Summary: NBA commentator Mark Jackson’s signature phrase is an old American joke about children not recognizing their father that became so widely popular in the 1930s it crossed the Atlantic and was used derisively of Adolf Hitler prior to WWII.
Full explanation: Mark Jackson’s “Mama, there goes that man (again)” is most closely associated with Kobe Bryant highlights from a decade ago, but Jackson has subsequently used it in his post-coaching announcing career as an acknowledged catchphrase for LeBron James and Kevin Durant, among others, and it pops up occasionally now in other sports.
Ever since Jackson started doing it on nationally televised NBA games, people have been asking “What’s the deal with Mark Jackson saying that?”
A popular answer on the Internet is that Steve Harvey had been using the phrase in his standup in the early 2000s and Jackson took it from that. While that may be the most immediate provenance, I’m not familiar enough with his comedy to recall it, and other than references to Mark Jackson, I couldn’t find evidence of that claim online.
What’s more likely is that he picked it up from a grandparent or great-grandparent, and that’s because “That Man” was an incredibly popular, international meme in the 1930s and early ’40s that all-but-evaporated in the meantime.
This is illustrated by the title of a former BBC show that generated quite a few catchphrases of its own during its run: “It’s That Man Again”. The radio program supposedly got its name from a common practice of the Daily Express newspaper calling Adolf Hitler “that man” in its headlines in 1939. I haven’t been able to find any of those headlines directly, but it’s widely cited and the explanation the creators gave for their choice in title, intending for it to be topical.
You might be fooled, then, into thinking the original meaning is referencing literal, historical Hitler. But to my knowledge, Jackson has never used it for a James Harden highlight, and the phrase was already ubiquitous when the Nazis came to power.
By 1934, it was popular enough that there was already a song called “That Man Is Here Again” by Cab Calloway, and a sort of common reference is made to it in the film “The Thin Man”, also released in 1934.
For a fuller explanation, skip to 16:45 of this episode of Lexicon Valley by John McWhorter as he goes into it and how it was a pervasive joke that made it into all movies and such around that era.
There was a joke and the joke was that a husband and father is away so much that when he comes home his child says, “Mommy, that man is here again.” For some reason that was considered hilarious.
“A Dictionary of Catch Phrases” by Eric Partridge takes a more cynical view:
‘The joke-reference had to do with the basic situation of mummy’s boy friend being innocently identified by a child—”Mummy, it’s that man again”—as once more he comes calling while daddy is out’ (Wedgewood, 1977). But then Shipley writes, ‘My recollection [of “Mummy, it’s…, in the US] is that it began not as a story or a joke, but as a caption to a cartoon’—which he cautiously dates as belonging to the early 1930s.
So there you have it! When Mark Jackson is saying “Mama, there goes that man!” to punctuate a dunk, he’s ultimately referencing an, at a minimum, 85-year-old joke about absent fathers or cuckoldry. Either way, the player in question is a real motherfucker, which lines up pretty well with how the phrase is used today.