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ESPN to air 30 for 30 on NBA's storied Celtics-Lakers rivalry

Perhaps the greatest rivalry in NBA history will now get ESPN's "30 for 30" treatment. Director and producer Jonathan Hock spoke to about his plans for the upcoming project.

When you think of great NBA rivalries, what comes to mind? Well, if you were born in the 1990s, your first thought is likely the Cavaliers-Warriors. The generation before you might argue Bulls-Pistons, Knicks-Bulls or Knicks-Heat. These are all great choices.

But the greatest rivalry over the course of the NBA’s history is Celtics versus Lakers. Between 1959 and 2010, the franchises met in the NBA Finals 12 times, including three times in the 1980s. Those star-studded teams included multiple Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton and James Worthy.

With the 30-year anniversary of the 1987 NBA Finals coming up—that series was the third time in four years the Lakers and Celtics met for the title—ESPN Films has commissioned a two-part documentary to examine the famed rivalry. The film will be executive produced by Jonathan Hock, a multiple Emmy Award winning producer and director whose previous 30 for 30s include “The Best That Never Was” (2010), “Unguarded” (2011), “Survive and Advance” (2013) and “Of Miracles and Men” (2015). Hock recently signed a two-year first-look deal with ESPN for all his non-fiction sports-related programming ideas from Hock Films. That means ESPN has the first option for Hock’s work. It’s a great move for both entities given Hock has produced some of the best work in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.


Hock said the Celtics-Lakers documentary will air in two parts on ESPN, running either at 90 or 120 minutes per episode. The film will likely air next June around the time of the NBA Finals.

“There’s really a lot to work with here,” said John Dahl, the vice president and executive producer for ESPN Films and Original Content. “This isn’t just a basketball story but a cultural one. I think the film will create a lot of buzz because the Celtics and Lakers are eternally marquee franchises.”

In an interview with last week, Hock said the main focus of the doc will be the rivalry of the 1980s but the film will also examine the history of the NBA through the prism of the rivalry. “The idea is that everybody chose a side between the Lakers and Celtics, that’s sort of the organizing principle for us in the pre-production and early stages of production,” Hock said.

Hock worked at NBA Entertainment in the mid-1980s alongside Jim Podhoretz, a fellow documentarian who worked with Hock on “Survive and Advance” (which is about the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano) and will direct the Celtics-Lakers doc. In 1987, Hock and Podhoretz were junior editors at NBA Entertainment and spent the year embedded with the Celtics (Podhoretz) and the Lakers (Hock) as part of the work NBA Entertainment did with top teams. When faced with the prospect of revisiting these teams as older men, they jumped at it.

• When L.A. Buried The Garden Ghost: SI Longform on the Lakers’ 1985 Finals win in Boston

Last week, Podhoretz conducted long interviews with former Celtics Danny Ainge and Cedric Maxwell. He and Hock have yet to interview anyone on the Lakers side—Kareem Abdul Jabbar is scheduled with Hock for later this month—but all interviews are expected to be concluded by the end of January. Hock said this will be the most people he has ever interviewed for an ESPN project. Hock said he has requested Bird and Johnson through the NBA and anticipates both interviews will happen.

“We are working East to West,” Hock said. “I’ll be in L.A. a lot over the next two months.”

As part of his pitch to ESPN, Hock said the Celtics and Lakers embodied the racial and cultural tensions of the sport—East Coast vs. West Coast, Hollywood glamor vs. blue collar toughness and black vs. white. The film will alternate from the perspective of one club to the perspective of the other and explore the cultural and social impact of the rivalry that took place beyond the basketball court. One theme that promises to be interesting is an examination of the perception that each team represented different races.

“The irony was going back to the 1960s, the Celtics were far away the most racially progressive organization in basketball, If not all of major sports,” Hock said. “But people perceived them to be the white team in the 1980s and the Lakers as the black team. The most revealing anecdote so far for me was from Cedric Maxwell. After leading the Celtics in scoring in Game 7 of the 1984 Finals against the Lakers, Maxwell went home to North Carolina, expecting to be celebrated by all his old friends. Instead, they were all mad at him, telling him they had all been rooting for the Lakers. They saw the Celtics as the ‘white’ team and identified with the Lakers.”


( examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the past week)

1. Last year’s college football semifinals and national championship games were a viewership disaster for ESPN and the College Football Playoff executive committee. ESPN drew 15,640,000 viewers for its Orange Bowl matchup featuring Clemson’s 37–17 victory over Oklahoma, down 45% in viewership when compared the 2015 playoff semifinal (Oregon-Florida State). The matchup featuring Alabama’s 38–0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl drew 18,552,000 viewers, a drop of 34%  from the 2015 equivalent (Ohio State-Alabama).

The hubristic bunch running the College Football Playoff —who greedily scheduled the games on New Years Eve— had it handed to them, which was beautiful to see. Airing the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Years Eve wasn’t just a regular flop. It was a New Coke, Ford Edsel, Kwame Brown flop. So much so that the event’s management committee announced this summer they would change the dates of the Playoff semifinals in four of seven years when those games were scheduled for Dec. 31.

But that still leaves this year’s semfinals on New Years Eve so it will be fascinating to see what the viewership is with the game airing on a Saturday as opposed to a weekday (and a work day for many.)

Roundtable: Did the College Football Playoff committee get it right?

The two television draws in this year’s playoffs are Alabama and Ohio State, two of the four teams (along with Notre Dame and Michigan) that traditionally draw the most viewers for nationally televised games.  That’s the title matchup ESPN management is rooting for given the potential for major ratings.

As for the semifinals, I would expect both games to top last year’s semifinals but still below the 2015 ratings. One schedule change that will help—the kickoffs for the games on Saturday have been moved up an hour to 3:00 p.m. ET and 7:00 p.m. ET.

The Ohio State-Clemson game is the one to watch viewership-wise given it drew the late kickoff at 7:00 p.m. ET. The spread is close (Ohio State -3) so that portends an audience late. But most importantly: Ohio State was part of three of the nine most-watched games on ESPN/ABC this season including the most-watched game (Ohio State vs. Michigan on Nov. 26) and No. 4 (Ohio State at Wisconsin on Oct. 15). Here’s a chart of ESPN/ABC’s top six most-watched games, courtesy of ESPN PR.


1b.  CBS announcer Verne Lundquist wrote the back page column in this week’s SI.

1c. Here’s CBS’s tribute for Lundquist as he called his last SEC game on Saturday.

Verne Lundquist's Last Call: The voice of the SEC prepares to sign off

1d. Last Thursday’s Cowboys’ 17–15 win over the Vikings drew 21.8 million TV-only viewers, the most-watched Thursday Night Football game in history. That topped the previous most-watched TNF game—21.1 million viewers for Denver-Kansas City on Sept. 17, 2015.

1e. The NFL said Twitter reached 3.5 million combined worldwide viewers for pregame and game coverage (the metric they use is a minimum of three seconds of the video being 100% in view). For the Thursday Night Football game alone, Twitter reached 2.9 million viewers, the most total viewers for a TNF game on Twitter this season (through seven games.)

1f. Sometime in the near future you are going to be watching an NBA game on ESPN or ESPN2 and the sideline reporter is going to produce a double take.

Yes, that is Adam Schefter.

As part of a five-year extension with ESPN, Schefter and ESPN management have added some new assignments for the longtime NFL insider.

They include:

• A new podcast tentatively titled “Know Them From Adam: The Adam Schefter Show” that will debut in January.
• Some NBA sideline reporting assignments during the regular season when Schefter’s NFL workload is light.
• A sideline reporting assignment (with Lisa Salters) for ESPN/ABC’s 2017 NFL Wild Card telecast.

Here’s an interview I did with him earlier this week on his new assignments.

2. Having once co-hosted a daily sports-talk show on a 50,000-watt station in Buffalo—my partner and I were replaced by Nixon political operative G. Gordon Liddy (no lie) when the station went to all-political talk—I’ve always been fascinated by local sports talk radio. I’ve listened to hundreds of sports-talk stations around the country and something that’s always struck me is how nationally syndicated sports radio shows out of ESPN Radio, Fox Sports Radio and CBS Sports Radio etc. ... have failed to get traction in East Coast markets such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. (Philadelphia’s 97.5 The Fanatic, for instance, dropped ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” in April 2015.) So it’s clear: I’m not talking about local hosts who work for an ESPN affiliate in a city. Obviously, many of those shows are market leaders.

With the subject on my mind, I asked my Twitter followers on Friday why national sport-talk shows could not get major traction in certain East Coast terrestrial markets and it resulted in a long and interesting chain that you can follow here. A couple of things stood out: First, national sports talk is light on baseball which means in certain baseball-heavy markets such as New York and Boston, those shows are a major disadvantage. Second, cities with multiple pro sports teams make it tough for a national entity to compete against markets that favor provincial talk about their many teams. Third, college football talk (which is heavy on ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio) has no chance of winning in markets without a major college football program. Fourth, local hosts have a major advantage over national shows given they are part of the community. Fifth, nationally syndicated shows can be tough for the sales staff of a local market against a longtime local leader. Other thoughts: Certain cities might have specific reasons too. In Boston, ESPN remains persona non grata with many Pats fans thanks to the Deflategate story.

The reality is if the audience in these markets want what national sports talk radio provides in abundance (Cowboys, LeBron, College Football top 10, Warriors, Colin Kaepernick and whatever else is the issue of the day), they are likely to download podcasts of the show or stream the audio.

In the middle of the thread, an ESPN spokesperson popped in from Bristol Land to note that ESPN Radio syndicated programs “Mike & Mike” and “The Dan Le Batard Show” were ranked in the top 10 of the New York City market in the male 25–54 demo, according to the latest ratings from Nielsen. That’s something to build on, and the numbers in NYC show that Le Batard’s program has performed better than Colin Cowherd’s did.

But there’s still a long way to go. Per an industry source: In November, WFAN’s (the New York sports station that competes against ESPN Radio) “Boomer and Carton Show” morning show ranked No. 1 in the market in this demo while “Mike & Mike” finished No 9. WFAN’s late morning show also drew nearly double the audience as ESPN Radio. In the competition between all viewers six years and up, WFAN more than doubled ESPN Radio in the October ratings book. (ESPN Radio closed a little for November.) In Boston, Philly and Washington D.C., there is no competition. Local dominates.

If interested in this kind of data, I recommend the Barrett Sports Media website, which did a piece on the New York sports talk radio market in September and writes on the comings and goings of the industry.

2b. Let’s start with the caveat that I enjoy Charles Barkley professionally and personally very much. With that out of the way, the TNT broadcaster is too bright and too thoughtful to drop stupid tags such as “girlie basketball” while on air.

“Maybe I’m old school, but I’m never gonna like that little girlie basketball where you have to outscore people,” Barkley said on TNT last Thursday night while assessing the Golden State Warriors. “I’m biased against girl basketball.”

Forget that the take makes little sense in basketball terms. (As someone who has covered women’s basketball for SI for 15 years, the Warriors don’t play like any women’s basketball team.) What’s frustrating is Barkley’s language of sexism here. I don’t think Barkley’s intent is evil but words matter with someone who has weight in the business. He should aim much higher.


2c. Hock also has a new agreement with Thomas Tull, the billionaire founder of Legendary Entertainment who produced “42,” to develop content together for ESPN. The two will collaborate on a documentary for ESPN about the Little League World Series that will likely premiere next summer. 

3. Episode 91 of the “Sports Illustrated Media Podcast” featured a return of the roundtable sports media discussion with John Ourand, media reporter for the Sports Business Daily, and Jimmy Traina, writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback.

In the podcast, which debuted Thursday, we discussed the uptick in NFL ratings over the past two weeks and whether it means anything for the long-term; the impact of Donald Trump’s win on the NFL ratings versus a win by Hillary Clinton; why ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule is always worse than the other rightsholders ESPN, FS1 and NBCSN’s declining subscribers and how much lower that number can go; what the immediate television future holds for Bill Simmons; where the UFC will go when its rights deal ends in 2016; buying fake followers on social media; why DG Media loves other podcasts more than this one, and much more.

A reminder: You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

4.Sports pieces of note:

• NJ Advance Media spent five months reporting a story on taxpayers across the United States buying high-end artificial sports fields after the company knew the turf was falling apart. A must-read.

• SI’s Lee Jenkins profiled LeBron James upon winning SI’s 2016 Sportsman of the Year.

New York Times sports columnist Michael Powell wrote a devastating piece on the hypocrisy of Liberty University choosing Ian McCaw as its new athletic director.

• From Huffington Post writer George Dohrmann: Inside the NFL’s relentless, existential, Big Tobacco-style pursuit of your children.

• Bleacher Report’s Lars Anderson on Alabama QB Jalen Hurts.

New York Times writer Ben Shpigel on Vikings cornerback Terence Newman.

• SI’s Jay Jaffe on why Tim Raines should have been in the Hall of Fame long ago.

• Via Justin Heckert of How did a boring Nintendo game from 1987 become the most coveted cartridge ever?

• SI’s Chris Ballard profiled former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie.

• From Chicago Tribune writer Chris Hine: Blackhawk for a day: The story behind emergency goalie Eric Semborski.

4a. Non-sports pieces of note:

• This is brilliant work by The Boston Globe. Hope you read.

• Via New Yorker writer Margaret Talbot, this is a remarkable profile on an attorney fighting revenge porn.

• Well-written and well-argued Jacobin Magazine article on how some liberals see Trump voters.

• How to hide $400 million.

• Via CJR: There’s a revolution at The Washington Post.

• Via Mike Konczal on Medium: Learning from Trump in retrospect.

• From The New Yorker: The extraordinary resilience of Elizabeth Smart.

• Via NYT: The scourge of racial bias in New York’s state prisons.

• From Bloomberg: Confessions of an Instagram influencer.

• From the Guardian: Google, democracy and the truth about internet search.

5. The 2016 MLS Cup between Toronto and Seattle will be televised on FOX, UniMás, TSN and RDS on Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. ET, the first time in the league’s 21-season history the championship match will be played on a Saturday evening in primetime on network television. It’s also the first time Fox will broadcast an MLS Cup.

“I think for an event and a sport which has struggled over its first 20 years to be seen as ‘big-time pro sports’ in a really crowded universe and with a lot of built in skeptics, it’s awesome to have Fox really treating it like a big-time event this week,” said John Strong, who will call the play-by-play of the final for Fox and has worked as a broadcaster in the league since 2011 when he made his debut with the Portland Timbers. “Not just putting it on the network, but giving it a primetime slot on a Saturday and a big window of pregame and postgame on FS1, etc. It’s not being jammed into an out-of-the-way slot and we’re rushing off air. It’s being given a place of prominence. For so many of our group for whom MLS has been a labor of love for a very long time (we have many who have worked on the ESPN/ABC presentations as well as those who helped build up NBC’s coverage), to be a part of this big investment from Fox is really exciting. Now it’s our challenge to deliver a broadcast that lives up to that.”

Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders meet in a compelling MLS Cup rife with subplots

5a. The former ESPN anchor and CSN Houston broadcaster Steve Bunin has transitioned from sports to news.

5b. ESPN and the MLB Network will have heavy coverage of the 2016 MLB Winter Meetings in National Harbor, Maryland next week. Here’s ESPN’s schedule, which includes the “Baseball Tonight” show taking to the road. MLB Network features insiders Peter Gammons, Jon Heyman, Jon Morosi, Ken Rosenthal, Joel Sherman and Tom Verducci reporting live across all programming.

5c. SiriusXM will air a documentary special on Friday at 6:00 pm ET dedicated to the Army-Navy football rivalry, the latest installment of SiriusXM’s “Gridiron Grudges” series. The doc can be heard on SiriusXM College Sports Nation, channel 84 on satellite radios and on the SiriusXM app. 

5d. USA Track & Field and NBC Sports Group announced an eight-year partnership last week that gives NBC Sports the exclusive media rights to USA Track & Field’s top competitions through 2024.

5e. This is a disturbing trend: Student newspapers or their advisers coming under undue pressure to restrict content.

5f. The majority of sports media (keep in mind there are thousands upon thousands of people who fall under the nebulous definition) remain apolitical publicly. But there were many during this election cycle who delved into political talk on their social media channel, and I wanted to see what the experience was like for them. With the goal of providing readers some insight on this topic, I paneled 10 well-known sports media people (I intentionally chose people with a mix of political orthodoxies) for an email roundtable on what their feeds were like during the campaign and following Election Day.

The panel:

• Bruce Arthur, sports columnist, Toronto Star.
• Tim Brando, national sports broadcaster and commentator, Fox Sports and FS1.
• Gerry Callahan, co-host of “Kirk and Callahan,” WEEI 93.7 FM Boston.
• Chad Dukes, host of “Chad Dukes vs. The World,” 106.7 The Fan Washington D.C.
• Jemele Hill, co-host of ESPN2’s “His and Hers.”
• Bomani Jones, ESPN Radio host (“The Right Time”), co-host, ESPN’s “Highly Questionable.”
• Mina Kimes, podcaster and senior writer, ESPN The Magazine.
• Jose de Jesus Ortiz, sports columnist, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
• Sarah Spain, writer and radio host, espnW and ESPN Radio (“Izzy & Spain.”)
• Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Outsports and author of Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming their Rightful Place in Sports.

Here’s the piece.