Voices of Reason
November 1, 2002
It’s Neil Funk’s job to tell the Bulls radio audience the “what” of a game. And it’s John Paxson’s job to explain the why. So when former Bull Ron Artest came off the floor after fouling out in Dallas– tugging at his shorts and revealing a little more of himself than fans usually see– Paxson remained silent.
“There was no why to that one,” laughs Paxson.
Funk is in his 12th season doing play-by-play for Chicago Bulls games broadcast on ESPN 1000, while former Chicago Bull Paxson is in his seventh year of broadcasting and his fifth year doing analysis with Funk. It’s a great partnership, both for listeners and for Funk and Paxson.
“Pax is wonderful, “says Funk. “He has such a great knowledge of the game, and he has something rare: he can see the game from the perspective of a guy who played and really understands it, yet he can describe it in words that everyone understands. If you have a good color guy, it makes your job so much easier.”
“Neil and I have a really good rapport,” adds Paxson. “We hang out on the road, along with Johnny Kerr, and we have a good time. It makes it much easier when you work with someone you really like and get along with.”
The two have taken different roads to where they are today.
Funk’s first radio job came after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1969 with a degree in political science. He joined a small station in Danville, Illinois, and ended up covering local high school sports, as well as University of Illinois football and basketball games. Initially, he took a sales job at the station, but they needed a sports director, and Funk, who played high school basketball, football and baseball, as well as one year of college basketball, jumped at the chance.
“It was a way to break in and learn the business,” says Funk, 56, who didn’t have any broadcast training but quickly got it doing one game a night and up to eight games per day during tournaments. “When I sat down and did it at first, I wasn’t very good. You learn by trial and error. I was always interested in sports, and I was fairly verbal and understood what was going on. If you do it long enough and have any talent at all, you get better.”
When the Bulls hit the road, so do John Paxson and Neil Funk—here they pose for a photo in Washington, D.C. prior to the night's game.
Funk moved up quickly, earning his first NBA gig in 1976 broadcasting Sixers games in Philadelphia. The 1989 Emmy-winner has also worked in Kansas City announcing Kings’ games (he was named Missouri’s best sports broadcaster three times), and he handled play-by-play for three seasons for the New Jersey Nets.
“I enjoy creating a picture,” says Funk, who lives with his wife, Renee, in Chicago. “And I love sports so it’s enjoyable to watch the game. But when you’re broadcasting, you’re not watching as a fan so much as trying to create something for the listeners so they can enjoy it.”
Paxson, a key contributor to the Bulls 1991, ‘92 and ‘93 NBA Championship teams, took a different route to his current job. Selected by San Antonio in the first round of the 1983 NBA Draft, he played 11 years in the league, his last nine with the Bulls, and finally retired after several knee surgeries. (Paxson’s a second-generation NBA player; his dad Jim played for two years in the mid-1950s, for the Minneapolis Lakers and the Cincinnati Royals, and his brother Jim, now general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, played 11 years with Portland and Boston).
The Bulls wanted Paxson to continue with the organization, and in 1995, Coach Phil Jackson hired him as an assistant coach for the 1995-96 season.
“I have so much respect for Phil that I decided to do it,” says the 41-year-old Paxson, a Notre Dame grad. “And I knew full well the time commitment coaching takes. But after that year I missed my wife and kids (he and wife Carolyn’s two sons are now 12 and 15) so much. I realized that if I didn’t prioritize, I’d miss everything that they were doing.”
Still, it was one of the most valuable years he spent in the league. “I learned as much or more in that one year being around the Bulls staff as I did in 11 years as a player,” Paxson says. “As a player, you try to put the team first but it’s very much about preparing yourself for a game. As a coach, so many other things factor in. That year helped me do what I do now as a color analyst.”
Paxson’s loyalty and knowledge are so respected league-wide that when Michael Jordan joined the Washington Wizards, he asked Paxson to consider the head coaching job. “For a few days, I thought it was something I’d want to do, but then you think about reality--moving to Washington, never having been a head coach before. The reason I even considered it was because of Michael.” Pax, who to this day is flattered that MJ extended the invitation, said no.
So, while Paxson and Funk travel with the team, they have summers off and don’t put in the brutal hours demanded of a coaching staff. Still, travel can be rough on a family.
Who can forget John Paxson's shot in 1993 to help the Bulls win their third world title?
“It’s what I’ve always done, and my family has made all the accommodations they can make,” explains a grateful Funk. “My wife often filled two roles. But I’m off all summer, and when you’re home you try to do more things with the family that someone normally couldn’t do during the week.”
During the season, Pax and Funk each have game-day and off-day routines so that they’re well prepared once they’re on the air.
Because Funk has been working NBA games since 1976 and knows most of the players, coaches and other personalities, his preparation is concerned more with what’s going on with that night’s game. On game day, Funk reads the papers to see what others are saying or if anything unusual is going on. He gets to the United Center around 3:00 P.M. and visits the Bulls public relations office, then tapes his interview with Bulls Coach Bill Cartwright.
Funk spends the remaining pregame time talking to the visiting team’s coaches, broadcasters and beat writers, trading news and tidbits. It’s all about having enough inside stuff to make the game fun and exciting for listeners.
Funk’s away-game routine is similar, though he normally interviews Cartwright at the team’s hotel and gets together with Paxson, Kerr and the home team’s broadcasters for lunch.
Paxson spends his prep time looking at statistics, talking to coaches and other league personnel, and watching games at home. “I get a feel for other teams around the league to see why they’re successful or why they’re not successful,” he says. “There are also certain things that players do and certain statistics that are meaningful to me that come from years of playing and being around the game.
“I have a sheet and go over 12 different stats from each team--including points, points allowed, field goals. There are certain things that happen, and you wonder why a team is good. I try not to get caught up in numbers, though, because they don’t always tell everything,” explains Paxson.
On game day, Paxson gets on the computer and reads the visiting team’s hometown newspaper. Once he’s arrived at the United Center or the visitor’s arena, Paxson might talk to other broadcasters or an assistant coach to get more perspective. “A lot of things add up when you talk to other people,” he says. “But it’s not that complicated—it’s the game of basketball, and, being around it for so long, I have a pretty good grasp of what’s important and what’s not.”
Paxson’s popularity as a player led to his immortalization as a Bulls bobblehead.
Like the game itself, each broadcast has a rhythm, dictated by the game’s action. “If it’s a terrific game, then what I do is easy,” says Funk. “If a game’s got rhythm, you’ve got rhythm. It’s easier to put together sentences.” And when a game is filled with fouls and throwaway balls, it’s play-by-play man Funk’s job to give the game some flow.
While Funk’s a seasoned pro, he occasionally--though rarely--makes mistakes. And that’s something to brag about with a job that demands instant, nearly non-stop description of ongoing action. “Sometimes things happen, and it would have been better to be able to think longer,” admits Funk. “Once in a while you’re not quite sure what happened or how to describe it. If I’m speechless, I let Pax take care of it.”
One essential item in a league filled with difficult-to-pronounce European names is the NBA pronunciation guide.
“When the Bulls went to Paris a few years ago, we got there and I realized that the teams they were playing were filled with European names I couldn’t pronounce, so I was a little mortified.” Since Funk hadn’t called games with these players, he had the names written out phonetically and did the best he could with unfamiliar material.
“There have been millions of memorable mistakes,” he says looking back. “Most of them before I got to the NBA, but I’ve had the wrong guy scoring, the wrong name, the wrong number--it goes with the territory. You try to call a perfect game, but occasionally when the game ends, you’ll ask, “Was I good tonight?” You think you were flawless, and then your wife says, ‘You stunk!’”
Paxson, who never imagined he’d be an analyst, plunged into the job without a safety net. He didn’t do any mock games before his first real game, and admits that he wondered early on what he was doing and if people thought he sounded terrible.
Feedback came from Funk and the other Bulls radio and television broadcasters and producers. “It was hard at first because when you watch or listen to people that broadcast games, the good ones make it sound easy,” says Paxson, who ironically (and somewhat modestly) describes himself as a better listener than a talker.
Entering his seventh season behind the mike, Paxson (competing in the Running with the Bulls 8K Run) is enjoying staying close to the game and active in the community.
The best advice he got was from Funk, who simply told him, ‘just be yourself.’ “That’s what I try to do,” says Paxson, whose personality both in person and on-air is low-key, smart and sincere. “I’m not a storyteller, and I’m not a personality that jumps out of his chair. I’m someone with an understanding of the game, and I try to bring that across when I can.”
When they’re on the road, Funk and Paxson, like the other Bulls broadcasters, travel with the players and coaches, though they tend to hang out with each other and Bulls television analyst and the team’s first head coach, Johnny “Red” Kerr.
No wild road stories from these guys; Paxson and Funk are avid readers, spending long hours on planes, on buses and in hotels reading fiction (Pax) or mysteries (Funk). Favorite cities include Boston, San Antonio, and any warm-weather city when it’s winter in Chicago.
Funk’s an avid golfer and, during the off-season, loves to travel with his wife, especially to visit their son, who works for the NBA in New York. When Paxson is at home, he likes to work out each morning (“I made the commitment a long time ago to exercise,” he says) in his home gym. And along with a couple of other dads, he coaches his sixth-grade son Drew’s basketball team. His other son, Ryan, is a high school freshman and also plays basketball. “I try not to put a lot of pressure on them because there’s pressure anyway with name recognition.”
There’s always the chance Paxson the broadcaster may become a coach, though Funk says Pax’s future may lie in broadcasting. “He’s one of the really bright, young talents. If he wanted to make a career out of broadcasting, he’d be one of the best guys in the country.”
In the meantime, Funk will continue to tell the what of a game, while Pax will explain the why. And if one of them is occasionally left speechless, the other will no doubt jump in and fill the gap.
- by Anne Stein