The challenges of being a Black play-by-play announcer in the NBA
‘You notice when you’re the only guy of color that is not a former player who is holding a microphone’
Every year, Charlotte Hornets TV play-by-play announcer Eric Collins can’t help but feel a little anxiety when he goes to the NBA’s annual broadcast meetings before training camps start. Considering he is the only Black man in his position in the league, it’s hard for him to feel comfortable.
“It’s uncomfortable to me. It’s not my sweet spot,” Collins told The Undefeated. “People are nice to me, don’t get me wrong. It’s a group of guys who have a common love for basketball. But, you notice when you’re the only guy of color that is not a former player who is holding a microphone. … So, that’s awkward.
“Over the years, people have had a hard time believing that I’m the play-by-play guy for the Charlotte Hornets.”
Of the 30 NBA teams, Collins was the only primary play-by-play TV announcer of color during the 2019-20 season. The Chicago Bulls recently announced the hiring of Adam Amin, who is Pakistani, as their new primary TV play-by-play broadcaster, succeeding Neil Funk at the start of next season. The Sacramento Kings and Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, have current openings for television play-by-play announcers.
Entering the 2019-20 season, 11 teams had the same TV play-by-play man — all white men — for more than two decades, according to Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight. Long tenures leave less room for new faces. Additionally, a third of NBA teams have had the same radio play-by-play man serving for more than two decades, according to Herring. Toronto Raptors co-play-by-play radio announcer Paul Jones, a Black Canadian, is the only person of color in that position in the NBA.
The Capital City Go-Go have the only Black play-by-play announcer in the G League in Canadian Meghan McPeak. She is also the only woman doing play-by-play of any kind in the NBA. ABC and ESPN’s Mark Jones is the only Black play-by-play announcer among the two major networks — ESPN and Turner Sports — calling NBA games. (Gus Johnson, who was the Milwaukee Bucks’ play-by-play announcer, is currently the play-by-play voice for Fox Sports’ college football and college hoops coverage.)
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum acknowledges there is work to be done.
“We are committed to increasing Black representation at every level of our league and game, including in media and broadcast roles,” Tatum told The Undefeated. “We have a real opportunity to turn this moment into sustained action, and continue to have frequent conversations with our teams to identify gaps, expand programs and ensure accountability regarding hiring and retention. While we’re encouraged by progress made so far, our collaboration with partners and teams to build a more equitable league is essential for creating meaningful, long-term change.”
Collins, McPeak and the Jones brothers discussed the challenges of being the few Black play-by-play announcers covering a league in which 75% of the players are Black.
When you hear about the lack of Black play-by-play announcers in the NBA, what comes to mind?
Mark Jones: You’re part of an elite group, sadly so. It’s hard for me to find somebody to bounce uniquely Afrocentric stories off of. You’re talking about a league that is 75% African American. Who is going to see it through the same prism that I do? Is the producer going to understand me? Is he going to support me? Is my analyst going to support me? For the most part, they do.
I wonder whether we have enough people telling stories that are impacting Black players accurately with the same amount of importance. If you did a Milwaukee Bucks game when the police brutality happened and you didn’t talk about Sterling Brown, then you were missing the story. That was a story that was not only important to Sterling Brown, but to his teammates and players around the league who look like him.
Eric Collins: It’s staggering. … The hard part with a job in the NBA is, if you’re going to get hired by a team, the layers of people that have to sign off on you. It’s not just the team. It’s the TV station. What you’re doing is representing an organization. Not just with your voice, but with your face. … That is why people over the years have been reluctant to think outside of the box, think different and think about diversity.
To be fair, the guy I replaced in Charlotte had been with the organization since they started in 1988. The Orlando Magic have had the same TV guy forever. The Miami Heat has had the same TV guy since they first rolled out basketballs in the late ’80s. These jobs don’t turn over.
Paul Jones: As diverse as the NBA is and as much as they concentrate on inclusivity and diversity, there is a long way to go. A marathon is 26 miles. In Canada, it’s over 41 kilometers. When you’ve run 10 miles, you’ve run a long way. But you still have a long way to go.
Meghan McPeak: Disappointing, upsetting, disgusting. … When you look at the NBA and the NBA G League and you can count on one hand how many people of color, male or female, are in this role it is laughable.
How did you get into being a play-by-play analyst?
Meghan McPeak: When I was at [Humber College], I was thinking about life after playing. … I wanted to be the Canadian version of Doris Burke. That prompted me to get into broadcasting. When I was doing the McMaster University men’s and women’s basketball games on radio for the university station, a weird turn of events happened that led me to get into play-by-play.
Don Dawson, who was the play-by-play announcer for football and basketball, fell ill and was hospitalized. They asked me to fill in, thinking he’d be gone two or three weeks and then I’d go back to color analyst. But unfortunately, he passed and they asked me to remain doing play-by-play. I had three consistent weeks of doing play-by-play and I fell in love with it.
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Mark Jones: I always had a passion for sports. My first real media job was doing play-by-play women’s basketball at my alma mater, York University, where I played basketball.
After that, I got my career started at TSN. The first paid play-by-play gig was ESPN college football in 1991. After my first year being a sideline reporter, they wanted to make me a play-by-play guy as well. … They had the courage to do it.
Paul Jones: I played basketball at York University and was a two-time conference all-star. The opportunity came up to get behind the mic and do a few Raptors games for Sportsnet. Somebody told me to be a play-by-play person because when they shake the tree, 10 analysts fall out and one play-by-play guy falls out. The next analyst will be the star player who retires or the next coach fired. The play-by-play guy usually has a longer career.
Collins: I wanted to get into television, and back in the ’80s there was a real opportunity to get into television news for people of color. … I got into school, prepared and became a TV news reporter. So, that is how I got into the business and started holding a microphone. It wasn’t until I did that for a couple of years that I realized it wasn’t who I was.
My passion is sports and I needed to transition. I just said, ‘Now or never, sports.’ I moved over to sports … and I got lucky break after lucky break.
What have been your biggest hurdles as a Black person trying to find a place in a profession dominated by white males?
McPeak: One, I’m a woman, and two, I’m Black. Technically, I’m an interracial mix. … Those are probably the two biggest ones. … Then add the fact that I’m a Black woman. Women in sports have being a woman as a hurdle to jump over every time we open our mouth, period, or take to Twitter to have an opinion about sports. We immediately have guys wanting to quiz us on our sports knowledge simply to make sure we can make the cut and know what we’re talking about. …
What a white male might go through to prove their knowledge, a woman has to do double that, and a Black or minority woman has to do triple or quadruple that and are held to a higher standard by society, which I think is truly disgusting.
Paul Jones: Opportunity. I believe the composition of the decision-makers needs to reflect diversity. At present, it is not reflective or representative and, as a consequence, being a Black male, I don’t appear on the radar as a candidate for these jobs. Thankfully, John Bitove and Isiah Thomas, part of the original ownership group with the Toronto Raptors, gave me an opportunity.
But it has been a struggle keeping my foot in the door and being looked at as someone worthy of opportunity. … Even with an extensive background, having worked in the media for 35 years, I have been passed over when it comes to play-by-play opportunities and had jobs taken from me and given to others.
Mark Jones: Breaking in. In May of 1990, I sat down with my boss of TSN in Toronto and we listened to my play-by-play demo tape. And he said, ‘I don’t think you’re ready. I don’t think you’re good enough yet.’ And two weeks later I had an offer from ESPN-ABC to do play-by-play and be one of their people. So, there are just barriers to entry for Black people that want to do play-by-play. Sometimes the people evaluating you don’t know what they’re listening for.
I remember [head of ABC Sports] Dennis Swanson saying, ‘Damn it, we’re going to hire people that look like the people we’re covering.’ And I give him credit for it, because here I am 30 years later still doing it. One of the biggest challenges is having someone see you as qualified, knowledgeable and ready. Sometimes it’s the old people hiring people they’re comfortable with that look like them. If it’s something that they don’t know, to them it may not work.
Collins: For the last 25 years I have woke up knowing that I don’t and will not have the same opportunities as other announcers. Even in 2020 my look and background make me uncomfortable to some. But I’ve always gone to bed knowing that I am different in all the best ways from other announcers. I look different. I sound different. My experiences are different. My perspective is different. I guess I’ve been productively delusional all these years because I’ve always believed that being different was good.
What needs to happen to get more Blacks, people of color and women sports play-by-play jobs in the future in television and radio?
Collins: There are so many different ways to do an NBA basketball game. But more often than not, it all sounds the same. When people understand that difference can and should be celebrated, that is when [we] can have a different thought process toward hiring people. … When that is the case that people are looking for uniqueness, then is when you’ll have more people holding microphones and doing jobs in this business.
McPeak: The analyst, host and sideline chair are the only acceptable place for people of color to be, it seems. So, the only way to get more Black men and women in the play-by-play chair is that if the people in that position to make the hires make them and have uncomfortable conversations with their fellow hiring people … and say, ‘This needs to change. We cannot keep telling the stories of Black men and women without Black men and women telling these stories.’
Let’s be real. Black men and women athletes are probably more comfortable talking about what is uncomfortable with Black men and women who cover the sport because you have that kinship of, ‘We get what I’m telling you.’ Not all, but some white people think Black people exaggerate the stories and life experiences that we have on a daily basis. And until those people become comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, change is not going to happen.
Paul Jones: They need opportunity. They need someone to give them a chance and a spot to practice. There are so many outlets now in sports around college, high school and AAU to practice calling. They need chances to do that so people can give them feedback and help them move up.
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Mark Jones: Seeing people like me, Eric Collins, Meghan, other Black play-by-play announcers. It’s going to take them looking at people like me and saying, ‘I can do that, too.’ I mentor three or four young Black kids now who are trying to do what I do. They’re going to have to be prepared in a different way. They are going to be told at times, ‘Hey, don’t say it like that.’ It helps to have a mentor like myself or a person of color who can help them with some of the hurdles they are going to face. They have to know it can be done.
What advice would you give a person of color who wants to become you?
Paul Jones: Learn the business. Work on your vocabulary. Learn your game, whether it’s baseball, hockey, football, track and field. Know the game, the rules and the ins and outs. Know people. Know how it works. If you’re the play-by-play guy and the traffic cop, you can help your analyst to educate fans and bring the game to a higher level. Your best consumer is an educated consumer. Ask intelligent questions. And nothing is beneath. When I got in the business, I was carrying Mark’s camera bag. Get in there. … The hardest part is getting in.
Collins: One of the keys to my success was that I was always able to make money throughout the course of the year because I could work every single season. I could do football, softball, baseball, basketball. I was willing to do marathon running, bench press competitions, whatever, at any level. High school, college, male, female, didn’t make a difference to me.
That is important to young announcers. You have to be versatile. You can’t be NBA or bust. You have to do whatever that is available, because not only do you get better, but you get paid so you can keep the dream alive longer, longer and longer. You are also able to meet people and network. Jobs get jobs.
Mark Jones: Get reps. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing play-by-play on AAU basketball in an empty gym, as long as you get reps. Get good at whoever you are. Be authentic. Be yourself. Have tremendous control of the language. Don’t be trite or use clichés. Be eloquent when the time and the situation demands it. Make sure that your presentation is on point when you’re ready for that big break. When you put something on tape to show somebody, make sure it’s your best work or close to it, because that first impression is usually the one that sticks.
McPeak: Don’t be deterred by what is going on right now. Don’t be deterred by reading that in the NBA there is only one Black person and in the G League only one woman of color [doing play-by-play on TV]. Be part of the change. We will see more people who look like ourselves if more people that look like ourselves continue pushing forward.
When I look at the next generation, I am OK and I will gladly take the bumps, the bruises, the hurdles, the obstacles. I’m realizing that I was put in this position for a bigger purpose than one of four play-by-play people of color who cover the NBA and the G League.