ESPN’s NBA Finals Studio Shows Keep Missing the Point


The Ringer 15 July, 2021 - 07:05pm 19 views

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The network’s pregame and halftime productions are a collection of hastily delivered mini opinions that vanish before your eyes

Like an aging scout, I watched Wednesday’s halftime show with a timer. First, host Maria Taylor threw it to Jalen Rose. Rose’s spiel (saluting Devin Booker) lasted 9.86 seconds. Williams went next. He talked for 9.38 seconds about Giannis Antetokounmpo. Adrian Wojnarowski chipped in 9.93 seconds about Chris Paul. There was some sponsored “brought to you by” stuff. Then the segment was over. The editorial part lasted less than one minute.

The weirder part is the way ESPN has set up its analysts to interact with one another. Basically, they don’t. They don’t get to challenge or clarify one another’s points. They don’t nudge one another toward something interesting. They “hand off,” in a time-honored TV sense, rather than have an actual conversation. Remember when the Suns whipped the ball around in Game 2 and ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said Hoosiers coach Norman Dale would approve? Norman Dale would love NBA Countdown’s halftime show. I think he may have become its coordinating producer.

For more than a week, ESPN has been reeling from Rachel Nichols’s disparaging comments about Taylor, which revealed fissures at the network and led ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro to announce a company-wide town hall. (As Michael McCarthy reported Wednesday night, Taylor might be headed to NBC when her contract expires this month.) ESPN has a second problem, one that has everything to do with the producers and nothing to do with the people on the air. Countdown is structured all wrong. It minimizes the participants in favor of ads, slick production, and equal air time. It has made it impossible for the analysts to leave viewers with so much as a memorable line.

Take Game 4’s pregame show. Some executive at ESPN probably said, “Um, could we try to give this show some of the magic of College GameDay?” On Wednesday, ESPN put its hosts on a platform high above Milwaukee’s Deer District. Taylor prodded the crowd to chant “Bucks in six,” making the crowd a participant in the show, just like they are on GameDay.

But with a half-hour to set up Game 4, ESPN slowed down its fast break only slightly. Counting Taylor’s intros and setups, the crew analyzed the game for about three and half minutes. Once again, they delivered takes (usually with a stat included) in a scripted sequence rather than having a conversation that might take them somewhere different and interesting. Given the massive audience of the Finals, its pregame shows don’t have to sound like The Lowe Post. They just need to sound like people talking basketball, preferably with one another.

For its second segment, the studio crew threw to ESPN sideline reporter Malika Andrews for an interview with the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. Like pregame interviews across sports, viewers saw only a single quote. Then NBA commissioner Adam Silver stopped by for a chat with the crew. Sample question: “What kind of journey has the league been on to make it to this moment?” And: “What has it been like for you as the commissioner and for the league to see so many young stars emerge on this big stage?”

There was a final three-man weave between Rose, Williams, and Wojnarowski. Then Taylor threw it to the court.

There, we met ESPN’s three game announcers: Breen and analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. For some reason, ESPN has decided that Van Gundy and Jackson should provide more mini opinions.

Jackson began with a point about Antetokounmpo’s “historic numbers.” Van Gundy talked about the Bucks defense. Van Gundy talked about Booker bouncing back. Jackson talked about Deandre Ayton. Van Gundy and Jackson could have said all of these things during the next two hours. It felt like they were unveiling video and graphics packages because a producer said they ought to.

On Countdown, ESPN’s announcers talk fast and look like they are always straining to stay on schedule. There are no Barkleyesque declarations that the Bucks are the “dumbest team.” No let’s-settle-down-here raised eyebrows from someone like Kenny Smith. No one has the time.

ESPN isn’t the first network to treat its studio shows like this. If you watch the NFL, you see the same technique on almost every network. There are philosophies behind this: equal apportionment of precious TV minutes, careful prep to avoid Charles Barkley’s (or Stephen A. Smith’s) frequent disasters.

When you focus on production, rather than human interaction, you slowly unmoor yourself from the way sports fans talk to one another. As an executive told me not long ago, “TV people make TV shows for TV people more than they do for viewers.”

That’s what ESPN is doing here. That and making a show for the sponsors. On Wednesday, ESPN wedged in 29 commercials between the second and third quarters. As the old announcer Bob Wolff once noted:

It’s not news that live sports is an ad-delivery vehicle. Ideally, though, you should remember a point one of the panelists made more than the phrase “Oculus from Facebook.”

With its basketball studio shows, ESPN has been trying to catch up to Barkley and TNT’s Inside the NBA for more than a decade. (My boss Bill Simmons was once part of this effort.) Trying to reengineer Barkley is as futile as the networks’ effort to hatch their own “baby” John Maddens back in the 1990s.

The thing ESPN could easily steal from TNT is the structure and pace of its show. As NBA writers point out, the stuff Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal say on TV is often completely at odds with the way the game is actually played. But it’s delivered at a fairly leisurely pace, so the analyst doesn’t look like a bench player trying to get off a shot every time he gets the mic. Plus, there’s time for another panelist to object.

Rose et al. could have that kind of conversation and retrofit it with a few advanced stats. And if ESPN thinks its postgame should mostly reside on Scott Van Pelt’s SportsCenter, the network can still fix the halftime and the pregame shows. As Rose likes to say, you’ve got to give the people what they want.

When ESPN rethinks its NBA studio show for next season, perhaps without Taylor, it has to undo its basic production philosophy like a new general manager corrects the approach of his predecessor. The unkindest thing I can say about ESPN’s Finals studio show is that it would set up even Charles Barkley to fail.

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Nearly 50 Years Ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Called For An End To Institutional Racism In Milwaukee. Little Has Changed.

Wisconsin Public Radio News 15 July, 2021 - 09:15pm

Milwaukee Bucks' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shows the form on his hook shot that the Los Angeles Lakers couldn't stop in their NBA Western Division playoff game in Los Angeles April 5, 1974. Jabbar is shooting over Lakers' Elmore Smith. Jabbar scored 31 points to lead the Bucks to a 112-90 victory. George Brich/AP Photo

The last time the Milwaukee Bucks were in the NBA Finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the star of the team and a prominent civil rights advocate.

He was instrumental in the Bucks winning the NBA Finals in 1971, and he'd be named the NBA's MVP three times in the next four years. And while Abdul-Jabbar was giving everything he had to the team, he was also bringing racial inequalities and lack of access to jobs for people of color to the forefront.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the Bucks finally have another chance to bring home the championship title. But the players and their organization see the same problems in Milwaukee.

In April 1974, as the Bucks were looking ahead to another run at the finals, Abdul-Jabbar told a reporter that being Black in America meant being a second-class citizen.

"All the benefits of American society has been denied to us," Abdul-Jabbar said. "And that has to be changed. And it has to be changed soon, because people’s lives depend on it." 

It wasn't the first time Abdul-Jabbar called for social justice while he was in Milwaukee and over the last year, the Milwaukee Bucks have done it again. Players marched with Black Lives Matter protesters last summer and the Bucks were the first team in the league not to participate in their playoff game following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha last August.

During a playoff pregame press conference, former Bucks player Wesley Matthews told reporters police killings of Black men took a heavy toll. 

"We saw an opportunity to show we’re human," Matthews said. "To show that this is visibly and emotionally and physically impactful. Even though we are here, in a bubble."

In recent years, the Bucks and downtown Milwaukee have been on the rebound. The downtown Deer District has attracted more than 20,000 fans a night during the playoffs and finals. 

But the benefits for downtown business people largely have not extended to Milwaukee's Black community. There aren’t many good jobs in the city's predominantly-Black neighborhoods, incarceration rates are some of the highest in the nation, and schools are racially segregated. 

Marc Levine, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emeritus of history, economic development and urban studies, recently looked at racial inequality measures in the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. Milwaukee ranked last.

"The Bucks were playing great basketball and Jabbar was the greatest player on Earth, he called attention to this issue and here we are 50 years later, where on most indicators, the situation for African Americans in Milwaukee is worse than it was when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played here," Levine said.  

According to Levine and his research:

The unforgiving downsizing of Milwaukee’s heavy manufacturing sector that started in the 1970s hit the city’s Black middle-class community the hardest and parts of the city never recovered.

Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson said without a foundation of education and employment, a city has nothing to stand on.

"Former Mayor John Norquist used to say you can’t build a city on pity, and you certainly can’t build a city without those two things as a foundation," Johnson said.

Levine says the extreme segregation in Milwaukee is one of the biggest hurdles to building equitable communities. 

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He doesn’t think people should continue operating under the assumption that individuals in Milwaukee have the same lived experiences and daily lives.

"If you are poor in this city, and you live in the Hillside projects where I live, which is only about six or seven blocks from the arena, this doesn’t mean anything to you," Fuller said.

Fuller said if there was going to be a tremendous infusion of resources into the city’s poorest communities because of the Bucks’ success, he would feel differently, but he doesn’t believe that will happen.

"You know you want to go down there to the Deer District and jump up and down there and all that, that’s cool. But to act like that has meaning, for the majority of Black people who live in this city, that’s just fantasy," Fuller said. 

Arvind Gopalratnam is the vice president of corporate social responsibility for the Bucks. He agrees with Fuller — but he also believes sports can bring people together.

Gopalratnam is the first member of his family not born in India. He’s the only Indian-American to hold his job title in the NBA.

He's frustrated by the lack of progress for people of color, but thinks this Finals run is a great opportunity for the city.

"With that frustration there is a multitude of incredible pockets of positivity and programs and efforts that are incredibly enhancing the community, and those are the things we want to keep pushing," Gopalratnam said." There is an amazing under-told story, all the great things that do happen in this community, and that's what I want to be part of as well." 

Mark Thomsen represented former Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown in his lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee after Milwaukee police officers forced Brown to the ground and Tased him outside a Walgreens in 2018.

It took the Common Council three years to approve a $750,000 settlement and several changes in operating procedures within the police department, including an anti-racist policing policy.

He recently read Abdul-Jabbar's 2016 book "Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White" and a passage made him think of what is happening in Milwaukee:  

When it comes to securing equal opportunity to thrive, African Americans must grasp in the here and now — or what’s a Constitution for? The problem is the longer that we continue to deny the problem exists, the longer it takes to solve it.

"White Milwaukee, white Wisconsin has failed to step up and address this institutional racism that is killing us as a disease," Thomsen said. "Until we figure out how to measure it and how to measure success and take significant steps to overcome the injustice, we’re going to fail that."

Gopalratnam said the Bucks are going to continue being advocates for social and racial justice in Milwaukee. When players join the organization conversations are had about addressing these injustices and as a whole, there is a positive response, Gopalratnam said.

"We recognize that we may not be able to change the world, but we can certainly put forth some collaborative effort to make some change here locally," Gopalratnam said. "When you have the global microphone at your door step, we want to continue to celebrate the great things happening in our city and utilize this platform going forward." 

I really don’t know how to put into words exactly how I feel, but one thing I know for sure is that enough is enough! It’s time for change! #GeorgeFloyd #AhmaudArbery

— Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) May 31, 2020

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