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>> Also: Durham named recipient of basketball Hall of Fame's 2011 Curt Gowdy Media Award
It all started at a 1,000-watt radio station in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
Jim Durham did do some impressions then, though not of the Tex Baxter character from the iconic Mary Tyler Moore TV show, but of U.S. Senators Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey and newscaster Chet Huntley.
“In a small market, you do everything,” recalled Durham. “I was a full time disc jockey. I was having the time of my life. On weekends, I (broadcast) games. You got paid $15 extra: Bloomington-Normal, Illinois Wesleyan, Illinois State. Doug (Collins) was playing then at Illinois State. It was a great learning experience, but I was just doing the sports on the side.”
It was 1973 and Durham was at the radio station one Saturday afternoon and read on the wire machine that Bulls radio announcer Jack Fleming was leaving to return to the East. So like most kids in the small markets, Durham thought, “What the heck,” and sent an audition tape to WIND, which had taken over the Bulls games from WGN. Durham went back to his business and pretty much forgot even sending the tape. A few months later, Durham got a call asking him to come to Chicago for an interview. It took a lot of convincing for Durham to believe it wasn’t a gag.
Not long afterward, the first NBA game Jim Durham ever saw, a preseason exhibition game between the Bulls and Illinois State rookie Doug Collins’ Philadelphia 76ers, was the first game Durham broadcast for the Bulls.
It was the first of more than 1,000 games through the first Bulls championship in 1991. Durham also did White Sox and Houston Astros TV broadcasts, and handled play-by-play duties for the Dallas Mavericks from 1993 until 2001 after leaving the Bulls. More recently, he has been the lead ESPN NBA basketball radio voice for the past 16 years. Durham was named Illinois sportscaster of the year three times and twice was a Chicago Emmy award winner.
That long time excellence for one of the pioneer Bulls announcers will result in Durham receiving the Curt Gowdy award for electronic media from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Aug. 11 during enshrinement weekend in Springfield, Mass. The award represents Hall of Fame designation for journalists.
Jim Durham, the 2011 Gowdy Award winner representing electronic media, joined ESPN in 1992, and serves as lead play-by-play commentator for the NBA on ESPN Radio, a role he received in January 1996 when the network’s game coverage debuted.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
“He’s the best I’ve ever heard on radio,” said Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, Durham’s long time ESPN partner. “He seems to have been taken for granted because he’s such a self effacing guy. But he has everything—the great voice, the instinct for coming to the exciting parts of the game so that you can feel it in his voice. He never misses a tip, a pass, deflection, every shot, every defensive play and with great recall. He’s just amazing. This was long overdue.”
And a long way to come for the kid from Chicago’s West Side who found himself being raised on his grandfather’s farm near Kankakee after his father died when Jim was five.
“My mom didn’t think she could raise three kids (older brother and sister) in the big city, so we moved Downstate (Donovan, Illinois, population 351 at the last census),” Jim said.
Young Jim played basketball and baseball, though with about 100 kids in school most everyone did. He also lettered in speech, showing a nascent interest.
“My first radio experience, though, did not happen until I began my ill-fated college career at Illinois State,” Durham offers with a laugh. “I worked at the campus radio station, but spent more time there than in class. Even in high school, I had that interest. I grew up on a farm and knew how hard that work was and wanted something different.”
He also was helping out at a local commercial radio station when Illinois State had seen enough and so much for the student deferment. Durham was drafted into the Army. He didn’t serve in Vietnam, but he saw the outcomes as he was trained to be an operating room technician. He went to work at Walter Reed hospital and in Germany.
“I saw the result of the horrible things that were happening,” Durham recalled.
After his two year stint ended, Durham got a radio job in Salina, Kansas, and then went back to home to Illinois, to Bloomington, and that one afternoon that changed his life in deciding to send in that long shot audition tape.
“People forget how good Jack Fleming was,” said Pat Williams, the longtime Orlando executive who was then Bulls general manager. “But he wanted to go back to West Virginia and doing the Steelers. It was a big loss. So the cry went out, ‘Send us your tapes.’ WIND was doing the screening and called me one day. They’d narrowed it down to three or four, so I said, ‘Let’s take a listen.’ On comes the Jim Durham tape and I had that feeling Tom Greenway, the old scout, probably had when he first saw Mickey Mantle. I said, ‘We’ve got something there. There’s a voice there.’ I said, ‘This guy is good. We’ve got to find out more.’
“The search ended quickly,” said Williams. “There was just one finalist. But you don’t think 40 years ago in those WIND offices on Michigan Avenue that you’re listening to a Hall of Fame broadcaster. I was very proud to be part of that hiring process.”
And so some two decades after leaving the West Side after his father’s death, Jim Durham was back in Chicago.
“They were just coming off that gut wrenching (seventh game by three points) playoff loss to the Lakers,” said Durham. “But it was a great group that always played hard and left everything on the floor. They just were lacking in depth, and it caught up with them in that Golden State series (in 1975).”
That was the effective end of the great run for the Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier teams, though Durham helped commence the great broadcasting career of the late Bulls legend Johnny “Red” Kerr, who went on to become one of Durham’s closest friends.
“That started in my third year,” Durham recalled. “The wheels had come off that great team and they were on the way to the worst record in their history. Up until then, I was doing the games by myself. I thought we needed something. Johnny had been business manager, but he was still coming to the games to do a halftime thing, Kerr’s Corner. He’d tape some interviews and do it live from the Stadium. I’d take the tapes on the road and play them, but after about 20 games I said we needed Johnny. So one game I say, ‘Give Red a mic.’
“And it was just the greatest experience from the first game,” said Durham with a fond laugh. “The first game I’m announcing the lineups and I get to the referees and say it will be Earl Strom and Joe Gushue. And John goes, ‘Gesundheit.’ And we were on our way.”
Durham, of course, did the famous Michael Jordan “Shot” in the 1989 playoffs with Kerr. But he believes the real start of Chicago’s love for the Bulls was the 1976-77 team which finished 20-4 and played a classic series with the eventual champion Trail Blazers.
“It was all sellouts down the stretch, maybe 15 straight. We got a letter from the fire marshal saying we couldn’t announce more 20,000 [in attendance],” said Durham. “There were at least 23,000. It was a wonderful time.”
Durham also mentioned Ennis Whatley winning the four overtime longest game in franchise history over Portland and then going to Angel Guardian gym on the North Side for training camp in 1984 when Jordan was a rookie.
“We’re talking to Murph (coach, Kevin Loughery) and say, ‘How’s the rook?’” Durham recalled. “Kevin says, ‘He’s a little better than we thought,” which was the understatement of all time.
“And then with Horace (Grant) and Scottie (Pippen) coming on, we felt it was only a matter of time before they did it. But four straight (over Detroit in the 1991 playoffs before advancing to the NBA Finals). That was something.”
Durham left after that season and worked for the Mavs and did network games for Turner with Chicagoan Dick Versace, and then moved to ESPN with Ramsay. Though it was some change with the Mavs, who in the ‘90s produced the worst records in the league virtually every season. Now that’s not easy.
But it’s always been fun, just like it was at that 1,000-watt radio station in central Illinois. Drawing pictures with words with the best of them. It’s been a masterpiece for Jim Durham and now he’s headed to the Hall of Fame.