NBA on NBC: When Basketball Was Basketball
The title of this article is just a phrase that I have coined for an era of the NBA that, I believe, transcended the game of basketball. Bias may play a part in my thought process because I grew up in Chicago during the 90’s with the Bulls being dominant and Michael Jordan being a worldwide icon.
The NBA on NBC was a weekly presentation of the NBA that started in 1990 and lasted until 2002. During this period the game of basketball rose not only in popularity, but also on TV ratings. Was it solely because of Michael Jordan? No, but he did play the lead role.
The fact is that 14 of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players were around their prime in 1990, along with a great group of announcers, and the most-catchy tune I have ever listened to; all were instrumental in the success of the NBA on NBC. To this day, nothing can surpass NBC’s theme music, “Roundball Rock” by John Tesh.
There couldn’t have been a better broadcast NBC could do and the announcers were spectacular. Marv Albert was the lead play-by-play announcer from '90-'97. During that time Mike Fratello, Magic Johnson, Matt Guokas, and Bill Walton joined him.
What made it so good back then is that Albert was so brilliant at his job. He was catchy and he came up with timely quotes. When you see Jordan go through the lane against the Lakers in the '91 Finals and switch from right hand to left, who doesn’t say “a spectacular move by Michael Jordan?”
Or how about quotes like “he is on fire,” “it counts and the foul,” and “from downtown.” Even the simple word “yes” Albert changed for basketball viewers. Albert is still the most recognized NBA play-by-play man and is referred to as the voice of basketball.
What also helped is that Bill Walton was much better at broadcasting back then, as opposed to now. He didn’t complain as much then and he was more relaxed. Albert was complimented by the smooth voices of Mike Fratello and Magic Johnson. Their magnificent insight of the game just trapped you in. And who didn’t like Magic?
Not only was the calling of the game outstanding, but the pre-game show (NBA Showtime), sideline reporting, and the halftime shows were just as good.
The super-smooth Bob Costas lead the pre-game show. Costas didn’t need to build a reputation as he had already called numerous sporting events and was basically the face of NBC Sports then.
Ahmad Rashad had a knack for conducting a good interview and his face and voice grew on viewers. Like Rashad, Jim Gray was great at interviewing and he provided excellent features before, during, and after games.
The new and hip Hannah Storm was hired in 1992 and she became the female voice that NBC Sports viewers became accustomed to at halftime.
At the beginning of the 1997-1998 season, Albert was fired due to a sex scandal and Costas was promoted. Guokas did not return and Isaiah Thomas was brought in, taking the lead analyst role. Doug Collins joined the broadcast midway through the season after he was fired by the Pistons.
All were drastic changes, but the broadcast was up to par and maybe even better. Isaiah was a legend, and his calm and soothing voice made the game really easy to listen to and follow.
The hiring of Collins was genius, as he also was easy to listen to, but he could break down a play like none before him. That hasn’t changed as Collins is considered the best color commentator to participate in a basketball broadcast.
Just watch the last few minutes of the 1998 NBA Finals and you can see how well Costas, Collins, and Isaiah worked together for that memorable game, which set an all time ratings record for the NBA.
Collins took over the lead color role in 1999 and Thomas moved to the studio. Jordan retired after he hit “The Shot” and ratings started to slide a little. That doesn’t mean that Costas and Collins lost their touch, it is just difficult to keep ratings up when a person like Michael Jordan calls it quits.
After Jordan’s retirement the broadcast was good, but it wasn’t the same. Albert returned sparingly in ‘99, as he didn’t have the lead play-by-play role. The San Antonio Spurs beat the Knicks in the shortened ‘99 Finals, but the magic just wasn’t there when you watched.
A year later, he took over that position and Costas’ active role ended, although he returned for selected playoff games and anchored the 2002 NBA Finals coverage alongside Hannah Storm.
As mentioned, without Jordan and the Bulls, ratings slipped a little. But luckily a worldwide recognized team from a big city with superstars stepped up with a Jordan-less NBA.
That team would be the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers gave the NBA on NBC something similar to the Bulls. The Lakers had Phil Jackson, the former Bulls coach. They had a player compared to Jordan in young hotshot Kobe Bryant. The Lakers had a character; an entertainer in Shaquille O’Neal like the Bulls had with Dennis Rodman.
The Lakers would go on to win a three-peat, like the Bulls. But the Western Conference Finals were more exciting than the actual Finals, where the Lakers beat the Pacers, Sixers, and Nets respectively and neither of those series was really close.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' success were vital to the success of the NBA on NBC; both needed each other. The broadcasts were different after Jordan, and the Lakers just weren’t the same, as the Finals were never really competitive and didn’t provide lifelong memories like the “Flu Game” and “The Shot.”
It’s evident that basketball on TV has changed since the NBA moved to ABC and TNT. The broadcast isn’t bad, but it is just not the same. ABC has the unfortunate timing of an era of “boring basketball,” with the Spurs and Pistons, two teams that focus on defense more and lack big name superstars.
The voices of basketball commentating, Albert and Collins, are partnered at TNT and do not broadcast the Finals, just some playoff games. TNT’s coverage is considerably better than ABC’s and I think most people get frustrated with Van Gundy and Mark Jackson’s constant bickering.
Finally, and very much overlooked is lack of a catchy tune from ABC to bring in the viewers attention like what “Roundball Rock” did for the NBA on NBC.
On a closing note, let me end with this:
A piece from Bob Costas following the 1998 NBA Finals where he perfectly sums up the state of the Chicago Bulls and the future the NBA was heading to.
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