Thrill Ride

Hall of Fame a fitting capstone to George Blaha's career

Legendary Pistons broadcaster George Blaha will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame on Monday night.
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Sitting courtside through two championship eras of Pistons basketball gave George Blaha the platform that earned him his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, but it isn’t lost on the voice of the Pistons that it was all those other things he did to get the job 34 years ago that made it possible.

Like covering board meetings and high school baseball games in Adrian in 1969 at WABJ radio, his first paid broadcasting gig. Or two years later capitalizing on his first big break, becoming the play-by-play broadcaster for Michigan State football over Lansing’s WJIM in the fall of 1971. That and a tape of Blaha’s call of the 1974 Class B state championship game – Muskegon Heights 52, Holt 44 – led to his dream job, calling Pistons games for WJR.

“Frank Beckmann was acting sports director at WJR and Tom Campbell was a newscaster there who was a friend of mine from an internship I did at WQTE, which was an elevator music and serious news station in the Whittier Building. He recommended me to Frank, who said all he had available at the time was the Pistons opening.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That would be my first choice.’ I loved the NBA. I’d been watching it with my dad since the Sweetwater Clifton days with the Knicks, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the Sunday games. I followed the Pistons religiously. I was absolutely blown away when I had a chance to get that job. And I thought how cool it would be to get to all those great areans and broadcast all their games. And you know what? I still do.”

Among the candidates Blaha beat out? A couple of guys with NBA broadcast experience and a former ABA broadcaster who was between jobs – some guy named Bob Costas.

Blaha will be one of 12 members of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame’s 54th induction class, the ceremony to be held Monday at the Rock Financial Showplace in Novi. (Tickets are available at 248-473-0656 or at michigansportshof.org.) The class was originally to be inducted in 2008, but the Hall’s financial difficulties pushed the induction back two years.

“I’m just honored to be in this class,” Blaha said. “With the support the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame has, I knew sooner or later they would have an induction. I’m kind of glad it’s happening now instead of during basketball season so I only have to work around Michigan State football.”

It means the world to Blaha to go in next to some of the greatest broadcasters in state history – Ernie Harwell, Bruce Martyn, Dave Diles, Bob Reynolds, Ray Lane and the man who hired him 34 years ago, Frank Beckmann – and alongside the greats whose games he called. They include Detroit Mayor Dave Bing – Blaha actually only called Bing’s name for the opposition, Washington and Boston – Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson.

“This is a wonderful honor for somebody who has spent his life in Michigan,” he said. “You have your roots here, your family is here, almost all of your close friends are here. It’s something that I will always cherish. Not only that, I know of and, in some cases, have watched all of these great athletes who are enshrined perform.

“Often in broadcasting, you have to travel somewhere to get a start, and more often than not you just stay there. Let’s say I would have been lucky enough to be in some other state’s sports hall of fame. It would wonderful, but not as significant to me as being in the Hall of Fame of my home state.”

Only Al McCoy, who began calling Phoenix Suns games in 1972, has greater uninterrupted tenure with the same team among all NBA announcers. Cleveland’s Joe Tait began calling Cavs games in 1970, but spent a season apiece calling Nets and Bulls games in the early ’80s after his Cleveland radio station lost broadcast rights briefly.

Even after 34 seasons, Blaha has maintained an unmistakable enthusiasm for calling 82 regular-season games a year – plus preseason and playoff games, the more of those the better, as far as he’s concerned.

“Fans would know, I think, if I was just trying to pick up a paycheck,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to work with great color commentators both with the Pistons and Michigan State, watched terrific athletes play and always felt that you better be at least overprepared and maybe overprepared plus. Because the coaches, the players and the fans all deserve that. If you short-change either the coaches or the players or the fans, you’re not really being true to the sport. If you truly love the game, being prepared is more fun than work.”

It’s a long way from wind-blown press boxes at high school football fields where you have to keep your own stats and try to pick up uniform numbers covered in mud, but it’s all been part of the same ride that carried George Blaha to the shrine of Michigan athletics.

“When I sat down at Cobo for my first broadcast in the fall of 1976, it was the Pistons and Washington Bullets,” he said. “Bob Lanier and Wes Unseld walked out for the opening tip and I said, ‘This is a man’s league. I better buckle up my seat belt.’ ”

Thirty-four years later, it’s still a thrill ride for George Blaha.