There's no doubt that TV has had a major impact on basketball as a sport. Yet, for all its impact I don't think it has changed the game or how it is played. More accurately, it has changed the way basketball, the teams and, more importantly, the players are marketed and presented to the fans. In turn, how, what and who we see when we watch a game has changed. In many ways, TV has brought fans closer to the action. Sadly, for all that TV technology has given to us when it comes to watching basketball a lot has also been lost or sacrificed along the way.
As a kid growing up in the 1950'S watching TV was not like it is today. In my house there was one TV and it was ruled by my parents. Other than Saturday morning cartoons there wasn't much programming for kids. A lot of sports were broadcast on tape delay. Live sports broadcast on TV were still rare and, because of the times the games were shown, watching them on TV was usually not an option for kids with early bedtimes. Radio was how most people experienced sports in general.
Radio ruled the sports world back then. I was a Celtics fan as soon as I knew what a basketball was. But, save the rare occasion I went to a game, most of my game times were spent listening to the broadcast on the radio. Basketball was a fast paced game that demanded a quick tongued announcer to keep up. Great announcers knew we were watching the game through their eyes. The best of them could make you feel as though you were sitting right next to them. When they called the action we felt like we saw exactly what they did.
Radio announcers were different than TV guys. They were more personal and intimate and familiar to the fans of a team. They didn't spend a lot of time analyzing plays. Describing the action as it unfolded during a basketball game required a quick and fluid ability to translate the action on the floor into words that flowed as quickly as the players raced up and down the court. The announcers were home town guys all the way. They were not ashamed to declare their love for the home team and were unreserved in their loathing of all visiting teams.
Before TV changed the world, lying in my room with my transistor radio crackling out the sound, listening to Johnny Most broadcast the action from "high above courtside" was how I got to "see" the games. When it came to describing the play during a basketball game no one was as great as Johnny Most. OK, maybe Chick Hearn, but he was the LA Lakers announcer so he was always relegated to second place as far as I was concerned.
Johnny Most and his scratchy, raspy and delightfully shrill voice managed to make his descriptions of games as intense and dramatic as a man could. I felt as if the game was taking place right there in my room. The emotion his voice held made listening to him as thrilling as being there. His words held all the excitement, anguish and passion a voice could convey.
His descriptions were so vivid and in sync with the action he could hold me riveted to the speaker. With my eyes closed I could see the players in my mind as clearly as if they were playing in front of me. I would hear Johnny Most cry "Bang!" when a player made a shot a fraction of a second before the crowd would react with a roar. It had the effect of letting me scream right along with them.
TV changed all that. And I'm not sure it was a change for the better.
As time passed TV broadcasts became more frequent and the radio took a backseat to the new technology. More and more the games switched from tape delay to live action and when we got a second and then a third TV it got easier to watch a game as it was being played in real time. TV brought the game right into my room. With the addition of instant replay it could sometimes be even better than being there. At least as far as watching the game was concerned. But lost in the transition was the intimacy I had when I listened to the games with Johnny.
While TV broadcasts on local stations still had a hometown feel as far the broadcasters that were calling the game it couldn't stop the changes to come. Guys like Tommy Heinson and Bob Cousy covered the local broadcasts and were unabashed rooters for the Celtics. But they only covered local broadcasts.
Gradually the networks started taking over the local broadcasts as well as national. Teams of network announcers replaced guys like Heinson and Cousy and started to get more generic until it seemed that they didn't support any team. They broadcast in a way that made it seem they couldn't care less who won. More and more they stopped talking about the game being played and started just... well... talking. It seemed like since we could watch the game they had no reason to describe what was going on.
Network broadcasts were the worst. Network broadcasts were seen by both teams' fans. Network announcers, in their efforts to remain neutral, started drifting away from the action on the floor and took to talking about the players instead of the play. More and more they would go off into long winded analysis, reciting statistics that were of no interest to anyone and didn't apply to the game at hand. It gradually changed to the point where they became something akin to celebrity shills. They started to hype players based on their popularity rather than ability.
In today's league, because of TV, the focus has shifted from the team to the players. Rather than highlight the star teams, TV has adopted a marketing concept that is crafted around a teams star. The result is a broadcast schedule that is designed to give maximum exposure to individual superstars. Teams that may be doing well in the standings but don't have a guy like Larry Bird, Michel Jordan or Lebron James are limited in their TV appearances. We created the "Superstar" culture that has taken over basketball today. TV has made the sport of basketball the NBA and some players bigger but not necessarily better.
For as long as he was there, me and my friends always preferred to turn the TV sound off and listen to Johnny describe the action as we watched. He called every play and would use the timeouts to expound about the aspects of the game that he couldn't talk about while the game was being played. When he retired he was replaced by impersonal, emotionless announcers. Guys who shared the time and calling the game was second to the job of pushing sponsors and promoting silly interviews or updates at halftime. They were even worse than the TV guys. Radio has become almost outmoded.
Today, the talking TV heads in the booth during games aren't even close in providing anything resembling excitement or emotion. They laugh, chat and make ridiculous observations, many of which have no connection with the game being played. They continue to plug the sponsors and telling us what's on later... all while the teams are battling on the floor. More often than not today's announcers are a distraction rather than an addition to the game. Networks start and end games with hours of meaningless "reports" that are supposed to enhance our experience. Mostly they just occupy more of our time while shilling for the sponsors.
While TV has brought us closer to the action even as we sit in our homes it has, in other ways, taken away a lot of the intimacy we used to have. When we knew the announcers on a personal level we could imagine them as fans like us. We knew who they rooted for or against. Now most of us don't even know who the broadcasters are... on TV or the radio. Even the local announcers feel it's their job to be politically correct when calling a game. If the local team is doing poorly they feel they're required to find fault with the home team; Criticizing our heroes while our hearts are breaking. The days of Johnny Most, frothing at the mouth and labeling guys "McFilthy" and "McNasty", are long gone. No TV announcer could get away with letting his team colors show through the sanitized veneer of objectivity that announcers wear today.
Fans used to get their team news through the local papers and broadcasts. The pace was slower and we had time to get to know all the guys on the team. With the national networks came a reduction of intimate, detailed information. With the limited time they began to focus on the "Stars" and the bench began to lose the limited attention it already had. Today's fan knows pretty much what the networks offer as information. And most networks are saying the same thing in a different way.
The average fan knows more than they need to about the lives and careers of guys like Allen Iverson or Shaquille O'Neil but they can't tell you the names of the bench players. Most casual fans can't tell you the names of the guys on their own home team beyond the starting five. Announcers are focused on commenting about the "Stars" or the current sports gossip and the team guys get overlooked.
TV has also had an adverse effect on when and how games are played. This years NBA Finals are a perfect example of how TV and the networks, in an effort to maximize profits and exposure have negatively affected the scheduling of games. Every game, including the Sunday game, started at 9:00PM EST. The fans and players on both coasts have had to adjust their lives around the networks schedules and preferences. It's a ridiculous system and the consumers, fans as they used to be called, are paying the price for it.
TV has changed how we watch basketball specifically and all sports in general. The TV's today with the advent of "High Def" have sharper and better pictures than we ever imagined in the days of black and white. Technology has allowed us to see the game from angles that you can't get even when you're there in person.
But even though I can see the game so much better, I miss a lot more than I used to. I can't stand listening to the endless drone of the announcers during halftime or timeouts and I hate commercials. Commercials and endless hype along with the convenience of remote control compels me to change channels at a commercial or time out. Often, I forget to change back in time and wind up missing chunks of the game... often the best minutes too.
But what does that matter? TV has changed all that. After all, with VCR's, TIVO and the like I can always rewind or save it to watch later; Alone, when I can see everything for myself, by myself, at my leisure. That's just not natural when it comes to watching a game. It doesn't feel anywhere near as good if someone isn't cheering with me. TV lets me see the crowd but it never makes me feel a part of it.
I never felt that way listening to Johnny Most. He made us all a part of the crowd. Through his eyes we became extensions of the crowd at the garden. For all its advanced technology that is something that TV can never do. For all the ways TV has changed how we see sports it really hasn't made it feel any better.