From hang time to prime time: Business, entertainment, and the birth of the modern-day NBA

From hang time to prime time: Business, entertainment, and the birth of the modern-day NBA


From hang time to prime time: Business, entertainment, and the birth of the modern-day NBA

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Excerpted from From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, published on December 1, 2020 by Atria Books.

You can buy this book here.

Spring 1978, New York City

“You can’t do this to the NBA!”

David Stern was begging for a loved one’s life. There was little justification for CBS Sports to show mercy.

Since its deal with CBS Sports, the NBA had not fulfilled its promise as the sport of the 1970s. President Bob Wussler and Larry O’Brien had shaken hands on an extension, but “we agreed somewhat reluctantly,” said Neal Pilson, then director of business affairs for CBS Sports. “It was not a substantial deal.” The NBA’s ratings were not great, but there was a history. On the heels of improperly paying tennis players money at “winner-takes-all” events, Wussler resigned in April 1978. New president Frank Smith wanted the NBA excised from the network’s schedule.

Here’s how Pilson remembered hearing the news:

Smith: “I want to cancel the NBA. I want to do more golf.”

Pilson: “Frank, we have a handshake [deal] with Larry O’Brien.”

Smith: “I don’t give a damn. It’s a handshake. It doesn’t bind me. I want to drop the NBA. Get Larry O’Brien over here.”

Pilson: “Jesus, Frank. We’ve had the NBA for years. It’s a good product. We don’t have a substitute for it.”

Smith: “I don’t care.”

O’Brien was stunned. The CBS and NBA had a good relationship, he explained, plus the NBA had a deal with Wussler. Stern asked Pilson if they could talk outside. There, like a manager enraged with an umpire over a bad call, Stern got right in Pilson’s face and put a finger in his chest. “You can’t do this to Larry. You can’t do this to the NBA. You had a deal. You have to stay with it. We need to continue on CBS!”

Pilson knew Stern was desperate. Without CBS, he thought, the NBA would disappear from network television. Jack Kent Cooke, unhappy with CBS Sports, had already crawled back to ABC, but the network harbored resentment over the league’s shifty defection to CBS. Pilson promised to talk to Smith. Stern and Pilson ended their sidebar. Everyone agreed to defer the decision. Pilson then did his best to convince Smith: The network had nothing to replace the NBA. It’s profitable. It’s a good deal. Let’s stay with it. The four-year deal was renewed. O’Brien later said Smith, who died in 1998, initially couldn’t honor Wussler’s deal, because it hadn’t been approved upstairs.

The $74 million contract failed to resolve every issue. “We were never given the opportunity to determine whether we were ready for prime time,” O’Brien recalled later. At one league meeting, O’Brien announced that its cocktail reception with CBS was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. After a beat, Jim Foley, then the Houston Rockets’ PR guy, responded, “Is that 5:30 p.m. real-time or tape-delayed, Commissioner?” The league’s championship series coincided with May’s networks sweeps. The ratings for that period dictated what advertisers would pay for the next season. There was no conceivable way the NBA Finals would draw as many viewers as The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas – two of the 1980s most popular shows, for better or for worse. It was an easy decision to make. David DuPree covered the Golden State Warriors–Washington Bullets 1975 Finals for the Washington Post, one of five publications reporting on the series. The NBA, he said, barely had a national presence. (According to basketball historian Todd Spehr, seven Finals games were shown on tape delay. And of those seven, three aired live somewhere in the nation).

The irony was the level of play was increasingly watchable to a general audience: Julius Erving launched a generation of aspiring basketball players, who had a role model widely available for adulation and imitation. Larry Nance, the future All-Star and Slam Dunk Contest champion, spent hours confronting his backyard hoop – reinforced with double planks of wood by his father—trying to dunk. When he finally did, his first thought was, I’m Doctor J. The television coverage did not match the product, though basketball fit the medium perfectly. It was selfcontained. There were no home runs or shanks. “The game is in front of you” and allowed for a wider variety of camera angles, said Don Ellis, a longtime television executive, who worked on NBA games in the 1950s for NBC. The court served as a perfect stage. The players, ostensibly dressed in their underwear, were always visible. They didn’t wear helmets; they didn’t retreat into dugouts. CBS devoted little energy and few resources to the NBA, and it showed. The NFL and television had come of age together, leading to Howard Cosell and the innovative coverage of Monday Night Football. Major League Baseball had grown up with America, burrowing into metropolitan areas, creating a bond with each Mel Allen “How ’bout that?” or rapturous Vin Scully sentence. The NBA had no identifiable hook, no bouncy theme song, no memorable broadcast duo. CBS’s ubiquitous play-by-play man Brent Musburger was a star, but the color analysts through the 1970s and 1980s left little to be desired.

When the NBA’s contract was renewed in 1982, Pilson was CBS Sports’ president. He asked Ted Shaker to helm the NBA’s coverage; it wasn’t because Shaker was a major talent. “It was, ‘No one else wants it, do you want to give it a whirl?’ ” said Shaker, who previously worked on The NFL Today, CBS’s pregame studio show. Shaker’s lawyer, Todd Musburger, Brent’s brother, advised him to turn it down. Todd Musburger’s verdict: “This is where people’s careers end.” Shaker decided to give it a try, though he knew the NBA’s reputation: the players didn’t play hard, there was no structure or strategy, everybody freelanced. “You could check off the clichés, and that’s what the general perception was,” Shaker recalled. “And people didn’t watch.”

As the Boston Globe’s Jack Craig pointed out, the NBA’s $88 million contract in 1982 was hardly good news. First, there was inflation. Second, the NBA’s deal was nightstand change compared to the NFL’s $2.4 billion, five-year contract from the three networks –  an increase of more than $1.7 billion from the previous four-year deal. CBS aired fewer regular season games –seven in the 1982–83 season, down from nineteen the previous season –  in addition to the All-Star Game and the postseason.

Shaker had one big advantage in what the NBA billed as a “less is more” approach: he could work with limited interference from higherups. CBS held little interest in the NBA, Brent Musburger recalled, because it was more concerned with profitable prime-time programming, including the NFL, which made 60 Minutes. The NBA was in the sports division’s hands. Shaker and his allies’ “tiny brains” concocted a two-part plan to generate relevancy. First, the NBA had four bona fide stars: Abdul-Jabbar, Erving, Bird, and Magic. Free of regional restrictions, a game would feature at least two of those players. The network focused on players and rivalries. That was easy to do, Pilson said, because the NBA wasn’t as deep as it is today. Some teams never aired.

The second aspect: to further turn NBA games into events, not afterthoughts. Fortunately, the network had a ton of sports showcases as a foundation. Shaker managed to get the NBA on after the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of NASCAR, and before the actual Super Bowl. Unlike today, the hours before the NFL’s final game cum advertising extravaganza lay barren. “If there’s this early part of the day and people are going to build their day around the Super Bowl, there will be some percentage of the audience that will be looking for something else to watch before the game came on,” Shaker said. “We would do one of those match-ups at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday and have that until 3:30 p.m. It was a big success. These games got a lot of viewers, against all odds.” By the start of the postseason, Shaker felt something was happening aside from hours being swallowed.

“It wasn’t an overnight success,” said Mike Burks, a lead producer for The NBA on CBS. “It was kind of slow and go. I think we had an underlying feeling –  I can remember saying this any number of times –  that if we treat the league like it matters, the public will perceive that it matters.”

That included halftime. The affable, precocious Pat O’Brien, formerly from KNXT in Los Angeles, hosted an irreverent halftime report. O’Brien had a glint in his eye, thought John Kosner, then manager of sports programming at CBS. “He was clever and different,” Kosner said. “He wasn’t another blow-dried announcer on at halftime.”

Time-killers such as H-O-R-S-E contests shuffled off to the glue factory. Now O’Brien revealed that Buck Williams, the bruising Nets forward, developed his blue-collar game by playing against his sister when they were kids. (Williams also showed his chops on the piano.) The player-centric pieces got viewers to know these young men, whose personalities and backstories were obscured in concerned editorials. “I think our group coming in, in being fresh faces and also being able to articulate a point in front of the camera, let America know you were all right, so to speak,” said star Detroit Pistons guard Isiah Thomas, who entered the league in 1981. At the time, TV was largely bereft of positive black images. “The self-deprecating role of blacks as comic relief in television is not unlike those that were once so pervasive in films,” journalist Knolly Moses observed in 1979. Portrayals tended to stick.

Media experts George Gerbner and Larry Gross suggested to Moses that television was used to test reality. Eventually, the stereotyped portrayal became real and behavior in real life was guided by the expectations derived from the stereotypes.

Pat O’Brien encountered some resistance. When the mustachioed newsman called the NBA to request access to players for halftime pieces, the voice on the other end asked, “Why?”

CBS’s coverage grew more refined. Rick Barry, a transcendent talent, had a lifelong knack for irritating people. Bob Bestor, the Golden State Warriors’ director of public relations and marketing, said Barry was a smart, stand-up guy who couldn’t keep quiet. He’d offer advice to flight attendants on how to do their jobs on flights. Little changed during his time at CBS, which dropped him. “He was brutally honest,” said Bob Stenner, lead producer for The NBA on CBS and a friend of Barry’s. “Some people have a tone in their voice that sounds condescending. What they’re saying is accurate; it just sounds nasty. That’s who Rick was and is. That’s held him back.” Russell owned a keen, curious mind but his thoughtful, meditative approach wasn’t a good fit for the broadcast table, Stenner thought. But another Celtics legend, the excitable Tommy Heinsohn, could keep up. In his interview with CBS Sports, Heinsohn offered some advice. Stop with the Basketball 101 approach. “Every game is different; every game can be a murder mystery,” he said. The broadcast can provide clues as to who was murdered and how. The picture creates an idea of how to win the game.

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Jan 18, 1981; Boston, MA, USA: FILE PHOTO; Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird (33) in action against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Boston Garden. Mandatory Credit: Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Director Sandy Grossman obliged. Broadcaster Dick Stockton, an on-air staple of CBS’s NBA coverage during the 1980s, said the beauty behind Grossman’s approach was that he captured players’ reactions. Shots of a frenzied crowd served no purpose. But Larry Bird whipping a towel from the bench, turning the Boston Garden into a rock concert, did. Michael Cooper lying on the floor in astonishment after Ralph Sampson’s improbable buzzer-beater sent the upstart Houston Rockets to the 1986 Finals told a story. Reporter Lesley Visser, who went from the Boston Globe’s heralded sports department to CBS Sports in the early 1980s, was floored at the behind-the-camera talent. “They were all giants,” she said. The emerging talent in the NBA, she thought, mirrored the NBA on CBS’s crew. Two supporting members – Artie Kempner and Suzanne Smith – went on to brilliant careers directing NFL games for Fox and CBS, respectively. It wasn’t about showing up and putting on another game, Smith said. Burks would arrive with a yellow pad filled with forty things to do. He made sure, Smith recalled, to have a player’s head shot and some personal information accompany their stat line. It put a face to the players and familiarized them to the viewers. Hey, this guy also likes chocolate ice cream.

What also helped, Stockton thought, was that viewers were no longer plopped into a game. Here’s how the two teams are performing going into today’s game. Here’s what’s at stake. Here’s what to look for. The elements were presented like a feature story: facts accented with color. Heinsohn, a former head coach, got scouting reports for both teams, and fed that information to help the crew set up shots. Visser felt her role didn’t change on television. Instead of writing on deadline, she spoke on deadline (*Visser and Stockton were married in 1983. They have since divorced).

Added to that mix was an introduction to excite viewers. Husband and- wife production team Bill and Joyce Feigenbaum, with help from the New York Institute of Technology’s computer animation laboratory, created an animated basketball court complete with a bouncing ball and a crowd. It was a grind. Video, said Joyce Feigenbaum, is thirty frames a second; some details-crammed frames took as long as an hour to produce. “We didn’t expect it to be that great,” Joyce said. Larry O’Brien, she said, couldn’t determine whether what he saw on CBS was concocted in a studio or belonged to the material world. Ken Wesley, who went on to do animation and video effects for Star Trek and Pirates of the Caribbean, took the Feigenbaums’ ideas and put them on the screen. In 2019, he laughed when he watched the now-primitive introduction, which could be done now in two days as opposed to two months. But in the heyday of Donkey Kong, it was groundbreaking.

Excerpted from From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-day NBA, published on December 1, 2020 by Atria Books.

You can buy this book here.

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