Wednesday, June 12
Updated: June 12, 8:45 PM ET
The day Tesh's music might die
By Darren Rovell
It was about 3 o'clock in the morning and then-Entertainment Tonight host John Tesh, across the globe covering the Tour de France, had an early-morning revelation in his hotel room in the city of Pau. It was July 1990 and Tesh knew NBC was taking over NBA broadcasting rights from CBS. It needed a theme song.
Tesh already had received an Emmy for his music for the Pan American Games in 1983 and composed other sports television music, including the theme song played during CBS's Tour de France coverage in the late 1980s. Like the tales of other enduring rock songs, Tesh recalls a memorable story of how he gave birth to what has become the theme song of NBC's coverage of NBA games.
"It just came into my head," Tesh, who now devotes most of his time to his musical career, told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "So I called my message machine and sang the chorus. Then I called back 30 minutes later and sang the verse."
When Tesh got home, he played the song that would soon become known as "Roundball Rock" on the piano. He also watched an NBA game and played the music to the approximate speed of a fast break (122 beats per minute). After paying $15,000 to have a Los Angeles orchestra record the song, he sent a tape to NBC, but he didn't want them to know that he wrote it.
"The name on the tape was Jay Franklin, because my middle name is Frank," Tesh said. "But the problem was that when they called me up, I said they had the wrong number." After Tesh finally realized that he was "Jay Franklin," he worked out a deal with NBC where they would make his song the theme of "NBA on NBC" broadcasts and pay him royalties every time they played it.
"It's a great piece of music and it definitely became synonymous with the NBA on NBC over the years," NBC Sports spokesman Kevin Sullivan said. "When you hear that music, you know exactly what's coming up."
But when Tesh plays the song at concerts, he said most people are surprised to hear the song. "Ninety-nine percent of the crowd doesn't know I wrote this theme," said Tesh, whose 'demo' was never re-recorded. "NBC has never given me a single credit on the air. I have no animosity toward them. I'm sure it's just an oversight that's typical for musicians."
For the past 12 seasons, NBC has played the song about 12,000 times, or about 20 times per game when going to commercial or during halftime. Tesh said checks are about two years behind and that he has made "in the six figures" in royalties each year.
Although the song can be heard on Tesh's recordings "Victory: The Sports Collection" and "Live at Red Rocks," Wednesday night could be the last time that fans hear the music that has become so familiar over the past decade. With ABC/ESPN taking over NBA broadcast rights next season, the song's future remains uncertain.
Tesh, who recently licensed the song for the upcoming movie "Like Mike," insists that won't be the case. Since he owns both the copyright and the publishing rights, he has the right to shop it around. "I'm an entrepreneur, I'll find a home for it," Tesh said.
Although ABC has said it would compose its own music, Tesh said the network has since expressed interest in "Roundball Rock." This week, Tesh proposed that ABC take the theme and have famous entertainers like Eric Clapton and Billy Joel perform it. "I'm also perfectly willing to sell it to the NBA if they want it," Tesh said.
"Even if I do something with it in the future, the last time on NBC is still going to be bittersweet," Tesh said.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.