Amazing ride continues for Bulls broadcaster Funk
Bulls longtime TV and radio broadcaster Neil Funk, a multiple Emmy award winner, will be honored with Indianapolis' Park Tudor's Distinguished Alumni award at a festive dinner and ceremony Friday
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There were all those bus rides Neil took with Dr. J. Then there was the time Neil was enjoying that championship trophy and champagne with Moses Malone, and no, it wasn’t actually Neil who told him it would be done in “Fo, fo, fo.” Of course, Neil wasn’t that surprised when he was with Michael Jordan after it took the Bulls just a few more than that to get by the Suns, the Trail Blazers, the SuperSonics and the Jazz in the NBA Finals.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” says Neil Funk, the Bulls longtime TV and radio broadcaster. “Here I am just another kid from Indiana who’s this big basketball fan. Really no idea what I ever was going to do, and I’m traveling with Dr. J., Michael Jordan, seeing the greatest basketball players ever, the greatest teams, the Bulls as they strung together that incredible run. Just incredible.”
It has been a remarkable experience, but also an inspiring life lesson. That you never give up, that you can achieve your dreams with hard work and determination, that you can transcend natural gifts with a belief and desire and a general decency.
“Neil’s one of the best who’s ever done it,” says lead ABC-TV broadcaster Mike Breen, a longtime colleague of Funk’s. “And the beauty is he’s the last person who would think that.
“In a business heavily loaded with egos, there is zero there,” Breen continued. “It’s what I love about him. He’s done so many games (almost 4,000 NBA games). So many big and so many meaningless ones and still he has the enthusiasm and loves the sport so much. He’s done so many games and keeps it fresh every night.”
The administrators at Funk’s childhood school in Indianapolis, Park Tudor, understand. Funk, a multiple Emmy award winner, will be honored with the school’s Distinguished Alumni award at a festive dinner and ceremony Friday.
It’s appropriate because Funk’s story is both easily identifiable as one of millions, yet singular because of what he has achieved. His is a product of the best of the American system, where you can reach your dreams and live a working life of exception without any special head start or given pathway. It could have been any of the kids sitting on either side of young Neil, who was raised in a traditional Midwestern home, his father a salesman for Eli Lilly and mom home with the kids. Perhaps his only advantage toward what became his chosen profession was being from the Land of No Accents.
There was no special mentor or inside contact; not even a career plan other than just about that of every other kid in basketball mad Indiana. He loved the game, and Neil was pretty good at it.
Not good enough that many would ever notice, but better than he’d ever let on.
He was one of the top scorers in Indianapolis in high school, an all-city shooting guard with some small college offers, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey. It so happened that his high school basketball coach was friendly with Syracuse U. coach Roy Danforth. Neil was accepted at Syracuse in political science and made the basketball team as a walk on. Though not for long.
“It was the Dave Bing era; Vaughn Harper was there, a lot of big time college players,” Funk recalls with a laugh. “I realized pretty quickly I was in over my head. I just enjoyed playing.”
So what else was at Syracuse? Hmmm, the Newhouse School of Communications, perhaps the most famed broadcasting school in the nation. The broadcasting names from Syracuse are a field of legends: Ted Koppel, Marv Albert, Marty Glickman, Steve Kroft, Dick Stockton, Fred Silverman. Ah, the perfect symmetry!
“It was maybe the biggest waste of all time,” says Funk.
Not still having basically any interest in broadcasting as a career, Funk didn’t attend the communication school or pursue broadcasting at Syracuse. It’s like going to Lourdes to play golf. Though Funk is quite the golfer, so he may have done that as well.
“I always enjoyed listening to the big events on radio,” Neil said. “TV wasn’t a huge deal. I can still remember the Floyd Patterson/Ingemar Johansson fight from Yankee Stadium. I could probably do the call. I can remember listening to Willie Mays’ catch on Vic Wertz (1954 World Series). The radio was glued to my ear. I loved radio. There wasn’t a lot of sports on TV back then. Broadcasting? It never crossed my mind.”
But Neil did acquire something for broadcasting at Syracuse, his signature call, Kakaka-boom!
In a student bar, where much great innovation emanates.
“I’m in a bar one night with the basketball players and a guy who wasn’t a player, he had a few beers and he starts making up these end of game scenarios for different guys standing there. ‘Hicker with two seconds left fires, kakaka-boom.’ It just stuck with me. One time I’m doing an Illinois game and Nick Weatherspoon jacks one from 25 feet and it just came out. I was never thinking to do it. The guy I’m working with goes, ‘Oh, my God!’ I thought it was good for a big basket.”
Neil wasn’t exactly on the way after that first ka-boom in the tavern. He still had that basketball itch, though he was lowering his sights some.
He left Syracuse after one year and went to Indiana U. for one semester. He then took that shot at Gettysburg, lasted about a semester there and figured what the heck, this wasn’t going anywhere and Syracuse was fun.
So he reenrolled, met and married Renee, who went on to teach as Neil enjoyed the college life.
“I really had no idea what I was going to do,” he recalls. “I was thinking I could stay a student. I really wasn’t interested in coaching or journalism.”
But it was time to get on with life.
So he applied around and got a job at WITY-980 radio in Danville, Illinois as an ad salesman.
These days it's a group of Chuck Swirsky, Bill Wennington
and Stacey King who join Funk to form
the Bulls broadcasting team.
“I started to think that maybe I might be interested in broadcasting (remember, not a day of training yet but there were those calls in a bar) and this happened to intrigue me,” said Neil. “The station did a lot of sports, high school football and baseball games, a class A Brewers baseball team. But I was a terrible sales person.”
It was good experience as well. After selling the ad because the station was small he had to write the commercial and go in the studio and record it.
“I spent a lot of times asking guys how a tape recorder works,” Funk says. “You were expected to put the music behind it, produce, record, everything. I enjoyed it.”
A career was found in his 20’s.
You never know where life will take you if you embrace it with a passion. It often will be to a beautiful place. If you retain your passions the rewards will be there.
After a year and a half he became sports director and weekends were high school games and U. of Illinois football and basketball and tournaments. He’d go on to become close with Illinois and NFL player Jim Grabowski, still a regular golfing partner.
“My record was 16 games in one weekend,” Funk recalls proudly. “We covered election nights, county fairs, the sporting good store remote on Saturdays.”
They tend to call the Midwest natives Newscaster Neutral with accents. They’ve got one, though it’s not as identifiable. It seems, well, American. With his easy going charm and playful wit, Funk was developing his own unique style.
“You kind of take a little from guys you admire or listened to,” says Funk. “But because of where I was you had plenty of room to become whatever style fit.”
Funk credits Indiana Pacers ABA announcer Jerry Baker as his most influential voice, though more as a fan growing up of the team.
“He has this enthusiasm, knowledge of the game,” said Bulls executive vice president of business operations Steve Schanwald, who hired Funk to do Bulls games in 1991. “I always got a kick out of his dry sense of humor, his energy and enthusiasm.”
So Neil was ready to make his move entering his late 20’s.
He sent tapes around to NBA teams. But it’s a tough business with giants doing the games. So he gets a call from Rudy Martzke, the public relations guy for the new Spirits of St. Louis who’d later work for USA Today. They’d narrowed the search down to two guys and Neil was one. So Neil went down to KMOX, the giant of the Midwest, the New York Times of Midwest communications. Jack Buck is sports director. This is big!
But a few days later they called back and said, well, they’re going in another direction. Neil asked if there was a specific issue and Martzke said, well, the franchise is a bit shaky and as he has a wife and child now they probably want to go with this young kid out of Syracuse. Did Neil know him? Never heard of him.
“I’ll never forget his first game,” says Funk. “I’m home and turn on KMOX because I want to hear this guy. I come out of my room after 20 minutes and Renee says, ‘Is he any good?’ I say, ‘Yeah, really good.’ I didn’t feel so bad.”
It was Bob Costas, another fairly famous Syracuse alum.
But they got back to Neil from Philadelphia, which needed a broadcaster. Neil got the job.
And it just so happened to be the big 1976 team that went to the Finals with Julius Erving, Billy Cunningham, George McGinnis, World B. Free, Darryl Dawkins and Doug Collins.
“Oh, my God, I can’t believe this,” Funk recalled that he was thinking. “I was wide eyed to the end of the year.”
The 76ers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Finals, and then it looked over. The station, which employed Funk, was changing to rock and roll format. No more sports.
But Funk was becoming a mentor as well and among his pupils would be Collins, who began his broadcasting career working with Funk after he was hurt.
“I was just cutting my teeth in the business and he taught me so much,” says Collins, the Hall of Fame broadcaster now with ESPN. “Neil does such a great job. He blends everything well, knows the game, is pleasant to listen to. I don’t think people always realize what television is. Everyone hears the two people. But there is a producer, director, camera, sideline, a real team. Neil’s a tremendous team player.”
But back in Philadelphia Funk’s future was hazy.
”I was still covering a golf tournament for the radio station and this gentleman walks up to me, introduces himself and says he’s Irv Kosloff,” says Funk. “I knew he was the former owner of the 76ers. He tells me his wife thinks I’m the greatest on the broadcasts. I say I really appreciate it, but did he know the station is changing and I’m out. He asks if I’d be interested in going to Kansas City as one of his closest friends is one of the owners. ‘Would you like for me to call him?’ he asks. I said, ‘Sure.’”
Funk said he didn’t think much of it. But two days later he was on the way to Kansas City with the Kings, who had relocated from Cincinnati and Funk worked there broadcasting the Kings for five years.
“Great knowledge of the game,” said Ernie Grunfeld, who was a Kings player then and now is Washington Wizards president. “He understands the game and knows how to simplify it. He paints a picture, has seen it all. Just a great guy.”
In 1982, Funk got a call from Cunningham, who’d become a friend. Cunningham said the new owner Harold Katz was looking for a play by play person. Would he be interested?
“We liked Kansas City, but we also knew they were looking to leave for Sacramento,” recalled Funk. “There were new owners. So I said, ‘Sure.’”
Funk moved his family back to Philadelphia for the 1982-83 season.
Yes, a championship for the 76ers that first season.
“Talk about being in the right place at the right time again,” Neil chuckled.
Funk did a few years with the 76ers, had a contract issue with Katz and went to work for the Nets for two seasons and then came back with Katz and the 76ers.
After the Bulls first title season in 1990-91, Funk’s friend Jim Durham left the Bulls and told Funk to apply. Funk did. Schanwald said he got a call from Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly, who’d worked with Funk, and recommended him. It was an instant fit and Funk, starting on radio and then going to TV with Stacey King in 2008, became one of the longest tenured broadcasters in Chicago.
And what a run with five Bulls championships, making six Funk called in the NBA—that’s a lot of jewelry—the Beatles of teams with the Bulls in 1995-96 with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman as the team won 72 games, through Jordan’s retirements, the returns and Neil still going strong with partner Stacey King as one of the NBA’s most popular broadcasting teams and an Emmy winner last year.
“Here’s the thing,” says Breen, who worked with Funk when Breen was starting out in the New York area producing for talk radio. “He’s not a hollering guy. But when he does you know it’s spectacular. He saves the big call, as you should, when it means something. He’s also got this distinctive style. I always feel he has a grin on.
“Of course, “Breen says with a laugh, “before he did TV he always wore makeup on radio. On non game days, too.”
Breen has a grin as well when talking about his old friend, Neil.
“Tune him in,” says Breen, “and you’ll enjoy the game.”