There is the constant travel and the dreary tape-eating research and the broader long-season ennui and the oppressive non-negotiable formalwear, and all of that is unpleasant. All the bleak hotel club sandwiches and the time away from family and periodically having to go to literally Phoenix and then talk about the Suns. But the most unpleasant thing about talking about sports on television for a living has to be knowing that millions of at-home bad-attitude dumbasses sincerely believe that they could do your job as well or better than you do.
The fact of the matter is that the average bad-attitude dumbass would probably not be as good at talking about basketball on television as Mark Jackson. That is not a high bar, as Mark Jackson is and has long been deeply bad at talking about basketball on television, but also let’s remember his years of experience in that regard and how much difficulty most people have not cursing even once over the course of three hours of speech.
The real problem, though, is that the replacement-level dumbass and Mark Jackson would take a very similar approach to the job, and that the deciding factor would likely come down to diction or tie-knotting technique. As Jackson barks and grouses and generally slaughters the vibe during ABC’s broadcasts of the NBA Finals, this is a problem that seems...well, not urgent. Climate change is urgent, and this is just a goateed man from Brooklyn repeatedly making the point that it’s bad, from a basketball perspective, to make mistakes during a basketball game. But if it’s not urgent, it is most definitely a problem.
Every color commentator, like everyone else on earth, winds up pulling various aspects from variously inspirational forerunners in order to become whoever they will be. Little bits of some predecessor’s personality or performance grow into a symbiosis with the commentator’s own; commentators pick an established approach or tradition and try to work within it. Jackson is both a former player and a former coach, and as such is caught between two prominent approaches, and he toggles impatiently and with obvious displeasure between the two. At one moment, he does the ex-player thing of complaining about how the game has changed and saltily pointing out the many mistakes of the people still playing in the games. At another, he attempts a severely degraded version of The Hubie Brown Thing, veering hard into the intricacies of a play while more overtly awe-inspiring or comment-worthy things happen around him.
Jackson generally does a lousy job at both, for something like the same reason. He reverts with unseemly eagerness to decommissioned jock soothsaying about losing teams Playing Scared and winning ones Wanting It More. When he leans on the coach-y fine points, his observations tend to be strikingly banal—down three points late in a game? Please remember that you don’t need to take a three-pointer! Jackson’s stylistic signature, when in coach mode, is alighting on some minor point—it’s usually at least a real thing that happened, like a late defensive rotation or unwise challenge resulting in a foul—and then blows it up to IMAX scale, at which point it invariably becomes blurry and indistinct. Jackson is also a world-class reiterator, but often seems to choose the objects of his perseveration seemingly at random.
There is all sorts of historical context complicating any assessment of Jackson, who has been around through several different revolutions in the NBA. He had a long career in the league as a player, got into broadcasting, and then coached essentially the same roster that would become the apex-predator pre-Durant Warriors. Under Jackson, who was fired in 2014, the Warriors passed less than any other in the NBA; they threw nearly 63 more passes per game the next season and became the NBA’s top scoring team. Firing him was like taking a parking boot off a sports car. Jackson also indulged in some spectacularly weird shit as boss. There was the usual Dumb Guy paranoia and secret-keeping where his assistants and executives were concerned—he seems to have kept some of those beefs alive years later—but his attempt to bring his team together by painting backup center Festus Ezeli as a traitor and a villain was a journey into dark and uncharted territory.
Jackson seems like kind of a weird guy—here he is preaching himself hoarse on a street corner, for instance—but that’s in no way a disqualifying factor when it comes to being a good color commentator in sports. Bill Walton sounds like he’s doing a sarcastic imitation of someone trying to do color commentary; Hubie Brown is 85 years old and refuses to talk about anything but Floppy Action and inbounds plays. Jackson is a crustacean, but he knows basketball—or, anyway, the version of it that he holds to be canon—as well as anyone. None of these are normal people, but the reason Walton and Brown are good broadcasters and Jackson is not is because they are able to convey, in their different ways, that they are enjoying watching the basketball game they’re talking about while still providing some insight into what’s happening in that game.
The bigger issue for Jackson, as a performer, is that he just isn’t very generous. He’s a killjoy grouch, and that doesn’t help liven things up any more than you’d expect, but mostly he just doesn’t share space very well. He doesn’t necessarily talk over his teammates, although Jackson’s deep sourness doesn’t seem to have been a great influence on Jeff Van Gundy, a very smart basketball person who has curdled into a sort of mirthless Walton imitation alongside Jackson. It’s that he talks past them, and seemingly to himself. He reliably seems pleased with the points he’s made, and smugness is almost as poisonous where color commentators is concerned as sourness. But mostly he seems to be making and re-making the points he makes for his own aggrandizement.
Presumably ESPN and ABC have some data that shows people enjoy Jackson’s dour bullshit, and there’s a reason that dummies like me are not put in charge of decisions like Who Should We Have Talk About This Important Basketball Game. During the regular season, Jackson is easy enough to mute, and that may be the easiest solution here, as well. But it’s easy to see how much subtracting Jackson might add to this broadcasting team—by jarring Van Gundy out of his corny Statler And Waldorf routine with Jackson and back into Weird Coach Mode, by adding a former player who can speak on that side of the experience from a less ossified and peevish perspective, and perhaps most importantly by freeing Jackson to get back to work on holding Festus Ezeli accountable for his crimes. A series this interesting and this fun deserves commentary from someone who’s interested in something other than sucking the fun out of it so he can replace it with himself.