“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.

Comments (14)

  1. Woooow………

  2. Thank you!! JVG is literally the best NBA commentator, I mean, I miss Bill Walton but other than him JVG is the best commentator I’ve heard in my lifetime..

  3. is JVG better or worse off now that mark jackson has left? while i have no love for jackson as a commentator, i thought some of JVG’s best moments came from riffing off mark.

  4. I still cannot get over the fact that Mark Jackson is now coaching a team and JVG is still doing color commentary. It’s awesome for us fans but it just seems like such a joke considering how terrible some of the current coaches in the league are. Van Gundy is way too smart to not be leading a good team right now.

  5. He had me convinced a couple of years ago (I hope I get most of the details right, but it was roughly as follows) when the Lakers where down two late in a game but shooting two free throws. Kobe set up as a rebounder on one side of the lane, the opponent chose to cover him with a rookie guard. Before Odom’s free throw, Van Gundy doubted the choice to box Kobe out with such an inexperienced player since he was supposedly a “really great free throw rebounder”.

    The next 10 seconds: Mike Breen snickers at hearing the phrase “great free throw rebounder” in the context of an NBA game for the first time, as do I… Odom misses… Kobe works around his defender, grabs the rebound and scores, Lakers win… 5 seconds of Mike Breen in stunned silence… Van Gundy bragging about his oracle-like qualities.

    I do like JVG’S rants and tangents, since he doesn’t do it when the game is on the line. All other times are fine with me, since sports are supposed to be fun so few people on TV actually have the guts to express an opinion that a majority might not agree with.

    And finally, Van Gundy’s excellent comedic timing even translates in non-speaking (or barely-speaking) roles:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMVVKNWuapw

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQwz1iwX8nQ

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjO5QiWAmoU

  6. I work at a local bookstore in Brockport. Had the good fortune to find JVG perusing our embarrassingly sparse basketball collection over summer. Nice guy, we had a very brief chat about hoops. I remember it like it was yesterday, I wore an orange dress…

  7. Nice piece. If this is to be a series, might I suggest an article praising Hubie Brown’s brilliance? The man is always on point and has significant insights for details and intangibles without relying on his microphone as a personal mouthpiece. He seems like the consummate professional, is amicable, etc., etc. He has been in the league for AGES so he, more than anyone else I’ve heard at least (maybe Mike Rice?), communicates how the NBA game has evolved into the version that we have today, which allows fans to have a greater appreciation of the league’s history beyond ESPN’s crap analysis and without advocating too much of the mysticism surrounding the history of the game. OK maybe I went off a little there, but he’s my favorite sports personality of all time and I’d like everyone in the history life to agree with me :)

  8. Great article. Reminds me of NPR’s “On the media”. As a Portland fan, Mike Rice would be a great choice if you ever did a non-national broadcaster in this series (although I’m rational enough to understand how that could make pretty dull reading for someone who isn’t familiar with him). Bill Walton would be my first pick for a national broadcaster.

  9. I agree with you that practically all sports coverage “is filled with the incessant chatter of play-by-play announcers and colour commentators”. I sometimes end up watching games on mute but you loose the crowd and game sounds…

    I thought it was great a couple of years ago in the CFL. There was some sort of labour dispute and the commentators were on strike. The camera men weren’t on strike so they just broadcasted the games without commentary. It was amazing! You could really hear the actual game and the fans. The stadium announcer became a major part of the experience too.

    It would be cool to experience the odd NBA game like that.

  10. I’d love to see a piece on Ralph Lawler. He’s been around forever.

  11. Great Article.

    I remember back in the days where we’d mute the tv and turn on the radio to hear play by play by Chick Hern.

  12. If this is a series I think it should culminate in a 5-part series on Walton, Isiah Thomas and the dangers of letting any pro player switch to play-by-play. The best (read: worst) thing I ever heard Isiah Thomas say, during (I think) the ’98 playoffs about Michael Jordan: “you see, that’s what Michael is smart at with his brain.”

  13. I love JVG but I can understand why some don’t. This article was very well-written. The author’s grandiloquence was impressive! (Yes, I just had to look that one up.)

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