I go through stages where I only listen to a specific music genre or musical artist for a few days. During this particular period, I was listening to a lot of old-school rap from the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of my favorite groups from that era is A Tribe Called Quest, a trio of rappers from Queens, New York who were adept at combining sounds unique to rap with superb wordplay. At the moment, “Can I Kick It?”, a Tribe song held in place by guitar chords borrowed from Lou Reed’s classic rock hit “Walk on the Wild Side”, was playing. In the song’s chorus, Tribe asks “Can I kick it?”, with the audience responding “Yes you can!” over and over again.
Then it hit me. I can use that.
I was in the middle of my first – and, as it turned out, only – season as the radio voice of The College of St. Rose men’s and women’s basketball teams. St. Rose’s women’s team had a two-guard whose primary job was to come off the bench and fire three-point shots. Like most long-range shooters, it was apparent within one or two shot attempts whether she was hot or cold. And, when she was hot, even the rare threes that missed looked like they were going in. One night, she came in and hit her first two threes and I knew she was on. So, when her next three went up, I saw my opportunity.
“Can she hit it?” I asked my listeners and the basketball floated through the air.
“Yes she can!” I exclaimed as the ball snapped through the bottom of the net with ruthless precision.
And, just like that, I’d come up with another way to describe a three-point shot.
Catchphrases in broadcasting can be a dangerous thing. Often, for something to truly become a catchphrase, a broadcaster has to use it over and over again in the same situation, which can become paralyzing and a threat to a broadcaster’s creativity. I see “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” more as an option than a catchphrase because I don’t use it on every three-point shot attempt; I don’t think I’ve ever used it more than once in a game broadcast and I’ll often go several games without using it at all. I feel that something like “Can he/she hit it…Yes he/she can!” has to be used sparingly, if at all. And, it works well only if the shot goes in; “Can he/she hit it…Nope” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
When I got my first play-by-play job, calling minor league baseball, I had six months to prepare before I called my first game. A good portion of that six months was spent trying to come up with a catchphrase for home runs. Every baseball broadcaster has a home run catchphrase, I thought, so I should too. I finally settled on “Forget it!”; I can emphasize the “r” even more on bigger home runs, I thought to myself. I spent countless hours going over that home run call in my head and aloud.
Then, the season started. And, I barely used the home run catchphrase I’d spent months perfecting. There were two main reasons for that. For one, I was overwhelmed, particularly at the start of the season, and I focused more energy on getting the nuts and bolts of baseball play-by-play correct and less on catchphrases. And, I realized my best calls – of home runs or of anything else – came when I just reacted and described what I saw. Play-by-play is hard enough, I reasoned, and I don’t need to make it even harder by trying to force specific catchphrases or expressions into my vernacular.
Even though I don’t focus on catchphrases in my play-by-play, I still spend a lot of time trying to come up with different words and phrases I can use on the air, but I do that as a way of preventing my play-by-play description from becoming stale. For example, last month I realized I was using “puts up” too often when describing an outside shot attempt (e.g. “Phillips puts up a three”). So, I focused on using other words to describe the act of shooting a jumper, paying close attention to the words used by other broadcasters when they described similar plays. It didn’t take me long to reduce my penchant for “puts up”.
However, some words and phrases work well, even if they’re repeated over and over. Perhaps the best example of that is NBA broadcaster Marv Albert’s “Yes!” call after made jump shots. Albert says “Yes!” after a healthy portion of successful outside shots in almost every game he’s done for at least the last four decades. However, it works for Albert because it’s simple and he varies the “Yes!” based on the importance and/or difficulty of the shot; Albert’s “Yes!” is more emphatic after a game-winner than it is after a first-quarter make. And, it never sounds like Albert is forcing “Yes!” into his call. Albert says he came up with “Yes!” as a youngster, when he heard a referee say “Yes, and it counts!” after a player made a basket despite being fouled and he and his friends started using “Yes!” in their own pickup basketball games. A broadcaster never knows when inspiration will strike.
Whenever an inexperienced or aspiring play-by-play broadcaster asks me about catchphrases and signature calls, I always tell him or her not to worry about coming up with any; let it happen organically. Instead, the focus should be on economy of words and on being able to describe the same plays in myriad ways. As broadcasters get more experience, their personality will emerge, and so will their style and any pet phrases; trying to force a style or catchphrases into play-by-play usually sounds contrived and inauthentic. I also tell broadcasters you never know when or where your favorite words or phrases will emerge. Maybe you’ll have some old-school rappers to thank.Follow @raford3