“Who is that?”
“Who are you talking about again?”
The instinctive answer to a question about Mike Breen by those who work next to him is universal: Bust his chops, even when he isn’t listening. But behind the jokes is a loyalty to the steady play-by-play voice of the NBA Finals, which tips off between the Cavaliers and Warriors on Thursday night on ABC, and MSG’s Knicks broadcasts.
“Our first game was a summer league game, and we just had chemistry simultaneously,” said Walt Frazier, who started calling games with Breen on radio in 1991 before both moved over to the TV side.
“When you are on radio, the color guy doesn’t talk that much, but Mike gave me an opportunity to express myself. ‘Hey, Clyde, just say what you want to say.’ He regrets it now, but he gave me the opportunity.”
Breen, 56, has been calling Knicks games every year since that summer league game and has been the voice of the NBA Finals every year since 2006. After that first season with Hubie Brown, he has had former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson (except for his three seasons as Warriors coach) by his side.
“What Mike does, he makes look easy, but it is very, very difficult,” Van Gundy said. “And he has unbelievable NBA knowledge. He is a student of the game and understands the history. He knows how big to make a call and also encourages us to say what we think within limits. … Mike is like the point guard in the game. He allows us to be ourselves and not go overboard, and it’s a really special trait.”
And now Breen is calling his 12th NBA Finals, more than anyone in history. He signed a long-term extension with ESPN before last season’s Finals, so it is a number that only will grow. His predecessors are a who’s-who of announcers — from Marv Albert to Al Michaels to Bob Costas to Dick Stockton to Brent Musburger to Pat Summerall to Keith Jackson.
Some saw Breen’s potential earlier than others. Before Breen was the voice of the Knicks, Albert was. And Albert — now TNT’s top play-by-play man —remembers Breen as a WFAN intern while he still was a student at Fordham.
“When I started at what is now WFAN in the 1970s, calling Knicks and Rangers games, Mike was an intern,” Albert said. “He was always a nice kid with a great attitude and eager to learn the business from the inside. He would regularly sit in the booth with a headset on to listen to the broadcast and had insightful questions after the games. You could tell at the time that he was going to make it in the industry in a big way.”
Kenny Albert, the back-up TV caller for the Knicks, is a contemporary of Breen’s, and has taken note of the easy relationship Breen has with his analysts. He also has been impressed with Breen’s mastery of the rules of the sport and how he works it into a broadcast. Breen was a basketball referee from the elementary-school level to the junior-college ranks earlier in life.
“I know he has an officiating background, I know back in the day he officiated,” Kenny Albert said. “He knows the rules and game management situations, the timeouts. All the stuff that can be complicated at times, whenever I watch one of his games, I take mental notes on some of that stuff because he knows it as well as anybody.”
Frazier, Jackson and Van Gundy also all acknowledged Breen’s encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Breen played some in his younger days, which elicits a long laugh from Frazier.
“When I ask people who used to play with [him], all they say is, ‘He’s a great shooter, he’s a great shooter.’ So, I just asked Mike, ‘Hey Mike, did you ever pass?’ ”