Sports Media Watch had a chance to talk to TNT/CBS play-by-play voice Kevin Harlan on Thursday, before he flew to Dallas for the NBA All-Star Weekend. Among the topics of conversation: NBA All-Star Weekend, whether he prefers the NFL, NBA or college basketball, and the differences between doing local and national broadcasts.
SMW: This is the 9th straight year you’re doing the All-Star Saturday Night for TNT?
Kevin: Gosh, I guess it is. I really haven’t paid that much attention to it. I was in parts of it at the very beginning, when I first got to Turner. Back then, we had Verne [Lundquist], and we had Dick Stockton, of course Marv [Albert] joined us a little bit later on. I guess in some way, I always had something to do, I can’t — I’d have to go back and take a look. But that sounds about right, I guess.
SMW: You do the NBA Playoffs, the NCAA National Championship Game on the radio, you did the AFC Championship Game this year as well. So where is All-Star Weekend on what you do every year? Where does it rank?
Kevin: Well, it’s so different than anything we do, because it’s non-game — although competitive — and it brings together the biggest of the names. So, as opposed to doing a game where you’ve got a developing story, and you try to tie different thoughts and headlines together, set up your analysts and everything like that — I think this is such a visual medium, and doesn’t take a great deal of explaining what’s going on, that sometimes the picture just kind of speaks for itself.
So in my role, I think the best thing I can do, is kind of get out of the way. There may be a time to give a line of background on a certain player — especially during the Rookie/Sophomore game, where they’ve got a lot of young players that our viewers may not be completely aware of. The great thing about this particular Friday night telecast, for instance, is that Kevin McHale, who has just left the head coaching position with Minnesota, before that the GM/coach, has scouted these players, thought about drafting these players and so knows them very, very well. So he’ll probably be very, very big in talking about what he saw when they played in college, how they’ve adapted to the NBA. So I think he’s going to give incredibly accurate and thoughtful insight into what these guys are doing.
That’s always fun, because it’s always fun to see the rising players in the league. These are the best of the rookies and the best of the second-year players, who are just on the cusp of becoming All-Stars themselves. That’s always a fun thing to do, and it’s more game-like, so that has a very — that’s a comfortable level. And then Saturday, let alone the stars on the floor, there’s so many stars in the stands that just eat this stuff up.
People just love watching, whether it’s the groups shooting in the Shooting Stars, which involves the WNBA and this year is going to involve a Turner personality, or the Three Point Shootout — which I love, because I just think shooting is such a wonderful skill, that the guys who do it the best are just all that basketball is, shooting and scoring. So that is just so fun to watch. From a distance, too, from three point land. Then, of course, the Skills Competition is great, because it encompasses the best playmakers in the league, and I think everyone enjoys the way a point guard can set up. The different stations on the court represent challenges, a pinpoint pass, or expert dribbling, eventually finishing it off with a score. So that’s always fun.
And then, culminating with the Slam Dunk Competition, which, I guess now, we’ve kind of gotten to the stage — not necessarily the athleticism, which is just so jaw dropping to begin with, which all these guys possess — but now it’s kind of morphed into the creativity, and marrying that with the athleticism. I mean, I think we’ve always had the creative thing. But you usually saw a lot of the stuff during games, the reverse dunk, the windmill dunk, with Michael [Jordan] and Dominique [Wilkins] and Vince Carter — we’ve seen, many, many times in highlights.
But now, you take that and you throw in a twist, with a prop, or a fellow player that helps you complete the dunk. So now, you’re almost rewarded on two separate things: how creative your dunk is, and how much athleticism and acrobatic acumen you can show. So it kind of combines those two things.
SMW: Like the cake dunk from a couple of years ago.
Kevin: Yeah. Exactly. Great example. And the sticker that was on the backboard, and the little guy jumping over the big guy, and somebody from the stands, a fellow teammate, throwing the ball in, getting it on a bounce, behind the backboard — all this stuff is just, it’s fun. You wonder, what are the limits? And that’s the great thing. You wonder what they’ll think of next. Because these kids have just been doing stuff like this since they were able to dunk, from high school, AAU, and even probably prior than that, when they were just junior high kids, they’ve been thinking of this.
What this has done, we’ve just recently seen all these props and all this ingenuity used on all these dunks, now the kids are actually practicing this stuff even moreso, with that intent, when they’re in the 8th, 9th and 10th grade — just little kids are starting to practice this stuff. So I don’t think we’ll ever be exhausted out of ideas and fun ways to dunk, and different ways to show off your athleticism.
SMW: The Dunk Contest has definitely been very interesting the last few years, after some kind of not-so-great years there for a little bit.
Kevin: Maybe, yeah, I mean they probably had that. But your question was, where does it rank. I think it’s hard to rank it against an AFC or NFL Championship Game, or the NBA Playoffs, or the first day of the NCAA Tournament, that I do for CBS-TV. Those are red letter days, those kind of events. The All-Star Weekend has got that special niche that those others don’t have. It’s the entertainment, it’s the fun. The pressure really isn’t as measured in this weekend. It’s just these guys showing off what God-given talents they’ve got. So it makes it a different kind of event. No less enjoyable, but just different.
SMW: Let ask you kind of a related question. You do cover the NBA, college basketball, the NFL. Which one of those sports do you really enjoy the most, if any?
Kevin: Well, the most challenging is the NFL, without a doubt. There’s so many sub-packages now, on offense and defense, that literally every play has a different look to it. And because you’re so far away — even the TV cameras have to encompass with its shot 22 players on a big field, with no faces visible except helmets and numbers — it’s incumbent, I think, on the play-by-play guy to really be on top of the mechanics of calling a game. And the change of a formation from four defensive backs to six, or from a single tight end to three, means alot. It tells you a lot about the play, and how it was designed. So that is the challenge with football, and that becomes — there’s a lot of gratification when you’ve been able to combine that with the number one thing, which is making sure your analyst is leading the way. But you can’t be missing anything. So it’s a juggling act.
Basketball is like a constant conversation with play-by-play sprinkled in. Because you can see the play, and it’s so simple to see — a score, a pass, a shot — the play-by-play guy, I think, in basketball, is more on talking perhaps about something happening off the ball. A duel for position outside the lane, a matchup that is of particular interest, offensive versus defensive. Keeping track obviously of substitutions. And much like a five-yard gain needs to be mentioned on an NFL telecast, how that player is shooting, or the fouls, or the steals, or blocks, or the assists, I think that’s worth mentioning too. It’s like the gain number that you use in football, that becomes that kind of number in basketball. Which is important for both, but I guess moreso in basketball, because it’s this constant conversation.
You’ve got to be a great listener. So on a play-by-play guy’s plate, there is listening, there’s keeping track of the game, there’s glancing at the computer to make sure you’ve got the right kind of numbers to associate with a particular play, and so again, juggling those things becomes a challenge. Basketball, to me, has always been a little bit more breezy, a little bit easier because of the flow of the game, there’s always something to talk about. In the NFL, it’s more like a march. There’s the play, there’s the change of players, there’s the play — it has a certain rhythm to it. The NBA has a rhythm, but it’s much more sped up. It’s a little different.
The college game, of course, is different from the pro game, because the athleticism isn’t necessarily there. But what is great about the college game is the great play you anticipate. And there may not be 50 of them, the way there are in an NBA game, but there might by 12. Because there are fewer, they really stand out. That is fun, and of course the atmosphere of the college game.
So, they’ve all got their various places. And I think it’s like trying to tell you I’ve got four kids, and I like one child over the next. You don’t. You love them all for different reasons. You love them all, and there’s things about each that you really enjoy. That’s kind of how it is with doing all these different sports, radio and television, both football and basketball.
SMW: Earlier in your career, you did a lot of local broadcasting. You did games with the University of Kansas, the Kansas City Kings, the Chiefs, and in Minnesota, the Timberwolves. What’s the biggest difference between calling a game locally and calling a game nationally?
Kevin: Well, there are two differences. Number one, when you do a local broadcast, you feel like you’re part of a family. You feel like you’re part of an ongoing story that is linked from night to night, or Sunday to Sunday. And you become almost part of the story. You travel with the same group, and you watch the practices with the same group, and you win or you lose with the same group. So you feel like you’re part of a family, and the highs and the lows that are part of that. Also with the local broadcasts, you’ve got listeners that are Chiefs fans, or University of Kansas Jayhawk fans. And so, the excitement level is a completely different level, because you can ratchet up as much as you can. One of the hardest things to do is, if you’ve been a local broadcaster for a long time, is then make the transition to a national job and not show that same kind of enthusiasm.
It’s interesting, because you can put ten people in a room, and four love a lot of emotion, four don’t like a lot of emotion, and two don’t care. So to balance all that out is a tricky thing. A lot of us, who have done a lot of local — and a lot of radio, where your voice is so paramount — it becomes a tough dance. And I think the longer you’re in it, the older you get, like in anything else in life, you find ways to navigate that and hopefully make it so you please everybody. Which is hard to do, but that’s probably your goal.
When you do a network game, the only thing you really concern yourself about is you just hope that you’re as prepared as the most avid fan that is watching those games. Now think of that. Think of the Philadelphia Eagles fan who absorbs stuff on the internet, on local cable, in the newspaper, on telecasts, on radio talk shows — and then you’re required on a Sunday, to go into that market and be as up-to-date on every little nuance, every story that’s going on in that city with that team. And not just for one team, but for the visiting team too. So it’s incumbent to be on top of all these different things.
And they know, because the sports fan now is so empowered by all these different tools, they know if you don’t know. Wrong college, or wrong year, or wrong position, or wrong whatever. They’re on it so fast, when it comes out of your mouth and you know you screwed up, you say ‘well, that’s going to tick them off,’ and you lose some credibility. So that’s the challenge of doing a network game. You don’t really care who wins or who loses, all you really care about is just that your broadcast team — from your cameramen, to your truck, to the booth — are all in sync, and you’re doing the best you can with the information you’ve gathered on that particular Sunday, or in our case at TNT, on Thursday.
The thing that I guess is interesting is, you go into this game knowing every story about these teams — where they are, where they’ve got to get, the trials, the tribulations they’re going through. And then you’ve done the game, and you walk away, and the stuff just exits you so fast. Your mind becomes mush. But for them, those stories, those trials and tribulations are still there after the game, the next morning when they wake up. So you have very little emotional attachment to the teams, as opposed to being a local broadcaster, where it is just so much a part of — you’re like a coach. You’re on the coaching staff. You feel the wins, you feel the losses, and you feel every little up and down, bump in the road, that a local broadcaster should feel. Because you watch every game so closely, and that’s the one team that you’re associated with.
SMW: Is it difficult to call games nationally involving teams you’ve covered locally? I’m thinking in particular, when the Wolves made it to the Conference Finals, and you called that Game 7. Is it difficult to do that, and then be neutral, be fair to both sides, when you’ve been so identified with them?
Kevin: No, I have never found it that way. My dad was with the Packers for all those years, and I was a ballboy for the Packers, I did the preseason for the Packers on television. So if that was ever going to be the case, I guess I would feel it there. But surprisingly, when I’ve done a game for CBS in Green Bay, wherever its been, in the regular season, I don’t necessarily feel that. Even when I do a Chiefs game — did the Chiefs for 9 years on radio — and while it is great to be in Arrowhead [Stadium], and I love being able to drive from my home to the stadium and not have to get on a plane, I really can’t say that I’m hoping or wishing, or feel swayed by the fact that I’ve done that team before.
Even Kansas, which, for all of us, I guess we wear our college alma mater proudly — you’re a Jayhawk or you’re a Gopher or you’re a Buckeye, or whatever you might be — even when I do those games. In the [NCAA] Tournament, I’ve done a lot of those games. The Final Four against Syracuse. But I was as excited about the performance of Carmelo Anthony against Kansas as I was two nights before, when Kansas beat up on Dwyane Wade and Marquette. I just want — a good performance is a good performance.
So I’ve never really felt that. Even when I was doing the Timberwolves and Chiefs, sometimes the management of those two teams would come back and say, ‘why did you get so excited for Michael Jordan’s slam dunk against us?’ Or, ‘why did you get so excited when Marcus Allen,’ when he was with the Raiders, ‘ran for 82 yards and a touchdown against us?’
Well, it was a big play. And I think if you’re watching it — while I feel for Chiefs fans, because I’m doing the games and I’m talking predominantly to a Kansas City audience — you still must feel, ‘that’s an exciting play.’ This is a Hall of Fame running back, and that’s what we’re all watching the sport for anyway. For great plays. You hope it’s for your team, but how can’t you admire what the guy just did?
Plus, when I began with those two teams, the Timberwolves and the Chiefs, they were at a low point. The Timberwolves were horrible in their early expansion years. So we’re trying to sell the NBA. And a Michael Jordan dunk is something that, you’ve got to come out and watch this. This is amazing what this guy can do. Or when the Chiefs, I took over them when I was 24 in the mid-80s, they were horrible until Marty Schottenheimer arrived, three, four, five years later. Until then, we had to sort of sell the NFL, and sell the Chiefs, exciting plays — you know, ‘Warren Moon is a great quarterback for the Houston Oilers, you should see this guy throw. His 59-yard touchdown pass right there was a thing of beauty.’
If you can’t get excited about that and show a little bit of emotion, because you love the game first and foremost, then I think you’ve got an issue. It comes down to that. You’ve got to love the sport. If you were sitting in the stands, while you’ve got to have a little more decorum when you’re on the air, what do people say when they see a great — ‘Wow, what a play!’ Well, you know, why not exude some of that? Of course, on radio, it’s even double that, because you have to create every sense with your words and inflection.
SMW: I read an article a couple of years ago, and it said that basically, when the NBA on TNT season ends, from then until the NFL season begins, the whole summer you completely ignore all sports — including the NBA Finals. I thought that was interesting. Is it difficult to cover a sport all season long, and then sort of tune out the biggest event?
Kevin: Well, when I say that I tune out, I’ll read USA Today every morning. We have a small cottage up on Lake Michigan, so we go up there, I just don’t think it’s fair to my family to be in front of a television watching the NBA Finals or the Conference Finals. Now, I’ll tune in, if I’m washing the dishes after family dinner, or if I’m just paying some bills in my office, I may turn it on in the background. But do I follow it as intently as I follow it during the season? Absolutely not.
With the NFL, there’s probably a smidge more attention paid, just because of free agent signings, the beginning of training camp, and ramping up for my season. But it doesn’t come close to what I do from, say, August 1st through the middle of May, when every day — much like you, probably, and everyone else in our business, if you don’t, you fall behind — I’ve got to make sure that every day, I’m going over the pertinent places on the web, or in print, or tape or whatever vehicle I use. It encompasses every single day, at least a good six hours. It’s too massive. And when I’m doing all three sports at the same time, the NFL, the NBA and some college basketball, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
So when I said that I tune everything out, I’ve gone from as much as a 12-14 hour day — and a minimum of 6-8 — to maybe a half-hour, maybe 15 minutes. So, to me, it’s an unbelievable climate change from in season to out of season. I don’t stay up and watch NBA Finals games, or I don’t sit there and pore through the Internet. I rarely even turn on the computer during the summer. I owe it to my family, because my time has been so diverted from them for those nine, ten months. I’m not going to sit there in my so-called off time, and take time away from doing a puzzle, or taking a walk, or going to fish with my son, so I can go read the latest story on whatever. I just won’t do that.
I keep enough on top that I could smartly talk about stuff, but not to the extent that I do during the season, which is a wake-up-to-fall-asleep type of job, for those nine-and-a-half, ten months.