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July 31, 2013

The man behind the microphone

A conversation with Detroit Pistons broadcaster George Blaha

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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The man behind the microphone
George Blaha

In a four-week series, C & G Newspapers will publish interviews with broadcasters from all four of our professional sports teams.

In this first installment, Michigan Sports Hall of Fame inductee and University of Notre Dame alumnus George Blaha, the Detroit Pistons play-by-play voice for Fox Sports Detroit and WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket (Mark Champion calls radio games when Blaha handles the television duties), discusses topics such as what his favorite city to visit is, what he likes to do for fun on road trips and the Pistons’ prospects for next season.

When did you know you wanted to get into play-by-play work?
I have to admit, I was 8 or 10 years old. I guess I would call that a lifelong dream. I’m very, very fortunate it came true.

What city did you (grow) up in?
I was born in Detroit when my dad was taking his surgical training at Harper Hospital. Moved back to his home state of Iowa, and then later, we moved to Grayling, Michigan, and that’s when I became a lifer in this great state.

Did you grow up a Pistons fan?
I sure did.

Was it difficult to put your fandom aside, or is that par for the course when you broadcast for the team you grew up rooting for?
Most people who listen to you on the radio or watch the games on TV are Detroit Piston fans, and they’re interested in this team, and they want you to give all the information possible about this team and help them follow (them) on a daily basis, and that’s what I try to do.

What are some things you like to do for fun on all those long road trips?
I love to get out and get a feel for the city that we play in on the road. I enjoy the ability to reconnect with old friends who happen to live there. A lot of people can’t do that. If they do, they gotta go buy a plane ticket to go visit their friend. I can keep in contact with college buddies and so forth with all the travel. And I love Italian food, so I probably rate the cities by how much I love their Italian restaurant.

What’s your favorite city to visit, and what’s your favorite arena to visit?
I think New York’s in a league of its own. I can’t imagine there’s a more exciting city anywhere. New York would be No. 1, but San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and maybe even Chicago are also on the list. My favorite arena of the arenas we play in right now, other than the Palace, which I still think is a spectacular place to play, would probably be Madison Square Garden (in New York) just because of the history at the Garden and all the incredible events that have taken place there, and all the great games. And the fact that New Yorkers are very knowledgeable when it comes to basketball.

Have you ever thought about what you might be doing if you weren’t in broadcasting?
There was a time when I would have loved to have been a Top 40 disc jockey. If I weren’t in broadcasting, I would say I would probably be involved with animals — big dog-lover. If I were home more often, who knows — I might be a breeder and have a kennel full of great dogs.

If you had one movie to take with you on the road, what would it be?
Probably be “The Ray Charles Story.”

What about a book?
There’s a book about one of the great R&B singers of my lifetime; it’s the life and times of Sam Cooke.  He’s a rock-and-roll Hall-of-Famer. The name of the book is “You Send Me.”

If you only had one CD to take on the road, what CD would that be?
I would probably have to take “Ray Charles greatest hits” and “Elvis’ million sellers.”

Being as close to the game as you are, seeing as many games as you do, would you still say you’re as big a fan of the game as you were when you first got into the business?
Absolutely. I still think NBA basketball’s fantastic. I also broadcast Michigan State football (on 760 WJR), so it keeps me close to that great game, as well.

Aside from basketball, what is your favorite sport? Is it college football?
Absolutely — college football. And who cannot be a Tiger fan if you live in Detroit? I was very proud of the Red Wings this spring, as well. They’re great, consistent winners; they have so much Detroit tradition. And one of my favorite things to do in summertime is watch the last nine holes of PGA tournaments and, especially, the grand slam events in golf.

How would you assess the moves the Pistons have made in the offseason?
I’m excited. I think the Josh Smith signing reminds me of the deal Joe Dumars made to get Rasheed Wallace in 2004. He was the final piece of the championship puzzle. There are (going to) be a lot more moves, I think, this summer, but adding Josh Smith makes the Pistons, I believe, a playoff team and if they jell, which I believe they can, some sort of a contender to make at least the final four in the Eastern Conference.

So you’re looking for some vast improvement from the Pistons?
I am. I think they have a chance to really turn the corner. You have two other excellent young big men in Greg Monroe, who’s steady as a rock, and Andre Drummond, who has star potential. There’s talent in the backcourt — just has to mesh. We have a coach (Maurice Cheeks) who’s one of the all time great point guards, so he knows what has to be done out there on both ends of the court.

What kind of jobs did you have before you got the job with the Pistons?
My first job was in Adrian, Michigan at WABJ, 1490 on your dial. I was the sports director, and the assistant news director, which means I worked at the crack of dawn in the morning, came back in the afternoon, and covered meetings in the evening and did games at night. I learned a lot there. From there, moving to Lansing and doing probably 80 percent news at WJIM and WVIC, in conjunction with Michigan State football, and some high school sports, helped me really understand the business and be an objective broadcaster. I think my background in news has really helped me. At some point during my early Piston career, I also worked for an advertising agency, and it was a very good agency. I knew then being behind a desk, 9 to 5, X amount of days a week was really not for me, and no matter how irregular the hours could be in broadcasting, I was always (going to) be happier there.

Do you have a favorite part of your job?
The preparation is more fun than most people would believe, but probably like most play-by-play guys, it’s the game itself. When they tee it up to kick it off in football, or jump it up to start an NBA game, that’s when you really get an adrenaline rush.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the NBA?
I think there’s still tremendous interest in the league. Probably the most positive thing going on in basketball these days, not just in the NBA, is the popularity of the game internationally. (NBA Commissioner) David Stern clearly had as a goal of his to make this an international game, and there’s so many players from around the world who are now legitimate NBA players, and in some cases NBA stars, that the NBA, and the game of basketball, has an incredible following all around the world.
 

Over the course of your years of broadcasting, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the NBA?
There wasn’t a 3-point line when I started. Thee American Basketball Association (ABA) and the NBA had just merged, so the 1976-1977 season there was no more ABA. Many of their stars, including the great Julius Erving, came into the NBA, and it wasn’t until a few years later that the 3-point line was adopted that originated in the ABA.  And, I think, the 3-point shot, and what it’s done to open up the game and help the free flow of the game, is probably the biggest change I have seen.

Do you think there’s any common misconceptions fans have about the game itself or players that you’ve observed over the years?
I think there are fans who think the only part of an NBA game they (want to) pay attention to is the last five minutes. I don’t think they understand it took three quarters and change to get that far. An NBA game (is) so critical for the players, the fans and the coaches, and it starts with the opening tip; it doesn’t start with five minutes to go.
 

Do you have a favorite broadcasting moment?
I probably have two. One, was the first game I ever broadcast at Cobo Arena in the fall of 1976 when the Pistons entertained the Washington Bullets as they were called then, and Bob Lanier and Wes Unseld came out for the opening tip. I realized as I watched these two future Hall-of-Famers, who were just incredibly great players — bigger than any basketball players I had ever seen on the court in games I broadcast — I had made it to the NBA, no question about that. I was so excited. I was living in Lansing at the time, (and) at the end of the game, I drove the wrong way and ended up in Grosse Pointe. And then I think the next most exciting moment was the very first Piston NBA championship. When the game ended and the Pistons were 1989 champions of the world, I think I said ‘Detroit is the city of champions again,’ and it made my heart feel good to know the Pistons were able to bring a championship to Detroit.

When something like that happens, being so close to the team, do you feel like you are part of that championship?
You almost can’t help but feel that way. Jack McCloskey, who was the General Manager back when the Bad Boys won championships, was kind enough to give me the same ring the players got, and Joe Dumars was gracious enough to give me a player’s ring in 2004 when we won again. That meant a lot to me, it really did. You travel with these guys, you try to be as supportive as possible day in and day out, and to be appreciated like that is a wonderful feeling.
 

Who do you think is the best current player in the NBA?
I think you have to go with LeBron James, because of his versatility. I think if he gets much better, he’s (going to) be impossible to guard or play against. He still has room for improvement, in my opinion, and yet he’s already a great player.

Who do you think the best player of all time is, or the best player you’ve seen personally?
The best players of my era would be Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. I feel hands down Isiah’s the best Piston. There’s a lot of competition, but I think most people would agree with me.

Is the job as cool as it seems like it would be?
Probably depends upon the person. If you’re looking at broadcasting as a job that doesn’t require a lot of work, you might be mistaken. There is an awful lot of preparation, and I suppose some people could think the travel’s a grind. But for me, the preparation is actually entertaining. It’s fun for me to prepare for all these games. But if you weren’t truly dedicated and didn’t truly love it, all these games and all this preparation could pile up on you. But if you love it, it’s a great job.

What would you say the keys were to break into the business?
I always tell young people they have to follow their dream and never give up. I’m sure there were some talented people out there who could be doing my job or another play-by-play guy’s job, but maybe they gave up hope in the early days. I can’t tell you how many audition tapes I sent out back in the day, trying to move from one place to another. But when it clicks, it clicks. To be able to spend my entire career in Michigan’s been wonderful.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.