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Posts Tagged ‘University of Nebraska Omaha’

I’d just gotten back to my car after one of my first deliveries of the day when my phone rang. It was the Sports Information Director at The College of St. Rose, a Division II school in Albany. Thankfully, I’d already put on my seat belt because I almost leapt out of my chair. A few days prior, I’d heard that St. Rose’s basketball broadcaster accepted a broadcasting gig elsewhere, so I called the athletic director and left a voicemail. The college basketball season was starting soon, and I figured St. Rose had already pegged someone to do their games. There’s no harm in calling them, I reasoned, because I might get lucky.

And get lucky I did. By the time the SID called, St. Rose’s first game was a week and a half away. It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Binghamton, where I’d wrapped up my first season as the broadcaster for the Binghamton Mets two months prior. Could you overnight your résumé and demo CD to us on Monday? the SID asked. Of course I can! Anything would be better than using copious amounts of Febreze in an attempt to eradicate the sickening stale pizza smell that permeated my car after every one of my delivery shifts. The Binghamton Mets hired me seasonally, so I needed to find a way to make money from Labor Day until April. In mid-September, I took a job delivering pizza, which paid well, but was the definition of tedious.

A couple of days after overnighting my stuff to St. Rose, I made the two-hour drive to Albany for an interview. St. Rose hired me on a Sunday night. Their first game was Tuesday. Like many Division II schools, St. Rose played men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders, with the women’s game starting at 5 pm – or 1 pm for afternoon contests – followed by the men’s game. I’d also agreed to call 1-2 high school basketball games a week for a small radio station in Sidney, a rural town 45 minutes northeast of Binghamton. That winter, I became intimately familiar with Interstate 88, which runs through Sidney and terminates in Albany. The radio station in Sidney covered five area high schools and they let me make my own schedule, which dovetailed nicely with St. Rose’s; the college games were usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the high school games were Tuesdays and Fridays. If St. Rose had road games, I would hop on the team bus once I got to Albany and travel another 2-4 hours with the teams, call two basketball games, get back on the bus for another 2-4 hours and then drive the two hours back to Binghamton in the wee hours of the morning. Upstate New York winters can be pretty harsh but, amazingly, I only had to drive through one snowstorm that season. All for $200 and a chance to call my second-favorite sport, after baseball. It’s a good thing I love hoops, because I ended up calling 75 basketball games that winter. My car died a few months later.

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“What do you do in the off-season?” is one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked in my baseball broadcasting career. The baseball season is a grind; games every day for 5-7 months, depending on whether you’re in the Majors or minors and whether or not you call spring training action. Every baseball broadcaster needs a break after a season but, for many, that break is very short, if there’s a break at all. Seasonal employment, like I had with the Binghamton Mets, was the rule for most of my baseball broadcasting career. As a result, I had to find employment at the conclusion of each baseball season.

My first baseball off-season was in Yakima, Washington after calling games for the Yakima Bears of the short-season Northwest League. I hung around Central Washington to work as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings, a minor league basketball team that played in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. And I was miserable. For one, I’d hoped to land a job calling football and/or basketball, but I wasn’t as aggressive when it came to pursuing those opportunities as I should’ve been. And, I realized quickly I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive. It didn’t help that the degree of difficulty selling the Sun Kings for a novice account executive was high. The Sun Kings, like the rest of the CBA, folded two years prior before being reborn the previous year. Yakima sat out the first season of the new CBA before returning under new ownership when I came aboard. There were many people who lost money with the old Sun Kings and many of those people took out their frustrations on me. Plus, as I mentioned, I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive; cold-calling and going in and out of businesses to persuade people to spend money with the team just wasn’t my thing (It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of salespeople selling me things unsolicited. I’m the guy who, when he’s in the store or on the showroom floor, politely declines assistance and grimaces at salespeople who come at him with their huge smiles and mindless small talk. If I need you, I’ll find you. Otherwise, leave me alone). Nearly every day I worked for the Sun Kings, I woke up with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, dreading spending another day trying to convince people to buy courtside signs and group tickets. I contemplated quitting daily and, on one occasion, cleaned out my desk in anticipation of walking before changing my mind. Stick it out until you get another job, I told myself.

You can imagine my relief when, after five months of misery, I was hired by a radio station group in Kalamazoo, Michigan as the voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. I didn’t have to start my new job for another two months, but I was so eager to rid myself of my account executive existence that I loaded up my car and drove cross-country to New York City, my hometown, as quickly as I could. I was much happier back home, where I spent two months teaching SAT prep courses on Long Island before heading to Michigan. That awful feeling in the pit of my stomach disappeared and hasn’t returned since. After initially being hired in Kalamazoo just for baseball season, I wound up getting a full-time position, ending my need to scramble for off-season employment. Instead, I slid right into radio news reporting and anchoring and broadcasting high school and Division III college football and basketball once the Kings’ season drew to a close.

You would think I would’ve learned from my Yakima experience when I left Kalamazoo after two years for the seasonal position with the Binghamton Mets. However, I waited until August to seek off-season work and found myself scrambling to find something with little time left, which is how I ended up handing people boxes filled with warm pizza for two months. The following off-season, I planned on returning to The College of St. Rose, but I was able to land the women’s basketball play-by-play job at Binghamton University, which was Division I, as opposed to Division II, and a 15-minute drive from my home, as opposed to a two-hour drive. Needless to say, the switch was a no-brainer. That off-season, I also got back into officiating basketball, which I’d done in Yakima, and I started substitute teaching. I wasn’t exactly living like a king, but I did okay for a single guy with few obligations.

After four years in Binghamton, I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to be their Royals reporter and pre- and post-game show host, the latter show featuring phone calls from fans. Once again, I was a seasonal employee but I’d learned from my earlier follies. In the middle of the summer, I contacted every school within a three-hour drive of Kansas City that sponsored intercollegiate athletics and let them know I was available to call basketball games if the need arose. The most serious inquiry I received was from the University of Nebraska Omaha, a Division II school three hours away. Nebraska Omaha needed someone to broadcast their men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders because their previous broadcaster recently accepted a position that made it difficult for him to call all of the games. However, Nebraska Omaha’s SID hedged on completely handing the reins to me, saying he could guarantee me all of the road broadcasts, but nothing else. Since I wisely left the door open with Binghamton University when I departed for Kansas City, I passed on Nebraska Omaha’s offer and returned to Binghamton to call women’s basketball that fall and winter before going back to Kansas City in the spring. The following off-season, Nebraska Omaha offered me their full-time basketball broadcasting position. I gladly accepted, calling their games for three seasons, which included the first two years of their transition to Division I. As a matter of fact, I was finally hired full-time by the Royals’ flagship station my final year calling Nebraska Omaha’s games, but I was able to make the schedules work, just like I did with my St. Rose and high school basketball schedules in Binghamton many years prior.

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The day I agreed to terms with the Houston Astros to be their radio broadcaster, I no longer had to seek employment during the baseball off-season. The Astros compensate me year-round, which means seven months of baseball followed by five months of inactivity, if I so choose. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to call other sports, or deliver pizza, or substitute teach, in the fall and winter. I would like to call basketball and/or football again, but I won’t starve if I don’t. In short, I’m blessed. And, after years of hustling for work once baseball season ended, not a day goes by in the off-season when I don’t think about how fortunate I am.

Years ago, I watched an interview of Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, where he mentioned that, every few months or so, he takes a “reading vacation”; he’ll hole up in some remote locale for a couple of weeks and read all of the books he hasn’t been able to get to. My off-season these days isn’t exactly a reading vacation, but I have more time for books. I finally read Wherever I Wind Up, the autobiography of Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, which was outstanding. I just finished Bleeding Orange, the new autobiography authored by Jim Boeheim, longtime basketball coach at Syracuse University, my alma mater. I recently ordered You Can’t Make This Up, the new autobiography of legendary broadcaster Al Michaels. As you can probably tell, I love non-fiction in general and autobiographies in particular. However, the best book I’ve read this off-season was Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s outstanding novel that’s been turned into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s no way it can captivate as well as the book, but isn’t that always the case?

When the weather cooperates, I try to bike at least 20 miles a day; I bike during the season, but I can get in more reps when there aren’t any games. I also like going out for lunch; since I spend so much time at home alone during the day, it’s nice to be around other people, even if I’m not communicating with them. I also get to reacquaint myself with my four-year-old daughter, time I really treasure since we don’t get to spend copious amounts of time together during the season. Once November and December arrive, I start prepping for the upcoming baseball season. By beginning my prep early in the off-season, I can work gradually all winter and have a lot of work done before spring training begins, giving me an opportunity to focus on other things and preventing me from being burned out once it’s time to call games.

More than anything, I use the off-season to decompress and to recharge my batteries. By the time I leave for spring training, I’m excited about a new season and ready to get to work. And I’m thankful for all of the work that I’ve done and jobs that I’ve had – in baseball, broadcasting and otherwise – that have helped me get to this point.

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I didn’t know exactly when the game would start, so I showed up shortly after the junior varsity contest tipped off. That’s when I noticed my broadcast position was less than ideal – on the stage behind one of the baskets. A center-court location would’ve been preferable, but I wasn’t nervous; I’d been preparing to call basketball games for quite some time and I was certain I was ready. I’d spoken briefly with Kalamazoo Christian High School’s head coach and I knew the starters. I didn’t have any statistics, but it was a high school game and the first game of the season, so I didn’t think statistics would matter much. Also, I was working with an analyst, who would help fill in the gaps.

The first few minutes of the game were a bit of a struggle, because I was still learning the players on both teams. And, it was even harder to identify the combatants when they were on the opposite end of the floor from our broadcast position. But, as the seconds ticked off of Kalamazoo Christian’s brand new purple scoreboard, I was starting to get comfortable.

Then, Kalamazoo Christian substituted.

That season, Kalamazoo Christian felt they had ten players who could start for them. Of course, you can only have half that number on the court at a given time, so they decided to break up that group of ten into a first unit and a second unit; each unit would always play together. The head coach, wary of revealing too much to someone he’d just met, didn’t tell me about these two units in our pre-game chat. If Kalamazoo Christian subbed in a more traditional fashion – one or two guys in the game here, another guy in the game there – I would’ve had an easier adjustment. Instead, five new players came in at once. Fortunately, my broadcast partner – who had been Kalamazoo Christian’s play-by-play broadcaster the previous few seasons before sliding into the analyst’s chair upon my arrival – helped me out and disaster was averted.

That game took place nine years ago this December. And, I’ve been calling basketball ever since.

Even though that game in a tiny gym with wooden, fold out bleachers in the southwest corner of Michigan was my first on-air basketball broadcast, I’d been practicing for several years. During my junior year at Syracuse University, I decided to get serious about pursuing a career in play-by-play. Syracuse is known as a play-by-play broadcaster factory but WAER, the on-campus radio station where many of those play-by-players got their start, required students to start working their way up the station’s hierarchy as freshmen before (hopefully) getting a chance to call a handful of Syracuse basketball and/or football games as upperclassmen. Play-by-play wasn’t on my radar for much of my first two years of college – I thought I wanted to be a television sports anchor – so I never considered working at WAER and, by my junior year, it was too late for me to get a chance to do play-by-play there. Instead, I purchased tickets for seats in the upper reaches of the Carrier Dome, where I would call basketball games into my tape recorder. One of the first games I remember doing was a contest against Seton Hall, which Syracuse’s Allen Griffin won with a 15-foot jumper in the closing seconds. I was disappointed when I listened back to the tape and heard how out-of-breath and raspy I sounded. My voice was very close to a yell in the final minutes of that close game and I sounded like an unabashed Syracuse fan who was calling one of their games, which is what I was.

That tape recorder continued to get a workout after I graduated from Syracuse. That first winter in the “real world” was spent in living at home in New York City, where I was either working, visiting my girlfriend in Massachusetts or doing basketball play-by-play into my tape recorder. I lived a 20-minute bus ride from Manhattan College, which had one of the best mid-major teams in the country that year and I was a frequent fixture in the top row of Manhattan’s Draddy Gymnasium bleachers, my recorder and notes in tow. Columbia University’s basketball team wasn’t nearly as good, but their campus was easy to get to via subway after work, so I often found myself calling many of their games as well. I would prep for games at work, using the team websites for statistics and player information. I would turn a manila folder into my spotting chart – a technique I learned from Dave Pasch, one of my adjunct professors in college, who doubled as the radio voice of Syracuse basketball and football. Player numbers were written on the folder in black Sharpie and all other information was copiously scribbled in black ink; each team got one half of the manila folder. A yellow legal pad was used to write down each team’s schedule and other notes. Since I didn’t have access to in-game statistics,I taught myself how to keep track of each player’s points and fouls on the folder during games.

I employed the same manila-folder-and-legal-pad system when I started doing Kalamazoo Christian’s games, except high school teams didn’t have websites with statistics and player notes, something I wasn’t prepared for. But, after that first game, I got better. I started photocopying all of the high school basketball box scores in the local paper and would file them away, so I’d have some basic statistics for every team. Before games, I would look for the opposing coach and ask him for his starting lineup, key reserves and basic information about his squad. I also served as an analyst on the college basketball broadcasts for Division III Kalamazoo College, which helped me to see the floor better and pick out some of the nuances in team defense and offense, especially away from the ball. And, as I did more Kalamazoo Christian games, it became easier to see what was happening off the ball; I started noticing who was setting screens and what players were doing to get into proper position to rebound or shoot before the ball came their way. My confidence grew, and I realized I had a chance to become a very competent basketball voice.

I really came into my own as a basketball play-by-play broadcaster my first winter in Binghamton, New York. I moved there from Kalamazoo to call baseball but, I was employed by the team just for the season, rather than year-round by the radio station, like I was in Kalamazoo. I landed a job calling high school basketball for a small-town radio station outside of Binghamton, but that wasn’t going to be enough to pay the bills. I was working in pizza delivery when I learned that The College of St. Rose – a Division II school two hours away, in Albany – had just lost their play-by-play broadcaster about two weeks before the start of their season. On a whim, I left a phone message for St. Rose’s athletic director and, two days later, their sports information director called me. After overnighting a CD with clips of my Kalamazoo Christian basketball play-by-play and an in-person meeting, I was hired and my pizza delivery days were over. Most of St. Rose’s basketball games were part of doubleheaders – the women would tip off first, and the men’s game would follow a half-hour after the women’s contest was done – and they wanted me to call all of their men’s and women’s games. Fortunately, St. Rose’s games didn’t conflict with the high school games I’d already agreed to do, but it was still a hectic schedule. I usually called a high school game on Friday night before waking up early on Saturday morning to drive at least two hours to call a pair of St. Rose’s games. One Saturday, I called a St. Rose doubleheader in the afternoon before driving back to the Binghamton area to do a high school basketball playoff game that night. When I wasn’t calling a game, I was traveling to one or preparing for another. That winter, I did about 5-6 games a week and wound up calling 75 basketball games, all of them solo. However, when the season ended, I wasn’t burned out; I was actually energized because I realized that, not only could I call a decent game, but I loved calling basketball. Baseball will always be my favorite sport to broadcast, but I now realized that basketball was a close second.

The following year, I was prepared for another hectic winter of calling basketball when I learned Division I Binghamton University needed a women’s basketball broadcaster. Thanks to contacts I’d cultivated, I was the top candidate for the job. By the end of my interview, I was hired, and I called Binghamton women’s basketball for four years, eventually giving up the gig calling high school games (Instead, I refereed high school and middle school basketball games, which increased my understanding of the game and the rules even further). Cutting back to “only” 30 or so games a year still proved enjoyable.

Wednesday, I start my third year as the voice of University of Nebraska Omaha basketball and my tenth year overall calling basketball. Since there’s more information available, college basketball games easier to call than high school games. Over the years, I’ve learned developing a good relationship with your team’s head coach is invaluable. So is planning ahead and preparing for games in advance, especially if you have a stretch of three or four games in a seven-to-ten day period. Great preparation will lead to me being able to drop the right anecdote or statistic at the right time, which is crucial in basketball play-by-play, since there are few breaks in the action.

Even though a lot has changed since that first game in Kalamazoo, I still get excited whenever I put on a headset and I still look forward to the moment when the ball is thrown into the air for the opening tip. Hopefully, that excitement lasts for a long time.

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