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Good Broadcasting News At the National Level

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With Tommy Heinsohn scaling back to broadcasting home games only while moving to the studio for road games and Comcast SportsNet and Celtics great Bob Cousy cutting their ties, it's been a week of change for Celtics fans with regard to local media.  As evidenced by the discussion in our forums here at CelticsBlog, consensus reaction could most kindly be described as mixed.

There is, however, some good news regarding the media continuity on the national front.  ESPN announced on Monday that Jeff Van Gundy has signed a multi-year deal to continue serving as an analyst for the Worldwide Leader's hoops telecasts.  Given JVG's emergence last season as possibly the single best national analyst the league's television partners have to offer, it's hard not to be thrilled with this development.

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Van Gundy completed his first full season with ESPN in 2007-08 on the heels of helping out in the 2007 playoffs after his Rockets were eliminated in the first round.  His progress from that first postseason stint through last year has been truly impressive.

At the beginning, Van Gundy featured some of the same problems Rick Carlisle had when he took his shot as a color man with ESPN during the 2008 postseason.   He was a former coach who decided to try and be an entertainer when he was on the air rather than a former coach with a microphone.  So he forced contrived humor upon his listeners and seemed to try his darndest not to get too complex in his actual basketball analysis so as not to confuse the casual fan.  Not good and not good.  Awkwardness ensued.

It was difficult to be too excited about the prospect of an entire season with Van Gundy, particularly after it became clear that the Celtics were going to be on national television with regularity in 2007-08.  But that's because I wasn't expecting the guy to return to the booth having completely reinvented himself as a broadcaster.

The transformation began to show itself in a late November game between the Celtics and Heat.  As good as it was just to see the team win, Van Gundy clearly added something to the experience with both his dissections of basketball X's and O's (i.e. the mechanics of James Posey beating Daequan Cook twice for give-and-go lay-ups; why a rushed fast-break three wasn't likely to be as irritating to Pat Riley as it was to the Heat fans) and his commentaries on the game's culture (i.e. the troubles with staying in South Beach, the Heat retiring Michael Jordan's jersey).  For the first time, he didn't sound worried about dumbing down his basketball commentaries or forcing humor.  He was a basketball coach with a keen wit, which was both entertaining and insightful in and of itself.

It continued that way all season.  Van Gundy seemed to grow incraesingly comfortable in the booth, willing to make in-depth remarks about the mechanics of the game in a way that truly educated fans without JVG coming off as pompous or as though he presumed fans knew little and didn't care to change that.   He spoke liberally in appraising players, coaches and referees around the league.  He pulled no punches regarding officiating, the way the league is run, the culture of the game or anything else.  Wherever partners Mike Breen and Mark Jackson wanted to go with the discussion, Van Gundy went with the flow.  He didn't need to try to be funny because his rants about the state of the game were humorous in their own right, and his coaching insight provided him plenty of credibility.  

That credibility took a new jump when Van Gundy had his true coming-out party in early March.  During ABC's telecast of the Mavs-Lakers overtime thriller, Van Gundy seemed to call just about everything correctly through the late minutes of regulation to the game's final buzzer.  From his speculation about the Mavs' poor arrangement in a free throw box-out situation to his suggestion that the Lakers foul to prevent a three at the end of regulation to his prediction about how Avery Johnson would adjust his defense to Kobe Bryant in overtime, he nailed the entire end of the game.  

At the time, it seemed to be a special performance from the broadcaster, but as the season went on, it grew clear that this is becoming commonplace for Jeff Van Gundy.  He has settled into the broadcast booth beautifully.  The former coach loves to banter with his partners, knows when to focus on the game on the floor and when to chat about the stories off it, and he seems to be capable of doing it all without making himself the show or coming off as a know-it-all.  It's a pleasure to listen to Jeff Van Gundy, and having him back in the booth is particularly nice with the Celtics scheduled for at least 16 appearances on ESPN and ABC in the year to come.

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