Broadcaster of the Week: Kevin Calabro, Seattle Sonics
Posted Nov 10 2006 3:35PM
The X-Man, Xavier McDaniel, told me this week that growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, he always believed that Washington had two NBA teams, the Sonics and the Bullets. Of course he was only 12 years old and had never been out of Columbia in ’79 when the SuperSonics from Seattle, Washington had beaten the Washington Bullets four games to one. How was Xavier McDaniel to know he would be drafted out of Wichita State, where he led college basketball in scoring and rebounding, to become a Sonic in ’85? McDaniel and 15 other Sonics past and present were honored individually through the summer at grand community court rededications around Seattle.
The Sonic Nation via Internet voted on the Top 16 Sonics of all-time. That would include, now, decades of NBA basketball in Seattle. Each Saturday for 12 weekends leading up to Opening Night, Sonic legends like X, Shawn Kemp, Sam Perkins, Gus Williams and Lenny Wilkens revisited neighborhood parks. Old courts had been repaved, lined and new modern glass backboards installed thanks to the Sonic and Storm Foundation. The fan response to ‘70s stars Spencer Haywood and Slick Watts was like a family reunion. Slick hasn’t aged. He still has the headband. Haywood, with his huge mitts, palmed the new ball and easily dunked the first christening basket. And so it went this summer, building to the opening of Seattle’s 40th year of NBA love.
I’ve been blessed to be a part of Sonics basketball as a team broadcaster since teaming with Bob Blackburn back in 1987. Like most kids growing up in Indiana, I was amazed at the acrobatic power and grace of my roundball heroes. For us it was the ABA Pacers of George McGinnis, Roger Brown, Billy Keller, Mel Daniels and Freddie Lewis. Every one wore black low-cut Chucks in my neighborhood, just like “The Rajah,” Roger Brown. And because there were limited TV broadcasts, the radio play-by-play was our connection to Slick Leonard’s ballclub. The great Jerry Baker’s broadcasts from Freedom Hall or later Joe McConnell’s broadcasting on the road from the Salt Palace brought a dimension of imagination to the game we desperately wanted to play. Only a very gifted few could play really. So the next best thing was to watch, observe and attempt to describe.
So for 20 seasons now with kindly assistance from great players, I’ve had the best seat in the house. What lottery did I win? I’ve broadcast games with Lenny Wilkens, Marques Johnson, Rick Barry, Mike Fratello, Hubie Brown, Bill Raftery, Bill Walton, James Worthy, Rick Carlisle, Rick Mount, Jack Sikma, Wally Walker, Mychal Thompson, Craig Ehlo and many others. I mention these gentlemen to give you an idea of who has guided and taught me the game because unless you have played at this level, you need someone of that caliber to relate, to explain how difficult it is on the second night of a back-to-back or the fifth in seven nights on the road to check Kareem, defend Michael or take away LeBron’s drive.
Our season began with a home game against the Trailblazers. It marked the return of Mr. Sonic, Nate McMillan. Mac had been with the Sonics 19 years as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. He had seen it all and done it all in Seattle and after a 52-win season with the Sonics, decided his future was to rebuild the fortunes of the Blazers. It hurt to see him go. Nate is as good a person as he is a coach. He is unflinchingly honest, disciplined and proud. And he knows Seattle’s personnel very well. The Blazers prized rookie Brandon Roy grew up in Seattle watching Gary Payton. The former Washington Huskie joins the ranks of Jamal Crawford, Nate Robinson, Jason Terry, Doug Christie, Clint Richardson, and James Edwards as players coming home to compete against a team they grew up watching. And like many home grown heroes before, he rose to the occasion. Seattle lost a lead of nine with five minutes left as Portland ran the high pick-and-roll repeatedly with Roy and Zach Randolph. Behind a potential Rookie of the Year, Roy, the Blazers won.
Our broadcast went very well. It was the first team broadcast Lenny and I had done. Of course the Hall of Famer, aside from coaching and playing pro ball since 1960, spent a year at CBS working with Brent Musberger. It was the first non-simulcast broadcast we have done in Seattle since I began doing them with Rick Barry in 1989. Lenny has a colorful encyclopedic knowledge of the game, so as an announcer the best thing to do is ask questions and get the hell out of the way.
We all spend a great deal of time “cruising” the court before a game. On and around the court before a game there are enough stories and anecdotes to fill a book. So we spend about a half an hour before we rehearse, swapping information with players, coaches, writers and other broadcasters. We arrive two to two and a half hours before a game to glean that type of information and prepare for a half hour pregame show. Once we are on the air, we are focused for three to three and a half hours.
After our home opener we are on our way to Los Angeles the next afternoon. The team will practice, view tape, and then reconvene at Boeing Field in Seattle. The entire two and a half hour trip, the coaches huddle mid-cabin over laptops reviewing Laker sets and reassessing their own performance from the night before. Of course, the real analysis comes later at a Marina del Ray sports bar while watching the Nuggets and Clippers breakfast from the Staples Center. The radio play-by-play announcer, David Locke, and I join Sonic assistants Jack Sikma and Ralph Louis in quesadilla-fueled discussion. We cover it all from Kobe Bryant’s knee surgery and Lamar Odom’s hot start to Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. The majority of us think it would be wise to start a team with someone of Kidd’s varied skill set.
Sleeping is usually tough on road trips for me. I go to bed at two and rise at 8:30 for a 9:30 bus to shootaround at a local small L.A. college. We watch Bob Hill and his staff go over the game plan on the court with the players. This morning, starting center Johan Petro is sitting out because of a rapid heart beat the night before. He won’t play on this night and is given a medical clearance the next day. So it goes with coaching – switching on the fly. The Sonics are already down a man, 7-footer Robert Swift is out for the season with an ACL injury. The Supes will have to pay “small” versus the Lakers who are without Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm. And to further complicate preparing for L.A., we don’t know if Kobe will play. He has missed the first two, both wins led by the extraordinarily talented Lamar Odom. The coaching at this level is really remarkable when you think of all the variables these guys deal with. After shootaround I usually get in an hour or two walk. In L.A. that means a hike to Venice Beach, then to Santa Monica. I once saw Wilt Chamberlain on a Huffy bike cruising on the boardwalk.
One group leaves for the game in two buses, an early and late bus. The great Sonic shooter Ray Allen, takes a cab three hours before game time to the arena. He has the key to every arena because he shows before anybody else. Ray turns the lights on. How many shots he gets off before anybody else arrives is only a guess. He averaged 25 a game and shot 41percent from 3, and 90 percent from the line last season. Practice makes perfect is what mama used to say. I’ve seen others show early – Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Isiah to name a few.
These fellows lock on early, then relax a little in the locker room before tip. The locker rooms are quiet. Game tapes run without sound on monitors in the corner. Rashard Lewis wears headphones while sitting at his cubicle, whipping a ball from left to right between his legs. Danny Fortson sits on the training table with a huge pressure wrap on his knee. Luke Ridnour has his eyes closed and is leaning back in his chair already with a full sweat. It’s an hour and a half before game time and the psyche has begun. After our interviews in the coach’s office, we head back to the court to walk the boundaries over one more time with antennae up for stories, info and updates. We hear that Kobe will play, and as the layup line forms, there is a loud ovation from the Lakers’ crowd. The League’s scoring champ from last season will indeed play.
The Sonics fall behind immediately by 20 in the first, but in the NBA an early lead is rarely safe. The Supes make a predictable run to scramble back into the game and actually have a chance to win it. However, Ronny Turiaf rises to the occasion with two blocked shots in one play and secures the win for L.A. After 45 minutes of fury, the game boils down to the last two minutes and maybe two possessions. The intensity drains so much energy that very little is said and our travel party moves slowly onto the plane back to Seattle. The Sonics will play the Lakers 36 hours later in Seattle. This time the Sonics will get some help.
The next afternoon in the midst of a torrential rainstorm which seems fitting, the Sonics’ players and 13 legends show up at a team rally to rededicate a community center in the city. Crowded beneath a tent the size of the court are two hundred fans, media and players. We are packed in as buckets of rain cascade off the tarp above us. Each player is introduced to the crowd and then released to the fans for a close quarter autograph signing session. Twenty-seven year old World Championship posters, Shawn Kemp coffee mugs, real leather NBA balls, Dale Ellis growth charts, Fred Brown paper masks, and Sonic Space Needle logos all are signed. As Slick Watts said, “It may be raining, but there’s a whole lot of sunshine under the tent.”
That night the group assembled for a banquet with season ticket holders. We assembled the guys on a stage sitting together and telling stories for the fans. Downtown Fred Brown, The Wizard, Spencer, Detlef, Jack, Slick, Big Smooth, Lenny Wilkens, X-Man, and Dale Ellis related their respect for one another and their love for the city where they made their mark. I’m glad I was there that night. It really hit home what it meant to be part of a proud Seattle tradition.
The following night, the Sonics met the Lakers at Key Arena. After both clubs shot 60 percent in the first quarter, the Supes staked a lead at the half. I was on the court to introduce all 16 of the legends selected by the fans. With the exception of Gary Payton, Nate McMillan and Dennis Johnson, all of them were there together in one place with a tremendous applause from the fans. There was no way the Sonics would lose that night. There was too much talent on the court.
Hired at age 26 by the Kansas City Kings in the 1983-84 season, Kevin Calabro became one of the youngest play-by-play announcers in NBA history. During his career, he has been a play-by-play contributor for TNT, TBS and ESPN radio broadcasts of the NBA, and even served as the voice of the U.S. Men's 2000 Olympic Basketball team in Sydney, Australia during the 2000 Olympic Games. The 2006-07 season marks Calabro's 20th year as the "Voice of the Sonics" where he has been part of several regional Emmy Award-winning broadcasts.