Behind The Mic: LeBron In A Sleeping Giant Of A Basketball Market

A look at LeBron James' effect on the Nets and Knicks.

Steve Lepore's Sunday column on the New York sports media appears at this time every week.

He is one of the five biggest names in American sport. His departure from the only team he's ever known requires the opinion of actors, musicians, and no less than the President of the United States. Think about that: The President has an opinion on you.  That puts you in rarified air with the likes of BP and Kanye West. People are starting rumors as mundane as you wanting to stay in Cleveland to as wild as your mother's activities with one of your teammates. 

You are LeBron James. You are 25 years old. In the next five years, you will be in the prime of your athletic life, after a pitiful first seven seasons in which you only averaged 23 points per game, were elected to the All-Star Game in six consecutive years, won the MVP Award the last two, and hosted Saturday Night Live. The best is yet to come, and right now, you have the chance to name your price (salary cap permitting) as to the location in which you'd like to spend it.

The appeal of both of our local basketball teams is no doubt obvious to the King of the hardwood fiefdom. New York gives him a chance to throw his weight around in a media market long owned by either the unproven hedonists (Mark Sanchez, Sean Avery) or the dull but successful hedonists (Derek Jeter, Mark Messier, Eli Manning), as well as Alex Rodriguez, who we'll put into the category of ... "Miscellaneous".  

James has just enough personality (his stint on SNL wasn't totally wasted as athletes go) to combine with his superior pedigree to single-handedly take over the media capital of the world. In fact, he's probably already done it. Fact is that anytime LBJ makes any connection to New York (remember when we all found out ... HE'S A YANKEE FAN! ZOMG!) it is likely going to be on the list of top stories for radio talkers and back pages. 

Knicks fans think LeBron's presence will be more about attention than improving the fan vibe at MSG.  I spoke to Seth Rosenthal, the dean of orange and blue over at Posting and Toasting, and he claims the fan vibe will go mostly unchanged.  "Even through a decade of terrible basketball, The Garden has stayed relatively full and lively. It's always an engaged crowd, too," he said, "there would certainly be more of a corporate presence-- more people with money competing for seats and more celebrities sitting courtside-- but I don't think the atmosphere in the stands would change all that much. Like I said, the Garden crowd is deeply invested in the Knicks' performance."

He adds that the vibe on TV would also go fairly untouched "The MSG folks are straight-up pros, and I don't think they're going to hyperventilate over any single player. If the team starts winning, the tone will surely change and [Walt] "Clyde" [Frazier, color analyst] will get ever more lyrical, but I don't think the average MSG broadcast will be that much different," adding that, "Compared to other home announcers, I think Clyde and [play-by-play man Mike] Breen are among the most professional and unprejudiced in the business."

New Jersey has a similar allure to it in that they will no longer be in New Jersey in the next few years.  They will be in Brooklyn if the Russian gets his way, and he will.  So for the next few years, he can control Newark's Prudential Center (He can probably convince Jeff Vanderbeek to rename it the James Memorial Arena) and continue to be a superstar in a smaller market until finally overtaking the bright lights of... well, one of the five boroughs by 2013.  That, and well, he can finally assure his attendance at Jay-Z's Christmas party.

Nets games were a veritable trip to the mortician's office this season. Have you ever seen the movie Rat Race? If you'll recall, Canadian actor Dave Thomas played a character in that movie so dull and listless that John Cleese described him as "born without a personality". Those were your night out at the Izod Center last year, if you were lucky enough to not attend a night in which one of the NBA's many trendy, bandwagon franchises visited East Rutherford where, including Bron Bron's Cavs, teams like the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics could feel like they had an extra home game or two on the schedule.

Undignified or not, LeBron will hold court no matter where he presides next season.  New York and New Jersey just happen to give him the largest supply of nobles to rule, and he'll sell a ton of new merchandise - shoes, caps, and jerseys... since he's already tapped out on the market that bought new Cavs threads once he changed his number from #23 to #6.  Come on Bron Bron, we all know that wasn't because you love Michael so much...

In the end, the area's seen nothing like the hooplah over King James before.  Rosenthal agrees, but is tentative about how positive it is "I would hesitate to even call it a "buzz" anymore," he said, "a lot of Knicks fans ("fans"?), all the way up to celebrities and the mayor, have taken to outright begging. The craziness grows by the day, and it's not even the offseason yet. I find it more than a little undignified, but that's just me."

Kay vs. Mushnick: Like My Prayers Were Answered

When you get into the notion of wanting to write sports media, the name you think of is Mr. Phil Mushnick, who has spent the last 600 years covering it (sort of) for the New York Post.  When you get into the aspiration of becoming a play-by-play announcer ... well, you almost never think of Michael Kay from a "quality of work" standpoint.  But he seems like a nice guy, and he does call the games of the most popular team on the universe, so let's take a populist position and say that you want to be like Mike. Frankly, and to Mr. Kay's credit, Bob Lorenz's call of the Yankees-Blue Jays series has left even more to be desired than the usual YES broadcast. So ... Michael Kay.

Anyway, it gives me pleasure to introduce myself to the New York sports media fray on the Lord's day by being able to weigh in on the "feud" between the two. I say "feud" because it isn't one of those real feuds where you actually hash out your disagreements in front of the person. No, this is one of those wholly more entertaining media squabbles, where two wealthy people toss barbs at each other across media lines trying to prove whom is less relevant.

In case you haven't heard about it yet, here's what Mushmouth wrote about Kay in Friday's Post:

Now, a scold. When Kay lifts a chunk from a newspaper column, repeats it, almost word for word, on his radio show as if it's his original thought -- if he doesn't credit the author or at least the publication in which it appeared -- that's dishonest, a form of theft.

He then went on to write 700 words on the topic of these damned teen-agers and their rap music and their new-fangled "shredded wheat" cereals. Now, I don't know what the hell Mushnick is talking about here. One thing you need to learn about me as that I don't listen to the radio in this city, on the grounds that I have always respected the laws society puts against repeated whacks to the brain with an aluminum bat. That aside, Mushnick isn't exactly helping me here when he, you know, doesn't state what Kay actually said that was lifted from said newspaper column.  That's called leaving it vague, open-ended and being dishonest.  Which is ... you know, what you just called Michael Kay.

Unfortunately, someone taught Michael Kay the phrase "open-ended" too, and he used it a lot in a truly fascinating, truly excruciating five-minute rant on his 1050 AM ESPN Radio show on Friday.  While Neil Best, the machine that he is, captured it all, here are some of the highlights/lowlights:

"First things first: Who the hell are you to scold me? My mother and father scolded me and they're dead. You're not, OK? Don't ever scold me. You don't have that right to be scolding me, nor do you have that gravitas. You're nothing, OK? And what you wrote is untrue. Because of all the people that you talk to, even people at this station, I'm obsessed with giving credit. Some of my best friends in the world are newspaper writers and I always give credit.

"If I inadvertently or unknowingly gave the same kind of thought that was in a newspaper column without crediting it, well then I apologize for that. But I want you to tell me what I did and when I did it. Because the way you write it it's like it's a constant thing, and that's fraudulent on your part. Fraudulent. That is not true. And I've got stuff on you. You want to question ethics? I'll bring it out, too. I've got plenty of things that would question your ethics and your morals and the way you do your job. And I'm going to leave it open-ended, too. How does that feel?

"Let's see: You'll rip Mike Francesa, who's one of the most successful people in this business. You're going to rip John Sterling, who's one of the most popular people that does major league baseball. Oh, yeah, you also don't like when people say, ‘Let's break it down.'

"And you don't like the term ‘walk off.' And you think that ESPN self-congratulates itself. Oh, yeah, and black uniforms. You're a six-trick pony, baby. You write the same thing. You don't get off your couch in your living room and you have the nerve to question my ethics and my honesty? How dare you? You have no right and you have no credibility to do it.

"Get off your couch and cover an event! Do something that comes from your mind rather than critique other people. And look at the people that you do like. Most of the people that you think are good, you couldn't pick them out of a lineup if you're an average fan. Gee, I guess if you look at the people that you don't like, they happen to be successful and popular.

"Because one day when I die more people are going to be sad than happy. And when you die it's going to be the complete opposite. Because people hate your guts in the business. Nobody respects you and then you have the nerve to take me on? Well, it's not going to happen. The next time you rip me, I'll rip you again, and I'll say all the things I know about you. I'll rip you again! So don't you ever come after me, with my ethics and my morals and my honesty, because I am beyond reproach with that.

"I used to think that you were a straight shooter and that you really believed what you wrote. But you just write an open-ended thing like that like I stole somebody's idea and didn't give credit, like I don't have ideas of my own? Please, stop yourself. You make me sick.

He also called Mushnick "thin-skinned" in the middle of his five-minute rant attacking him voraciously for the heinous crime of criticizing him.

Look, Kay makes a lot of great points here. Mushnick has coasted on a magic carpet of yelling at teen-agers and making petty complaints at statisticians and former jocks for longer than I have been alive. He does complain, with an uncanny regularity, about Mike Francesca and ESPN and John Sterling and black uniforms. Not that none of those things don't deserve to be criticized (as you'll read further on in this column every week ... they absolutely will. Oh, they will alright) but come on, Phil. The only time he's ever not making me roll my eyes to the back of the head is when he writes soft tribute pieces to athletes/media personalities of yore, and even that's a tad groan worthy. Phil Mushnick, and to a lesser extent Bob Raissman of the Daily News, absolutely should be called out for what's been at least a decade of lazy, toothless, shoddy opinion journalism.

Kay, however, makes his own mistakes. For someone so forward thinking, it's an ancient opinion to have the idea that someone has to be at the game to have an opinion that matters. Isn't your show five hours of you giving an opinion? Last I checked, aren't you not at the Yankees series this weekend? Are you, by your own rules, unqualified to speak about them on the radio ever?  For that matter, aren't you almost never at a Jets, Nets, Mets, Islanders, Rangers, Devils or Giants game? Should I just disregard what you have to say on all of those subjects, based on your theory that you have to "get out and cover" something to be worthwhile? 

By the way, and not to get off the subject here, aren't you also the guy who shallowly called out Gary Cohen a few years ago for being given a chance to call an inning or two of Mets playoff games without any knowledge of the situation? Aren't you also the one who mocks SNY for taking viewer phone calls during blowout games? What, do you find it impossible that viewers might not want to hear the ramblings of some airhead when it's 17-3 in the Top of the 8th?

I digress. We will have plenty of time to make fun of Michael Kay until we get to be sad about his death. But he did do himself good this week. He won a battle of wits between two of the most unlikeable people in New York sports. To you sir, kudos.

He Said What?

(This will be a weekly compendium of funny, inane, or just plain stupid things the local announcers and radio personalities say.  A couple of jokes were submitted to this column by Rutgers student Samantha Murray.  Have you heard your local play-by-play man say something strange, goofy, or simply idiotic?  Send your submission to SMLepore@comcast.net )

During a Yankees/Indians game last week, YES' Michael Kay was fawning over Robinson Cano as usual. He did this to such an extent that when an Indian hit a ball out to centerfield, he was caught saying "And Cano ... watches as Granderson makes the catch". He added "Derek Jeter looked on just as intently, while Mark Teixiera didn't seem all that interested."

Milwaukee Brewers hurler Randy Wolf, he of the "I found my true love on the Subway" fame, was pitching against the Mets on Sunday and having trouble communicating with his catcher. SNY's Gary Cohen described it as the battery having "relationship issues". The trouble was made official when their partnership was listed as "It's Complicated" on Facebook.

I don't quite remember what the record was, but Jeter and Cano had set a baseball record for a certain amount of consecutive games with multiple hits in a game, going back to Lou Gehrig and Jack Saltzgaver. YES' Ken Singleton mentioned that he had "heard of Lou Gehrig, but not the other". You've heard of Lou Gehrig? Has Lady Gaga heard of Madonna? Has DMX heard of President Obama?  Well ... now he has, anyway.

One of NBC/VERSUS/MSG Plus' Mike Emrick's most endearing qualities is his sense of humor about the often domineering philosophies of a few hockey writers and broadcasters dictating the perception league-wide of a team or its' players. That's why it was refreshing and hilarious to hear Emrick say, after a series of huge saves by Chicago Blackhawk goaltender Antii Niemi during Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, in a self-deprecating manner "As all of us have been saying this year ... Chicago just doesn't have the goaltending." God forbid a broadcaster should admit we're all just giving opinions that don't matter when they go out and play.

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