Halby’s Morsels: The Derby, Breen, Albert, Lawler’s successor, Hubie and an unlistenable NBA radio voice

Versatile Tirico hosts NBC's Derby , Brian Wheeler, arguably the NBA's best radio play-by-play voice takes leave for rest of the playoffs

Before getting to NBA yummies, a quick note on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby coverage on NBC:

NBC is jazzing things up this Saturday in Louisville. They’ll be using 16 separate announcers and 50 cameras. The network is bringing in Dale Earnhardt, Jr. from another form of racing to provide commentary, the NHL’s Eddie Olczyk, a racing aficionado will handicap the race and Broncos star Von Miller will talk fashion. They do break out their best wardrobes for Churchill Downs. Fashion is indeed part of the Derby show.

On the media call earlier this week, Mike Tirico who will preside over NBC’s Derby broadcast, was asked whether he would be thinking of longtime Kentucky Derby broadcast staples Bob Costas and Tom Hammond. He said, absolutely. Tirico considers Costas a friend and mentor. Mike added that he and the much underrated Hammond spoke considerably about the Derby when they covered the recent Olympics in South Korea. Hammond, an animal science major at Kentucky, was perfectly suited for his annual hosting role in Louisville. Now retired, Hammond was a real throwback. He could do any sport well.

Tirico enthusiastically added a third name too, Jim McKay, who hosted Derby telecasts from 1975-2000 on ABC. Tirico got to know the late McKay covering the British Open in the late 1990s. McKay was a hero of sorts to many broadcasters for his versatility on ABC’s popular Wide World of Sports. After McKay retired and Tirico did the British, he would annually call Jim from Europe to tell him that he was thinking of him.


First, there’s no truth to the rumor that CNN’s Jeff Zucker who now also oversees Turner Sports, is considering Jim Acosta, Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo or Don Lemon for NBA roles. Actually, Wolf Blitzer could be pretty good. He’s seen at Wizard games in his hometown of Washington and grew up a sports fan in Buffalo.

To the NBA, how are they doing:

For what it’s worth, Marv Albert sounds fresh and like his old self during these 2019 NBA playoffs.


Both Mike Breen and Mike Emrick have done minimal play-by-play work of sports other than basketball and hockey respectively. Breen got an occasional NBC NFL game between 1994 and 96 and on Fox in 1997. Emrick got NFL work on CBS in 1992 and 93 and NCAA basketball work in 1994 and 95.  Both identified the sport that they love and have pursued their dreams. Good for them.

Younger generations might not know that Al Michaels did baseball, Olympic hockey and many years of the Kentucky Derby. Albert, best known for calling NBA games, did hockey and football on national television. Even Ray Scott, the noted football minimalist who did four Super Bowls on network television, did the ’65 World Series on NBC with Vin Scully and some basketball on network television. Frank Gifford, a fixture on ABC Monday Night Football, did the gold medal basketball game at the 1972 Olympics, the one between the Soviets and the U.S. It’s still the most controversially officiated Olympic basketball game ever. Some appalling decisions in the final seconds resulted in the first ever loss by an American Olympic basketball team. Basketball was introduced at the 1936 Berlin games.

Understated and perhaps unappreciated. Yes, Turner’s NBA studio show is on a planet of its own. Yet ESPN’s coverage on SportsCenter deserves accolades. Tim Legler breaks down NBA games cogently and on the NHL too, Barry Melrose is an entertaining personality, the likes of a Charles Barkley.

Barkley, Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaq are like guys talking at a bar. Viewers don’t feel like they’re eavesdropping. The quartet is warm, welcoming, entertaining and comfortable.

The four memorialized John Havlicek genuinely. Ernie pointed out that the Hall of Famer was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Charles talked about meeting Hondo for the first time at an NBA All-Star Game and how blown away he was by Havlicek’s humility. Smith postulated that John was the reason there’s a Sixth Man Award and Shaq said that Dr. J. got him interested in basketball and the history of the game. It’s how he came to appreciate Havlicek. Shaq shared his recollections of Hondo walking into the Boston arena years after his retirement and how he would still be greeted warmly by fans.

The ageless Hubie Brown is 85. At a San Antonio game in Denver, there was mention of the altitude. Hubie said, “Hey, I coached in the ABA and we’d play here five times a year. I told my players, I don’t want to hear about altitude.” This past week, when the Milwaukee Bucks were stifled by the Celtics in game #1, Hubie used replays to simply demonstrate how the Celtics defense kept Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks out of the lane, forcing missed outside shots. Hubie is a wonderful teacher of the game. Hubie, Larry Brown and the late Jack Ramsay were among the league’s best teaching coaches.

Talking about oldies but goodies. On the NBA telecast this past Sunday on ABC, the music used for outcues were snippets of music from the 1970s. It was refreshing.

Taking over for the Clippers’ Ralph Lawler

ralph lawler

Brian Sieman, the Clippers radio announcer, desperately needs an oxygen tank . The man needs to come up for air. He talks  maniacally after almost every possession, like it’s the end of the world. When the score is 24-22, the score will change, Brian. There’s no need to get hysterical. If the Clippers move him to television to succeed (not replace) the retired Ralph Lawler, he’ll need two chill pills. If what I read is half accurate, the exceptional Spero Dedes is being considered for the gig. Spero would be a wonderful choice.

Radio Days: The excellent and the unthinkable


For anyone really, but particularly for Blazers fans across Rip City, it’s disappointing that Brian Wheeler who’s among the very top in the NBA is taking leave for the remaining Portland playoff run. He’s had medical issues for years. It forced him to the sidelines for a good chunk of last season. This year he missed many road games but came back for the entire schedule during the late season stretch. The announcement by the Blazers on the eve of the Denver series was bad news for the devoted and  large community of fans in the Pacific Northwest. Get well, Brian. Bill Schonley who was the first voice of the team still serves as an ambassador for the club. Schonz will be 90 on June 1. With all due respect, Bill’s play calling ability paled to Wheels’.

Wheeler’s call is rhythmic, crisp, descriptive, flawless and mellifluous. He doesn’t overdo numbers or inundate listeners with an excess of factoids. He just calls the game with passion, zeal and accuracy.

The Bruising Battle of the Blazers’ Brian Wheeler: From Abuse, To Obesity and A Sidelining Ailment

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Matt Pinto – Tons of talent but he just doesn’t get it

During Portland’s series with Oklahoma City, I listened to Matt Pinto who does Thunder games. Mercy! This fellow’s radio approach is misguided.

I had  him on a stopwatch. In 33 seconds he blurted six sets of double-figure stats. No one listening could possibly have digested even one set of the uncritical numbers he shared.  Is he paid by the word?  When the Thunder routed Phoenix in Oklahoma City in 2013, the Tulsa World recorded Pinto’s call during the third quarter. The newspaper said that he spewed 4,259 words. Was he under the threat of death if he came up for air? What Pinto doesn’t realize is that the game story gets lost as listeners drown in his sea of extraneous numbers.

Joe Tait chronicled basketball with strokes as perfect and as colorful as Picasso. Joe knew that excessive numerical detail would only muddle how a broadcast is absorbed and how it would stain the word-picture he was attempting to paint. Pinto doesn’t get that. Don Fischer Kevin Harlan and others who learned from Tait understand that numbers on radio should be used judiciously and economically.




David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Spencer Ross
4 years ago

Great stuff David. Have to correct Kenny Smith. Yes Havlicek was an awesome sixth man, but the guy who made it famous preceded him. Frank Ramsey, He’s in the HOF and never started a game in his career.
Always felt the Sixth Man of the Year Award should be called the Frank Ramsey.
Long Overdue.

Michael Green
4 years ago

Great stuff as always, and it’s nice to reply on the same thread as Spencer Ross! Trivia break: Bill Schonely was one of the announcers in 1969 for the Seattle Pilots, who bailed for Milwaukee during spring training 1970 and otherwise are immortalized in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Schonely was #2 to Jimmy Dudley, a tremendous broadcaster who received the Ford Frick Award. Doc Emrick also loves baseball and has done a Pirate game or two as a guest. One of my regrets in life … Ray Scott did a lot of golf, and he was doing a tournament in… Read more »