When the Oklahoma City Thunder was ousted from the NBA playoffs on May 15, it assured there would be no sequel to last year’s championship battle between Kevin Durant’s Thunder and LeBron James’ Miami Heat.
But when the NBA Finals tips off June 6 on ABC, one area where viewers can always expect consistency is with ESPN’s long-running play-byplay man, Mike Breen. This will be Breen’s eighth time calling the NBA’s title round for ABC.
While fans around the country know Breen as the national voice for the NBA, fans in New York get a double-dose of the Fordham University grad, as he is also behind the mic for New York Knicks telecasts on MSG Network.
“It’s more of just being in tune with the audience,” says Breen on the differences between calling a national game vs. a local contest. “It’s more of a difference in terms of how much attention you pay [to the teams].”
For example, Breen says if the Knicks are losing at the end of the first quarter, “I’m talking more about what the Knicks are doing wrong [on MSG]…whereas if I’m doing the [same] game for ESPN or ABC, I would probably lead with why the [other team] is off to such a great start.”
Where some might find it dif!cult to juggle broadcasting to two different types of audiences, Breen says he benefits from covering the NBA’s other 29 teams as well as the Knicks. “It might be [an opponent’s] first time playing against the Knicks, but I may have done three games [with] them already,” he says. “In terms of preparation—knowing teams, knowing players, and knowing coaches—it’s a big benefit.”
Sometimes those two worlds collide and Breen has to call a Knicks game for ESPN or ABC, although he doesn’t worry about being seen as unfairly slanted toward Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony and company. “I don’t feel like I have to scale back,” he says, noting that a larger factor in how he calls a game is the arena it’s played in. “It’s more of where you’re at.”
For Breen, the biggest difference comes in his two broadcast partners, Walt “Clyde” Frazier on MSG and Jeff Van Gundy on the national games. “The biggest difference is the suits,” he quips. “Jeff has two, Clyde has about 400.”
While their “style” may be different, the respect Breen has for both Hall of Fame guard Frazier and the onetime Knicks coach is the same. “I feel like I’m living a dream, getting to work with both of them,” he says. That respect is reciprocated. “Mike is the Tim Duncan of broadcasting,” Van Gundy says. “Understated greatness is the most difficult greatness to achieve, and Mike has it.”
As Breen gets set to wrap his 22nd season calling NBA games, he can’t help but reminisce about one of his early years, when he got to cover the New York Knicks’ return to the NBA Finals in 1994 after a long absence (Breen was working for radio titan WFAN at the time). He says the moment that always sticks out to him is when star Knicks center Patrick Ewing jumped onto the scorer’s table and raised his arms to the crowd.
“It was like he was embracing the crowd, giving them a big collective hug,” Breen says, noting Ewing’s sometimes frosty relationship with the hometown fans. “It was a cool moment.”
Breen also had a front-row seat to “Linsanity”— when the undrafted Jeremy Lin took the sports world by surprise in a short run as the Knicks’ point guard last season. “The Jeremy Lin stretch last year was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” Breen recalls. “That was pure joy.”
Breen has come a long way since covering school board meetings in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for WEOK/WPDH radio while attending Fordham. His big break came as a sports reporter on WFAN’s Imus in the Morning. “That was a huge break for me and a great learning experience,” Breen says of working with the famed I-Man. But it was of course more than that, since Imus tends to make foils of everyone else behind the mic. When pressed about the WFAN show, Breen jokingly admits to having played the role of Imus’ “punching bag.” He has also called play-by-play for the NFL and worked several Summer Olympics.
Breen credits coming from a family of five boys—and one “very influential neighbor” who built his own radio station in his basement—for giving him the itch. “I just kind of got a bug about doing radio or broadcasting from [that],” he says.
The impending start of the NBA Finals also means the offseason is around the corner, although don’t expect Breen to relax too much: “I’m a full-time dad and a part-time golfer.”
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @tim_bays
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