It’s Time For Michael Jordan To Tell The Truth
“Having covered Michael Jordan’s prime years in Chicago, Jay Mariotti says it’s time for MJ to come clean in ‘The Last Dance’ docuseries.”
What I experienced for eight years cannot be crammed into 500 minutes. Let’s hope the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,’’ is remembered for more than the usual retro rehash: Michael Jordan’s merciless appetite to conquer flesh and blood, an angle that merely brushes the marrow of the most exhilarating and elaborate sports story ever told. The magnitude and scope of his reign remain immense even now, still hard to wrap the mind around, as if Shakespeare, Scorsese and Fellini collaborated to inject every conceivable dramatic element, with sprinkles of Spike Lee, Dick Ebersol and Bugs Bunny.
Competitive rage. Global overload. Gambling. Murder. In-house treachery. A pop-culture explosion. Celebrity fawning. Corporate exploitation. Political aloofness. Sneaker frenzy. A mysterious baseball interlude. And characters as diverse as ‘90s life itself: a brooding sidekick, a free-love coach, a feather-boa-wearing freak, a grumpy general manager who poisoned the joy instead of embracing it, and an insufferable owner who was stingy with well-deserved financial rewards and couldn’t wait to launch his own dynasty, which has become a travesty. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Jason Hehir wishes he had a wayback machine to tackle a monstrous challenge: The Jordan spectacle, with all its triumphs and tensions and scandals, was best lived and consumed each day to allow for an exact chronicling of grandeur and wildness.
Nor can a film about Jordan and the Bulls dynasty serve any therapeutic purpose, for a country mired in a stupefying medical lockdown, if it dabbles in the worst two words in the ongoing political lexicon: fake news. This narrative always has lacked a complete filling of all the blanks, revelations that make the story whole. Thus, “The Last Dance’’ is thrust as a moratorium on getting at the truth of a man who somehow remains mysterious after a generation of tongue-wagging and slam-dunking through our consciousness. Some would compare Jordan, in a context of baggy shorts and $200 sneakers, to Donald Trump, and just as Americans demand transparency from the President of the United States, particularly during a pandemic, they would appreciate clarity from the most significant basketball player and sports cultural figure ever.
The audience will be the judge, over the next five weekends, on whether Jordan strikes a more authentic bond beyond his extraordinary legacy. At 57, still mourning the death of his younger friend and disciple Kobe Bryant, he is losing chances to resonate with the masses. He will make progress in “The Last Dance,’’ but likely not enough to lift him from the realm of the enigmatic.
Never has the world hosted an athlete so heavenly and simultaneously devil-like — and if that seems a stretch, consider Jordan won six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards in his six NBA Finals … 666. His genius was his fury, his compulsive need to control every human being and circumstance around him, and that is what fascinates me about the docu-series. As a general rule since his playing career ended, Jordan has been largely reclusive as owner of the nondescript Charlotte Hornets, reticent to reconstruct the Bulls years, an era I covered as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. He has controlled his image by simply not discussing it and staying out of the mainstream and Twitterverse. That has led to social-media mockery (see: Crying Jordan meme), but isolation served him long before he was advised to shelter at home like the rest of us.
So why come out now, Mike? Why consent to a massive project that drops Sunday night on ESPN and Netflix? Is the renowned control freak just playing us again?
Or, some 22 years after pushing off Bryon Russell (he did) and delivering his famous final fling with an exquisitely flexed extension of the right wrist, is Jordan finally ready to drop the veneer and tell the entirety of his tale? If so, it would include a dissection of the following subjects, heretofore off-limits: his troubling gambling habits, the unanswered questions about his father’s grisly 1993 murder, his abrupt decision to play minor-league baseball and whether it was attached to an NBA suspension, his well-known loathing of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and its toxic spread throughout the organization and league, his rebuke of team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for siding with Krause in his feud with coach Phil Jackson, Jordan’s disgust that ownership dismantled the dynasty before its expiration date, a public sexual affair and the end of his first marriage, his relationship with his children, and an array of friendships that have run the social gamut, from Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Kobe to the shadowy likes of Richard Esquinas, Slim Bouler and Eddie Dow, a North Carolina bail bondsman found dead with three of Jordan’s checks in his briefcase.
Obviously, not all of those talking points will be in the show. But the opening episode does include a scene that confirms Jordan’s heartless contempt for Krause. Described as “maniacal’’ by the Washington Post, Jordan approaches the roundish Krause after practice and says, “Are those the pills to keep you short? Or are those diet pills?’’ It’s a symbolic snapshot of the wicked strife between management and the team’s cornerstones — Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen — that led to the tragicomic breakup of a powerhouse capable of winning one or two more titles. It took the presence of rare footage from the final 1997-98 season, christened “The Last Dance’’ by a turmoil-weary Jackson, for the NBA’s entertainment division to kickstart a project centered around the farewell tour, with breakout profiles of the human sides of Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, assuming Rodman has a human side.
The question to ask throughout the eight-plus hours of air time: Is any new ground being broken? Just because Hehir raves about Jordan’s willingness to answer the most sensitive questions — including those about gambling and his father’s murder — doesn’t mean we’re getting absolute answers from Jordan that settle all doubts.
“He never once censored us. He never once policed us. He never once said that any topic was off-limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project,’’’ said Hehir, who sat down with Jordan for three lengthy sessions. “He went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the ‘90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on the court. … He never instructed us to take anything out, and from Day One, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.’’
Of course, it’s one thing for a director to raise sensitive topics in a one-on-one interview setting — and quite another to pursue penetrating follow-ups, explore the topic with other people and edit the film with an independence that lets the viewers decide. Didn’t Hehir, who grew up mesmerized by the Jordan mystique like the rest of his generation, fear the wrath of Basketball Jesus? Evidently not. Hehir asked the tough questions, and Jordan provided firm responses, but if this is an Oscar-caliber film, it must be balanced and explore all sides of the explosive issues. Watch closely, with a checklist and pen, to see if “The Last Dance’’ is more about presenting Jordan in a favorable light or at last revealing the real-real, regardless of optics. Which delicate topics are confronted and which are short-shrifted, downplayed and ignored? Gambling, for one, is pervasive throughout the series; the NBA camera crew repeatedly shows Jordan making wagers on anything and everything during the final season. Given Hehir’s exhaustive research and interviews with dozens of subjects, the director had the leverage to attack as he chooses. The wealth of material provides an opportunity for an all-time cinematic work, one befitting his stature. Both blessed and haunted, through triumph and tragedy, Jordan deserves an epic Hollywood deep-dive that captures his historical footprint.
But that would happen only with unvarnished truth. And the control freak in Jordan wouldn’t allow total disclosure. Does he reveal how many wagering millions he blew? If he was suspended by the NBA? If he sees a direct link between his gambling and his father’s murder? No, he does not.
The credits suggest Jordan took typical liberties to protect his portrayal. His Jump 23 enterprise is a principal producer, along with ESPN Films, NBA Entertainment and Mandalay Sports Media, which is chaired by a league owner, the Golden State Warriors’ Peter Guber. Meaning, Jordan and his longtime business representatives, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have had the entire production of “The Last Dance’’ under their dictatorial thumbs, with Portnoy and Polk listed as executive producers alongside industry veteran Mike Tollin. Team Jordan also is fully supported by a league far more interested in legacy promotion than any raw, damaging truths, as well as a sports network grateful to have something substantial to fill dead air during a pandemic. If he wanted it — and my experiences with him say he would demand it — Jordan is armed with the power to control content as a creative overlord. As Polk told The Athletic, that power was wielded during early moments in the project, perhaps making it more difficult to address the most jarring and sensitive components of Jordan’s joyride with definitive, full-blast treatment.
No doubt “The Last Dance,’’ at its core, succeeds in presenting the Jordan panorama in a 2020 prism: the unprecedented glorification, the rock-star traveling circus, the endless highlight reel, the cut from his high-school team that fueled his inner rage, the title-winning jumper for North Carolina, The Shot, the 63-point game, his personal rivalries and accompanying trash-talking, the postseason dramas that weren’t as easy as they seemed, failures and eventual conquests against the Detroit Bad Boys, the Knicks wars, the legendary “Sick Game,’’ the near-crash against Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and, of course, the final shot in Utah that should have been the perfect ending for the perfect career. The docu-series will serve as indisputable evidence to hush stubborn millennials and Gen Zers who insist, with recency bias and ignorance, that LeBron James is the greatest of all, forgetting that Bryant came closest to approaching Jordan’s body of work and pulling off the grand impersonation.
Just how far does the documentary dare to reach? I’d like to know if the late David Stern, who presided as NBA commissioner during the Jordan era, fully investigated the relentless flurry of his gambling. Didn’t the league have much to lose if Stern publicly benched his Golden Goose? Jordan didn’t even try to hide his itch for the action — an off-night trip to Atlantic City during a playoff series in New York, his massive golfing losses to an opportunist (and book author) such as Esquinas, his Las Vegas rampages with Woods and Charles Barkley. Was it merely coincidence that Jordan escaped to baseball and missed almost two NBA seasons? We don’t get those answers. During that period, I wrote a column explaining why Jordan was exposing himself to potential extortion — say, a scumbag on an 18th green asking him to fix an over-under in a Bulls game. The Sun-Times’ managing editor, who didn’t last in the job much longer, warned me, “This is the most important column you’ll ever write.’’ The piece ran in some form, but not before an editing workover that seemed to involve outside meddling. Such was the influence of Jordan.
In the doc, Jordan does pile on Krause, whose 2017 death makes the scene look worse. He won’t be so cruel to Reinsdorf, now a fellow NBA team owner and a man Jordan fears to some degree. “The Last Dance’’ should include the all-encompassing quote of the final season, when Krause, already settled on Iowa State’s Tim Floyd as the next coach of a so-called new Bulls dynasty, sat down with Jackson and said, “You can go 82 and (bleeping) oh and you’re not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls’’ — prompting Jackson and the players to declare war on the front office. Also worthy of pitiful detail: the subsequent two-decade implosion of the Bulls. Now an abysmal franchise that wasted the most potent resource in sports history — the pomp and glory of Jordan — the Bulls allowed the very icon they’ve immortalized with a United Center statue to finish his career with the Washington Wizards, all because Jordan was seething about how Chicago ended and needed to control the last scene, sad and dubious as it was in D.C.
No Jordan series is complete without Reinsdorf, now 84 yet still a power player in sports, and how he extracted mega-fortunes for himself and Bulls investors yet never rushed to reward Jordan, Jackson and Pippen. Reinsdorf demanded Jordan play out an eight-year, $24-million contract that became laughably obsolete, particularly after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing received new, fatter deals amid an NBA boom. Jackson would win title after title, then be insulted each summer with a Scrooge offer that led him to sign one-year deals — the breaking point in his rift with management. Pippen was grossly underpaid for years, demanded a trade and had to leave in free agency to hit a jackpot commensurate with his Hall of Fame credentials. Reinsdorf, as he has done once or twice, could make that story line vanish in the ESPN project with one call to the Disney Co. hierarchy.
There was the anger of Jim Brown and other black activists who called Jordan a coward for his social indifference, such as his flip comment that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ which Jordan says was taken out of context. And don’t forget how Jordan and Pippen turned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into the humiliation of Krause’s Euro-pet, Croatia’s Toni Kukoc. In an NBA documentary about the Dream Team, Jordan said, “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.” Does he now think the stance was a bit petty? Especially after Kukoc famously bailed out PIppen by hitting a game-winning playoff shot after Pippen pulled himself from the game, upset Jackson didn’t draw up the play for him. Pippen should be painted as an agitated soul during Jordan’s baseball escape, not dealing well with lead-dog pressure and referring to Chicago fans as racist around the time a gun was found in his vehicle outside a restaurant. How about the 1993 NBA Finals, won in Phoenix by John Paxson’s dagger and lost when Barkley spent too many off-nights partying at an Irish pub in Scottsdale? And what of Jordan’s faltering relationship with Barkley? Speaking of alcohol, Jordan threatened to ruin Rodman’s life when the party animal routinely showed up hungover at practice, a necessary form of pressure that sobered up Rodman long enough to contribute to three titles and cement his Hall of Fame induction. The bullying side of Jordan is front and center — the haymaker he threw at a feisty Steve Kerr in practice and his ruthless criticism of end-of-the-roster patsies, if only to toughen them for the postseason grind. I once saw Jordan try to gouge Reggie Miller’s eyeball, and he wasn’t apologetic, telling a magazine, “Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman.’’
Say what? Jordan should thank the lords, every day, that he played before social media and TMZ. That goes for all facets of a life that would be 10 times crazier and more scandalous had he had born in 1993, not 1963.
Said Hehir: “He went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy, but also he’s a human being.’’ But the Jordan-rage angle is well-worn, because everyone was subjected to his wrath at some point, myself included. There was the day he warned, “I keep your articles on my refrigerator door,’’ and the time he tossed an ice cube toward my head — missing like, well, a batter whiffing on a curveball — when I stopped by a golf course to ask about the gambling probe. I remember arriving in Memphis to see his oldest son, Jeff, play one of his first AAU games, only to have the coach instruct me which questions to ask — as ordered by Jordan over the phone. When the Sun-Times displayed the column on the front page, with a large photo of Jeff, Jordan was outraged, even as I explained I don’t make placement decisions. And when he couldn’t personally scold and admonish, his tentacles were deep. Broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, his friend and media protector, would take personal shots. And Jordan’s father, not long before he was murdered, engaged me and other media people in a spirited discussion, concluding that his son’s gambling urges were the product of “a competition problem.’’
For years, I navigated Jordan’s attempts to control the media.
Now, in 2020, Jordan is part of the media.
It’s vital to ESPN’s editorial integrity that “The Last Dance’’ not be a puff piece. Buried until further notice in a coronavirus black hole, the network desperately needs oxygen without live sports, which has caused considerable ratings slippage and revenue bleeding along with continued cord-cutting that is killing the cable industry. With journalism in Bristol giving way to business relationships with leagues and athletes, ESPN cannot afford watered-down storytelling for “The Last Dance’’ — the one story that should be maximized and dramatized for full effect.
The clamor for an unconditional, consummate Jordan documentary has been intense for years, increasing amid America’s collective quarantine. LeBron himself tweeted, like a schoolboy: “April 19th can’t come fast enough. I CAN NOT WAIT!!’’ We will be entertained and educated, occasionally gobsmacked and slack-jawed, and that is cool, because I no longer can binge on “Ozark’’ without wanting to body-slam Marty Byrde. But if you’re looking for long-lost revelations that will rock the world, well, remember the operative rule about Michael Jordan: No matter the game, he is in control.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Is There Still a Place for Baseball Talk on National Sports Shows?
“Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.”
Last week at the BSM Summit, I hosted a panel focused on air checks. I wish I could say we covered the topic thoroughly, but we got derailed a lot, and you know what? That is okay. It felt like real air checks that I have been on both sides of in my career.
Rob Parker of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio was the talent. He heard thoughts on his show from his boss, Scott Shapiro, and from his former boss, legendary WFAN programmer Mark Chernoff.
Baseball was the topic that caused one of our derailments on the panel. If you know Rob, you know he is passionate about Major League Baseball. He cited download numbers that show The Odd Couple’s time-shifted audience responds to baseball talk. To him, that proves there is not just room for it on nationally syndicated shows, but that there is a sizable audience that wants it.
Chernoff disagrees. He says baseball is a regional sport. Sure, there are regions that love it and local sports talk stations will dedicate full hours to discussing their home team’s games and roster. National shows need to cast a wide net though, and baseball doesn’t do that.
Personally, I agree with Chernoff. I told Parker on stage that “I hear baseball talk and I am f***ing gone.” The reason for that, I think, is exactly what Chernoff said. I grew up in Alabama (no baseball team). I live in North Carolina (no baseball team). Where baseball is big, it is huge, but it isn’t big in most of the country.
Now, I will add this. I used to LOVE baseball. It is the sport I played in high school. The Yankees’ logo was on the groom’s cake at my wedding. Then I had kids.
Forget 162 games. Even five games didn’t fit into my lifestyle. Maybe somewhere deep down, I still have feelings for the sport, but they are buried by years of neglect and active shunning.
Its struggle has been the same since the beginning of television. There is too much baseball for any regular season baseball game or story to have national significance.
Me, and millions of sports talk listeners like me, look at baseball like a toddler looks at broccoli. You probably aren’t lying when you tell us how much you love it, but damn it! WE WANT CHICKEN FINGERS!
A new Major League Baseball season starts Thursday and I thought this topic was worth exploring. I asked three nationally syndicated hosts to weigh in. When is baseball right for their show and how do they use those conversations? Here is what they had to say.
FREDDIE COLEMAN (Freddie & Fitzsimmons on ESPN Radio) – “MLB can still be talked nationally IF there’s that one player like Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani can attract the casual fan. MLB has definitely become more local because of the absence of that SUPER player and/or villainous team. I wonder if the pace of play will help bring in the younger fans that they need, but the sport NEEDS that defining star that is must-see TV.”
JONAS KNOX (2 Pros & a Cup of Joe on FOX Sports Radio) – “While football is king for me in sports radio, I look at baseball like most other sports. I’m not opposed to talking about it, as long as I have an angle or opinion that I am confident I can deliver in an entertaining manner. A couple of times of any given year, there are stories in baseball that are big picture topics that are obvious national discussions.
“I think it’s my job to never close the door on any topic/discussion (except politics because I don’t know anything about it).
“But also, if I’m going to discuss a localized story in baseball or any other sport for that matter – I better have an entertaining/informed angle on it. Otherwise, I’ve let down the listener and that is unacceptable. If they give you their time, you better not waste it.”
MAGGIE GRAY (Maggie & Perloff on CBS Sports Radio) – “While I was on WFAN there was almost no amount of minutia that was too small when it came to the Mets and Yankees. On Maggie and Perloff, our baseball topics have to be more centered around issues that can be universal. For example, ’Is Shohei Ohtani the face of the sport? Is Ohtani pitching and hitting more impressive than two sport athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders? Do you consider Aaron Judge the single-season homerun king or Barry Bonds?’ Any baseball fan or sports fan can have an opinion about those topics, so we find they get great engagement from our audience.”
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Can Sports Fans Trust Once Twitter Ditches Legacy Verified Blue Checks?
The potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
As of April 1, Twitter will finally make a dreaded change that many will view as an April Fools’ prank. Unfortunately, it won’t be a joke to any user who cares about legitimacy and truth.
Last week, Twitter officially announced that verified blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that have not signed up for a Twitter Blue subscription. Previously, accounts whose identity had been verified were allowed to keep their blue checks when Twitter Blue was implemented.
But shortly after Elon Musk purchased Twitter and became the social media company’s CEO, he stated his intention to use verification as a revenue source. Users would have to pay $8 per month (or $84 annually) for a Twitter Blue subscription and blue checkmark verification. Paying for blue checks immediately set off red flags among users who learned to depend on verified accounts for accredited identities and trusted information.
The entire concept of verification and blue checks was simple and effective. Users and accounts bearing the blue checkmark were legitimate. These people and organizations were who they said they were.
As an example, ESPN’s Adam Schefter has faced criticism for how he framed domestic violence and sexual misconduct involving star NFL players, and deservedly so. But fans and media know Schefter’s tweets are really coming from him because his account is verified.
Furthermore, Twitter took the additional step of clarifying that accounts such as Schefter’s were verified before Twitter Blue was implemented. He didn’t pay eight dollars for that blue checkmark.
The need for verification is never more vital than when fake accounts are created to deceive users. Such accounts will put “Adam Schefter” as their Twitter name, even if their handle is something like “@TuaNeedsHelp.” Or worse, some fake accounts will create a handle with letters that look similar. So “@AdarnSchefter” with an “rn” in place of the “m,” fools some people, especially at a quick glance when people are trying to push news out as fast as possible.
Plenty of baseball fans have been duped over the years by fake accounts using a zero instead of an “o” or a capital “I” instead of a lowercase “l” to resemble Fox Sports and The Athletic reporter Ken Rosenthal. That trick didn’t get me. But when I covered Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report 10 years ago, I did fall for a fake Jim Salisbury account that reported the Philadelphia Phillies traded Hunter Pence to the San Francisco Giants. Capital “I,” not lowercase “l” in “Salisbury.” Pence was, in fact, traded to the Giants two days later, but that didn’t make my goof any less embarrassing. I should’ve looked for the blue checkmark!
But after April 1, that signifier won’t matter. Legacy blue checkmarks will be removed from accounts that haven’t paid for Twitter Blue. Some accounts that were previously verified might purchase a subscription to maintain that blue check. But those that were deemed legitimate prior to Musk taking over Twitter likely won’t. (There are also rumors that Twitter is considering a feature that would allow Twitter Blue subscribers to hide their blue check and avoid revealing that purchase.)
That could be even more true for media organizations, which are being told to pay $1000 per month for verification. Do you think ESPN, the New York Times, or the Washington Post will pay $12,000 for a blue check?
We’ve already seen the problems that paying for verification can cause. Shortly after Twitter Blue launched, accounts pretending to be legacy verified users could be created. A fake Adam Schefter account tweeted that the Las Vegas Raiders had fired head coach Josh McDaniels. Users who saw the “Adam Schefter” Twitter name went with the news without looking more closely at the “@AdamSchefterNOT” handle. But there was a blue checkmark next to the name this time!
The same thing occurred with a fake LeBron James account tweeting that the NBA superstar had requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers. There was a “@KINGJamez” handle, but a “LeBron James” Twitter name with a blue check next to it.
Whether it’s because fans and media have become more discerning or Twitter has done good work cracking down on such fake accounts, there haven’t been many outrageous examples of deliberate deception since last November. But the potential for Twitter chaos after April 1 is looming.
If that seems like an overstatement, it’s a very real possibility that there will be an erosion of trust among Twitter users. Media and fans may have to take a breath before quickly tweeting and retweeting news from accounts that may or may not be credible. False news and phony statements could spread quickly and go viral across social media.
Even worse, Musk has announced that only verified Twitter Blue accounts will be seen in your “For You” timeline as of April 15. (He can’t claim it’s an April Fools’ Day joke on that date.)
Obviously, that carries far more serious real-world implications beyond sports. Forget about a fake Shams Charania account tweeting that Luka Dončić wants to be traded to the Lakers. It’s not difficult to imagine a fake Joe Biden account declaring war on Russia and some people believing it’s true because of the blue checkmark.
We may be nearing the end of Twitter being a reliable news-gathering tool. If the accounts tweeting out news can’t be trusted, where’s the value? Reporters and newsmakers may end up going to other social media platforms to break stories and carry the viability of verification.
When Fox Sports’ website infamously pivoted to video in 2017, Ken Rosenthal posted his MLB reporting on Facebook prior to joining The Athletic. Hello, Instagram. Will someone take their following and reputation to a fledgling platform like Mastodon, Post, Spoutible, or BlueSky, even if it means a lesser outlet?
If and when that happens, Twitter could still be a community but not nearly as much fun. Not when it becomes a matter of trust that breaks up the party.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a Lesson For Us All in Florida Atlantic’s Elite 8 Broadcast Struggle
“It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.”
Ken LaVicka and Kevin Harlan probably don’t have a ton in common. Both of them were announcing an Elite Eight game over the weekend, that is one thing tying them together, but their experiences were wildly different. Harlan is on CBS with a production crew numbering in the dozens making certain all goes smoothly. LaVicka, the voice of the Florida Atlantic Owls, is a production crew himself, making certain those listening in South Florida heard the Owls punch their Final Four ticket. At least, that was LaVicka’s plan.
The Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Men’s Final Four. Even while typing that sentence, it still seems odd to say. Do you know how many college basketball teams are thinking “how can Florida Atlantic make the Final Four and we can’t?” These are the types of stories that make the NCAA Tournament what it is. There is, literally, no barrier stopping any team from this tournament going on the run of their life and making it all the way.
Everyone listening in South Florida almost missed the moment it all became real for the Owls. With :18.6 to go in Florida Atlantic’s Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the Madison Square Garden Ethernet service to the front row of media seating went completely dark.
It was on that row that Ken LaVicka was painting the picture back to South Florida. Well, he was until the internet died on him.
Nobody does a single show away from their home studio anymore without trying to avoid the nightmare of Ethernet failure. Gone are the days of phone lines and ISDN connections, all the audio and video is now sent back to the studio over the technological miracle that is the internet. It is a ton of faith our industry has been forced to place in a single mode of delivery.
Take that anxiety and multiply it by 1,000 when that Ethernet line is connected to a Comrex unit for the most important moment of your career. LaVicka had the great fortune of a Kansas State timeout to try something, anything, to save the day. In his quick thinking, he spun around and grabbed an ethernet cable from row two which, as it turns out, still had internet access flowing through it’s cables. That cable, though, was the equivalent of an iPhone charging cord; never as long as you need it to be.
One of LaVicka’s co-workers from ESPN West Palm held the Comrex unit close enough to the second row for the cable to make a connection and the day was saved. LaVicka was able to call the last :15 of the Florida Atlantic win and, presumably, get in all the necessary sponsorship mentions.
It was an exciting end to the FAU v. Kansas State game, a great defensive stop by the Owls to seal the victory. LaVicka told the NCAA’s Andy Katz he tried to channel his inner Jim Nantz to relay that excitement. The NCAA Tournament excitement started early this year. In the very first TV window 13 Seed Furman upset 4 Seed Virginia with a late three pointer by JP Pegues, who had been 0-for-15 from beyond the arc leading up to that shot. It is the type of play the NCAA Tournament is built upon.
It was called in the manner Kevin Harlan’s career was built upon. Harlan, alongside Stan Van Gundy and Dan Bonner, called the Virginia turnover leading to the made Furman basket with his trademark excitement before laying out for the crowd reaction. After a few seconds of crowd excitement he asked his analysts, and the world, “Did we just see what I think we saw? Wow!” Vintage Kevin Harlan.
One reason we are so aware of what Harlan said, and that he signaled his analysts to lay out for the crowd reaction, was a CBS Sports tweet with video of Harlan, Van Gundy and Bonner in a split screen over the play. It gave us a rare look at a pro in the middle of his craft. We got to see that Harlan reacts just like he sounds. The video has more than six million views and has been retweeted more than 6,000 times, a lot of people seem to like it.
Kevin Harlan is not in that group. Harlan appeared on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast after the video went public and said he was embarrassed by it. Harlan added he “begged” CBS not send the tweet out but to no avail. Harlan told Deitsch “I don’t know that I’m glad that they caught our expression, but I’m glad the game was on the air. I think I join a chorus of other announcers who do not like the camera.”
There’s a valuable announcer lesson from Harlan there; the audience is almost always there for the game, not you. Harlan went on to describe the broadcast booth to Deitsch as somewhat of a sacred place. He would prefer to let his words accompany the video of the action to tell the story. Kevin Harlan is as good as they come at his craft, if he thinks that way, there’s probably great value in that line of thought.
We can learn from LaVicka, as well. You work in this business long enough and you come to accept technical difficulties are as much a part of it as anything. They always seem to strike at the worst times, it is just in their nature. Those who can find a way to deal with them without everything melting down are those who can give their audience what they showed up for. Those who lose their mind and spend time complaining about them during the production simply give the audience information they don’t really care about.
The Final Four is an unlikely collection of teams; Miami, San Diego State, Connecticut and Florida Atlantic. You all had that in your brackets, right? Yep, the Florida Atlantic Owls are going to the Final Four and Ken LaVicka will be there for it. Now, if the internet will just hold out.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.