Tuesday April 15, 2008 2:31 PM

Rockets' legendary voices finishing their final season

L.A. Clippers at Houston, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Listen to Peterson and Foley

Damien Pierce Staff Writer

-- Before calling a recent home game, Gene Peterson was going over a few last-minute details when a fan approached him with a postcard.

The Rockets' legendary play-by-play radio announcer has signed or received thousands of items over his career from fans with his picture on them.

But even with all the posters and basketballs that he's signed over the years, Peterson had never seen a postcard like the one he was being handed a few games ago.

"The fan brought up a postcard and it was treasure," Peterson said. "It read, 'Gene, without Jim, is like Houston without the Rockets.' I really agree with that."

Who wouldn't?

The legendary voices of the Houston Rockets -- Jim Foley and Gene Peterson -- will be signing off at the conclusion of the playoffs after three decades of describing the highs and lows of the franchise.

Peterson will call his final regular season game Wednesday night when the Rockets host the Los Angeles Clippers. He'll do it without Foley, who is recovering from bladder surgery and hoping to return at some point during the playoffs.

But even though Foley won't be in the building on Wednesday night, the legacy of the two radio personalities will always be intertwined.

Foley and Peterson have been on the sideline for every meaningful game in the Rockets' history over the past three decades.

"Gene is one of the outstanding play-by-play guys that the league has ever had," Foley said. "When we first started together, I thought my job was to serve as an interpreter for what happened because he would get so excited that I couldn't even understand him. But he has a true enthusiasm for what is doing. He lives and dies with the wins and losses. And so do I."

Peterson, a native of Albert Lea, Minn., has been in broadcasting for 45 years. He became interested in radio during a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force when a friend mentioned that he should consider a career in broadcasting with his voice.

He started his career as a disc jockey in Brookings, S.D. before eventually working his way around the country until arriving in Houston as the sports director at KPRC.

Less than a year after coming to Houston, Peterson became the play-by-play voice of the Rockets in 1975.

He's loved every minute of it -- describing the action in 2,649 regular season games.

"I think every game is different every time I sit down and do a broadcast," Peterson said. "I had someone tell me once that you only needed to watch the last five minutes of an NBA game to get the story. But if you're only watching the last five minutes, you're missing a lot of exciting stuff."

Peterson's signature call -- "How Sweet It Is!" -- after every Rockets win will be remembered by generations of Rockets fans. The broadcasting veteran doesn't remember the first game that he bellowed out those four words. But he hasn't forgotten why he keeps saying it over the airwaves.

"It was kind of an accident," Peterson said. "We were on the road in the late '70s, but I don't remember the game. It might have been a win over Boston because I hated Boston. When we won and I said out load, 'How Sweet It Is!' I didn't think anything of it.

"When I came back home from the trip, I was getting ready to go on the air when a fan looked at me and said, 'How Sweet It Is,'" Peterson continued. "I laughed and he said, 'No, you don't understand. You need to use that phrase.' I asked, 'Do you think Jackie Gleason will mind?' But I've been using it after every win since then."

Peterson is often recognized by Rockets fans whenever he goes out to dinner with his wife, Marsha. But if at first the fans don't identify the face, the voice usually rings a bell.

"That happens all the time," Peterson said. "Whenever we go out, my wife says, 'Don't talk so loud.' But I love it. I'm flattered by it and I hope that continues because it's very, very, very special. It has nothing to do with ego. It just means that I've had a very special career."

Foley, who has been with the Rockets for 36 years, was sitting by Peterson's side off and on over the play-by-play announcer's early days before becoming a full-time radio analyst in 1987.

The La Salle, Ill. native started his sports career in the public relations field. He spent three seasons as the director of public relations with the Milwaukee Bucks before taking the same job with the Rockets in 1972.

Foley became the face behind the team. He attended two of the most historic coin flips in NBA history, watching the Rockets twice earn the top overall pick in the NBA Draft in 1983 and 1984. Houston took Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon without those selections, forming a front line known as "The Twin Towers."

"I went to the coin flip with the owner, Charlie Thomas, in 1983," Foley said. "Under my coat and tie, I wore a Sampson t-shirt. I went bananas when we won the flip and I did the same thing at next coin flip. I wore a Hakeem t-shirt."

Foley remained the director of public relations until 1987 when Rockets general manager Ray Patterson made him a full-time radio analyst to get him better hours and a bigger paycheck. Patterson wanted Foley to give listeners all the numbers and insight that he'd been providing the media with for years.

Foley still has pages and pages of documents detailing the Rockets' history through numbers and trends.

"I do it all without a computer," Foley said. "I have an electric type writer. But I have volumes and volumes of files in my home, from year to year and season to season. I'm always updating them."

Foley has a long list of memories from his radio career, but his most memorable came when Ralph Sampson hit a miraculous last-second shot to beat the Los Angeles Lakers and send the Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1986.

Sitting next to Rockets' television play-by-play announcer Bill Worrell and Peterson, Foley could see from his vantage point that Sampson's shot was going to drop through the net after bouncing off the front of the rim.

"That's the call that stands out," Foley said. "I realized before those guys that ball was going to come down and right through the net. I almost strangled myself with the headset cord. But that sent us to the NBA Finals. I shouted, 'We are on are way! We are on way!'"

Before the start of the 2007-08 season, Foley and Peterson planned to sign off the airwaves together when the Rockets' playoff run ended.

Both are already making post-Rockets career plans. Peterson, who plans to work as a part-time spokesperson for Administaff, hopes to land some freelance work with his voice for radio commercials. Foley, meanwhile, jokes that he'll have a business card that reads: "Jim Foley, Retired."

Before his surgery, Foley carried a camera with him during the Rockets' road trips to capture his farewell tour with Peterson. They took pictures with NBA legends and famous broadcasters around the league.

"I have a pretty good collection of photographs from this season," Foley said. "I didn't feel any sadness about the last few trips. Really, I was feeling joy."

Foley said he's still got at least two more weeks of recovery time from his surgery.

With that being the case and the playoffs set to begin this weekend, Peterson and Foley are still hoping to call one more game together.

The voices of the Rockets wouldn't want to sign off any other way.

"I don't believe there is another group anywhere that has been together longer than we have," Peterson said. "It's been 33 years. I've enjoyed working with him over the last 20 years since he took the job full-time. He's like my brother."


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