A travel-weary John Tesh found himself alone in a sports bar at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport when his career’s greatest achievement came and went for the first time. Over the previous two decades, he’d gone from living in a tent, desperately sending audition tapes of himself to radio stations, to becoming a lead anchor on the popular syndicated TV program Entertainment Tonight. And yet, here it was: the moment he’d finally be recognized as a talented composer.
“As those first couple of notes from the trumpets rang out, the blood drained from my entire body,” Tesh tells me. “Musically, it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me — my music was being played on a prime-time show!”
As the new theme song for NBC’s aptly titled NBA on NBC blared from the packed bar’s TVs, Tesh excitedly looked around for even the slightest bit of recognition. Certainly someone would recognize that an orchestral masterpiece was now echoing throughout the premises.
But no dice. “I thought, ‘Well maybe the bartender will be my friend!’” Tesh recalls. “But he wasn’t hearing it, wasn’t watching it and didn’t know or care about it. It was like God putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘I will burn you down in front of everyone, I will humble you.’”
“Sitting at the bar watching the NBA theme get on the air and nobody giving a crap about me having written the song — it was just such a reset for me,” he continues. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to understand that not everyone is as excited about what you’re doing as you are.”
But that, of course, was just a momentary blip. The song, officially dubbed “Roundball Rock,” is now legendary. And in the years since, it’s been found pretty much everywhere — in video games, SNL sketches, Nelly songs and an endless amount of YouTube covers.
Tesh has made it a point to operate at the intersection of sports and music since he was a “skinny, unpopular kid in Long Island.” “The only way out of Long Island was to do something in sports or music,” he says. “So as I focused on soccer and lacrosse enough to walk on at NC State [University], I was in my basement making music as well.”
Next, as he climbed the ranks to becoming a sideline reporter, he volunteered to churn out backing tracks for the assortment of sporting events he was covering. “I didn’t think about sports in terms of statistics or who was breaking what record for the fastest time. That didn’t interest me,” he says. Rather, Tesh observed them like movies — with rising action, conflict and a climax — and wrote music to match. “When you’ve got all 140 bikers of the Tour de France flying around a curve in front of you, and you know that in 12 seconds there will suddenly be a crash, that’s a music cue,” he says. “You have to move with it all.”
Tesh loved writing these backing tracks arguably more than his comfy job co-anchoring Entertainment Tonight. For that reason, when NBC Sports producer David Michaels came calling in 1989, Tesh was quick to take the opportunity. “He kept saying to me, ‘Come on back. Take your vacation time, and let’s work on the Tour de France,’ and so I did,” Tesh says, adding that he got “ripped for it” because viewers wondered, “Why is the Entertainment Tonight guy calling the Tour de France?”
At the same time, he was also in the production van writing the music for the network’s coverage of the race. “When you’re trying to write two hours of music in four days at the Tour de France, you don’t have time to out-think yourself, wondering what will or won’t work,” he tells me. “You have to just throw it up there and keep going.”
A much bigger opportunity, however, was about to present itself. The network needed a theme song for its new slate of NBA games. At first, Tesh figured, “Surely they’re going to give it to John Williams or Hans Zimmer — one of these guys who’s written tons of these things. Nobody even knows I’m a composer.” But he tells me, “I just kept thinking about how great it would be if I got something like that. So here I am in the middle of France writing music for four to five hours a day [for the Tour de France], but in the back of my mind, I can’t stop wondering what the basketball theme would sound like.”
Smash cut to 2 a.m. on a Thursday morning when a melody pierced Tesh’s sleep and jolted him upright. “Da da da da da da da-daaaah / Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba-bask-et-ball,” he sings to me.
Normally, he would have considered it sleepy nonsense and turned back in. But, he explains, “I knew that if I went back to sleep and didn’t somehow write it down or record it, it would be gone forever.”
The thing was, all of his recording equipment was locked away in the production truck. He tried writing it down, “but writing the notes doesn’t give you what the vibe is or anything.” He was pacing his hotel room when another thunderbolt struck: He could call home and leave a message on his answering machine. “But in a town as small as Megève, France, they don’t man the switchboard at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he says.
With no other choice, he flew down to the lobby and found an old rotary phone. After a number of attempts, he finally got through to his answering machine in New York. “I looked like a crazy person, just pacing around, muttering the ‘Gee gee geegee guh guh buh buh’ to myself over and over again, and screaming notes into the phone until the machine cut me off,” he laughs. “Then running back downstairs to leave a second message, because the second part is, ‘Buh buh buh buh buh buh / Ba ba ba ba ba ba ba / Buh buh buh buh buh buh / Doo doo doo doo!’ That’s how you write a song, you make stupid noises like that.”
For the next week and a half, he knew he’d come up with something, but he wasn’t sure what exactly. “I was still trapped in France, so I was really excited to get home and play my answering machine,” he explains. When that moment came, he was relieved to see the red light blinking, signaling that it had, at the very least, recorded his late-night serenade.
Tesh ripped the answering machine from the wall and plugged it in next to his piano. After rewinding the tape and pressing play, a distorted melody rang out. “‘Gee gee geegee guh guh’ was in A minor, which wasn’t like me, but eventually the entire melody came to me,” he says. “It had those types of musical-sports movements in there, so immediately I knew it was something.”
Sitting at the piano, he continued to build. “I grew up with one of those stupid metronomes, my mom put it on the piano so it got hammered into my head. So I found one of those and set it to 120 or 121, then I added my little drum machine to balance it out and brought in the bass to move along with it and sound like a basketball being dribbled.”
“It couldn’t just be a theme,” he continues. “I knew I needed separate movements of the song that matched what was happening on the screen. For instance, I knew there had to be a quiet section where Marv [Albert] could go, ‘Today, the San Antonio Spurs versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Brought to you by…,’ but then go into a major key, where they’d cut to a live shot.”
However, when he took the song into a studio and tried matching it to highlights from the 1988 NBA Finals, “something felt off.” Finally, the video editor mentioned the music was too slow. “It needed to be remixed so the song’s beat matched that of a dribbling basketball,” Tesh explains.
Using a metronome, Tesh calculated Magic Johnson’s fast-break dribble to be around 132 beats per minute and reworked the song accordingly. “I just put a piece of tape with ‘Roundball Rock’ on the VHS and sent it up through the NBC pipeline. In fact, it was very similar to my first audition tape that I sent from a tent trying to get a job at a radio station — instead of calling up and asking what they needed, it was showing up at the front door with a fully formed tape,” he says. “There’s something about being a band geek, not being popular or having trophies that makes you never see the torpedoes in the water. I mean, what did I have to lose?”
Two days later, NBC called him back. “If I remember correctly, it was as simple as, ‘Hey yeah, this works. But what about if an orchestra plays it?’”
Once he got over the shock that NBC had chosen his theme over all the other submissions, he agreed to record the song with an orchestra — which he paid for out-of-pocket. “I knew if this thing played for 20 years, it might work out for me,” he says.
And he was right: NBC played “Roundball Rock” roughly 12,000 times over the span of 12 years. “It was very much a ‘right person in the right place’ type of deal, but nobody could’ve predicted how Michael Jordan and that era of the NBA would explode in popularity,” Tesh says.
And while he’s tried many times to recreate the magic of “Roundball Rock,” it’s all been for naught. “It’s only left me with hours and hours of me singing really bad themes to my answering machine,” he laughs. “But then I’ll listen back and hear, ‘Buh buhbuh duh buh duh buhduhduh’ — like, what the hell was that?”