There are moments when ESPN doesn't even try to hide its self-promoting machine. Where they just raise their hands, say, "who cares," and pump themselves up harder than a single guy at a bar trying to pick up a girl at last call. Wednesday wasn't just an example of that; it may have been their worst display of it yet.
Now, I normally try to give "The Worldwide Leader" the benefit of the doubt. Times are tough, and I understand the need to shill out for segments like the Budweiser Hot Seat, Bud Light Freeze Frame, Coors Light Cold Hard Facts, Miller Lite Countdown to Kickoff, Zima Loser of Z Night (OK, I made the last one up), but do we really need an "Announcer Swap" night?
The problem wasn't so much that the NBA trio of Mike Tirico, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy called the Davidson-Duke game while the collegiate tandem of Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale called the Nuggets-Heat, it was how ESPN promoted the "special event." Instead of making it a side story, they turned it into a sideshow by making it the main topic of discussion. They went so far as showing photos of the announcing teams in ads instead of Stephen Curry and Kyle Singler for the first game and Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony (before he got hurt) for the second. The fact that two of the best players in college basketball and the NBA would be on display seemed secondary to the fact that Vitale would be calling his first NBA game in nearly 25 years.
Before the game and during halftime of Davidson-Duke, ESPN showed highlights of the last NBA game Vitale called as he was shown courtside in Denver talking about what it was like being at an NBA arena and getting ready to call an NBA game again. Any and all analysis of the actual game he would be doing would have to take a back seat to the fact that he was there for the time being.
The initial game of ESPN "Announcer Swap" went off seamlessly as Jackson and Van Gundy offered analysis of future NBA prospects such as Curry while Tirico provided the play-by-play. The fact that Tirico was able to transition from the NFL to the NBA to college basketball shouldn't be that big of a surprise. While ESPN promoted this as a "special event," most announcers routinely cover a variety of events such as Ian Eagle, who had to cover five NFL games and two NBA games for CBS, YES Network and Westwood One Radio over an 11-day stretch in November. The only difference is they don't work for ESPN and aren't named Vitale.
While Jackson, Van Gundy and Tirico stuck to the action on the court, it was clear early on that the Nuggets-Heat game would be used as lovefest for Vitale from the get-go. Literally after the opening tip, the top of the score had a note that said, "Dick Vitale 1st NBA game announced since May 17, 1984." The note would appear above the score five more times during the first quarter and about a dozen times during the broadcast like a news flash. After the first commercial break, George Karl and Dwyane Wade were shown doing Vitale impersonations along with a vignette of Vitale highlights. Similar vignettes appeared throughout the night.
Unfortunately, NBA fans never really got the Vitale that Karl and Wade were impersonating or the one that was shown living it up at college games. That guy was left behind on Tobacco Road as he sat courtside at the Pepsi Center, which was the antitheses of Cameron Indoor Stadium with many of the seats behind him left empty. Even the usually upbeat Vitale, who was surprisingly tame for much of the game, mused "It's kind of quiet in the crowd, we're used to crowds being wild; it's kind of quiet in here."
Vitale doing an NBA game is like a racecar stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a boom box sitting in a library, a cannonball diver in an Olympic diving competition. It doesn't fit. What makes Vitale so special during college basketball games is exactly what makes him stick out like a sore thumb during an NBA broadcast. Vitale feeds off the energy and the atmosphere around him. Stick him in Cameron Indoor Stadium and you get Dickie V baby, seat him at the Pepsi Center and you get Mr. Dick Vitale.
I can only hope ESPN recognizes this and finds other ways of promoting themselves in the future besides switching announcing crews. I'm sure there's a beer company out there that still doesn't have a sponsored segment on SportsCenter.