First of two articles
When Jim Petersen started doing color commentary on Minnesota Timberwolves broadcasts, he seemed like a pleasant presence who was pretty knowledgeable about game. Today, in his 15th year, “Jim Pete” may well be the best local color guy in the NBA for the die-hard hoops fan.
There are two reasons why I offer that praise with confidence.
First, about four years ago, I started covering all 30 NBA teams for SI.com, and spent the last two of those years compiling a “Power Rankings” column in which I needed to come up with original, detailed knowledge about every team on a weekly basis. That required a fairly non-stop diet of viewing local broadcasts of each team via the League Pass subscription service the NBA offers. I have seen Petersen’s competition up close and personal. Some, such as the Knicks’ erudite color commentator Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, are fabulous in what they do. Others, not so much.
Second, for dogged fans of pro basketball who are both well-versed and yet still thirsty for knowledge about the strategies and inner workings of the game, it is clear that Petersen keeps getting better. Where some other announcers might venture into the realm of “screens,” “back cuts,” or the “weak side” of the court, Petersen takes it further. He identifies types of screens, explains why the back-cut did or didn’t work, and assumes you know weak and strong sides so he can use that time to unpack strategy, or, more than almost any of his peers, to call out his own team when they are playing poorly.
In a cheerleading realm where merely not insulting the intelligence of your viewers is considered noteworthy, Petersen is elevating our knowledge about what we watch. In today’s first part of what was an 80-minute phone interview, he explains how and why he developed that style.
MinnPost: How long have you been announcing hoops now?
Jim Petersen: This is my 15th year — I can’t believe it.
MP: How’d you get into it?
JP: To make a long story short, basically when I moved back from New York City after living there for a year, I was strong-armed into coaching a seventh-grade B team at Hopkins High School. On that team was the nephew of Bob Stein [the original President and CEO of the Wolves] and after I was asked to do it, Bob Stein called me up and said he appreciated that I was able to help out. And that year was a great experience. [Former Wolves coach] Flip Saunders’ son Ryan was in seventh grade. [Former Wolves coach] Randy Wittman’s son was in seventh grade. And [former Wolves coach and President] Kevin McHale had a kid in seventh grade.
So when I was coaching, I would see these guys, and reconnect with them. And when the radio color commentator job opened up, Flip Saunders made the suggestion to the Timberwolves that, hey, I was back in town and that I’d be good for the job.
So they called me and said we have this color commentating job and would you be interested? I said, “Sure,” and I came down and did a demo and I started with Chad Hartman back in that lockout season; that was my first year.
Working with those kids at Hopkins, I always tell players now, I wish I had coached when I was a player, even an AAU team or something. I learned so much more about the game from coaching it, breaking it down and thinking about, ‘How did I do that? When I caught the ball, what kind of footwork did I use? What was I thinking?’ Because that is the classic saying, right? To learn something, you’ve got to teach it. That was a very eye-opening experience for me.
MP: I’ve heard from other people that you’ve said being the assistant coach for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA has made a huge difference in your announcing ability. I don’t know if it was that you learned more or that you became more comfortable with the lexicon of brevity, but I think your announcing chops have gone up exponentially in terms of explaining things, at least to me, as someone who already loves the game.
JP: Yeah, it is that I have watched so many hours of videotape now, breaking down the game, trying to figure out what opponents do. I’m kind of a perfectionist when it comes to my scout, and I work for a great coach in Cheryl Reeve who has a great basketball mind. When it comes time for me to present a scout to her, about what a team does and how we’re going to defend them, she doesn’t leave any stone unturned, and the relevant questions she asks have really helped me from that standpoint.
On the defensive side, she wants to know all the different actions, what they are trying to get out of each play, so I target all the actions for her. On the other side of the ball, she wants to know how they guard pin-downs, how they guard staggers, how they guard post-ups. Do they play behind? Do they double? All that stuff. And you know, I have always known that and known when you can see it, but to really run an inspection of what are they doing: How do they guard pick-and-rolls, how do they guard them on the wing, how do they guard different personnel? How do they guard drag from the middle of the floor? How do they defend back picks — do they switch? And just being able to see all that stuff is so helpful. Because then you can make adjustments.
To me, making adjustments in coaching — recognizing what is going on and then adjusting to it during the game — I think is the hardest thing in coaching. Because there are a lot of guys who can sit there and watch video and tell you what happened after the fact. Or after watching video five games in a row of a team you are going to play, it is easy to say, within the parameters of possibility, what’s probably going to happen. But in-game, at floor level, as the stuff is happening, it is a different game, I’m telling you. It is a more difficult thing to do.
Or sitting there at timeouts. When we announcers are sitting there during timeouts, we’re saying, ‘Well, obviously this guy needs to be in the game or do this on the court.’ But to be able to tell guys what to do during the timeout, you have to be thinking about that before the timeout.
You need to be helping the players. Cheryl is really into saying, ‘I gotta help them. They are struggling.’ Or, ‘We’ve got to help them.’ When I hear NBA players complaining about coaches, a lot of times it is about there not being a lot of help for them during in-game situations when they are struggling. And to me, that is one of the things Rick Adelman does well — he is able to help players.
When I played for Nelly, he was an in-game adjustment genius. I learned a bunch from Don Nelson, I learned a bunch from Bill Fitch — these guys who had been around the game for a long time and saw it in a three-dimensional, whole different kind of way. They were able to make adjustments in-game that worked. And Nelly — I heard Chris Mullen say this when Nelly was inducted into the Hall of Fame, that Don Nelson could win a game by himself with his decision-making. And that was really true. Nelly could make a decision or an adjustment in deciding to go with a particular matchup, change the action you were running and who was in it and give you an advantage in that matchup. That’s basketball.
MP: If you had the knowledge of the game you have today and the skill set you had in your prime, how would you be a different basketball player?
JP: I would work on ball-handling a lot more. I would have learned how to dribble as a 6-10 guy. The game was so different back then. When I first came into the league, there were 23 teams and nobody shot threes. You go back and look at Larry Bird’s statistics and numbers. In 1981, Larry attempted 74 threes; in 1982, he attempted 52 threes. I would have worked on my perimeter game more. I was really fortunate that I came into the league with Hakeem Olajuwon. There are so many players now going to Hakeem to learn his footwork and get some understanding about how he played the game. I got that in ’84. I attended the “Hakeem post camp” in 1984. And I spent a whole year, Dream and I — without him I don’t think I would have been able to play as long as I did.
But the way guys play now, I would have worked on my ball-handling more and put the ball more on the deck. Being able to dribble is such a huge thing for bigs now. I wish I would have studied the game plan more strategically. You know, the tools that players have now at their disposal in terms of video breakdown, you can really hone in on what a guy’s tendencies are. We could only watch videotape and we couldn’t watch and break down systems.
MP: They didn’t have a play-organizing video sort like Synergy back then.
JP: No they didn’t. And these players now, they have the ability to log on to Synergy themselves and really hone in on what a guy does. I can’t tell you what a huge advantage it would be if I knew that on a right-box post-up, the guy is going to turn right shoulder 70 percent of the time. That’s a huge thing.
MP: Because of this explosion of information and your coaching experience, you really have stepped it up in terms of the quality of information you provide viewers. I love it, but I watch and study about hoops quite a bit. So my question is, do you ever worry and think about that line between educating fans and overwhelming them?
JP: That’s where blog sites have really helped me. In the beginning, I think that you helped me a ton because of the way you wrote at City Pages. In the Tribune, the game story was pretty much just what happened, ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ type of thing. But when you started to write about strategy and with some complexity, it let me know — it was also more your fan responses to your pieces. The comments you got let me know that it was OK to not dumb it down. People were actually thirsting for more complexity and analysis.
MP: I agree. I was always pleasantly flabbergasted by how detailed and knowledgeable the comments were.
JP: And you and I both have a deep respect for [Wolves statistician and advanced numbers guy] Paul Swanson. I’ve known Swanny since I first started and he has really impacted me and we started talking about advanced stats. One of the first stats that I remember being impacted by as an announcer — this was probably in 2000, or at least early on in my tenure — was that per-game stats don’t mean anything. And one of those stats that didn’t matter on a per-game basis was rebounding. Swanny helped talk to me about measuring the percentage of the rebounds the player is getting. I didn’t think about that as a player. I just looked at it as rebounding numbers and never thought about if a team played fast or played slow and how that impacts the number of shots that go up and that players on a team that plays fast might get more rebounds but that other players [who don’t get as many rebounds because they play slower but get a higher percentage] might be better. And I thought, ‘OK, I see that maybe that per-game thing doesn’t mean that much and I’ve got to look at it a little differently.
So then you figure what people might know. For example, now efficiency — which is how many points per 100 possessions — is becoming more in the lexicon. That is more about the line you are talking about. I don’t know yet if I can talk about this efficiency and the idea of points per 100 possessions. I can’t if they don’t mean anything to the average fan out there at home. I am always struggling with that line, and trying to explain it, and in the time frame I get to talk. It is a difficult area; I try to do it, I try to throw it out there.
It helps that there are all these different websites out there. I don’t know if Minnesota fans know how lucky they are with the level of basketball coverage that there is. I am a big fan of Punch Drunk Wolves. I am a big fan of Canis Hoopus. I am a big fan of A Wolf Among Wolves. Those guys are all real smart guys who get it. Canis was the first blog site with Tim Allen and Nate. They were the first ones to bring fan-based, high-level basketball understanding to the Internet in a sense. And now Zach Harper and Ben Polk and Steve McPherson are writing articles, and I’ve been meaning to say something on the air about those guys. Because while you’re pretty well known now, I don’t know if enough people are reading those other articles that are gems. And the way I know they aren’t reading them is that there aren’t a lot of fan comments. Which is a shame because I think there is some work being done that is quality analysis.
MP: As writers, it is hard for us to figure out how much context we need to put in the story to get readers acquainted with what we’re saying. You are a little bit fortunate in that way because people are watching the game with you so the context is there for everyone to see. But you still are trying to set things up for people. Against Portland the other night, you pointed out that because Meyers Leonard of Portland turned down a good shot at the basket, the team was forced to scramble and consequently turned the ball over soon after. That level of commentating rarely occurs with as much depth and frequency on the local stations of other teams.
JP: Well, I appreciate that, but I think I am in a unique situation in that way, because nobody tells me what to say. I’m probably more critical of my own team than a lot of other broadcasters. I have to walk that line. But the other part of it is, I have to fly with the players, too, and I don’t want to completely alienate them. I understand and remember what it was like as a player to be criticized unfairly. I try not to be unfair but I also — I don’t want to be friends with them, but I’ve got to be able to work with them. I have to get information from them and I have to get information from the coaches and I want the coaches to be able to feel they can trust me.
So I have always felt that if I’m critical of our team, it is obvious to everybody what needs to be said. On League Pass, analysts will cover up for stuff and I hear it and say, ‘That’s bullshit,’ you know? And people accuse me of doing that all the time. I laugh at that because I think I am one of the more critical analysts of any team broadcasts that there is. I feel like if I’m honest, to the degree that I can be, then when I say something good about somebody that people will be more likely to believe it because I haven’t filled them with a bunch of b.s. It is the Simon Cowell concept that if you are always throwing out pleasantries than they don’t mean anything after awhile.
Every year we go to New York and have a broadcasters camp where we would meet with the officials and they would give us points of emphasis. It was nerve-wracking because they gave us a 30-question test and we had 15 or 20 minutes to complete it. But the other part of it was they’d always have some national guy come talk to us. One year it was Doug Collins. I had to go to some of the league people and say, ‘You know what would help me more is to have a team-level broadcaster speak. Doug Collins comes in and does the best game every Thursday. He explores the best matchups of the best games and after that game, he gets to eject himself from that environment and go on to the next-best game the next week. I want Doug Collins to tell me what to say — and this is when we were mired in all this garbage that was going on here with the Timberwolves — I want Doug Collins to tell me what to say when we’ve lost seven in a row. What do you say then? What do you say about your team, about your coaches, about how they are playing, what do you tell the fans? To me, that would be way more helpful and that’s why it is harder what we do at the local team level. At the national level, there are so many more resources and you can be way more honest and you don’t have to be worried about coaching and player dynamics at all. We’ve got to walk this fine line as team partners, and I’m doing that every single broadcast.
Wednesday: Petersen analyzes his play-by-play partners and the biggest surprises and disappointments on the Wolves roster thus far this season.