One of my more extravagant purchases each year is the NBA League pass from Time-Warner, which doubles as a Christmas present and lets me watch every Lakers game. Granted, the Lakers are on roughly 25 times on national TV anyway, but this gives me the opportunity to view the other 60-plus games. But as an NBA junkie, I get the league pass so I can also watch every other game that's on every night. To me, it's one of the greatest innovations in television history, ahead of HDTV, TiVo, and maybe even the remote. So when I need to watch a Bucks-Kings game in mid-January, a game that probably only a few dozen people in Milwaukee and Sacramento even care about, I can.
It's also exposed me to every announcing crew in the league, requiring me to listen to the over-the-top calls and plaintive cries of homers in every NBA city. Some are obviously more blatant than others.
The King of homers - the Babe Ruth of homers, the Beatles of homers, the Mozart of homers, the fill-in-the-blank with your own analogy of homers - is Boston's Tommy Heinsohn. A member of the Celtics family since being drafted by the team in the late 1950s, Heinsohn seems convinced that the reason the franchise has won only 17 titles and not 52 is that the referees are involved in a Donaghy-like conspiracy every game. The next foul committed by a Celtic in Tommy's eyes will be the first. Heinsohn doesn't talk. He bellows. When the Celtics were Pittsburgh Pirates-like in their ineptitude a few years ago, Heinsohn was tolerable. Now that they've again ascended to the top of the league, Heinsohn's difficult to take, despite the fact he's paired with Mike Gorman, one of the best - and most impartial - play-by-play guys in any sport.
As for the above video: Tommy, he got him with the body. The most remarkable thing about Heinsohn's career is that he was the national color guy for CBS in the 1980s, at the height of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. It was like having Rush Limbaugh handle commentary on the Democratic National Convention, but with more bias.
Most teams have homers for announcers, but not all. For instance, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello handle the calls for the Nets, who are on their way to becoming one of the worst teams in NBA history (so bad, they're the only team the Timberwolves beat). Albert remains the best play-by-play game in basketball. He still calls games for TNT. Fratello was NBC's lead analyst for years and also works for TNT. Having these guys call Nets games would be like having Spielberg and Scorsese team up to direct a junior high play.
This year League Pass occasionally offers viewers the chance to choose between both teams' announcing crews, providing even better examples of the different ways broadcasters see the same game. Watch one channel and hear the analyst bemoan "an obvious blocking call." Turn the channel and hear another analyst say "that was an obvious charge. Easy call for the ref." They need a third network of unbiased announcers to render the final verdict.
A quick tour of some of the other crews.
Minnesota: Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen. Poor Tom and Jim. How do you make the current version of the Timberwolves sound good?
"Jefferson, on the blocks, turns, got it! Wolves cut the deficit to 27."
Petersen's a solid analyst while Hanneman is the most optimistic person this side of my mom. If the Timberwolves do ever win a title, it will be strange listening to Hanneman because he won't sound anymore excited than he is when the team only loses by eight points to a team that's four games above .500.
Knicks: Mike Breen and Walt Frazier. Breen handles Knicks calls when he's not working for ABC or ESPN. For years Marv Albert was the play-by-play man for New York - he was actually synonymous with the Knicks - but was eventually let go, with many people suspecting the Knicks got rid of him because he wasn't enough of a homer. Breen and Frazier are critical of the Knicks when needed, which is about 73 games a season. Frazier's known for his rhymes and riffs - "Kobe Bryant dishing and swishing," - which sound like lines he wrote in the hotel the night before the game. "Ok, what rhymes with post? Roast? No, toast! Shaquille posts and toasts Eddy Curry."
It's not often the most in-depth commentary but when you're Clyde Frazier and you're in New York and you were part of the 1970 team that Knicks fans still drool over, you somehow pull it off without sounding ridiculous. Just like he pulled off this look.
Lakers: Joel Meyers and Stu Lantz. Meyers is a solid play-by-play guy. For the Lakers, though, solid doesn't satisfy the fans, especially when Meyers has followed the incomparable Chick Hearn. Pete Myers had more success following Michael Jordan than Joel's had following Chick. Lantz - who worked with Chick for years - has no problem criticizing the Lakers. In fact, he'll get upset when a 20-point lead gets knocked down to 15, imploring the Lakers to "build the lead," apparently not realizing that's a tough chore whenever Sasha Vujacic and Adam Morrison are on the floor together. Lantz might be best known for the mock conversations he offers, which are usually as annoying as they are strange.
"So Pau Gasol gets the ball in the post and looks around. He says, 'Oh, there's Kobe Bryant cutting to the basket. I like Kobe, I think he'll score. So let me pass it.' And Kobe gets the pass and says, 'Thanks, Pau, nice to have you with us. Let me just go up, do a reverse, spin it off the glass and lay it in for two points.' Phil Jackson sees that and says, 'I like this team.' Lakers lead it, 78-67."
It seems weird writing it. Hearing it is even odder.
Portland: Mike Barrett and Mike Rice. Occasional challengers to Heinsohn's homer throne, Mike and Mike haven't seen a correct foul call on the Blazers since Buck Williams played power forward for the team. Barrett, in particular, utilizes a dismissive, often sarcastic tone. It's almost possible to see him shaking his head as he laments the latest travesty to befall the Blazers. Barrett and Rice are must-listens to me when the Blazers are losing, as it's enjoyable to hear the whining and near-teary commentary.
Most teams employ former players as the analyst, a role that doesn't always play to their strengths. They could play the game. Talking about it? Not as graceful. But they are enthusiastic, which is probably the station's top requirement for their broadcasters. Clyde Drexler in Houston is one of those guys, as is Tommy Heinsohn, of course. But as mentioned, Heinsohn gets his own wing in the Homer Hall of Fame.
One of the better crews broadcasts for Sacramento, Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds, a longtime Kings employee and former coach. Fair to both teams while still pulling for the Kings, Napear and Reynolds support Sacramento without being completely over-the-top. They praise the opposition when necessary and aren't afraid to criticize the Kings.
As I flick through the channels, I'll unfortunately never find who I'm really looking for: Chick Hearn. The most legendary basketball announcer there ever was, Hearn was as much a Laker as Magic or West. But what made him a great announcer and not just an LA legend was that he was never afraid to criticize the Lakers, even the Showtime teams of the 1980s. In the video below, Hearn takes Mychal Thompson to task for a series of bricks. Fifty percent of guys broadcasting games today would see the same shots and praise Thompson's use of the backboard.