Mike Breen surpassed legendary play-by-play commentators Marv Albert and Dick Stockton by calling his 10th NBA Finals in June. He was joined for the ninth time by Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson returned for his sixth NBA Finals after leaving the booth to coach Golden State in 2011. ESPN’s prized trio is the preeminent broadcast team in professional basketball. Van Gundy and Jackson dance in between Breen’s prose — the longtime player, coach combination trade jabs, free of restraint, as Breen lands every note on the score.
For Tim Corrigan, the senior coordinating producer for the NBA on ESPN, what sets his crew apart is their distinct ability to bend the conversation without breaking it. “The game is always first,” he said. “They’ll never cheat the game.”
“Along the way their personalities come in and interject, but they have an uncanny way of recognizing when things are getting ready to happen that other people can’t see,” Corrigan said. “So they rarely get caught in long stories and saying things that are unimportant to the documentation of the game.”
Corrigan oversees studio and game operations, and he produces all NBA programming for the network, including a new ABC primetime series on Saturday nights. The eight-game Saturday night package begins on Saturday, Jan. 23, the night before the NFL’s conference championship games.
Unlike other national primetime slots, which have been diluted by the sorry state of affairs in Los Angeles and New York, the Saturday night series will feature only the NBA’s best teams —Cleveland, San Antonio and Golden State are set to play three games each. Van Gundy and Jackson welcome the addition to the broadcast schedule as “something for the fans.”
“It really is the best matchups in the league,” Breen said. “During the regular season there are a handful of must-see games, and we’ve got a bunch of them on Saturday night, which I’m fired up about.”
“The Sunday afternoon double-headers (on ABC) are great, but sometimes those 1 o’ clock games, people are out doing things and they don’t necessarily see it. But on Saturday night, it makes it feel like a special game.”
Corrigan’s vision for the network’s NBA coverage is that, no matter what day of the week it is, they make NBA Countdown “the basketball show,” and let their product speak for itself.
“TNT is on a whole different mission, and I love their show,” Corrigan said. “I think their in-game and our in-game is a little different. … The league has room for two shows. TNT’s show will be what they do, and our show will be what we do. It’s not really a competition.”
Corrigan admires the growth from Sage Steele during her first two years as host of NBA Countdown. Steele enters the 2015-’16 season with a newfound confidence, and Corrigan credits her for finding her footing within the Association.
“Sage is so much more comfortable with herself, with the league, with her role and with understanding what our mission is,” Corrigan said. “It’s hard to walk in and be great immediately on the NBA right away. She’s been doing it and she’s been going to preseason and engaging with teams. She’s been living it.”
Like the rest of the basketball world, the NBA on ESPN team carry heavy hearts following the sudden death of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders. Saunders passed away at the age of 60 on Friday after battling for months against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Breen described it as a “punch to the gut.”
“It’s such a sad way for the season to start, losing a man like that,” Breen said. “I know that’s going to be on everybody’s mind when we get together for the games.”
Breen said he met Saunders during his first couple years covering the Knicks, back when “I probably looked all of 17,” he said.
“For a guy to be so well liked by everyone — front office people, coaches, players, media and fans — the guy treated everybody the same way,” Breen said. “He treated the media like the players. There are a lot of people hurting this week.”
Mark Jackson will be joining Mike Tirico and J.A. Adande to call the Minnesota at Los Angeles Lakers game tonight at 10:30 p.m. e.t. The Timberwolves are projected to finish well outside the playoffs this season. However, the young core built by Saunders, featuring a pair of No. 1 overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, promises a better tomorrow in Minneapolis.
“(Saunders) was so excited to go back,” Breen said. “It meant so much to him. He was building for the future. They have some terrific young talent and I know his imprint will be felt every step of the way.”
Van Gundy, Breen and Doris Burke will provide commentary for the San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder telecast tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN. Billy Donovan, who played with Jackson and for Van Gundy at Providence College, will be making his NBA head coaching debut for the Thunder.
Van Gundy and Jackson have mixed emotions about the Thunder’s high-profile coaching change, which saw Donovan replace Scott Brooks. The same goes for the Chicago Bulls’ decision to replace Tom Thibodeau with Fred Hoiberg. Donovan and Hoiberg have never coached in the NBA, and each enters the season with incumbent rosters constructed to compete in May and June — winning teams built by their former coaches.
“I would never want Scott Brooks, who I coached, or Tom, who I coached with for so many years, to think that I thought the changes were warranted,” Van Gundy said. “The changes were made, but those guys did incredible jobs, and they worked tirelessly for their teams.
“This is what happens in the NBA now: coaches are blamed and they get changed,” he said.
Jackson said Donovan is clearly “a Hall of Famer” for his storied tenure with the Florida Gators. Van Gundy hopes Donovan and Hoiberg excel in their new roles, calling them both class acts.
The Bulls will be featured three times in ABC’s Saturday night package, including twice against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the Thunder will host the Warriors on Feb. 27, and will travel to San Antonio to face the Spurs on March 12.
ESPN features a double-header this Friday, with Miami at Cleveland at 7:00 p.m., following with Golden State at Houston at 9:30 p.m.
Joe Mags (@thatjoemags) covers the NBA for Crossover Chronicles and pop culture for The AP Party at Bloguin.