TV ratings for the NBA playoffs have been outstanding. Saturday's Eastern Conference finale set a new overnight high for cable TV. In terms of what is expected to happen on the court, I am already amped up for game one of the finals between Oklahoma City and Miami Tuesday night on ABC. But I am also worried about what the coverage on Disney-owned ESPN-ABC is going to be like.
I say that after watching ESPN's studio team hyping the game Sunday morning.
Magic Johnson took the lead saying that having these two teams in the finals in the greatest outcome anyone could ever hope for, because the two "greatest" players on the planet, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, were going to be head-to-head.
I'm excited about that, too, but Johnson's way-over-the-top enthusiasm and litany of superlatives about the series and the matchup reminded me of how badly ESPN lost its moral compass in covering the signing of James with Miami two years. Remember that embarrassment that ran under the heading "The Decision"?
As I wrote at the time, "ESPN led the way ... in some of the most debased sports coverage I can remember seeing. The hype was shameless, the lack of perspective colossal."
Don Ohlmeyer, the former NBC Sports executive and ESPN ombudsman at the time, included those comments in his report on ESPN's wretched performance.
I flashed on that Sunday listening to Johnson hyping his brains out.
And I don't know which was worse, that hype or one of Johnson's co-panelists, Chris Broussard, immediately jumping in to compare the Durant-James matchup to Magic and Bird. You could hear the sound of the giant suck-up right through the TV.
For the record, Michael Wilbon and Jon Barry are the other two members of the quartet at the table, and compared to TNT's studio show, this is four guys in a sports bar who you wish would quiet down or find a way to focus their conversation so that their chatter enriched rather than annoyed.
Look, I know ESPN-ABC hyping the series isn't anywhere near being in a league with what happened during "The Decision."
But my point is that it embodies the same conflict of ESPN-ABC's both telecasting the game and covering it in a reportorial and analytical sense. And so far, it looks like all the pre-series reporting and analysis have been hype, hype and more hype. I hope if the play on the court is not so great, someone will say that the way Charles Barkley routinely does on TNT.
And, you know what, Broussard? Cal Ripken was as big in baseball as Magic was in basketball. And the analysts who work with him during the baseball playoffs don't suck up.
Whether it's politics or sports, TV works a lot better when it has some edge -- and viewers don't think the folks on the screen are doing nothing but carrying water and sucking up.
I love watching playoff basketball on TV. Here's hoping ESPN and ABC can rise to the occasion in covering the finals this week in a manner appropriate to the play on the court.
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