Steve Holman, the radio voice of the Atlanta Hawks for the past 34 years, has never missed a day of work.
He’s working on a streak of 2,522 straight games (regular season and playoffs only) called and counting. Tonight’s Golden State Warriors-Hawks game (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass) will make 2,523, the longest current streak in the NBA.
Legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn’s all-time record stands at 3,338 consecutive games, which gives Holman some work to do catch an icon.
But based on his track record and royal radio pedigree — he got his start working for American broadcasting giant Curt Gowdy and cut his radio chops as a teenager working for and alongside Johnny Most, the legendary raspy radio voice of the Boston Celtics — Holman might be up for the task.
A Lawrence, Mass., native, Holman has become an Atlanta staple as the colorful play-by-play voice of the Hawks. He’s in the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame and the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame.
He recently spent some time reflecting on his life and career with NBA.com‘s Sekou Smith:
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Sekou Smith: Anybody who has ever been in this business know what kind of grind it is and can be. How in the world, 34 years in and counting, do you wrap your head around a streak like this?
Steve Holman: Well, first of all, and I know it sounds kind of cliche, but I love what I do. If I didn’t do it, I don’t know what I would do. You know, I go to work every day. My dad worked as a draftsman when I was a kid. And he hated his work. But he went everyday. So he taught me to go to work everyday. And I figured I’ve got a job that I love to do, so it’s easy for me to show up every day.
SS: I know your roots are in Boston, so how did you end up in Atlanta?
SH: Well, I worked for Curt Gowdy. He owned the radio station in my hometown. And from there I got a pass to the Celtics games. That was the first thing I did when I got the job at the radio station. And then I went and introduced myself to Johnny Most. I would go and sit with him and I kept score for him and got his English Oval cigarettes and filled his thermos with coffee every night. He lost his voice a couple of times and I had to take over for him. Then a guy in Boston from the CBS station heard me and he brought me there to the CBS station in Boston, WEEI, and then he came to Atlanta to start the all-news station, WGST, in 1980. And he called me and said, ‘do you want to come to Atlanta?’ That’s how I got here. I did Falcons for five years and then in ‘85-86 I started doing the Hawks.
SS: So how old were you when you got that first break into the business, you had to be a young kid?
SH: Curt Gowdy hired me full time between my junior and senior year of high school. I was 17 and he told me it was $110 a week and all of the records I could steal. [Laughing]
I’ve even got players now that come along and tell me they listened to me when they were kids, like [former Hawks star] Josh Smith, when he came here I introduced myself to him and he said, ‘I know who you are. My dad used to make me listen to you in the car all the time when I was a kid.’ ”
SS: After all of these years, have you looked back at where you started and where we are now and just been amazed by the technology and what’s possible now?
SH: Sure. It’s gone from you slicing tape with a razor blade and you putting it together to … you know the funny thing is, people would say after all of these years and really just over the years, that radio play-by-play is going to die because of the TV and all this other stuff. But to me it’s bigger now than it ever was because of the NBA GameTime App, where people all over the world can listen to us. You have Sirius/XM and we’re on their App, too. So, it’s expanded so you’re more than just a local broadcast anymore. Even though, I continue to broadcast to Hawks fans. That’s my thing. I am broadcasting to our fans. And I know people are listening all over the … everywhere. And the one thing that’s changed, I know a lot of bloggers and people tune in over the Internet, and it’s sort of the ‘got you’ thing, for people trying to catch you making a mistake and that kind of thing. I try not to let that kind of thing bother me and I just go ahead and broadcast for Hawks fans. They call me a homer sometimes, and I guess that’s true. [Laughing]
SS: You’re also a touchstone for the Hawks for generations of fans. Does that mean something to you, in terms of you grew up with someone as the voice of your favorite team, and now you’re going to be that voice for generations of Hawks fans?
SH: I thought about that when I first started. A lot of guys get into this business and they want to go on to the networks. And that’s great when they do. It’s terrific. But my idea was to try and be Johnny Most or Chick Hearn or Vin Scully, and be the guy that was person with that one team for life, you know. And now I have people in their 30s and they have their kids with them and they come up and want to take a picture with me and they say, ‘I used to listen to Mr. Holman when I was your age.’ And I take a picture with these kids and I love it. I think it’s great.
I’ve even got players now that come along and tell me they listened to me when they were kids, like [former Hawks star] Josh Smith, when he came here I introduced myself to him and he said, ‘I know who you are. My dad used to make me listen to you in the car all the time when I was a kid.’ So it’s kind of neat. I mean, it starts going in cycles. I called all of Dell Curry’s games against the Hawks and now Steph Curry’s playing against the Hawks, so it comes full circle in a lot of ways. I get those father-son combinations, you know, Tito Horford and Al Horford and guys like that, so it’s kind of neat like that, too.
SS: I’d imagine it’s been fascinating to see all of the different cycles in the league, from the Celtics teams you watched growing up to the Magic-Bird era, the Jordan years and all of his battles with Dominique Wilkins and all of the different iterations of the league since then. Has there been one era that sticks out more than the others for you?
SH: I think the ‘80s was terrific, the classic Dominique-Larry Bird battle was great. Then you get into the ‘90s and Jordan battles were great. We ran into the “Bad Boys” in Detroit and the Jordan Bulls and we had some really good teams then. But I think the NBA’s in a place right now where I just love it. The fast pace, the 3-point shot and the high scores on the board. All of these kids we have in the league right now, like Trae Young, our guy, he’s phenomenal. I love watching them all and watching the kids grow.
We’re going through some growing pains right now around here but I know ultimately what’s going to come out of it. I just have always tried, in all these years, 34 seasons now, never to be the ‘get off my lawn!’ guy. So I like to roll with it. And the young guys keep me young. I like to try to keep up with them if I can. I’ll throw out something on an elevator that they might be surprised to hear me say [laughing]. Maybe quote something from 2 Chainz and they get to be my pals.
SS: I know you say the game itself and the games have energized you over the years. But has the schedule and pace of the season ever been just a physical grind on you, doing this same thing for all of these years?
SH: Well, when I first started, we traveled commercial, which was tough. Back-to-backs were really hard. We’d get 4:30 wake-up calls and 5 a.m. busses to the airport. So, the travel has really gotten so much better now with the charter flights. It’s still a grind, when you are doing back-to-backs and you get in at two or three in the morning, but that’s why I try to keep fit. I want to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can. Thank goodness the Hawks have been great to me and allowed me to do this as long as they have. Hopeful they let me do it for many more years to come, because it keeps me going. It’s what I do. It’s part of my life right now, really, after 34 years.
Not everybody gets to talk to the players and coaches every day, so I like to be the bridge between the two and be like the fan broadcasting the game, is I think the best way I can put it.”
SS: I know so many announcers have honed their craft and developed a certain voice and signature calls. There always seem to be something people know you by. What are those things that people come up to you on the street and ask you to say for them?
SH: Well, you know, I have a few. The “Bang” [when Hawks players knock down a 3-pointer] is one that I carried that over from Johnny Most as sort of a tribute to him. And people come up to me think I stole that from Mike Breen. And I say, no. Ask Mike Breen where he got it. He used to do the morning sports on the [Don] Imus Show and he told me would play my highlights and hear me say that and that’s where it came from. I have a few other things I use, ‘tricky dribble’ and ‘around the perimeter,’ which is a nod to the highway [Interstate 285] for the people from Atlanta who know this city. Then there is another one people always ask me about that’s become an infamous call. When Dennis Schroder was with us and we were playing in Sacramento and it’s 1 a.m. back in Atlanta and people heard me say, ‘For the love of God, Dennis just shot an airball.’ And more people come up to me now about that than they do anything. They’ll want me to say that. I was at Stone Mountain the other day with my grandson and a couple of the kids that were there recognized me and they said, ‘can you say it. Go ahead and say it, say it.’ So I said it and the one kid said to the other one, ‘I told you that was him.’ [Laughing] So it’s really fun, I love it when they do that.
SS: You’ve been around this franchise and seen some pretty colorful characters and some really interesting teams, some good and some bad. Who have been the personalities that have really stuck out to you over the years?
SH: Well, you know my first group was the Doc [Rivers], Dominique, Randy Wittman, Cliff Levingtston, Antoine Carr, Tree Rollins and those guys. So I have a soft spot in my heart for them because of that. But every different era has produced guys I’ll never forget. Smitty [NBA TV analyst Steve Smith], who you work with all the time, is one of my all-time favorites. Even J.R. Rider, in his own way, was kind of a trip, too. Just to go through all of that was something. [Former coach] Lenny Wilkins, trying to figure out how to deal with him, there have been so many. And these young guys we have now, I really love them. Our coach now, Lloyd Pierce, is a young guy, just 42, and I think the perfect guy for our team. It’s been a great ride. There aren’t any players we’ve had that I can say I didn’t like. You get to know them on a completely different level traveling and being around them the way we do. It’s been terrific just to be around them all the time.
SS: Do you find yourself being mindful of trying to humanize these guys in your broadcasts? I know we all see them from a distance and see them perform, but we don’t get the behind-the-scenes view of them the way you do. It’s always seemed to me that you get a different depth of understanding of these guys from the radio more than you do any other outlet.
SH: That’s what I do when I broadcast a game, I try to do it like I’m sitting face-to-face with someone watching the game. Here’s what’s happening. And when we were in Oklahoma City I talked to Trae about his family and all the tickets he had to get. There are all of these storylines and everything else we have a chance to touch on during the game because it’s me on my own during that game. So I’m weaving a story. I like to throw in things about what happened on the bus on the way into the arena and things like that so they can feel like they are a part of it. Not everybody gets to talk to the players and coaches every day, so I like to be the bridge between the two and be like the fan broadcasting the game, is I think the best way I can put it.
SS: I know how meticulous you are about your game preparation, with those detailed handwritten lineup cards filled with notes that you have for every game. I know your streak is up to a mind-boggling number. But if you have 24 hours a day, 365 days in a year, would you even dare to put a number on the hours you spends immersed in this thing?
SH: I’ve picked up some shortcuts now and then over the years. But I still keep my scorecard handwritten by pen. I make it out every day the same way. I use the computer and I have the courtside program from the NBA. I do use the computers. I’m no dinosaur. But I still like to write out the scorecard, the same one I made for Johnny Most back when I was 18 years old. And I use that every night and keep my own scorecard just to keep me in the game better. So that’s one of my throwback things I do. It’s a part of the preparation, takes a couple of hours every day to get that ready and look over the notes and do the stats and everything. Over the years you learn how to use your time wisely and then you get out there every night, and it’s like the old saying around riding back, and the ball goes up and there you go.
SS: I know any time there is a long streak, don’t you have to ignore it at the stage so you …
SH: Yeah, I know, you don’t want to jinx it, that’s for sure. But there have a been a couple of times it’s been close. You know Steve Jr. passed in January, and that was a really tough time for me and my entire family and … and really, one of the things that got me through that was doing the games. We had his funeral and I did a game that night … [choking up] and that was No. 1, because I know he would have wanted it that way because he was big on the streak and on the Hawks, of course. He loves the Hawks since he was a little kid, he was a ball boy from 11 until he graduated high school and he was always at the arena. And the Hawks were terrific. They put on the reception at the arena. I’ll always be grateful to Steve Koonin, Andrew Saltzman and Tony Ressler. That was like family to me and it helped me get through everything during that time. And that’s why I said, right now, that’s what keeps me going is doing these games. That connection. It’s a part of me and what I do.
SS: It’s an awesome number and a pretty crazy feat to be at 2,522 straight games and counting. You literally haven’t missed a day of work in 34 years and have been doing this longer than I’m sure plenty of your listeners have been alive.
SH: Like I always say, I credit the good doctors who help me when I get sick. And I take the steroid shot or whatever and I work out now every day for the past eight, nine 10 years or so. I feel better now than I did 20 years ago. And I also have to give some credit to good bourbon I guess, too. [Laughing] But it’s been a great ride, better than anything I ever dreamed it would be. I’ve been blessed to be in this position all these years.
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