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The Last Dance Brings Back Memories For Bulls Broadcasters

“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that.”

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Over the last five weeks, I’ve been entertained to no end by The Last Dance on ESPN. The behind the scenes looks, the memories and the greatness of Michael Jordan have been right there on my TV screen for me to revisit and remember fondly. Thankfully, I was old enough to really appreciate these teams and MJ the player. 

The Last Dance' Michael Jordan & Chicago Bulls documentary debut ...

I was fortunate to cover bits and pieces of the final two championships, but was not around the team all the time. My seat was anything but front row, but there were a few people that had terrific seats for more than one of the titles. The broadcasters saw every game, every play and lived these moments at home and on the road. They were on the team planes and had access to the players. These guys lived it. 

Neil Funk who is retiring at the end of this season (if there is a resumption) after 28 years with the Bulls saw it all. Starting on the radio broadcast and eventually shifting to the television chair. He told NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Talk Podcast that he enjoyed the look back through the lens of “The Last Dance”. 

“First of all, I think it’s very well done and at times its riveting to watch it. Even though I went through that you know traveling with the team and being around them all the in that last year.”, he told NBCSC.  “The one thing about this documentary that it is kind of bringing all that stuff back to you as you sit here. Sometimes you forget about Michael’s greatness and the greatness of those teams.”

Wayne Larrivee worked Bulls television games on WGN-TV starting in 1991. He agreed that the documentary was an accurate portrayal of the actual events.

“I would say very much so. There were some things that they showed that we didn’t know. I thought they did a really good job with that,” he told me via phone. “There were some things they showed that I had forgotten about, like Rodman’s trip to Las Vegas in the middle of the season, I had kind of lost track of that over the years.” 

So, the season seemed to play out as depicted, but what wasn’t universally agreed upon was how the show portrayed the star, Michael Jordan. There were those thinking he looked tyrannical, some said they admired him more. The broadcasters had their thoughts. 

Funk was happy to see Jordan showing a different side of himself during the documentary. 

Chicago Bulls announcer Neil Funk retiring at end of season

“It was nice to see him sitting down and kind of opening up. You mention the fact he might have been concerned that people would perceive him in a way that maybe wasn’t flattering to him.”, Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “That IS what made Michael different and what made Michael great. I don’t think he has to worry about that in the least, that’s part of what made him Michael Jordan.”

According to Larrivee the portrayal was fair because it was truthful.

“He was portrayed as he is. He’s a tough competitor and he is a great leader. He was portrayed as a leader. People don’t understand things about leaders sometimes,” Larrivee said. “I thought they portrayed Michael and Scottie very accurately. Michael was the tough cop and Scottie was the good cop, the nice guy. Michael would knock you down and Scottie would pick you up.”

You could tell there was a respect for Jordan among the broadcasters that were around him most often. Larrivee continued in a comparison of MJ and today’s players that tells an important story.

“I will say this about Michael as compared to today’s athletes. Michael had this belief, ‘Listen I show up and play every game. I don’t take vacations, I don’t take nights off, they pay to come see me play and for a lot of people it may be the only time they get to see me play in person,’” Larrivee told me. “Today you have this thing called “load management” that would never happen with Michael Jordan. If he’s healthy he’s going to play the game. He understood that aspect of the game.” 

Relationships with the players are key to being able to do your job. But, when one of the players is Michael Jordan how do you handle things? He’s arguably the greatest player of all-time and people are always wanting his time.

“I had learned early on, because when I was in Philadelphia I was with Julius Erving, so I had learned that if you didn’t bother them with kind of silly stuff, they were going to respect you and appreciate the fact you weren’t bothering them all the time,” Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “Unless it was something where I absolutely had to go to him and say hey Michael would you do this interview or whatever it might have been…I tried to stay away from that unless it was unavoidable. When I did go to him, he was generally receptive because I didn’t bother him a lot.”  

Larrivee took that same approach to Michael, but seemed to have a leg up on the competition.

“The relationship I had with him (MJ) went back to before I was doing Bulls’ games. Tribune Company (then the owner of WGN-TV and Radio) had another division in it. They used to televise the City Championship game in Chicago. They paired Michael and me together one year,” said Larrivee.  “This is before the Bulls started to win championships, but Michael was still wildly popular. They snuck him into the UIC Pavilion. I’ll never forget our production meeting, with Michael sitting on a toilet seat, eating KFC and we were all talking about what we were going to do at the open of the game. During the National Anthem where they dimmed the lights, they snuck Michael in from the back to our seats, then the lights came on and people saw him and went wild.” 

Wayne Larrivee talks pre-game ritual, career advice, and his ...

Even the broadcasters knew it was the end of the line as did the players in 1998. So, what else can you do but enjoy the ride right? I mean how many times can get that lucky to cover a team that annually wins championships? Larrivee wasn’t going to miss a single chance to soak it all in. 

“Tim Hallam (Bulls Senior Director of Public & Media Relations) and I would sit there at center court as the Bulls were warming up getting set to play the game and look at Michael Jordan and say ‘hey, let’s make sure we don’t take this for granted, because we’re never going to see the likes of this again’.”, Larrivee said.  “We would do that almost every 2, 3 games and sit back and say don’t take it for granted, it won’t be like this forever.  That’s kind of the way it was. We did savor it and it was a big deal that Last Dance, all the way through.”  

Funk was just impressed with what the team accomplished in that final championship season, comparing it to another of the titles.

He told NBC Sports Chicago, “I would go back to the third championship in the first three peat and use that as kind of a template for the last one. It seemed like they were running on fumes and Michael was running on fumes. We know how hard it is to win one, then to win two and then the near impossible task of trying to win three. I think the last one of the second three peat, was the hardest of all of them. They’re all hard. That third one especially with all that was swirling around them, the age of some of the players, injuries, that had to be the most difficult to accomplish.”

There are certain calls on the radio or television that take you back. These famous calls remind you where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and even what you were wearing at the time. Funk had one of the all-timers with his description of the last shot Jordan would ever take in a Bulls uniform.  

“Michael against Russell, 12 seconds, 11, 10 Jordan, Jordan a drive, hangs, fires, scores! He scores! The Bulls lead 87-86 with 5 and 2 tenths left, and now they’re one stop away. Oh my goodness!”

“That call, of all that I did, that one I’ll always remember only because it was the last one.”, Funk told the Bulls Talk Podcast.  “That was kind of the end. So, I’ll never forget that one.” 

Indeed, it was the end. The team was broken up the following year. Tim Floyd was brought in to coach a cast of no-name players in a shortened season. The Bulls were just a shadow, a small shadow of their former selves. But the broadcasts had to go on. 

For the professionals the Bulls had behind the mics, the play on the court changed nothing about how they got ready for games. Larrivee told me that the show must go on and he didn’t have any trouble gearing up for the 1999 Bulls. 

“It’s an NBA game, it’s a big-time game, it’s on a Superstation WGN-TV. Now the spotlight wasn’t as great on us at that time. You know you feel that. But it does not preclude the way you prepare for that game or the approach you take to the game going in.”, Larrivee told me.  “We are professionals, but we’re also people so yes, there is a little bit less to it when it’s not a big moment or a big game. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you take it any lighter. I prepared the same way that following year as I did during the Last Dance.”

Tom Dore, who also called Bulls basketball on television during the great runs of the 90’s, obviously knew that ’99 was going to be a lot different. He explained to Sports Illustrated the new challenges of that season.  

“How do we get people to say, ‘You should still come and see this? That you need to watch our games.’” Dore told SI.  “The key is just you’re looking for anything positive to talk about. And then Mike Tyson hit you with another one to the gut. And then Muhammad Ali hit you with a left to the temple. And then Joe Frazier hit you with an uppercut. That’s what it was like.”

As we take a final look back at the Last Dance, the last word belongs to Larrivee who had an interesting take on how things came to an end. 

“I think there’s a romantic quality to this. The Bulls win their third in a row. But it’s tradition that the champion gets to go out on his or her sword and when you break up a team like that after a championship they didn’t get out on their sword. They didn’t get a chance to be dethroned.

The 1995-1998 Bulls belong on the list of 10 greatest lineups in ...

“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that. I know Michael to this day regrets that they didn’t get a chance to go for a fourth (in a row). He feels very strongly they would have won another one. I don’t know if they could have mustered it again, but they never got a chance to. Thus, here they are 22 years later we remember them as they were.”

A special group for sure. A special treat for all of us. Five Sunday nights of pleasure during this crazy pandemic. Whether you liked how it was done or didn’t, a tip of the hat to those responsible for bringing it to us. The Last Dance was one to remember. 

BSM Writers

The Chiefs & Eagles Have Super Bowl Game Plans, How About You?

“The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either.”

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When it comes to preparation, I usually hold off. I’m a procrastinator’s procrastinator. It sounds better if I say; “I’m driven by deadlines,” but the truth is, I just generally put things off until they absolutely have to be checked off the list. If your goal as a producer is to have a great post-Super Bowl show, don’t be me, you best start working now.

There are many things that complicate booking guests for a Super Bowl reaction show. The obvious is that you have no idea who is winning the game. But, beyond that, you have no way of predicting what will be the biggest story coming out of the game. It could be anything from overtime to a blowout, halftime show debacle, officiating blunder, or even a surprise retirement announcement.

With that in mind, there are some strategies for targeting guests. With these, though, working ahead is paramount. Most anyone that is going to have enough insight to improve your show will be slammed in the hours following the end of the game.

Strategy 1: The Game Participant

This is a big risk, big reward strategy. It is also one that is only available to a select group of shows. If your show is nationally syndicated, in a very large market, or home market for one of the teams, you have a shot here. If not, the odds are not in your favor. The team’s media departments are as busy as anyone during a Super Bowl run. They aren’t likely to help a show they’ve never dealt with during that whirlwind of action.

I am reminded of a friend of mine who worked as the media relations director for a mid-major basketball team that sprung a huge round two upset and advanced to the Sweet 16. Needless to say, he was swamped overnight with interview requests for his coach. He told me every station led with “ESPN Radio” then mumbled the part about being in Puyallup, Washington. It never hurts to ask, but understand it is a long shot.

Strategy Two: Local Player Not In The Game

This can be a really solid idea for both previewing the Super Bowl and the Monday after the game. If you are in a local NFL market, or if a local college or high school star is in the NFL, consider him as an analyst. Who better knows what happens in an NFL game than an NFL player? Bonus points if he has been a Super Bowl participant in the past.

Don’t underestimate how many NFL players are thinking about life after football. One of the dozens of roles as NFL analyst at a major network is an excellent retirement plan. You don’t have to have a Hall of Fame jacket for those gigs, but you do need to be good on air. You might be surprised by how many players will agree to an interview with that in mind.

Strategy Three: The Trusted Analyst

Every network has all their biggest voices either In Phoenix or in the studio for the game. These are people that know the interview game and have plenty of experience. This strategy comes with some obvious hurdles; it turns out the networks paying the analysts to be on site keep them rather busy. While they might have been happy to join your show the Monday after Week Three, this is a different animal.

One other factor you should consider in this strategy is the fact that Sky Harbor airport will be one of the busiest in the world Monday morning. Many of the analysts will be scrambling home to start their off season as well. If your analyst is on the move, travel delays can wreck your whole plan.

Strategy Four: The Pop Culture Angle

Oftentimes the biggest talking point coming out of the game is one of the things happening outside the actual play on the field. If you watch Super Bowl Twitter, the biggest traffic moments are people joking about a slow starting Star Spangled Banner “hitting the over” or how bad the halftime show is. Regardless of the act, it has become the default position that the halftime show is awful, even when we all think they are pretty good. 50 Cent hanging upside down will forever be a meme.

Commercials are going to be a massive talking point after a game, especially if the game doesn’t quite deliver. Who is the voice that can talk to your audience about everything from Rihanna to a Taco Bell commercial? There is the inherent risk of alienating the “talk more sports” guy with this type of guest so, as you should with any guest, make certain they are entertaining.

The Super Bowl is the biggest event in sports, no team would go in without a solid plan, your show shouldn’t either. Communication between hosts and producers is critical. Have a plan, work ahead and be on the same page.

Most of all, try to enjoy the game – and take the Chiefs and the points.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Burying ‘Outside the Lines’ Shows Little Regard for Respected Brand

Continuing to use the ‘OTL’ brand is likely a nod to the great work of Bob Ley, Ryan Smith, and Jeremy Schaap.

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Image via ESPN

With the end of college football season and the Super Bowl marking the conclusion of the NFL season, ESPN has air time to fill on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the next six months. In past years, that opened up a window for the network to bring back its prestige news magazine program, Outside the Lines.

However, late last week, Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand reported that ESPN has decided not to bring back the standalone OTL show. The program most recently aired Saturday mornings during football’s offseason, typically from mid-February through August. That timeslot essentially buried a show that was once an important part of ESPN’s Sunday morning programming.

Outside the Lines provided substantive, in-depth sports features, interviews, and discussions on Sunday mornings, when viewers were conditioned to expect important dialogue and commentary with weekly public affairs programs and political talk shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation.

Originally anchored by Bob Ley, OTL was a departure from the highlights, analysis, and quips that made up most of the network’s programming. This was ESPN doing journalism with a capital “J,” reporting and investigating longer-form stories on pertinent issues in sports, usually off the field, and examining trends that developed through a news cycle.

Eventually, the number of stories the OTL staff worked on — and presumably, the appetite for such content from ESPN viewers — necessitated expanding the show to a daily schedule airing in mid-afternoons. After Ley retired in 2019, Ryan Smith and Jeremy Schaap hosted the show and continued its deeper look into topical sports stories.

Producing for a daily schedule probably spread the show too thin, however. Finding important stories that warranted the stronger coverage promised by the OTL brand became difficult, forcing the show to include panel discussions that resembled the sort of debate programming seen throughout the day on ESPN. As a result, OTL content was whittled down and integrated into the noon edition of SportsCenter each day.

OTL also suffered amid the inherent conflict at ESPN from having a news-gathering, journalistic operation while entering partnerships with the sports leagues it was covering. Hard-hitting reports on domestic violence issues in the NFL, particularly in light of the Ray Rice assault scandal, and player safety concerns with the rise in traumatic brain injuries gave the network’s producers and reporters credibility. But such stories also rankled league officials and team owners who sought more positive promotion for their sport.

ESPN would surely balk at the idea that it throttled back on in-depth reporting and scrutinization. But the network’s relationship with the NFL is obviously better than it once was, best demonstrated by getting better match-ups on the Monday Night Football schedule, Wild Card playoff games, and Super Bowl telecasts for ESPN/ABC in 2027 and 2031. Meanwhile, Outside the Lines has been effectively buried among ESPN programming.

Yet ratings ultimately decide what stays on a broadcast schedule and what doesn’t. And OTL hasn’t drawn a good number of viewers in quite some time. Some of that is likely influenced by an early Saturday morning timeslot that drew an average audience of 303,000. But SportsCenter AM attracts 572,000 viewers in the same timeslot, so it’s apparent that fans want quicker, breezier content as they begin the weekend.

Outside the Lines simply may not stand apart in the current sports media landscape, either. Longer-form storytelling and reporting are often found in documentaries now, and we’re living in the golden age of sports nonfiction films. That includes ESPN’s own documentary brands E:60, 30 For 30, and ESPN Films. (E:60, in particular, seems to have replaced news magazine programming or special reports, which were once reserved for monthly specials early in OTL‘s life, at ESPN.)

Shuttering the Saturday OTL fortunately won’t result in anyone losing a job. According to SBJ‘s Ourand, some staffers will be reassigned to other studio programs. And others will continue to work on OTL-branded content that runs on SportsCenter throughout the day, not just at noon, under the “OTL on SC” banner. Additionally, OTL content will run on ESPN’s digital platforms such as the network’s YouTube channel. So the show will go on… sort of.

ESPN obviously values the OTL brand and realizes that it carries respect among fans and media. (The show also penetrated pop culture enough to warrant a parody on Saturday Night Live.) Otherwise, the network might shelve the title entirely. Yet perhaps that’s really a nod to the work of Ley, an ESPN institution, and Schaap, one of the network’s best reporters (with ties to sports media royalty in Dick Schaap).

That may be Outside the Lines‘ true legacy. Ley created a brand (continued by Smith and Schaap) taken seriously enough that viewers knew it meant bolder sports journalism unafraid to explore stories and questions that warranted such attention. The OTL name carries enough weight that ESPN can’t bear to get rid of it entirely, even if it doesn’t hold the place at the network that it once did.

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BSM Writers

Chris Broussard Is No Longer Just A ‘Basketball Guy’

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great.”

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After embarking on a career in sports, Chris Broussard made a name for himself as a writer, specifically as it pertains to covering the NBA. Whether it was covering the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal, covering the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets for The New York Times, or doing television hits for ESPN, Broussard had always, whether it was justified or not, been pigeon-holed as a “basketball guy”.

That was the perception then, but today, the reality is different.

“There’s no doubt that gets attached to you and that can be good because you’re seen as an ‘expert’ in one sport which is great,” said Broussard, the co-host of First Things First on FS1 and the co-host of The Odd Couple on FOX Sports Radio. 

“But what was good for me was that at ESPN, I had done First Take with Skip Bayless a lot.  There were a few years where it was a rotation and I was in that rotation. That enabled me to at least do the other sports.” 

Broussard has certainly made a seamless transition from print to electronic media.

After joining The New York Times in 1998, Broussard started to get television exposure doing local hits and then appearances on the various ESPN platforms would soon follow. He joined ESPN full-time in 2004 as a writer for ESPN The Magazine, but that also included regular guest appearances and fill-in hosting opportunities on shows like First Take and the opportunity to be a co-host for NBA Countdown for the 2010-11 season.

With that gig came the opportunity to work with Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry, and his childhood hero Magic Johnson.

“I think that may be have been the pinnacle because Magic is Magic,” said Broussard. “He was my favorite player until Jordan came along and (with Wilbon and Barry), we just had great chemistry.”

After one season, Broussard and Barry were replaced by Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose. A few years later, Broussard would make the move that would bring him to the next chapter of his career.

In 2016, Broussard left what amounted to being just a reporters role at ESPN for a new opportunity at FS1 where he would also be an analyst as well as a regular panelist for shows like Undisputed, The Herd with Colin Cowherd, First Things First and Lock It In.  In 2018, he began co-hosting The Odd Couple radio show with Rob Parker on FOX Sports Radio.

And then in August of 2021, Broussard was named the full-time co-host of First Things First, something that almost had happened when the network first launched.

“When they asked me to come on as a full-time co-host, it was great and maybe a long time coming,” said Broussard. “I know when Jamie Horowitz first brought all the people over from ESPN to be on FS1 in 2016, he was considering doing a show where Nick Wright and I were the co-hosts.”

Broussard now co-hosts the show with Wright and Kevin Wildes.

“I thought that I really just fit right in with the chemistry and it’s just been a great trio,” said Broussard. 

Born in Baton Rouge, Broussard and his family also lived in Cincinnati, Indiana, Syracuse, Iowa, and Cleveland.  He was a star football and basketball player for Holy Name High School in Parma Heights, Ohio and went on to play basketball for Oberlin College, an NCAA Division III school in Ohio.

Believe it or not, his first love was not basketball.

“My favorite sport growing up was football,” said Broussard. “I played football through high school. I played basketball at Oberlin College but they recruited for me football and basketball. I even played baseball up until I was about 16 years old.” 

So much for being just a basketball guy, right?

After college, Broussard had a decision to make. He knew he wanted to be a sports reporter but wasn’t sure if it was going to be print or electronic media. When he was an intern at The Indianapolis Star, he spoke to people in the know about which direction to go.

“I was told that it’s just easier and there are more spots in print journalism than there are in television and radio,” said Broussard. “I chose print because I thought I had more opportunities.”

Broussard’s first taste of covering pro sports was in 1995 at the Akron Beacon Journal when he was a backup writer covering the Cleveland Indians who would go to the World Series for the first time since 1954. He shifted to covering the Cavaliers and then it was off to New York and a bit of culture shock for Broussard.

During his 2 ½ years covering the Cavaliers, Broussard typically wore a rugby shirt, jeans and sneakers at games. But he noticed that when the Knicks and Nets would come to Cleveland or when Broussard travelled to New York and New Jersey when the Cavaliers visited the Knicks and Nets, that the New York writers would typically wear suits and ties when covering the games.

So, when he interviewed for the job with The New York Times, Broussard had an important question for his future editor.

“I asked him when I was being interviewed for the job do they require that your writers dress up,” said Broussard. “He said no but they do generally in New York because they know television opportunities are there. So, when I started working at The New York Times, I started dressing up wearing a suit and tie or sportscoat and tie whenever I would cover games.  Ultimately that led to television.”

And the rest is history.

This coming week, Broussard will be busy co-hosting his shows from the Super Bowl in Arizona. It’s one thing to host a radio show or a television show from a studio but it’s really something special to do it from a live event, especially on the giant stage of the Super Bowl.

And this week, Broussard will be center stage in front of a lot of ears and eyeballs.

“It’s always great,” said Broussard. “FOX Sports Radio always has one of the biggest and best platforms on radio row. It’s always fun when you’re doing these live shows at the big events and you’ve got an audience, it really can kind of bring out the best in you. I’m excited about it both for TV and radio.”

Chris Broussard has certainly come a long way in his career in sports. 

From his days as an athlete in high school in college to getting his start as a write to a transformation into a radio and television personality, Broussard has worked hard to get to where he is today.

“I haven’t written a word since I went to Fox,” said Broussard. “I do feel fortunate that I’ve been able from morph from a writer into TV and radio. What you want to do in this business is stay relevant and you want an audience and a platform. There’s not that many people who get that opportunity to do it.”

He’s no longer just a “basketball guy”. He’s a “sports guy”.

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