“I’m Here With…” is Graydon Gordian’s examination of NBA television announcers, a look at the characters who give voice to our favorite game. His first subject — Jeff Van Gundy.
A few years ago I sat down to watch the 1980 Wimbledon final, one of if not the most famous match in the history of tennis. At the beginning of the match, as the frizzy-haired John McEnroe and the indelibly cool Bjorn Borg prepared for the first serve, the play-by-play announcer, an Englishman with a tenor and refinement perfectly calibrated to call a tennis match, described the atmosphere – “electrifying” – and introduced the players’ family and friends in attendance: Borg’s fiancée, McEnroe’s father (who was blowing his nose, bringing to mind an image of an apple falling near the tree on which it grew), etc.
As McEnroe set his feet, the announcer paused, calmly uttered the words, “Here goes McEnroe,” and refrained from speaking for several minutes.
The silence (or the sound of the game itself rather) was astounding. Nowadays nearly every moment of any televised game, no matter the sport, is filled with the incessant chatter of play-by-play announcers and color commentators. The presence of their voice can be a joy, annoyance or outright frustration, but it is always present. As their words per minute have risen, so has the scrutiny. There are whole site’s dedicated to parsing through play-by-play commentary in search of the inane, uninformed, absurd or outright unintelligible. Taking pot shots at telecasters has become a pastime all its own.
However, as their well-exercised vocal chords have propelled them to ever greater fame – Joe Buck is as easily recognizable to NFL and MLB fans as practically any player – the level of our criticism hasn’t risen alongside them. We laugh at their stumbles, but don’t often consider the individual styles and approaches they bring to the games they cover. They are, if not culturally significant, at the very least ubiquitous, and therefore merit further consideration. So let’s consider them: their philosophy of the game, their rhetorical style, even the timbre of their voice.
For me, there’s no better person to begin with than Jeff Van Gundy. The Notorious JVG may be the most iconoclastic color commentator covering the National Basketball Association. He has no sacred cows. He’s willing to criticize players, coaches, his employers at ABC, fans, the media, the league front office, his fellow commentators, the rules of the All-Star game, rappers, hair salons that charge full price to cut a bald man’s hair, and whoever it was that decided the Washington Wizards should have been featured in a nationally televised game on Monday, among other things. At times he takes his duty as an any-time-any-topic critic more seriously than his job as color commentator, ignoring reasonably long stretches of play in order to finish explaining his point no matter how irrelevant it may be to the game.
He’s also one of the more brilliant basketball minds to ever strap on a headset. Although not entirely, he often forgoes the clichés other commentators rely upon so heavily, partly because his eyes are trained to see beyond truisms. He is, of course, a coach. But being a coach doesn’t just mean he has an expert understanding of the game. It also means he realizes any expertise he may have is essentially worthless if he’s unable to communicate it effectively. Some of the NBA’s more unremarkable analysts probably have the knowledge necessary to make observations that escape even the well-versed fan, but in order to translate that knowledge into good television, one has to possess verbal dexterity and genuine enthusiasm. Jeff Van Gundy has both in spades.
It’s not just that Jeff Van Gundy has a large vocabulary, or that he’s unafraid to employ technicalities, although those both are true. It’s the way he blends grandiloquence with self-effacing humor. He’ll use a 10 dollar word to deride a player for missing a switch on a pick and roll, only to perform a 10 cent rendition of a popular hip hop song moments later. He is an incisive sophisticate and a baggy-eyed clown all at once.
His accent is a little hard to place. Over the years it may have even softened a tad. But you can hear his upbringing in Brockport, New York when he lets long vowels drop out of his mouth at the end of sentences – he says “rules” as if it were spelled with a few extra o’s. But something about his voice, or his tone rather, is a bit downstate NY. I was a Knicks fan during the Van Gundy years, so it’s possible I’m just imposing my own childhood simplifications onto his personality. But the particular way he gets not just annoyed but enthusiastically so, only to effortlessly drop back into the grind of the game – it’s an emotional arc anyone who’s ever ridden the 4/5 train at rush hour or stared down the guy half a block up the avenue trying to hail the same cab can recognize. He takes a certain pleasure in getting a little pissed. Then again, that could just be the coach in him.
It’s that recoilable irascibility that makes him such a great commentator. Details become deadly serious, but only for a split second. Then its back to embarrassing anecdotes about his big brother and light jabs at his former on-air partner Mark Jackson. Of all the NBA’s on-air personalities, he’s the most willing to follow the rabbit trail to wherever it may lead. At times his willingness to touch upon any topic has made each of us roll our eyes and wish they’d just get back to the game. But all of us were laughing out loud, or at least grinning ear to ear, when he declared he is hip hop.