The voice of Mike Breen is just as much of a quintessential basketball sound as squeaky sneakers and swishes of the net. His work calling NBA games is timeless, as are his famous sayings that every basketball fan knows. The clutch shots that go “Bang!” and those that are “way off” add another element to NBA broadcasts.
Breen earned his stripes as an on-air basketball commentator by covering Marist men’s basketball games in the mid-to-late 1980s. The program’s brightest tenure overlapped almost perfectly with the start of one of the greatest sports media careers ever.
After Breen graduated from Fordham University, he joined the WEOK/WPDH radio stations in Poughkeepsie. His first job out of college was a general news position, not a sports one.
“It was all pretty much news. It wasn’t sports and I wanted to get in on the sports side,” he said. “Back then, Marist was the biggest sporting event in town and I would go to the games.”
He connected with Marist’s athletic director, Brian Colleary, and eventually was offered a job calling Marist games for the Colony Sports Network. His storied basketball commentating career features his work as a play-by-play announcer. But he got his start on the other side of the commentary, acting as the color analyst alongside Dean Darling, the long-time announcer of Army football and Marist basketball.
Breen recalls the great passion for basketball and Marist that Darling had, as well as his talent and his willingness to help.
“He just had a great way of knowing when to talk and knowing when to let the pictures tell the story,” Breen explained. “The other thing, too, was how to work in your partner. He would ask me questions or he would give me hand signals or nod to me. He had a great way of knowing how to build chemistry between the play-by-play and the color analyst.
“In radio, you have to paint the picture, so you’re talking all the time. You have to describe everything because the listener is unable to see the game. What I learned from Dean is that you have to pull back.”
The Red Foxes boasted numerous talents like Drafton Davis, Rudy Bourgarel, and Miroslav Pecarski. Rik Smits, the college’s greatest athlete ever, amazed Breen like no player had at that point in his career.
“I had never seen a player at that level up close and personal,” Breen said. He marveled at the Dunking Dutchman because he was “a player that was 7-foot-4 and was so skilled. He had such a beautiful jump shot for a big man, and he used his height so well.” When Smits first arrived in Poughkeepsie, Breen recalls, “he was very raw and he wasn’t really strong enough yet. He put the work in, and he developed…he was absolutely dominant.”
During Smits’ junior year, Breen told New York Post sports columnist Peter Vescey that Smits would become a lottery pick in the NBA. Breen was correct, as the Indiana Pacers selected Smits with the second overall pick in the 1988 draft. In a somewhat ironic twist of events, Breen and Smits would each find themselves on opposite sides of a heated, physical rivalry.
Smits and Reggie Miller would help the Pacers become one of the Eastern Conference’s top dogs. They frequently ran into the New York Knicks, whose games would be called by Breen starting in 1991. The Knicks made many enemies during the 1990s, but the Pacers were perhaps their most-despised foe.
In addition to seeing him as Indiana’s counterpart for New York’s Patrick Ewing, Breen saw him as a friend. The two future legends got acquainted at Marist as they planted the seeds for their storied careers. “He was such a good guy and always pleasant to everybody. He went from being the shy foreigner to being an NBA elite center”, Breen said. “I just was happy for him. I got a kick out of watching him.”
Thanks in large part to Smits, Marist’s men’s basketball team was a great, successful program. Though they weren’t among the very elite in college basketball, they could hold their own against the very best. Early in the 1985 season, the Red Foxes held their own with the eventual national champion, the Villanova Wildcats, at McCann. Marist led at halftime but ended up collecting a 56-51 loss in front of a sold-out home crowd.
Back then, selling out the stands was the norm. “It was fever pitch. It was the place to be,” Breen said of the McCann Center. “The town and the city loved the team. It was the big sports event night in and night out. It was a great, great atmosphere.”
Breen visited Marist in 2011 to speak with sports communication students along with sportswriter Ian O’Connor ’86 (then of ESPN, and now of the New York Post). He shared some advice to the students that springboarded him into the icon status basketball fans hold him to today.
Although Breen said that he doesn’t follow Marist too much anymore, he added that he still wants to come back up to McCann and catch a game. A homecoming for Breen to the place he started his career would truly bring the arena back to its glory days.
Edited by Andrew Hard and Jonathan Kinane
Photo from MSG Network