Behind the mic for the TRAIL BLAZERS
When Clay Bennett loaded up the vans and moved the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, Kevin Calabro was in a quandary.
The radio and television voice of the Sonics for 21 years, Calabro was an institution in the Emerald City, a six-time winner of the Sportscaster of the Year Award in the state of Washington. He and wife Sue had four children attending four different schools.
"I just decided I couldn't move my family to a new environment," says Calabro, now the television play-by-play announcer for the Trail Blazers. "It would be too disruptive."
Calabro stayed put, working a variety of sportscasting jobs before signing on with Portland for the 2016-17 season. He and his wife have rented a condo in South Waterfront but maintain a home in the Seattle area.
That's called living the best of both worlds.
"I'm a lucky guy," Calabro says.
Calabro is also very much a Northwest guy, but it wasn't always that way. He is a Midwesterner by birth, raised in Indianapolis, the son of a grade-school principal, the oldest of three boys.
"We lived in the suburbs," Calabro says. "My dad built a house in the middle of a corn field. We got ample opportunity to build forts and stalk around in the fields. We played baseball, chased birds and wildlife.
"My mother grew up on a farm in southern Indiana. My granddad had about 200 acres on which he and his brother farmed corn, soybean and Angus cattle. About every weekend, we'd head down to the farm to hang out. They were near a river, so we'd go out and fish and float and have a great time."
Calabro retains "very fond memories" of his time growing up in Indiana, even though the winters were "brutally cold."
"For a couple of years, my brothers and I got into pond hockey," he says. "But in Indiana, it's always basketball. You want to get into the gym. On the weekends, my dad would open up the gym for me and my brothers and our friends."
Calabro developed an early interest in broadcasting.
"Our high school had a radio station, and I really wanted to be involved somehow in radio," he says. "I'd always listened to major league baseball games — Harry Caray in Chicago, Jack Buck in St. Louis, Bob Prince in Pittsburgh. That was the beauty of living in Middle America. We could pick up radio signals from all over the country. I listened to all these great announcers late at night on a crackling transister radio. I was pretty enthralled with that."
Calabro and one of his brothers, Dave, honed their talents in high school "on our 400-watt AM station." Dave is now the public-address announcer for the Indianapolis 500. Kevin doesn't share his brother's interest in Indy cars, but there was serendipity to one visit to the track.
"I met my wife on the infield at the Indy 500 in 1979," Kevin says. "I was doing a show in the infield in Gasoline Alley. She was a nurse at the local hospital and was out for some training exercises with the drivers. So I introduced myself, we struck up a conversation and began a relationship."
Three years later, they were married.
After graduating from Butler in 1978, where he called basketball games for the student radio station, Calabro began his sportscasting career. He worked Purdue and Missouri basketball, did some minor league hockey and was an overnight radio disc jockey and sports talk show host before getting his opportunity with the Sonics in 1987.
Sonics general manager Bob Whitsitt — later to serve the same job with the Blazers — had worked as assistant GM with Indiana when Calabro was handling some pregame and postgame shows for the Pacers. When Whitsitt moved on to Kansas City, Calabro did one season as the Kings' play-by-play voice, but lost his job when the team changed radio stations.
Calabro moved back to Indianapolis and called college basketball for a year before getting hired by the Sonics, where Whitsitt had landed. For five years, he shared play-by-play duties with veteran Bob Blackburn, a former Portland sportscaster who was the original voice of the Sonics.
Calabro then took over as the sole play-by-play man and worked more than 1,500 games for the Sonics through the 2007-08 season, most of the time doing a radio/TV simulcast.
Then came the Sonics' move to OKC. Ownership wanted him to go, too, but Calabro stayed put.
"I had 21 years under my belt," he says. "If I didn't ever get another opportunity to do an NBA team ... I felt I had enough equity in the market to go out and do some other things and freelance a bit.
"And I didn't like the way it all went down (with the team's move away from Seattle). Forty-one years of history, a championship, multiple Hall of Famers, a great rivalry with Portland — it didn't make a lot of sense."
As his children grew to adulthood, Calabro spent the next eight years performing a cornucopia of sportscasting duties, including a year with the MLS Seattle Sounders and national NBA and college basketball radio and TV for ESPN, Turner, Westwood One, Root Sports NW and the Pac-12 Network. It was the latter two entities at which he first worked with his current broadcasting partner, analyst Lamar Hurd.
"He's a genius with the things he says to describe things during moments in the games," Hurd says. "I'll be sitting there thinking, 'What made you say that?'"
Hurd recalls a Blazers-Minnesota game in which CJ McCollum made a move on the Timberwolves' Andrew Wiggins.
"He said, 'CJ shakes him out of his skin,'" Hurd says. "That was pretty descriptive. Kevin is creative. His vocabulary is super extensive. It goes and goes.
"And he's a great guy, very passionate about life in general and about people who are at a disadvantage in life. That's really cool to see, because he is so well-respected. That means more than basketball."
Before he signed with the Blazers, Calabro was keeping busy, but it wasn't an ideal situation.
"It was tiring," he says. "They were year-to-year deals. I was looking for something full-time in the (NBA), but I could not see myself moving cross-country without my family."
In 2016, Calabro spoke with late owner Paul Allen at a Blazers playoff game in Oakland while working the game for ESPN.
"I told him I used to be the Sonics guy, and he said, 'I thought you'd moved out of town,'" Calabro says.
A couple of weeks later, Calabro received a call from Blazers CEO Chris McGowan.
"He said they were making a change (at the TV play-by-play position) and that Paul was interested in talking to me," Calabro says.
"Once we decided to make a direction change in our broadcast and found that Kevin was available, we decided to engage him," McGowan says now. "We thought he would be an excellent fit."
Almost three years later, McGowan says the move has been a successful one. This year, Calabro was honored as the Oregon Sportscaster of the Year for 2018.
"Kevin is one of the most talented broadcasters I've worked with," McGowan says. "We are extremely fortunate to have him in our organization."
Blazers fans are loyal to their broadcasters, and many resented that the club let go of longtime TV voice Mike Barrett. Additionally, Calabro was "that Seattle guy."
"The first year was a little rough," Calabro says. "You try to get acclimated to the city and the team and to get to know everyone. That was the most difficult part.
"The first couple of years, Portland fans were a little apprehensive and suspicious of the guy from Seattle. This year, people are welcoming me into their homes now as a Blazer broadcaster."
The biggest difference calling games for Calabro has been the market size.
"Portland has a great fan base — rabid fans who are really plugged in," he says. "The Blazers, along with the Timbers and Thorns, are the only major (pro) sports. The Sonics were the first pro sport and always held a special place in the hearts of Seattle sports fans, but the Seahawks are just a monster. You have Husky football and basketball, and you have the Mariners and Sounders.
"In Portland, there's so much focus, not diffused, on the Blazers 12 months of the year. It's fun to be at the Big Gorilla in the market."
Calabro has spent much of his career in radio, but seems just as comfortable doing television.
"As a play-by-play guy in radio, you are the storyteller," he says. "You're painting the picture. You supply all the optics to the folks at home. With television, the pictures tell the story, and you're just trying to add to it with all the other folks involved in the telecast. Radio is a play-by-play guy's medium, and television is an analyst's medium.
"I really enjoyed doing the big (NBA) games on national radio. That was so much fun because of the energy. Television has its special challenges, trying to add to the picture and to the experience for the folks at home. But I'd be happy doing either one."
What makes a good broadcaster?
"Give the score and time a lot, and get out of the way of the action," he advises. "Try to be colorful and have some fun, because fans are having fun at home.
"You can be emotional and rise with the play. One of the best compliments the late, great Dave Niehaus (of the Mariners) ever got was when you listened to him, and you didn't know what the score was, you could tell by the tone of his voice in about 15 seconds whether the Mariners had a lead or were down. I always try to do that, too."
One of Calabro's best traits, though, is his ability to find an even keel in conveying what's happening on the court to his audience.
"I never say 'we' or 'us,'" he says. "When I hear that from a broadcaster, I just don't understand that. I don't dwell on the officiating, because it's inconsistent. The players have to play through it. It doesn't mean they have to like it or lay down from it, but they can't get off the rails or be distracted.
"That's with broadcasters as well. You can make comments about the officials, but they're human beings. They have bad games, and it's reasonable to comment about that. But people can tell what's happening out there by the tone of your voice."
Calabro has been impressed with the Blazers organization, which he considers one of the best in the league.
"With Paul's passing (last October), it would have been easy for folks to go their separate directions," he says. "If anything, the opposite has happened. I've observed people really coming together when it could have gone so many directions. You see the way this team has knitted together so closely, and has come together through adversity — that's going to make you a stronger organization altogether.
"I like all (the players). It's one of the most cooperative bunch of guys I've worked with, with terrific personalities. It's led by the attitude and grace of countenance and maturity of their leader, Damian Lillard, and I put CJ McCollum right there in the same category. I've known (coach) Terry Stotts since he was an assistant coach with the Sonics in the mid-'90s. He has a great group of assistants. I feel blessed to be with this group. When you have that kind of character, ultimately you can win with it."
Calabro says he has had fun living in Portland during the NBA season.
"It reminds me of Seattle when we moved there in the late '80s," he says. "It was booming, but now the high rises, the shiny steel and glass have overcome Seattle. Here, you still have the old brick buildings. It has a quaintness to it that I love. It's a thriving metropolis, but it seems like a small town."
Calabro likes the walk from Moda Center to his South Waterfront abode.
"I have access to the East Esplanade by Moda," he says. "I come across the Steel Bridge and drop down into Old Town and work my way south by Tom McCall Park and all those neighborhoods that are up there above in the hills. There's some great hiking up there in the urban spaces. It's a unique town."
An outdoorsman, Calabro owns a vacation home on Lake Chelan in upper central Washington.
"We love to go up there and boat, fish, paddleboard and raft," he says. "I love to get out on the water and up into the mountains. I love to snow ski when I can. The only down side to my job is I can only get to the mountains skiing a couple of days a year."
At 63, Calabro is still relatively young in terms of a broadcasting life. How much longer does he want to work?
"As long as my body holds out, I'll keep plugging along," he says. "I see guys like Ralph Lawler (of the L.A. Clippers) retiring at 81. George Blaha (in Detroit, 74) and Al McCoy (in Phoenix, 86) have been doing it a long time. God bless those guys. They are phenomenal. I don't know if I have that kind of staying power, but we'll see."
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