Photo from WestwoodOneSports.com
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - As a 12-year-old boy in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kevin Harlan says all dreamed of was becoming an airline pilot.
His father, a former executive of the Green Bay Packers, was not sure that was the career path he saw his son taking.
hen I was about 11 or 12 years old, my dad had suggested that radio and television sports might be a fun thing to consider," Harlan said over the phone while relaxing on the shore of Lake Michigan. "In that same conversation, he said, 'I don't know that your strong suit is math and science.'"
However, it was one other piece of advice his father gave him that has guided him throughout his career.
"My dad always said, 'You know, when you find something you enjoy, you won’t work a day in your life.'”
It is safe to say Harlan has found something he truly enjoys. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1982, he spent the next seven years in the Midwest region, announcing games for the Kansas City Kings (now Sacramento Kings), Kansas Jayhawks, and Kansas City Chiefs. In 1989, he became the lead play-by-play announcer for a new NBA expansion team. It was there that he began to form the enthusiastic broadcast style he is known for now.
"To be quite honest, when I was doing the Minnesota Timberwolves, they were losing a lot games," Harlan said. "To kind of keep ourselves into the games as broadcasters, we would come up with silly things and have a pretty good time actually on the air while we were getting clobbered by 30 or 40 points every night."
That "loosey-goosey" technique has brought out various famous calls, such as "LeBron James, with no regard for human life!" However, none of his line or calls have been premeditated. Instead, he lets the words flow naturally, showing that he is fully engaged in the game he is covering.
"Just be well-prepared and fully versed in the teams and make sure you have immersed yourself in the game," Harlan said. "That should serve as your guide, that would produce any memorable line that you would need because it would be genuine, it would be pure, and it would be true."
While he still excited to call NFL games on CBS and Westwood One, NBA games on TNT, and NCAA Tournament games, he is also thrilled for something else: watching his daughter, Olivia, begin her career. A 2014 graduate of the University of Georgia, she has already worked as the Atlanta Hawks sideline reporter for three years, along with sideline reporting for Fox Sports South and ESPN. Harlan supported his daughter in her pursuit, but also warned her of what she would have to do to make it.
"You’re going to have to go to a top notch school," Harlan says he told his daughter, "and you’re going to have to give up weekends and a lot of personal time to get good or see if you can get good in this business."
However, he gave her one piece of advice to help motivate her: the same advice his father gave him as a 12 year old in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“It’ll pay off. If you love what you’re doing, it’s worth putting in the time for.”
To listen to my interview with Kevin Harlan, click here
A full transcript of the interview can be found below.
Q and A with Kevin Harlan
Zach Staton: I know a lot about where you’ve been in your career. You’ve been with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Kings organization before it moved to Sacramento, you’ve been a play-by-play announcer for the Minnesota Timberwolves, now with NBA on TNT. You call NFL games for Westwood One and CBS. Your résumé is filled like nobody else’s. But I want to start with this: when did you know you wanted to become a play-by-play announcer?
Kevin Harlan: I think, Zach, when I was about 11 or 12 years old, my dad had suggested that radio and television sports might be a fun thing to consider. I was lucky enough to go to a high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin that had a student run radio station, a little 10 watt radio station. And that station would broadcast all of the sporting events at our high school. And I had a chance to do a lot of work on that radio station, and that continued to kind of fuel me throughout high school and I figured it would be a wonderful career if I could ever advance in it. But the bottom line was that I just really enjoyed it and my dad always said, “You know, when you find something you enjoy, you won’t work a day in your life.” A lot of dads have said that to their sons or daughters, my dad said that to me. I kind of followed that compass a little bit, I kind of followed that philosophy that he passed down. One thing led to another and with a lot of incredible luck and great fortune, I was able to progress and always knew that regardless of what stage I might be broadcasting on, if I could always look forward to that assignment, always look forward to that work, that I would have stayed on track. And I feel for the most part that I’ve done that. I’ve always gotten up every morning very thankful for the job I have and the chance I had that particular day to even get better at it. So, my dad when I was about 11 or 12 years old, he kind of threw that idea out to me and got me on my way.
ZS: Now did I read this right that, you wanted to be a commercial pilot before you got into broadcasting?
KH: I did, I did. I wanted to travel, I was infatuated with airlines and airplanes. In that same conversation my dad had with me, he said, “I don’t know that your strong suit is math and science.” And that was the part of the story I didn’t tell was that I think he could see early on that maybe that was not my strong suit, but perhaps I had a chance at doing something that could combine travel with my love of sports and he was right. I have always had an infatuation with being a pilot. Don’t know that I’ll ever achieve that in any form or fashion, but I am around planes quite a bit with my work schedule. So the travel really doesn’t bother me, I can stay pretty interested in whatever kind of flight or airport that I may be in on a way to do a game or coming home from a game, so it’s worked out. But my dad, again, was very much on the edge when he knew what I might be able to do and not do and projected it pretty well. But I did want to be an airline pilot, and actually if I had to stop and do anything else today, even at my mid-fifties, if they said you could do anything else but what you’re doing now, that’s probably be the job that I would choose.
ZS: So it’s safe to say that your father played a pretty big influence in you getting into the career you have now.
KH: Yes, he did. He did indeed. He was in pro football himself in a management position for almost 4 decades. So being around pro football as I was as a kid certainly gave me an inside look at what that job, what that profession, what that world would be all about, that culture. And I like it. That was a wonderful gift that he gave me that he let me kind of be around him as he was doing his job. So I got to see things that a lot of other young kids wouldn’t get a chance to see and be around.
ZS: Now you obviously have one of the most unique broadcast styles in all of sports. How did you develop that getting started?
KH: Well I don’t know that I can really point it out, although I will tell you that about the time, 11, 12, 13 years old when I was thinking about the business and was beginning to draw real interest in it, I would like a lot of young kids my age listen to games on radio. And I was really captivated by the ability of the play-by-play broadcaster on radio to create that vision in my mind as I was going to bed at night, and the door was shut and I was getting ready to go to sleep listening to these games, and a pretty vivid imagination. The words that broadcasters used to describe games just really, for whatever reason, really kind of captured my attention and set a tone for what I thought it should be like. And that was very important because, for radio in particular, it is all about words and the usage of those words and voice inflection and pacing. Being able to be observant and curious and trying to figure out the right way to describe a catch or a jumpshot or whatever it might be. And I go back to those early days when I didn’t have the benefit of TV, just radio, and that really stuck with me.
I also had an internship at what was the forerunner for ESPN Radio, it was the first national sports network in the country on radio called Enterprise Radio. It was based in Bristol, Connecticut, the home of ESPN. This was back in 1980-81. And I got an internship there when I was in college and a lot of the old engineers and producers the fledgling radio network used were guys that had been retired or worked at one time with CBS, NBC, ABC Radio, mutual broadcasting. And they would tell me about guys that they worked with in their younger days and the way they described things and they would eventually look up and get me some tapes of old time broadcasters. So I’d listen to tapes of guys like Red Barber, used to do New York broadcast for the Yankees, and hear the way he would describe a baseball game with just great detail, and again that really resonated with me. I guess that was kind of where I developed my style and direction where I wanted to go.
ZS: You have these amazing one-liners. For example, “LeBron James with no regard for human life.” I can’t remember how many times I’ve replayed that on YouTube. Where does that come from? Are these things you think about before the game? Is it just stuff that comes to you in the game?
KH: Well I don’t know that a real smart guy would probably say that because I’m not very polite, I think it came out with a little bit more ease. To be quite honest, when I was doing the Minnesota Timberwolves, they were losing a lot games. To kind of keep ourselves into the games as broadcasters, we would come up with silly things and have a pretty good time actually on the air while we were getting clobbered by 30 or 40 points every night. So some of those lines came out then at that time, never predetermined, never written down, never planned for, never practiced. Just truly things that came out for whatever reason when we were pretty loosey-goosey on the air.
The no regard for human life line that I used for LeBron James was a dunk that he had over the reigning, at that time, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kevin Garnett. He had come down the lane and driven by a couple of Celtics and gone right to the rim. And then he kind of arched his back to get out of the reach of Garnett so his arm was fully extended. But it was the reaction afterwards and the reaction of my broadcast partner that night in Cleveland, Doug Collins, who it takes a lot to get him amazed and off his feet. And he was off his feet and definitely amazed by the play, which led to me coming up with that line. I think that all the broadcasters that have reached that level and have said things that are memorable, I think they all would say it just kind of came out, it just kind of fell out of my mouth. And I always kind of thought those were the best kinds of lines anyway. Those weren’t contrived or written down and then you look at them at a certain time. I mean how could you? On a play like that, it happened so quick. You couldn’t look down and say, “Oh I think I have a line for that.” That stuff just kind of happens. I really can’t explain it, maybe from playing playground basketball myself and weird stuff like that would come out of guys mouths after they’d come up with a big play and schooled you. That particular line just kind of came out, and it resonated for whatever reason with a lot people, and I’m glad they like it. I know I’ve had other lines that people haven’t liked and you don’t hear as much about those. You just kind of go through it and you hope people like what you broadcast. I guess you never want to make yourself the object of the game, but at the same time I think you want to come across as a fan. And I am definitely a fan and love the competition and love the games and I think all of that kind of produced that kind of a line at that particular time.
ZS: Do you have a favorite line that you’ve used like that that you can remember right off the top of your head?
KH: You know Zach, I don’t think I do to be quite honest because I think if I did, it would look like I plan it that way and because none of these have been planned they just kind of come out, I really can’t say that I do. I don’t go into it thinking, “I’m really be over the top. I’m really want to be overly enthusiastic.” I don’t think that way, and I think most guys don’t think that way either. You go into it and you let the game dictate how you’re going to broadcast. And that has served a lot people well and is probably a good rule of thumb. If it’s a boring game you don’t try to sound contrived or sound fake, but when there’s a big play, there’s a big play. I think you’ve got to be in the moment, you have to be engaged, you have to be fully focused so that when those lines come out you know it comes out very organically and not in a contrived way. When broadcasters ever ask me, “Do you ever plan that stuff? Should I write down a bunch of lines?” I say absolutely not. Just be well-prepared and fully versed in the teams and make sure you have immersed yourself in the game, make sure you are working the game and are focused on the game. That should serve as your guide, that would produce any memorable line that you would need because it would be genuine, it would be pure, and it would be true. And I think that’s all a listener wants and I think that’s all a broadcaster should offer. Well-educated, but what they are because that is what they are. I think that would resonate with a viewer.
ZS: And you talk about being well-versed with these teams and being ready for pretty much anything in these games. What is the preparation process like for you?
KH: Well in football, Zach, it’s every day of the week because I have two games a week: one on Sunday afternoon and one on Monday night. So there is not an off day, there’s not a time to read a book during the week or really have a lot of time to do another activity. It is basically, every day, you are doing something to get ready for that broadcast. Somedays it is heavier workloads than others. When basketball begins, it adds a third element, a third day of the week, and that becomes even more difficult and strenuous in terms of the preparation. And the difference is that every game is national. Every NFL game on TV is on DirecTV, it can be seen by anybody at anytime, anywhere in the world. Our Monday night broadcast is broadcast around the world on radio, and our TNT broadcast goes overseas as well as here in the U.S. So every game is national, and I think that just puts more responsibility, and kind of a fear factor to a degree in you, that you don’t want to get it wrong. You don’t want to mess up a name, you don’t want to mess up a stat or figure that you may relay to the audience that may mean something at the time. You want to make sure you know who’s playing and what the storyline is and make sure that is a revolving thing in the broadcast. You don’t just say it once and let it go, you bring it up and continue to adjust it a little bit in light of what’s happened in that broadcast. And that all comes with preparation. Knowing the game, the players, meaning of the game backwards and forwards. That’s what you strive for, because you’re broadcasting to very knowledgeable fans and they’ll catch you if you’re not ready.
ZS: I want to end the interview with a couple just fun questions for you. First, who’s one person that you’d would want to do a broadcast with that you haven’t done one with yet?
KH: It would be an analyst, and I guess it would be different guys for football and basketball. It would have been fun to do a game with John Madden. I came close a couple times when I was with Fox because of scheduling conflicts with Pat Summerall and Dick Stockton, they were going to move some people around. But it never happened, but I think John Madden in his prime would have been a terrific guy to be with and broadcast with. I think Gruden would be fascinating because I don’t know anybody, except for the guy that I work with Rich Gannon, who is as prepared as Jon Gruden is. Those are the two top names in our business. Cris Collinsworth would certainly be in that category too, just because we have to recognize the number one guys across the board. I love who I work with at CBS in Rich Gannon. On radio, I get to work with Boomer Esiason, who has been a longtime friend and is a terrific broadcaster, and Kurt Warner and Dan Fouts. So, I really feel like I’ve been blessed beyond measure in terms of guys I’ve gotten to work with in football.
In basketball, I’ve done the NCAA Tournament with Jay Bilas when he was rent over to CBS a few years ago. I’ve worked with Bill Raftery, who I would say probably would be the number one person I’d ever want to work with on a basketball game, he and I end up doing about 3 or 4 games a year as it is with CBS. I just thoroughly enjoy Bill as both a broadcaster and a person. So I got to tell you, I’ve worked with about everybody I’ve wanted to and enjoy who I’ve worked with and never regretted a partner. Always enjoyed who I’ve been paired with, regardless of sport.
ZS: Speaking of working with everybody, I have to ask: what was it like working with Shaquille O’Neal on his debut analyst job for the NBA?
KH: He was, in fact Zach, he was surprisingly good. Now we only get to see those guys in studio, and I think it makes an incredible difference whether their courtside as opposed to in a studio with an antiseptic environment and watching off a monitor and having other guys talking and not being able to hear the game as well because you’re getting ready for your segment at halftime or before the game. But he is a brilliant basketball guy, he’s a rascal. He’s so fun, like Charles. He’s just really intuitive and gets the narrative of the game, understands the guys that are playing the game. Spots little things that even a guy like me who has done a lot basketball can’t see. So I found him delightful, enlightening, and he’s a goofy guy, so I may be a little biased in that regard, but I found him really insightful. And could’ve been even more insightful had he not always wanted to screw around, which is part of why people love him so much. But if he were just an analyst, he’d be outstanding. He really has a good feel for the game, and a good feel for all the positions on the floor, not just the center position.
ZS: He seems like just a very natural broadcaster, with the way that he is so extraverted.
KH: He is, yeah, you’re right. He is, Zach, you’re exactly right.
ZS: My final question might be a little bit more personal. What is it like now to be able to go to an Atlanta Hawks game and work with your daughter, even for just a couple of minutes.
KH: Well, you know, it’s great. I told her, as I did all of my kids, that this really is not a great business to get into. It’s very unforgiving. We’ve got four kids, she’s our youngest daughter of three, and our baby is our son who’s in college and is not going to get into broadcasting. He has a completely different view of what he wants to do, which I’m thrilled about and I’m very proud of him. But I told her when she got in and we were looking at schools, “You’re going to have to go to a top notch school and you’re going to have to give up weekends and a lot of personal time to get good or see if you can get good in this business. Because this cannot be a part time thing, it’s got to be a consuming element of your life. And it almost has to take precedents over studies and you have to put in so much extra time. And you’ve got to see what other people are doing well and try to get a roadmap of where you want to go. Listen to voices and presentations and do all those kinds of things.” And sure enough, she went to the University of Georgia, which is a top broadcast school and has a great journalism department, and did everything I hope she would do. She was incredibly serious, lugged camera equipment, climbed stairs, did a lot of the grunt work a lot of broadcasters do when they first get in the business. Edited tapes until the wee hours of the morning, worked on her performance, watched her tapes, watched it against the pros she saw on TV and compared and contrasted, and really put a lot of time into it.
I’m more proud of the fact that I know that she went through what I thought she had to go through and what a lot broadcasters have to go through to make a mark in this business, and she’s done that. And she was hired her senior year at the University of Georgia to do sidelines for the SEC on their weekly telecast on Fox. And I don’t think they realized she was still in college but she was. And then that led to her, while still in college, doing sidelines for the Atlanta Hawks. So am I proud that she’s with ESPN now and in her third year at ESPN, and is with the Atlanta Hawks and has been in the NBA at such a young age? I mean, absolutely. But I’m more proud in the “why” she may be where she is, because of the work she put in. And we would talk a lot about the kind of work ethic she’d have to have, and a lot of tearful calls on the phone when she was in college and missing this party or this event. And I said, “It’ll pay off. If you love what you’re doing, it’s worth putting in the time for.” And she did and she does and it worked out. And a lot of kids do put in that time and it doesn’t work out. For her, it just happened to click at a very young age. And I’ve never made a call for her, I’ve never written a note or email saying, “Hey, would you look at my daughter’s work?” Never done it, and don’t plan to do it. She’s now been in the business for three years as a network type of announcer and she’s on her way. So I’m thrilled with the kind of young lady she’s become and thrilled to know she had put in the work to get to where she is.