Some people who tune in ESPN2 for an April 6 NBA match-up between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks may think they’ve gone back in time.
The game will open in black and white and use graphics that evoke ABC’s 1960s coverage, then shift to a look that mirrors CBS’ NBA telecasts of the 1970s and 1980s. Look for a presentation that emulates NBC’s 1990s telecasts as well, complete with that network’s signature music. Viewers may even hear a snippet of the theme from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” before all is done. Guests will include several top players. coaches and broadcasters who have been central to the game throughout the years, all part of a tribute to the NBA’s 75th anniversary. A regular broadcast of the game will be available on ESPN.
“The unscripted moments that come from this will ultimately be the best part of it all,” says Tim Corrigan, the ESPN production vice president who oversees basketball coverage. Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and reporter Lisa Salters will provide commentary and Hubie Brown, celebrating his 50th year of calling basketball action (two in the ABA, 40 in the NBA), will join during parts of the broadcast.
The NBA “retro-cast,” if one wants to call it that, is just the latest in a series of re-imaginings of typical sports telecasts by ESPN. The Disney-owned sports-media giant hit upon a successful model in the most recent NFL season with an ESPN2 “ManningCast” opposite “Monday Night Football” that featured Peyton and Eli Manning in loose, informal conversations about football and almost anything else with a bevy of guest stars. ESPN has already unveiled plans to set former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez alongside broadcaster Michael Kay for a “Kay-Rod” cast opposite some of its Major League Baseball telecasts.
ESPN producers had to scour archival footage to figure how how to come up with versions of old graphics, and went to the network’s sports rivals to license their game music when necessary, says Corrigan. “We literally went back and grabbed old games and looked through them, took assets from different decades and used them as inspiration to build out a look,” he says.
Many of the ESPN “alterna-casts” have centered on NFL games, but the NBA has also enjoyed some ambitious work. In April of last year, ESPN turned a hoops match-up between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans into a game using Marvel heroes that kids could play alongside the on-screen action, and incorporated 3-D virtual characters, animation packages and customized graphics into the mix. In 2019, the company experimented with a live-stream of an NBA Finals game that featured pop-up emoji-like symbols and loose banter from a group of commentators superimposed on the screen.
The occasion of the NBA’s 75th celebration spurred the retro concept. says Corrigan. Would ESPN try it again? The network could, but “you only turn 75 once,” he says. “This anniversary year felt like the right time to do it.”