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Interview with AthleticsNation author and former KALX Sports Director Nico Part III

Part I

Part II

Today, we finish up our 3 part interview with Nico.  Who is Nico, you ask?  Well, first, haven't you read the first 2 parts of the interview?  Secondly, from 1985-1990 he was the lead broadcaster and sports director for Cal baseball and women's basketball with Cal student radio station, KALX.  From 1987-1991, he broadcast Oakland A's spring training games.  From 1991-1994, he was the Director of Broadcasting (working alongside CGB Hit Squad member OhioBear) for the Oakland A's Single A affiliate, the Southern Oregon A's.  Since 1994, he has been focused on other pursuits, such as being one of the authors for initial SBN site, AthleticsNation.

Many thanks to Nico for his time and interest in this project.  Join me after the jump for the last part of the interview, relating to his role as broadcaster for the men's and women's basketball teams.


TwistNHook:  Well, I do appreciate that, I hope you have a little more time so we can talk about basketball.  My understanding is that you did both men’s and women’s basketball games while at Cal.

Nico:  I did.  I mostly did women’s basketball.  The men’s basketball, frankly, it didn’t interest me as much because it wasn’t exclusive.  They were on KGO.  The reality was 99% of the people who tuned in to listen to a Cal men’s basketball game were listening to Joe Starkey on KGO.  It was really more about pretending that you were a real broadcaster.  The ratings were probably really really low.  

With women’s basketball, even though it had a much smaller core audience, we served a real function.  If we went on a road trip, we were the only lifeline for people to follow the team.  Even when they were home, we were the only broadcast going.  I just found that more interesting.  I am really glad.  I was a Cal men’s basketball fan, even in high school before I came to Cal.  However, I really had a niche with the women’s basketball program.  I got to know women’s basketball.  I got to become the face or voice of that program.  From a broadcasting standpoint, it was in a way that i never could have done with the men’s team.  I did a few men’s games, but mostly I was the lead with the women’s games.

T:  What is your view on Joe Starkey?  And feel free to be as honest and brutally direct as possible.

N:  Ok.  I don’t have a particularly strong opinion about him one way or the other.

T:  A lot of Cal fans really do not like him.  I did not know if you had any opinion or didn’t really pay much attention to him and didn’t really interact with him much at all.  

N:  I never met or talked to him.  I was doing my own thing.  I wasn’t particularly focused on his role broadcasting sports that i was not involved with.  Football, I was not involved with.  Basketball, I was marginally involved with.  I can’t give you a very interesting answer on that.  I never met him and rarely listened to him.  I was busy doing my own thing.

T:  What were some of the differences you experience broadcasting a basketball game as compared to a baseball game?

N:  They are really different.  First of all, basketball is so fast moving.  If you are committed to describing the action visibly, it is a full time job.  I truly believe, and I have heard Chick Hearn, some of the so called greats; I truly believe without bias that Bill King was the best basketball play by play announcer that there has ever been.  I think he is #1.  Part of it was that his play by play description was so good.  He really painted a picture.  For whatever personality and stories and analysis which he would somehow fit in, you always felt like you were watching the game on TV if you were listening to him.  That is what I aspired to.  Like with baseball, your #1 job is to be the listeners’ eyes.  I was committed to describing the action in a way that you really felt like you were watching the game.  That was exhausting for me.  It might come easy for bill king, but there is only 1 Bill King.  It is really a full time job just to keep up with what is actually happening in a basketball game.

Baseball is the exact opposite.  The ball is in play for a total of 8 minutes in a baseball.  Mostly, what you are doing is between pitches, between things actually happening.  Basketball is kinda the opposite.  

T:  What were the pregame and post game activities that a KALX announcer would have to do at a basketball game?

N:  The routine is pretty similar to baseball.  Broadcasting is Broadcasting.  You are setting up equipment.  You are getting the line ups.  You are organizing your notes.  At the end of the game, you have your wrap up, which might be a post game interview.  I do remember that we did post game interviews for women’s basketball.  Just summarizing for people who missed parts of the games what the highlights were.  Running down the leading scorers and rebounders.  That is the one thing that is probably similar across all sports.  Broadcasting has a pre-game show, play by play, color, and a postgame show.  There is a routine.


T:  What is your favorite moment broadcasting a basketball game?


N:  My favorite moment broadcasting a basketball game, or most memorable, well, OK, I’ll be general and I’ll be specific.  The most memorable trip is I did have the opportunity to broadcast a tournament at the University of Hawaii, which is the only time I’ve been to Hawaii.  It was 5 days over a long Thanksgiving break.  Like a Wednesday to Monday trip.  To be able to travel to Hawaii, all expenses paid, and lie on the beach with the women’s basketball team, between games, not a bad life.  That was memorable.  Hawaii is Hawaii.  I have only been there that one time.  

The most memorable experience, which I think was shortly after that, was choosing a player of the game who happened to be a girl that I had been in the unfortunate position of rejecting.  Like you know I’m not interested.  But she had a great game.  And so she was called up for the post game interview.  It is every broadcaster’s worst nightmare.  Every question I asked was “It was good” or “It was fine.”  Basically, she was gonna sabotage the post game inteview.

T:  When you say rejected, you mean romantically?

N:  Ya.  No big drama, but just I’m not interested, sorry.  Ordinary awkward stuff that if you never see them again it’s no big deal.  If you happen to have them on the post-game interview and they are all “oh we are live on the radio...”

T:  We’re live on the radio and I hate your guts because you rejected me?

N:  Pretty much.  I’m gonna sabotage your interview.  It was about a 2 question interview and I got the point.  I was “I want to thank you for coming on the show and you had a great game and we’re gonna wrap it up right about now.”

T:  And then we’ll go out to a nice romantic dinner.  No, wait, I’m just joking about that.  Was it common for the reporters to date or in your case not date the players on the women’s basketball team?

N:  I think there was a decent amount of typical college drama.  Within the broadcast circuit it was always sorta known who was having drama with whom.  It probably revolved more around who wasn’t getting with so and so than who was.

T:  Somebody call the CW!  Forget Gossip Girl, this is the next big show.

N:  It was college.  College is all about drama.

T:  What was the atmosphere like at a women’s basketball game at your time at Cal?

N:  I was always disappointed that the attendance wasn’t better.  There was a clear discrepancy between the crowds and atmosphere that you’d see at the men’s game and the crowds and the atmosphere that you’d see at the women’s game.  Similar to the A's and the Giants. The core group was loyal, but small.  A lot of it was based around family and friends and family and friends of family and friends.  It wasn’t a lot of the casual fans dropping in.  I don’t remember the attendance figures, but I think they were 3 digits.  Certainly not electric.  That was a shame.  

Although when Cal played Stanford, sometimes it would sell out.  Not just because of the rivalry, but also because during that time Stanford had Jennifer Azzi and Sonja Henning.  I think Stanford was ranked #1 in the country maybe every year that I was broadcasting.  Those were big deal games and that was a lot of fun.  I happened to really respond both as a fan and also as a broadcaster to big crowds.  When you have that electricity in the air.  When as a broadcaster you can play the play by play against the crowd noise and there is just that chanting in the background.  Where the crowd becomes an element of the broadcast, rather than just being your voice.  I always respond really well to that.  I find it hard, frankly, to be at an A's game where there are 12,000 people.  It doesn’t have the same feel as when there is a sold out crowd and there is just a buzz all around.

As a broadcaster I felt the same way.  I always wished the crowds were bigger and there was more electricity in the air.  It was a great experience.

T:  I have some final questions here that are more general.  I thank you so much for your time.  Firstly, when you were doing play by play were you more Gus Johnson or Joe Buck?

N:  I think that I was probably a blend of Lon Simmons, Bill King, and Hank Greenwald, because those were the guys that i grew up listening to.  I think you are always influenced.  The way you learn first is by imitating.  And then you develop your own style from there.  A lot of my intonation and what I knew as normal came from those 3 guys, who were really the voices of the bay area baseball at the time.

T:  I think that that was a poorly constructed question on my part and I do apologize.  I was trying to get at whether you were more excitable in exciting moments or trying to keep an even keel at all times independent of what was going on in the game?

N:  What i valued was maintaining professionalism.  I was certainly not given to that hysteria.  I never wanted to become bigger than the game.  I really ascribed to the theory that the broadcaster shouldn’t be the focus of the broadcast.  They are just the conduit.  I certainly was never in that into what seems to me to be more sophomoric, out of control.  Look at me I’m the show.  That is one of the things I love about Ken Korach.  Even when he gets incredibly excited, you can tell that it is important to him to sound professional more than anything else.  That is what I believe in.  You are there for the listeners, not for your own ego.

T: Now, you’ve worked with CGB superstar moderator Ohio Bear at both the amateur and professional level.  Can you give us all the gossip that you have about him?  And I mean all the gossip.

N:  I can tell you that in Medford with the southern Oregon A's, early on, I think we broadcast 3 years together, I used to refer to him as my partner and I would get some quizzical looks.  Medford is sort of a conservative town.  I realized I had to say broadcast partner.  Because Ohio Bear was not my partner in the sense that many were interpreting that.  What he was to me more than anything was a friend.  It was such a treat to have a broadcast partner that I liked that I felt comfortable with. we knew each other.  I did all 9 innings of play by play the first year.  He was great about fitting into the role of color commentator.  No ego.  All about what is best for the broadcast.  He was a wonderful guy to work with, quite honestly.  

Some of my favorite memories of my time in minor league baseball revolve around developing the chemistry together and traveling together.  Broadcasting baseball can be a pretty isolating experience.  It was one of the things I didn’t like about it.  You may be broadcasting to 10,000 people but you don’t really see any of them.  You don’t really know any of them.  It can be very isolating.  Your broadcast partner can be one of the few things that makes it less isolating.  Actually, it was very important to me to have him as part of the team and part of the experience.

T:  Did you broadcast with him at Cal at any time or was it only after Cal?

N:  I think I broadcast with him at Cal.  The combinations and permutations were many.  There were maybe six or seven in the mix.  You might broadcast one pair doing the Friday game and a whole different pair doing the Saturday game.  Then, you and somebody else doing the Sunday game.  It was very much built after college schedules, our lives.  For roadtrips, obviously, you have the same 3 people for the games.  For home games, it was kind of a crap shoot.  I am sure I broadcast several games with him and also many games with other people.  Some teams that I worked more with, some I worked less with.  With the Southern Oregon A's, it was him and me.  We were the broadcast team for 76 games.

T:  Finally, do you think your experience at KALX announcer or even as a minor league announcer/spring training announcer helped you as a manager for the really  fine SBN site Athletics Nation.

N:  I do, partly because I have the advantage of being on the inside in clubhouses, on buses, on the field for batting practice and so on.  Really getting to know what it means to be an athlete.  In my analysis, I have a better understanding of what factors are real and what are not when we analyze.  What makes a good player and what are the components of being a player.  Some of them are statistically based and some of them aren’t.  Players are people.  Some players have more internal fire than others.  Some have a better work ethic than others.  Some are more teachable than others.  I think my experience in broadcasting has helped me to have a very balanced understanding of what talent factors and what quote intangibles unquote "intangibles" are real and what aren’t.  And I think it has made me certainly a better scout to be able to have seen so many players over so many years.  To really get a feel for what talent looks like and what a good future looks like.  Who is likely to play well now and why.

T:  Thank you so much.  I have one final question here which I don’t understand at all, but I was told by our good friend OhioBear to ask you.  Matt Beeuwsaert. Great player or the greatest player?  And was he better than Hartmut Ortmann?  Does that make any sense to you?

N:  It doesn’t have to.  Let me think of how I want to answer that.  Tell him that my answer after a long pause and much consideration is snort.