“I’ve never felt more of a buzz around the team than right now,” the play-by-play man tells Boardroom. “And I’m there nearly 30 years, so that’s saying a lot.“
As the Brooklyn Nets begin their 2021-22 season Tuesday night, Ian Eagle can’t help but look back to Oct. 30, 2002.
At Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, the New Jersey Nets raised their Eastern Conference championship banner on opening night before their game against the Atlanta Hawks. It was also the first-ever regular season game on the new YES Network, the regional sports channel started by the New York Yankees.
Eagle had spent the previous eight campaigns doing Nets games on radio and on TV for SportsChannel and Fox Sports New York. But this felt different. The Nets were a legit title contender that season, and would eventually make it all the way to the Finals.
Jason Kidd was changing his narrative as someone who could put a team on his back and lead his team to wins. Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, and Kenyon Martin loved pushing the pace along with him. The Nets were fun. They were entertaining.
“It was a really good time to be associated with the Nets,” Eagle told Boardroom, “and for this fledgling new network to come around and provide a different platform for the team was a perfect marriage.”
The YES affiliation gave the franchise some cachet, and the product on the court during those first five years was certainly worthy.
“Somewhere along the line, it just felt like this is where the team was supposed to be,” Eagle said. “The lines blurred, and you just expected Nets basketball on YES.”
During the first part of the Nets on YES, Eagle got to have a front-row seat for Kidd in his prime, something he said he wouldn’t trade for anything.
“He became synonymous with the organization and the resurgence of the team was based on his ability to make everyone around him better,” Eagle said of Kidd. “And it made me a better broadcaster. You had to be on your toes at every moment.”
Eagle still remembers the 2004 playoffs, sweeping the Knicks in the first round, as a big YES on Nets highlight.
Then on Dec. 17, 2004, the Nets made a blockbuster trade with Toronto for Vince Carter, bringing a walking, breathing highlight reel that felt like basketball heaven for Eagle, who had to up his broadcasting game to do justice to all the gravity-defying moments.
“He could do something on the court that you had never seen before, that you had never described before,” Eagle said. “So it would test the boundaries of your creativity.”
Carter would knock down so many game-winning shots, seemingly having a knack for the dramatic. When he returned to Toronto on April 15, 2005, VC was booed every time he touched the ball, still making big plays down the stretch.
Another memorable game during that era? A Dec. 7, 2006 game against the Phoenix Suns in which Kidd, Carter and Jefferson dueled with Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Amar’e Stoudamire and Phoenix.
“One of the best regular season games I’ve ever called in my career,” Eagle said. “One of the highest level of play games, highest execution level that I’ve ever seen.”
The Suns won the game 161-157 in overtime, and even got its own oral history earlier this year.
After three playoff seasons with Carter, the Nets nosedived into five consecutive losing seasons in the lottery, taking New Jersey from the aughts into the 2010s. As a broadcaster, Eagle said he was challenged to keep games interesting the entertaining. And even during those lean years, he was very proud that YES kept putting out high-quality broadcasts.
“I learned a lot from that,” he said, “where the game is not going to do the job for you. You’re going to have to be better than the game.”
And then, the Nets made their big move.
Brooklyn became home starting with the 2011-12 season, complete with an all-new logo and team colors. The blue and red gave way to the bold B all done up in black and white, and the team opened up the billion-dollar Barclays Center in Prospect Heights. It was a jolt for the franchise and the network, Eagle said. Something new. Something fresh.
It was the era of Mikhail Prokhorov and bold trades for major names like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson. Their arrivals brought sky-high expectations, and though the Nets managed just one playoff series win with this core in place, there were a lot of memorable moments (and Johnson heroics) to show for it.
In particular, it was hard for Eagle to forget a special player like KG.
“Just being in his orbit for a season and change was eye-opening,” Eagle said of Garnett. “He’s one of a kind. His passion was real.”
After a few rebuilding years in Kings County, the Nets made the playoffs again with D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert before bringing in the Kevin Durant-James Harden-Kyrie Irving superstar trio that leads the current iteration of the team.
“I’ve never felt more of a buzz around the team than right now,” Eagle said. “And I’m there nearly 30 years, so that’s saying a lot. There’s a natural curiosity. Wherever my travels take me, I get asked questions about the Nets. That had not been the case through the majority of my years calling the games.”
Last season, Eagle said, the Nets produced some of the greatest highlights in his nearly three decades with the team and there were lately no fans to see them. Being able to call games played by this team in front fans both home and on the road is something Eagle is incredibly excited about.
“Part of being a broadcaster in the NBA throughout my career has been feeling the crowd and the crescendo of the moment. And that did not exist for a full season, and that just happened to be the best Nets team of all time,” Eagle continued. “So I’m really looking forward to that experience and being at Barclays Center and all the synapses fired at once. I could get excited for a highlight, but it could only go so far without a crowd behind you.”
And Eagle’s excellent work only goes so far as his broadcasting partners and teammates. His analyst partners over 20 years — Kelly Tripucka, Mark Jackson, Mike Fratello, Greg Anthony, Donny Marshall, Jim Spanarkel, Sarah Kustok, and Richard Jefferson — have become like family after calling so many games all over the country through thick and thin.
And those deep-rooted relationships have helped both Eagle and the network win numerous awards.
Eagle has won five consecutive New York Sports Emmy awards for best play-by-play announcer and six of the last eight heading into this year’s ceremony at the end of the month, per YES. The network won for season coverage for 2012-13 and 2017-18. Kustok became the first woman to win the analyst Emmy last year and is up for the honor again. Frank DiGraci, YES’ producer for the last 20 years and the winner of last year’s Live Sports Producer Emmy, is someone Eagle called the constant and heart and soul of the broadcasts.
It’s no coincidence that Eagle’s broadcast partners have all gone on to prominent national gigs, from Jackson and Jefferson at ESPN to Spanarkel, Kustok, and reporter Michael Grady at CBS and Fratello and Anthony at Turner. He’s made his partners around him better over the 20 years on the network — though he’d surely say they did the very same for him — and there are precisely zero no signs of the Nets’ voice slowing down any time soon.
“True friendships are formed,” Eagle said of his many broadcast partners. “And I do think that translates on the air. Viewers can tell when there’s a close bond between announcers and production people. It reveals itself.”