Mike Breen Q + A
The MSG Network, ESPN/ABC play-by-play announcer discusses calling NBA games.
by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
When you have an opportunity to talk hoops with Mike Breen, you take it. The play-by-play announcer for Knicks games on MSG Network and for the League’s most prominent national games on ESPN/ABC, Breen has become the voice most NBA fans connote with the League.
He’s been calling NBA games since 1992 when he started with MSG Network. He works these days with Hall of Famer Clyde Frazier on MSG, and he runs a three-man booth with Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy for the ESPN/ABC telecasts. His voice is unmistakable, and his smooth delivery flows perfectly with the sport he calls for a living. I was given the chance to speak with Breen via phone from his Long Island home a couple weeks ago.
We talked about how he prepares for each game, the chemistry he shares with his broadcast booth partners and the interactions of players, coaches and referees he observes on a daily basis.
SLAM: What’s your preparation like for a game?
Mike Breen: For me, the preparation is year-round, and I don’t mean to sound corny or anything. You’re always reading, you’re always talking to people. Obviously from when I started ’till now, the Internet has made a world of difference. You’re so much more up on everything around the League as opposed to the local teams you cover.
As an example, for a game day, say if a game was tonight, the first thing you do is go online and start reading the various columns and get up-to-date on the NBA. If it’s, say, the Knicks are playing Boston, you go to all the Boston papers, you go to all the Knicks papers. You just try to make sure you’re up-to-date on the latest news. So, you spend a couple hours doing that. I’m old-fashioned, so I still like to actually get the newspaper in my hand and read the newspaper, whether if I’m in New York or if I fly into another city.
You have all that stuff just to get up-to-date, but I find the best stuff that you get is when you get to the arena. For example, for a 7:30 game, I’ll get there around 4 o’clock or so. We’ll have a production meeting at 5 o’clock where we get together with the producer, the director, the graphics guy, the analyst, the sideline reporter….we”ll have a meeting about the storylines we’ll do that night. What we’re going to do when we come on-air, the open. What are some of the graphics we want to make sure we get in, are there any good sound bites we can get in, personal stories, connections between the teams, relationships, all that stuff — the usual.
You get those conversations going. And then I try to head down to the court somewhere between 5:30 and 6. I find in most cases, with all the reading and preparation, most of the stuff you actually use on the air is the stuff you get in the hour and a half before the game. You talk to players, you’re talking to assistant coaches. Depending if you have a relationship with the head coach, you talk to him. If I’m doing a national game, you talk to the local broadcasters for each team. If I’m doing a Knick game for MSG, I’ll talk to the opposing broadcaster. It’s a nonstop, ongoing discussion about basketball. For anybody like you or me, anyone that likes the game, it doesn’t seem like work. You’re talking hoops the whole day.
That’s basically the preparation. I have charts for each team where i have a whole bunch of information, historical stuff for each player, where they were drafted, where they played, their contract situation, their career, field goal percentage…I have all that on charts. I do a chart for each team to start the year that is a generic thing that will last me through the year. The stuff I do on the day of the game is more the up-to-date stuff.
SLAM: What are you getting from the players before the game?
MB: In the beginning of the season, I’ll specifically ask them about a new teammate. If they’re a new player on a team, I ask them what’s the surprise about so-and-so. For example, I’ll go to a Boston game and ask one of the Celtics what it is about Shaq they didn’t know that now they know since they see him every day. Stuff like that. And then I ask them around the League. The players love to talk about other teams, and they just love to talk about the League. I’m always amazed at how much basketball they watch. So, if you get them in a discussion about the best rookie they’ve seen or what team has surprised them so much…during the course of 82 games, doing Knick games, you want to not just talk about that particular game. You want to get into League discussions. And players love to get into that kind of stuff.
SLAM: During pregame, will you watch for interactions between players and their teammates and coaches?
MB: Yeah, I mean, you keep your ears and eyes open. One of the things I like to do is see — I know this sounds silly sometimes — but you find how a guy warms up. Some guys come out and they go out 100 percent. They work out an unbelievable sweat. They just work so hard before a game. Other guys barely work a sweat, they practice their left-handed three-pointers from the top of the key and that’s their routine. And, often, it has no barometer on how they’re going to play.
I’ll watch [Danilo] Gallinari, and he’ll miss 15 straight three-pointers while he’s warming up. Then he goes out, and he knocks down his first six. Or vice versa. You see a guy that can’t miss in warmups. You think ‘Man, he’s gonna have a good game today’ and then he goes out and he can’t hit anything. So, you try and find trends and stuff like that. But you watch the interaction, especially before they actually come out for warmups, when they’re just shooting around before the game. You try to get a feel for who likes who and who has different relationships. What I like, especially early in the season, is to see how new guys are fitting in and how comfortable they seem to be.
SLAM: Will you talk with your on-air analysts and walk around the court with them to pick their brain for something they know about a player or how a team is playing?
MB: Right, well that’s where the production meetings are at. We’ll bounce ideas off each other. But once you go out to the court…I guess sometimes you’ll go up to certain players you know. For example, when we go to Orlando, Mark, Jeff and I usually find [Patrick] Ewing and we just ask him stuff and joke with him and have some fun with him. But in a lot of cases, everybody has different relationships with different players and coaches. Usually that hour, hour and a half before a game you go off on your own and talk to guys.
SLAM: Once you’re behind the booth, do you ever feel like you need to get into the flow of a game from an announcing perspective?
MB: It’s almost like the guys who are warming up before the game. You never know. You can have the best preparation going into a game, you can have so many different personal notes and nuggets to talk about, and all of a sudden the game goes a complete different way. All the stuff you had prepared and learned you suddenly can’t use. It has no correlation to what’s going on on the floor. And then some games there are nothing but fouls, nothing but stoppages of play, there are whistles, guys are in foul trouble and you get in no flow. It’s just such a choppy game. What I’ve learned over the years is the preparation is great and good to have, but you have to let the game dictate where you’re gonna go, what you’re going to focus on and what you’re going to emphasize.
SLAM: Sometimes there’s criticism levied against announcers where they follow a storyline more than they do breaking down the game. How do you know when and where to split those responsibilities?
MB: Yeah, that’s the trick every game. It’s a balance you want to find. The main focus is the game, on what’s happening that particular night. But even for fans at home watching, say they watch every Sunday on ABC or every Knick game, you got to mix it up a little bit. You also have to try and entertain. You balance with personal anecdotes about players, but you don’t want to spend the whole game about where he grew up or who his mentors were or who influenced him. Sometimes they’re good and important. It depends on the game. If it’s a 30-point blowout, then sometimes the funny stories and personal anecdotes work. If it’s a game where the largest lead the entire game is five, and it’s against two rivals who have a little bitterness toward each other, you stay away from [the storylines] and you concentrate on the game. Again, it’s all dictated on that. Some people couldn’t care less about having the fun. With Mark and Jeff, we like to have some laughs and goof around a little bit. Some people don’t like that, but a lot of people do. You just try to do your best to balance trying to cover the game, providing a little entertainment and telling the view that maybe they didn’t know.