McLeod and Clear

Unless you’re actually around Fred McLeod during an NBA season, you’d have no way of knowing that he’s hands-down the hardest working man in show business.

But, say, on the flight following an action-packed gameday on the road, while much of the traveling staff is nodding off or unwinding over an episode of “Sons of Anarchy,” the Cavaliers’ television play-by-play voice is crunching stats, combing through newspaper clips or viewing video of the next opponent.

During the NBA season, the man who calls the action for his hometown team doesn’t waste a single second. But what would you expect from the son of a watchmaker who grew up playing ball outside of the Knollwood Apartments on Brookpark Road?

Born just outside of Pittsburgh, the McLeods moved to Toledo when Fred was just an infant. After kindergarten, the family moved to Strongsville, where Fred spent most of his childhood. At Strongsville, McLeod was a two-sport star – third baseman and pitcher on the baseball team and shooting guard on the hoops squad, earning the nickname “Mr. Jumpshot.”

After high school, Fred continued his baseball career at Point Park University in Pittsburgh – playing in the NAIA Division III College World Series. (A chip off the old block, Fred’s son, Sean, played in the Division II College World Series in back-to-back years for Grand Valley State.)

Not long after graduation, the father of three – (along with Sean, Fred has two daughters, Jenna and Molly) – began building what would be a 40-year broadcasting career.

That prolific career – which eventually saw McLeod cover eight professional championships in two time zones, tutor a young Dan Gilbert and fulfill a lifelong dream of broadcasting in his hometown – originally started at a small station in Steubenville, Ohio.

But it began to blossom on a day that Fred showed up in a yellow polyester suit at Firestone Country Club in Akron …

How old were you when you got your start in broadcasting?

Fred McLeod: I actually came to Channel 8 when I was 23. To this day – next to getting the call to come home and do the Cavs – the second-most exciting day in my professional life was the day I got that call.

I was working in Steubenville, and I got off the air and got a call from Jim Mueller. He said: ‘How would you like to come to Cleveland?’ And I literally got on my desk and did a dance!

At that point, we were a top 10 market. And, at 23, to come home and be on television in my hometown was just surreal. I had almost gotten the job the year before, but they wanted someone with more experience. But (Mueller) always saw me – the one-man band from Steubenville – lugging around, in those days, pretty heavy film camera equipment.

The story Jim always recalls is at the PGA Championship at Firestone. I was wearing a yellow polyester suit and lugging these heavy camera pieces and shooting my own interviews. And he thought: ‘If this guy’s crazy enough to show up in a yellow suit and interview all the best players in the world, he must have an intense work ethic.’

We eventually got to know each other and a year later I got the call to come to Cleveland.

What was your Cavaliers experience like when you first started covering them?

McLeod: When I first did Cavs play by play was 1979-80 – Stan Albeck’s year.

And one night I got off the air on Channel 8, and the guy at the desk said, ‘There’s a Ted Stepien on the line for you.’ (Ted Stepien liked me for some reason.) I can’t remember what the trade possibility was, but he called and asked me what I would do. And I’m thinking: ‘Why would you ask a weekend sports anchor his opinion on a trade?’

But that first year, Joe Tait was SO incredibly helpful. I can’t even tell you how helpful he was – just as far as preparation and his overview of the NBA game. Because I was an NBA rookie at that point.

And Bill Fitch was phenomenal with me. He would take me into the film room and let me watch plays with him. And even in the years when I went to Detroit, we’d always have very warm conversations when he came in with the Nets or the Clippers.

Those two guys just had an indelible mark on my basketball career, just how they opened their hearts and their minds to the game of basketball and shared that with me.

What do you remember about interactions between you and Austin Carr and the other Cavaliers?

McLeod: Well, A.C. had just had knee surgery and I had the TV exclusive, interviewing him at the hospital. That was a big get at that point in time. Little did I know that one day I’d be his partner.

I have a picture to this day of Walt Frazier and I when he was with the Cavs. I have one of me interviewing Campy where I’m wearing a leisure suit. In the one with Clyde Frazier, I’m wearing a green corduroy suit, kneeling down interviewing him at the Coliseum.

They’re just little snapshots that stay with you for the rest of your career.

When did you leave Cleveland?

McLeod: What happened was, in 1979, I was 26 and doing the Indians with Joe Castiglione, who has since gone on to do radio play by play for the Red Sox finishing his 32nd seson. And we lost the TV contract – (Bruce Drennan still laughs about this) – to WUAB. WJW had a handshake agreement with the Indians, but Gabe Paul changed his mind and they went with Channel 43. And I knew that it was time for a change.

So I moved to San Francisco in October, going to work at KPIX for Bill Applegate (Yes, the same former GM of WOIO) It was the 5th-largest market in the country and a great opportunity to advance my career. I was out West for about two-and-a-half years.

I covered the Raiders when they came back to the Stadium for ‘Red Right 88.’ And it killed me because here I was, a Bay Area reporter, rooting for the Browns internally. I’ll never forget that day. It was brutally cold and I had to go into a happy locker room, heartbroken as a Cleveland fan.

I covered the Raiders when they won with Plunkett and Kenny King and the very next year was ‘The Catch’ with Dwight Clark. So it was back-to-back Super Bowls.

Urban legend has it that you’re the reason that the infamous Cal-Stanford “The Play to Beat the Band” exists on video. Can you confirm or deny?

McLeod: (laughs) Well, I’m always of the mindset that you never know what’s going to happen. And obviously, in that game, it looked like the outcome was pretty much decided. And it was a long climb down from the pressbox to the locker room.

Usually, the photographers would break down (equipment) and head down to the locker room. But I said to the camera guy (Rick Lee, one hell of a sports photographer): ‘Let’s just shoot it, we have time.’

I always had to fight game traffic to get back to the studio, but I always like to live on the edge a little bit anyway, so I said: ‘Just continue to shoot because you never know what could happen.’

It was arguably the most famous play in college football and we were the only ones who had it.

What was that pressbox celebration like?

McLeod: We were high-fiving. And that was before it was popular to high-five.

Your next stop was Detroit. How did that come about?

McLeod: The late Bill Flynn, who was the GM of WJW and had hired me in Cleveland, moved on to their sister station – WJBK in Detroit – he was on trip to San Francisco and saw me on the air and called me and said: ‘McLeod, I need a sports director. Come to Detroit. But you have 3 days to make up your mind.’

So I had to wiggle out of my contract and I went to Detroit as his Monday through Friday sports anchor.

And when did you start doing the Pistons play-by-play?

McLeod: I started at WJBK, then eventually went across town to WDIV. But during that time, PASS Sports – a regional sports network like SportsChannel Ohio – was born. They got the contract to do the Tigers and Pistons.

Then I got a call from the GM who said the Pistons have asked that you do play-by-play. And my TV station had to agree to let me off at certain times to do play-by-play.

My first broadcast was a preseason game in Toledo in 1984. And it was THE night that the Tigers beat the Padres for the World Series title. So everybody in my newsroom is asking, ‘Where’s McLeod?! We need him!’ “Oh, he’s in Toledo doing a Pistons preseason game”. At that point, the news director was having some serious thoughts as to why he let me go do 40 Pistons games.

But I was thrilled to do the games and it led to 22 years of doing play-by-play, through those two Championship runs.

Was it difficult doing play-by-play for another city’s team?

McLeod: I did play-by-play for the Pistons from 1984-85 through 2005-06. But my heart has always been with Cleveland sports. My wife will tell you, I threw a shoe at the TV when we lost the 1997 World Series. She said, ‘Calm down! It’s just a game!’ And I’d say, you don’t understand what we’ve been through in Cleveland”

But I had a job to do with the Pistons. Same with ‘Red Right 88’ – you had a job to do.

As long as we’re talking Detroit, is it true that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was once your intern?

McLeod: Yes, Dan was my broadcast intern. He was going to Michigan State at the time. He was just Dan Gilbert back then – not all-caps DAN GILBERT.

But seriously, I could tell back then that this guy was too smart to be a television broadcaster. You could just see he would process things so quickly. By the way, Dan says I demoted him from the Monday-through-Friday shift to a weekend shift. But I don’t remember doing that! And to this day, I still think: ‘WHY did I do something so stupid and demote him?’ (If I did.)

So Dan left, finished his semester and I lost track of him. I never knew where he went or what he did. And I don’t recall the year, but I remember reading a story about how ‘Dan Gilbert’ had bought back his mortgage company and I wondered: ‘Is that the same Dan Gilbert?’ And lo and behold, when he almost bought the Milwaukee Brewers and then bought the Cavs, I put two and two together. It was him! Yep, too smart to be a broadcaster!

Dan watched the games for years in Detroit. We were never friends, per se. We really just knew each other from that internship. And he formed his own opinion by my watching broadcasting style and liked what he heard.

But it’s a life lesson on how to treat people. If I had made Dan go get coffee and not treated him with respect, things might’ve turned out differently.

I’ve got interns all over the country who have gotten into the business, and I take a lot of pride in that. As I tell young kids, forget about having a great voice or a great look – the most important thing is being a good person. If you start there, then you’ve got a shot.

What was the experience like the second time you found out you were coming back home?

McLeod: It was cool because that June morning, I presented the Stanley Cup to Peter Karmanos at CompuWare Headquarters in Detroit. The Hurricanes had just won the Stanley Cup and so they picked me to MC the downtown ceremony to present the Cup in front of all the employees. From there, I headed over to the Sparky Anderson charity Golf Outing.

I was called off the course when I heard I had a phonecall. It was Dan Gilbert and he said: ‘You don’t have to sell me. But how would you like to come to Cleveland? I know it’s your hometown, and I know it’d be a good fit.’

I was flabbergasted! It was quite a day, dealing with two professional sports owners in one particular day. That was pretty magical.

Did you dance again?

McLeod: Yes I did.

How satisfying was it to finally return home?

McLeod: Well, to come home and have my mom and dad watch every game, they were probably even more thrilled than I was.

Your parents knew this was something you were always working for …

McLeod: I have such vivid memories as a kid. Of course the Cavs weren’t born yet, so the St. Louis Hawks were my adopted team. I’d listen to games on the radio and Jerry Gross was the guy who did play-by-play and to this day I remember his cadence, I remember his catchphrases, and I think that’s where the love of basketball truly started. I’d do play by play in the driveway, complete with shots, rebounds and crowd noise…I did it for Browns and Indians games too. My Mom at first asked who I was talking to in the backyard, and my Dad had to explain I was doing my own live game call.

I remember one year the Hawks lost in the playoffs and I cried. And my mom said: ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And I explained to her: ‘The St. Louis Hawks lost to the Baltimore Bullets!’

She just looked at me like I was from Mars.

That’s why, if we win it here, it’ll top anything I’ve ever been a part of. Not just because of the 50-year wait, but because it’s my hometown. I just wish my dad were here to see it. Because I remember ’64. We celebrated together. We listened to Gib Shanley on the radio. We were jumping up and down. I was a little kid, saying to my dad: ‘This is great! We could do this every year!!’

Well, it’s been a while.

Everyone around the organization knows how much time, effort and energy you sink into the job. Where does that drive come from?

McLeod: The pursuit of the perfect broadcast. I know it’ll never happen. But I just believe in total preparation. (It’s probably where I get in trouble in golf; I over-prepare and over-analyze.) I never want to be at a loss.

I think it goes back to my first Indians game. I was the same way back then.

We were playing the Yankees at the Stadium – it was the first home game that Joe (Castiglione) and I did. And we had a rain delay of, like, three-and-a-half hours. And they never went back to the station for a break! So it was Joe and I filling three-and-a-half hours. And only because of preparation – (Joe was that way, too) – were we able to have enough information.

That taught me early-on never to be caught unprepared.

Plus, I’m a story-teller. And the only way you can get stories is to do intense preparation. Because everybody can reveal stats or read a bio. But I’m a story-teller, and it takes work and the time. Technology allows me to get things done more efficiently, but I still use the extra time to find something else to use in the broadcast.

Joe Tait would tease me about doing work on the plane. But I just can’t sit and watch a movie, because those are two hours that I should be preparing for the next game. I’m not looking for any pats on the back; it’s just how I’m wired. And hopefully people can tell that during the broadcast – that I’m not just giving them the usual ‘… he went to LSU and this is his sixth year in the league …’

People can look that stuff up on their own, and usually do.

What’s your goal for each broadcast?

McLeod: A. I want people to smile or laugh when they’re watching the game, and, I want them to say: ‘Hey I didn’t know that.’

Then you know you’ve done your job – when people recite something back to you that they laughed about or previously didn’t know.

Does it take you a month or so after the season for your ribs to heal after a season sitting next to Austin?

McLeod: (laughs) My mom, during my first year, said: ‘I love Austin, but why is he trying to hurt you?’ And I said: ‘Mom, it’s just a gag.’

His arms do flail and draw contact, but I take some poetic license. We like to have fun. And I’ve had some great partners over the years, but A.C.’s the best because we truly enjoy each other’s company. We sometimes read each other’s minds.

One hugely important element is listening to your partner – and he really listens. If I say something, he’s right on it. It’s like a second part of your brain.

You have to stay on top of the action, but you have to listen to your partner.

And you have to have that passion. AC’s passion-meter is off the charts – and he’s real.

I believe as broadcasters, especially in the NBA more than any other sport, your job is to match the speed and the energy of the game. And that’s what I like to think we do.

Let’s talk about the partner that elbows you slightly less than A.C. – your wife, Beth. How did you meet?

McLeod: (laughs) It was the NBA Finals. She was working for CBS Sports and I said, ‘Wow! Who is this?’

So, I got to meet her and she wanted to get into broadcasting. And my true intent was to help her put together a video tape to get her an audition. That was my true sole purpose. Well, one thing led to another and we wound up going on a date and I kinda dropped that videotape idea.

And in 1991, we tied the knot.

How did Beth – now the morning meteorologist on Channel 19 – originally get into broadcasting?

McLeod: She was a waitress waiting near Michigan State, and Brent Musberger and his crew came in before one of their MSU broadcast. They liked her smile and her energy and said, ‘Why don’t you come intern with us, which then led to a job as a broadcast associate?’

Her final two years, they were flying her all over the country for college football. She also has a tremendous work ethic. And everybody loves her – she’s so real. She went on to start her on air career, hosting the Michigan Lottery and then doing morning traffic at WDIV in Detroit.

And she’s really good at thinking on her feet. AND keeping me in line.

Does she follow the games or, more importantly, the broadcast?

McLeod: During games, she’ll text me: ‘Did you really want to say that?’ or ‘Maybe you should say it this way instead.’ She’s my biggest cheerleader, but she watches everything very closely.

You know how great it feels to make a successful return to your hometown. What are your thoughts about another guy making his Cavalier homecoming this season?

McLeod: It’s still surreal. And it won’t sink in until we see him on the floor wearing No. 23 again – along with Andy, Kevin, Kyrie, Dion, Tristan and the guys. Once we see it come together, it’ll really sink in.

I knew LeBron never fully detached himself from Cleveland, because every game we were in Miami, he would – literally seconds before the ball was thrown up – he would run over and shake my hand and shake A.C.’s hand and look us right in the eye. He wouldn’t do that if he was cutting the cord. I think that was his way of always staying in touch.

He didn’t say anything more than that – just ‘Hi’ and a big smile. I remember the very first game, I didn’t know what to think – he caught me off guard. And I just mouthed the words ‘We miss you.’ I mean, the wounds were pretty deep. And he said back: ‘I miss you guys, too.’

It was that dichotomy. You knew he did what he felt he had to do. I respected that. But looking back on it now, I think in his heart he always wanted to stay attached. That was just my gut feeling. And lo and behold, he obviously did.

Thoughts on the upcoming season?

McLeod: Even at the League Meetings this summer in Las Vegas, I had so many PR people and broadcasters come up to me and say how happy they were for us as a city, with LeBron coming back. People are genuinely thrilled for Cleveland.

It’s going to be a hard road, but now we have put ourselves in position to challenge for titles. The anticipation and expectation of that alone gives me chills. The day we win it all, there won’t be a dry eye in Northeast Ohio.

This is my 40th year in TV and this is Cleveland’s 50th year without a title. So maybe the stars are aligned.