A Lesson in Chemistry From the NBA and ESPN

Posted on June 13, 2011


As the NBA season ends I want to thank the Dallas Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors.

The Mavericks stopped the “big three” from being an instant success and I think that’s great. I’m sure the Miami Heat will win plenty of championships, I’m just glad they didn’t prove to be immediately superior to everyone else.

Much more important, to me at least, is the Golden State Warriors naming ESPN NBA commentator Mark Jackson as their new head coach.

Thank You!!!

For me, listening to Jackson and his two co-hosts, play-by-play guy Mike Breen and former Knicks’ coach Jeff Van Gundy, has been painful.

I’ve been longing for the commentators from TNT, especially the in-studio crew with Charles Barkley, Kenny “The Jet” Smith and Ernie Johnson.

I realize the two teams are playing different roles. The ESPN crew is commenting on a live game while the TNT guys are providing in-studio analysis but the contrast between the two is incredible.

The TNT crew is fun to watch. They provide really interesting analysis and have a good time doing it.

ESPN coverage is the exact opposite. The analysis is not nearly as insightful and they surely aren’t having any fun.

So last night, while I watched the game, I made a point of listening to ESPN’s coverage with a critical ear. I wanted to analyze why it wasn’t working.

Here’s what I noticed:

1) The ESPN team doesn’t talk to each other, they talk at each other. Jackson and Van Gundy take turns making declarations about the game without any regard for what the other guy just said.

2) Jackson and Van Gundy fill the same role. On paper it looks great; a former coach and a former player providing two unique perspectives on the game.

The problem is Jackson has been actively searching for a coaching job. So instead we got a former coach and an aspiring coach.

3) Mike Breen is no Ernie Johnson. One of the joys of the TNT team is Johnson, who plays the role of traffic cop and whipping post with great aplomb. Barkley and Johnson tease him mercilessly which he takes in-stride while gently moving the conversation along.

These are good lessons for anyone who is part of a team show.

1) Talk TO each other, not AT each other. Making absolute statements leaves the other team members with two bad choices. They can disagree with the comment which turns the show into one big argument or they can ignore them which robs the show, and listeners, of any insightful discussion.

2) Team shows need a range of characters. Think about successful ensemble shows like Cheers, Seinfeld or The Sopranos. Each character brings a distinct, unique perspective to the plot or topic.

3) Someone has to be the straight man. It’s a tough gig. It requires sacrificing the ego boost of delivering the funny lines but someone has to do it. Johnson plays it perfectly.

Next season I will be cheering loudly for the Golden State Warriors because their success will keep Mark Jackson far away from the broadcast booth.