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The Last Dance Brings Back Memories For Bulls Broadcasters

“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that.”

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Over the last five weeks, I’ve been entertained to no end by The Last Dance on ESPN. The behind the scenes looks, the memories and the greatness of Michael Jordan have been right there on my TV screen for me to revisit and remember fondly. Thankfully, I was old enough to really appreciate these teams and MJ the player. 

The Last Dance' Michael Jordan & Chicago Bulls documentary debut ...

I was fortunate to cover bits and pieces of the final two championships, but was not around the team all the time. My seat was anything but front row, but there were a few people that had terrific seats for more than one of the titles. The broadcasters saw every game, every play and lived these moments at home and on the road. They were on the team planes and had access to the players. These guys lived it. 

Neil Funk who is retiring at the end of this season (if there is a resumption) after 28 years with the Bulls saw it all. Starting on the radio broadcast and eventually shifting to the television chair. He told NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Talk Podcast that he enjoyed the look back through the lens of “The Last Dance”. 

“First of all, I think it’s very well done and at times its riveting to watch it. Even though I went through that you know traveling with the team and being around them all the in that last year.”, he told NBCSC.  “The one thing about this documentary that it is kind of bringing all that stuff back to you as you sit here. Sometimes you forget about Michael’s greatness and the greatness of those teams.”

Wayne Larrivee worked Bulls television games on WGN-TV starting in 1991. He agreed that the documentary was an accurate portrayal of the actual events.

“I would say very much so. There were some things that they showed that we didn’t know. I thought they did a really good job with that,” he told me via phone. “There were some things they showed that I had forgotten about, like Rodman’s trip to Las Vegas in the middle of the season, I had kind of lost track of that over the years.” 

So, the season seemed to play out as depicted, but what wasn’t universally agreed upon was how the show portrayed the star, Michael Jordan. There were those thinking he looked tyrannical, some said they admired him more. The broadcasters had their thoughts. 

Funk was happy to see Jordan showing a different side of himself during the documentary. 

Chicago Bulls announcer Neil Funk retiring at end of season

“It was nice to see him sitting down and kind of opening up. You mention the fact he might have been concerned that people would perceive him in a way that maybe wasn’t flattering to him.”, Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “That IS what made Michael different and what made Michael great. I don’t think he has to worry about that in the least, that’s part of what made him Michael Jordan.”

According to Larrivee the portrayal was fair because it was truthful.

“He was portrayed as he is. He’s a tough competitor and he is a great leader. He was portrayed as a leader. People don’t understand things about leaders sometimes,” Larrivee said. “I thought they portrayed Michael and Scottie very accurately. Michael was the tough cop and Scottie was the good cop, the nice guy. Michael would knock you down and Scottie would pick you up.”

You could tell there was a respect for Jordan among the broadcasters that were around him most often. Larrivee continued in a comparison of MJ and today’s players that tells an important story.

“I will say this about Michael as compared to today’s athletes. Michael had this belief, ‘Listen I show up and play every game. I don’t take vacations, I don’t take nights off, they pay to come see me play and for a lot of people it may be the only time they get to see me play in person,’” Larrivee told me. “Today you have this thing called “load management” that would never happen with Michael Jordan. If he’s healthy he’s going to play the game. He understood that aspect of the game.” 

Relationships with the players are key to being able to do your job. But, when one of the players is Michael Jordan how do you handle things? He’s arguably the greatest player of all-time and people are always wanting his time.

“I had learned early on, because when I was in Philadelphia I was with Julius Erving, so I had learned that if you didn’t bother them with kind of silly stuff, they were going to respect you and appreciate the fact you weren’t bothering them all the time,” Funk told NBC Sports Chicago. “Unless it was something where I absolutely had to go to him and say hey Michael would you do this interview or whatever it might have been…I tried to stay away from that unless it was unavoidable. When I did go to him, he was generally receptive because I didn’t bother him a lot.”  

Larrivee took that same approach to Michael, but seemed to have a leg up on the competition.

“The relationship I had with him (MJ) went back to before I was doing Bulls’ games. Tribune Company (then the owner of WGN-TV and Radio) had another division in it. They used to televise the City Championship game in Chicago. They paired Michael and me together one year,” said Larrivee.  “This is before the Bulls started to win championships, but Michael was still wildly popular. They snuck him into the UIC Pavilion. I’ll never forget our production meeting, with Michael sitting on a toilet seat, eating KFC and we were all talking about what we were going to do at the open of the game. During the National Anthem where they dimmed the lights, they snuck Michael in from the back to our seats, then the lights came on and people saw him and went wild.” 

Wayne Larrivee talks pre-game ritual, career advice, and his ...

Even the broadcasters knew it was the end of the line as did the players in 1998. So, what else can you do but enjoy the ride right? I mean how many times can get that lucky to cover a team that annually wins championships? Larrivee wasn’t going to miss a single chance to soak it all in. 

“Tim Hallam (Bulls Senior Director of Public & Media Relations) and I would sit there at center court as the Bulls were warming up getting set to play the game and look at Michael Jordan and say ‘hey, let’s make sure we don’t take this for granted, because we’re never going to see the likes of this again’.”, Larrivee said.  “We would do that almost every 2, 3 games and sit back and say don’t take it for granted, it won’t be like this forever.  That’s kind of the way it was. We did savor it and it was a big deal that Last Dance, all the way through.”  

Funk was just impressed with what the team accomplished in that final championship season, comparing it to another of the titles.

He told NBC Sports Chicago, “I would go back to the third championship in the first three peat and use that as kind of a template for the last one. It seemed like they were running on fumes and Michael was running on fumes. We know how hard it is to win one, then to win two and then the near impossible task of trying to win three. I think the last one of the second three peat, was the hardest of all of them. They’re all hard. That third one especially with all that was swirling around them, the age of some of the players, injuries, that had to be the most difficult to accomplish.”

There are certain calls on the radio or television that take you back. These famous calls remind you where you were, what you were doing, who you were with and even what you were wearing at the time. Funk had one of the all-timers with his description of the last shot Jordan would ever take in a Bulls uniform.  

“Michael against Russell, 12 seconds, 11, 10 Jordan, Jordan a drive, hangs, fires, scores! He scores! The Bulls lead 87-86 with 5 and 2 tenths left, and now they’re one stop away. Oh my goodness!”

“That call, of all that I did, that one I’ll always remember only because it was the last one.”, Funk told the Bulls Talk Podcast.  “That was kind of the end. So, I’ll never forget that one.” 

Indeed, it was the end. The team was broken up the following year. Tim Floyd was brought in to coach a cast of no-name players in a shortened season. The Bulls were just a shadow, a small shadow of their former selves. But the broadcasts had to go on. 

For the professionals the Bulls had behind the mics, the play on the court changed nothing about how they got ready for games. Larrivee told me that the show must go on and he didn’t have any trouble gearing up for the 1999 Bulls. 

“It’s an NBA game, it’s a big-time game, it’s on a Superstation WGN-TV. Now the spotlight wasn’t as great on us at that time. You know you feel that. But it does not preclude the way you prepare for that game or the approach you take to the game going in.”, Larrivee told me.  “We are professionals, but we’re also people so yes, there is a little bit less to it when it’s not a big moment or a big game. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you take it any lighter. I prepared the same way that following year as I did during the Last Dance.”

Tom Dore, who also called Bulls basketball on television during the great runs of the 90’s, obviously knew that ’99 was going to be a lot different. He explained to Sports Illustrated the new challenges of that season.  

“How do we get people to say, ‘You should still come and see this? That you need to watch our games.’” Dore told SI.  “The key is just you’re looking for anything positive to talk about. And then Mike Tyson hit you with another one to the gut. And then Muhammad Ali hit you with a left to the temple. And then Joe Frazier hit you with an uppercut. That’s what it was like.”

As we take a final look back at the Last Dance, the last word belongs to Larrivee who had an interesting take on how things came to an end. 

“I think there’s a romantic quality to this. The Bulls win their third in a row. But it’s tradition that the champion gets to go out on his or her sword and when you break up a team like that after a championship they didn’t get out on their sword. They didn’t get a chance to be dethroned.

The 1995-1998 Bulls belong on the list of 10 greatest lineups in ...

“They went out as champions, they were never beaten, there’s something special about that. I know Michael to this day regrets that they didn’t get a chance to go for a fourth (in a row). He feels very strongly they would have won another one. I don’t know if they could have mustered it again, but they never got a chance to. Thus, here they are 22 years later we remember them as they were.”

A special group for sure. A special treat for all of us. Five Sunday nights of pleasure during this crazy pandemic. Whether you liked how it was done or didn’t, a tip of the hat to those responsible for bringing it to us. The Last Dance was one to remember. 

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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