The Immortal Life of John Tesh's NBA Anthem "Roundball Rock"
The goofy, glorious, extremely 90s NBA anthem hasn't appeared on television in 15 years, and yet it has also never left.
Photo by Randy Licht / Borel Photography
There's cowbell in "Roundball Rock," which I'd never noticed. You can hear it thonking along metronomically under the hyperactive arpeggiating strings and swelling synthesizers. The version I listened to is just one minute and nine seconds long, and I had come to believe that I knew every bright corner of it. This is not because I have spent much time listening to the song on purpose, because I have not. It's because I have never had to seek it out.
Whenever there was a NBA game on NBC between 1991 and 2002, some edit of "Roundball Rock" was played before the game and at the half and wherever else it would fit; in all, it was played more than 12,000 times during the 12-year period in which it was NBC's NBA theme song, which breaks down to something like 20 times per game. It became so ubiquitous during this period that it is easy to forget that "Roundball Rock" is no longer the NBA's theme song, and in fact has not been since George W. Bush's first term in office.
When the rights to broadcast NBA games transferred to ABC before the 2002-03 season, John Tesh—the leonine New Age music composer and former Entertainment Tonight host who wrote the song—offered "Roundball Rock" to the network. They declined, and replaced it with a song called "Fast Break," which was composed by Non-Stop Music; the official YouTube upload of that song, from 2012, has been viewed more than 114,000 times, which is pretty impressive given how easy it is to hear it during basketball season. It is also not in the same universe as its predecessor.
There is a video of Tesh performing "Roundball Rock" in concert that was uploaded four years earlier, by Tesh's official account. The only word to describe this version of the song is "extravagant." Pacing the stage before a rapt crowd, Tesh pushes play on the first of two answering machine messages that he left for himself in July of 1990, when he was in the French city of Pau covering the Tour de France. The first message he left was "Roundball Rock"'s chorus, as Tesh told ESPN's Darren Rovell in 2002. In a second message, 30 minutes later, he scatted the verse.
In the video, Tesh is towering and lushly goateed and wears a glittering silver vest with seven buttons on it; he introduces the performance of the song by miming dribbling a basketball. A large corps of musicians, including a full string section, launch into an expansive version of the original; it features both a guitar solo, complete with Surprised At How Hot These Licks Are faces from the soloist, and some violin filigrees courtesy of a gamboling fiddler in an epaulet-adorned Napoleon-style coat. When I watched the video of this performance earlier this week, it was the 1,435,747th time someone pressed play on it.
Tesh's website mentions that he "claims that he made in the six figures from royalties each year it was used." It further mentions that Nelly sampled the song for "Heart Of A Champion," the first song on the Sweat half of Nelly's 2004 double album Sweat/Suit; because Tesh owns the song's copyright and publishing, he presumably made some money on that, too. (It does not mention that it has also been sampled by Ras Kass for a song called "NBA" or been subjected to three-and-a-half minute onslaught of NBA-related punchlines by Joe Budden.) Tesh has made the song available as a free download, and that 69-second version is the one that Tesh recorded on spec and sent to NBC executives. He paid an orchestra $15,000 to record it, sent the demo to NBC under an assumed name, and worked out a deal with the network that paid him a fee every single time the song was used. "Every five seconds—into commercials, out of commercials," Tesh told the Wall Street Journal's Jason Gay in 2011. "It definitely put one of my kids through college." Tesh told Rovell back in 2002 that he had offered the song to ABC for use on its broadcasts. "I'm also perfectly happy to sell it to the NBA if they want it," Tesh said.
None of that happened, which means that 15 years after it was last played during a NBA broadcast, the only place you can hear "Roundball Rock" is everywhere—in your head whenever you watch a NBA broadcast, echoing around the online spaces where basketball weirdos gather, in the collective memory of a generation that grew up associating the song with the experience of watching basketball on television. When I looked up the jazzy latin alternate version of the current ABC/ESPN theme, I had the strange experience of realizing that, despite having heard that rendition what now must be hundreds of times during NBA broadcasts, I had also somehow never heard it before. Every time I had heard it, something in my brain took it upon itself to remedy what it perceived as an oversight, and so simply plugged in "Roundball Rock." Tesh's song is vexingly catchy with marimba and horns, too, if you were wondering. Maybe you've heard it, too.
John Tesh sent me a link to a video and asked me not to share it. I can describe it, and so can tell you that it opens with a classic YouTube establishing shot: pallid indoor lighting, anonymous suburban paint job, a bespectacled man in a black-and-white windbreaker seated at a Yamaha piano. The man tears into the beginning of "Roundball Rock" and then gives way to another recognizable YouTube shot—wood floors, larger piano and better light, a man with a duckling's fluffy quiff—and then another keyboard, and then another. Then two bearded guys play it on electric guitars and a man in plaid shorts picks it up from there on a ukelele, and so on and on. Someone with an acoustic guitar explains how to play the song, to camera, as a graphic with the corresponding tabs appear behind him in a homemade graphic. That last one is Tesh's favorite part.
When he performs live, which Tesh still does 25 to 30 times per year at venues tending towards your larger casino-based performance spaces, he projects that video as a sort of introduction. "I wanted to do kind of a Storytellers thing, sort of inside the music, and I said let's bring projection with us, because we have a team of editors," he told me. "So I said 'why don't you search YouTube, just search for the song' and it turns out there's hundreds of people learning to play the song. I was ... this is crazy." At his shows, Tesh generally uses "Roundball Rock" as an encore. "When we play the song, at the end of our concerts, that's when the guys in the audience that have been dragged to a John Tesh concert by their wives or girlfriends, they're like 'holy crap, you did this?'" he said. "That's really fun for me."
If you know what Tesh looks like, it is probably either because of the decade he spent hosting Entertainment Tonight between 1986 and 1996 or because of his still-ubiquitous Live From Red Rocks PBS special, from 1995; the accompanying album, in which Tesh performs with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, went platinum several times over. His career sprawls across decades before and after that, and continues still—he presides over a rather startlingly vast multi-platform empire today, which includes a daily radio show that's on 300 stations in the United States and Canada, a weekly television show that's on 174 stations, and a podcast that he does with his wife and her adult son from a previous marriage. He is still making records and generally doing more or less what he wants. Everything except the albums comes from a studio that he built into his home. "We gave up on Los Angeles traffic," he told me. "And we got 15 hours of our lives back. We just took all that gas money and put it into building a studio."
All of which is to say that Tesh has had a fantastically successful career—a happy marriage and kids and grandkids, a successful run as a journalist and a lucrative stint as a host on Entertainment Tonight and millions of records sold as a New Age recording artist, which was always what mattered most to him. All of which is true, and all of which cannot be said without mentioning that Tesh has also spent much of his public life as a big, earnest, good-looking guy learning how to live with being a punchline. His albums have been hugely popular, but his records are filed under the most readily mocked musical genre that exists; he is as recognizable as anyone in American life, but it's at least in part because he used to tell millions of Entertainment Tonight viewers that it was Dabney Coleman's birthday, whenever it was Dabney Coleman's birthday.
Tesh, at least as far as I could tell, is extremely cool with all this, and with the strange but habitable shape into which his fame has shaped his life. "Triumph [The Insult Comic Dog] came to my house, or my quote-unquote house, in Los Angeles, in one of those TMZ-style tour buses," Tesh told me. "And he's yelling, with a megaphone of course, out of the bus. And I peek my head out of the house and he goes, ' Teshy, Teshy, come out, come out.' And I say 'Triumph what do you want?' and he says 'I want you to stop playing that crappy music.' And then I got on the tour bus and he started humping everybody and it was very uncomfortable." The important things to know about how Tesh told this story is that his Triumph imitation was both extremely enthusiastic and pretty on-point, and that he laughed a big happy basso laugh at the end of it.
All of this is strange, but also this is Tesh's life: he has been successful and become famous in every field he ever endeavored to enter, and yet he is still someone Triumph does not hesitate to poop on. The strangest part of this supremely strange and strangely familiar Real Hollywood Story is that "Roundball Rock," which is almost certainly Tesh's most lasting contribution to the broader culture, is one that's not generally associated with him. It couldn't be any other way. Even people lucky and talented enough to get what they want in life never quite get it the way they imagine. No one ever gets in through the front door.
When Tesh came up with the founding theme for "Roundball Rock" he was spending most of his day in a van filled with synthesizers as an employee of CBS Sports. "I worked in local news for many years, in Orlando and Nashville and then in Manhattan at WCBS as a local news reporter," Tesh told me. "And then I got hired as what's called an anthology sports reporter—none of the basketball or baseball, but the downhill skiing and the figure skating and Mr. Universe. And I was assigned to the Tour de France and that's where the producer, David Michaels, who's Al Michaels' brother, he said 'let's do this MTV style.'"
What that meant, for Tesh, was more work. He would be not only writing about what happened on the Tour that day, but composing a soundtrack for the footage illustrating it; Michaels edited that footage, and then Tesh wrote and read his own narration over a musical score he composed more or less on the fly. "It was a truly collaborative process, but what happens with editing video like that—and you can see anybody like Hans Zimmer doing this, too, and doing a much better job of it—but you can't just write a song," Tesh told me. "It's odd time signatures, and it's more like colors than anything else. Deep Moog synthesizers when people are climbing up a mountain and really high-speed arpeggiators when they're descending at 60, 70 miles an hour. So what I would do, for two months before we'd even go to the Tour de France, I would write out little canvas pieces, 'I know I'm going to need this, I know I'm going to need that,' but I wouldn't set the tempos. I wouldn't commit it to anything except being in the computer. So then when I saw that, I could pull that out and adjust it so it would fit."
This was more or less the approach that Tesh took to composing a theme for the NBA on NBC. He had some ideas, which he sang into his answering machine from a hotel room in the small hours of the morning, and by now you know what those sound like. He knew, he says, because he was plugged into the broader sports media scene, that NBC was looking for a theme. He knew enough to not just record the theme but also to sync it to video. "In order for the guys at the network to buy in, you can't have them imagine it," he said. "So I edited together on VHS tape like 20 fast breaks, from the Bulls and the Lakers. And I would play the theme that I had, the rough theme, over that footage. Just to see, you know, how it worked. When I sent it to NBC, I sent them a copy of the VHS and also a copy of the mixed song, so they could see it with video. You want to remove any chance for imagination or work from people who are judging that kind of stuff. So I made sure it was the right tempo, so they didn't have to imagine it was 134 beats per minute, which is the tempo of a Michael Jordan fast break—I put it at that tempo. And then I re-edited the footage so it looked like it was already in the show."
Tesh also knew enough to submit the theme under an assumed name, because he already understood the gap between what he wanted to do and how he was perceived: "The guy that reads the celebrity birthdays on television isn't going to be writing our sports themes, you know? It ended up getting judged on its own merits, but definitely being a TV host stood in my way." What Tesh calls "renaissance-ing" was still anomalous in the business at that time, but also he was already figuring out how to be serious about his work even when precious few took him seriously in the way he wanted to be taken seriously.
No one has quite cracked the musicological science behind earworms, which is reassuring given how many steel-trap minds and proprietary algorithms have doubtless been loosed in pursuit of this answer. There was a CBS theme for NBA broadcasts that existed before Tesh's, and there is the Non-Stop Music theme that has now outlived his. In 2010, the classical conductor Marc Williams told ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz that he much preferred the old CBS theme to Tesh's, which he described as "'90s music with adrenaline," but ultimately "a one-trick pony."
I am not qualified to say whether Williams is right or wrong about any of this, although as I have already admitted the extent to which "Roundball Rock" has homesteaded my unconscious, I would probably have to recuse myself even if I were. Tesh told me that when he offered the song to ABC, he was told that the network wanted to go its own way, to avoid reminding viewers of NBC. "Which I actually get, you know," he said. "But it's really not like the rest of the world works. Otherwise, why would people buy songs and put them in commercials, you know? You want to use the most recognizable theme, so people hear it and are like, 'oh, basketball is on.'"
A decade and a half after it was last heard on television, "Roundball Rock" still rings out in that way for several generations of basketball fans. Whether it deserves that, or how it came to earn it, is secondary to the fact of it. In a 2013 Saturday Night Live sketch—a discrete bit of it shows up in Tesh's Storytellers reel—Jason Sudeikis and Tim Robinson play John and Dave Tesh, and perform a version of the song with lyrics that are, mostly, "ba-ba-ba-bas-ket-ball/gimme-gimme-gimme the ball/because I'm gonna dunk it!" It's a funny bit, but it's funnier when you remember that, when it aired, it had been 11 years since anyone had heard Tesh's theme during an NBA game.
And yet, because it never left, NBA fans still hear it all the time. There are no plans on the part of any of the NBA's current broadcast partners to bring it back, and Tesh is busy enough that he has not pushed for a reunion. "I don't really wake up every morning thinking about it," Tesh told me. "But what I'd really like to do is maybe at the Finals, one time, if they asked me, I would love to come, just right at midcourt, maybe with an eight-piece string section or something like that, and just play the theme right after the national anthem. That would be a fun thing for me."
Maybe you, as I did, found that very easy to imagine. Maybe you, as I did, realized that you had, in some way, already been imagining it.
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