As the NBA finals begin, basketball fans await the fourth straight championship matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. But in televising the finals, the ESPN broadcasting trio of announcer Mike Breen and color commentators Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy will offer entertainment of their own.
Known for their colorful asides, the trio’s banter can—and often does—make blowout games as amusing, if not as compelling, as last-second nailbiters.
Crazy Uncle or Amateur Comedy Team?
Although technically not anchoring the announcing team, Van Gundy serves as the centerpiece of the broadcast action. A former head coach for the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, Van Gundy’s greatest moment of NBA “fame” came when he clung to the leg of Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning during a fight on the floor of Madison Square Garden in New York:
To say that Jeff Van Gundy has no filter in the broadcast booth would imply that he ever has one—a dubious proposition. While Van Gundy will say anything that pops into his head, former NBA All-Star and coach Jackson provides a laid-back vibe that contrasts with Van Gundy’s slightly neurotic personality.
Meanwhile, lead announcer Breen generally keeps the focus on the on-court action—or tries to, at least—playing the father-like figure to Van Gundy’s “crazy uncle” role.
Van Gundy’s Greatest Hits
Some of Van Gundy’s colorful analogies deal directly with basketball. For instance, during the Eastern Conference finals, he highlighted the Cleveland Cavaliers’ dysfunction: “The Cavs eyeroll each other more than a couple in a bad marriage.”
But many of Van Gundy’s comments have little to do with the action on the court. Here are just some of the detours Van Gundy took his announcing colleagues on over the past few months of NBA broadcasts.
Second Cousins: “What does second cousins mean?” “Well, it’s not, it’s not…I…I can’t…I don’t want to go into it.” “When people say that, I never know what they mean—or what you’re allowed to do when you’re a second cousin.” “What are you talking about?…I am so grateful for this commercial right now.”
Car Washing: “It’s a ripoff…everybody in America knows it’s a ripoff…No, I’m not going with the ripoff of the undercarriage, like, they charge you eight more bucks, and then—the—you know, whatever wax they rip you off for. You start with a five dollar wash—by the time you walk out of there it’s 23 bucks. It’s ridiculous—I’m not doing it.” “I’m not playing the car wash game. I know after years of study that it’s an absolute ripoff.”
The Royal Wedding: “How about that royal wedding today? That was nice—that was a great wedding.” “How about you setting your alarm clock to get up at 5 AM to watch it?” “I did! I’m telling you—everything was stunningly beautiful. The queen is awesome. Lime green dress—rocking the lime green. I loved it.” “If people only knew how sentimental you were.” “Oh, I mean—I was in tears!”
Jackson generally plays the straight-man role, needling Van Gundy about waking up at 5 a.m. to watch the royal wedding, or refusing to get his car washed, or suggesting that rules expert Steve Javie was “creating a monster here” by envisioning a scenario where Van Gundy became an NBA referee. The interplay between Jackson’s mellow yin and Van Gundy’s hyperactive yang provides comedic value even in the most lopsided contest.
During a 30-point Cavaliers win during the Eastern Conference finals, announcer Breen admitted “I get so nervous when we get blowout games,” because Van Gundy could go off-topic and talk about anything.
But while such a scenario would mean boring basketball, it also means good off-court entertainment from the broadcast crew. I wouldn’t mind seeing a blowout or two in the finals if it means more amusing episodes such as those listed above.
During the opening game of last year’s finals, Van Gundy helped create his own Twitter meme, when he focused more on the appearance of Rihanna—with whom he has a history—than a monster slam dunk by Cavaliers forward LeBron James: “I don’t know about this, but Rihanna just walked in front of me! Are you kidding me!”
Will a similar moment happen during this year’s finals? There’s only one way to find out.