Ian Eagle and Mike Fratello have worked New Jersey Nets broadcasts together on the YES Network since 2008. They've established a dry comic rhythm over time, taking deadpan shots at one another and any number of other things during the million mind-numbing Nets games they've witnessed over the past five years. So when the two appear to have a tiff on the air, it's understandable that our immediate inclination would be to chalk it up to a wry, clever gag between colleagues who enjoy a laugh.
But when I watched the interplay between the Nets announcers during the fourth quarter of the Boston Celtics' 94-82 road win over the Nets on Saturday night — which you can above, thanks to our friends at the Yahoo! Sports Minute — I couldn't help thinking that if this is a joke, Eagle and Fratello must be the NBA's answer to Andy Kaufman and Jerry "The King" Lawler.
At issue — as always seems to be the case in times of quarrel — is an explanation of slip screens.
"Could I make one point?" Eagle asked as Nets guard Sundiata Gaines stepped to the free-throw line. "I just want to say that, earlier, you had a very patronizing tone toward me. I fully understand what a slip screen is; I've been doing the NBA for 18 years. But the way you presented it initially was gobbledygook. So, like the audience, I wanted you to come back and explain yourself. And you, then, just took a firing line on me, and it was uncalled for."
"I don't think so at all," Fratello answered with a laugh. "You are overly sensitive."
"I am not," Eagle replied.
"Did you have a bad day today?" Fratello asked.
"Second game of a back-to-back," Eagle said with a laugh.
"The ride back from Philly — did it, like, disturb you last night?" Fratello added.
"Well, that was two hours with you, which is probably the reason why I've had enough tonight," Eagle responded. "Time out."
Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing has some background on the eventual potential eruption as part of his detailed breakdown of the incident:
[Near the end of the third quarter] Greg Stiemsma fails to set a screen for Paul Pierce, leading to a travel on Pierce. The initial exchange between [Eagle] and [Fratello] is rather lengthy and lumbering, but there's nothing from Fratello that seems unintelligible, condescending, or patronizing here as Czar explains setting vs slipping a screen.
[...] we also caught this exchange midway through the 4th quarter following a segment highlighting Fratello's time with the Nets. [...] Again, the two seem to be joking... albeit very, very dryly. Eagle even says, "on a serious note, it's been great working alongside you. A lot of fun and I've learned a lot about slip cuts."
And then, in the game's closing minutes, the apparent on-air dust-up, which has me, Trey Kerby at TBJ, Michael McCarthy at USA Today and probably a lot of you all scratching our heads a bit and wondering if we just saw some capslock realtalk or a two-straight-men comedy bit gone awry.
For what it's worth, YES spokesman Eric Hanler told USA Today's McCarthy on Monday that the speculation was "much ado about nothing" and that the late-game back-and-forth "was all good-natured kidding." Then again, of course he is going to say that, because saying the other thing — "Yep, our play-by-play guy just went off the reservation and publicly lambasted a well-liked and respected color commentator with more than a decade of broadcast experience, nearly 30 years in the coaching game and 667 NBA wins" — doesn't carry the ring of sound crisis management. It would, however, have the benefit of carrying the ring of truth, which the statement they chose ... y'know ... doesn't.
Whether Eagle and Fratello are putting us on or putting one another off, I suspect that far more of us will be checking in on the Nets' Monday night matchup with the Miami Heat to see if the broadcasters offer any explanation (or any more fireworks) than we previously would have based on the game's own (relatively limited) merits.
Come to think of it, this really could be some Kaufman/Lawler stuff. Anything to nudge up that audience share when you're stuck on the backup network behind a Yankees game, right?