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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

It was perplexing last summer when ESPN fired NBA Finals game analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. It was part of the network’s layoffs that Disney seemingly goes through every couple of years, sort of like an NFL team pruning the books to provide room for future million-dollar spends.

The Van Gundy salary dump particularly did not make sense, as he was maybe the best game analyst in sports with his gym-rat mentality and “Inside the NBA” quirkiness.

In the wake of those moves, ESPN is not nearly as good as it was. With the venerable play-by-player Mike Breen, the Hall of Famer Doris Burke and an on-the-rise JJ Redick, in theory, ESPN should provide an excellent listen, but it takes time to develop NBA Finals-level chemistry.

Breen, Burke and Redick don’t have it. With just four months under their belt together, they don’t come across like a team that should be advancing past the second round. But they will.

Tuesday night, Breen, Burke and Redick will be in Boston to call the Eastern Conference finals before the main event next month, the NBA Finals. Suddenly, the future of what was a stalwart, steady booth for ESPN is again in doubt, as the current group lacks humor and flow. Hopefully, they will acknowledge the Indiana Pacers in this series.

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On Sunday, from start to finish, ESPN turned its production of Game 7 of the Pacers-New York Knicks series into a Knicks home broadcast by showing “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith walking into the arena as if he were a player and then having him deliver a Knicks pregame pep talk. During the game, Breen and company focused too much on the Knicks and not enough on the all-time shooting performance by the Pacers. After ESPN showed the best of itself Friday with its Scottie Scheffler arrest coverage, the contrast of Sunday’s NBA performance was embarrassing.

How ESPN got here and where it is going next is an intriguing broadcasting question. Especially with a framework agreement on a new TV deal with the NBA that is expected to keep the league’s biggest event on ESPN’s stage for the next dozen years.

Breen, who turns 63 on Wednesday, remains the anchor. However, in the playoffs, he is too often left trying to do it all on his own, not fully trusting in his new teammates.

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With his familiar voice, Breen might be able to carry the trio late in close games, but he is not raising his partners’ levels. Evaluating what he has, he comes across as more of a shoot-first point guard, not only providing the play-by-play but often the analysis, too.

Post-Van Gundy and Jackson, ESPN had a seemingly workable plan. Breen’s good buddy Doc Rivers was available after being fired as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach. With Breen and Rivers, there would have figured to be some strong built-in chemistry.

With the history-making Burke, who will become the first female TV analyst on one of the traditional big-four league’s championships (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), top ESPN executives Jimmy Pitaro, Burke Magnus and David Roberts had a succession figured out. Roberts even named heirs apparent, as Ryan Ruocco, Richard Jefferson and Redick were anointed the No. 2 team with an eye on calling the finals one day.

Though the NBA did not like Van Gundy’s criticism of its officiating — and complained about it to ESPN — there is no proof that the league ordered his banishment. One concern ESPN had, according to executives briefed on their decision-making, was that Van Gundy would jump back into coaching, which he had flirted with for years.

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen talk before Game 2 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. The three called 15 NBA Finals together. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Van Gundy, though, never left during his 16 seasons with the network, while Rivers’ stay at ESPN was almost as short as Bill Belichick’s run as “HC of the NYJ.”

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While on the broadcasting job for ESPN, Rivers first started consulting with the Milwaukee Bucks in December, then left to become the team’s head coach in January, embarrassing ESPN after giving it a three-year commitment.

By the All-Star break, Redick, who turns 40 in June, was moved in. He has had an incredible broadcasting run, making many millions as a podcaster and gambling spokesperson and through his ESPN game and studio work.

But as evidenced by his latest venture, an inside-the-game podcast with LeBron James, Redick’s post-playing passion might mirror that of Rivers. His game analysis is more coach-like than conversational.

After a brief flirtation with the Charlotte Hornets’ coaching job, he is a top candidate to join James’ Los Angeles Lakers. Following Van Gundy’s departure, ESPN has a second analyst who could go through with the broadcasting crime that Van Gundy was charged with but never committed. Until if and when Redick leaves, he is on the call with Breen and Burke.

It doesn’t sound as if Breen, Burke and Redick dislike one another; they just don’t finish each other’s sentences. Heck, half the time it feels as if Burke and Redick barely start many of their own. It’s a lot of Breen.

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Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson called 15 NBA Finals, which allowed them to develop a comfort level with one another and the audience. Breen’s “Bang!” receives the shine — and it is a strong signature call — but it is his rhythm for the action and his inflection at the right time over 48 minutes, denoting whenever something special happens, that stand out.

If you close your eyes and just listen to Breen’s emotion in his calls, you can tell where a play stands in excitement on a 1-to-10 scale. That is why, in crunchtime, ESPN should still be fine.

It’s when the booth needs to shine in light moments or blowouts that Van Gundy and Jackson are missed.

Jackson was far from perfect — last year, he inexplicably left Nikola Jokić off his All-Star ballot — but he had his schtick, most notably the phrase “Mama, there goes that man!” He could hit some 3s off the ball from Breen and Van Gundy.

Van Gundy’s dismissal, though, was a head-scratcher. With a headset on, he was always in triple-threat position: keen analysis, a looseness to say anything and humor.

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Van Gundy has moved on and is now a senior consultant with the Boston Celtics. ESPN is still paying him. Maybe it could ask him to come back for a series or two.

(Top photo of JJ Redick, Doris Burke and Mike Breen: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

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Paige Bueckers aims to make this her final season at UConn … and to go out with a bang

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Paige Bueckers aims to make this her final season at UConn … and to go out with a bang

If there’s an overriding lesson from the last four years of Paige Bueckers’ college basketball career, it’s this, she explains: “You never know what each day will bring. You never know what life is gonna throw at you.”

There was a time when Bueckers didn’t necessary think that way, when she assumed her plans would come to pass. Like when she arrived in Storrs, Conn., in the fall of 2020. She knew then that her freshman season — already outlined with the COVID-19 protocols of testing, masks and isolation — wouldn’t look exactly the way she always imagined as a kid. Still, when she thought about the four seasons in front of her, there was a sense of expectation and progress: Four years of healthy play, a few national titles, a graduation and at the end of it, a seat at the 2024 WNBA Draft.

Very little has gone to plan. Bueckers was, in fact, at the 2024 WNBA Draft, but she was there supporting her teammates Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl being drafted. She described the night as “surreal,” having always imagined that the class she entered with alongside Edwards and Mühl would be the class with which she exited. Instead, she’s now watching them begin their WNBA careers on television as she returns to college offseason workouts, using one of the two available redshirt years.

Bueckers has played only two healthy seasons of college basketball, as a freshman, when she was named national Player of the Year, and last season, when she was again an All-American. She has advanced to three Final Fours in four years but never won a title.

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She has readjusted her expectations, imagining her name called in the 2025 WNBA Draft. She plans to make the 2024-25 season her last at UConn, she told The Athletic.

“There’s a much larger sense of urgency,” Bueckers said. “This is my last year to get what I came here for, which is a national championship. … No more ‘Passive Paige.’”

As Bueckers enters her final chapter in Storrs, going through her first (and last) college offseason workouts in which she’s completely healthy, she’s focused on definitively shifting her mentality while recognizing the need for flexibility. After all, that’s the lesson the last four years have taught her.

Bueckers’ final shot at a national title will come with some adjustments. Edwards and Mühl are gone. The three returning upperclassmen — Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme — are coming off injuries. Kaitlyn Chen, a Princeton transfer, is settling into the program after arriving on campus in late May.

But that turnover in roster — nothing new to Bueckers — makes her mental shift that much more important as she prepares to shoulder so much more.

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UConn coach Geno Auriemma can point to March to remind Bueckers of her focus. Conversation around Bueckers’ aggressive mentality have been “constant” since she arrived on campus in 2020, he said. But the Huskies’ recent history, an unexpected run to the Final Four, led by Bueckers, provides all the evidence she needs to continue to be a bit more selfish on the floor. Before the Big East tournament, Auriemma said he told Bueckers, “Paige, you need it to get 30 every night. Just make life easier on everybody else. We don’t have a lot of options. We don’t have a lot of choices. So this is what we got. And we can’t be milling around with this stuff.”

In short: No more Passive Paige.

Through five NCAA Tournament games, Bueckers’ game completely elevated. After averaging 21.3 points, 3.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds a game during the regular season, she averaged 25.8 points, 4.6 assists and 8 rebounds a game, pulling the Huskies to their 23rd Final Four.

“I love to score. I’ve always felt like I’m a pass-first player. I love to get my teammates involved. I love to make sure everybody’s happy,” Bueckers said. “But at the end of the day, everyone is happy when we win, and I think we have a better chance of winning when I’m aggressive.”

Added Auriemma: “She’s too nice, too caring about what other people think. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great, great quality. I just don’t know if it’s a great quality for (a) killer superstar.”

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Bueckers has learned too much over the past four seasons to make too many plans. Everything can change in an instant. She knows, because she has been there (multiple times). But with a heightened sense of urgency, she’s approaching this offseason differently. She wants to come in as a better scorer, passer and rebounder. Ask her where her game can improve, and there is no shortage of options that come to Bueckers’ mind: her range, 3-point shooting, off-the-dribble shooting, one-on-one moves, ballhandling, playing off two feet, experimenting with tempo.

She’s trying not to live in the past too much and also not look too far into the future. She hasn’t rewatched the Huskies’ final game of the 2024 NCAA Tournament yet — a loss to Iowa — but she’ll get there. She knows she has to watch it to completely turn the page from last season. Just like the NCAA Tournament, there will be lessons to glean from those 40 minutes, but Bueckers still wonders if she had been just a bit more aggressive, maybe the game would’ve turned out differently. With one final year at UConn, she’ll make sure not to feel that after any game again, she said.

“I want to be an unselfish player, somebody that people love to play with, but at the same time, I’m trying to balance that with also being like, a killer, a scorer, a bucket getter,” she said. “It’s always been a battle of me trying to find the happy medium, but I think for the most part from here on out I gotta be more aggressive first.”

(Photo of Paige Bueckers: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy reveals he recently 'beat' cancer

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Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy reveals he recently 'beat' cancer

In the most subtle, low-key fashion, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy revealed he had, and beat, cancer.

The 47-year-old revealed the diagnosis on an episode of “The BFFs Pod” when his co-hosts took note of a scar on his neck.

Portnoy said he “beat it” and replied yes when it was skin cancer “lying in the sun all day with no sunscreen.”

Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy attends an event. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

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“I’ve had a heart attack, cancer and stung by bees, beat it all,” Portnoy joked.

“I went to a doctor, did a skin thing, they scrape it, and one of them came back cancerous; got to take it out,” Portnoy added.

Portnoy said that he had actually been trying to get people to notice the scar. 

“I’ve been trying to shove it in people’s faces,” Portnoy said.

But he did say he kept the operations to himself.

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Dave Portnoy

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy revealed that he recently had cancer and beat it. (The Dave Portnoy Show With Eddie & Co/Youtube)

BARRY BONDS, WILLIE MAYS’ GODSON, POSTS TRIBUTE TO FELLOW GIANTS LEGEND

“I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing it. It was all part of my master plan. God forbid the [Boston] Celtics lost last night, I was going to be like ‘I have cancer. I don’t want to talk about it.’ But they won.”

Portnoy said he and his fellow Barstool hosts were recording a recap of the Celtics’ NBA Finals victory, but no one even mentioned the scar or a bandage on his neck from his celebratory cigar video he posted.

“It’s almost like they know I’m going to call myself a cancer survivor,” Portnoy said. “I was getting close to the point I was going to re-cut this thing open and just start bleeding until somebody would be like, ‘What is going on?’ This is a huge f—ing scar, and nobody’s saying anything.”

Portnoy then said on X, formerly Twitter, that the cancer “wasn’t the serious kind thank god.”

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Dave Portnoy

David Portnoy of Barstool Sports (Tom Briglia/ Getty Images)

Portnoy bought back Barstool last year, initially selling the company for about $500 million, and he bought it back for just $1 after the Penn-ESPN deal.

Follow Fox News Digital’s sports coverage on X and subscribe to the Fox News Sports Huddle newsletter.

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Shoe is on the other foot as Dodgers lose to Rockies in walk-off fashion

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Shoe is on the other foot as Dodgers lose to Rockies in walk-off fashion

This time, the late-game magic belonged to the Colorado Rockies.

A day after the Dodgers’ historic ninth-inning comeback at Coors Field, their hosts answered back Wednesday with an 7-6 walk-off win.

With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth — and one of the Dodgers’ typically low-leverage relievers, Yohan Ramírez, on the mound in the most crucial of situations — the Rockies flipped the script from Tuesday’s night loss, when they blew a five-run lead in the final frame.

This time, they put two runners aboard immediately with back-to-back singles. They advanced the lead one to third on a ground ball to first base.

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Then, in a rare celebratory sequence for a team that has long resided in the National League West basement, outfielder Brenton Doyle delivered a walk-off sacrifice fly.

The Rockies piled out of the dugout. They sprayed Gatorade around the infield.

The exaltation the Dodgers experienced Tuesday, this time was on the other side.

The Dodgers had led for most of the game, despite a rocky start from right-hander Bobby Miller.

Making his first outing in more than two months because of a shoulder injury, Miller battled through a five-run, 6 ⅓-inning appearance. He gave up a three-run homer to Michael Toglia in the bottom of the first, after issuing a single and walk with two out in the inning.

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But the 25-year-old bounced back from there, giving up just one run over the next five innings with the help of three double plays.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, surged ahead thanks to production from the bottom of the lineup.

In the second inning, Nos. 6-8 hitters Gavin Lux (single), Cavan Biggio (hit-by-pitch) and Kiké Hernández (walk) loaded the bases for Shohei Ohtani, who promptly unloaded them with a three-run double. Ohtani was driven home on Freddie Freeman’s RBI single in the next at-bat.

With the score tied again, 4-4, in the top of the fifth, it was another bottom-half hitter, outfielder Jason Heyward from the five-hole, who delivered a two-run double off the wall in right field, continuing his recent tear after Tuesday night’s ninth-inning grand slam.

In the top of the seventh, though, Roberts tried to extend Miller — who was only at 73 pitches — only to watch him surrender a leadoff double to Sean Bouchard, who eventually scored what was Miller’s fifth earned run of the game.

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After Miller exited, the seventh only got messier for the Dodgers. Third baseman Biggio booted a grounder with one out. No. 9 hitter Adael Amador belted a double off reliever Daniel Hudson. And Brenton Doyle tied the score at 6-6 on a one-out sacrifice fly — what could have been the third out of the inning had Biggio not made an error.

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