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ESPN needs a LeBron James-sized reboot to its NBA Finals coverage

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ESPN needs a LeBron James-sized reboot to its NBA Finals coverage

When ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro wanted to glam up “Monday Night Football,” he reached for the stars and Mickey Mouse’s wallet. Pitaro, a die-hard New York Yankees fan, channeled his inner George Steinbrenner by signing NFL TV’s white whale, Peyton Manning, and then luring Joe Buck and Troy Aikman over from Fox Sports.

They were boss moves for the Disney-owned ESPN.

Pitaro lavished Buck with a $75 million deal and Aikman with $90 million, both over five seasons, while Manning, with his Omaha Productions and his brother Eli in the fold, is making even more per year than either, though the exact figures are unknown. This offseason, Omaha called another audible by adding the legendary Bill Belichick to this fall’s MNF “ManningCast.”

The luster has been returned to “Monday Night Football” production.

Now, on the NBA Finals, Pitaro should tear a page out of his NFL playbook. He and his right-hand man, Burke Magnus, ESPN’s president of content, should court LeBron James with a Tom Brady-like broadcasting deal that will begin whenever the 39-year-old James decides to hang up his sneakers.

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James’ basketball IQ is off the charts. Like Brady — who begins in the Fox NFL booth in September on a 10-year, $375 million deal — there is no definitive way of telling how good James would be on games, but part of the point is to turn the broadcasts into events.

James would do that, standing next to play-by-play broadcaster Mike Breen. They should make it so he calls 20-25 games per season, like an NFL analyst, and elevate the broadcast level, especially this time of year, on the finals.

If Pitaro can’t have James, he should keep 36-year-old Stephen Curry in mind for when he is ready to stop draining 3s. In the meantime, of course, if TNT Sports does lose its NBA TV package, Charles Barkley should — and will be — at the top of ESPN’s list.

All this is to say, it is time for an ESPN NBA reboot because its finals coverage of the Boston Celtics against the Dallas Mavericks feels small.

For the first two games, ESPN added the New York Knicks’ Josh Hart as a guest analyst. Hart is someone to admire, with his work ethic and his good-guy reputation, but, as the kids like to say, it felt very mid.

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If ESPN wanted to add another body for its half-hour pregame and its blink-of-an-eye halftime show, it should have rewarded analysts who got them there, like big personalities Kendrick Perkins or Richard Jefferson. Both are way better daily on “NBA Today” than the neophyte Hart showed in his guest spots. At least Hart added another NBA player voice to the finals festivities.

Before he was added, ESPN’s finals coverage included 15-year 3-point specialist JJ Redick as the only ex-player. Redick joined Doris Burke and Breen in the consistently underwhelming finals booth.

In studio, without Hart, there are no former players, as host Malika Andrews is joined by legendary opinionist Michael Wilbon, ex-Golden State general manager Bob Myers, and the face of ESPN, Stephen A. Smith. Well, when Smith has the time.

After Game 2 on ABC, ESPN had a postgame show, but Smith wasn’t on it. He was already jetting off from Boston to Miami to be in position for “First Take,” even though the program regularly emits from New York.

Smith is the undisputed No. 1 star of the network, but it is the games that make it run. Smith said earlier in the playoffs he hoped for a quick Eastern Conference finals so he could take some time off.

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Smith is a workaholic and the center of sports media, but if appearing on the playoff studio shows is beneath his time, maybe, quite frankly, it is not the best fit to have him jam it in between his daily TV talk debates, his thrice-weekly YouTube show, his “General Hospital” role and every other platform known to mankind he appears on.

As the series moves to Dallas on Wednesday, nine-time All-Star Paul George is an upgrade in status over Hart as the guest analyst. Whether he is any good remains to be seen. During the conference finals, Chris Paul was the guest analyst, and he showed some signs of potential.

When the new TV deals are completed, ESPN is expected to have the rights to the finals for a dozen years, with its final season on the current contract and the next 11 on the new one. It has boxed out the competition with a deal that will pay the league $2.6 billion a year, just a shade less than the $2.7 billion it doles out to the NFL per season. It looks like a smart move, as TNT Sports hangs on for dear life for its NBA future.


ESPN’s NBA Finals booth: JJ Redick, Doris Burke and Mike Breen. The trio has yet to find its stride in its debut NBA Finals. (Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images)

Amazon Prime Video, which has a framework agreement with the league, already has Ian Eagle on its radar for play-by-play, according to sources briefed on their plans, and NBC, which also is on the doorstep of a completed deal, will likely name Mike Tirico its No. 1. Those are strong starts to match Breen.

Though the iconic “Inside the NBA” is potentially entering its final season with Warner Bros. Discovery, it is not like Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal won’t be employed, maybe even still with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson. Amazon and NBC will be in play for the biggest names.

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Beyond all this, ESPN should take a cue from other networks’ coverage of the Super Bowl and the World Series. The ESPN executive in charge of the NBA, David Roberts, should order up a new graphic package for the finals to further distinguish it from a game in November. The network with the Super Bowl does this every year, though it is actually even more necessary for ESPN on the NBA because of its overabundance of games that can make them all blend together.

Roberts should also look at Fox’s MLB October studio coverage, which features Derek Jeter, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. It is a prestige event, and Fox has brought in three of the biggest players of the last generation. You don’t have to do this, but if you fail to have the names, the content has to be superior. It hasn’t been on these finals.

Next, ESPN should be pursuing James, as it did Manning. And Barkley, as it did Buck and Aikman. Pitaro and company should play like the boss again.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Where will Charles Barkley go? What if ESPN loses JJ Redick? Thoughts on NBA media issues

(Top photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)

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Behind Caeleb Dressel's Olympic return, 'a work in progress' to rekindle his love for swimming

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Behind Caeleb Dressel's Olympic return, 'a work in progress' to rekindle his love for swimming

Follow our Olympics coverage in the lead-up to the Paris Games.


The shimmer of Caeleb Dressel’s seven gold medals may suggest otherwise, but he knows swimming can be a brutal and suffocating sport.

He is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best in the world at what he does, sprinting from one end of the pool to the other (and sometimes back). He holds the world record in the men’s 100-meter butterfly, having first snatched that historical distinction away from Michael Phelps in 2019. Then, Dressel lowered his world record in the event at the Tokyo Olympics — where he won five gold medals in five events.

Despite it all, Dressel was miserable.

He was fixated on where he felt he’d failed. In one race, it was the turn. Another, the finish. His head position. It didn’t matter that he’d touched the wall first over and over again. It didn’t matter that he was bringing gold home and helping Team USA finish atop the medal count. He chased perfection. He chased times and chased stretch goals. He hadn’t met them.

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“I created a monster in myself — just so caught up in perfectionism,” he told former Olympians Missy Franklin and Katie Hoff on their “Unfiltered Waters” podcast. “So caught up in, ‘If I don’t see these times, it means I’m a bad person, or it means I did not train hard enough. If I don’t go a world record, it means … I didn’t obsess enough.’”

The sport he’d been drawn to as a kid because it was so delightfully fun was quite the opposite. And it’d been that way for years. But Dressel kept pushing himself, listening to his internal critic ripping himself apart.

Until he “broke,” he puts it now. He withdrew abruptly in the middle of the 2022 world championship meet in Budapest and disappeared from the sport for eight months.

Dressel hasn’t gone into much detail about that period of his life in Gainesville, Fla., other than to say he spent a lot of time with his therapist. His wife, Meghan, was there for him, too, though she also realized there were a lot of conversations Dressel needed to have inside his own mind. Some days, he didn’t do much. Most days, he avoided routes that took him past the University of Florida pool. He didn’t want to smell the chlorine.

He had to figure out who he was beyond his best times and what made him tick outside the pool. He had to reorient himself, how he believed others felt about him and why they loved him. He had to learn how to smile again.

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The process wasn’t easy, and progress hasn’t always been a straight line. But it’s what makes Dressel, 27, who he is now as a swimmer and a person (and new dad). It’s also why he’s back in the pool and headed to Paris, one of the headliners of Team USA and arguably the most important piece of the puzzle for the U.S. swim team in its efforts to win the meet by bringing home more gold medals than its peers. There is outside pressure, yes. But inside his mind, Dressel’s biggest critic is quieter.

“It’s really tough,” Dressel told The Athletic last month. “It’s embedded in me — where you always want to look for ways to get better. I’m still doing that, but I’m not becoming obsessed and so fixated on it that I lose sight of what’s actually fun with the sport. It’s hard, and it’s not like I’ve all of a sudden gotten to figure it out this year. There are things that I’m really proud that I’ve done differently, like being able to enjoy parts of the sport without just crapping on myself for not being perfect.

“It is still very much a work in progress.”


Caeleb Dressel won five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. But a year later, he walked away from the sport. It’s still “a work in progress,” he said of his return. (Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

Now, Dressel sounds like a person who’s figured out a lot about himself through therapy. One of the first things he will tell you is how helpful his regular appointments with his therapist have been.

“I’ve been trying to not be so fixated on results and just simply enjoying racing and training — those are the two parts of the sport that I really enjoy,” Dressel said. “There are parts of the sport that I really dislike, that I really hate. But it’s worth putting up with for the moments that I really do enjoy. It’s going to be a balance; I’m not expecting every part of the sport to just be the best thing ever for me. But I’ve really leaned into the parts of the sport that I do enjoy.

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“That’s been the main difference for me. I’ve always loved training. I’ve always loved being around the team. The actual racing portion, I do really, really enjoy — as soon as the gun goes off, it’s just simply fun. So, I’ve just been trying to keep it just simply swimming. Simply swimming this year.”

Dressel will simply swim the 50-meter freestyle and the 100 fly as individual events at the Games, and he’ll likely be part of multiple relays. At the U.S. Olympic trials in Indianapolis, he finished third in the 100-free final, which cost him the opportunity to defend his gold medal in the event in Paris.

But he’s happy to be part of the Olympic team. He’s proud of what he accomplished at trials to qualify for it. He’s thrilled that his infant son, August, got to see it all, held in Meghan’s arms in the stands.

“No one can take that away,” Dressel said in Indianapolis. “He’s not going to remember it. I will tell him, trust me, I got photos so I can prove it. … That was a really special moment. Meghan knows what goes into this, not just the parenting side of things but she gets to see firsthand the struggles that come with the sport.

“The tears that come with it, the frustration and then also the high points, and getting to share that with them, because they go through that as well — that was really special, August getting to see that.”

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Meghan shared a video of Dressel with baby August at the Olympic training camp in North Carolina this month, another moment captured and saved to commemorate a once-in-a-lifetime moment. They’ll be in Paris, too, alongside Dressel’s parents and family. Dressel said he wouldn’t be where he is today without their support. And he certainly wouldn’t be where he is without Meghan, whom he calls the “superhero” of their family.

Parenthood is wonderful for many reasons, but perhaps the greatest lesson it teaches is one of perspective — especially for someone who has spent most of his life chasing times and hunting perfection that does not and cannot exist.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever go a best time ever again, and that’s tough to say out loud. It really is,” Dressel said. “When you’re 19, 20, 21, you keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. I’m still working harder than ever, finding every path I can take to shave those couple of tenths. But I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do that. I’m really good at racing. You put me in a race, I will make it close, as close as I possibly can, even if I have to try to kill myself to get there. I will put myself in those situations.”

So, he doesn’t know exactly how Paris will go. But he knows he’s older, wiser and genuinely happier than before the last Olympic Games. Others see it, too, and not just when he’s straddling the lane line after a race or punching the water in celebration.

“He’s always had that smile,” seven-time gold medalist and University of Florida training partner Katie Ledecky said. “He took that time away, and when he came back, he’s had that smile every day. Just to see his progression over this past year, how he’s just gotten better and better each meet — he seems to just be loving the racing, and he loves the training probably more than the racing, and that makes everyone around him better.”

It will make one of the best swimmers in the world better, too. And that’s why that smile is as good as gold, no matter what medal hangs around Dressel’s neck.

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Caeleb Dressel

“I don’t know if I’ll ever go a best time ever again, and that’s tough to say out loud,” Caeleb Dressel said. He’ll give it a shot in Paris starting later this month. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images) 

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Utah State fires football coach Blake Anderson for 'significant' contract violations

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Utah State fires football coach Blake Anderson for 'significant' contract violations

Utah State fired football coach Blake Anderson Thursday for what it called “significant violations of his contractual obligations.”

The firing came more than two weeks after the school informed Anderson of its plans to terminate his contract due to actions in the spring of 2023 that violated “both his employment agreement and university policy.” The school said it conducted an external review that found he failed to comply with Title IX policies regarding the reporting of sexual misconduct cases.

The university also dismissed Jerry Bovee, associate vice president and deputy athletic director of external affairs at Utah State, and Austin Albrecht, the director of player development and community, for alleged violations of university policies related to the reporting of sexual and domestic violence and failures of professional responsibilities.

Head coach Blake Anderson of the Utah State Aggies during the first half of his team’s game against the New Mexico Lobos at University Stadium Nov 26, 2021, in Albuquerque, N.M.  (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

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After informing Anderson his employment agreement would be terminated July 2, the school waited two weeks for Anderson’s response as required by Utah law.

On Thursday, Utah State officially terminated Anderson. 

“To USU’s disappointment, Anderson’s response failed to acknowledge his responsibilities as a USU employee and as a head coach and instead sought to make excuses and unsuccessfully recast the clear language of USU’s policies,” the university said.

ALABAMA REPORTEDLY NAMING FOOTBALL FIELD AFTER FORMER HEAD COACH NICK SABAN

Blake Anderson

Head coach Blake Anderson of the Utah State Aggies talks into his headset during the first half of a game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Maverik Stadium Oct. 13, 2023, in Logan, Utah.  (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Anderson, 55, was about to enter his fourth season with the school after posting a 23-17 record in his first three seasons, including the Aggies’ first-ever Mountain West championship his first season. 

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Nate Dreiling was elevated to interim head coach after serving as Utah State’s defensive coordinator and defensive ends coach under Anderson.

Blake Anderson during a game

Head coach Blake Anderson of the Utah State Aggies during the first half of a game at University Stadium Nov. 24, 2023, in Albuquerque, N.M. (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

“While I recognize that today’s decision has a significant impact, it is the only one that could be made based on the facts.” USU President Elizabeth Cantwell said in a statement, “We are committed to moving forward in building a winning athletics program grounded in student success and integrity.” 

The Aggies open the 2024 season Aug. 31 against Robert Morris.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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Teoscar Hernández could have signed with the Red Sox. Here's why he chose the Dodgers

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Teoscar Hernández could have signed with the Red Sox. Here's why he chose the Dodgers

Teoscar Hernández could be playing for the Boston Red Sox this weekend instead of against them.

He could have taken the two-year, $28-million deal he says the Red Sox offered during the offseason.

He could have returned to All-Star form and won the Home Run Derby while representing a Boston team he says was always one of his favorites.

But that’s not how it played out for Hernández. Instead, the outfielder has been representing Los Angeles in tremendous fashion after signing a one-year, $23.5-million deal from the Dodgers, who start a three-game series with the Red Sox on Friday night at Dodger Stadium.

“Obviously, I was not gonna go and spend my free agency trying to get a bad deal,” the Dominican Republic native said this week on the “Baseball Isn’t Boring” podcast. “I love the Red Sox. It was one of my favorite teams. And I love playing [at Fenway Park], but at the end of the day I have to [decide] what is best for me, my career and my family.”

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Hernández made his major league debut with the Houston Astros in 2016 and was acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays at the 2017 trade deadline. He became an All-Star in 2021 and finished the season with career highs across the board, including a .296 batting average, 163 hits, 32 home runs and 116 runs batted in.

After his numbers dipped the following season, Hernández was traded to the Seattle Mariners, where his 211 strikeouts were the third most in the majors last year. As a free agent this past season, Hernández said, he received interest from the Angels as well as the Dodgers and Red Sox, but his final decision was between the latter two teams.

Hernández told “Baseball Isn’t Boring” that the Red Sox gave him the impression they’d be willing to increase their offer to three years after some maneuvering on their end.

In December, the Dodgers signed major deals with Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani and pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow. Hernández said he saw what was happening in Los Angeles and knew he “couldn’t wait any longer” on the Red Sox.

“Teams that wanna win, they spend. They go after good players,” Hernández said. “I’m not saying [the Red Sox] don’t have good players, because they do. The Red Sox are really good right now and they had amazing players. But for my part, I just wanna go to a team that it’s looking for everybody that is good to win … that they’re not afraid to spend and to go after good players so they can make their team better.”

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Hernández has flourished in L.A. His 62 RBIs rank seventh in the National League and trail only Ohtani among Dodgers. His 28 hits with runners in scoring position are 12th in the NL and second on the team, behind Freddie Freeman. His 19 home runs are tied for fifth best in the NL and second on the team to Ohtani.

On Monday night, he outlasted Bobby Witt Jr. of the Kansas City Royals to become the first Dodgers player to win the Home Run Derby in its 40-year history.

“In this organization, everybody talks about win, win, win, and that’s me,” Hernández said. “I don’t care about anything else. I want to win. I’m at one point in my career that I want to go out there and have fun, have a good year but also win too.”

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