Suns Broadcaster Bender Reflects on His Career
Posted: April 11, 2011
After spending 45 years in broadcasting and 18 seasons with the Suns, Gary Bender is returning to Kansas to be a consultant for the University of Kansas. Before he calls his last game Wednesday against the Spurs, Suns.com sat down with the legendary broadcaster to talk with him at length about his remarkable career.
Suns.com: What made you pursue a career in broadcasting?
Bender: Well, I grew up in a coach’s family. My dad was a very successful coach. He’s in the Kansas Hall of Fame (for coaching football and basketball in high school and college). As a young boy, we moved to a farm after he got out of coaching – 40 miles from any town – and it was a time (he was in the seventh grade) where my total existence every summer was to be on the tractor. I’d get up in the morning, milk two cows, eat breakfast, gas up the tractor, plow the lawn, eat my sack lunch, come back home at night, milk those same two cows, eat supper and go to bed. It was really exciting. So I decided I could survive those long, hot summer days by making up ball games on the tractor. So I’d act like I was in the Orange Bowl one day, Yankee Stadium the next day, the Los Angeles Coliseum the day after that. I’d sing the national anthem. I’d do all of the commercials. If I had another round to go I’d go into extra innings or overtime, and it had such an impact on my subconscious that years later, when I did a game, I’d thought I’d done one before. That’s where it started. I decided that this might be something I could do. Here I am, literally farmed out. I was so far away from everything. There were no gangs, no drugs or drive-by shootings. We didn’t have anybody drive by. It was kind of an existence where I had to make something happen and it got me started in that direction. Most guys in my business have had similar experiences. They'd make up games driving or walking across the campus. But it all started when my dad left being a college coach and went into the farming business, It was a big deal for me because I had been the ball boy and the mascot on the team and all of a sudden I’m moving to a one-room country school and we’re 40 miles from the nearest town. At that age, you can imagine what an impact that had on me.
Suns.com: Where did you attend college?
Bender:I went on a football scholarship to Wichita University, which is known as Wichita St. now. We played both ways back then so I was a fullback and a defensive back. And I might add, a very average player. I got a Master’s degree in radio/TV and started my way up the ladder. I received my Master’s from Kansas and later was the voice of the Jayhawks for a few years. After finishing that two-year program, I got out of graduate school in 1964.
Suns.com: As an undergraduate did you study communications or broadcasting?
Bender: It’s interesting that you ask that because I really didn’t have the chance there. There wasn’t anything like that there. What I did was major in history and English and worked for the university radio station, doing the games for Wichita St. That’s kind of how I got started. So when I went to graduate school, that was the first time I was able to be around the commercial aspect of this business.
Suns.com: Back then, was broadcasting a lucrative or popular career? Was it something that you thought you could make a living doing or did you like it so much you didn’t even care?
Bender: That’s a great question. I went into the business for all the right reasons. I had total tunnel vision. I had no idea I’d make any money and I had no aspirations that I’d end up at CBS. I find that a lot of young people go into the business for the wrong reasons today. I wrote a book called, “The Call of the Game” and I talked about that. There are a lot of things that kids assume that they want to go into this business for. They want to get their name in lights. They want to make a lot of money and if that’s your motivation, I think you’re off to the wrong start. Starting out, I could have probably sold shoes and made more money, but I never had any other aspirations. It’s all I ever wanted to do. We went undefeated my junior year in high school, and as a gift to me, my dad drove me to the University of Kansas to watch Wilt Chamberlain make his debut as a college sophomore. Back then, you couldn't play as a freshman. That night he scored 52 points and had 34 rebounds against Northwestern. I came out of that place and I told my dad, “All of those times I called games on my tractor, today I realized that one day it’s going to be worth it. One day I am going to be a sportscaster.”
Suns.com: What was your big break?
Bender: I was getting my Master’s degree, writing my thesis and I was getting killed. I had run out of money, my fellowship was over, my wife was a teacher and we’d been married a year. We moved into the basement of my aunt’s house in Kansas City. I got a call one day from a guy that said he may have a job for me. If I came to the Kansas Association of Radio Broadcasters in Wichita, he would introduce me to someone. So I borrowed $30 from my aunt – because I didn’t have a credit card – and I drove my Corvair to Wichita and waited outside of the ballroom so I could be introduced. I unloaded everything that I had, which wasn’t much, for this job that was in Hutchinson, Kansas. I told him that my dad was a great coach at Dodge City Junior College and I used to come to Hutchinson where the National JUCO Tournament was held. After I was done, the guy said, “Who told you that I was going to hire a sports announcer? Why would I hire a sports announcer? I own the station, I do the sports. I don’t want to pay anybody to do the sports.” And I’m standing there and I’m just destroyed. Then he looked at me and asked me, “Are you married?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “What does your wife do?” I said, “She’s a teacher.” He said, “You’re hired. I’m the president of the school board and I need a teacher.” That was my break. I got a job in a little 1000-watt radio station. I was a disc jockey, news director and did everything imaginable other than sports. I had a country-western show on Saturday nights called “Big Ben and Ed the Redhead” and I was “Big Ben.” After that, I got my first television job back in Topeka and I went back to be the voice of the Jayhawks. Then, the thing that probably put me on the radar screen was when the Green Bay Packers hired me. So I went up to Wisconsin to do the Packers and Badgers and from there, the network discovered me and I went to CBS. The Packers thing probably is where everything started to happen for me.
Suns.com: How did you land that Packers gig?
Bender: I got that job on my tape. I went unseen. I went up there and moved out of the state for the first time. It was a big adventure for me. It was after the Lombardi Era, which was unfortunate for me, but we had one good team. I always said that if you could make it as the voice of the Packers, you could work anywhere because the fans were so demanding and sophisticated. They had heard Ray Scott for years, which was a high standard for me to meet. It was a great proving ground for me.
Suns.com: What were some of the downsides to the business?
Bender: You know, each step of the way was necessary. You have to remember, I’m a farm kid so I needed to be in a 1000-watt radio station and I needed to be in my first TV job. By the time I got to the network in 1975, I was still young, but I had enough experience that I thought I could hang in there. In fact, I did the “Hail Mary” game where Roger Staubach threw that pass to Drew Pearson. That was my first year and I was working with Johnny Unitas. I was really on a very fast track. What disappointed me the most was the politics. I got nailed by something that I can’t really discuss, but I had a person who came after my job when I got to the top and it eventually became something that I couldn’t handle very well and didn’t handle well and years later found out what really happened. So the politics, I wasn’t very good at. I don’t know that I handled that well.
Suns.com: What was your favorite sport to broadcast?
Bender: I liked football and basketball. I’m probably best known for basketball because of those Final Fours that I did and being with the Suns for many years. But I think football, maybe because I played and enjoyed it in the past, was just as fun. But I did 27 sports for the network.
Suns.com: Who was your favorite analyst to work with in basketball?
Bender: I would say Billy Packer or Doug Collins at CBS. Later I’d work with Doug at Turner. But the guys I worked with the Suns were remarkable too. It started with Keith Erickson, then Bob Elliot, then Vinny Del Negro, Tom Chambers and Cotton Fitzsimmons. I had the best of the best. I learned something from all of those guys. But the one thing I would say is that I worked with the giants of the business. I started with Johnny Unitas and I started John Madden. I worked with Sonny Jurgensons and the Dick Vermeils of the world. And each one of those guys was great to me. My theory always was, if they were good, then I was good. So I really played to them and tried to ride their coattails a to keep our broadcasts successful. Working with the giants of this business is what I’m probably most proud of in my career.
Bender said that working with the giants like Unitas is what he's enjoyed most.
(Courtesy of CBS)
Bender: John Madden. We were really good. We had two great years together and then that word “politics” came into play. Both Pat Summerall and Vin Scully, who were at the top of the totem pole, were vying for him. They gave them a contest between the two of them for who could do the best play-by-play game to go with Madden. John fought for me because he wanted to stay with me and of course, I wanted to stay with him, but I didn’t have the clout to keep him. I started John from square one, when he wasn’t very good, to overnight becoming a sensation. I had the same sort of philosophy as a Pat Summerall, I just let him play. I opened it up and listened to him, responded and reacted off of him. But the guy that I was best friends with was Dick Vermeil. Dick and I became social friends, we vacationed together and our wives spent time together. I’ve often said that if I was in a skirmish somewhere and I wanted somebody in my foxhole, it would be Dick Vermeil. He would do anything for me. He’s probably the most positive and supportive guy I’ve ever been around in my life.
Suns.com: What does it take to be a good play-by-play announcer?
Bender: I spend a lot of time listening to tapes that kids send me. I think you can tell pretty quickly if a kid has it or not. I think the most overrated thing is having a great voice. The most important things are to have a great passion for what you do and tremendous preparation. John Wooden said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” I only use 10 percent of my preparation, but I prepare more today than when I first started in the business. Experience never takes over for that. I think the hard part of this business is sustaining preparation. I’ve been in it for 45 years and I think that when I first decided not to do this anymore, was when I started grumbling and mumbling about how hard I was having to work to get ready for a game.
Suns.com: How about a color analyst?
Bender: I think it’s different for a color analyst. They have to have two things going for them. First, they have to be recognizable. They have to have instant credibility. When I checked in to hotel with Johnny Unitas it was like walking in with the President of the United States. He was the most recognizable guy in America at that time. Same thing went for Roger Staubach. Secondly, and this is for coaches, somewhere the transition has to be made from being an Xs and Os guy to seeing the big picture. In other words, you don’t want to get too technical. Also, you need to try as best you can, as Dick Vermeil used to say, “You need to be able to have my grandmother at home understand what I’m talking about.”
Suns.com: How has the business changed over the years?
Bender: When I started in this business and applied for a job, there were five guys in a 50-mile radius that were applying for that job. Today that same job would have people applying from all 50 states. There are a lot more qualified, brilliant young people that I think are so far ahead of me when I was starting. I also think that the fans are so much more sophisticated. They are privy to the same research, game notes and information that we have. So you’re not often telling them something that they don’t already know. That raises the level of expectation in a broadcast and you have to find things that they can’t read on their own or get on the internet. I think the thing that has disappointed me the most about this business is the bloggers. I never am ceased to be amazed how angry they are. I never understood what gave them the license to be so angry and vitriolic from time-to-time. And there’s nobody that goes unscathed. When I first started I think people held me in higher esteem and felt that maybe I was an expert. But today I believe the bloggers think that they know more than you do. It makes me wonder if I did something to them to create all of this trouble I’m in with them.
Suns.com: I’m going to throw some Suns names out at you and tell me what you’ll remember about working with them:
Dan Majerle: His spontaneity, his surprising ability to seize the moment and his sense of timing.
Cotton Fitzsimmons: A mentor and a guy who I learned more about life from than any analyst that I ever had.
Tom Chambers: He’s grown tremendously in the business. When I first worked with him he used to sweat profusely. We couldn’t get him to stop. And now he’s become really accomplished and I really like to be around him.
Eddie Johnson: He’s become a very strong friend. I really trust him implicitly. We have a chemistry that has evolved and although I can’t speak for Eddie, I feel like we really enjoy each other.
Vinny Del Negro: Vinny surprised me. I knew him through the NC State connection and found him to be one of the most kind and considerate people that I’ve ever been around. I think he’d do anything for you.
Scott Williams: He’s not a guy I’ve had the pleasure to work with a lot yet. But he’s a guy who cares so much – sometimes too much – and has the ability to laugh at himself.
Keith Erickson: One of my first friends in the broadcasting business. I worked with him at CBS and is a guy that is on the same page as me in terms of where I am in my faith. He’s become a confidant and someone that I’d trust with my family.
Suns.com: What made you decide to work solely for one team?
Bender: I was working for Turner when Jerry Colangelo called me in and said that he wanted to talk with me. I didn’t know what he wanted and he said that the Suns were going to start a pay-per-view thing and open up a new broadcast venture. He said that he wanted me to do the games. I told him I’d have to check with the network, to which he responded, “I’ve already done that.” So I said, “Ok.” That was Jerry. I thought I’d do it one or two years while I working at the network and it ended up being 18 years. I’ve lived in Phoenix since 1980, so it’s been kind of a a labor of love. It’s the place I’ve spent the longest length of time and secondly, I think the future of this business is being the voice of a team. Young kids today don’t have the same opportunity to go and work full-time for CBS like I did, so you have to make other ways to make it happen. It was a great run for me, an incredible time for me, and it ended up being the longest thing I’ve ever done tenure-wise.
Suns.com: Out of all of your time in Phoenix, what will look back most fondly on?
Bender: The people. I think about how (Producer of Suns Television) Bob Adloch and (Director of Suns Broadcasting) Dan Siekmann grew the business from Cox to Fox. We were on the cutting edge - the prototype - trying to figure out how to do all of this. But more importantly, the analysts, and everything I learned from them. I don’t remember as many events as I remember the people.
Suns.com: What was your favorite game you ever called in Phoenix?
Bender: The one that I always remember was that Rex Chapman shot. That was one of the most unbelievable plays, and we didn’t even end up winning that game. I remember the big-picture things like the year we got down 0-3 and Paul Westphal promised that we’d win that series. We were in L.A. and on the brink of elimination and I look over at Jerry Colangelo and he was as white as a sheet. But then we came back and won. I still can’t believe Westphal said that.
Suns.com: How about ever?
Bender: I did the 1983 game where NC State won the NCAA Championship. After the game was over I went to talk to NC State Head Coach Jimmy Valvano. He’d just been thrown into the shower, his tie was askew, he had a cigar in his mouth I told him how happy I was just be a part of that. He looked at me and said, “You know Gary, God must love ordinary people. He makes so many of them, but he also allows ordinary people to experience extraordinary things.” And I walked out of that dressing room and got onto a charter plane to Augusta and all the way there I thought about that. I’m an ordinary guy that’s been around extraordinary people and extraordinary events. It doesn’t intimidate me, it just makes me thankful. Or, if it wasn't that game, it could’ve been the year before. That was my first Final Four, when a freshman named Michael Jordan hit the shot to lead North Carolina over Georgetown for the championship. That may have had the most impact on me because that was my first Final Four.
Gary Bender was the broadcaster that started John Madden in the business.
(Courtesy of CBS)
Suns.com: Did you think Jordan was going to become the best-ever after that game?
Bender: James Worthy had been playing unbelievably, he had 26 points, and then Dean Smith called a timeout. Billy Packer and I thought that Smith was going to go to Worthy. We didn’t know how good Jordan was. But Dean Smith knew and if you look at the picture of Jordan shooting that, you’ll see John Thompson in the background in disbelief that Jordan was taking the shot. He didn’t think it was going to him either. And then they came back and Freddie Brown throws the ball away to Worthy, thinking he was one of his own teammates. And then John Thompson came over and gave him a big hug.
Suns.com: Who have you admired in the business?
Bender: I always said that if you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism. If you steal from many people, you’re a genius. I was always asked if I emulated someone else and I said I didn’t because I grew up in the hinterlands and didn’t have anyone to listen to or see. So I stole a little from everyone. I’m not an original, I’m a copycat, I guess. The only guy that sounds like me, and to my knowledge has tried to emulate me, is Utah Jazz and CBS announcer Craig Bolerjack. He’s the only guy I know that said he tried to sound like me. He’ll be doing games and people will think that I’m doing it and vice-versa. They say it’s the most sincere form of flattery to copy someone else and I can tell you that I haven’t had many of those. As for who I admired, I came up working with a guy named Merle Harmon that was at ABC, ended up working with me in the Big 10 and then went on to work with the Milwaukee Brewers. Then he went down to do the Texas Rangers. He was like a father to me. Also, when I first started in baseball, Dick Enberg was doing baseball, and he took me aside and talked to me for a long time. I had the opportunity to meet Curt Gowdy, who was one of the kindest guys. He spent all kinds of time with me and I was a nobody. I always felt like if I was ever in that position I’d try to give that kind of time to some young guy coming along. Then the other guy that had a great impact on me was Howard Cosell. Howard liked me and when I was at ABC, he kind of took me under his wing. He’d take me over to the studio at ABC when I was working over in New York and let me sit in on his show when he was doing “Speaking of Sports.” He made me realize I wasn’t nearly smart enough to be sitting next to him.
Suns.com: What would be your advice to someone trying to break into broadcasting today?
Bender: I would tell them to get as much education and experience as you could. Get an internship, if nothing else, run out and get the copy for the talent. Through attrition, a lot of jobs become available. And you need to find a way to tape games. If it means sitting up in the stands of high school games or a junior high game, do it. I would sneak into games and sit up there in the crowd and tape myself. If you know innately that if you really have something special to offer this business, you’re going to hang in there and make it happen.
Suns.com: What motivated you to write your book that will be coming out?
Bender: I wrote my book in 1994 because the University of Kansas encouraged me to do that. I was teaching once in a while and doing what they call a professional in residence. I was teaching out of the only book ever written about broadcasting at the time, and it was written back in 1948. It was called “Sportscasting.” There was really nothing else out of that time that you could teach out of. But I’m writing another book now, but it’s not even related to that. I’ve got about six chapters right now. I’m not sure what it is yet. It might just be a collection of stories and what I’ve learned from them. One of the things I’m most proud of was my coverage of Dan Jansen in the Olympics. He went to the Olympics as the world-record holder and his sister died of cancer the day of his race. People said he shouldn’t race and sure enough, he crashed. So I went to interview him and a royal Canadian mounted policeman standing there wouldn't let me get to the interview room even though I had my ABC jacket and was covered in credentials. So I ran outside in snow that was up to my knees and around the indoor skating rink. I snuck through the furniture and mechanical rooms, got past the mounted Canadian policeman, arrived into the interview room, sat down, put my earpiece in right in time for Jim McKay to say, “Here’s Gary Bender with Dan Jansen.” The reason I tell this story is that there are times in your life where you have to make it happen. You have to be competitive sometimes. No one knew where I was and while I was running I thought, “I have to be crazy. What am I doing?” But I knew I had to get to that interview room. Sometimes in life, you’re going to be faced with that, and hopefully you can respond in the right way.
Suns.com: Why was this the year to return to Kansas?
Bender: It’s been in the works for two years. I had gone back to teach a year ago in February. I told myself, “If this goes well, this is the time to do it.” It was a great experience. I had the sense that these young kids wouldn’t relate to me, but it was the exact opposite. They were like sponges. I couldn’t leave at the end of class. It’s not because I’m brilliant, it’s because they wanted to know what it is was like from someone that had been out in the arena. So I tried to figure out how I could make it happen. I talked with the dean of the journalism school and the athletic director and they all put this together. When I came back this year I told (Suns President and CEO) Rick Welts that I was probably going to finish up this year. I still don’t know what it completely looks like. My title is a consultant, but I think what I’ll end up doing is speaking.
Suns.com: Do you have any regrets?
Bender: Yeah. I probably didn’t handle some of the political things well and I let the pressure bother me. I should’ve responded differently. The second one is that I wish I would’ve kept in contact with all of these great people I’ve worked with. It seems like we don’t do that. More importantly, I’ve never done a game the way I’ve wanted to. I would love to take the headset off, put it down on the table and say, “I nailed it.” I didn’t say something or I did say something, or something happened that I would’ve changed in every broadcast. That is the biggest regret. And I think when I was going through some of the political stuff, I lost some confidence at one time and I got beat up pretty bad. It took me a while to recover and I regret that I didn’t respond better.
Suns.com: Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Bender: I would’ve probably gotten to the source of what it was all about. I couldn’t figure out why it was happening and I had somebody tell me later what happened, but it was after the fact. So that didn’t help me. I would’ve gotten to the source and been able to recognize the credibility or the lack of credibility pf the person, and moved on. Knowing what I know now, maybe I wouldn't have gotten to the network as quick as I did because I got there before I was prepared. I think now I’m a better broadcaster than I was five years ago. I think what happens to you is that you have to be true to yourself. And I’m great in a routine. But what happened to me is that I was doing 27 different sports for the network and I was running all over the world. I was probably hanging on by my teeth. I probably wasn’t prepared for all of that before I was ready to go. So if I was to do it all over again, I might have matured a little more and had a little more time to prepare for the national level. Think about where I came from. Once, I did a show with Bob Costas and he asked me where I came from and I showed him on the map and he asked, “Man, how did anybody coming from that background get into this business?” That's the most important thing. You have to be true to where you come from.
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