NBA Commentator Mike Breen: The Man in the Middle

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Peter DeSilva / ESPN

Mike Breen has dirt. He must. You don’t spend a quarter of your waking life calling play-by-play beside the likes of Walt "Clyde" Frazier and in between the funny, but irascible, Jeff Van Gundy and the dead-serious, and also irascible, Mark Jackson without collecting some stories. Even now, during this, his record 11th-straight NBA Finals and the trio’s seventh together, they all still ride to the game together — like a high school team on the way to States. When direct flights from Cleveland to Toronto were in short supply, they rented a van, “one of those minibus type airport shuttles,” and took it all five hours back and forth to watch the Cavs ultimately beat the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals. And?

“I wish I had something for you,” he says, before describing the difficulty deciding on where to eat due to their “diverse tastes in food” (Mark high end, Mike middle, Jeff fast). But you get the idea he wouldn’t tell anyway, not unless the story came at his own expense. That’s the idea you get of the man too: as dependable as a good soldier and as underestimated as one. He appears to be the very image of affability, almost shockingly gracious. He admits that sometimes his voice cracks on air. He bursts into belly laughs during games. To play it cool would be against his nature. He’ll describe himself as “blessed” and means it, even as he apologizes for “being corny,” for trotting out a cliché about his good fortune. But it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that it’s all these qualities that have helped make him one of the best broadcasters around. But he’d never say that.

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“Again, not to be corny,” says the 55-year-old, “but the beauty of the broadcast is the teamwork. Not just analysts on air with you, and your sideline reporter, but your producers and cameramen and tape editors and the graphics people. I fell in love with basketball in the first place because of the idea that it was this team sport.”

It’s a difficult sentiment to swallow in an age of self-promotion. But it starts to get more believable when you hear his back story, how he grew up in Yonkers, the fourth of six boys, and watched his first dream, of becoming a professional athlete, die.

“I guess I was about 14 when I realized it wasn’t going to happen,” he says. “The joke in the neighborhood was our clothesline — you could fill the entire clothesline with sweat socks because that’s all we did.” But his extremely early acceptance of the end of his career suggests he always saw another way; being a part of sports, literally playing at it, was worthwhile too.

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Even so, he would go on to a good high school career in both basketball and baseball. It was around this time that a neighborhood guy named Tony Minecola was studying broadcasting at New York Tech. Minecola had built a DJ booth in his basement and asked Breen if he’d like to try it out. He fast became hooked, and enrolled at Fordham, where he was “practically living at” his school’s renowned radio station, WFUV. After graduating, he landed a job in Poughkeepsie, covering local board meetings before eventually being named the morning news anchor. It wasn’t sports. It wasn’t what he wanted, but a mentor had once told him it was good to get out of your comfort zone. It forced him to work at it, he says.

His first big break came on Don Imus’ show on WFAN, which he joined to give sports updates and soon after began calling the Knicks’ radio broadcasts. When Knicks longtime play-by-play man Marv Albert was forced to resign after pleading guilty to misdemeanor sexual assault, Breen took over.

Despite the circumstances, it was typical to hear Knicks fans bemoaning the new hire. How could he expect to replace a legend? The fans questioned his knowledge of the game. If he made a mistake, it was simply proof he wasn’t ready. It was a strange situation for Breen, too, in that he’d grown up listening to Albert. But Breen was on his way, and his reputation grew. He was very different than Albert, of course: softer-spoken, and where Albert seemed to pounce upon the action, Breen nudged it along. He never seemed eager to completely put his stamp on it. He could be self-deprecating. He could sound like an excited fan himself, happy to be there — possibly one reason the guys watching from their couches occasionally took potshots.  But his particular skill (among many) within the confines of his role was that he made basketball sound like something that was supposed to be fun. Albert would later return. Breen bided his time. He replaced Albert after his second firing and works there to this day. Eventually ESPN and ABC also came calling.

Breen’s first game at the Finals was in 2006, when a Dwyane Wade–led Miami beat Dallas. It was a rough start, he says. After being told that he would be talking to casual fans who may not have watched a game all year, and might need some explanations, he took it to another level.

“I think the first quarter I was so nervous I was trying to explain, ‘Well, on a foul, now you go to a thing called a free-throw line,’ ” he says. “I’m exaggerating, but I felt like I was doing that, and in the first or second timeout Hubie [Brown] grabs me and in his Hubie voice, says, ‘Hey just relax and call the game the way you always do.’ ”

It did get better for Breen from that first broadcast, though to this day he gets butterflies before the start of the series. Great as Hubie Brown is, the broadcast may have gotten better for NBA fans as well. 

Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson offer the best banter in sports. You could imagine them in a sitcom together, as roommates, Jackson at Van Gundy’s throat over a few dirty dishes, Breen playing mediator. There’s an intimate candor between them that’s both bracing and good-naturedly entertaining, and for good reason: They’ve known each other 25 years, since back when Van Gundy was an assistant coach for the Knicks and Jackson was their point guard.

“In many ways we’ve all grown up together in the sport,” Breen says. “I can throw anything out to either one of them. I never have to preview it during timeouts and say, 'Hey you OK if I bring this up?' ”

Like during game one of these Finals, when Breen mentioned a ref who ejected Van Gundy from a game once, long ago, as the last seconds were ticking down. Van Gundy quickly followed up on the incident.

“I’ll change the wording [of what I told him],” said Van Gundy. “You screwed the game up, not me.” This is what Breen does all the time, invoking old stories, needling ever so slightly. That needling goes in all directions, it seems. Among the three, Jackson is known as “the Instigator” for his ability to provoke Van Gundy.

“Does Jeff say some quirky things?” says Breen. “Absolutely. And does he go on rants? No question. But he does them for the love of the game, because he thinks the game could be better.”

On those car rides to the games, they argue sports “and some other things” he says somewhat coyly, laughing. One tells the other he’s ridiculous. Another follows suit, a situation that Breen says his five brothers well-prepared him for. No feelings hurt. Not when Van Gundy jumps all over Breen for a slight misstep over a name (“They made a trade for an announcer?!” Van Gundy would say mockingly on the air. “Wow. I’ve never heard of that happening before!”).

The Finals are winding down, with the Warriors poised to make it two in a row against LeBron’s Cavs. But Breen just signed a long-term contract with ESPN. He will be back for years to come, doing what he does. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he says. “This is the sport I’ve loved since I was a little kid, and I get to sit there for these big games. It’s a blessing beyond what I deserve, that’s for sure.” About that, he's probably wrong.  

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