ESPN’s Mike Breen: Lakers, Clippers have historic opportunity in NBA’s Orlando bubble

Doris Burke and Andy Bernstein are part of ESPN's NBA broadcast crew.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images)

For Episode 4 of the “Legends of Sport: Restarting the Clock” podcast, host Andy Bernstein spoke with ESPN broadcaster, and fellow NBA Hall of Famer, Mike Breen, who will call Thursday’s Lakers-Clippers reopener from the Orlando bubble. Excerpted here — and lightly edited for clarity and space — are parts of Bernstein’s conversation with Breen, who also dives into being part of the same Hall of Fame class as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, as well as how he nearly gave up his pursuit of a broadcast career to be a steamfitter.

You can listen to the entire podcast with Breen here.

Andy Bernstein: You’re going into the Hall of Fame with a hell of a class. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, one of the greatest classes in the history of the hall of fame.

Mike Breen: And personally, some of my all-time favorite players. Certainly, it’s going to be very sad and bittersweet with Kobe and the tragedy. Probably the most emotional ceremony we’ve ever seen in many aspects. With Duncan and Garnett, I’ve always been a fan of two-way players. And can you get any better than those two? And for me, Duncan, the way he carried himself throughout his career with such humility and the team first, and Garnett was the same thing. It was always about the team.


Andy Bernstein: With [ESPN your broadcast partners] Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, you seem to be like the calming influence that smooths things out and say, ‘OK, dudes, let’s get back to the game, you know.’ How is that? You’re almost like sort of a therapist on the air.

Mike Breen: Well, first, they don’t need me. People say, oh, you’re the referee. They don’t need me to be referee. Mark and Jeff have this incredible ability to know when it’s time to have some fun, to know when it’s time to get into an issue. But they also know exactly when it’s time, OK, let’s get back to the game. Every once in a while, I might have to nudge them a little bit.

The other thing is we’ve not just been working together for so long, we’ve been friends, all of us, for almost 30 years. Because Mark was a player with the Knicks when I first started doing radio. Jeff was an assistant coach. And that, to me, Andrew, may be the most underrated part of our business. When you have those kinds of relationships — I mean, we’ve all watched our kids grow up — it really makes a difference on the air.

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Andy Bernstein: I want to talk about Doris Burke because you’ve been so supportive of her vocally. She’s a trailblazer. What do you see for Doris in her future?

Mike Breen: You knew back when she first started that she had something special. I had done Atlantic 10 games years ago, and the gentleman who was in charge of hiring the broadcast talent for the A 10 game of the week was a guy named Bob Steitz. Bob, whose father, Ed Steitz, was the creator of the three-point shot in college basketball years ago, spent his life in basketball. They needed a new analyst, and he said, “Can you give me a couple of candidates?” And I remember saying to him, I said, ‘You know what, I’ll give you the best candidate. I don’t know if you’re going to hire her, but it’s the best candidate.”

And he said, “Who is it?”

I said, “It’s Doris Burke.”

I knew how special she was going to be. Bob went to the A-10 athletic directors and he said, “Hey, we’ve got a great candidate. It’s a woman, but it’s the best candidate.” And he hired her, and the ADs approved it. And that just was the start of this career. And I think, to me, the great analysts, and I’ve been so fortunate with Mark and Jeff, Doug Collins, Hubie Brown, Doris. The great analysts are the ones that you can tell they just have this deep love for the game, and passion for the game. And that, to me, that’s what comes through when you’re working with people like that.

Andy Bernstein: People are always asking me, you’re at these games and how are you not a fan? Like how do you just do your job? I say, “Well, if I’m a fan I’m not doing my job.” And I always wondered that about you and how you stay in the moment? I mean, you’ve got fans going bananas. You’ve got directors talking to you. You’ve got your other partners next to you. You have to literally separate yourself from everything going on emotionally, right?

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Mike Breen: Well, first off, part of it is showing that you are a fan in those big moments. Because you have to be excited and impressed. If I’m watching a game at home on my couch and LeBron James makes this extraordinary play, I’m jumping off the couch screaming like a fool. And when you’re on the air, you also have to express that excitement and that amazement and wonder of what you’ve just witnessed. But in terms of you also have to keep it in check to some extent. And that just comes with time.

I remember when I first started doing NBA games. The first close game, the first nail-biter, the first buzzer beater, I was hyperventilating. I was so over the top. But then you do it a few times and you learn a how to control yourself. Same thing the first time I did a playoff game that came down to the wire. The first time I did a game 7, I was hyperventilating. It’s like anything; you have to go through it to smooth out the rough edges and at the same time not leaving that emotion out of it because the emotion is part of it. And because I am such a fan of the game, that part is easy. The other part just took a little time to be able to kind of harness and focus — because you do have a job to do — focus on the job at hand, but at the same time being so excited.

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Andy Bernstein: On the “Legends of Sport” podcast, we like to go back into a person’s history and find out what made you you. Like what was that pivotal moment in your life? So, my producer and researcher, Veronica An, did a deep dive into your life. And I need to know, who is Tony Minecola and what did he mean to you in your life as a sportscaster?

Mike Breen: It’s funny, I was just texting him the other day. He was a young man that grew up in my neighborhood in Yonkers. He was a little bit older than the crowd I hung out with. His block, that was where our wiffleball field was. And we’d play wiffleball all the time. In his basement, he built a radio station. And the radio station was legit. It had jingles, commercials, music. But it was only broadcast to the couch out by where we were all sitting. There’d be like 10 of us, and he would do his radio show.

So, I would wander into his little studio. I was intrigued by it. He showed me how to do it and I started doing that. When I got a little bit older and was trying to figure out what to do for a living, he said, “Why don’t you go into broadcasting? You seem like you like it. You’re pretty good at it.”

And I didn’t know at the time if it was going to be sports or music, because I love music so much and I thought that could be something, but he’s the one that put the thought into my head. And I try as much as possible, every once in a while, to let him know that if it wasn’t for him, so many things in my life would have been different.

Jeff Van Gundy, from left, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen talk before Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE / Getty Images)

Andy Bernstein: What is Tony doing now?

Mike Breen: He’s an audio technician. He’s been doing that for years in New York City. He was also the organ player at my church. He was a man of many talents.

It wasn’t always easy. When I was up in Poughkeepsie [New York] starting out — and I tell young men and women this who want to get into the field — for about two and a half years I wasn’t making any money. I was doing mostly news. Which was fine, but I wanted to do sports. I was sending out tapes and resumes, and not only was I not getting jobs, often I wasn’t even getting a reply about my application. So, I got pretty disheartened.

My dad, who was a steamfitter, had always told me if this didn’t work out that I could join the steamfitter’s union. So, I called him after about two and a half years and I said, “You know, Dad, I’m having a tough time. Why don’t you send me that steamfitter’s application.” And he even said to me, he goes, “You know what? You told me you were going to give it five years. It hasn’t been five years yet. I’ll send it to you, but don’t give up yet.” So, I stuck with it and several months later that’s when I got the idea to call Chris Doyle [at WFAN in New York City], and that’s what led to things. So, I came close to being a steamfitter, which was such an honorable job for my dad and for so many others. But fortunately, I stayed with radio a little bit longer.

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Andy Bernstein: You’re heading to the bubble. How is that going to work? Are you going to be in the arena broadcasting games?

Mike Breen: Yes. We’re going to be in and because there’s no fans. We’re not going to be courtside. They are moving us up. We’re on a different tier than the players and coaches. So, we can’t have direct interaction with them, which that’s going to be an adjustment because so much of what we use on the air are those conversations you have in the back room or before the game.

Andy Bernstein: Chick liked being up above. The only guy, I think, in the history of broadcasting who actually liked being up there.

Mike Breen: Well, you do have a better viewpoint of the court. Especially when you’re on radio. You have a better viewpoint because you can see the entire court. Sometimes when you are courtside, not only is it hard to see certain angles, but often fans — because we’re right there in the middle—fans right next to us will stand up and we’ll be blocked out. And I’m looking at the monitor. I’m calling a game off the monitor because I can’t see because the fans are in front. So, in some ways it will actually be beneficial.

I think in some ways, the team that wins this championship that has overcome things that no team has ever had to deal with, in some ways to me it’s going to be one of the most celebrated championships of all time because of their ability to fight through this long suspension, this long inactivity, being in this bubble, playing without fans. The teams that are going to be in the finals, that’s a long time to be away from your family. The human element of missing your wife, of missing your children, of missing your dog for crying out loud.