Thanks to my treasured copy of The 1981 Complete Handbook of College Basketball, I know that the first college basketball game ever to be televised--indeed the first basketball game on TV, period--took place between Pitt and Fordham at Madison Square Garden on February 28, 1940. At 8:16 Eastern Time that night, the following announcement went out over the airwaves:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Bill Allen speaking from Madison Square Garden, where the National Broadcasting Company is about to bring you the first televised basketball game.
Ironically that particular game also marked Fordham's final appearance on TV. (Har!) No, seriously, college basketball on TV is a surprisingly old and venerable institution. And announcers have been there from the very beginning.
Announcing a basketball game falls comfortably between the extremes of describing the action in baseball on the one hand and football on the other. In baseball, especially with no one on base, there's not a great deal of on-field action that needs describing. (Thus the Simpsons bit where Homer watches a game without beer for the first time: "I never realized how boring this game is.") Football on the other hand places greater demands on the announcer. Just tracking down-and-distance, the play clock, and which 22 players are on the field on any given play is challenging enough.
But in basketball we don't want the announcers to go on long baseball-style extraneous riffs, nor do we need the by-the-second verbal situational ticker that football requires. Just tell us about the game. Was that a good offensive possession? What kind of defense is that? Is either team straying from what got them here? Do you agree with the common perception of this team and its star player? Why or why not? What should the team do now? It's not rocket science, maybe, but results do vary.
The world outside ESPN (i.e., Gus Johnson and Clark Kellogg)
The regular-season hegemony of ESPN means we can quickly gesture toward the tiny pre-March CBS presence in our collective hoops consciousness before getting down to more substantial business.
First, Gus Johnson is self-evidently great.
Second, I wish to offer the following parable.
Years ago when I started dating the woman who is now my wife, an odd and to me wholly mysterious sequence would invariably transpire whenever I met one of her friends for the first time. The names would change but it pretty much always went like this:
FUTURE WIFE: John, I'd like you to meet my friend, Lisa.
ME: Hi, Lisa.
LISA (squealing with joy to Future Wife): Oh...my...GOD! He's so great! Oooooo, I loooovvve him!
I suppose I'm as confident in my presence as the next person, but I'd certainly never triggered this Beatle-level response before. Only much later did I learn that my future wife's ex had in fact been an ax murderer or lawyer or something--I forget what, exactly. Anyway, the friends no likey the ex, and so when they met me what they were really saying was something like:
"Finally! It is a long-anticipated pleasure to acknowledge your presence here in front of me as a carbon-based life form who does not enrage me instantly. You are unavoidable, yet I don't feel like hurling myself down a well. You are most welcome!"
That is precisely how I feel about Clark Kellogg.
Most of ESPN
ESPN has very good play-by-play people, which shouldn't be surprising. It's a coveted gig. And while college hoops is yet to produce its Keith Jackson figure, Ron Franklin's stentorian authoritativeness does remind me of PBP guys from when I was growing up, which is a big compliment.
Brad Nessler sees and relates all but remains completely unflappable at all times. (Plus he says "pardner," always a bonus.)
Sean McDonough seems amused at how little is asked of PBP in this sport and uses the ample time left over to lob well-honed sarcasm at Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas.
Conversely, Dan Shulman earns major ups as the hardest working man in PBP, for obvious partner-based reasons (see below).
Even Brent Musburger seems to have mellowed in his later years. You youngsters in the crowd might not remember this, but Brent used to tend toward the excitable and would push a single "THE storyline in this game" in games that variously had zero or 12 such. Now he riffs happily in the small space left to him by Steve Lavin or Bob Knight.
As for the WWL's analysts, I'm already on the record as thinking that by and large they are very well-prepared. Jimmy Dykes attacks each game like an eager kid going after his next "Basketball Strategy and Tactics" merit badge. I love how he gives you the sense that he could tell you three more things about each possession if he only had the time.
Doris Burke is outstanding as an analyst and should never ever be relegated to sideline reporter duty. I also enjoyed it earlier this year when she instantly and rightly made fun of Fran Fraschilla for including Neil Sedaka among the "famous alumni" of Lance Stephenson's Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. (Arthur Miller, Louis Gossett Jr., and Lee Mazzilli, fine. But this?)
Speaking of Fran, he uses tempo-free truths in his calls all the time, ergo he is great, except for that whole sordid Sedaka business.
Stephen Bardo has coined far and away my current favorite hoops catch phrase, "bitter beer face" (to be used when dunked on).
Steve Lavin illustrates perfectly why I stay resolutely away from any totalizing Theory of hoops announcing. In the abstract, an analyst straying from what's happening on the court is a bad thing, but at the risk of being a bad person I have to admit that I enjoy Lavin precisely to the extent that he strays. When he's describing actual basketball action he can bump into a conventional coachspeak paragraph or two--I know what's coming--but when he's on to movies or yoga or whatever he's far more lively and interesting. In such moments he sails past the like-to-have-a-beer-with test with ease. The other night he pointed out to Musburger that he, Musburger, actually appeared in the original "Rocky," which I was amazed to realize I do kind of remember.
I watch college hoops with the same attitude as the neighbor kid on the tricycle in "The Incredibles." I'm waiting for something amazing to happen. The question is, which announcer(s) do you want on hand when it does? I choose Bill Raftery, who is, after all, the man behind "Send it in, Jerome!" Since I missed that particular game 22 years ago, however, my own favorite Raftery moment came last March during the six-OT game between Syracuse and Connecticut in the Big East tournament. It was after the fifth overtime, I think, when ESPN put up a graphic showing the scoring in each of the OT periods:
OT1 OT2 OT3 OT4 OT5
CUSE 10 6 11 6 6
UCONN 10 6 11 6 6
Raf took one look at his monitor and exclaimed: "That looks like my front nine!"
Then again there's something to be said for measuring the true worth of events according to their ability to impress even a calm and collected customer like Jay Bilas. This week, for possibly the 500th time in the past five years, an Illinois fan chanced to tell me that he still remembers the reverent tone used by Bilas when he uttered the words "heart of a champion" with reference to the Illini during The Comeback against Arizona in the 2005 Elite Eight.
Vitale and Knight
Dick Vitale is the McDonald's of announcers: Ubiquitous, familiar, and dependably delivering the same product time after time, year after year. He's a celebrant, not an analyst, and I say that as a compliment. Gus Johnson, for example, is a celebrant par excellence. I'm a celebrant, or at least I am if I'm doing this right. College basketball is the greatest sport, period, and Vitale says as much at every opportunity. It's just that we see him sitting next to Dan Shulman and think, well, Dickie V. must be the analyst in this here crew. He's not. As a celebrant Vitale would function far better as part of a three-person crew.
Bob Knight, goodness knows, is an analyst. I'd been hearing about Jason Whitlock's anti-Knight piece for a few days before I got around to reading it, and while I like Knight's work I also like Whitlock's. I was ready to concede a couple points, but in the event I didn't have to. During the Kansas-Texas A&M game Knight said Bill Self should have benched Sherron Collins. That's it, that's all Whitlock has. If Whitlock's really this surprised to find that Bob Knight would vocally advocate an impulsive and draconian measure, then I'm surprised he's surprised.
Dan Hanner has already noted Knight's main flaw as an announcer: He's a repeater. (He does like him some Cole Aldrich, doesn't he?) And the particular stylistic preferences that he embraced as a coach continue to color his comments, despite the fact that, as the composition of each Final Four shows, success in this sport comes cloaked in many different styles. But no other analyst is in the same building as Knight as far as imparting a "Whoa, I better write this down" sense in viewers. What he's doing now is an extension of what he's been doing all his life: Watching basketball possessions intently and commenting on them perceptively.
Announcers, per se, aren't necessary. Just the good ones.
Disclosures: Jay Bilas wrote the intro for our book this year, and Fran Fraschilla gave it a very nice jacket blurb. I once gave Dick Vitale a ride to a book-signing on a cold and bleak February day. While we were in the car he stopped mid-sentence and pointed out the window at a nondescript man wearing a heavy winter coat and walking down the street with a wool hat pulled down low on his head. "That's Bob Knight," he said. It was.
John's neither intent nor perceptive on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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