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Ball Don't Lie

Magic Johnson is out, and Doris Burke is in as ESPN’s ‘NBA Countdown’ analyst

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Doris Burke and Magic Johnson (Getty Images)

It should be fantastic news Doris Burke, the longtime color commentator for both NBA and women’s basketball games at ESPN, has been hired to be the first female analyst for an NBA studio show. Burke is set to join the ESPN NBA Countdown crew for the 2013-14 season, after having established her significant NBA credentials during years of working both the analyst and sideline reporter’s role on ESPN and ABC telecasts.

The problem here is that ESPN seems to have found a way to sneak in the host that NBA Countdown was missing, while getting to laud itself for its progressive promotion. Those cable guys are always one step ahead.

From Richard Deitsch at Sports Illustrated:

Burke said Mark Gross, a senior vice president and executive producer of production at ESPN, suggested the idea of working as studio analyst during a meeting at his office in Bristol, Conn., in August. When Burke is on NBA Countdown, she will navigate most of the ins and outs from commercial breaks. Gross described Burke's role as a hybrid between analyst and host.

[…]

Burke is expected to be part of a NBA Countdown panel that includes in some combination: Doug Collins (ESPN announced earlier this week that it had reached a multiyear agreement with former Sixers coach to serve as a studio analyst), Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons. Former Nets coach Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo also remain NBA Countdown possibilities.

Doris Burke has long been one of our favorite analysts, and the hope from this end is that her appearances in studio won’t take away from the amount of games she’ll cover this year alongside the similarly excellent Dan Shulman. As we talked about on Wednesday, the NBA Countdown show is a chore to watch, it offers little insight and equal levels of both trumped-up levity and insolence as it delves into pre-scripted faux-arguments.

The fake laughter will subside somewhat with the news that Magic Johnson is leaving ESPN. Here's his statement:

I love ESPN. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my schedule and other commitments, I don’t feel confident that I can continue to devote the time needed to thrive in my role. I will always feel a strong connection to the ESPN family and I enjoyed working with them very much.

Though we’re hard-pressed to find a player and person we respect more than the five-time champion, Magic was often criticized for his approach (or lack thereof) as an NBA analyst, and he offered little in spite of his years’ worth of experience as a player, coach, and team executive.

All of this movement does very little to address the fact that the hardcore NBA fan really gains precious little from pregame and halftime presentations. Their eyes are elsewhere, usually online, learning things that most TV-vetted analysts can’t or refuse to deliver. Hopefully, as an NBA freak that wants informative programming, Burke and company can make me eat these words during the 2013-14 campaign.

UPDATE: Deadspin is reporting that Bill Simmons was the driving force behind the recent shakeup. From the site:

ESPN sources tell us that Johnson's departure was the result of an old-fashioned power war, with one very clear winner: Bill Simmons. "It's Simmons's show now," said one source.

Magic apparently was not at all happy when ESPN told his buddy Michael Wilbon that his role on NBA Countdown would be diminished. He was "booted," according to one source. Another ESPN insider also said that Magic was "privately seething over the Wilbon thing and in general did not like that Simmons held all the power and influence." Magic didn't necessarily need the power, our sources explained; he just didn't feel like kowtowing to Simmons when he's, well, Magic Johnson.

"The bottom line is they turned that show over to Simmons," said our source. "That's why Doug Collins got hired and why Wilbon was out."

Power struggles like this are always a little silly, and we've had our issues with Simmons before, but at times Bill Simmons was the only one on that 'NBA Countdown' panel that looked like he'd actually seen an NBA game in the days between nationally televised contests on Sunday afternoon. You may not often agree with his hot sports takes, but you also can't deny the fact that Simmons is a League Pass junkie that devours all manner of NBA content online throughout the week.

You couldn't say as much for Magic and Michael Wilbon, who often contributed as if their diet consisted solely of weekly nationally televised games. After a year's worth of complaints, it appears as if ESPN is going for a deeper strain of hoop knowledge, and less milquetoast chatter. This is a good thing.

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