Making the Call
Some would shrink at that daunting assignment. But John Michael, the new radio voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has worked his way through the ranks and warmed up the pipes for over a decade. And he’s up for the challenge.
Michael brings a wealth of play-by-play experience to the Wine and Gold. He was with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets for the past two years, and immediately prior to that, he served as the first-ever radio/TV broadcaster with the Lake Erie Monsters for the first two seasons.
Before plunging into the world of broadcasting, he practiced law as a trial attorney after graduating from Notre Dame with mechanical engineering, law and MBA degrees, all cum laude.
But John’s journey from moonlighting in Western Pennsylvania to sitting alongside Jim Chones for Cavaliers is a tale best explained by the man himself …
First question everyone probably asks: Do you feel pressure taking over for a legend like Joe Tait?
John Michael: It’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say there’s “pressure.”
First of all, I’ll start by saying it’s humbling that the organization looked to me to be the guy to carry on the radio excellence that Joe Tait started here in Cleveland. It’s more motivating than anything else. If you can’t get motivated for this job in the first place, then you’re in the wrong business.
You want to talk about motivation? Here you go: follow a guy who’s in the Hall of Fame, whose name hangs in the rafters.
So I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, but it’s humbling, it’s exciting and it’s something that I have looked forward to every day since getting the job.
The degrees you received from Notre Dame don’t add up to a broadcasting career, but they are very impressive.
Michael: I was a mechanical engineering undergrad at Notre Dame. I liked math and science coming out of high school, so I figure mechanical engineering was the way to go.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but figured a good way of thinking was: If you start with something hard you can always come back to something easy.
So I went into that. It was fine. I did fine. But I came to the end of that and thought that maybe law school was the way to go.
At what point did the broadcasting bug bite you?
Michael: I don’t know when the broadcasting thing hit me. It was late. Maybe my fourth year of grad school, I started thinking maybe this is something I could do.
How did you get started?
Michael: So I start practicing law in Western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh. It was then Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. (It’s now K&L Gates.) It’s the largest firm in western Pennsylvania – 200 lawyers in the firm in Pittsburgh alone.
I loved it, it was going well. But in Western Pennsylvania, same as Ohio, you turn on the radio on Friday nights and you can hear 12, 15 different high school football games. So I was thinking, this is cool, but maybe I can do better than some of these guys.
I was just thinking, this might be kinda fun. So I got my work Dictaphone – one of those things you use for depositions and interviews – and I looked at the ESPN Classic schedule and I saw that there was an Oklahoma-Nebraska game coming on. So I got the old rosters and everything and I prepped it up and I sat down in front of this thing and I turned the volume down and called the game.
And there’s a big conglomerate high school radio network in Western Pennsylvania. So I gave them a call and the guy said, ‘Send your tape.’
The guy was SO disinterested in my story. He’s like: ‘What do you have it on?’ I said, ‘It’s on a Dictaphone.’
So I put it on a regular tape, but didn’t hear anything. But one night, four months later, I get a call: ‘One of our guys is sick. Can you do Friday night’s game?’
I said, ‘Yeah, of course!’ I hung up the phone and then it hit me ... ‘You don’t have any idea how to call a game. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know anything!’
So I literally spent the next 24 hours studying these two teams – I think Plum Township and Penn Trafford were the two teams. One’s 2-8, the other’s maybe 3-7. It’s the worst game on the list. He said: ‘If we like you, we’ll give you a call back. If we don’t, no hard feelings.’
So I studied, studied, studied. I think I scripted out eight pages of pregame.
Sure enough, a day later he says, ‘We’ll give you another one.’ Next week, it turns into a playoff assignment, and he brings me in for a playoff game. When football season ended, he asked me if I could do basketball. I said: ‘Yeah, yeah, I can do basketball, baseball, hockey ... ’
Suddenly I was in court, doing depositions during the day and doing small college and high school games at night.
So you’re still moonlighting at the law firm during all this?
Michael: In a year or so, I’m on pretty big radio stations doing pretty big games. It was going great and I was getting a little bit of a following and loving it.
Again, law was great and I was progressing and that was fine. You’re living the cushy life. You earned it, getting through law school, working hard. You’re working in a big firm and it’s a firm for life. But I loved the games. I couldn’t wait for them. My secretary would get rosters faxed in and know not to show anybody.
So it was a secret. I always worried if someone would find out or someone would hear me. (So obviously, it wasn’t that big of a station.) Eventually, I started wondering if maybe there was a chance I could do this full-time. It’s what I love to do.
So I sent out tons of CDs that had clips from high school football and basketball and hockey. And I basically sent them to every minor league hockey team, arena league football, etc. I sent them everywhere.
Sure enough, I get a call from single-A Hagerstown, Maryland. They were then the affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.
At the time, it’s 2003. I was a lawyer for four-plus years.
And that point, it was decision time?
Michael: Yes. So I went into the law firm and I said: ‘Hey, I have this opportunity. This is what it is.’
Well, law firms aren’t big on, obviously, letting you do anything else. So I said, ‘It’s not like I’m moving to another firm -- this is different. Do you think that maybe if this doesn’t happen that in six months I could come back?’
They were like: ‘We love you, but if we let you do this, EVERYBODY will want to take six months to go on a safari or something.
'If you’re gonna go, you gotta go.'
And I got to the point where I thought: If I don’t do this now, I’m going to regret it forever. I finally found something that I love.
That first high school game was three hours of ‘Whoa! This is great!’ I prepped for 24 hours. I got paid 20 bucks broadcasting from a station you couldn’t hear in the parking lot.
But it was amazing and it was something I wanted to do.
What was the progression after you took the plunge?
Michael: I did it and it was interesting. It was really single-A, it was low single-A.
When it was a rain delay, I’d have to send it back to the studio because if they didn’t have enough guys, I’d have to go down and help pull the tarp.
And when did you make the leap to hockey?
Michael: From there, fortunately, I got a job with the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL. So I went right from baseball right into hockey.
The Chiefs are the team on which the movie “Slap Shot” was based. It was filmed right there in Johnstown. Same uniforms and everything. My buddies loved it – I was the play-by-play voice of the team from this cinematic masterpiece.
I was there for two seasons. It’s the equivalent of double-A baseball. I was fortunate to be named ECHL Broadcaster of the Year in my second season. So I got called up, I guess. I was contacted by an American Hockey League team and I moved from Springfield, Massachusetts after two seasons with the Chiefs.
I was there for two seasons and got contacted by the Monsters.
I didn’t apply for the Monsters job, by the way. I just applied to NHL teams from there and I wasn’t looking to make a lateral move. So I get a call from Randy Domain of the Monsters saying, ‘I got your application.’
I said: ‘I actually didn’t apply.’ And he was like: ‘Yes, you did. It’s right here.’
Apparently, Colorado got it and, knowing that the Monsters were just starting up, just passed it along.
I did two years with the Monsters, two years with the Columbus Blue Jackets. And then back to Cleveland.
So how did you make the transition from Columbus to the Cavaliers? What was the process?
Michael: Here’s how the process worked: When I was with the Monsters, (Cavaliers VP of Broadcasting) Dave Dombrowski came up to me and said, ‘In five or ten years, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but there might be an opening. Can you call basketball?’
Of course I said yes.
So Dave gave me the radio equipment and told me to go up and sit in press row and call some games. So, in that whole Cavs-Magic Eastern Conference Finals series in 2009, the Hawks series before that, I basically sat up there and called those games and the Cavs recorded them.
Afterward, Dave said, ‘OK, give me those. I’ll keep these.'
The Blue Jackets job came open and I took it. And hosting and rinkside are fine, but that doesn’t get me going. I don’t have the passion for that like I do for play-by-play.
And maybe six months before (the Cavs play-by-play job) came open, Dave asked if I’d be interested in putting my name in the ring?
And that’s kind of how it worked.
So now that you’ve got the job, how have you enjoyed working with Jim Chones?
Michael: I can honestly say it’s been great.
Jim’s very expressive, so sitting beside him it’s easy to know what he wants to say. And that’s pretty remarkable considering that we’ve only really called games together for two weeks. But it’s true. You know where he wants to go.
I’ve never worked with someone with the depth of knowledge that he does and the experience that he has – to be able to effortlessly talk about Moses Malone and Magic or David Thompson.
It’s great to have someone like that. You can talk about any player from that era and any player from this area, and he has an opinion. And he knows what he thinks, he’s not afraid to share it. And I think that’s fantastic.
Jim is a confident professional. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of working with him on the air and getting to know him off of it.
He’s a deep, philosophical individual, and that has become explicitly clear in the last two weeks. He has a deep thinking process.
Finally, as the new voice of the team, what are your thoughts on your first Cavalier team?
Michael: I tell you what, and I mean this – this isn’t just PR – I think this is an exciting time, not just to be a Cavs fan, but to be a part of this organization.
It’s a team that’s positioned itself the right way, with a bunch of guys that you can really root for. They like each other. You can like them – actually personally like them. And it’s a bunch of guys that you want to pull for.
They’re a bunch of guys that work hard. They’re realistic about the projections on their win-loss totals are going be. But they’re busting their tails, and they’re fun to root for and fun to work with.
I think it’s a terrific situation for the organization and through that, a terrific situation for me as well. And I’m enjoying every minute of being with this young, hard-working, team-oriented bunch.