Weeks after ESPN split up the NBA’s quirkiest broadcast TRIO by inexplicably laying off Jeff Van Gundy, the suits in Bristol had a high bar to reach for the new three-man-weave in its NEXT lead broadcast team. Mike Breen was a certified starter as the voice of the Worldwide Leader’s play-by-play NBA coverage. Monday, the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that Doris Burke and erstwhile coach Doc Rivers are the heir apparent being tapped to lead ESPN’s NBA game coverage.
Prior to the announcement, there was a distinct possibility a third analyst would be shoehorned in between Mark Jackson and Breen. Van Gundy would have been a tough act to follow. Van Gundy and Jackson were as much of a character-driven broadcast duo as any in sports. And that’s without taking into account Breen as the bewildered straight man in their hysterical dynamic.
Once Van Gundy was gone, Jackson was living on borrowed time. They had their warts. Van Gundy’s stray thoughts were humanizing and endearing. Additionally, Van Gundy’s penchant for challenging NBA authority proved valuable to the NBA discourse, especially in contrast to Jackson’s steadfast commitment to the status quo.
However, if the reports of ESPN preferring JJ Redick and Richard Jefferson as B-team game analysts are true, then Jackson would be relegated to the end of the NBA on ESPN’s bench. Reportedly, it took ESPN a few weeks to realize what anyone with common sense could have known in a nanosecond, which is that Jackson without Van Gundy was akin to Mero without Desus on late night. Van Gundy made Jackson more tolerable. ESPN’s options for Jackson sounded like they were to either stick around and do the occasional Mavericks-Jazz game on Friday nights or work for NBA TV.
Don’t be surprised if we see him at the latter soon. Jackson’s Instagram post on Monday night announcing his departure confirmed one portion of Marchand’s report.
“This morning, unexpectedly, I was informed that my services were no longer needed at ESPN. Although shocked and dismayed with the suddenness of it all, I would like to thank ESPN and all the staff of the NBA ESPN crew for allowing me to be a part of the organization for the past 15+ years,” Jackson explained in an earnest statement. “I would also like to thank the NBA fans watching at home and in the arenas throughout the league for all of your support. To the NBA, a heartfelt thank you for allowing a kid to continue to accomplish his dreams.”
One man’s downfall is another woman’s stepping stone. Doris Burke’s ascension to the No. 1 broadcast team is the culmination of a decades-long career maze through ESPN, ABC, college basketball, the WNBA, and the NBA. On one hand, she’s on tap to become the first woman to call a major U.S. men’s championship when she and Rivers call the NBA Finals next June. Her résumé as a professional and trailblazer is first-rate.
On the other hand, the paranoid contingent of hoopheads who have taken notice of Burke offering Tony Romo levels of overly enthusiastic praise for Phialdelphia’s Joel Embiid during games she calls will be deafeningly loud next season. In recent years, Burke’s one-sided adoration for Embiid and the Sixers has been pilloried by fan bases with a persecution complex, which is just about all of them.
Conversely, Doc Rivers hasn’t called a game in 20 years, but ESPN continues its tradition of serving as a de facto coaching graveyard for both the NBA and NFL. His ability to consistently wiggle into the most coveted jobs should be studied, published in scientific journals, and applied to job seekers everywhere. It’s not that Rivers is terrible at either coaching or broadcasting. But employers are constantly tripping over themselves to grant him these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in not one, but two of the most competitive fields in the sports ecosystem.
No other coach has bounced between coaching contenders, failing, and then getting second, third, and fourth chances quite like Rivers. Even more remarkable that he’s able to do so with the scratchiest voice in sports entertainment today. Get ready to hear Rivers’ static voice to pierce through your speakers this season.
More importantly, Rivers and Burke’s chemistry will be tested on the fly. Their predecessors Van Gundy and Jackson had two decades of chemistry to draw upon. At least Sixers-Celtics contests will be a must-see TV.
Rivers was part of the braintrust who helped Boston land its only NBA title in the last 35 years. His tactical miscues also kept those Boston teams from becoming a dynasty, and as coach of the Sixers, his inability to adjust proved advantageous to the Celtics in head-to-head playoff series. If Boston returns to the Finals, Rivers will be uniquely positioned to provide more insights into those matchups than anyone.
It’s still confusing why ESPN would split up a trio that was so well-received and even more so that Van Gundy was waived from their roster in a cost-cutting measure. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” must not be a mantra ESPN is familiar with. With Burke and Rivers in the hot seats, there will be more than enough reasons to love and hate the new duo. We’ll now get to see how the Burke, Rivers, and Breen trio works or how long it endures. Probably until Rivers gets contacted to coach the Toon Squad in Space Jam 3 or as Pop’s replacement in San Antonio. Don’t scoff. Rivers is just that good at job interviews.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex