The Precarious Perch of NBA Broadcasters

Local team analysts have long tried to straddle the line between cheerleader and critic, but as Bruce Bowen and an increasing number of veterans behind the mic are finding out, speaking your mind nowadays can kill your career.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorNovember 26, 2018

In his first season in Toronto, Kawhi Leonard is playing at an MVP level, and his Raptors hold the NBA's best record. But not long ago, his future was uncertain, and his mysterious saga—a vague leg injury, the battle for leverage between him and the San Antonio Spurs, the curious influence of his uncle—was the talk of the sports world.

On June 21, Bruce Bowen, the Los Angeles Clippers color analyst who spent most of his long career in San Antonio, entered the fray. During a spot on SiriusXM NBA Radio, he was asked his opinion about Leonard. "I think there's nothing but excuses going on," he said. "... You got $18 million this year, and you think that they're trying to rush you? You didn't play for the most part a full season this year, and you're the go-to guy, you're the franchise, and you want to say that they didn't have your best interest at heart? Are you kidding me?"

By the standards of talking-head daytime radio, Bowen's criticism was mild. His comments hardly made a ripple in the sports talk ecosystem. After all, what else is there to do in the offseason but talk shop and maybe share a hot take?

However, nearly two months later, Bowen's contract was not renewed. No official reason was given by the team or the network, but a report by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski stated that the dismissal was a result of Bowen's comments about Leonard. It was odd: Bowen, a local broadcaster in Los Angeles—he grew up a few hours down the road in Fresno—was reportedly let go for his criticism of Leonard, who was by then a Raptor. (Neither the Clippers nor the network have gone on the record about the end of Bowen's tenure, and they declined to do so for this story.) According to Wojnarowski, the team was trying to send "a clear message about how it plans to protect star players within the organization." Or, in this case, players who might someday be part of the organization; Leonard becomes a free agent in July.

Bruce Bowen's tenure with the Clippers' broadcast team came to an end after he criticized Kawhi Leonard's role in a stalemate with the Spurs last season.
Bruce Bowen's tenure with the Clippers' broadcast team came to an end after he criticized Kawhi Leonard's role in a stalemate with the Spurs last season.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Bowen would later back the report on The Dan Patrick Show. "It was, well, basically: 'We don't view your views that way. And because of your comments of Kawhi Leonard, we've decided to go a separate way,'" Bowen said. He was incisive in his appraisal of the decision.

"I think that if you can't get free agents in California—in Los Angeles, that is—that has nothing to do with Bruce Bowen," he said. "That has more to do with the organization."

Bowen's dispute spotlighted the current predicament of local sports broadcasters. Generally speaking, they report to the teams they cover, not the networks on which they appear. That alone would make it difficult to walk the tightrope, respecting the team, the fans and the game itself. But there are additional pressures that come with broadcasting in the NBA.

The league is growing rapidly; League Pass memberships, to use one metric, increased 63 percent last year, per the NBA, and gained another 26 percent this year. Where once local broadcasts were only viewed regionally, now they are seen nationwide and, increasingly, worldwide (international subscriptions are up 33 percent year over year).

Much of the NBA's success is driven by its stars—by their talent and by their storylines. The players, in turn, are leading a culture change, controlling their careers more than ever before. They dictate the terms of their contracts, for instance, often preferring short-term deals so they can move more freely. Star free agents now hit the market each summer, and as teams across the league compete for their admiration, the job of broadcasting on local networks is becoming more challenging.

"You've got a responsibility to the team—they're writing the check—but you also have a responsibility to those fans," says Tom Dore, the former Chicago Bulls play-by-play man. "How fine a line that is, and how difficult it is to walk that line."

According to one regional sports network contract obtained by B/R, broadcasters for the network agree to "not make repeated references to" any member of their local sports team—players, management personnel, etc.—"that may be reasonably expected to bring any of them into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule." Such legal parameters might be unnecessary, as it's natural for broadcasters to root for the home team, and fans have always enjoyed a degree of homerism in the broadcast booth anyway.

Still, to do the job right, broadcasters are supposed to be sharp, connected, honest, authoritative, critical. The key is striking the right balance.

"The greatest announcers," says Scott Hastings, the longtime Denver Nuggets analyst, "Vin Scully and Jim Nantz and Dick Vitale and you name it—they say, 'When one side says you're a giant homer and the other says you're too hard on the home team, you've probably done your job.'"

Dore debuted as the Bulls' play-by-play man in 1991, just months after the franchise had won its first title. Dore, who stands 7'2", is an Illinois native. As a high schooler, he was an All-American center at East Leyden High in Franklin Park.

"Tom played the game, so he brought a perspective that a lot of play-by-play guys don't," says Lou Canellis, who worked the Bulls broadcast with Dore in the studio and on the sidelines in the early '90s.

It was a great time to be on the call for the Bulls. In Dore's first seven seasons on the job, Chicago won five championships. "They were so good that really all I had to do was report what I saw," Dore says. In 1994, Dore earned his own trophy as Illinois' Sportscaster of the Year. "Tom knew his role on that broadcast," says Canellis. "He filled in his blanks. He was a minimalist."

Dore's partner in the booth was Johnny "Red" Kerr, who won Coach of the Year in 1967 following the Bulls' inaugural season. "Sometimes it's tough for the play-by-play guy to step aside and let his partner be the star, but Red was the star in this town," Canellis adds. "Tom was the ultimate teammate on TV."

In the late '90s and early 2000s, the Bulls ran into lean years: three seasons in a row with fewer than 20 wins, three more after that outside the playoffs. The old franchise image of a winner began to fade. "After Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson left, that's when the sales job started," Dore says. The team needed help via free agency.

"That recruiting [mindset]—'We've got people to take care of you no matter what'—I think that matters to [the] agent as well as players," Dore says. "It makes the job of being honest more difficult in a lot of markets."

In the summer of 2007, Dore was asked a basic question about the ability of Ben Gordon, the Bulls' star shooting guard, to potentially play point guard. "I said basically the same thing as Bruce Bowen, I guess," Dore says. "The story in the paper the next day was that I said he couldn't play point guard and couldn't handle the ball, pass, that kind of thing."

He adds: "That story, I think, ultimately got me fired."

Soon after the Gordon piece was published, Dore was told by the network, then called Comcast SportsNet Chicago, that "you have a real problem here," he recalls. (This is the first Dore is speaking publicly of the incident. The Bulls declined to comment for this story, and the network did not respond to a request to speak about him.) Dore was not terminated on the spot, but his contract was not renewed following the '07-08 season. And although word came down from the network, "without a doubt," Dore says, "the team is the one that's going to make that call."

In 2009, Dore became the voice of the Lingerie Football League—later the Legends Football League—which was broadcast on MTV. After three years, he jumped to college hoops on the West Coast and then to Houston for high school and collegiate sports. Dore wanted back into NBA broadcasting, but, then 51, nobody would return his calls. "My buddy said: 'Stop beating your head against the wall. Go find something else.'" Dore shifted careers, investing in biofuels, and is now CEO of TARendiesel.

After he openly questioned Ben Gordon's commitment to the Bulls, team TV play-by-play man Tom Dore found that his contract was not renewed.
After he openly questioned Ben Gordon's commitment to the Bulls, team TV play-by-play man Tom Dore found that his contract was not renewed.J. Pat Carter/Associated Press

In retrospect, Dore seems like an early victim of the broadcasting industry's evolution. "The recruiting part of [broadcasting] got more and more intense as we got further along," he says. Two years after Dore was let go, the Bulls went all-out to try to sign LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, presenting "an elaborate, three-hour pitch" to James, per the Chicago Tribune

Dore often wonders about where this is all heading.

"A year down the road we're not going to be critical of anyone," he says.

"I've thought about this a lot since I got fired."

When NBA basketball arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1974, Phil Chenier was there. In the Bullets' inaugural season, he was an All-Star at shooting guard, averaging 21.8 points per game.

Ten years later, when regional sports TV arrived in Washington, Chenier was there again as a broadcaster, a job he has held for 34 years and counting. In all, he has been a part of Washington basketball for more than four decades. Last year, his No. 45 jersey was retired at Capital One Arena. At the ceremony, team owner Ted Leonsis called Chenier "the face of the organization through good times and bad times."

Indeed, when it comes to the NBA and NBA broadcasting, Chenier has seen it all. And these days, he's not so sure he likes what he sees.

"I just feel like this is getting out of hand where these players have command and there's so much cowering down to that," he says. "I like seeing players being paid, but this freedom to pick and choose where to go and say, 'I want to combine with this team and do this and that' is just—I just feel like it's too much leverage. I'm speaking from someone who's 68, from a different generation. My friends just say, 'You don't know.' So be it. This is a part of the problem. These teams are so afraid of not only the players but the players' agents, so they don't want to do anything that might upset them."

On November 10, 2015, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder visited the Wizards in Washington, Durant's hometown. Ahead of that game, much was made of Durant's impending free agency and the possibility of his returning home to the Wizards in the summer.

The situation in Washington was similar to that in Los Angeles today: A franchise not known for luring superstar free agents was excitedly in the hunt, hoping to change its luck. Durant represented Washington's chance to join the Eastern Conference elite. Like many hopeful franchises before them, the Wizards had allowed players, namely Trevor Ariza, to walk in free agency to maintain cap space. KD2DC became a popular hashtag.

The buzz reached Chenier in the broadcast booth. "Something was said on how we should handle our conversation on Kevin Durant," Chenier says. (The Wizards declined to comment for this story.) "Word was spread out that we would do everything possible to get KD here, and things that should be done and shouldn't be done seemed to be passed along." He adds, "It was clear that that was the intent of the organization and that we needed to get on board to make sure that we didn't cross them up in any kind of way."

Chenier was not only frustrated by this exercise but also wonders what the point of it was. He doubts players care about broadcasters and their opinions.

Regarding Leonard, he says: "If he wanted to go to the Clippers, the fact Bruce Bowen's doing the games isn't going to stop him from doing that. Likewise, the fact they fired him won't make it better. That's gutless, really."

At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Mike Barrett and Mike Rice, the beloved Blazers broadcast tandem, figured they were heading for an extension. They'd worked together for 10 years and had one year remaining on their contracts. Ratings were strong. Locally, they'd earned a reputation as homers.

Mike Rice @mikerice6

"@Jeff_Curtin: Again we have been photo bombed by @WillTheThrillB5 @CSNNW #RipCity http://t.co/LfOF5eCIYp"bombed again

Portland broadcasts had a distinct feel under their control, especially during home games. Damian Lillard would whip the crowd into a frenzy with some 30-foot fourth-quarter bomb. Barrett, the play-by-play man, would let fly an exalted "Yes!" as Lillard tapped his wrist, signaling "Dame Time." Rice would lose it. "What time is it, Damian?!" he would holler.

Passion was Rice's calling card; he was nicknamed the "Wild One." "You hate to be known as the only announcer kicked out of a game by a ref," Rice says. But in 1994, while working Blazers radio, he so detested a call that went against Portland that he got into it with referee Steve Javie, who tossed him from the game. "David Stern called me and said, 'Mike, don't go off and give interviews like you did something great.' The problem was I'd already given about eight before he called me."

Previously, Rice had been a national broadcaster for ESPN, which required some degree of detachment and restraint. There is no sentimental feel to national broadcasts. "You did your game, then went and did another," Rice says. He brought little of that attitude to Portland and NBC Sports Northwest.

"You almost have to throw out any training that you have," Rice says of regional broadcasting jobs. "You could criticize the other team and the refs, and that made you a great announcer. In Portland, the bigger the homer, the better. A lot of times you'd sit back and think, Jeez, maybe I'm going overboard. But, no, it was, 'What a great broadcast!'"

Rice and Barrett shared an easy relationship in Portland. Rice was a classically animated color man. Barrett was a natural foil—composed but partial to the Blazers. A 50-50 ball might have deflected off the opposition last. A defender might not have set his feet in time against Lillard. The team was fun and good. Management was mostly hands-off.

"People thought we were being told what to say and what direction to take," says Barrett. "I can tell you in my 17 years with the Blazers, I was never coaxed or influenced or threatened to say one thing or another about a certain player."

One June afternoon in 2016, Mike and Mike met with the heads of marketing and broadcasting, per Barrett. The conference took place at the network's facility, away from the team, officially. "Broadcasters are always kind of in the demilitarized zone," Barrett says. At meeting's end, Barrett and Rice left unemployed. (Radio analyst Antonio Harvey was let go as well.)

The network may have delivered the news, but according to one source close to the situation, it wasn't initially consulted about the decision to let go of Barrett and Rice. Officially, the Blazers cited "a new creative direction" as the reason for change.

The team installed Kevin Calabro, who had previously been the Seattle Sonics' play-by-play man for 21 years, as the new voice of the Trail Blazers.

Fans quickly took to Reddit and change.org to protest the move. The Ringer published an appreciation of the tandem. Longtime Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano wrote, "Looks like Seattle finally got an NBA team back," connecting Calabro's Seattle roots with those of the late, Seattle-born Blazers owner Paul Allen, who owned the Seattle Seahawks and co-founded Microsoft. (There had long been speculation that Allen might move the team, but it never seemed to carry much weight; Allen purchased the franchise in 1988 and signed a 30-year lease in Portland in 1995.)

When former Seattle SuperSonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro (here with former Sonic Ray Allen) was hired by the Trail Blazers, many fans saw it as a grand plan by Paul Allen to bring a piece of his hometown to the NBA team he owned.
When former Seattle SuperSonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro (here with former Sonic Ray Allen) was hired by the Trail Blazers, many fans saw it as a grand plan by Paul Allen to bring a piece of his hometown to the NBA team he owned.Jeff Reinking/Getty Images

It's possible that some degree of internal strife or fatigue played a role, too—at least for Rice. He had been in Portland for 25 years and, like Dore and Chenier, felt uneasy about how the league's evolution was affecting the job.

"If someone's having a great night [against Portland], you've got to say it, you've got to do the game. But at the same time if you start being too critical, or—" Rice pauses for a moment. "In the modern NBA, the star player has the power." He adds, "If he's unhappy, then management is unhappy, and in the old days it wasn't to that point. You could say something about Clyde Drexler, and Clyde might say something to you, but you'd have lunch with him the next day. But now if a star says something to the VP of sales or something, then the VP of sales goes to the president, who goes to the owner, and we go, Ooh, we gotta keep this guy happy."

Regardless of the team's motivation, the firing of Barrett and Rice underscored the fickle nature of a local broadcasting career. One source within the NBC Sports Group was "crazy surprised" that the tandem was let go, considering their talent and local support. The broadcasters shared the feeling.

"We were blindsided," says Rice, who is now retired and living in Florida. He still follows the team closely. "Blazers may have to change p&r defense," he recently tweeted. "Boston guards are more dangerous off dribble than bigs getting alley oop dunk."

Barrett, meanwhile, never left the Northwest. Today, he is spearheading the Portland Diamond Project, which aims to bring pro baseball to the City of Roses. Barrett says he had a chance to stay in the NBA but opted instead to move on.

Until Dore's departure, he was mostly left alone by Chicago management, save for one instance, which occurred during halftime of a game in the early 2000s. Dore and Kerr were talking about the opponent's habit of drafting talented players and then losing them and thought little of the discussion.

At the break, Dore says the Bulls' director of broadcasting approached the booth. "He said, 'The owner of the [other team] is on a boat somewhere watching and called [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf and said, 'Can you get your guys off my ass a little bit?'"

It was a preseason game.

"I've heard the stories," says Hastings, the Nuggets color man. "I've heard of a GM walking out at halftime to get in a play-by-play guy's face, or postgame a GM catches the play-by-play guy walking off the floor. I've heard the horror stories, but lucky for me I haven't had that."

Nuggets TV analyst Scott Hastings feels it is his job to assess a game and players honestly but to also know when to not go overboard in a critique.
Nuggets TV analyst Scott Hastings feels it is his job to assess a game and players honestly but to also know when to not go overboard in a critique.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Perhaps Denver is a gold standard, but that doesn't grant its broadcasters carte blanche. Nuggets games are broadcast on Altitude Sports and Entertainment, which is owned by Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, whose founder and CEO is Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke. "Our checks are signed by the same guy that signs the players' checks," Hastings says.

There are similar situations elsewhere in the NBA. In New York, for instance, Knicks games air on MSG Network, a subsidiary of Madison Square Garden Company, whose founder and CEO is Knicks owner James Dolan. Since 2016, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, whose CEO is Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, has owned a stake in NBC Sports Washington, which broadcasts Wizards games.

In more recent years, Chenier has felt the presence of upper management. "It's no longer a mom and pop business anymore. There's a lot of money at stake," Chenier says. "I've heard story after story about how these presidents and GMs are so concerned about their marquee player."

There have been times, says Chenier, when Wizards management would call Washington's broadcasters if they were being hard on a player—usually a rookie.

"If you have a draft pick that you picked, especially high in the first round, that's not doing well, I guarantee you that if you get too critical, you will hear from somebody," Chenier says.

To these calls, Chenier would reply: "Wait, I played this game! I know what I see."

There are many franchises that do not have ownership stakes in their regional sports networks, but team influence remains. The Clippers are one example. Portland is another. "The Blazers ran their own broadcast 100 percent," Rice says. "The stations we were on had absolutely no say about on-air product."

Everybody talks about "the line."

"In our business, in terms of doing color, you walk a fine line," says Chenier.

Phil Chenier, whose tenure with Washington basketball is so strong his number was recently retired by the Wizards, has not been immune to an organizational buzz that team broadcasters tread lightly in their comments about Kevin Durant as he was nearing free agency in 2016.
Phil Chenier, whose tenure with Washington basketball is so strong his number was recently retired by the Wizards, has not been immune to an organizational buzz that team broadcasters tread lightly in their comments about Kevin Durant as he was nearing free agency in 2016.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Adds Rice: "There's a fine line about how to broadcast if you're a home announcer in the NBA to try to keep everybody happy."

But what is the line, and where is it? Kelenna Azubuike, who retired in 2012 and now works Warriors games for NBC Sports Bay Area, thinks he knows.

"I put myself in players' shoes—how would I want to be talked about if I'm going to be criticized?" says Azubuike. "I never go at them personally, never cross that line, and I think all analysts should stick to that. You should never bash their character. It should be basketball. We're analyzing basketball."

Then again, Azubuike doesn't think Bowen overstepped the line.

Neither did Bowen, who seemed to speak for local broadcasters everywhere during his interview with Patrick.

"I feel like this," he said. "As an analyst, as a former player, as a guy that used to talk to Kawhi a lot, I think it's important that I can say the truth and be able to face his mother. You know, I'm not tearing him down, but I am talking about the way you go about things."

He added: "As an analyst, I'm supposed to talk about what I see and what I feel for this game that I love. So, if you can't do that, what does that say about your organization?"


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