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Bring back the NBA on NBC

It won’t be the same, but how could it be?

Knicks V Bulls
Marv, that hair.

While brushing his teeth during a recent bedtime routine, my five-year-old remarked, “You must be pretty wise.” Flattered, I asked why he thought that.

“Because you’re old,” he said and resumed his brushwork.

Beware of the backhanded compliment.

The kid ain’t lying, though. I have spent four and half decades on the planet, and while I may not have attained great wisdom, I have stockpiled plenty of memories.

I grew up on a small rural farm in upstate New York, attended a tiny public school with 360 students from K-12 in one building, and graduated with 13 classmates. Often, I will brag about being sixth in my class, which is considerably less impressive once you know the numbers.

One thrilling afternoon during my childhood, my father swapped our family’s black and white TV for a color set. The day stays in my mind with a crystalline clarity. The first thing I watched was a Yankee game, and I marveled over the green of the grass like a blind man suddenly granted sight.

The new TV’s rabbit ears brought in three and a half channels, and from my childhood I recall a specific program from each station. The Muppet Show was an early favorite from the CBS slate, just as ABC’s Disney Sunday Movie was essential viewing. And in the nineties, NBC had the NBA.

Here’s John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock.” According to Wikipedia, NBC played this 12,000 times. Hum along if you know it.

NBC first had NBA rights from October 30, 1954 until April 7, 1962. That predates me, but their second run arrived at the sweet spot of my adolescence, just before I turned 14.

From November 3, 1990 until June 12, 2002, while the NBA was on NBC, the sport reached unprecedented heights of glory. For those without access to Cable TV, either due to unavailability or prohibitive cost, NBC provided access to teams and players from around the country. Michael Jordan dominated the decade, but the league was rich with future Hall-of-Famers, and every week NBC offered a new helping of talented hoopers. For instance, I had read in the Times Herald Record about guys like Jordan and Charles Barkley, but only when they appeared on NBC did I finally see them play. The legends of monsters named Shaquille O’Neal and Shawn Kemp frightened me long before they made their national TV appearances (and both lived up to the hype).

NBC’s production was first class, from the pre-game show anchored by the Dorian Gray-ish Bob Costas, to the game’s announcers that included legends like Marv Albert, Mike “The Czar of the Telestrator” Fratello, and the possibly stoned Bill Walton. Over the years, Ahmad Rashad and Hannah Storm worked the sidelines, supplementing the broadcast with extraneous tidbits and often grabbing a quick word with a coach during breaks in the action. These were the days of George Karl, Lenny Wilkens, Chuck Daly, Phil Jackson, and Pat Riley. Those, my friends, were coaches.

During family get-togethers on the weekend, the NBA would be on in the living room. My grandfather hailed from Maine and supported the Celtics. My father—and thus, I—backed the New York Knicks. We ribbed each other about whose team was superior. After my dad hung a rusty hoop on the garage, I would dribble my basketball on our dirt driveway, attempting to reenact superstar moves while carefully avoiding exposed rocks that might send my Spalding sideways. Who did I pretend to be while driving for a layup or squaring up a three? John Starks, most likely, with three seconds on the clock and Jordan in my grill.

At school, I often felt like a cultural outsider. When the kids who had cable television talked about things they’d seen on MTV and HBO, I listened with envy. But every Monday, the TV haves and have-nots would converge to banter about the NBA action we had witnessed over the weekend. Basketball bonded us.

One night while on a senior trip to Disney World, classmates and I gathered in a hotel room to watch the 1994 Western Conference First Round Game Five, in which the Denver Nuggets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics, 98-94. We were stunned because the Sonics had been a juggernaut that year. I had witnessed an incredible upset and, more importantly, done so with friends. I felt a part of, and not apart from.

My Knickerbockers would reach the Finals that year, only to be foiled by Hakeem the Dream. A) I still feel a physical, wrenching response about losing that series. B) I miss great nicknames, and God bless you, Deuce McBride. C) I watched those Finals on NBC.

Eventually, my grandfather gifted us a satellite dish that unlocked a world of television. Thereafter, I could watch every Knicks game (and where is Al Trautwig these days?). I kept tuning in to NBC for basketball, too, but eventually the league changed. After Jordan retired and the Lakers dominated for three consecutive years, the NBA lost some luster.

In 2002, NBC closed the gym. By then, I had gone deep into a dark wood and tried to pickle myself. When I finally returned from my long weekend, basketball—and the Knicks—were waiting, not quite as wondrous as I recalled but still a familiar, comfortable port in the storm.

Last week brought news that NBC is making a bid to acquire the NBA rights again:

Righteous news! And the timing is perfect. The league has such parity now that even the Charlotte Hornets are occasionally entertaining. The product is profitable and mostly consistent. Sure, Marv’s retired, but we know his son Kenny can call a game. Let’s (sort of) get the band back together!

Upon reflection, I miss those towering basketball heroes of the nineties. With the league so homogenized, Kyrie Irving stands out for being kooky and Julius Randle is called petulant for throwing a fit. Yet I adored roughnecks like Anthony Mason, whose antics would make those two look tame. Doubt me? Read Blood in the Garden.

So, hell yeah, I’m nostalgic for the NBA on NBC and would welcome it back wholeheartedly. Would it be as thrilling as when Charles Oakley was busting heads? Nah. But we’ll always have YouTube.

I mentioned three and a half channels earlier, and maybe you’re wondering about that half. Me, too. I never knew the station’s call sign, but at a specific time every week, through the rolling waves of white noise static and with great eye strain, I could identify the Starfleet uniform of Captain James T. Kirk. The older I get, many memories take on that fuzzy, snowy quality. Not so much with my basketball memories, though. Most of those remain crystal clear, and in full color.