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The return of Richard Jefferson and the continuing rise of YES

It seems that every year YES Network’s basketball coverage makes another leap. Last season, Sarah Kustok became YES’ primary Brooklyn Nets game analyst, breaking a glass ceiling for women in TV sports … and getting rave reviews for her work.

This year already, there’s a new face in front of the cameras getting attention. Richard Jefferson has joined the team primarily as a game analyst, making what looks to be an easy transition from 17 years on the court —the first seven in New Jersey— to the booth and studio.

It’s not as if YES needed dramatic upgrades. With Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel, Ryan Ruocco and the now departed Mike Fratello, the team has long been seen as the league’s best despite the Nets poor record on the court (and the lowest local TV ratings in the NBA four years running.)

But pride is pride and Kustok and Jefferson just enhance the rep.

As R.J. told Tom Dowd of the Nets, “When you step on the court you’re going to be a point or two better just because you’re on their team.”

Jefferson, who’d contemplated retirement before finally turning in his sneakers this year, wanted a career in broadcasting but wasn’t sure just how he’d go about it. Frank DiGraci, the YES producer, knew.

“I’ve been doing little different things” said Jefferson. “I’ve done podcasts. I’ve done some radio stuff. But I’d never called a game before, and when the Nets signed me I really thought I’d be in studio more than games, and Frank had a different idea.”

YES and DiGraci decided to throw Jefferson into the fire, putting him behind the mic in game situations. He’ll so 25 games this season between the booth and studio, 21 of them sitting next to Eagle or Ruocco. Working with Eagle, who he knew from his playing days with the Nets, gave him the confidence to do the job.

“He’s one of the best in the business, so that’s kind of like playing with Magic Johnson or LeBron James,” said Jefferson, who might have added Jason Kidd to that list.

Kidd, of course, introduced R.J. to the game as much as Eagle is to broadcasting. “I knew how special of a player he was,” said Jefferson of Kidd. “He’s a player, for my skill set, it’s a dream to go play with.”

Jefferson’s debut in the booth, in the Nets blowout of the Cavs, was a tour du force. And just as Kidd would toss R.J. some easy-to-handle balls, Eagle did the same. When Eagle mentioned during the Cavs game, Jefferson’s debut, that the Nets were playing the Knicks next, R.J. recalled with glee what it was like to play the New Yorkers during the Kidd era.

“Do you understand what we used to do to the Knicks back in the day?,” he said. “We used to destroy them and then destroy their city after the game.”

Ka-boom.

“He threw me a lob” Jefferson told Dowd, speaking of Eagle, “and I decided to catch it and do something people didn’t expect.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the essence of live, unscripted television.

Then, during the Knicks game, he reacted with what could become a signature call after a Jarrett Allen dunk.

And so the fit is quite nice quite early, a credit to the whole YES team, Eagle, DiGraci (and Chris Shearn who was masterful in letting R.J. be R.J. during his first studio tour.)

What’s next for YES? It may not be as big a deal as introducing Kustok or Jefferson, but YES will televise eight Long Island Nets games starting a week from Thursday when Long Island faces Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards affiliate.

DiGraci has assemble an interesting team for that experiment. Kevin Dexter, who has called Long Island games the last two seasons on YouTube, will handle play-by-play; Tim Capstraw and former Net (and Newark native) Randy Foye will do analysis and Gina Antoniello, who has done work with ESPN and is part of the Long Island P.R. team, will be the courtside reporter.

Will it work? Can’t imagine it won’t.

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