Published February 5, 2017
In the world of the sports broadcaster, it’s not enough to call the action as is.
Take pro basketball, for example, in the World According to George Blaha.
A layup isn’t a layup; it’s a “bunny.”
A dunk isn’t a dunk; it’s a “flush.”
If the clock reads 2:43 remaining, it’s “two and forty-three left.”
A three point attempt is “gunning from downtown.”
If it’s good, it’s “through.”
If it’s not, it’s simply “no.”
A deke toward the basket is a “shake and bake.”
Even the basketball itself isn’t just a ball—it’s “the rock.”
All the Pistons on the floor are referred to by their first names; the other guys are referenced by surnames. “Reggie to Tobias at the wing. He takes it to the rack, dishes it to Andre. Hook shot—got it!”
A Pistons player makes a basket and is fouled, so it’s “Count that baby AND a foul!”
The downer when it comes to local broadcasters is that they never get to call the franchise’s biggest moments on television—which is where most of the iconic calls happen. The local guys get relegated to radio—at best—while the national announcers take over on the tube.
So we never got to hear, on television, Blaha, who’s more than 40 years into his Pistons broadcasting career, call Vinnie Johnson’s celebrated shot to clinch the 1990 Finals in Portland. And that’s just one example.
Blaha first called Pistons games at venerable Cobo Arena in 1976. It was a long time and two arenas ago. Soon to be three, as the Pistons prepare to play in Little Caesars Arena downtown next season.
I was a blossoming pro basketball fan at age 13 when I first tuned into Blaha on the radio, where he began. Television was still several years away for him, and the Pistons weren’t on the telly all that much anyhow in those days.
I remember being in my bedroom in Livonia to hear Blaha as he called the action from Cobo. That 1976-77 Pistons team was one of my favorites.
It was a team filled with internal dissension and was coached by the vagabond Herb Brown. Herbie had four guards and they all bitched about playing time. The most contentious relationship was between Herbie and Kevin Porter, the angry, frenetic point guard.
They won 44 games and made the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but what made that team special to me was its place as the first I remember following seriously on the radio.
Much, if not all of that, was due to Blaha.
I didn’t know much about broadcasters at age 13, except that I sometimes liked to turn the sound down on the TV while watching Red Wings games and pretend I was Bruce Martyn calling the action. I even talked into a tape recorder my parents got me for Christmas one year.
I used to imitate George Kell’s Tigers calls (under my breath) while hitting fungoes with my whiffle ball and bat.
But I wasn’t much of a Pistons fan until Blaha started describing the action at Cobo. There was just something about his style.
It was his enthusiasm, for one.
I would be in my bedroom and I could envision the action and the small crowd watching it as Blaha painted the picture, which I guess is what every good radio guy is supposed to do.
Wonderful names from the past: Bob Lanier, Porter, Ralph Simpson, Chris Ford, Eric Money, M.L. Carr.
Lanier, the Hall of Fame center, was “The Dobber” (derived from Bob-a-Dob). Kevin Porter was “KP.” Howard Porter was “The Geezer.”
Blaha made the NBA thrilling to me on the radio in my adolescent years. But I had no idea what sort of treasure I had unearthed.
I had no idea that, some 40 years later—or as Blaha would say “Forty and six months”—George would still be calling Pistons games, much less with three NBA titles under his belt.
When I first tuned into the Pistons, the thought of them winning anything more than a freaking playoff game was mere fantasy, much less capturing the whole ball of wax.
Blaha has seen it all with the Pistons, and for a franchise with a past as checkered as theirs is, that’s saying a lot.
Let’s start with the coaches.
There was the mod, leisure suit with no socks Herbie Brown, whose rift with KP eventually turned physical until the Pistons had no choice but to trade the point guard.
There was the GM-turned-coach Bob Kauffman, a wine connoisseur and man of fashion, just a few years removed from being a player.
Kauffman gave way to bombastic Dickie Vitale.
The coaching roll after Vitale reads: Richie Adubato. Scotty Robertson. Chuck Daly. Ron Rothstein. Don Chaney. Doug Collins. Alvin Gentry. George Irvine. Rick Carlisle. Larry Brown. Flip Saunders. Michael Curry. John Kuester. Lawrence Frank. Maurice Cheeks. John Loyer. Stan Van Gundy.
That’s 20 men prowling the Pistons sidelines, and George Blaha called just about every one of their games. Since 1976, Blaha has missed only three games due to illness. He’s pretty much been the Cal Ripken, Jr. of announcers in that regard.
Blaha is also a helluva football broadcaster, and has been the only announcer most Michigan State fans have ever known.
His MSU duties have meant occasional Pistons conflicts, so he’s missed basketball games due to that, but that’s with an asterisk if you ask me.
In addition to the coaching carousel, Blaha has broadcast during times of franchise despair (16-66 in 1979-80) and triumph (those three NBA championships). He’s seen the team play in cozy but mostly empty Cobo, the cavernous and cold Silverdome and the luxurious Palace.
Blaha has described the exploits of Hall of Famers Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and a host of other Pistons greats and benchwarmers.
But regardless of the players’ places in the NBA’s pecking order, when they became Pistons, Blaha was on a first-name basis with them on the air. It’s a subtlety but very Blaha.
And let’s not forget the nicknames—some of which that Blaha himself coined.
The Worm. Spider. The Microwave. The Palace Prince. Special K. Joe D. And many more.
In a town that’s been blessed with the likes of Martyn, Ernie Harwell, Kell and—for the oldtimer Lions fan—Van Patrick, George Blaha is the icon who remains with us, still going strong after four decades behind the Pistons mike. (Martyn is still alive and well, but retired for over 20 years).
Blaha was elected to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, but on Friday night during halftime at the Palace, the Pistons will honor Blaha for his 40-plus years calling games. A bobblehead likeness of George—and it’s a pretty darn good one—will be given away to the first 10,000 fans.
“I’m very honored. And much appreciative that the Pistons would do that,” Blaha said the other night after broadcast partner Gregory Kelser read the promo for Friday’s festivities.
“Much deserved, George,” Kelser said.
Count that baby!