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K.C. Johnson: Surprise play-by-play call offers wild ride


I’m still not sure what compelled me to say the words as NBC Sports Chicago producer extraordinaire Marc Brady calmly told me and Robbie Hummel that we’d be broadcasting the start of the Chicago Bulls-Indiana Pacers game on Friday night.

"I can do the play-by-play."

To be clear: Brady told us this in the final commercial break before tipoff because regular play-by-play aficionado Adam Amin had moments prior been temporarily pulled from the broadcast for an issue surrounding his testing for COVID-19. We’re talking 3-minute notice.

Hummel and I had talked to each other less than a minute in our lives. He asked me if my name is “Casey” or “K.C.” as Brady counted us down to the introduction.

And I hadn’t done play-by-play since announcing my APBA baseball card games in my childhood bedroom — and never professionally, at any level, for any game.

But play-by-play I did.

In fact, it struck me as I barreled back to Chicago on I-65 late on New Year’s Eve — fittingly, going about 80 m.p.h — that I had called the first quarter and change more for radio than TV. I described every dribble handoff, every pick-and-roll and every shot attempt. I announced time and score frequently. All while talking about 80 m.p.h.

And you know what? All of it still was thrilling.

People have since asked if I was nervous. I didn’t have time to be. And I probably wouldn’t have been even if I had.

I left a great job at the Chicago Tribune in 2019 to come to another great job at NBC Sports Chicago and try some multimedia journalism, push myself out of my comfort zone.

There’s nothing more uncomfortable than a beat writer trying play-by-play for the first time ever, on any level, with no notice.

Hummel and I had some moments where it actually felt seamless. Even though we sat apart, I felt connected. He’s really, really good at analysis. And it should be noted this marked his first NBA game for TV, which makes the night even more surreal. He had filled in for Bill Wennington on radio when Wennington landed in the league's health and safety protocols and sat in this night for Stacey King, who isn't yet traveling after a similar stint.

Hummel and I even connected on a few anecdotes, including one in which he shared how he played with Zach LaVine during LaVine's rookie season in Minnesota.

But mostly I approached the night like the inexperienced co-pilot entrusted to land the plane. I just held the throttle tight and hung on for dear life.

I know the game. I definitely know the Bulls — and enjoyed having the platform to kick-start the debate on whether Tyler Cook should stay in the rotation when Tony Bradley returns. And I’ve listened to enough broadcasts in my career to have some semblance of cadence and flow — other than my zealousness to overdescribe action for TV play-by-play.

(Side note: I negotiated with Brady to be paid by the word.)

(Another side note: No I didn't.)

What needs to be understood here is how ridiculously talented broadcasters are. Some people think it’s easy to call a game, that it's just describing action. It’s not. Professional broadcasters make it so with their preparation and experience.

I knew this. But now I really know this.

The passion and preparation Chuck Swirsky brings to his radio call is special stuff. The versatility that Amin and fellow NBC Sports Chicago broadcaster Jason Benetti display as they bounce from sport to sport and local to national broadcast is mind-blowing. And the color and humor and knowledge that King and Wennington, and even fill-ins Hummel and Stephen Bardo, bring shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Neither should the behind-the-scenes contributions from people like Brady, associate producer Tamra Anderson and director Russ Leonard. They aren’t on camera or on air, but they make the whole thing go. 

To say Brady carried me is like saying LaVine is athletic. His encouragement, calmness and cues as he talked in our earpieces felt as comforting as a DeMar DeRozan midrange jumper.

Typically during a game, I use stoppages of play and timeouts to keep up on my phone, monitor texts and Twitter. Since I was merely trying not to black out, I didn’t until Amin returned — thankfully and healthy — with 7:50 left in the second quarter.

My phone was flooded. I read every complimentary text or Tweet — and even the critical ones chiding me for wearing a mask. 

About that, briefly: Team broadcasters are tested daily by the team, which is why Amin was pulled until he was cleared. I’m not. I also was sitting near maskless fans, including some young kids, and in a media area where masking is required.

So we made do — apologies for the muffled sounds — until I could get to a more comfortable place and lower my mask.

The night served as a memorable experience, even for someone 31-plus years into a career. People have mostly been way too kind in their comments. I was competent, not good. But other than forgetting to throw a “Ka-Boom!” in there for my guy Neil Funk, I said what I felt was right.

People also have asked me how I would’ve handled calling DeRozan’s game-winner had Amin not — I’m going to say again: thankfully — returned.

In a word, disastrously. That's not in the trick bag or skill set.

But thinking about it as I drove past Indiana cornfields back towards Chicago, I realized I probably would’ve said something along the lines of, “DeRozan for the win... Oh, what a shot.”

I’m thankful for mine.

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