Mike Breen Q + A
The MSG Network, ESPN/ABC play-by-play announcer discusses calling NBA games.
SLAM: Mark and Jeff obviously have their own player-coach relationship. If they start talking amongst each other during a game, do you just trust them that they’ll say what they have to say and then bring it back to you?
MB: [Laughs] Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You know, the beauty of those two guys is they’ve known each other a long time. We’ve all known each other since my first year in the League. That was one of Mark’s first years and same thing with Jeff as an assistant. We’ve all known each other for a long time. We really can say anything to each other. We can disagree, we can make fun [of each other] and nobody’s feelings get hurt. Especially with Mark and Jeff. I think the beauty of them is they not only respect each other…Mark has such respect for Jeff and his work ethic and what kind of coach he was, and Jeff has such respect for Mark as a cerebral player and a point guard and leader on the court. But they really do genuinely like each other.
So when you combine respect and the likability factor, they can get into anything. Sometimes they are 180 degrees from each other’s views, and their feelings never get hurt. They don’t care if one guy thinks the other is an idiot. The discussions before we go on the air — the night before dinner or the ride to the arena — they’re going back and forth at each other like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ‘You’re out of your mind.’ So it’s nonstop. The cool thing is things don’t change much from when they’re off the air arguing to when they go on the air arguing. It’s a really neat dynamic. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in any other sports where you have a former player and his former coach on the air together. For me, sometimes I have to make sure I don’t sit back and listen to them.
SLAM: Well I’m sure it helped that they worked with each other on teams. They probably argued then but had to learn to be civil about it.
MB: Oh, absolutely. And they know when they’ve gone on a little too long and it’s time to get back to the game. Sometimes I’ll stick my nose into it and make a comment to draw them back in. But now, after them doing it for a number of years, they have a good feel for when they’ve have to get back to the game.
SLAM: Now, you went to Fordham and grew up in New York City, right?
MB: Yes, born and raised in Yonkers.
SLAM: I’m assuming you were a fan of the Knicks in the ’70s.
MB: Oh, huge Knicks fan growing up. My two guys were [Dave] DeBusschere and [Clyde] Frazier. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and to this day there’s still the poster I hung up of Clyde. I was a crazy Knick fan. The thought of years later working with Clyde is sometimes still hard to believe.
SLAM: Do you ever look at him during a game and think ‘Wow, I used to watch that guy play.’ You probably don’t want to tell him that because it might make him feel old.
MB: [Laughs] No, you know what’s really cool? I do feel that way. But sometimes, even friends of mine I went to school with or just any fan that comes up to him before or after a game, guys who are in their late 40s, early 50s, they come up and are in awe. Sometimes I see a grown man, with his kids, just shaking. He’s nervous to meet Clyde Frazier. And that always sends me back to realizing how fortunate I am to have become a friend and a partner. He was as big a star in New York as there ever was, especially for someone my age growing up. I was 8, 9 years old at the time when they were winning their championships and he was the star of the New York.
SLAM: Do you talk to fans behind you during the game?
MB: Yeah, sometimes. You know what’s cool is you get to know the fans. A lot of them are the same people sitting around where you are. And you realize they’re really knowledgeable. Sometimes you go in and there’s a season-ticket holder for 20 years, and if I haven’t seen a particular team yet, I like to ask the fans what they think. They’ll give you a feel what they like about this player. Sometimes it’s really fun to do it. It’s really hard to do it during the game because there’s so much stuff going on with your communication with the production truck, but I’d say over the years you become friends with some of the season-ticket holders.
SLAM: Have the prevalence of in-game promotions and general distractions in the arena built up over the last 10, 15 years affected your job?
MB: You know what, I think because the prices are pretty high for tickets, the organizations and the League want to provide as much entertainment for your dollar as they can. An old-fashioned grump like me…I used to just like during timeouts to turn and talk to the person next to me and not be overly distracted by all the sound and loud music and crazy stunts. But if you look around the arena now, the fans love some of the stuff. Some of the entertainment is actually quite good. You get caught up during a timeout — you have to check a stat or what’s going on in the production truck — and all of a sudden you’re distracted because the stuff is pretty funny that’s going on on the court. I think the League and the teams have done a good job. Especially for the kids, they love that stuff. I have three kids and I used to bring them to games. They loved all that entertainment. Even that old-fashioned guy like me has to go with the flow.
SLAM: Do you ever broadcast enough games for a particular team where you recognize what plays they’re running or how they’ll react in a certain situation?
MB: Yeah, you know their substitution patterns, you can almost tell when a guy is going to have a good game. The last few years, I’ve done so many Lakers and Celtics games that you get a good feel. That’s one of the reasons I do the Knicks on MSG is because there’s something about following a team and seeing its development from training camp all through the season. Which guys improved the most or what areas the team will improve or how they handle adversity. To me, that’s the real fun of sport is following the development of a team or a player. Yes, you definitely start to notice nuances or trends when you get to cover certain teams.
SLAM: Well you look down the Knicks roster and it seems like they’ll be an exciting team to watch.
MB: Yeah, the potential is there. They’ve definitely upgraded in talent and athleticism. Each guy has a question mark that has to be answered. I think the potential is there. Now it’s a matter of them figuring out how to play well together. When you have 10 new players, and it’s probably going to be three new starters, it’s going to take a little time. But the potential is there for them to take that step to contend for a playoff spot and to make the fans happy in New York. The Knick fans are so hungry and so willing to embrace any team that works hard. I think that’s going to be the best part of this team. They really seem to work hard and want to become the team that turns it around.
SLAM: You’ve done enough Knicks games over the years to know what the excitement level can get like in Madison Square Garden. How will you know when that excitement level and that magic everyone talks about at the Garden is back?
MB: Last year, it was the last home game of the regular season. They played Washington. It was a close game and the Knicks came back and won the game. And the building…you would’ve thought it was a Game 7 of a playoff series. Here they are going for Win No. 29, and the place is going crazy. Clyde and I talked about it on the air. It shows you how much these fans are so hungry for a good team. So, we go to the first preseason game this year, and [Amar'e] Stoudemire goes on a big run in the third quarter against the Celtics, and the place is crazy again. I think Opening Night, if they come out and play well in their home opener against Portland, I think the fans are so ready to embrace them. To me, they make it the best atmosphere in the NBA. I know I’m not objective growing up as a New Yorker, but when the Garden is alive there’s no better place to watch a basketball game.