Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson call him their point guard. “The voice of the NBA,” according to Van Gundy.
Mike Breen would prefer neither. He’s the first to admit that his job as ESPN and ABC’s longtime lead NBA broadcaster comes with a specific type of responsibility: make sure someone’s paying attention to the game. Even if Van Gundy and Jackson are off in a totally different conversation.
“I remember we had a game last year, it was the conference final between Cleveland and Toronto,” Breen recalled. “It was the second straight blowout. We ended up talking about our favorite sitcoms as kids, and it almost seemed like, you know what? This is right. The game is awful. It’s decided. So let’s have a couple of laughs.”
Breen, Van Gundy, Jackson and Doris Burke are preparing to call their eighth NBA Finals together beginning Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC). Over time, they’ve built chemistry that shows in their broadcasts. Even when Van Gundy decides to take over with an off-topic rant.
“First off, I have no control to stop him,” Breen said. “I will fully admit that there have been many times when I’ve lost complete control of the broadcast or telecast. He loves to have fun. He loves to entertain himself, he loves to entertain me and Mark and he loves to entertain the audience.
“So he knows what he’s doing. And he knows when it’s time to concentrate on basketball. He has such a respect and love of the game that he knows when it’s time. And when one team’s up 35, that’s not the time.”
Breen also knows what he’s doing. Before Van Gundy, he worked with Bill Walton. And he’s spent much of his tenure as the New York Knicks’ lead broadcaster working with Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
These colorful giants of the NBA world show great reverence to Breen, a 26-year NBA broadcasting veteran. Van Gundy even called for his partner to be given the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Curt Gowdy Media Award.
“The way he allows us to be ourselves and not go overboard is a really special trait,” Van Gundy said on an ABC/ESPN teleconference with Jackson.
“I agree. This is scary. We’re agreeing,” Jackson said. “He’s absolutely brilliant. It’s truly great to watch him control the game and control everything. Even when there are times I’m sure he’s frustrated with whether Jeff and I talk about a dessert or some other crazy thing that Jeff brings up.”
For The Win spoke to Breen by phone Monday about the Finals, the Knicks, his place in basketball history and, of course, that catchphrase — “Bang!” Here is an edited transcript of that interview.
FTW: How do you call a Finals for the third straight time? The same exact matchup, it’s never happened before.
Breen: Because it’s never happened and because they each won one of the previous matchups, in some ways it’s almost easier because you have so much history now between the two teams. There are some different players, obviously, but there’s a lot of history.
I’ve always felt the only way you get a true rivalry in the NBA is through playoff matchups. Geographical rivalries, they’re really kind of tame. But playoff rivalries are the best kind. For me, going back to the Lakers and the Celtics in the mid-80s. If my team — growing in the New York, the Knicks — if they weren’t in the Finals, I wanted the Lakers and Celtics because I just loved the rivalry.
Yeah, and so much of our job in the media is to find key story lines. This series seems almost manufactured for that. On top of the three straight meetings, on top of the little things like, can Andre Iguodala still guard LeBron? Can Stephen Curry turn it around in the Finals? Now we have this Kevin Durant addition. Is this as easy to find a story line as the NBA ever gets?
I don’t want to state out that it makes my job easier, but — it makes my job easier. They’re right there for the taking. The Durant story is enormous. You mentioned Iguodala — that’s a good story line as well. The Steph Curry-Kyrie Irving story line, to me, that’s the thing I’m looking forward to the most. Two years ago, Irving gets injured in Game 1 and is out for the rest of the series. Last year, Irving outplays Curry in the Finals, but Curry wasn’t 100% because he had missed six games. But now the two of them are playing at this incredible level and going to go head-to-head.
You also double as the Knicks’ broadcaster for MSG. What was your takeaway on this Knicks season, as a guy who’s been watching the Knicks for 40 years or more?
It was one of the most disappointing seasons that I can remember. There was real genuine enthusiasm about the potential for this team. And those are the hardest years. … And for me, in my role, you’re there at the Garden every night, and you see the fans and their hunger and desperation, not even for a championship but just for a really good, competitive, hard-working team. And that’s who I feel bad for.
What about fans who take out their frustration on James Dolan? Obviously you know him and work for him. What do you tell a fan who says Dolan’s the problem?
First off, fans are allowed to vent. That’s why they’re fans and they’re passionate. But he has tried every step of the way to give whoever he puts in charge every resource to make it work. Especially financially, there has never been any hesitation to provide what was needed. Especially with this latest regime, I remember Phil Jackson was hired, and it was so celebrated in New York. I remember talking to Knicks fans, and everyone was giddy. And it just hasn’t worked out, for a lot of different reasons.
I always keep telling fans, “Be patient. It’s going to turn around sooner or later.” And you just hope so for their sake and for the NBA’s sake, too, because it’s good for the NBA when the Knicks and the Lakers and the Cetlics are good. It’s true. They are flagship franchises.
The last thing I wanted to talk to you about was your catchphrase. It’s kind of become the catchphrase of the NBA in that you call the biggest games in the NBA. Where did you come up with “Bang”? How long have you been doing it?
I wish I had some great story for you, but I don’t. … As a student at Fordham, when a player would hit a shot, I would yell out “Bang!” when it went in. That was just my way of cheering. Then when I started broadcasting games for the student radio network, I thought, “That might sound good.” So I used it, but I later decided it wouldn’t work as well on radio. So I stopped, then started using it again when I started doing TV games. That’s the origin of it.
I’m not the first one to use it. I didn’t know at the time, but Johnny Most, the great Celtics announcer, his son informed me after I’d used it a few times on some Celtics playoff games that his dad used to use it. Then there was another announcer named Jay Howard who did the Spurs games many years ago. Again, I wasn’t aware he used it — I would have never stole it from anybody, not that there’s any kind of trademark on it — but Jay used it, and he told me, too.
So it’s not an original, but my theory: In the big moments, when you need an excited call, the fewer syllables, the better. It’s hard to maintain your voice at that intensity level for a long call. So short and sweet is the way to go in those high-intensity moments.
What’s your favorite signature call around the NBA or in any sport?
Well, I’d have to start with Marv’s “Yes!” That’s what I grew up with as a Knick fan. Marv has always been and will always be the standard-bearer for basketball play-by-play. And I was always a huge Dick Enberg fan, so I love, “Oh, my!” And pretty much anything Vern Lundquist says. He’s got a slew of them. Those are three of my all-time favorites.
One of my personal favorites is Steve Buckhantz’s “Dagger!” call.
Steve’s terrific. You know, some people try to call me the “voice of the NBA.” I have never been comfortable with that phrase. For Wizards fans, Steve Buckhantz is the voice of the NBA. For Nets fans, Ian Eagle is the voice of the NBA. Everybody can get League Pass and listen to all the broadcasts. There’s so many great voices around the NBA.