Earlier this year, I headed up to The Bronx to watch Fordham host Butler in college basketball. My 13-plus years in New York have given me a legitimate affection for Fordham, a lousy sports school that nonetheless has given the world an impressive number of important sports figures. (Vin Scully, Frankie Frisch, Tiny Archibald, P.J. Carlesimo, among several others.) Sitting right across the court from me that day were two others: Broadcasters Mike Breen and Michael Kay.
The two men were best pals at Fordham and, according to an interview with Neil Best at Newsday, told each other in college that their dream jobs were becoming broadcasters for the Knicks and the Yankees, respectively. Most of my friends' dreams in college were just to meet a girl, any girl.
Anyway, since they were right across from me, I found myself keeping an eye on both of them throughout the game. Kay was more naturally gregarious, back-slapping everybody in his section and enjoying all the attention. (I know Kay is somewhat polarizing among Yankees fans, but I like him. He's got a showman's instincts but knows when to rein it in just enough, unless of course he's talking about jinxing a perfect game.) But I kept watching Breen. He wasn't glad-handing or hobnobbing, or making any sort of spectacle of himself. He was, in fact, barely noticed at all. He just sat there and watched the game, and cheered, and enjoyed himself. There was quiet, unmistakable enthusiasm. This guy works in the world of sports, and then, in his spare time, he takes it in like a normal person. Like a fan. You wouldn't even notice him, if you weren't looking for him.
I'm pretty sure that Mike Breen is the best broadcaster working right now, and I feel like that Fordham game is an excellent representation as to why. He has an inherent, understated likability that is pleasing but never ostentatious or in the way: He is there, but only when you need him to be. The more I think about it, he might be the platonic ideal of a broadcaster.
The key to Breen is he is always forceful without forcing it. He hits all the big moments in a broadcast without owning them. He is, in the purest sense, a describer. He doesn't try to paint some poetic picture or conjure up anything. He just tells you what's going on in the plainest possible sense. He has an even tone that has a touch of humor to it that's more cornpoke than ironic-wry; if you'll forgive me, he sounds more like a Midwesterner than a New York City native to me.
All Breen calls sound the same, but they never sound rote. They sound like a guy who has seen so many games that nothing can surprise him while still getting legitimately excited when the moment calls for it. I'm not sure there was a better broadcaster for Linsanity last year, someone who could register the initial shock and ultimate delirium of Jeremy Lin's ascendance. In this highlight package from Lin's breakthrough game against New Jersey, check out how Breen modulates himself early on -- he almost sounds amused -- then increases in volume as Lin begins to take over … and just lets it fly late.
Breen's vigor during particularly thrilling games is always perfectly attuned to the moment, particularly during this great one at MSG last year when Carmelo Anthony brought the Knicks back to a terrific win over the Bulls. I don't know how he does it, but somehow his catchphrase "Bang!" doesn't sound gimmicky at all. It just sounds like what someone should say after a huge shot.
His most famous call has to be his description of The Malice at the Palace back in 2004. Of all the people to be calling that, I'm glad it was Breen. He never overdoes it, never pulls the Joe-Buck-Randy-Moss OUTRAGE card. He just lets us know what's happening, and how serious it truly is. I love how he says "Ron Artest has a look in his eye that's very scary right now" with the same matter-of-fact intonation that he'd describe someone setting up in the low block.
That is how it's done. Breen rises to the moment, but never above it.
To be fair, in the world of the NBA, it is not particularly difficult to win plaudits for being understated: Comparatively speaking, Rip Taylor would be a calm voice of reason around here. Whether it's Shaquille O'Neal ruining all the fun of the "Inside the NBA" team with his fundamental misunderstanding of what the job of an analyst is or, worst of all, whatever act Reggie Miller is trying to pull off, whether it's the mind-numbingly dumb analysis or his weird pep talk after the Warriors win last night. (Considering how charismatic and impishly fun Miller was as a player, it's astounding how awful an announcer he is. Some people just don't glide through middle age well, I guess.) Even potentially smart analysts, like the ESPN studio crew (which, with Jalen Rose, Michael Wilbon, Magic Johnson and Bill Simmons, at least has potential), are crippled by the lack of a steadying Breen-like host presence; watching those four talk past each other is the television equivalent of a busy four-way intersection policed by nothing but flashing yellow lights in every direction.
And then there is Breen, the steady influence, the calm voice of reason. (This man was the sports guy for Don Imus for more than a decade. He knows how to keep his cool.) Mike Breen hangs out with Clyde Frazier 60 nights a year on MSG, is the lead broadcaster for ESPN, the lead NBA network, and will be broadcasting his eight NBA Finals this season. And if you search his name on Google, the first page of his results brings up three other, different Mike Breens. I'm not sure I can come up with a better compliment for a broadcaster. He is there every second, and we never notice him. There's nobody better.