Ian Eagle Looks Back on 25 Years Broadcasting the Brooklyn Nets
YES Network will celebrate Ian Eagle's Nets career during Thursday's broadcast.
He found out about the gig in a newspaper column.
He got lost dropping off his tape at the team's offices.
He had to drop off a tape at the team's offices.
No social media for finding out what's going on, no GPS to get you where you were going, no email or website to send or post your latest broadcast.
So, yeah, it's been a while, and plenty has changed, since a 25-year-old Ian Eagle had the week that changed his life. A week ago, Eagle celebrated his 50th birthday, and this Thursday, YES Network will celebrate his 25 years broadcasting the Nets with flashback footage, highlights, bloopers and tributes during Brooklyn's game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Along the way, he's watched coaches and players come and go, ownership shift, and arenas change. The broadcaster becomes the constant; the reliable and relatable touch point for the fans.
"Half my life has been spent working on Nets broadcasts in some capacity," said Eagle. "The relationships, some of my best friends in the world, are from this job. That's the most defining part of it."
For as much as the team, the media environment, and the world around him has changed in 25 years, the heart of it all has remained the same. Eagle sits down, slips on a headset, and has a conversation over two or three hours with a partner, talking about the action in front of them.
It's what he envisioned while calling games at Syracuse University. But after graduating in 1990, he found himself on a different track, working as a producer at WFAN and then going on the air to host pregame and postgame shows. But he dreamed of calling Nets games.
That's literally, by the way, not figuratively. In the spring of 1994, Eagle actually had a dream that he was calling a Nets game at the Meadowlands, with his father in the stands. Four months later, he saw a mention that the team's radio job was opening up, and after a whirlwind week of contacts and interviews and prepping a new tape off a Nets game from the previous season, he had the job within 10 days.
"I look back on it now, if I didn't get that job, I don't know what else I'd be doing," said Eagle. "It provided a platform as a play-by-play announcer, that I'm not sure where I would have gotten the opportunity. Maybe it would have popped up, but there was no guarantee. I was on the talk show track."
After a year doing radio with former Net Mike O'Koren, Eagle moved over to the television broadcast in 1995, beginning a defining partnership with Bill Raftery. It's getting close to 20 years since their last Nets game together, but they're still partnered for college basketball games on CBS, where they did last Sunday's Ohio State-Michigan State game, and just last week SI.com declared, "there aren't two people in all of sports television who have half the chemistry of Bird and Raf."
"I don't know if I could have asked for a better setup," said Eagle of those early years together. "He's the best teammate. He's ingratiating. He's welcoming. Everything he is off the air, he is on the air. And I quickly realized that that's the way it's supposed to be. There shouldn't be this big difference between your on-air persona and your off-air persona and he taught me that without ever giving me instructions. It was just osmosis. I knew from that first game that we were always going to enjoy one another's company and no matter what was happening on the floor, we would put on an entertaining and informative broadcast."
He found a work family with O'Koren and Raftery and Jim Spanarkel and so many others over the years, but he also found the job shaping his own life. The Queens native, married a year before he got the Nets job, moved to New Jersey to raise his family. His son, Noah, followed him to Nets games and to Syracuse -- he's a senior this year -- on a course for his own broadcasting career.
"He's a true-blue Net fan," said Eagle. "This is all he has ever known. He was born in 1995. He was at the playoffs during the '01, '02 run, so some of his earliest sports memories are that team. It made a big impression on him. I think basketball is his go-to sport because of the Nets and the experiences he had as a fan growing up and shaping him into the sports enthusiast that he is. That's a big part of his life and my family's life. I've been married now, this will be 26 years, and I've been doing this job for 25 years. The two are connected in some way."
Eagle made his Nets debut as the promise of the early-'90s squads was fading, and the tumultuous late-'90s era followed. He describes himself as "undefeated," simply because the wins and losses shouldn't have anything to do with the way he does his job. But he knows the outside perception is different, and that the right results on the court elevate the interest in the broadcast.
The arrival of Jason Kidd in 2001 changed everything for the franchise, setting the Nets on the course to consecutive NBA Finals appearances. There were six straight playoff appearances and four division titles in five years. In 2004, GM Rod Thorn paired Vince Carter, one of the league's most explosive and entertaining scorers, with Kidd, the infinitely creative point guard.
"That team was a play-by-play man's dream," said Eagle. "Every night you'd show up and there was the chance that something that you'd never seen before would happen on the court, and it was up to you to come up with a creative way to describe it and find a combination of words that worked in the moment. And it challenged me as a broadcaster. I think it made me better. You had to be. You had to match the level of the play on the court and I feel with this year's team as well. It's raised the bar, and that's all you ask for as a broadcaster. I don't want to get caught into the same hackneyed descriptions or calls. I try to be creative. It's whatever happens in the moment. That's how I attack it. But when you have excitement on the court, it's lends itself to taking some risks and finding fresh ways to do your job."
Over the last two seasons, Eagle has welcomed two new analysts who were already more than a little familiar. Sarah Kustok moved over from a sideline reporting role last year, and this season Richard Jefferson, once the high-flying young forward on those Kidd-era playoff teams, has joined the YES Network broadcast team.
In front of them, Eagle and his partners have a rising young squad at the dawn of a new era of Nets basketball.
"This team is so easy to root for, this current group," said Eagle. "They play hard. They play an entertaining style. The broadcasts do themselves in certain ways. Kenny Atkinson has developed quickly as a head coach. You could tell how much it means to him, and that permeates around his team. It's not hard telling stories when the players are likeable, and this particular team is very affable.
"For me, I really try to find the positives in every team that I've covered. You can't mislead the audience. We're in New York. These are sophisticated basketball fans. They figure it out. Their eyes will indicate the truth to that. I've always looked at it that way. I feel like you've got to have credibility to do this job, and you pick and choose your spots. But when a team is easy to root for like this one, it's not that challenging to get on the air and do these games."