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So You Want To Be...The Blazer Play-By-Play Broadcaster?

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The normal game-day posts--Preview and Jersey Contest--are below and the Gameday Open Thread will be coming up later, but first we have a special treat...the second of our "So You Want To Be...?" series detailing what it's like to fill some of the vital roles surrounding the team.  

Today Blazer Broadcasting Play-by-Play announcer Mike Barrett was gracious enough to let us into his world a little bit, sharing what it's like to be in his shoes.

Blazersedge:  For those who might be interested, how does one get to be an NBA play-by-play announcer?  What was your degree and where are some of the places you worked prior to joining the team?

I usually say I fell into this career kind of by accident, but then as I look back, I realize that may not be the case.  My dad was a high school coach for years, and I basically grew up in a gym, always around the game.  I played for him as well.  As I got to end of high school, I realized I was better at baseball, and initially went to college on a baseball scholarship.  I stopped playing baseball after my arm blew up (I was a left-handed pitcher), and went to work in Oregon State's sports information office.  It was there where I realized I would be working somewhere in sports.  I started working for the campus TV station, and we televised some local high school football games.  I also did some radio work.  I ended up graduating in Journalism, and figured I'd either be a sports writer, or broadcaster.

I moved to Portland in 1992, and started calling high school basketball games on KUIK in Hillsboro.  Shortly after that, I got the job as the Sports Director at KXL in Portland.  I wasn't qualified for that job, but I came cheap, so that's probably why I got the job.  My first assignment was covering the 1992 NBA Finals, between the Blazers and Bulls, and got to go to Chicago for games 1,2, and 6.  

While at KXL, I worked as the sideline reporter for the Oregon Ducks for 8 seasons (I know, a Beaver working for the Ducks).  It was a great experience, and even called an occasional Duck basketball game, and did one football game in 1996 when Jerry Allen became ill right before kickoff.  I went to work with the Blazers in 1999 as their radio studio host, and also did the TV pre-game show, hosted the TV specials, and was the editor of Rip City Magazine.  When the WNBA came to town, I was the radio/TV play-by-play broadcaster for the Portland Fire.  That lasted three years.  When the Fire disbanded, they moved me into the TV play-by-play job with the Blazers.

Blazersedge:   Do you remember where you were when you first got the news that you were going to be the Portland Trailblazers' new TV guy?  What was your reaction?  Overjoyed?  Just another job?

It was an odd summer.  I learned in July that they would not be renewing Pete Pranica's contract, and even though everyone around me was assuming I was the new play-by-play man, I wasn't so sure.  I guess I didn't want to jinx it, so I wasn't celebrating.  In September they finally made it official.  This is now my fourth season in this role.  So, yes, I was thrilled, but the uncertainty for two months made it a little strange.  They told me they had been grooming me for that role, and knew all along I would eventually be the guy.  Having grown up in Albany, a Blazer fan all my life, it was obviously a dream come true.  I knew the history of the franchise, had been to so many games, and had such a deep love for the team, it was kind of like it was meant to be in my mind.  I am very, very blessed, and try to never take any of this for granted.  People always ask what my next step will be, but I'm very happy here, and hope to be in this job for a long time.  I did my first two seasons with Steve Jones, but his national TV duties with NBC, and then ABC/ESPN had him away from so many of our broadcasts something had to change.  Before last season, Mike Rice, moved permanently to the position.

Blazersedge:  Who were your inspirations/role models as far as developing your broadcast style?

I was one of those kids who snuck a radio into bed with me at night and listened to Bill Schonely call Blazer games.  I would make stat sheets, and schedules, and update them every night.  I also listened a lot to Darrell Aune at Oregon State.  I still think he was one of the best play-by-play men in the business.  Aune had his trademarks, and his special phrases and sayings, but he was never bigger than the game.  I always loved that about him.  I want to enhance the fans' enjoyment of the game, but never want to get in the way.  That's especially true on TV.  Radio is so different because you're giving fans the action, and painting a picture in their heads.  With TV, they can already see what's going on, so you have to decide what to add to it.  It's more story telling, and setting up your analyst.  I've got one of the best, and most prepared analysts in the business, so he makes my job easy.  

Blazersedge:   When most of us dream about doing what you do, we stand in front of the bathroom mirror or sit in the car with the radio down and practice making amazing calls.  ("It's GOOOOD!  Blazers win!...no, no, no... It's gooood!  BLAZERS WIN!" etc.)  How does a professional do it?  Or are you past the point of practicing volume, pitch, emphasis, and the like?  Do you anticipate/rehearse eventual big-moment calls or do you just make them as they happen?

That's an interesting question, because as a kid I used to practice all the time.  My mom has tapes of me calling imaginary games.  I would be the play-by-play man, and the color man, all at the same time.  I was this guy named Mike Bat (I have no idea why).  I would call imaginary football games sometimes, and have a helmet and shoulder pads to simulate sounds in the background.  That sounds crazy, but that's what I mean when I say I guess I knew all along what I'd be doing for a living.  

As for now, I don't really think ahead of time about what I'm going to say, or how I'm going to react to things during games.  Again, TV is a bit different than radio.  In radio you can have a little more scripted stuff, and bust out your trademark sayings for big plays.  I just don't really like that in TV.  Late in a game, after a huge play, I'll normally just try and sit there quiet and let the pictures tell the story.  Steve Jones always taught me that.  That's also what I always loved so much about Vin Scully.  He is the master of knowing when to say something and when to shut up.  If you listen to the Kirk Gibson home run in 1988, Scully has the huge call, and then just lays out as Gibson rounds the bases.  The pictures took it the rest of the way.  Other guys would have probably been thinking how they could put their stamp on that moment.  Scully had the discipline to step aside, as the moment was enough.  It's one of my favorite calls of all time, and I watch it all the time.  His sense of timing is remarkable, and that's really what it's all about.

Blazersedge:   There are as many different ways of calling a game as there are play-by-play announcers.  What's most important to you as you approach your job?  How do you see your role and what things do you emphasize in order to fill it well?

I want to be informational, and certainly well prepared.  I am with these players all the time, and know each one of them on a personal level.  That's probably a new-age thing, because the older guys never wanted to get too chummy with the players.  Steve Jones was like that.  He never even rode the bus with the team, and stayed clear of personal relationships.  I can't do that, and I'm not sure I even believe in that.  We're not just selling the game, we're selling the personalities, and the stories.  Plus, I love being involved.  Many broadcasters feel that if you know the players that well, and are even friends with them, how are you going to be critical when perhaps the broadcast calls for that?  I get that, but I also think I can do that, and do that on occasion.  And, you better believe the players and coaches hear the broadcasts.  So do NBA referees.  About once a week I'll have to explain something I said to a coach or a player, or to a ref.  They're usually very understanding.  Many times at halftime, NBA refs will watch tape of the first half, and those tapes usually have our call of the game on them.  I've had refs come over to the table and say, "that was a good point on that call, I probably missed it." Or, they'll say, "you were wrong about that."  Or, I'll just get dirty looks.  That happens too.  I do like that level of accountability though, and it makes me think of all sides of what I'm going to say.

Blazersedge:   You seem to have found a rhythm and voice in your blog mikebarrettsblog.blogspot.com and it appears well-received.  How are you finding that experience?

I remember when they asked me to do a blog a couple of summers ago.  I kind of did a test run during Summer League in Las Vegas, and then we really started it during training camp two years ago.  That's where it took off, because fans were getting first-hand information they couldn't get anywhere else.  They were also getting stories from the team plane, or the bus, or the locker room.  It's been great, but I'd by lying if I didn't say it's been exhausting as well.  It takes a lot of time.  It's like my own little newspaper.  I pick the headline, the picture, and write the copy.  It's all mine.  We were the first team to have a blog like this, and if you'll now notice, just about everyone has one now.  I've even had other broadcasters come up and say "thanks a lot for getting me into this."  After games I almost always blog, and want to have fresh stuff up there as often as I can.  I'd say I almost never go two days without something new.  During the season it's fun, but where it's really valuable is during summer league, the draft, and before training camp.  I think there was probably one or two Blazer-related stories in the paper last August.  I blogged every day, and was at the practice facility every day, talking about who was in town, how they looked, how the returning players looked, and how training camp was setting up.  I think the fans like that.

Blazersedge:    I'm not sure how to ask this question, so I'm going to make an assertion and let you respond.  Part of your role, especially now with the blog, involves being a public spokesperson for the team.  And part of the general critique of that role is that the spin on any given issue is going to be positive.  Some people find fault with that, but I don't see it as a bad thing.  If your work leans towards the positive, well...somebody needs to remind us that the positive is out there.  Other sources may be too negative for my tastes but sometimes we need to be cautioned too.  So how much of your job is simply being supportive of the team during (hopefully passing now) difficult times, putting the best possible construct on events?  Or are we being unfair to you even suggesting that?

That's very fair, and I've heard that.  First off, I'm obviously a fan.  But, I'm not a blind optimist, so I've got opinions that don't always follow the PR plan.  So, maybe I just "sip" the kool-aid.  Obviously, I am an employee of the Blazers, I like my job, and I have a family.  So, I'm not going to be careless with my position.  The people at the top of our organization are very understanding, and they know that to be credible, at all, I can't always be telling people what they should think.  I think some fans think we're given "talking points" before a game, and we can't steer off that script or something.  That's not true at all.  If they didn't trust us, and trust our judgment, they wouldn't have us in this role.  I will say that it has been a pleasure calling games with this year's team.  Even during losses, there's always something positive to focus on.  I guess you can always find the negative as well, but I don't want to live like that.  Newspapers say "negative sells" and they could be right.  But, that's no way to live, and that's not who I am.  I'd like to think I'm a realistic fan.

Blazersedge:    You broke in with Steve Jones, who was a well-respected analyst but also sometimes (seemingly) hard on his play-by-play guys.  How did you find that experience?

I love Steve, first of all.  Yes, he is hard on his partners.  He always has been.  You should have seen us off the air.  It didn't change.  But, I learned so much from him.  He was so well respected around the league, and in broadcasting circles.  I had seen, and heard, him all my life, so I already knew so much about him.  And, when I first started working with him I was very much trying to find my way in this business.  He sensed that, and really helped me.  I will also say that he's a big reason I got the job.  He never told me that, because that's not his style, but other people did.  

On the air, I think some fans thought he was always talking down to his partners, and to me.  It came off as arrogance some of the time.  Toward the end of our second season, I kind of figured out that the best way to deal with that was to slap him right back.  He liked that.  I think we had a pretty good relationship, and I think he'd say the same thing.  Steve was huge on taking the emotion out of the game, from our standpoint.  It irritated some fans that he never seemed to care whether or not the Blazers won.  He actually did, he just didn't think it was appropriate to let that get into his broadcasting of a game.  That's where we differed a bit.  He also hated it when I was ever critical of a referee.  He just didn't think it ever made much sense, and was a waste of energy.  He's probably right.

Blazersedge:    OK...the question everybody wants to know.  What is it like working and traveling with Mike Rice?  Half the time you guys seem to have a close rapport like friends and the other half it's like you're looking at him and saying, "This guy is NUTS!"  Is what we see what we get or is there more to the deep mystery of Mike Rice that we should know about?

He is nuts.  But, I love him to death.  So does anyone who knows him.  I spend a lot of time with Rice.  We sit across the aisle from each other on the plane, he sits in front of me on the bus, and we always eat together before games.  We play tennis on the road, and at home, and play a lot of golf together.  My wife jokes that one of my best buddies is 25 years older than me.  That's true, I guess.  There really aren't any secrets about Rice that you don't know, and I get asked that a lot.  He is what he is, and he's exactly the guy that you see and hear on the air.  He's not polished, he mispronounces names all the time, and his wardrobe is often mismatched, and his hair is messy.  I try to be exactly the opposite.  Maybe that's why we get along so well.  We disagree politically about as much as you can, and hold heated arguments about that all the time.  That probably comes through on the air, as he'll always try to bait me into things.  

The thing that many don't know about Rice is what a great coach he was.  When we're traveling in the east, fans remember him, and other coaches approach him.  At times, Nate McMillan will ask his opinion on things.  Rice's son, Mike Jr., is the lead assistant coach at Pitt, and is known as one of the best recruiters in college basketball.  A lot of people also probably don't know that Rice, Senior, was a great analyst on ESPN before he came to the Blazers.  

He is emotional, irrational at times, and is always incredibly well prepared.  He eats and sleeps basketball, and he's a huge Blazer fan.  That's why he's so good.  I hope I get to call him my partner for a long time.  He was great on radio, but he's better on TV.  TV is more about the analyst anyway.  That's why he wanted to move to TV when Snapper left.  More time to talk.  Radio analysts have to wedge their commentary in between plays.  On TV, people can see what's going on.  My job is to set him up from play to play and let him go.

Blazersedge:    Since you travel with the squad you probably have better access to the players than any other media person.  Who have been some of the most memorable players professionally and personally over the years and why?

I've loved most of the players we've had since I've been here.  That might surprise some people.  Rasheed Wallace hated to talk to the media, as you know.  But, around us, on the plane, and away from the press, he was warm and funny.  Bonzi Wells was a good guy, and always comes over to say hello when we see him these days.  Damon Stoudamire is the same way, and will probably be a coach in this league someday.  That's one of the great things about having a four years under my belt now, is that I get to see a lot of our former players from time to time when we're playing their teams.  They're all good guys.  Shareef Abdur-Rahim is one of my favorites, and always asks about my family, my wife, and my kids.  He remembers names, and that always amazes me.  I wasn't even around him that long.  The guy I really miss seeing around is Arvydas Sabonis.  He always came off like he didn't speak very good English.  But, he did.  He was so much funnier than anyone knew.  

Blazersedge:  You and Mike Rice have made a point to emphasize the sterling character of the current group of Blazers, especially the young guys.  What do you see that leads you to that conclusion?

They're such a likable bunch of guys, first off.  They're a tight team, and they all seem to genuinely enjoy each other.  On most teams there are problems, and minor incidents from time to time.  People don't hear about them all the time, but they're usually there.  Honestly, I couldn't even imagine there being a problem between guys on this team.  The rookies, Brandon, LaMarcus, and Sergio, are first-class citizens, and are polite and respectful.  It's strange, but they kind of set the tone.  They get so much respect, when normally rookies are left to pack people's bags and take grief.  Even where you think there might be troubles, there aren't.  People have assumed that Jamaal Magloire and Joel Przybilla, who are fighting for minutes at the same position, would be rivals.  But, that's not the case.  They really enjoy each other.  Every time Joel gets on the bus, Magloire, in his accent, says "Tha Thrilla....."  It always makes everyone laugh.  

On long flights I usually take a walk up and back on the 757, and always notice what the players are up to.  Guys are usually reading, or watching game tape.  We laughed recently about what a bunch of choir boys we have on this team.  There are great characters and get personalities, and they seem to mesh very well.

Blazersedge:   What are your impressions of Nate McMillan?

Nate is a great coach, and a better person.  The leadership on the team starts with him, and that's the way it should be.  When he played he did things the right way.  He expects no less from his players.  He has changed a little this season, as compared to last.  There have been a lot of people write that he has "softened."  Well, I think at least part of that is true.  He simply hasn't had to be as much of a disciplinarian, because of the quality of the guys he has.  He is hard on his players, but he treats them with respect, and is very straight with them.  I really never see players roll their eyes, or talk back, or question their coach in a disrespectful way.  That's rare, and I have seen a lot of that in the past with former coaches.  He also has a love for community and for charity.  You see our features during halftime shows.  Most of the stuff Nate does he doesn't even tell anyone about.  That's a big reason his players have gotten so involved in all the community projects.  It's not that they have to, it's just that they've seen their coach do it and really want to.

Blazersedge:    If you could give the fans one message about the current state of the Blazers, what would it be?

Our culture has changed, to borrow a phrase from Kevin Pritchard.  When you make the commitment to rebuild, it can be tough.  There are usually a couple of different phases of it.  There's tearing it down.  There's examining what you want to be.  That sometimes involves transitional coaches and players, and we've had a few.  Then, you get your foundation in place and start to move.  Last summer's draft, I think, will be talked about for years.  LaMarcus, Brandon, and Sergio.  That's a foundation.

Blazersedge:    What's the toughest part of your job?  The best part?

That's easy- it's the travel.  I used to always follow the Blazers and never really gave any thought to if they were on the road, or at home, or playing on the east coast, or west coast.  I would just turn on the TV and there they would be.  Well, there's slightly more than goes into it than just that.  We fly so many miles, and stay in so many hotels.  We fly late at night, arrive in hotels the middle of the night, and get very worn down.  You don't even really ever unpack- at home or on the road.  We're rarely in a hotel for more than one night, and I usually spend that time working on the next game, or writing the blog, or something like that.  I see the areas of the city right around the hotel, but hardly ever sight see.  I do always walk to the White House when we're in D.C., and several other things like that- hit the same restaurants, the same coffee joints in the mornings, as you get to know the hotels, the people, and the regular stops.  But, it's tough.  I know it doesn't sound that way, because we travel better than most heads of state.  It's still time away from family.  I've got two very young children, and it kills me to be away from them.  I have a little video camera that I put on my laptop, and get to see them that way on occasion during a long trip.  I guess it's kind of neat that they get to see Dad on TV, but they're used to that and don't think much of it.  The six months of the season are usually just kind of a blur.  I wouldn't trade jobs with anyone, but that doesn't mean it isn't a grind sometimes.

Blazersedge:   We saved the fan's favorite question for last:  Any funny/shocking/interesting stories about life/travel/work with the team?  What's the oddest thing that's happened to you on the job?

There are many things, and many stories that would take up more space than I have here.  I guess one story that stands out happened several years ago.  We were in Washington D.C, and it was snowing like crazy.  We were kind of just bunkered down in the hotel.  I was going to walk across the street to the mini-mart to get a coke and a bag of chips.  When the elevator got to the bottom, the lobby was pack with lights, cameras, and people.  I stepped out, and was already behind a security line.  A man was making his way down the hall, stopped, shook my hand, and said something I didn't understand.  Another man kind of pushed me back in the elevator, and I rode up 10 floors with these two men.  After getting back down, I asked who that guy was who I just met and spent 5 minutes with.  Turned out it was the Prime Minister of Turkey.  That was strange.

The next year in D.C. I was walking around the capitol, and literally ran into Oregon senator Ron Wyden.  We talked Blazers basketball for a few minutes, but I don't think he followed it much.  

In our L.A. hotel we're always running into celebs.  I shopped for magazines one time in the gift shop with Holly Hunter, had breakfast next to Robert Duvall, and rode a treadmill next to Larry King.  We also had former California governor Grey Davis sit down with us at a table in Beverly Hills.  It was right after he'd been recalled.  I went to use the bathroom and ran into Cameron Diaz.  At a Laker game once I actually used a urinal next to Rob Lowe (kept my eyes straight ahead).  I met Seal, John Popper, from Blues Traveler, and Mark Walberg.  At halftime of a game against the Lakers, a man leaned over a table and struck up a conversation.  It was Jack Nicholson, and he just wanted to talk about the state of the Blazers.  The guys in the TV truck actually taped that one.  

That's probably not the kind of experiences you meant, but those were certainly memorable moments.  In Boston this year, I was using the workout room with Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgewick.  Okay, that's enough name dropping.  I never say much to these people, because I'm not into that, but it's always kind of cool.

That's it folks! Two things strike me most about what Mike said:

  1.  The part where he talked about not overshadowing the game was dead on.  My very first impression of Mike Barrett four years ago was, "Here's a guy who's in the business of letting other people shine through."  Whether that was Steve Jones, Mike Rice, or the team itself that's continued throughout the years.  I really respect him for that.  
  2.  I understand using the urinal next to Rob Lowe, but running into Cameron Diaz?  Only in California...
Tons of thanks go to Mike for taking time out of a busy travel schedule to talk with us.  I'm sure he'll stop by sometime in the day to see your reaction.  If you appreciate it, make sure to let him know and to comment a little on what you found interesting.

Remember to check out Mike's blog at  http://mikebarrettsblog.blogspot.com/.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

P.S.  If you missed the first "So You Want To Be..." interview with Oregonian Beat Writer Jason Quick you can read it  here.