As the national broadcaster of the NBA, CBS aired NBA games from the 1973-74 until the 1989–90 season, during which the early 1980s is notoriously known as the tape delay playoff era.
NBC then succeeded the broadcast rights from 1990 to 2002. During NBC's partnership with the NBA in the 1990s, the league rose to unprecedented popularity, with ratings surpassing the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the mid 1980s. Upon expiration of the contract in 2002, the league signed an agreement with ABC, which began airing games in the 2002-03 season. NBC had made a four-year $1.3 billion ($330 million/year) bid in the spring of 2002 to renew its NBA rights, but the league instead went to ESPN and ABC with a six-year deal worth $2.4 billion ($400 million/year), a total of $4.6 billion ($766 million/year) when adding the cable deal with Turner Sports.
On November 9, 1989, the NBA and NBC reached an agreement on a four-year, US$600 million contract (beginning in the 1990–1991 season).
The NBA’s popularity was skyrocketing by the late '80s and Commissioner David Stern wanted more exposure. This meant that he wanted more than 15 games a year shown on network television. However, CBS didn’t have the room to broadcast double and triple headers every Sunday like NBC could because of their NFL and college basketball coverage. Plus around this time, CBS had signed deals with Major League Baseball and the Winter Olympics, making it even more difficult to accommodate the NBA’s request for more over the air telecasts. All in all, CBS was by 1990 pretty much destined to cut ties with the NBA.
From 1986 to its final year in 1990, CBS paid about US$47 million per year for the NBA broadcast contract. The final NBA game that CBS televised to date occurred on June 14, 1990. It was Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers. The Pistons won the game 92–90 to clinch their second consecutive World Championship. As the soundtrack for their goodbye montage, CBS used "The Last Waltz" by The Band and Marvin Gaye's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, ending CBS Sports' relationship with the NBA after 17 years. While the network broadcast all five NBA Finals involving Larry Bird, all four NBA Finals involving Julius Erving, nine of the ten NBA Finals involving Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and eight of the nine NBA Finals involving Magic Johnson (with the exception of 1991, which was Magic Johnson's last and the first to be broadcast by NBC), it never broadcast a Final involving Michael Jordan.
Prior to the closing montage, the network's final NBA game broadcast on June 14, 1990 ended with this sign-off by Dick Stockton:
Well, I guess now the time has come. This is our last game as many of you may know. And it's really the end of a 17-year love affair between CBS and the NBA. For every member of our broadcast team and I mean technicians, and cameramen, production people, the terrifically talented folks in the truck, where it all happens, and of course...the commentators, this has been an extraordinary experience. We've witnessed the careers of Julius Erving and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. We've seen Michael Jordan take flight. All the players actually...fired the imagination not only for an entire generation of NBA fans but for all of us at CBS. We know we leave the NBA in good hands. But to Isiah and Akeem and Patrick and David Robinson, to all the players, coaches...and you the viewers, we're going to miss all of you. So long!
Ernie Johnson Jr. has been TNT's NBA studio host since the 1990-1991 season. Currently, Johnson is joined by Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal. The NBA postgame show which features the four, Inside the NBA, has gained popularity in recent years for the chemistry and banter they have. Occasionally, Johnson, O'Neal, Smith and Barkley are joined by Chris Webber, Kevin McHale, David Aldridge, Reggie Miller or Isiah Thomas.
NBC's coverage of the NBA began on Christmas Day each season, with the exception of the inaugural season in 1990 (which featured a game on November 3 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs), the 1997–98 season (which included a preseason tournament featuring the Chicago Bulls), the 1998–99 season (as no Christmas games were played due to the 1998–99 NBA lockout), and the final season of the network's contract in 2001–02 (which included two early season games featuring the return of Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards). NBC aired the NBA All-Star Game every year (with the exception of 1999, when the game was canceled due to the lockout), usually at 6:00 p.m., Eastern Time.
The theme music for the NBA on NBC broadcasts, "Roundball Rock", was composed by new-age artist John Tesh. The instrumental piece, which NBC used for every telecast during the network's twelve-year tenure. Although Tesh offered the theme to ABC when it took over the rights to the league, the network declined.
The pre-game show for NBC's NBA telecasts was NBA Showtime, a title that was used from 1990 until 2000, with the pre-game being unbranded afterward. Showtime was originally hosted by Bob Costas from the inaugural season of the 1990 contract to the 1995–96 season; Hannah Storm took over as host beginning with the 1996–97 season, who in turn was replaced by Ahmad Rashād in 2001 when Storm went on maternity leave. The video game NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC, by Midway Games, was named after the pregame show.
NBC's first broadcast team of the 1990s–2000s era was made up of Marv Albert and Mike Fratello, with Ahmad Rashād serving as sideline reporter. Other broadcasters at the time included Dick Enberg and Steve "Snapper" Jones. Aside from Rashad, Jim Gray and Hannah Storm also handled sideline reporting duties; before becoming the television voice of the Spurs, Lakers and Pelicans, Joel Meyers also started as a sideline reporter for NBC. Bob Costas presided as host of the network's pre-game show, NBA Showtime.
In 1991, "The Dream is Still Alive" by Wilson Phillips was played during the end of the season montage.
In 1992, basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson became a top game analyst (alongside the likes of Enberg, Albert and Fratello); however, his performance was heavily criticized. Among the complaints were his apparently poor diction skills, his tendency for "stating the obvious", his habitual references to his playing days, and an overall lackluster chemistry with his broadcasting partners. Johnson would ultimately be slowly phased out of the NBA on NBC after helping commentate the 1993 NBA Finals.
In 1994, Mike Fratello left the booth (in order to become the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers) and was replaced with Matt Guokas. Albert and Guokas broadcast the 1994 NBA Finals and were joined for the 1995 NBA Finals by Bill Walton. Albert, Guokas and Walton, while not working regular season games together (Walton usually worked games with Steve Jones and play-by-play announcers Dick Enberg, Tom Hammond or Greg Gumbel), broadcast the next two Finals (1996 and 1997) together in a three-man booth.
The original voice of the NBA on TNT was Bob Neal, who worked with the network from 1989 to 1995; he was also the original voice of the NBA on TBS. Other announcers who worked for TNT include Hubie Brown, Dick Stockton, Verne Lundquist, Chuck Daly, Danny Ainge, Reggie Theus, Rex Chapman, John Thompson, Jeff Van Gundy, P. J. Carlesimo, Gary Bender, Matt Devlin, Joel Meyers and Kevin Calabro.
NBC's highest-rated regular season game was Michael Jordan's first game back from playing minor league baseball; the March 1995 game between the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers scored a 10.9 rating (higher than all but three NBA telecasts on ABC). As a comparison, the first game in Jordan's second comeback (a game against the New York Knicks that aired on TBS opposite the 2001 World Series) scored a rating between a 3.0 and 4.0. NBC's first game of Jordan's second comeback scored ratings similar to that number.
From 1997 to 2001, several contemporary music pieces were used for the montage (including, in 1997, R. Kelly's song "I Believe I Can Fly", which coincidentally came from a basketball film – Space Jam, which starred Michael Jordan and Pat Benatar's song "All Fired Up" from 1999 to 2001).
1997 was the last time Marv Albert would call the NBA Finals for NBC during the decade, as an embarrassing sex scandal forced NBC to fire Albert before the start of the 1997–1998 season. To replace Albert, NBC tapped studio host Bob Costas for play-by-play. Matt Guokas did not return to his post as main color commentator, and was replaced by NBA legend Isiah Thomas; Costas was replaced on the pre-game show by Hannah Storm. Midway through the season, Costas and Thomas were joined by recently fired Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins. Collins served to take some weight off Thomas, who was considered by some to be uncomfortable in the role of lead analyst. Thomas, in particular, was singled out for his soft voice and often stammered analysis.
The team of Costas, Thomas and Collins worked the major games that season including the 1998 NBA Finals (which set an all-time ratings record for the NBA). Mike Breen, who played second fiddle to Albert on MSG Network's New York Knicks broadcasts, was hired to do select playoff games that year and was later promoted to backup announcer status.
During its twelve-year run, the NBA on NBC experienced ratings highs and lows for the NBA. In the 1990s, the NBA Finals ratings were stellar, with the exception of 1999 Finals. In 1998, the NBA set a Finals ratings record, with an 18.7 household rating for the second Chicago Bulls–Utah Jazz series, the last championship run by the Michael Jordan-led Bulls. The very next year (after a lockout which erased part of the season), the ratings for the 1999 Finals plummeted, marking the beginning of an ongoing period of lower viewership for the league's game telecasts.
For the 1998–99 season, Thomas was moved to the studio, while Costas and Collins made up the lead team. The 1998–1999 season, which was marred by a lengthy lockout (which resulted in the regular season being shortened to 50 games) included the low-rated 1999 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the New York Knicks. Albert was brought back for the 1999–2000 season, making a return which included calling that year's lead Christmas Day game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers from Staples Center.
After the 1999 Finals, NBC used "Fly Away" by Lenny Kravitz for their montage.
For the 1999-2000 NBA season, TBS shifted its primetime game telecasts from Wednesdays to Mondays. For the 2000-2001 NBA season, the broadcasts were moved to Tuesdays, while TNT assumed rights to Wednesday and Thursday evening games.
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