We applaud Russell Westbrook and we laugh along with Steven Adams and we pull for Nick Collison.
But when it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the one person we really listen to — some 70 nights every basketball season, plus his assistance with Matt Pinto on the radio — is Brian Davis.
He’s the television voice and occasionally the face of the franchise, and more Thunder fans are in tune with Davis’ snap delivery, dry wit and over-the-top enthusiasm for long 3-pointers and “rattlesnake jams” than they are with Adams’ Kiwi humor or Westbrook’s West Coast panache.
Thursday night’s 105-84 victory over the New York Knicks tipped off the Thunder’s 10th season in Oklahoma City, and thus Davis’ 10th season as the play-by-play voice of the NBA’s most precocious franchise.
Friday morning, I had a 30-minute conversation with the 61-year-old Davis about, among other things, the Thunder’s first decade in OKC, Davis’ long, decorated and almost accidental career in broadcasting, and the force of nature that is Russell Westbrook.
The Franchise: I’m sure last night was fun, but with an 82-game schedule, do you have to pace yourself a little?
Brian Davis: “It’s not quite ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ but I was fairly early in my sports broadcasting career in Chicago and I was working at an all news station there and covering games just on a one-off basis. Well, I used to envy the beat writers that got to travel with the teams because they got to know the players and coaches and managers, and they got a chance to sink their teeth into the thing rather than just kind of hit and run, which as a radio reporter you would do. And now, being on the flip side of it, I’d still rather this, but there are times it takes a bite out of you. But for me, this is what I dreamed of doing for a long, long time, and I’m doing it. So who am I to complain?”
TF: Did you think when the team moved to Oklahoma City and you took the play-by-play gig that both you and the team would still be going strong 10 years later?
BD: “I kind of figured, when you make a move like that, that you’re in it for the long run. You just assume it’s gonna be permanent. When they offered me the chance to be the play-by-play guy — I had been the host and sideline guy in Seattle — obviously you hope it’s gonna be for the long run. And it’s worked out great. You know, I’m grateful a lot to have survived this long in a competitive and sometimes volatile business, and I think a lot about the fact that I work for some really good people, like (owner) Clay Bennett and (executive vice president) Danny Barth, who’s kind of our COO, and (VP of broadcasting) Dan Mahoney, my immediate superior. I mean, I’d run through a wall for any of those guys because they’ve treated me so well, treated my family so well. The standards are high. But I like working with a high bar and accept that, and at the same time, they give us all the freedom to do what we do. It’s just a tremendous environment.
“That’s the inside stuff. Then you take what we’ve experienced with the fans. When we first moved here, I wondered, ‘OK, where are we gonna fit in this landscape?’ Because you’ve got more than a hundred years of really strong, major college tradition with OSU and OU. And so where do we fit there? What we’ve learned now in these nine-plus years is that the Thunder’s become the unifying force. You’re not a Sooner fan or a Cowboy fan, you’re a Thunder fan. And that’s been pretty cool. Early on I realized that something unique was happening here where I’d go hang around with friends or go to somebody’s house for dinner or whatever, and mom and dad may be wearing their school shirt, but the kids were wearing Thunder gear. And I thought, ‘Wow, you know, the wave of the future.’ And maybe as time goes on, the Thunder will become, kind of like the colleges have over the years, maybe the Thunder will be that dominant influence with the later generations. It’s an interesting phenomenon to watch, but I’ll tell you what, in terms of the way the people here have embraced us, I’ve never seen anything like it, never expected to see anything like it, and I would just be willing to bet that this doesn’t happen in most places — especially in professional sports.”
BD: “It’s hard to differentiate because there are things you wind up doing — it’s almost like saying, ‘Well, who’s your favorite kid?’ You know? There are a lot of favorite moments, but they’re favorites for different reasons. I think one of the guys that I just absolutely loved being around was Kendrick Perkins. He was just a mellow guy who was easy to talk to, always willing to teach a little bit about the game, and in my work — I didn’t play — so I’m always learning. Perk was always really willing and generous with his time, he would explain stuff and help me understand certain things a little bit better. And then watching him operate with his teammates, he was the kind of guy — he’d love you up, but if there was something to be said about things that a teammate needed to be doing better, Perk was not afraid to tell the truth, which was sometimes hard for younger players to hear. So I really respected and admired him.
“Nick Collison, his first year playing was my first year with the Sonics. So he’s literally been there every day since I came back into the league in 2004. We’re not like hanging out buddies, but he’s just such a familiar presence in my life. And I so admire the way that he goes about his business. I’ve actually bought our son two jerseys over the years with the guy’s name on the back, and one was Nick Collison in Seattle and the other was Nick Collison in Oklahoma City.
“So there are personalities, and there are moments. I’ll tell you, there are two. There’s one that’s sort of away from the broadcast, but when we first moved here, because the court case had gotten settled so abruptly, so everything was happening in scramble mode. We were drinking through a firehose when we first moved here. And what I remember is being in our offices over at Leadership Square at the time, it almost felt like we were building out our offices one new hire at a time. You know, ‘OK, we’ve hired someone else, now we’ve gotta add a desk for people.’ What I really remember was the drywall dust. There was always like this haze of drywall dust hanging in the air. There are guys hammering and sawing and there are guys stringing the communication lines from one side of our suite of offices to another. It was amazing. It was just like full go. It wasn’t panic time, but it was just really, really intense, and I’ll never, ever forget the drywall dust.
“And then the other thing that helped me to understand just how special a situation we’d come into is, and this is pretty close to my single favorite memory of all time, we get in the playoffs against the Lakers in the spring of 2010, and they beat us pretty good at their place and we came back and rallied and we took it to Game 6. You may remember, that was the game that Pau Gasol was not boxed out and he put back a short shot that put the Lakers in the lead, but the Thunder still had a couple of seconds of clock to work with. So we run this side out play and Russ got a good look from the corner but he missed the shot and in that moment, the season is over. We were on the air, and I kind of took a breath to kind of recalibrate and say, ‘Well, now the season’s over but what a great run,’ all that, and in that silent space, I kind of expected to hear people boo a little bit, just out of frustration. You know? Season’s over, now, boo. Instead, I heard the beginnings of this just smattering of applause. And all of a sudden, that smattering became really evident, and then it goes from that to a swell. And all of a sudden, people are on their feet and they’re giving our guys a standing ovation. Now, we’ve just been knocked out of the playoffs. Which is a frustrating moment, you know? Very bittersweet in a way, I mean, yeah, great run but now it’s done. And these people are on their feet giving our guys a standing ovation. Sometimes I tell that story and I still cry over it. Because you just don’t see that. That was when I was like, ‘OK, yeah, this is something different. This is something really special.’ ”
TF: Do you think the tornadoes of 2013 also left an imprint on the franchise, especially with the way players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and others contributed?
BD: And Serge Ibaka had been in Africa. And he got off a plane and went straight to Moore. After flying back from Africa. That kind of thing. Our guys understood what a big deal that was. Sometimes you can live in a bubble, and there can be catastrophe around you but because you’re in that bubble, you’re just not aware of it. But these guys understood what was beyond the walls of the practice facility and the arena. That was pretty cool.
“I think that was a great example of this organization’s emphasis on character. Not just anybody can put this uniform on. Some good players don’t make the cut because they’re not as good a human being. There’s a certain humility to our guys. If you look, sometimes it’s evident right at the surface, sometimes you have to dig a little deeper, but every one of our guys, they have had to deal with significant personal adversity. And I’m not talking about being cut by their high school coach. I’m not talking about a basketball thing. I’m talking about people in your family being murdered. I’m talking about a drug addiction. That sort of thing. Every one of our players through the years has had to deal with significant personal adversity. And that goes also for other people (in the organization), people in the coaching staff, people in the front office. They get it. This is important. Basketball is important. But basketball is only a small part of this bigger thing called The World, called Life. And our people understand that. So that’s why in the end, if you understand that, then that’s why it’s not a total shock to see our players respond to disasters like Moore or to the story of a child who’s got a particularly bad form of cancer, whatever it may be. That’s why our people respond like they do.”
TF: It seems the Thunder was on one really well-defined path for eight years, and then last year when Kevin left that changed a bit, and now with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the fold, that path seems to have changed again. Is that an accurate read?
BD: “Yeah. What it boils down to is are you a contender or are you not? And for several seasons there, the Thunder was a contender in a different way with a different core group. I’m certain that had Russell not gotten hurt in ’13, that lingered into the next season, Kevin got hurt the season after that — I’m certain that Oklahoma City would have already had a championship under its belt. Or more. But sometimes you’ve got to get lucky. You’ve got to stay healthy. Just look at what’s happened with Gordon Hayward in Boston. And so things didn’t line up in a way that could occur. Then Kevin leaves and last year was what, I’ve heard (Executive Vice President and General Manager) Sam Presti describe as a season of discovery. You’ve got to take a step back, take a breath, adjust to the loss — which, by the way, would have crushed other organizations, and here the Thunder wound up sixth in the West, still a playoff team — but you’ve got to step back and take stock of what you have and make an assessment of, ‘OK, this is where we are; what do we need to get back to that level of play that we’ve all become accustomed to?’
“I think the brilliance of what Sam has done, he’s played within the rules, and he’s played within the realities of the marketplace now. Not only the way that you can do trades but the way you have to deal with free agency and that short of thing, and he looked at this whole landscape in a way that nobody else really has. He kind of—he didn’t break the mold, he just created a new one. And he makes these trades, these bold moves, it’s kind of all-in, go in, go home. But especially in a smaller market as we are, you’ve got to play that way. You’ve got to play big. You’ve got to play bold. Sam has done that, and here we are, we’re right back in the conversation as a championship contender, and that’s legit.”
TF: Now how excited are you to see, every night, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony jump in and kind of help Russell resume that chase?
BD: “I’m really excited. Not only excited for those three guys — three future hall of famers — but for the addition of somebody like Raymond Felton, who is another Kendrick Perkins-style truth-teller. He’s a very effective floor general and he’s gonna be great for this team on the floor and off. Patrick Patterson. You take a look at this group and then you look at other players, younger guys who have now got an extra year under their belt, like Jerami Grant, Alex Abrines, this is a team that’s dynamic, it’s flexible, it’s gonna be able to create matchup problems for opponents on any given night.
“One of the things that’s gonna be a little different is we’re gonna be able to go smaller with the loss of Enes Kanter coming off the bench, that’s gonna change the way we look, especially in the second unit, but we can compensate. You’re gonna see things like Carmelo Anthony playing center at times in a smaller lineup. (Coach) Billy (Donovan) can mix and match, he can have all three of those guys on the floor, one of ‘em, two of ‘em. You look at the game against New York last night, and the Thunder made good runs first with Westbrook and George and then Westbrook and Melo. There’s so many ways that our team can put an opponent in a bind. And that’s what you want, man. You want somebody who is gonna be able to dictate the circumstances to the other team, and the Thunder’s got that up and down. I think what has to happen, there has to be a commitment to defense, and I think that’s what we’re seeing out of this team, keeping the ball out of the middle, making opponents really work for what they get on the other end of the floor. All the elements are there for this group to really gel into a pretty formidable side.”
TF: When did you start your broadcasting career?
BD: “Oh goodness. You wanna go back to college radio? The ‘70s. Early to middle ‘70s. I actually got my first byline in our little weekly newspaper in New Providence, N.J., in November of 1970. Yeah. I was a sophomore in high school. And then I worked kind of little freelance jobs as a kid, and then got to college. I wanted to write for the New York Times, but I got to college and I just wasn’t a big fan of the editorial slant of the newspaper. I’m at Northwestern at the time, during the Vietnam era, so I went to work for the radio station instead and got through school and spent the first 10-11 years of my career on the news side. So I started my sports broadcasting career in 1988. And then actually did not call a game until I was 35 years old. I got to the play-by-play thing really, really late. So that’s been 25-26 years now that I’ve been calling games. It really is (amazing). I step back and go, ‘Really?’ ”
TF: And in that time, can you equate any other athletes you’ve covered as having a similar iron will to Russell Westbrook’s?
BD: “Never seen anything like him. You know what? I was around Michael Jordan a little bit, and in terms of their mental toughness and their competitive fire, very similar. Very similar. Kind of manifested itself in a different way. Russell, the one thing that sets Russell apart — and understand, the game is different now — but Russell can finesse you, but he also just physically overpowers you, and in that respect, he reminds me of how you play football. I worked, during the (NBA) lockout in 2011, I worked a college football package for Westwood One with Eddie George, and Eddie used to say all the time that in football, the goal is to break the other team’s will, and you do that by pounding the ball and punishing your opponent physically, and then physically and mentally wearing them down. And that’s kind of what Russell does to you. You know, he comes at you like a running back: straight downhill. And he makes contact. And he likes contact. I’ve never seen anybody who played basketball quite the same way.
“That game in Denver, where he achieved the triple-double record and then won the game with that ridiculous long shot, that’s right at the top of my list. I was lucky enough to call the play where Emmitt Smith broke Walter Payton’s rushing record. I was working for the Seahawks in Seattle, so I’ve had two of those. In terms of a guy who can make those moments happen, and then from day to day, whether it’s for the glory or for the grunt work, I’ve never been around anybody like Russ.”
TF: Do you get the feeling we don’t fully appreciate what Russell’s doing because we see it on a nightly basis and maybe we’ll need to look back on history someday to truly grasp it?
BD: “There’s times when I go back and I like to watch our broadcasts — you know, you don’t have time to watch every minute of every game — but I’ll go back and look and make sure I’m not developing bad habits or anything, and there are times when Russell will drop that thing into overdrive about the top of the key and then he’ll burst down the lane, and I’ll watch that play again and I’ll go, ‘Wow BD, kinda undersold that.’ You know? Because you’re right, in real time, sometimes you actually need to look at it on video just to see what a specimen he is.”
TF: Can you recreate that call for me?
BD: “It was along the lines of, when (Samaj) Christon hit the 3-pointer, ‘There it is, Russell Westbrook stands alone with his 42nd triple-double of the season’ — and now I’m kind of guessing at this — ‘he has broken a record set more than 50 years ago by the legendary Oscar Robertson.’ I punched it by saying, ‘history, made tonight in Denver.’ Something like that. Yeah. Those are scary moments, because you don’t want to screw them up!”
TF: Do you recall any funny or embarrassing gaffes on air since you’ve been in OKC?
BD: “I’ve actually been lucky, especially since the advent of YouTube and social media, I’ve been very, very careful about that sort of thing. So there really haven’t been any that I can think of in Oklahoma City.
“I remember once as a very young broadcaster at WGN radio in Chicago, I had covered the White Sox opener and then went back to the radio station to do an evening show I had with Jack Brickhouse, the hall of fame Cubs announcer, and we were talking about the Sox game. I had to hustle back to the studio and I just jumped into the studio and we were talking about the game and I’m just working off my scorecard, you know? I was still young enough that I wasn’t really good at reading a scorecard on the fly, and I completely got lost and turned around and just embarrassed myself on the No. 1-rated station in Chicago in the middle of evening rush hour. I just wanted to crawl into a hole. And Jack couldn’t have been nicer about it, but I just wanted to die.
“And then there was another time, a little bit later I was doing a talk show at another station in Chicago, and one my listeners accused me of being racist, and I absolutely lost it on this listener. It was funny, it touched a nerve because I was raised kind of in this blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore, and was raised in this pretty racist environment, and there were some things that I had to overcome as I got out there in the world and started to meet people and understand that we’re all pretty much the same, you know? But man, I’m glad nobody’s got a recording of that. That was ugly. I promised myself after that, never again.”
TF: A lot of Thunder fans might think the transition from Grant Long to Michael Cage was pretty seamless, because of their similar timbre and delivery and background. Am I close?
BD: “Interesting. Both (were) big men who see the game in a similar way. Grant used to talk about basketball as kind of a football style exercise where you’re trying to break your opponent’s will, and having spent as much time as I have doing football, I can relate to that. Michael, Michael walks in the door and his tail is wagging. You know? It’s one of those. I knew when we hired him, I sat down actually on the back steps of my house and had a long conversation with Michael, and this was several weeks before training camp began, and when I hung up the phone with him, I was ready to go call a game. I was literally like, ‘Let me get to a playground and find a basketball game that I can just call.’ He gets you excited about the game. I think our personalities really fit well together. We like to have fun. This isn’t brain surgery. Nobody’s dying here. So it’s important, but I think Michael and I share a similar perspective that this is just a big part of life and we’re just playing in the sandbox. So yeah, I’ve been very, very lucky that way to have two solid guys that I get a chance to sit next to. And you know, in the end, they’re the experts. I didn’t play. I’m just a set-up guy. So I’ve been very fortunate that way.”
TF: So, are you an Okie?
BD: “No. Well, I am now. I’m originally an East Coast guy, spent 27 years in Chicago, so most of my adult life, half of my adult life now, and then moved to Seattle. This is my seventh home town, and it’s Judy’s sixth. Because both of our fathers got moved around a little bit by their companies when we were kids. But this is where I’m staying. Over the years, I’ve fallen in love with the Western United States, and this is as far east as I want to be. You know? The people have been tremendous. I’ve got a really good friend from Stillwater named Phil Rogers, he’s a reporter, kind of like the senior reporter at Channel 5, the NBC station in Chicago, but his dad was a bigwig with the alumni association going back to the Oklahoma A&M days, and so he grew up in Stillwater and when I hired in here, he goes, ‘Oh, you’re gonna love it!’ I said, ‘Tell me why.’ He said, ‘The people. Man, they’ll give you the shirt off their backs, and they’ll try to give you the closet, too.’ And that’s just how it’s been. Judy and I have made such good friends here. We’re so comfortable here. This is an experience that I never would have guessed at. It was a blank slate for me. I was like, ‘What’s this gonna be like?’ And it’s been beyond our wildest dreams.”
TF: Ten years in, how long do you see yourself doing this?
BD: “Oh, I’ve got a little more tread on the tire. The thing for me is I still love going to work every day. You know? There are days when you get into the season and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m a little worn out here.’ Like last year we had this stretch around Thanksgiving where we played five straight games in different time zones, and it took me about a month to recover from that. But there comes a point every day where it’s a game day, I wake up and I go, ‘Wow, I get to go do this again.’ You know? And so there will come a day when I sit down with Dan and some people in the organization and have that conversation, but it’s not even time to think about having that conversation yet. I still love this, and I still love being in the barn every night.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.