Hubie Brown is nowhere to be found. Neither is Mike Tirico or Charles Barkley. Kenny Smith, Bill Walton, Kevin Harlan – no, no, no. The NBA Playoffs have finally begun, and they’re even being broadcast live, but none of my favorite announcers or talking heads are on TV. Their familiar, almost soothing voices – which are intertwined with the NBA playoffs the same way that organs and choirs are intertwined with church – have been muted by the thousands of miles that sit between them and myself.
Hubie and Sir Charles and the rest have been replaced by a pair of Chinese dudes sitting behind laptop computers in a studio. These guys are sitting on either side of a drab grey desk with a television screen looming on the wall behind them. There are a pair of miniature, hand-sized Larry O’Brien Trophies resting on the desk, and on the near side of each computer is a “Peak” brand logo, which looks like more of less like a white triangle set atop an ugly red backdrop. Peak has invested heavily in the NBA, signing Shane Battier, Ron Artest and Jason Kidd to shoe deals, so it’s no shock that Peak is smattering its logo on the laptops during an NBA broadcast. That Peak logo also shares airtime on the TV behind the gentlemen; when the screen doesn’t have the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls emblems, it has that Peak triangle. It’s like a billboard with alternating facades.
The playoffs are under way, and this morning’s the Bulls-Cavs game* is being broadcast live from back in the States, from back in time. China is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so last night’s 8 p.m. EST tip-off (broadcast on TNT) is an 8 a.m. tip-off here (broadcast on CCTV5). That these games are on speaks to basketball’s popularity in China: there are enough people who will tune in to watch, even though it’s an 8 a.m. tip.
* This was originally written on April 20.
This CCTV5 broadcast is a bizarre way to watch hoops. The two guys sitting behind their computers double as the in-studio analysts and the play-by-play announcers. They aren’t actually at the game, a fact revealed by the muffled sound of the Cleveland crowd. It’s not like the real broadcast, where a series of strategically placed microphones pick up the crowd noise and on-court noise, mixing it beautifully with the play-by-play and color commentary to form the final product – a product with everything from players’ groans to the net’s swoosh to the crowd’s discontent/euphoria. Instances when commentators raise their voices to speak over the bedlam engulfing the arena are among my favorite moments in sports – the struggle between the crowd and the announcer, when you can feel that things are electric inside the arena. There are no such instances today. (Ron Franklin’s three-hour battle with the crowd during the 1997 LSU-Florida football game in Baton Rouge is one of the reasons I ended up wanting to get into sports. Video highlights of that game are on YouTube, but I can't go there.)
After a stop in action, the scroll at the bottom of the screen sets the scene by giving the location, the name of the venue, the names of the refs, and the name of the lead announcer: Marv Albert. I chuckle and wish that it were Marv Albert. I have no idea what these announcers are saying.
This broadcast captures none of that electricity – it’s sterile, muted. The crowd noise sounds like it’s leaking out of someone’s headphones who’s sitting a row in front of you on an airplane. Even calling it crowd noise is an exaggeration. I later read the AP recap of the Cavs-Bulls game, which says, “James scored 40 points – 15 in a tour-de-force fourth quarter – as the Cavaliers, fueled by a rabid home crowd that booed every move by Noah, maintained home-court advantage…” I had no idea that Noah was getting booed or that the crowd was rabid. I could have guessed either fact, but there was nothing in the audio of the broadcast that made it clear. Come to think of it, I could probably get more out of simply hearing the crowd – no commentary – than listening to these guys blabbering from a few thousand miles away.
All I pick up are the occasional “Hao chiu!” or “Mae you!”, terms that were discussed at length back in the “Say What?” post from April 16. Other than that, they could be saying anything. At times, I fantasize that Hubie Brown is making the call: “OK, so if you’re the Bulls, you live with Varejao taking that shot, OK? He’s an energy guy, he doesn’t shoot a high percentage from there, you let him shoot that and if he makes it (chuckle), well, then kudos to him.” I don’t care if he’s old and says “OK” to begin and end every other sentence. Brown’s a legend in my book.
As bastardized as this broadcast is, there is one redeeming quality about it and other Chinese NBA broadcasts that I’ve seen. Often times instead of commercials, they’ll show highlights. A few months ago I was watching a Lakers game, and each time the broadcast cut to commercials in the States, it would cut to a pre-made highlight reel of Kobe Bryant doing crazy dunks of yesteryear, hitting buzzer beaters, pumping his fist, etc. I’m not huge on Kobe, but give me highlights of him hitting miracle shots or defying gravity any day over tired television commercials. During this Chicago-Cleveland game, each would-be commercial break is instead highlights from earlier in the game. There’s Derrick Rose hitting a jumper…there’s LeBron hitting a fadeaway (why is Kirk Hinrich guarding him?)…there’s Antawn Jamison on the baseline. It’s a pretty cool way to pass the commercial breaks.
LeBron ends up carrying the Cavs to victory, but as much as I admire LeBron’s exploits – tonight he had 40, eight and eight – I just can’t like the Cavs. The thing that bugs me most about them is that they are so hodgepodge. It seems like all of their guys save LeBron have been rented in a furious attempt to win a title and coax LeBron into staying. Look at their starting lineup this morning – er, last night. It’s LeBron, who’s been with the team since he was drafted in 2003. Outside of him, it’s Shaquille O’Neal, Jamison, Mo Williams and Anthony Parker. Only Williams has been with the team for more than one season – and he’s been there for only two. O’Neal and Jamison have a combined 78 games with Cleveland, less than one season between the two of them. Sure, the Cavs bring a few guys off the bench who have been around for years, but it just strikes me as lame that Cleveland’s roster is compiled of non-Cleveland players. It looks like the strategy could land them a title this year; that doesn’t make it cool.
Anyway, enough about Cleveland. When the game ends, the first commercial – and they do eventually start playing commercials – is an adidas ad featuring Dwight Howard, Rose, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and…Tracy McGrady. I won’t rant too much about China’s infatuation with McGrady – did plenty of that here – but seeing him today is extra interesting because last week he floated the idea of retirement if his faulty knee doesn’t get better this off-season. “If it don’t happen this summer, I’ll ride off into the sunset,” McGrady said on April 15, adding, “I can’t see myself coming back playing the way I'm playing right now. I just don't see it happening.” I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he’s still popular here even after he retires.