A Conversation With Tony Fiorentino Before His Final Broadcast
With Fox Sports Sun only broadcasting HEAT games through the first round of the playoffs, Tony Fiorentino's final call as color analyst next to Eric Reid will be this week. HEAT.com sat down with the HEAT Original to discuss the job, the team and his impact on the South Florida community.
Starting in 2004-2005, how did that transition to the broadcast happen and how did it come about?
Well, going back to when I was a high school coach in New York, a guy offered me to do radio for the championship games that my team wasn’t playing in. And when I was doing it I said, ‘I like this.’ I didn’t know how I would do but I really was comfortable doing it. I enjoyed it, so when I came to the HEAT years later, I mentioned to the powers that be that a coaching career is very fragile. I love Miami, I like the HEAT organization [and] if I can’t continue to be a coach when there’s a new coach I would like to go to radio or TV. That was my whole intention.
What was great for me is I’m working with one of the best play-by-play guys in the business and a very good friend. We had been friends since we both got here in 1988, Eric as the announcer and me as a coach and so it was very comfortable. I learned a lot from him. My personality is I like to talk to people and I like to have some fun. When we would talk to opposing coaches he would always ask questions about their team, about their players so I learned to do that and it makes you more prepared for the games. We have a lot of pride in being one of the few duos in the NBA that went to every press conference before the games, home and away (for both coaches). We even got complimented on it by a few coaches in the league because they noticed that we were always there taking notes.
We also pride ourselves on the fact that, me being an ex-coach and him being here from the beginning, there was a certain respect that the opposing coaches had. With most of them it was a personal thing, so we always talk to them after the press conference and we got even better information and they trusted that we would use our discretion in using it. It was really a perfect situation for me to be able to coach on the air I guess.
People ask me if I miss coaching and I say no. I coach in the camps, I do the camps over the summer and I felt like I was coaching on the air to have the fans see the game through a coach’s eyes and why certain things are being done. It was my job to figure it out.
Both you and Eric have a strong reputation for fairness and balance on air which you don’t get from every local broadcast team. Was that your goal from the beginning and do you think your coaching background has played a part in that? And was it ever tough working, being an employee of the team to have that fairness and balance?
It’s an interesting question, because it was never a goal of mine to be fair. I was just naturally fair. I think most of the time calls are accurate in a game. Now, there are some games when referees have bad games and certain refs have bad games but overall when we show replays, most of the time they’re right. And we’ve gotten compliments from refs.
Mario Chalmers a few years back – we were sitting on the right side of the court, he drove the left side of the floor in front of the HEAT bench and they called an offensive foul on him and I said, ‘Oh my, I don’t know about that call.’ Then we showed the angle that the ref had and Mario extended his arm out. It was an offensive foul. So we changed what we said. Some announcers don’t, some are very reluctant to do that against their own team. So the next season, five or six games into the season the ref that made that call came up to me and said we respect you and Eric because you knew you made a mistake and you corrected it and you were man enough to do that. We respect you for that.
In fact, some games, during games at times there are some officials that look to us about a call that they’re not sure of and we’ll be honest with them. You know, if we tell them that the call was a bad one against the HEAT, they know it’s just not a homer call.
There was a certain way to handle officials as well. If you handle them with respect, they’ll listen to you. You can’t cry wolf all the time and so if you bring something up to an official and they respect you, then they’ll respect that and they’ll go check it out.
Along the same lines, until recently you and the rest of the broadcasters around the league, you had votes on all league awards. Did you have to make some difficult calls as a broadcaster, maybe when a guy on your team is eligible and maybe should be in the conversation but you’re not quite sure he should win it?
It’s a good question. That’s why they took votes away from us when they made it transparent. A few years ago, about maybe three years ago they made the votes available on who voted for whom and before they did that there was less of a problem with that because nobody knew how you voted. There is some pressure on you.
So what they did was, they wanted to make it transparent. But now what they’ve also done is a lot of these contracts have, if you’re all NBA First-Team, Second-Team, you get a bonus. What position are you putting the announcers in, and the local beat writers let’s say, if you don’t vote this guy in and now there’s a problem because he didn’t get the millions of dollars he was supposed to get? So once they made it transparent they had to take the votes away from at least the guys that work for the team.
How did you see your relationship with players change from your time coaching to when you were in the booth on the sideline?
You’re still involved, you talk to the coaches, you’re able to bring out all of the things that the players do. But when you’re coaching you have personal contact with them every day. You’re in practice, you’re in games, you’re giving them advice, you’re talking to them, you’re in film sessions. It’s a lot different when you’re an announcer.
We felt, I think we all felt this way, you could be close to the players but there’s a distance. I had a niece that wanted Shaq’s autograph, I told her I don’t do that. I never asked a HEAT player for an autograph in the 30 years I’ve been with the HEAT. I don’t do that. We have a different relationship with the players. To me, that’s crossing over the line and so while you are closer to the players and you travel with them and they see you a lot, we really don’t talk to them that much and we would never cross over the line and be like a fan. So there is a little distance there between being an announcer and being an assistant coach.
You’ve seen, not just as a broadcaster but you’ve seen a lot of different eras of the NBA, different trends, different fads. When you’re so keyed in on every single game and you’re putting things under a microscope, how did you figure out what was a fad, and what was a trend? What was changing the league and what was just some coach trying something out of the box?
When I first came in the league, I was two years removed from high school so I had to learn about the NBA. I scouted games, and when you scout in the NBA, you see there’s so many coaches who are doing it their way, there’s so many ways that you can win. The basic things never change.
I remember sitting in practice one day with Riley, and he’s talking to the team and he goes, ‘Look, you’ve got to play hard and play together, everything starts with that.’ When I was a JV coach in high school that’s what I told to tell my JV kids. There’s a certain thread that goes through all of basketball, fundamentals, being able to defend, being able to use a pivot foot, shooting the proper way, playing the game together and playing hard. All of those different variables, they’re all the same whether you’re a JV high school kid or an NBA player.
What seemed to change over the years was when Pat Riley was coaching, towards the end of his coaching career, what changed in the NBA was the idea that somewhere in there it changed where you couldn’t use your hand on the perimeter on a guy. They wanted more scoring in the league. So the way he was teaching defense, you couldn’t teach it that way anymore because it was a physical-type defense.
The trend changed where they tried to get more offense and I think from that trend it led to the trend of shooting more threes. That’s the way it seemed to me. You know, when Chris Bosh came here he only had a handful of threes at Toronto and Erik Spoelstra convinced him to go outside and practice his three-point shooting, he became a really good three-point shooter.
You look at guys in the league now, if you were a seven-footer an era ago there’s no way you’re shooting threes. People would say, ‘What are you doing?’ Now it’s common, now to be a four in this league, to be a power forward you have to stretch the defense.
We know a lot of the HEAT players that you have a fondness for. What were some of the non-HEAT players that you really enjoyed not just watching but you enjoyed calling their games and talking about the way they played?
Jamal Crawford is a guy Eric and I got to know very well. We really enjoyed him as a person. I did private basketball lessons when I was with the Miami Sol. Tim Hardaway Jr. was in some of those lessons, and you could tell just how special he was compared to other kids that were doing it. He was a little guy, and all of a sudden he’s 6-foot-6 playing in the NBA and we’re trying to beat him and he comes over and gives us a hug when he can.
Eric and I take a lot of pride in talking to players on the other teams. We were playing Orlando, and Vučević came up to me and said hello. I didn’t even know he knows who I am. Guys do that. We have a certain relationship with our own guys like I said earlier. Sometimes after a tough game we’ll go into the locker room on the road and say something to some of them, sometimes in a big win we’ll go in there and celebrate with them a little bit, you know, that sort of thing. Even then we don’t go in the HEAT locker room that much. Eric and I after a game, we kind of keep our distance.
What are your favorite games that you’ve ever called?
When we beat New Orleans, the first round of Wade’s rookie year when he made the jumper to win it. I’m talking during the timeout and I’m saying, ‘Coach Van Gundy can go to this guy, can go to that guy.’ I didn’t mention Dwyane Wade, he was a rookie, you don’t go to a rookie, you know? That team had Eddie Jones, guys like that. Odom and Caron Butler. Those guys are on the team and what does Stan do, he goes to Wade. I made the call. I said, ‘Stan Van Gundy goes to the rookie and he delivers.’ That’s the last call I made because at that time I didn’t realize it was the play-by-play guy that’s supposed to make that call.
I also enjoyed, being from New York and knowing how passionate the fans are about the game. We were in The Garden and Dwyane Wade made the jumper at the buzzer and I said, ‘How do you quiet 20,000 New Yorkers? You have Dwyane Wade beat them at the buzzer.’
I’ve been here for eight years now and I’ve heard every year from fans I meet in person, on social media, they always tell me about how there’s just a generation of kids who basically grew up in South Florida or Miami and learned how to play basketball from you. Whether it was watching on TV or going to HEAT Camp. Is there a lesson that you want that generation of kids to remember the most?
We feel we have one of or the best basketball camp in the NBA because we don’t teach just basketball. Besides giving them dribbling tips on paper, or giving them shooting, defense, all these different technical things basketball wise, we give them a saying every day. It could be Pat Riley, it could be Erik Spoelstra, it could be Dwyane Wade, it could be Maya Angelou, it could be Colin Powell, it could be Socrates. Doesn’t matter. What we like to do is give them an appropriate quote that applies to other things than basketball. Last year we had three different venues with the camp and every Monday at the new venue, I gave out a quote by Tom Brady about getting a good night’s sleep, and nutrition.
I tell them before they leave, ‘Look, you’re a basketball player now for this week, you should get to bed by nine o’clock.’ Because you have to get your sleep, you don’t want to come in here tired because you’re not mentally and physically ready to get the most out of your ability. When you get up in the morning, if someone makes you breakfast you thank them. I love to tell the story where I’m sitting at the camp over at Miami Dade and this kid walks in about 8:30 with his mom, and I said.
“How are you doing, what time did you go to bed?”
And he said “Nine o’clock”
And I said, “Did you have breakfast this morning?”
He goes, “Yeah.”
I said, “What did you have?”
He goes, “I had eggs.”
I said, “Who made it?”
And he says, “My Mom.” And his mom is standing there and I said, “Did you thank her?” and he looks at me, looks at his mom, he looks at me and he goes, “Thanks mom.”
We feel like we’re teaching a lot other things besides basketball. What we do is every week we give out a camper of the week, it has nothing to do with ability. We also give out one other major award that has nothing to do with ability. It might be willingness to pass for example, or the person in the camp that hustled the most, or the person who tried their hardest at defense. So a seven-year-old kid could win it or the best, most talented 16-year-old. It doesn’t matter.
I tell the kids I don’t really care who the best player in the camp is, it doesn’t matter to me because if you walk outside and somebody is better. What’s the difference, you know? It’s how you play and play together. Our message gets out.
Some of these campers come back. You’ve got some kids now that are 38-40 that were in that camp. They said, ‘I have kids that age, and I’m trying to teach them the things you taught us at the camp.’
This is the last regular season game, you have a few more playoffs games left, and this is before that broadcast. What are you feeling right now?
I love what I’m doing, I love who I’m working with. I love the on-air relationship I have with HEAT Nation. I’ve gotten some great comments, very kind comments from HEAT fans all over the world. One of the things I’m going to miss is, I feel like I have a connection to the fans during the game, I’m going to miss that. I’m not going to have that anymore once the playoffs are over. I enjoy working with Eric.
I’m looking forward to working in the community more. I love kids, teaching kids and in many respects you’re also teaching adults too, you’re teaching parents. In the camp sometimes we send subtle messages. Sometimes a dad will walk in with his son and his chest out and say, “My kid had 18 points last night in the rec league.” And I’ll say to him, just to give it perspective, I’ll say, “How much did his man score?” The dad would say, “What?” and I said, “The guy that your son was caught guarding, what did he score?” There’sno answer to that but I’m trying to make a point. I’m bursting his bubble a little bit for a reason, obviously he’s a fan and he’s looking at it as scoring and I’m looking at it as, is he a good team player? Did he make passes? Did he play defense? All that sort of stuff. I feel like we’re trying through the camp, and maybe through the broadcast, trying to educate fans. The one thing that I was surprised about when I started doing this the one teaching point, was showing the jump-ball. It kind of opened my eyes a little bit.
You mean which direction it’s going to go?
Right. What Jack Ramsay said was when he went to Portland Bill Walton said to him, ‘Coach, assume we know nothing.’ So when I first got the job, when I first started doing this with Eric we started telestrating the jump ball. I got more comments about that because people had no idea that there was a system to that. They just thought two guys throw it up. We talked about how you have to seal your man away, create a pocket. We got more comments about that and people started zeroing in now, started listening a little more because now they could learn.
LeBron would come down the left side of the floor and throw a lob to Dwyane Wade on the right side for a dunk. They have no idea that Dwyane got a back screen. I felt it was my job throughout the years to point out the little things that fans don’t see and then you understand the game a little more.
I love the job that Eric and I have done and we’ve just tried to be fair and we’ve tried to educate. We’ve tried to teach on the air and entertain and I think we’ve done all those things and the chemistry that Eric and I have, I think people appreciated it. All we wanted to do was have a good broadcast. That’s all we wanted to do.
When you were at Mount Vernon so many years ago, did you ever imagine that you would end up having such a lasting impact and legacy in Miami?
No, I don’t think you ever think of something like that. My goal when I was a high school coach was to be a local head coach in college because I loved living in New York. I wanted to the head coach at Iona College. When Ron [Rothstein] brought me here, he called me when I was at the five-star camp in Pittsburg and he goes, “You want to come to Miami?” I go, “I’ll be there yesterday. Of course I want to come to Miami.”
When I came here I learned with one of the best in Ron. A great teacher, great person. I learned a lot from him and I was able to stay after he left because I’ve worn many hats in the organization. I’ll wear a different hat next year after 30 years but I’m appreciative of the Arisons and Pat Riley for allowing me to do this for 15 years and stay and do other things in the community. People say why don’t you be a color analyst for another NBA team and I say, ‘No, I wouldn’t do that.’ I love working for the HEAT and I wouldn’t work for any NBA team if I could help it. I’m happy to be here.