. These individuals possessed such immense basketball intelligence — in terms of tactics, psychology, and the kinds of lessons which can only come from lived experience over the course of many years, many seasons, many nights in the cauldron of championship pressure.
Yet, they were all below-average broadcasters.
It’s fascinating, is it not? Kareem (thankfully for NBA fans) did not embarrass himself as a professsional basketball analyst; he stumbled in the college game in the early part of this century at CBS. The Gonzaga-Arizona overtime classic in the 2003 NCAA Tournament is so much fun to watch… but it’s hard to listen to Kareem’s (occasional) commentary. He is now a magnificent essayist and cultural commentator for Time magazine, where he has found his niche as a media voice and personality. When talking about basketball on the air, though? Kareem was lost.
For Bill Russell and Magic Johnson, the reality of professional broadcasting turned out to be better than it was for Kareem, but an overall assessment of their performances behind the microphone remains unfavorable.
It’s one of the striking common threads which knits together the history of the NBA on network television over the past several decades: With one very conspicuous (and unconventional) exception, players who did not gain or establish some degree of traction as full-time coaches have not become effective on-air analysts. From the moment Bill Russell entered a broadcast booth to the present day, this pattern has managed to endure, at least at the level of the NBA Finals and the No. 1 broadcast team on the NBA’s showcase network.
Before offering some video clips, let’s parse that last point a little bit, for the sake of clarity.
It’s true that Russell coached the Celtics to multiple NBA titles, but Russell was a player-coach during those seasons. He never coached the Celtics through a full season with a suit and tie, freed from the pressures of playing and thereby able to process a game the way we generally expect from a coach. That’s a unique category. Russell was dedicated in thought and energy to coaching, and he succeeded handsomely in his work. Yet, his job wasn’t split from his playing career — he was a coach on the court for the late-1960s Celtics.
Among players who did not devote themselves full-time to coaching (without the added pressures of playing), and who did not enjoy some degree of success and longevity as coaches, you’ll find only one man who is remembered in a generally positive way as a former NBA Finals broadcast analyst.
We’ll reveal that name a little later, but first, let’s illustrate why Russell and Magic — both members of NBA Finals broadcast teams — did not translate well to television:
Russell was awkward at the start of this broadcast of Game 5 of the 1972 NBA Finals alongside Keith Jackson at ABC:
Later in the 1970s, Russell became that full-time head coach with the Seattle SuperSonics, freed from the attached physical challenge of playing for a team while also coaching it. His tenure in Seattle was not bad, but it didn’t lead to a genuine breakthrough. Russell never led the Sonics to a particularly lofty place in the Western Conference. Lenny Wilkens took over the club in the 1977-1978 season and, in the spring of 1979, won Seattle’s only NBA title. Russell returned to broadcasting with CBS, landing on the 1980 NBA Finals broadcast team with Brent Musburger and Hot Rod Hundley. A year later, in 1981, Russell teamed with play-by-play man Gary Bender and co-analyst Rick Barry.
Keep in mind that Russell’s 1981 Finals assignment came nine years after his first with ABC in 1972. Yet, if you go to the 54:40 mark of this clip, it’s clear that little had changed in terms of Russell’s ability to make polished statements directly to the camera. The delivery remains choppy, just as it was in 1972, and moreover, the camera shows Russell from a side angle as he talks to his partner, Barry. Russell simply didn’t manage to learn how to talk directly into a camera with the poise and smoothness of a top analyst:
A brief detour for a moment:
There’s irony in that clip from 1981, because that was the same NBA Finals series in which Barry uttered his infamous and appalling “watermelon grin” remark which pushed him out of the CBS analyst’s chair he had held for most of the previous seven years. Barry was much better than Russell (in that sequence at 54:40) at speaking to the camera and delivering his analysis in a fluid manner… but he did not choose his words wisely and sometimes failed to rein in his speech. Alas, Barry — who did enjoy some longevity as a Finals analyst — is ultimately viewed in a negative light as a TV presence, precisely because of that 1981 incident.
So it goes.
Russell’s career as an NBA Finals lead analyst ended after the 1983 Finals. He was replaced in 1984 by Tommy Heinsohn, a great player but also a full-time coach who won two NBA titles with the Celtics in the 1970s. The next several years of NBA Finals analysis (minus 1988) featured coaches who effectively taught the game to a national audience: Heinsohn, Hubie Brown, and Mike Fratello. It was in 1992 that NBC, the new broadcaster of the Finals, felt it needed some star power alongside The Czar and play-by-play man Marv Albert. The choice was Magic Johnson.
In subsequent years, Isiah Thomas cracked the NBA’s No. 1 announce team, but all of his forays into basketball after his playing career have failed. Thomas spent just one year (1998) on NBC’s NBA Finals crew with Bob Costas (PBP) and fellow analyst Doug Collins. His turns as the coach of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks; as an executive with the Knicks; and as a broadcaster have all fallen short.
Several years ago, Mark Jackson became a member of an NBA Finals broadcast team with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. While Jackson’s presentation is fluid in a way that Russell’s never was, and while Jackson isn’t quite Captain Obvious the way Magic was, he is still regarded as the member of ABC/ESPN’s crew (now that he’s back on it after his coaching stint with Golden State) most fans can do without.
Thankfully, Reggie Miller (also with a very high basketball IQ as a player) has never made a Finals crew as a broadcaster, but several players without established coaching careers have all had a chance to make a name for themselves on the NBA’s biggest stage… and have ultimately failed to do so. Barry came the closest, but soiled his reputation as an on-air presence. That’s the way the broadcast cookie has crumbled over time.
One man has managed to resist the larger trend of the past 40-plus years of television analysis in the NBA Finals: Bill Walton.
A great player with a complete understanding of his sport, Walton did not make a foray into coaching. He went straight into broadcasting and remains, after more than two decades in the business, a favorite among most fans and critics. Walton’s brand is built on fun and irreverence — but tasteful irreverence, something Barry could not quite capture roughly a third of a century ago. Yet, for all the times we laugh at something Walton says, he made NBA Finals crews in the 1990s and the 2000s with NBC. When ABC/ESPN took over the NBA Finals in 2003, Walton called that series with Brad Nessler (PBP) and Tom Tolbert.
Walton distinguished himself from the pack in those years by being bold and honest enough to tell his audience when a player messed up. Not every analyst — even in that No. 1 chair — has that capacity, but Walton has demonstrated it throughout his journey in the broadcasting industry. A source of fun today, Walton built a career by being honest with viewers.
Walton’s success, though, only magnifies the extent to which other great players — those who weren’t successful as dedicated, full-time coaches — have failed to last as critically acclaimed NBA Finals analysts.