Imagine attempting to run a necessary errand before the start of Monday’s first playoff game. It’s the only time that you have during the day to complete this task. You scramble, get it completed and head home safely, but also with purpose, to get home and see as much of the first game as possible. Then you click on TNT and are greeted by a familiar voice. It can’t be! Oh, but it is. Gus Johnson calling an NBA playoff game. And after you hear that first “rise and fire,” it’s like the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is all on one channel again.
In all of the broadcaster renaissance of 2022, Johnson was left out. Sure he’s the voice of Big Ten Football on Fox, which is likely to continue with Fox re-upping its media rights agreement with the network and increasing its ownership of the Big Ten Network. Johnson also does NFL games for Fox, but Joe Buck’s role as No. 1 play-by-play announcer will be filled by Kevin Burkhardt.
The voice of Big Ten football along with NFL assignments, while significant, still feels a bit small for a broadcaster as beloved as Johnson. We love the Collinsworth slide, Romo going total football dork in the coolest way possible, and making memes of Mike Breen’s bang calls, but let Iowa be on the way back from a 10-point deficit on a Saturday afternoon in October. People will tune in to see how it ends, but almost as much, if not more, for Johnson’s reactions to how the game ends. The infamous Gus-gasim.
The enthusiasm makes him great for college sports, but there’s another extremely exciting game that is perfect for his style of broadcasting, basketball — specifically the NBA Playoffs. The opening weekend was packed with thrills, so why not let one of the world’s most perpetually excited people tell us the story of the game as it unfolds. He was paired with Greg Anthony on TNT for the Philadelphia 76ers’ 112-97 victory against the Toronto Raptors.
It was an unfortunate game to introduce Johnson to the NBA Playoff world. The Raptors were without star rookie forward Scottie Barnes, in Philadelphia. Johnson came out of the gates firing. With the game tied at 22-all in the fourth quarter, Johnson dropped a, “22 twos, as Jay-Z would say.” Man has never called an NBA Playoff game before, and outside of some occasional Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks games, does not work the NBA at all. Yet, he’s still comfortable enough in a new environment, and with a new broadcast partner, to timely drop a reference about a monster deep cut from Jay-Z’s first album.
The NBA knew what it was doing by putting Johnson onto a broadcast. Its social media team even put together highlights of Johnson’s best calls of the game. A good cut up, but they missed arguably the best moment, him reacting to Monty McCutchen’s three-piece look with the dark vest and beige jacket with matching polka dot bowtie (you gotta coordinate.) As soon as Johnson saw it, he could care less about whether or not Tobias Harris should have been called for a charge. That man is from Detroit, and there was no way he was going to continue without acknowledging that outfit. I just wish he would’ve said, “Monty, all we gotta do is get you some buffs and you’ll be ready for Saturday night.”
But see, this is why Johnson is great. It’s not just him yelling or the games that he calls having a supernatural tendency for thrilling and stupefying moments. It’s the little things he notices, whether it’s an outfit, or the opportunity to reference a deep album cut, Johnson is looking for everything to create a better experience for the viewer.
His next playoff gig will be Milwaukee Bucks vs. Chicago Bulls, Game 2. With three playoff games on every night, trust and believe any game that Johnson calls will be the featured game on my television. I just need him to get one playoff buzzer beater — preferably one that sends a team home but beggars can’t be choosers — just one Gus-gasm as Tyrese Maxey, Zach Lavine or somebody drills a jumper as time expires to get that “the slipper still fits,” energy out of Johnson — also, now that he’s doing NBA games on Turner, NCAA Men’s Tournament next year, let’s go people make it work.
Because while Johnson makes chilly Saturday afternoon game between Minnesota and Ohio State feel like a National Championship, imagine him calling the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix Suns against Golden State Warriors — I know he’s not getting that assignment either, but one can only wish.