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How NBA Entertainment Helped Save the League and Spread a Renaissance

In the early 1980s, the NBA was floundering. Then NBA Entertainment, the league's new in-house video production team, helped usher in a fan-tastic future.

by Shawn Fury
Jun 15 2016, 7:40pm

Image via YouTube

David Stern became the 24th employee of the National Basketball Association in 1978, and his primary concern soon became survival. In 1980, the year Stern took over as executive vice-president under commissioner Larry O'Brien, the Los Angeles Times reported on the league's "widespread cocaine use," citing estimates that 40 to 75 percent of NBA players were using; true or not, the league was developing a reputation that outpaced its following. The 1981 Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets featured four games on tape delay; they aired on CBS with a helpful all-caps "RECORDED EARLIER" warning on the bottom of television screens. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien was in the midst of a reign so hapless and destructive that the league eventually enacted a rule named after him preventing other owners from causing similar damage.

Compared to all those problems, perhaps, the NBA's complete lack of a video library or a coherent marketing and entertainment plan did not seem like a major crisis. But Stern realized that the league's ability to tell a story people would want to hear depended in great part upon honoring its past and the accomplishments of players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West. More urgently, it needed to show fans everything that was great about the league.

And so in 1982 Stern and a handful of mostly young, inexperienced, basketball-crazed employees formed NBA Entertainment, a department that grew to include more than 200 people at its peak. The memorable videos and commercials they created—with a little help from Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan—allowed the NBA to reach and connect with a sports world that had seemed poised to forget all about it.

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For a kid like me, growing up in southern Minnesota and hopelessly obsessed with the Showtime Lakers, the NBA was near impossible to find. Before we got cable midway through the 1980s, I had precious few chances to watch any of the league's greats: CBS aired just six regular-season NBA games in 1983, and ten in 1985. If the Lakers played anywhere on the West Coast, I waited two days to see the score in our newspaper; the next day's NBA scoreboard section only taunted me with the notation that the Los Angeles game was "(late)."

In this relative wasteland, NBA Entertainment's productions—championship videos like Return to Glory, the Michael Jordan tribute Come Fly With Me, and a series of unforgettable (FAN-tastic) ads—were both a godsend and a reminder of why I loved the game in the first place.

"All of the things that we take for granted today really had their birthing back in the 80s and early 90s," Ed Desser, an early employee at NBA Entertainment, told VICE Sports.

Before it became a ubiquitous billion-dollar business and long before Season Ticket or streaming anything, the NBA lived in the VCRs of true believers. This is the story of how NBA Entertainment bridged the divide between the league's low ebb and its Jordan-era renaissance, and helped to save the league.

STARTING FROM NOTHING

As executive vice-president, Stern wrote a memo to his boss, O'Brien, asking to buy three-quarter-inch VCRs for all the teams so they could record every game and FedEx the tapes back to the league. "We had no library," Stern told VICE Sports. The league had located some old game films here and there, including ABC broadcasts from the 1960s and 70s, but they didn't have a central location to store any of it and had no real idea how much footage existed.

So the NBA started a concerted effort to track down old films and, in the meantime, made sure each team sent in tapes of the new games every night.

"We wanted to develop programming that could get us out there and we wanted to be able to do highlight shows and things that any normal sports league should do," Stern said. "It was really just trying to give the NBA the dignity that I thought it deserved."

At the time, NFL Films brought the glory of that league to fans through its own in-house voice of god, John Facenda. Major League Baseball featured broadcasting deity Mel Allen narrating This Week in Baseball's pitch-perfect highlights. To help the NBA catch up, Stern hired people like Paul Gilbert, Don Sperling, and Desser. Gilbert and Sperling had worked together at the fledgling CNN before arriving in New York; Desser left his position as head of broadcasting for the Lakers. All of them bought into Stern's vision, and all of them saw a need for a department dedicated to showing the league's players at their best.

During his time with the Lakers, Desser bemoaned the halftime shows that featured interviews with print reporters, including one scribe who had "a great face for radio."

"It was just bad TV." Desser recalled. "I would complain to David and say we should really do something different and create some programming that would be a lot better entertainment, better promotion for the league."

Stern gave NBA Entertainment workers "a lot of free rein," Sperling said, "but he reserved the right to bust your ass and tell you how you screwed up." And no matter who owned what title there, Gilbert said, "David was the real executive producer of anything that came out."

Stern stepped down as league commissioner in 2014, after 30 years in the role, but he still maintains an NBA office in Midtown New York. When I visited him there recently, he told me several times that he will never write a memoir. But if he did, he said, the title would be Episodic Micromanagement Is Underrated.

"I found that to be an effective way to manage," he said, "and also to demonstrate to people that what they were doing mattered, and that I cared about what they were doing."

In the early days, after the teams got the VCRs, the NBA focused on logging every tape. The recordings had running time and each logger would "take notes," Gilbert said. "Great bank shot by so and so. Great pass here. Some of them would send in three pages but some would send in five notes. When I got there, I said, 'This is what we're looking for. I need fan cutaways. I need great plays, I need bloopers.'" Using those reports, Gilbert and NBA Entertainment created one of the great commercial campaigns in sports.

THE NBA IS FANTASTIC (AND PRETTY GOOD)

Before becoming the first employee of NBA Entertainment in 1982, Gilbert had worked on Atlanta Hawks broadcasts for TBS, where he created a spot set to the Pointer Sisters song "I'm So Excited." Gilbert brought that concept along to the new job, and updated it. Viewers saw Julius Erving obliterating a defender with one of his patented dunks, but they mostly saw mascots like the unforgettable San Diego Chicken and the Phoenix Gorilla and the extremely forgettable Dancing Barry running around while players and fans celebrated and danced.

The commercial, and so many that followed, ended with veteran Portland play-by-play announcer Bill Schonely saying, "America's Game. It's Fan-tastic," a tagline Stern helped create. "I was becoming obsessed with the fact that America's pastime was baseball, America's passion was the NFL, but America's game was basketball," he said.

The Fantastic ads were NBA Entertainment's play to show America that the league's best athletes were more fun to watch than their counterparts in other sports. They utilized the newly installed isolation cameras underneath the basket—just watch how many clips from the 1980s feature a gorgeous play filmed from the baseline, including Jordan's cradle dunk in Madison Square Garden his rookie year—and slow motion to great effect.

"You could clearly see that these graceful giants were like artists or ballet dancers," Gilbert said. "In a sense it crystallized the NBA experience. The best of the best players, the best of the best fan cutaways, put to great music. In 30 or 60 seconds you got the NBA experience."

Famous Fantastic commercials included the songs "You Are So Beautiful" by Joe Cocker and "One on One" by Hall and Oates. Even today, whenever I hear Cocker's classic start up, I still associate it with Tom Chambers robbing Mark Jackson of his dignity and nearly ending the New York Knicks guard's life with a thunderous two-handed dunk. Unfair to Coach Mark, maybe, but it means the ad worked.

There was no social media to monitor back then, but the league office, which allowed teams to broadcast the spots on their local games as well, knew the ads popped. "First of all, the teams loved them. Their players are being highlighted. It's high-quality stuff. It's something to be proud of," Gilbert said. "Our broadcast partners loved them, the players loved them, and our office loved them. It was like, 'Yeah! That's our game!'"

Eventually celebrities wanted in on the fun. Everyone from Kirk and Michael Douglas to Bernadette Peters offered their take on the NBA. Gilbert hunted stars in the stands with the fervor and cunning of a contemporary paparazzo. In those days, he didn't go through agents or managers or bodyguards to talk with the stars. He just found them in the stands, usually courtside, and pointed a camera. Peter Falk was the first celeb to lend his face to the campaign, but dozens followed in Detective Columbo's shuffling footsteps. It became a status symbol of sorts. Again: it was working.

Not every celebrity listened to Gilbert's directorial notes for the spots, which the crew filmed during timeouts or halftime. Chevy Chase refused to say his scripted line (perhaps not surprisingly, considering his later reputation for being difficult on set). Instead he ad-libbed, "NBA action, it's not bad," which fit his persona and the blooperfied clips eventually were used in his commercial.

And yet the biggest A-List fan of them all eluded Gilbert. In a 2006 New York Times piece, Gilbert wrote how Jack Nicholson told him, "Sorry, I don't do TV."

"But the campaign won't be complete without you," Gilbert replied. Jack flashed the most famous smile in Hollywood and said, "I know."

THOSE CHAMPIONSHIP VIDEO FEELINGS

In 1981, the Celtics defeated Houston in six games to win the title. Brent Musburger narrated the championship video. Shot on film, it's an artifact of the pre-NBA Entertainment and might have frightened as many people as it entertained. Listen to the music at the 34:14 mark: it could either set the scene for Boston's arrival in Houston or foreshadow an isolated hotel caretaker's descent into murderous madness.

By 1983, when the Philadelphia 76ers stormed to their title behind Moses Malone, the championship video had evolved. NBA Entertainment's That Championship Feeling looked and sounded different: it wasn't shot on film, and the crypto-Bernard Herrmann soundtrack had been swapped out for a more populist approach. It worked.

"People couldn't get enough of the TV shows and championship videos," Sperling said. "People were making dubs and they were pirating them and selling them with each other. There was no YouTube, but people couldn't get enough of it."

Eventually the storytelling and writing changed, as well, with the result being an NBA-produced movie that I have spent 30 years analyzing with the attention to detail people usually reserve for films by Orson Welles or Abraham Zapruder.

Following the Lakers' victory over Boston in 1985, the league released Return to Glory. I bullied my parents into purchasing the tape, even though we didn't yet own a VCR; on weekends we occasionally rented a machine from a store in our town of 2,000. In addition to watching whatever movies my parents could come up with, ten-year-old me would throw in Return to Glory and replay it over and over and over again. I own the Return to Glory DVD today, and still watch the same scenes over and over. Few championship videos have ever been like Return to Glory, which was not just more beautiful but more ambitious—even to the point of blazingly purple aesthetics—than anything that had come before. I read off one inspired passage to both Stern and Sperling:

"Overhead, the championship banners of Russell, Cousy, and Havlicek recited a silent incantation, reminding the Lakers that no one takes away the title when it's played on the parquet. But with the championship within reach, Kareem and the Lakers turned a deaf ear on the Celtics' haunting refrain."

Both men chuckled and said it was, perhaps, a tad overwritten and a bit much for a title video. "We got carried away," Stern said, "but in a good way."

This was just basketball, after all, and had nothing to do with Roman gladiators or Greek gods. But no video deserved words like those more than one dedicated to the 1985 Finals. The Lakers defeated the Celtics for the first time in franchise history, and it remains the only time in 21 Finals appearances that Boston has watched another team celebrate a clinching victory on its home court. Or, as Dick Stockton narrated in Return to Glory, with the theme from The Right Stuff providing the soundtrack, "It was the greatest of the Lakers' nine NBA championships. For Wilt, Elgin, Jerry, and everyone who wore a purple-and-gold uniform, this was a fulfillment of a promise, and a return to glory."

Several years ago, I became online friends with a man who goes by the name nonplayerzealot; his real name is Chris, and he runs one of the great NBA-related YouTube channels. We have exchanged thousands of obsessive words about Return to Glory, honoring the phrasing and writing or nitpicking continuity errors, like the one scene involving Magic that was actually filmed during the 1984 playoffs.

I asked him why that movie and so many others from the era have stayed with us for decades. He wrote, "Those NBA Entertainment films were fodder for attracting young fans. It was a combination of limited access in those years for kids that liked and/or played basketball and the well-produced nature of those tapes, and the holy trinity of Bird/Magic/Jordan just happening to be of the time."

MICHAEL AND THE SUPERSTARS

By the end of the decade, all three members of the holy trinity remained in the league, but Jordan especially had turned into a global icon. In 1989, Sperling served as executive producer on Come Fly with Me, which chronicled a Jordan career that at the time did not yet include a single NBA Championship. It became the top-selling sports video of all time.

Other Jordan videos followed, including Playground, Air Time, and Above and Beyond. They featured the requisite highlights and a contemplative Jordan. It's easy to imagine a young Kobe Bryant, who has told Stern about his days growing up in Italy watching various NBA tapes, studying the movies for hints about fadeaways and inflection.

"He'd give you three days," Sperling said of Jordan, "so you had better make sure those three days are absolutely wall to wall and planned out and designed perfectly."

But even with those Jordan-centric movies, the league did not hand complete control of NBA Entertainment over to No. 23. "We designed a secondary plan because Nike, Gatorade, all the sponsors, and the networks were showing him 24/7," Sperling said. "So we didn't have to put as much focus on Michael. We could market other personalities because Jordan was never going to be out of the limelight."

NBA Entertainment released tribute videos like Magic Johnson: Always Showtime, Larry Bird: A Basketball Legend, and Sir Charles. The tape Rising Stars focused on young players like Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning. Fun ones included Awesome Endings and Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers, the last of which is still entertaining, and a reminder of how lame it is that seemingly every sports league has gotten too big and too serious for good blooper videos.

Perhaps most memorably, NBA Entertainment produced Superstars, a collection of music videos highlighting the exploits of the league's top players. The public didn't know it needed monstrous Dominique Wilkins dunks set to Yanni's soothing "Looking Glass" until the NBA delivered it. Again, it's the music mixed with the imagery that gets embedded in people's minds. When I asked Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard—another hoops junkie who came of age in that era—if he remembered any videos, he quickly mentioned Superstars and Bird's segment that included John Mellencamp's "Small Town," and Barkley's video set to Patty Smyth's "The Warrior."

In 1990, the NBA created Inside Stuff, a weekly 30-minute show that aired on NBC, who had secured broadcasting rights for the league. "It really was the first sports show that combined music, pop culture, and sports," Sperling said. "Everybody followed suit. MTV after that did MTV Sports. Inside Stuff was the model, the first of its kind."

Inside Stuff 's debut came only a decade after the NBA told its teams to become familiar with the workings of a VCR. It had been a dramatic transformation: just six years after those tape-delayed 1981 Finals between the Celtics and the Rockets drew a Nielsen rating of 6.7, the Lakers and the Celtics pulled a 15.9 for their Finals showdown; in 1992, the Dream Team won Olympic gold and usurped the Beatles as the most famous people in the world. The league's superstars and superteams grew the game's popularity, and NBA Entertainment was there to help bring the magic to the masses.

NBA Entertainment eventually cut back on its production as the league's broadcasting partners produced more videos, eliminating the need for so much in-house work. That trend has continued. And yet, even today, no sports league is more video-friendly than the NBA. That copyright openness transformed YouTube into a highlights paradise where fans young and old can watch clips of present stars and yesterday's legends. All of that traces back to those early days of NBA Entertainment and a bunch of VCRs, when the NBA learned what it was worth to put its highlights where people could see them.

Desser, Gilbert, and Sperling all left the NBA for other pursuits, but their memories of those years are vivid even decades later. "I love my job now and I love this place," said Sperling, who works for the New York Giants and has been with the team for two Super Bowl titles, "but those were my formative years. There's nothing that's ever going to replace those years."

Gilbert, who moved to the West Coast and got out of the sports business, echoed that sentiment: "To be around a sport that had been down, to be there when it started to all come together, it was a magical time."