In a certain sense, the sights and sounds of the NBA as presented by NBC are the same as they ever were. There's Michael Jordan's tongue, Karl Malone's brawn, Phil Jackson's clueless gaze and the uselessness that is Ahmad Rashad.
But the legal difficulties that surrounded Marv Albert last September gave NBC a chance to reinvent its coverage and the results, from this perspective, have been successful. For the first time in the eight seasons that the network has carried the NBA, NBC is treating the sport, its athletes and officials with a measure of dignity and not like over-glorified cartoon superheroes.
The switch in tone starts, of course, with the lead telecast team of Bob Costas, Isiah Thomas and Doug Collins, who, in the midst of a splendid playoff run, are as critical a collection of announcers as you are likely to hear. The threesome pulls no punches and dishes scorn as easily as praise.
Collins, who joined NBC in March a few months after being fired as coach of the Detroit Pistons, is the best basketball analyst -- NBA or college -- working right now. If you listen carefully, Collins will say at least one thing per telecast that you can take to the water cooler the next day and sound intelligent.
Thomas, an All-Star guard with the Pistons, has steadily improved through the year, though his syntax still needs improvement. Collins' addition forced Thomas to be more succinct, and the two of them have played off each other nicely.
In Game 1 of the NBA title series Wednesday night, Thomas and Collins were respectful of each other's opinions but willing to disagree, as they did on whether a fast tempo was good for Utah. If NBC will show some patience, they could be the best basketball team ever, as Thomas said he wished for in a conference call this week.
Costas, who cut his professional announcing teeth calling the old Spirits of St. Louis in the ABA in the 1970s, is still getting a feel for the flow and pace of NBA games, and he won't soon replace Albert in the hearts and minds of many hoops junkies. But he has been solid all season, and like his analyst cohorts, will only get better with time.
Producer David Neal and director Andy Rosenberg, who had a subpar World Series last fall, were terrific Wednesday night. Rosenberg's direction was settled and focused, while Neal produced meaningful and interesting replays throughout the night.
NBC's pre-game, however, needs some work. Hannah Storm, who replaced Costas as host, has shown some improvement and is a keeper, but analyst Peter Vecsey's act wore thin long ago. His jokes are stale and his "inside" information is usually off-base. And the lifeless John Salley, who sits on the "Showtime" set and speaks in a monotone, bears no resemblance to the Salley who was funny and insightful on talk-show appearances.
And then there's Rashad. Beyond the fact that he provides precious little information in his role as a sideline reporter, his incessant cloying of Jordan is terribly out of place with the broadcast trio. If not before Jordan's retirement, Rashad ought to head permanently to "Inside Stuff," and hand his microphone to Jim Gray.
Coverage of the championship series continues tonight at 9, then moves to Chicago for Sunday's Game 3, with "Showtime" airing at 7 p.m. on Channel 11.
Around the dial
Real Quiet makes its quest for Triple Crown history, not to mention a bid for respect tomorrow at the Belmont Stakes on ABC (Channel 2, 4: 30 p.m.). Fox has dispatched a couple of familiar voices, those of former WBAL Radio broadcaster Josh Lewin and former Orioles great Frank Robinson to call tomorrow's Orioles-Atlanta game for the network (Channel 45, 1 p.m.). Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone is scheduled to wear a microphone.
CBS (Channel 13), meanwhile, will have baseball of a more pressing nature tomorrow when the College World Series comes to a climax with the championship game at 12: 30 p.m., just ahead of third-round coverage of the Kemper Open from Potomac, which concludes Sunday at 3 p.m. The NCAA outdoor track and field championships precede golf on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Jim Huber's monthly "Sporting Life" program returns Sunday at 9: 30 on CNN with a fascinating look at athletes who are attempting to overcome injury or disease. The centerpiece is an inspiring piece on 11-year-old Kacey McCallister, an Oregon boy who lost both his legs in an accident five years ago, but continues to play Little League baseball.
NBC's non-NBA weekend menu includes tomorrow's semifinal (1 p.m.) and Sunday's title game (2 p.m.) from the women's world championship of basketball, as well as the French Open women's final tomorrow at 3 p.m. and the men's title match Sunday at 9 a.m., all on Channel 11.
Pub Date: 6/05/98