“The last five years he did our Pistons games at The Palace, he would tell me every year, ‘This is it for me, Peter – I can’t do it anymore,’ ” Skorich laughs today. “I’d always say, ‘Ken, let’s talk around August.’ The NBA season wears you down. He was doing morning drive, then afternoon drive. One of the years he did it was one of the worst winters you could imagine. Every night we played, it seemed like there was a major snowstorm. It wore him down.
“He said that was it, I told him we’d talk in August and when August came, his opinion had not changed. People say we got rid of Ken Calvert. If Ken Calvert wanted to be here for 30 years, he would have been here for 30 years.”
But with their familiar and popular arena announcer gone, Skorich had a hole to fill – in the same way Joe Dumars has to respond when one of his players leaves via free agency. And replacing Calvert, an FM radio icon in Detroit, was not a decision they took lightly.
Skorich, senior vice president of broadcasting and multimedia for Palace Sports & Entertainment, huddled with executive vice president Marilyn Hauser, and they arrived at the same recommendation: John Mason, so enormously popular as the morning host at Detroit’s WJLB-FM that he was universally known as simply Mason.
And thus a legend was born. Or at least conceived.
Mason’s “Deee-troit Basketball’’ call has proven a phenomenon, so immediately recognizable and associated with the franchise that he’s in demand across the country – and beyond.
He’s traveled to Cyprus to do an international all-star game. He’s gotten fan mail from Japan, New Zealand, Africa and China. Again this year the University of Kentucky brought him in for its Midnight Madness event. He gets flooded with invitations to do similar events at campuses throughout America. He’s been recognized at airports in Europe and bars in Times Square. With no NBA team in Las Vegas – and, so, no NBA public-address announcer lined up for this season’s All-Star game there – Mason got the call.
No wonder Mason is seriously considering writing a book with the working title “Deee-troit Basketball: Two Words that Changed My Life.”
A moment of genius
Here’s how it happened.
“We were on national TV three times during my second season (2002-03),” Mason recalls. “The second time they came in, I’m sitting right next to the on-floor director for the NBA. She said, ‘Hey, we’re going to switch out to another game because this one is boring.’ The score was low. I didn’t believe they were really going to do it – I thought she was joking. But I look down at the monitor and we’re gone.
“It happened again the following time they came to town. This is when the Pistons’ defense was king of the NBA’’ – during Rick Carlisle’s second year, when the Pistons went 50-32 but averaged only 91 points a game. “The network was disenchanted because there was no scoring. I heard her doing the countdown before the switch and I was like, ‘This is so unfair to the team for all the effort and to the city of Detroit.’ And I just yelled it out. They took the ball right before the switch and I just yelled it out.”
And then it hit him. Uh-oh. What did I do?
“Everybody at the scorer’s table just looked at me – it was not the norm. I was just trying to yell ‘Deee-troit’ – just trying to get it on TV before they switched out to emphasize our pride. It was a Detroit thing. I was sincerely apologetic. I just wanted that one moment.”
And that was it. Until a week or so later. The Pistons are on the road. A few hundred loyal fans, either transplants or travelers, are in the arena.. Mason’s sitting home watching on TV with the Pistons amid a rally. That’s when he hears it.
“Deee-troit Basketball! Deee-troit Basketball!”
Pistons fans … in an away arena … spontaneously picking up a chant that began as a rant against a television network’s dismissal of a basketball team – Mason’s basketball team … and his city, to boot.
“But I didn’t do it again. I got what I wanted out of it, so I left it alone,” Mason said. “Then we’re at a game and the Pistons are behind and the crowd is kind of quiet. Pete leans over to me and tells me to do something to get the crowd fired up. So I yelled it again – and from then on, it was platinum.”
“There was a time he did it and I heard the people mimic it,” Skorich said, “and I said, ‘Did you hear that?’ I said to myself, ‘Holy smoke, the guy just coined a phrase.’ And now it’s our marketing effort. We’ve done a lot of little things over the years. The Ben (Wallace) gong thing, but it’s not interactive. Other than the fans at Cobo serenading Herb Brown when they were trying to get him axed, this is the only thing I’ve seen where the crowd is interactive.
“And it was organic, nothing that was calculated, nothing that there was a directive about. It was one of about 25 things he was doing uniquely and this is the one that caught fire.”
Part of the show
Now Mason is as much a part of the game as, well, the game. You’ve got to be in your seat for pregame player introductions – “Basketball fans from around the state of Meee-chigan … Chauncey B-B-B-Billups … The Palace prince, Tayshaun Prrrince.” Every time the referee awards possession to the Pistons, the crowd quiets in anticipation – this might be the moment Mason bellows out “Deee-troit Basketball!”
“I just revel in how he holds it back from the crowd now,” Skorich said, “and makes them wait for that magical moment.”
There wasn’t a lot of magic in the air in the early days. As hopelessly overwhelmed as Mason felt in his first FM radio gig in St. Louis – before he came to Detroit to take an off-air job and got his break only when the morning man he would replace called from vacation to say he wasn’t coming back – he felt similarly out of his element as the arena announcer for an NBA team.
“Three times I was going to quit,” Mason said. “It was just too much for me.”
The first was when notoriously combative NBA official Joey Crawford got irked because Mason misinterpreted one of his calls.
“He walked over to me real slow. ‘Let me tell you something, sir. You are not a fan. You wait for me to make the call.’ And he would not stop. He comes back 10 plays later and repeated it again. He comes back at halftime, same thing. He wouldn’t let it go.”
Then there was the time he might have – might have – called Kenyon Martin “Keon” Martin.
“His teammates kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Kenyon’s really mad. You really made Kenyon mad.’ Then he comes up and stands in front of me, flexing his arms. I thought, ‘Maybe this ain’t for me. Maybe I need to be back in front of the TV.’
“The third time is when a season-ticket holder, an older lady, came up to me. You could tell she had real money. I mean she was dripping in ice, more than any rapper I’d ever seen. And she says to me, ‘Young man, when are you leaving and when will Ken Calvert return?’ And I’m like … OK.
“And then I turned around, and there were some kids – never been to a game – made their way down to my area, and said, ‘Mason, we only came because you were here. You’re great.’ Kids from the inner city come to the game and now they think they have a part in the game because you’re on the floor.
“So I didn’t quit. I held on. And everything great that’s happened to me since 2001 has happened because of the Detroit Pistons.”
The lure of fame
So when his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers called this summer to try to get him to jump ship, Mason was flattered but not conflicted.
“Not even a second thought,” he said. “The only reason the Cavs people wanted me was for what the Pistons allowed me to create. It felt good. It was a tremendous ego stroke. But my reality is, win 50 games or lose 50, playoffs or not, the players didn’t want me gone and the team officials didn’t want me gone.
“They let me create the style of who I was and they took a lot of heat – and I mean there was some very hot heat from season-ticket holders and others about my style. It got really chippy there. But they fought for me.
“The guy I felt most sorry for was Pete Skorich. He had to be the one to sit there and train me. Pete literally had to do this thing piece by piece, bless his heart. I’m sure there were nights he pulled his hair out, but I think it all grew back.”
“You could be an NBA aficionado, but sitting in that seat, the pressure is magnified,” Skorich said. “I tried to help him out and ease the transition. His style was so radically different than Ken’s that we got many, many complaints about why we made this change. And we wrestled with it internally, as well.
“But we knew he was good and we knew he was a cult figure in Detroit and we were hoping if we stuck with him, good things would happen. And, of course, it did. He is widely regarded around the NBA as the best. Teams are constantly calling us trying to figure out how it happened, what we did. We didn’t do much – other than find the right guy for the job.”
He became the right guy for the job in the time it takes to say two words, two magical words that came to symbolize the gritty pride and work ethic of both a basketball team and the city it calls home.