Sports Media

Buzz still has ears ringing

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / October 27, 2010

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LeBron James unwittingly coined a punch line for late-night talk-show hosts and smart alecks everywhere when he announced during a now-infamous one-hour special July 8 on ESPN, humbly titled “The Decision,’’ that he was “taking my talents to South Beach.’’

A little more than four months after he jilted Cleveland and completed the well-orchestrated plan to join fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat, James made his debut last night, albeit at TD Garden rather than anywhere near the warm sands of Miami.

Presumably, everyone with access to any form of media and an inkling of sports knowledge was aware of that. For it’s not an exaggeration to say last night’s matchup, an 88-80 Celtics victory, was an event unlike any other in NBA regular-season history. The size of the media horde was unprecedented, with the Celtics issuing 500 press credentials. Longtime Celtics observers said it had the vibe of an NBA Finals game.

“You’d look around at this crowd and all the reporters,’’ Tommy Heinsohn said, “and you’d think a Game 7 was going on here tonight. If I’ve ever seen anything like this, I sure don’t remember it.’’

The game aired on TNT as part of a season-opening doubleheader, and the ratings assuredly will generate some pats on the back at the network’s Atlanta offices once Nielsen makes them available today.

The massive audience will justify whatever you choose to call it: buzz, overkill, or simply the anticipation of an intriguing sporting event. And that seemed to be the consensus among those covering it.

“Someone said to me today, and I thought it was hyperbole at the time but I guess it’s not,’’ said ESPN’s Wendi Nix. “It’s the most anticipated regular-season game in the history of the NBA. Not just a season opener, but in the history of the league.

“The Celtics, of course, are used to anticipation to a pretty major degree the last couple of years. And so is LeBron. But I’ve yet to hear from anyone who has ever seen the buildup to a regular-season game like the buildup to this one.’’

ESPN has been at the forefront of the Heat hype, raising eyebrows and upping the ante by hiring four reporters and other staffers for the “Heat Index,’’ a segment of dedicated solely to the Heat.

The buildup hit its crescendo in the days and hours before the game.

On Monday, FoxSports announced it was dedicating a section of its website solely to coverage of the Heat and Lakers, similar to ESPN’s “Heat Index.’’ A new Nike ad, running a minute and a half and serving as a compelling but transparent attempt at image repair for James, went viral Monday afternoon.

WEEI, which holds the Celtics’ radio rights, touted last night’s opener throughout the day as “the game the whole planet will be tuned to.’’

That practically qualified as an understatement.

“In all the years I played and all the years I loved the game growing up, I don’t remember anything like this, definitely not an opening night,’’ said Jon Barry, who played 14 years in the NBA and is now a studio analyst for ESPN. “I mean, what could compare to this?

“It was a big deal a couple of years ago [before the 2007-08 season] when the Celtics united Ray [Allen] with KG [Kevin Garnett] with Paul Pierce here. They were on the cover of pretty much every basketball magazine you saw on the newsstand. But that was nothing like this. Nothing like it.’’

“It’s the curiosity of what this product is going to look like, since LeBron chose the Heat. He’s one of the biggest sports stars in the world, he made a choice that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and now he’s on what for now is at least perceived to be a super team,’’ Barry said. “How often do you see arguably the top player in the NBA joining one of the top three players in the NBA? That never happens.’’

Jack Ramsay, in the building as part of ESPN Radio’s broadcast team, has been around the NBA since 1968 and coached Bill Walton and the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA title. You bet he’s seen some things in this league.

“But I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Ramsay. “There were so many circumstances that built up the anticipation of this game, and it’s not just those three guys joining forces. Don’t forget, the Celtics have star power of their own, and they’ve added more with Shaq. I can’t say the coverage makes sense, but I understand why it’s happening.’’

The hour at which it began happening was a bit much, however. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols filed her first report nearly seven hours before game time, and Barry said he did his first hourly live cut-in at 2 p.m., despite not having much of an audience at the Garden.

“I kept telling my boss the building was still empty, nothing had changed,’’ Barry said. “He kept telling me that didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t be empty tonight. Couldn’t argue with that.’’

Ultimately, though, it was but one game of 82 on the regular-season schedule. The buzz will follow LeBron as the Miami circus moves along to Philadelphia, where the Heat play the Sixers tonight.

The Celtics go to Cleveland to visit the franchise LeBron jilted.

The hype for their second game of the season is, oh, just a bit less. The ratings and page views will be smaller, too.

“This will very quickly disappear in the rear-view mirror,’’ said Celtics television play-by-play voice Mike Gorman. “But for three hours tonight, we finally get to see what everyone was talking about.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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