We have borrowed from Europe to make better automobiles, snazzier fashion and fruitier wine. So, we certainly can channel The Luka Doncic Experience to create a cooler NBA. His bullrush into the American sports consciousness has been as necessary as it is invigorating, allowing this distressed league to embrace an element — pause, cheer, revel — beyond an infectious disease and ongoing racial injustice horrors.
That element would be basketball. Remember the joy of ball?
It’s still difficult for LeBron James and the league’s players to embrace love for their game when hatred contaminates the world. In the country’s latest social fail, a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back several times from point-blank range by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis., as Blake tried to enter his SUV in broad daylight with three of his children inside. Two NBA players, including playoff breakout star Donovan Mitchell, were so incensed by the shooting that they expressed regret the NBA relaunched its season in the Disney World Bubble.
They want justice, not basketball, to be the national priority.
They certainly aren’t wrong.
“We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest,’’ said George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise based 40 miles north of the shooting scene. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. … We’re down here playing in the Bubble to do these things for social justice and all that, and to see it all still going on and we’re just playing the game like it’s nothing — it’s just a really messed-up situation right now.’’
As for the Bucks’ wavering title chances, Hill isn’t concerned: “Until the world gets their s—- together, I guess we’re not going to get our stuff together. Watching that stuff in Wisconsin really breaks my heart.’’ Tweeted Mitchell, who has led the Utah Jazz to a contender’s role in the Western Conference with prolific scoring outbursts: “F THE GAMES AND PLAYOFFS!!! THIS IS SICK AND IS A REAL PROBLEM WE DEMAND JUSTICE! ITS CRAZY I DONT HAVE ANY WORDS BUT WTF MAN! THIS IS WHY WE DONT FEEL SAFE!!!!
After watching the graphic footage in Kenosha, including fires burning into the night, James barely could control his anger. Any excitement about a dominant performance by the Lakers on Kobe Bryant Day — 8/24, the two numbers he wore during his legendary career — was blunted by the Blake shooting. He barely cared his team is up 3-1 over Portland in the first-round series. “I can’t even enjoy a playoff win right now, which is the sad part,’’ James said. “People get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. Because you don’t know. You have no idea. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on the good side of the bed. You don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t know if he had an argument at home with a significant other, if one of his kids said something crazy to him and he left the house steaming. Or maybe he just left the house saying today is going to be the end for one of these black people. That’s what it feels like.’’
The league knows it can’t separate the insignificance of games from another racial tragedy. An exodus of players from Orlando remains possible in that the postseason, still in the first round, won’t produce a champion at least early October. For now, the players are trying to do their jobs and maintain focus while obeying a schedule in a restrictive environment. In that context, Doncic’s breathtaking performances — including his game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer Sunday — provide at least a temporary escape from the cruel realities of Black America, the ceaseless pain.
Said James: “If you’re sitting here telling me that there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him before the firing of guns, then you’re sitting here and you’re lying to not only me, but you’re lying to every African American, every Black person in the community because we see it over and over and over. If you watch the video, there was multiple moments where if they wanted to, they could’ve tackled him. They could’ve grabbed him. Why does it always have to get to a point where we see the guns firing? His family is there, the kids are there, it’s in broad daylight. … It’s just, quite frankly, it’s just f—ked up in our community.’’
Yet only hours before, James was tweeting his admiration for Doncic like many NBA players, imitating announcer Mike Breen’s call of the final shot. “Sheesh. That’s ridiculous,’’ wrote Steph Curry, master of the dramatic.
Doncic has that effect on people. He is conjuring a brand of style and telepathy not previously seen in the sport, a hybrid already evolutionary before his 22nd birthday. How does one who’s built like a running back, thick and wide-shouldered at 230 pounds, operate with such finesse and dazzle, maneuvering and forcing through big-boy defenses and ignoring attempts to bruise and bait him? Why does he anticipate plays before everyone else on the court, as if dabbling in extrasensory perception or electronic sign-stealing? It’s cliche to call him a savant — the description is used for many when he is one of a kind — and rather than liken him to a particular legend, it’s more apt to compare his passing skills and vision to Larry Bird, his court awareness to James, his handle to Jason Kidd, his near-the-logo shooting range to Damian Lillard and his flair to Curry. Let’s avoid Michael Jordan analogies, please, but Doncic does wear his sneakers.
He also has the perfect nickname for a closer: The Don.
“He sees the game in 6G, not 5G — another level beyond what most people see,’’ said Rick Carlisle, who truly might be coaching the first wireless superstar with the Dallas Mavericks.
Forget the dictum that even a phenom must learn to fail in the playoffs before he prevails. Doncic already has blasted through that wall with what Carlisle suggests was “maybe the greatest game played by a second-year player … a game from another planet.’’ The Mavericks can lose their first-round series against a title favorite, the Los Angeles Clippers, and The Don already has foot-printed an epic NBA memory: 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 4, daggered by his artful step-back trey, joining Jordan — unavoidable, I guess — as the only players to nail win-or-lose shots to cap 40-point playoff performances. Jordan’s effort is known as The Shot. The Don? He gave us The Hit … on Kobe Bryant’s birthday, no less.
“I was just trying to make it,’’ said Doncic, still humble as a hoops world stirs. “I can’t explain the emotions I had, not only when the ball goes in but when I see the whole team running toward me. That was something special. One of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Just something special.’’ Does he realize the magnitude of it all? “My feelings are not here right now,’’ he said. “I’ll think about it and let you know next time.”
Next time could be next game, for all we know. In a league historically defined by stylish, dominant personalities, Doncic arrives as a well-timed, unique conversation piece amid the fatigue of COVID-19 and the searing emotions of Black Lives Matter protests. He is not from Ohio, New York, California or anywhere in the U.S. Nor is he part of an African-American sector that comprises about 80 percent of NBA players. He hails from Slovenia, best known for mountains and forests and rivers, and he learned the game as a coach’s son. He’s hardly the first Europrodigy to crash the NBA scene, as he grew up watching Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and the Brothers Gasol. But unlike past decades, when international hype often exceeded production and occasionally led to a Darko Milicic flop, Doncic soon will inherit a post-LeBron era when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak, are the league’s dominant players.
It’s not a stretch right now, given James’ self-mocked balding head and the inconsistent patterns of Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers, that Doncic is emerging as the world’s best all-around player. It’s a refreshing, urgent breakout for a league facing a fraught financial future, including a TV ratings plunge that President Trump and his supporters attribute to an overemphasis on racial equality and Black Lives Matter crusades. No doubt segments of America are weary of sports activism, from James and Curry to prominent coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. Yet James, Hill, Mitchell and other players and coaches had every right to vent publicly about the Kenosha shooting.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to our lawmakers, it’s up to our police department to stop shooting us. It’s that simple,’’ said the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. “They’re there to provide safety. There’s different ways to de-escalate situations than shooting someone, especially when running away or in the back.”
“It’s just sickening. It’s heartless,’’ Hill said. “It’s a f—ed-up situation. You’re supposed to look at the police to protect and serve. Now, it’s looked at harass or shoot.’’
Said Miami forward Bam Adebayo, after the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers: “Just seeing that video, it’s ridiculous. Someone has to be held accountable.’’
“Getting swept is tough, but at the end of the day, nobody’s dead,’’ said the Pacers’ Victor Oladipo. “People are dying. This is not OK.’’
In the larger vein of social justice, Doncic has earned the praise of his league brethren in more ways than one. During a Game 3 exchange, the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell referred to Doncic as a “bitch ass white boy.’’ This could have been an explosive situation for NBA commissioner Adam Silver … except Doncic defused it by hugging Harrell and shaking his hand before Game 4, explaining to the media, “Sometimes you say things you don’t want to say. He apologized. So no problem.’’
Said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, marveling at Doncic’ poise during the flap: “`Luka, I guess, was shocked that he needed to reach out.’’
It’s possible no single gift from heaven can help the NBA, or America, at this stage of the racial quagmire. Having the Luka Doncic Experience is comforting, but neither his breakthrough nor Mamba’s Day can save the league from what ails a nation.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Kevin Harlan is the Luckiest of the Lucky
“If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
John Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films, helped shape the soundtrack of the National Football League as the sport burgeoned in popularity. His voice is known by most fans of the game and synonymous with the gridiron. The dulcet tones of Facenda compelled a producer for the Kansas City Chiefs pregame radio show on KCMO to send a note requesting that he voice the intro to the Sunday morning program. That was Kevin Harlan, a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, working in the role after being asked to produce the show by Chiefs radio voice Wayne Laramie.
Harlan fondly remembers being presented with the idea to compile a three-hour radio pregame show followed by a two-hour postgame program, all utilizing the powerful, ostensibly boundless radio signal that reached about eight Midwestern states. As he did, he continued filling in for Kansas Jayhawks broadcaster Tom Hedrick, an opportunity he was promised by the broadcaster himself as he recruited him to attend the university. Initially, Harlan was deliberating between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame, the latter of which had alumni Don Criqui whom he also admired. Hedrick, color commentator for the CBS Radio broadcast of Super Bowl I, presented him with an offer that he could simply not refuse though, and it led to more opportunities to hone his craft.
From the age of 7, Harlan had been infatuated by sports and familiar with the inner workings of the press box. His father, Bob, was the director of public relations for the St. Louis Cardinals and allowed his son to perambulate the corridors of the ballpark. Even though he did not realize the magnitude of commentators he would encounter, such as Lindsey Nelson, Vin Scully and Bob Prince, he was cognizant that they were important professionals in the sports media business. In fact, Harlan would frequently sit in the back of Jack Buck and Harry Caray’s broadcast booth with a bag of popcorn and a Coke just to listen to their call of the contest. The voice of Facenda became part of his consciousness a few years later, and work on projects such as “The Autumn Wind” inspired him to discover a career in broadcasting.
“I remember getting back from class and one of my roommates said, ‘Hey, some guy named John Facenda called you from NFL Films; he wants to talk to you,’” Harlan recalled. “I called him back and he was incredibly gracious. He said, ‘Kevin, I want to know if I can change this sentence and add even a couple of more things I’ve got in my mind?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can do anything.’”
While Harlan’s intonation and timbre are heard worldwide today, those within a 10-mile range were the only ones initially privy to his skillset. Notre Dame Academy, his high school, allowed him to be on the air from the age of 14 to call football games.
On top of that, his father had accepted a role to serve as the assistant general manager of the Green Bay Packers and worked his way to become the president and chief executive officer over an 18-year stretch. By the time he was in Kansas City working with the Chiefs, Harlan was aware of the power of the NFL and the extraordinary job with which he was being entrusted.
“[Facenda] sent me this reel-to-reel tape, and I could hear his different takes of the copy that I had sent him,” Harlan said. “At the end of the reel-to-reel tape, he finished [by] saying, ‘You’re listening to Chiefs Sunday on the Chiefs Radio Network,’ and we had this music bed, and there was a pause and he goes, ‘Now that’s a horse that I can ride,’ which meant he liked the copy; he liked the way that it sounded that he just read.”
By Harlan’s senior year of college, he was hosting Chiefs studio coverage, calling high school games around the state for WIBW and hosting a three-hour talk show on Sunday nights. Combined with his broadcasting and coursework at Kansas, Harlan’s schedule was jam-packed with broadcasting responsibilities, and his ability to seamlessly balance all of it is part of the reason he called Kansas City Kings basketball games at 21 years old.
While it was an obvious decision for Harlan to seize the opportunity, there was some pressure on him in being so young compared to veteran commentators. Bill King, Jim Durham and Joe Tait, voices of his childhood, were now among his broadcasting colleagues, and he was working alongside Hall of Fame center and former NBA champion Ed Macauley. When the team decided to move to Sacramento, Harlan had to choose whether or not he wanted to relocate or remain in Kansas City.
“I really had fallen in love with the area, and I really didn’t want to go to Sacramento, although I had a chance to tour the city with the team at the time, but [I] really wanted to stay in Kansas City,” Harlan said. “I started thinking, ‘Well, I better start looking around, and if all else fails, I can go and be a part of the Kings broadcast in some form or fashion.’”
By stroke of serendipity, Harlan was able to stay in the locale to call Chiefs games, a decision that was sealed following a trial broadcast with analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. After the experiment, which was in the form of a Missouri spring football game, Dawson gave his unequivocal approval of Harlan as his new on-air partner, and one week later, he received word from team president Lamar Hunt that he had landed the job.
One October day in 1991, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg led his team to a massive 33-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills during a prime-time Monday Night Football matchup on ABC. Harlan called the game on radio and remembers the stadium being filled with a vociferous crowd captivated by the action. After one sequence, Harlan members spontaneously saying, “Oh baby, what a play!,” simply reacting to the atmosphere and thinking nothing of it.
Throughout his career, he has never been one to adopt a catchphrase, but on that day, feedback on his exclamation was validated by fans in the parking lot celebrating the win. Calling into the postgame show he used to produce, the fans shouted, “Oh baby, what a play!” in unison, and unbeknownst to them, Harlan and his wife were listening as they tried to escape traffic.
“From that point on, that phrase caught and kind of rode the success that they had,” Harlan explained, “which eventually led to getting Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, and that was it.”
In 1989, the National Basketball Association was expanding to include the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom would need commentators to call the games. Harlan was being courted by the Timberwolves. He and other members of the broadcast team would be tasked with growing the popularity of the league in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
While the opportunity to move back into calling NBA games was appealing, Harlan was not entirely sure that he wanted to take the job because he was content with his lifestyle and growing a family. As a result, he called NBA broadcasters Bob Costas and Marv Albert, both of whom emphasized the importance of taking the chance to move into calling games on television. At their behest, he decided to accept the offer, which meant flying back-and-forth between Minneapolis and Kansas City to retain his family life.
One day, Harlan received a call from NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol asking if he could fill in on a Sunday NFL game, giving him his first opportunity to be looked at by a national network. NBC Sports was impressed with his performance, granting him more network opportunities – including a two-year run with ESPN calling college football – before his first chance to call the NFL nationally on a regular basis.
Transitioning to predominantly focus on national work in the NFL was not on Harlan’s mind until he ran into Chiefs team president Carl Peterson and NFL Films president Steve Sabol before a game in Buffalo. As fortune would have it, they had just been talking about Harlan, which led Sabol to tell him that he had been asked by FOX Sports to give them who he thought were the top three NFL radio announcers. George Krieger, executive vice president at FOX Sports, had asked Albert a similar question, a query that prompted the broadcaster to recommend Harlan.
“On that roster was me, Kenny Albert, Joe Buck and Thom Brennaman,” Harlan said. “We were the four younger broadcasters in back of [Pat] Summerall and [Dick] Stockton; they wanted to build for the future…. I know the four of us took great pride after this big search because there was a lot of speculation at the time as to who FOX was going to hire to fill out their roster.”
The company launched the NFL on FOX in August 1994, shortly after Major League Baseball players officially went on a 232-day strike. Harlan was one of the first broadcasters to take the air and commenced a property currently in the midst of celebrating its 30th season.
Four years later, he moved to The NFL on CBS. It would not have been possible without the sacrifices his wife made for him and the lengths she went to in order to raise a family and establish a comfortable and healthy atmosphere at home.
“What she did on those many nights that I was gone so I could do something that I loved was an act of unselfishness that is beyond words and measure,” Harlan said. “I guarantee you that if things were not good at home and unhappy at home, it would affect the way I had navigated my career.”
Harlan has been calling two NFL games per week since 2009 when he took the job as the lead voice of Monday Night Football broadcasts on Westwood One. A key factor in being able to maintain such a lifestyle is in the contrasting means of dissemination, rendering variation in the way he prepares. In becoming more comfortable on CBS over the years, he realized that there is not as much time to contextualize and explain detailed stories behind every play and athlete.
Conversely, Harlan’s role on the radio is to inform listeners about what is transpiring on the field and subsequently set his analyst up for success. Harlan has worked with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner on the broadcast since 2018, which followed a 10-year run with Boomer Esiason, and he knows the challenges they face on a solely aural medium.
“My job is very edited,” Harlan said. “I come in loaded with all the appropriate stuff I need to have, but it’s skeletal compared to what my TV boards look like.”
After his games each week, Harlan reviews his outing and thinks about ways he can continue to improve going forward. Despite wanting to scrutinize over hundreds of minutiae within each broadcast and impugn certain decisions, he ultimately focuses on what is most essential.
“We all love the challenge of being the best that we can be, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple tweaks here and there along the way,” Harlan said. “If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Once October comes around, Harlan juggles the addition of the NBA on TNT, where he has worked on a full-time basis since the 1997-98 season. The move into television that Costas and Albert cosigned was beginning to pay dividends for Harlan, who entered rarified air by serving as a national voice of two professional sports entities. He has enjoyed stability in his jobs for nearly three decades, something seldom attained within a media career, and considers himself fortunate to be in this position.
“TV is something I really never thought of,” Harlan expressed. “I loved radio – I grew up wanting to be in radio and was, and TV just kind of evolved very organically out of all my radio stuff, as it does for a lot of broadcasters.”
Albert retired from the NBA on TNT after the 2021 NBA playoffs, forcing TNT to have to make a decision as to who would serve as the new primary voice of the property. Harlan began to have chances to work with the lead broadcast team of Reggie Miller, Stan Van Gundy and Allie La Force, and today largely announces games on Tuesdays during the regular season. Last year, he called the Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers to conclude the network’s broadcast slate.
Yet Harlan did not genuinely listen to Albert until he became a colleague at TNT, although he was aware of his status as a revered broadcaster. Understanding that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace an announcer of his stature, Harlan seeks to bring his own approach to the role while honoring the history it garners.
Most professionals can control how to position themselves for success, whether that be through their talent, work ethic or demeanor, but Harlan also knows that much of it comes down to timing. He made sure to forewarn his kids about the challenges that come with working in sports media before any of them pursued a career in the field.
“‘What you’ve been able to be around is the luckiest of the lucky,’” Harlan said to his children. “This is a business which, more or less, is pretty hard to navigate and gets harder and harder by the day with a myriad of things you’re constantly going against.”
Three of Harlan’s children heeded his advice, but the fourth decided to chase her dreams anyway. Much like her father, Olivia Harlan Dekker found a mentor at the University of Georgia and worked to earn broadcast opportunities. The two made history last January when they became the first father-daughter duo to call an NFL playoff game, doing so together on Westwood One.
With the NBA’s television contracts set to expire following the 2024-25 season, there has been much conjecture as to which companies will garner portions of a new deal. The league is reportedly interested in adding digital and streaming elements to the package, perhaps an impetus for Warner Bros. Discovery launching a Bleacher Report-branded sports tier on Max and ESPN preparing a direct-to-consumer (DTC) interface.
“I think all of us are kind of excited, maybe a little bit nervous [in] knowing that we’ve got two more years to go doing our jobs,” Harlan said. “As someone very smart told me one time – my dad – [he] said, ‘If you’re looking ahead too much or you’re looking behind too much, you’re going to miss what matters most right now.’ What matters right now is the present and doing the best job you can do right now, and then let everything play out how it’s going to play out.”
While having chances to call marquee events is what most broadcasters desire, Harlan does not want to be avaricious in his pursuits. After all, he has called the NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Four on numerous occasions for both television and radio amid other significant games. Moreover, he is preparing to work his 14th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One, the most consecutive of all time, and is eagerly anticipating the moment he steps into the broadcast booth at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“We know how many millions of cars are on the roads at any given time at any given part of any day, and some people are just, for whatever reason, [unable to] get the game on their phone or tablet, and so they’ve got to listen to it,” Harlan said. “We’ve had soldiers overseas that have listened in outposts in pretty, pretty remote parts of the world, and the only way they know the Super Bowl is to listen to our broadcast.”
As the pregame countdown approaches 0:00, Harlan will feel a gust of “The Autumn Wind” and begin delivering the call for the most prominent game of the season. Until then though, he is enjoying the journey each week calling games for CBS Sports and Westwood One, along with the NBA on TNT. When Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024 arrives, he will be prepared and enthusiastic to serve as an invaluable emissary tasked with translating the game masterfully composed on the gridiron.
“[Westwood One has] got the history and the know-how and the leadership to navigate those new ways of broadcasting and delivering,” Harlan said, “and for them to select me and put me in that role is an honor which I can’t even describe…. I go back to what I wanted to do when I first got in the business and how lucky I am to be in that chair with that headset on.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Terry Francona Gave the Media Everything it Wanted in a Manager
“He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations.”
He lacks Tony LaRussa’s hair, Tommy Lasorda’s wit, and Joe Torre’s Kleenex bill, but Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona deserves some props for what he is, quite simply one of the best managers in baseball history and perhaps the best at handling the media. Francona is retiring from managing after this, his 23rd season as an MLB skipper.
After a star-crossed playing career, Francona’s first managerial stint was in Philadelphia from 1997 to 2000. His Phillies clubs never finished higher than third place, but the experience with a tough media even tougher fans prepared him for his next challenge, one that will eventually lead him to Cooperstown.
With all due respect to Francona’s last 11 seasons at the helm in Cleveland, his claim to fame and ticket to immortality was purchased in his 8 seasons as manager of the Red Sox. In that time span, Francona withstood the pressure and pain of a curse, clubhouse malaises, personal life rumors, and the general pain and suffering akin to being a high profile sports personality in Boston.
Remember that Francona arrived in the Hub in 2004 at the apex of the misery and anger over the team’s 86 year World Series title drought. In truth, it wasn’t a drought, it was a desert speckled with bad decisions, racist claims, and kick-in-the-gut defeats.
In fact, the team had just endured one of those boots to the mid-section just weeks before Francona was hired when they lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the hated Yankees on Aaron Boone’s extra innings walk off home run. That game, and his decision to leave Pedro Martinez in the ballgame with a high pitch count, resulted in manager Grady Little’s exit.
The truth is that the Red Sox fired Little because he simply wasn’t their kind of guy. GM Theo Epstein and the organization were waist deep in the Billy Beane analytics barrel having hired stat guru Bill James as a senior advisor. Little made decisions based more on people than printouts.
After his four-year losing stint in Philly, Francona was about as respected by the Boston media as Vanilla Ice at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was covering the team then and dismissed Francona merely as the bait that boated Curt Schilling in free agency. Schilling had played for Francona with the Phillies.
We were all wrong. Just a few months after his hiring, Francona ended an eternal curse, tamed the brutal Boston media, shrewdly combined youth and experience on the field, created chemistry with a $100 million roster, and kept some of the most unique personalities in the game happy and healthy. He won 1296 games and two World Series in Boston and is deemed by many to be the team’s best manager ever.
Francona’s greatest strength was his handling of the media. Make no mistake. Boston is the toughest place to manage in all of sports. With a media horde that prefers hangings to harmony and a fan base that can be as lethal as they are loyal, every day is a season unto itself. In Boston, one loss is Armageddon.
Francona was nothing short of exemplary in his weekly radio stints on then kingpin station Sportsradio WEEI and other Boston media outlets. He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations. He protected his players, took the blame, and effortlessly sidestepped the many silly questions he was posed.
Francona also did a great job in the national spotlight. When he managed the American League in the 2005 All-Star Game, his in-game interview was sparkling, unlike National League skipper Tony LaRussa who was about as animated as yogurt.
In Boston, Francona developed into a media master, adeptly handling tough postgame questions and setting the tempo for his radio weekly calls. He deserves credit for being the anti-Bill Belichick, completely accessible but not overly ingratiating to the media.
At the heart of Francona’s handling of the media was his utter regard and protection of his players. In Boston, he did postgame interviews with NESN in a segment called “Terry’s Take.” While the team’s home network reporters seldom threw hardball queries at Francona, when they did, he never threw any player, coach, or team executive under the proverbial bus.
WEEI’s popular afternoon program at the time, the Dale and Holley Show with Dale Arnold and Michael Holley, became must-hear radio because they actually did consistently ask tough questions to Francona about roster moves, player issues, and strategy.
While they did so without becoming insulting or distasteful, Francona was, at times, audibly upset at the questions and shot back with his own vim and vigor making for fascinating radio.
Francona always maintained a level of class and dignity even when the media did not. He never let insulting insinuations or idiotic innuendo define him.
Francona’s time in Boston ended ingloriously in 2011. His club blew a seemingly insurmountable September lead in the standings and missed the playoffs. At the time, Francona took the heat for the unexpected collapse, but that team featured the indomitable David Ortiz, a young veteran MVP in Dustin Pedroia, and veterans like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Tim Wakefield, and Josh Beckett.
Adding to the dismal end were reports that Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey were often see drinking beers, playing video games, and snacking on fried chicken in the clubhouse during September games.
The Boston media huffed, puffed, and damn near blew the Green Monster down, but where were Ortiz, Pedroia, and Wakefield, three players lauded for their leadership, as all this was happening? They got no heat, while Francona got fried. In the end, he left Boston diplomatically saying that perhaps a new managerial voice was needed.
This is the essence of the public Terry Francona – professional in victory and levelheaded in defeat. His postgame chats are models of consistency and his press conferences reveal the game’s nuances without sharing family secrets.
While the aforementioned Belichick treats the media like IRS agents, Francona kills them with cooperation. He massages their needy egos, but in the end, gives them nothing more than what he wants to give them.
NFL coaches Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin tend to tell the media far too much about injuries and prognoses. Francona knows when to clam up or toss in an interview-ending cliché. He is stern and unafraid to justifiably scoff at the often inane queries he faces.
As he walks away from the dugout for presumably the last time, here is some long overdue credit to Terry Francona, a superb leader and standup guy who truly puts the “man” in manager.
John Molori is a weekly columnist for Barrett Sports Media. He has previously contributed to ESPNW, Patriots Football Weekly, Golf Content Network, Methuen Life Magazine, and wrote a syndicated Media Blitz column in the New England region, which was published by numerous outlets including The Boston Metro, Providence Journal, Lowell Sun, and the Eagle-Tribune. His career also includes fourteen years in television as a News and Sports Reporter, Host, Producer working for Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, and AT&T. He can be reached on Twitter @MoloriMedia.
Mike Golic Jr. Is Always Going to be an Undrafted Free Agent
“I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.”
There are a lot of conversations in sports about overhype. “This team is overhyped”, “that player is overhyped.” There isn’t nearly as much time spent on those that are underhyped. (The word even sounds wrong because we hardly ever hear it.) Mike Golic Jr. is a great example of underhyped.
The conversation typically revolves around how he initially broke into the broadcasting business instead of how hard he’s worked or all of the things he’s accomplished along the way. It isn’t, “Man, this guy is good at what he does.” It’s usually, “Yeah, but it’s because his dad is Mike Golic.”
There are a lot of famous fathers out there whose kids didn’t do jack because they were either lazy or untalented. I don’t care nearly as much about how you get your opportunities; what you actually do with them is what matters the most. Do you think Golic Jr. would still be on the air if he wasn’t any good? No. So wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the here and now instead of how his journey began?
Golic Jr. has made the most of his chances. He’s got a brand new morning show, GoJo and Golic, on the DraftKings Network. He’s also calling college football games on radio each Saturday night for Learfield. In our conversation below, Golic Jr. talks about the blessing it is to still be able to team up with his dad. He also talks about how he deals with trolls and how his dad has the ability to delete beer. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: How would you describe what your new show on DraftKings is like?
Mike Golic Jr.: There’s definitely some gambling elements in there, but they were pretty clear up front, they just wanted us to do a show. They didn’t want us to do anything that didn’t come naturally to us. For me and for my dad, we’re aware of the gambling space, we’ve seen it just become more and more of how to explain sports. The same way fantasy football was just a more detailed way to analyze sports with a different end in mind. As opposed to just watching and consuming, you’re trying to get something out of it. This is kind of the same thing, but it just creates a smarter fan who’s looking for a little bit of different insight at certain points.
It doesn’t change the job, if anything it just gives us a different way to frame things. You get to frame a matchup a different way, you get to frame a player’s production in a little bit of a different way. I think that’s more of how we use it as a different entry point into the same conversation that we would have always had about sports, which is the one my dad’s been having for over two decades on people’s TVs and radios and the one that I’m trying to now get into doing more and more after seven, eight years, whatever it’s been.
BN: Do you still hear stupid comments like, oh, it’s just because of your dad that blah, blah, blah? Do you still hear that stuff?
MGJ: Yeah, oh yeah, there’s always going to be people that do that. I understand it. I get how people are going to perceive that. I understand the conversation around nepotism and how I fit into that.
I’ve had my stock answer over the years about how I’ve approached that and that hasn’t changed. I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.
I want to be good at this. I want to be a value-add to the shows that I work on. But again, that’s on me to show and not tell because no amount of telling will ever change anyone’s mind about that. Quite honestly, that’s not really my goal. My goal was always do the job in a way that I can be proud of, approach it in a way and with work habits that I can be proud of, and reflect my dad who stuck his neck out for me at the beginning of my career.
BN: I’m curious, man, because if I were in the same shoes, I’d want to take the high road, but it’d be really tempting to take the low road. When there’s that one troll, who on that one day says that one thing about your dad, and you just want to say kiss my ass, dude. How have you handled it over the years, and even now, when you still hear some of that garbage?
MGJ: Yeah, I’m unfortunately painfully online as some people who are reading this might know. So you see a lot of it. I’ve done a better job with a lot of the tools on social media of filtering out most of the comments like that. I think also I started doing this when I was 26 and I’m going to turn 34 this week. Part of it’s just also come with being a little more comfortable in my own skin.
Most of the slights that we end up responding to are the ones that we might feel like in an honest moment have a little more truth to them than we’re comfortable with, or hit close to home on something. At least in my experience, that’s been the things that tend to strike a nerve the most. When I was young and just starting and didn’t really feel like I had my feet under me as far as being a broadcaster, there were times when it would bother me. There were times when it feels good to go and dunk on somebody on Twitter and have fun with it and let them know that you can clap back and do all that too.
Now it’s to the point where most of the time I’ll look at an interaction like that and it’s like, is it worth giving someone any portion of my afternoon for what this reaction is going to be? Because it’s usually like a potato chip, you’re never just going to do it once. You end up going back and forth and then you’re down a rabbit hole with Johnny Buncha Numbers and for what? To prove a point to a person that doesn’t care about hearing your point anyway?
We all fall victim to it. Usually it’s when I have a lot of time in airports and I end up sitting there bored and tired that I’ll still pop off at the mouth every once in a while. But in general it’s just kind of a losing value prop.
BN: I hear you, it’s so true. That’s the stupid stuff you have to go through — that’s with anything in life — but the good stuff, you’re working with your dad, man. How do you describe what that feels like to work with your dad each day?
MGJ: Yeah, and to get to do what I do because of my dad still. We go back to the nepotism, I’ve never shied away. The reason I got my foot in the door was because of my dad; I owe all of this to him. I’ve never begrudged that, to do so would be dishonest, and quite frankly, disrespectful. So to get to do that with him though is awesome because it’s the same relationship we’ve had since I was a kid. It’s just positioned outward now.
It is nice every day to get to talk to my dad, get to talk to my parents a lot more than most people. Because of the job, I get to see them more than I probably would too with some of the things that we’ve done together, whether it’s off site, or just in general. I think one of the coolest things was also just seeing how other people — we’ve talked about the nepotism people, but there was also just as many people who would send notes, especially like my dad’s sign off on Golic and Wingo.
I said what I thought was going to be very composed and ended up being a very tear-filled thank you to dad for everything. The amount of notes we got off that from other people who in different jobs, in different walks of life that had the chance to work with their son or daughter, or work with their mother or father and how they saw parts of their relationship in the way that our relationship was.
It’s like any parent-child relationship, we know each other’s best strengths and where to put the ball on that stuff. We also know what ticks the other off a fair amount. So every once in a while, you can venture into those categories.
I remember Trey Wingo used to just watch me and dad argue about the dumbest stuff. He would just put his hands behind his head and lean back because he knew that segment was going to be the easiest thing in the world. To hear from people who also have had the chance to work with a loved one and work with a relative like that, who saw little bits of their own life in some of those interactions was always pretty cool.
BN: What’s something that touches a nerve for your dad?
MGJ: Dad and technology. It’s so different now because we do so much of this stuff remotely. Dad’s got the camera set up there and the laptop and all these different things that he’s got to connect into. For years, when he was doing radio, he just walked into the studio and hit the on button. He was good to go. Someone was going to help with everything else. My dad can do all this stuff. I have more empathy for my mom now at home, who’s had to deal with my dad and his iPad for years.
My dad watches more TV than any person on earth. If you know a show, he’s seen it and he’s seen the prequel, he’s seen the movie they made after the series, all of it. When he goes and takes a bath, he’ll sit with his iPad and he’ll watch his shows. He’s got all the passwords to Netflix and everything like that. But the minute he forgets them, he melts down, doesn’t do anything himself and just hands it to my mom and asks her to fix it, hands it to one of us and asks us to fix it.
There’s some of that, that shows up when we’re doing the show where if anything technologically happens, I’ve got to work through all that stuff. I’ve got to come in and be IT for dad because he can do it, I just feel like he doesn’t want to be bothered with it sometimes. I’ll sometimes look at him like, “come on, man, you know how to do this. You’ve been turning this on and doing the podcast from home for a while, don’t play dumb with me.”
BN: How about for you? What’s something that touches a nerve?
MGJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve done the self scout nearly well enough. What would tick me off?
The easy one being a Notre Dame person is the conference stuff. Anytime that conversation comes up when people want to do the “join a conference thing,” for some reason after a while I’ll usually reach a certain point where I’m just like, “alright, these are all the same dumb reasons I’ve been combating my entire life.”
No one’s presented a new argument to me as to why all of a sudden this conference affiliation makes more sense now, or there’s some moral case for it, or competitive case for it now, that I haven’t already heard, digested, and had to rebut before. That one gets a little bit old. I think if someone really wanted to kind of get me going, that would probably be a good way to do it.
BN: What’s the most fun you’ve had in your career?
MGJ: I’d say it’s twofold. It always involves a live audience. There’s still no substitute for being able to reach out and touch people. With Golic and Wingo, when I was fortunate to get to latch on to what dad and Trey were doing at the end there, we went and traveled the show a bunch. I remember we went to Columbus, and we did the show at a Hofbräuhaus. The show was 5-9 Central Time. We’re getting in there at 4:20 and the thing is already set up, people are already in there, people are already drinking. So we’re like, “oh, okay, it’s game time in here.”
Right before the end of the show, a bunch of guys that had been egging me on the whole time had me come over and take a shot with them. When we got done, my dad just turns around and goes, beer me, and they bring him over one of those big tankers of beer. My dad’s pretty good at a lot of stuff, he’s a good natural athlete; chugging beers is like his specialty, even getting near 60 years old.
Watching my dad delete that beer in front of a crowd of onlookers that were all cheering, that was a lot of fun. That environment was just really cool. We had a great road crew of so many people that helped make those shows happen. Anything with a team environment like that was always really fun.
Then on the college football side, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl was like the culmination of one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever been a part of. Anish Shroff was the play-by-play, Taylor McGregor was our sideline reporter. They’re still two of my closest friends in the industry to this day. I’ve got the group chat and talk to them every day. That season, we were all just really on the same page. We all trusted each other. We thought we did a good job trying to go out and tell the story and do these games the right way, but we like to have fun.
When we got to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, we all recognized what a ridiculous opportunity it was. Three and a half hours later, a couple of things eaten in mayonnaise and a few viral clips that ticked off the entire country of Australia and R&B legend Dionne Warwick, we realized, alright, that was fun because it was the culmination of trust and camaraderie that we had built up with each other all season long.
Again, in that team environment where you’re going, you’re having to work together through live situations on the fly, you’re helping each other in the preparation leading up. All that stuff was just really cool and they were great teammates. It made the job really easy and really fun every week.
BN: Are you a goal guy? Do you look at anything that you would like to accomplish in the next few years or at some point in your broadcasting career that you’d say, man, that’d be really cool if I was able to do that?
MGJ: No, I’ve always been really bad about goals. I think part of it’s like the old training camp mindset. I’m perennially going to be an undrafted free agent who just wants to know — I always joked at ESPN, every day my badge worked was a great day.
I work with people that I enjoy and appreciate and respect, get to have great teammates like that. I already get to cover so many of the best events in sports. I’ve gotten to go to the national championship for college football — a game that I played in — like seven or eight straight times now, which is a dream every year. Getting out and covering the Super Bowl. Doing the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest.
I’ve gotten to go all over the map and I appreciate ESPN so much for the opportunities they afforded me, and I owe my employers now at DraftKings and Learfield a lot for that. But no, I’ve always been bad at goals. I want to keep doing this. I want to keep finding someone that’s willing to let me do this and hopefully really good people that I enjoy doing it with.