Links: My Night Announcing An NBA Game

by Lang Whitaker

Tonight I had the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do my entire life. And it looks like I’m going to get one more shot at it later this week.

On Monday morning I flew to Miami to begin work on our upcoming SLAM cover story on Heat backup PG Chris Quinn. (Quinn: Hobbit or Not?) I didn’t really choose to come down on Monday, that’s just the way it worked out best, schedule-wise, for SLAM. When I checked the schedule, I discovered the Heat were playing the Atlanta Hawks. My Atlanta Hawks. So that was a bonus, considering I write for and all that.

For a while I’d been thinking about doing a column for on either the TV or radio crew, and what it’s like to work on that side of things. They travel with the team, sit at halfcourt at every game and then do their best to relay what’s happening on the floor to everyone back home. And since I knew the Hawks’ TV broadcasters (Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins) and radio announcer (Steve Holman) pretty well, I figured I’d sit with one of them for a night and observe and see what it’s like to do that job.

Secretly, of course, I’ve always wanted to announce a game. What NBA fan hasn’t? We’ve all sat there at home and yelled at an announcer or laughed at a comment or whatever, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all thought at some point or another, Hey, I could do that.

Well, tonight, I did it. I did color commentary for the Hawks/heat radio broadcast. Really. Here’s how it happened:

Once I knew I was going to be at the Hawks/Heat game, I set it up to where I could sit with Hawks radio play-by-play guy Steve Holman. The plan was for me to observe for an evening. Holman’s been announcing Hawks games on both TV and radio since I was a kid, and he’s been the full-time radio guy now for nearly two decades. (What’s more amazing is that Holman has never missed a game. Steve told me tonight that counting regular season and Playoff games, tonight’s game was his 1,654th Hawks game in a row.)

About twenty minutes before tip-off, Steve and I went up to the radio broadcast table near the top of the lower level of stands at the American Airlines Center, and I took a seat to Steve’s left. An engineer was sitting to Steve’s right. In front of us were two TV screens, one with stats and one showing the Atlanta broadcast of the game. Steve had with him a score sheet that he’d annotated with every player’s current averages and other stats. (He said it takes him about an hour to do the sheet each game and he does it the same way he learned how from legendary Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most in the early ’70s.)

So I had my notebook out and was asking Steve some basic questions before tip-off, when he handed me a headset and told me I could listen to the broadcast through them. I put it on and pushed the mic way up over my head, so that listeners wouldn’t hear me coughing or whatever. A few minutes before we went live, Steve said he wanted to get my title right so he could mention me on the air. Great, I thought, and I texted my family back home in Atlanta to listen in.

Then, as the teams took to the court for the opening tip, Steve introduced me and asked me about SLAM. So I started talking about SLAM and SLAMonline and, etcetera. And then the game started, so I shut up halfway through a sentence. I motioned to Steve to ask him if should finish talking, and he nodded, so I said something about the game starting and threw it back to Steve.

And we just kept going. For the entire game.

I’m going to write more about this for on Thursday, but a few quick things worth mentioning:

radio-microphone• Announcing an NBA game is frigging hard. I mean, it’s really, really hard. Especially considering I came into it without having done any research, didn’t bring any notes, etc. Sitting on the couch and chiming in, I can do that the rest of my life (and I will do that the rest of my life). But having that open mic in front of your mouth and knowing anything you say is about to be transmitted out to thousands of listeners, it’s really, really hard.

• Steve’s done so many games, and done so many of them without a partner, that he’s used to talking and talking and talking without sounding like he’s just talking and talking and talking. I didn’t want to interrupt his flow, so I tried to just listen for breaks in his announcing to interject whatever I could. (Thank goodness I’ve listened to him for years and had an idea of Steve’s style.) Even then, it’s tough to be both insightful and timely. For instance, early in the second quarter, the Heat suddenly went to a zone. Steve was busily announcing what the Hawks were doing on offense, and I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I let him talk and waited for a chance to get in where I fit in. But the Hawks turned it over and the Heat had a possession, and when the Hawks came back down on offense, the Heat were back in a man-to-man. So I said something like, “Steve, it’s interesting how the Heat are switching from man-to-man to zone here on alternating possessions.” Stayed current, got my point in, hopefully said something interesting.

• Being funny is even harder. I got a few good lines in there — when the Hawks went down 20 in the third quarter, I asked Steve on-air if he wanted to leave after the third so we could hit South Beach; I also gave my full endorsement to the Heat Dancers — but being funny on the air requires a totally different skill set than in writing, because you have to say it now, right now, and it has to be good and relevant and funny without being offensive.

• Describing the action isn’t the toughest thing in the world, but giving listeners a feel for the game is a completely other thing. And this game was one of the strangest games I’ve ever been to. The Hawks couldn’t make a basket to save their lives early on, and at halftime they had a total of 27 points. (They had 15 points, total, with 6:34 to go in the first. They actually went 13 1/2 minutes without a field goal.) But the crazy thing was that the Heat couldn’t put them away. As good as D-Wade is, that’s how bad the rest of the Heat were, especially after Beasley went down with a bruised knee. Joe Johnson kept driving to the rim and throwing it back out to the three-point line, Bibby didn’t seem to want to shoot, Mike Woodson was making weird substitutions…it was just a strange night from both teams. I did my best to relay that to the people listening.

• In the midst of all of that, you’ve got to remember to speak clearly and slowly. I also noticed how Steve had so much inflection in his voice, raising and lowering it at certain times to make regular sentences sound more interesting, but not in a comical way. I tried to remember not to sound monotone, but I was also so worried about just providing interesting content that it was a tough balancing act.

• Also, I can’t thank Steve enough for the opportunity to do that. You know you’d want to do it, too, at least once in your life, and Steve didn’t mind sharing the spotlight with me all night, something I think a lot of announcers would not have wanted to do.

When we signed off at the end of the game, and after I gave my closing analysis — The Hawks have been living by the three all season, but tonight they died by it, hitting 3-16. Also, D-Wade was unstoppable, etc. — I thanked Steve for the chance, and he told me I’d done a great job. I told him that all I wanted was one more chance, with more than a few seconds notice. And Steve’s granting me my wish.

So, on Wednesday night when the Hawks play the Knicks, I’ll be on the mic with Steve again. This time I’ll be able to prep a little, maybe even write some one-liners. And if you’re up for it, you can listen, too. If you’re in Atlanta or the Atlanta area, tune in to 790 A.M. If you’ve got satellite radio, you can get the Hawks broadcast on there.

Or, if you’ve got internet access, you can go to to the Radio page, then click on “Online Radio: Live Play By Play” and then choose the Hawks’ feed. It’s free and it’s simple.

(And if someone out there is particularly industrious and can figure out how to save an audio file of it or tape it off the radio or whatever so I can chop it up and post bits and pieces on The Links, I’ll give you a prize from the SLAM swag cabinet and a shoutout in The Links. Or something. I’ll work with you on this.)

The whole thing was like running a marathon at sprint speed. This was happening, that was happening, people were getting injured, T’d up, Dick Bavetta was reffing, refs were missing calls. I was just trying to keep up. Man was it hard.

But above all else, man was it awesome.