Sports

The NBA and ESPN keep searching, but will never find their Roundball Rock

John Tesh

John Tesh, creator of “Roundball Rock”
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ESPN does an outstanding job with its NBA coverage. The network has an army of insiders, reporters, analysts, a daily midday show, as well a stellar game broadcast quality that has long satiated this one high schooler who was not happy to see his beloved NBA on NBC gone forever.

But for all that ESPN does correctly, it has never quite figured out the best way to introduce NBA games. They present the NBA Finals on ABC, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, but the theme has always felt a bit off. It’s not like the NFL on Fox, CBS College Football, March Madness, or The Masters. When you hear the beat drop for those events it’s equal parts nostalgia and mood music. They’re almost Pavlovian in the way that they get sports fans ready for those specific events in a matter of seconds.

With the new NBA season only two weeks away, what ESPN has been working on in the studio has been revealed — their new NBA theme song. It’s part of a whole new presentation that includes a new score bug that is much smaller, and it will identify teams by whatever color they are wearing for that particular game.

You can never go wrong with horns when introducing a sporting event. The sharp and bold sound from those instruments can snap viewers into sports mode. All national broadcasts are attempting to be cool in order to better reach their young audience, so why not break out the drum machine? The intro music should grow on me after a while. I don’t hate it, but I was also indifferent to the old music. That’s because the NBA can wander the earth forever and it will never find anything as good as John Tesh’s Roundball Rock.

That first Sunday after the football season was over was sad, until the outline of the peacock formed on that old Zenith television, then colors filled in feather by feather as the music gradually builds, and then, boom! Those strings hit and it’s time for Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing to do battle as the Chicago Bulls take on the New York Knicks.

Tesh told The Ringer in 2020 that the song came from a melody he thought of in his head while in France, he then called his answering machine in Los Angeles so it would be recorded and he wouldn’t forget it. He made the demo on a synthesizer, and while NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol liked it, he wanted a full orchestra. Because hey, Boston Pops, Larry Bird, why not? Tesh paid for an orchestra out of his own pocket and would go on to compose a tune as synonymous with the 90s as “Go, go, Power Rangers.”

Themes need to have a stickiness to them above all else. NBC had a ton at the time. A Different World, Cheers, The Tonight Show. Each theme probably started playing in your head the moment you read the show’s name.

It also wasn’t just the music that made the NBA on NBC feel epic. It was the storytelling of Marv Albert and Bob Costas during the intro. It wasn’t Brent Musberger and Pat O’Brien being interrupted several times by the theme and 1980s Macintosh graphics that were in the process of forming Boston Garden. Albert and Costas made the games feel big by giving opening monologues that weren’t just, “Isiah Thomas and his Bad Boy Pistons are looking for revenge, but Magic Johnson isn’t ready to hand the 80s to the Pistons just yet” On NBC you get “Hakeem Olajuwon’s play has exhausted all superlatives.”

During the 2022 NBA Finals, the intro was just players’ statements to the media laid over whatever beat the production team decided to use that week. It was smooth and looked sleek, but it failed to really drive up the energy for the game. Combine that with the fact that instead of showing the in-stadium starting lineup introductions, ABC spends two to three minutes airing promos for Holy Moly, and the rest of its summer programming. Sorry, even though I still laugh at Rob Riggle yelling “Shut that baby up!” in The Hangover, hearing him make a cheesy joke while someone gets knocked in the water during a putt isn’t putting me in the mood for championship basketball.

For more than two decades this ESPN and NBA partnership has worked out wonderfully. It greatly expanded ESPN’s live event portfolio and gave the NBA a constant presence on the premiere sports network in America.

They can have all the gold, but they will never be, to us who remember, what Roundball Rock and NBC were to us NBA fans. I’m sure that keeps ESPN and the NBA up at night as they get sprayed with a firehose of money. 

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