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New season, new setup for MSG and ESPN's Mike Breen

Mike Breen calls the 76ers-Celtics game at the

Mike Breen calls the 76ers-Celtics game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for ESPN on March 21, 2019. Credit: ESPN Images/Ben Solomon

The challenge of calling NBA games on television in COVID-19 times can be daunting. But it does have its fans.

Take Holly, Mike Breen’s golden retriever. On Dec. 13, the Lakers and Clippers played a preseason game in Los Angeles, while Breen called the game off a monitor in his basement in Manhasset.

That meant a halftime detour that he does not commonly take on work nights, coming upstairs for a visit, still wearing his suit. Holly was waiting for him, and soon was enjoying having her belly scratched.

So it goes in the dog days of 2020, and soon 2021, where "normal" remains somewhere on the horizon.

For Breen, that means starting a new NBA season with a Knicks-Pacers game on MSG Network on Wednesday, a Mavericks-Lakers game on ABC and ESPN on Friday, and a new way of doing his job.

How new? Until working a Knicks preseason game from MSG’s studios across from Madison Square Garden on Dec. 11 and then the ESPN game from home two days later, Breen never had called a live game off a monitor.

This caused some lost sleep the night before the first game, but both experiences went better than he expected, for which he credited the technical wizards behind making it all possible.

"They have a great setup," Breen said of MSG’s studios, from which he will work Knicks road games. "It’s this big, huge monitor, and they have technicians with audio that makes you feel like you’re in an arena as best as they possibly can.

"It’s clearly not as good as being there, but they’ve done a wonderful job setting it up . . . Once the game started, it was easy. The energy part was not a problem."

ESPN sent a technician to install a camera, monitor and audio box in his home for its remote telecasts.

"Now that was really weird to do," he said. "Again, anxious going in, but pleasantly surprised that you had the energy to call it."

ABC/ESPN will have announcers call some games off monitors and some on-site, including Breen’s Christmas night game at Staples Center.

Breen experienced a fan-free environment in the Orlando "bubble" last season, but this season’s hybrid plan is something different. At least you can’t beat the commute for the off-site games.

For that ESPN preseason game, he was off the air at 11 p.m. and in bed by 11:30.

"And I haven’t said any swear words walking through LaGuardia Airport yet," he said. "Normally, I’m dropping obscenities several times during an arrival or a departure."

Breen said he is pleased the NBA is returning so soon, the better to get back on something resembling a normal schedule. And he has confidence in the league’s pandemic protocols.

"I don’t have any anxiety about that," said Breen, 59. "I just think they did an extraordinary job in the bubble, and they’ve got really good people who know the best way to get this going forward."

Breen said he likes what he has seen from Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, calling him "the ultimate no-nonsense, no-excuses coach."

"His philosophy and his approach is exactly what the franchise needs right now," Breen said. "You can already see some of that. It’s hard to evaluate off preseason - in fact, it’s almost silly to evaluate off preseason – but you can tell there’s a difference right now in some of the players’ approach and that’s what really makes me optimistic.

"It’s not going to be an easy year. They’re going to lose a lot of games. But I think they’re going to win more games than people expect, and I think most importantly this team will reach its potential. What its potential is, nobody knows yet. But they will reach their potential, because he’ll have them as hard a working team as there is in the league."

Given the broad appeal of the new-look Nets, Breen inevitably will call some of their games nationally.

"They’ll be as exciting as any team in the league because those two guys, they’re special," he said of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. "There are a lot of really talented players in the league, but those two, their skill level on the offensive end, that’s as good a dynamic duo, offensively, as there is in the league. And that includes LeBron [James] and Anthony Davis.

"Either one of them can go for 40 on a given night and make it look easy. Obviously, they’ve got to get a little bit of chemistry, but they’re going to be really fun, and the thing is they’re not the only two. That’s a good team and it will be fascinating to watch [coach] Steve Nash in his first year.

"Steve Nash always was one of my favorite players, so I think they’re going to be high entertainment, and I don’t mean the postgame comments of Kyrie Irving. I mean the basketball."

Despite his national profile, Breen said he would like to continue doing Knicks games locally "for as long as they’ll have me. To me, it’s still an honor and it’s still a joy."

He said he loves working with analyst Walt Frazier and the entire MSG crew.

"Even with all the rough seasons we’ve had, there’s still something wonderful and special about it," he said. "I know the whole thing growing up as a Knick fan, that comes into play, but so much is the people around you, from the people I work with to the fans to even the employees of the Garden – the ushers and security people and concessions people. It’s like my second family."

Breen has called Knicks games on radio or TV for nearly three decades and has called the past 15 NBA Finals.

"It’s beyond my wildest dreams when I look at those numbers," he said. "I always feel like I sound too hokey or corny, but I do think I’m the luckiest man in our business, because I get to call Knicks basketball, my favorite team growing up as a kid. I get to call NBA Finals.

"And to think of how many years I’ve been able to do it, I’m blessed way more than I deserve, and it’s something that I appreciate every time I go on the air, and I mean that. Every time. It’s hard to believe.

"I keep looking around thinking, OK, are they going to figure out how there’s probably somebody better that they can get to do this? How come they haven’t figured that out yet? It’s crazy.

"I’m so grateful and thankful for so many people who are responsible for me doing this. So many people helped me along the way. That’s something I try and never forget, to always continue to thank the people who are responsible for this."

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