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‘One Thing I Remember … the Fans’

Written by on May 1, 2024

Mike Gorman’s career nearly ended in a parking lot. It was in the mid-1970s and Gorman, fresh off a five-year stint in the U.S. Navy, was still trying to figure out a post-military future. He loved sports and had an itch for broadcasting, so one day he decided to take a chance and pop into the offices of WBZ, a Boston-area radio affiliate, and try to speak to Gil Santos, then a legendary local play-by-play man. If Santos wouldn’t meet with him, his next stop was Weymouth (Mass.) High School, where a friend said he could get him a part-time gig as a substitute teacher. 

When Gorman arrived, he was stopped at the security gate. He was asked by the guard if he had an appointment. He didn’t. He was asked if he had a résumé or a tape to leave for Santos. He didn’t. Puzzled, the guard suggested Gorman get some experience and come back. 

When the guard opened the gate for Gorman to turn his car around, he noticed a hat in the backseat. Stitched onto the front was VP-44, the naval squadron Gorman flew with. The guard, it turned out, used to fly with VP-8. After a few minutes chatting about planes, the guard called Santos. After hearing Gorman’s story, Santos agreed to meet with him. The two talked for 90 minutes. When they were finished, Santos called a small regional radio station and set Gorman up with a job as a public affairs director. 

“That was it,” says Gorman. “That’s how it all started.” 

Nearly 50 years later, including the last 43 as the indelible voice of the Boston Celtics, Gorman is at the end. He will be on the mic Wednesday, calling Game 5 between the Celtics and Miami Heat. If Boston wins, it will be his last game (local networks lose broadcasting rights after the first round of the playoffs). Recently, Gorman sat down with Sports Illustrated to discuss his signature style, how he knew it was time to quit and some of the highlights of a celebrated career. 

SI: Forty-three years. How did you know it was time?

Mike Gorman: “It’s just that I felt like I was losing touch with the game. Not just the Celtics, but the entire game. And I had spent close to 40-odd years now, having my life dictated by in July when the Celtics schedule would come out. And then the college schedule and the Big East schedule in those days when I was doing about six or seven games a week, it seemed. It just struck me one day when I was scraping the snow off my car. It’s about 3:30 in the morning, we’re in Hanscom Air Force Base. It’s snowing like a bandit. And I’m getting in the car. I’m saying to myself, ‘Michael, you’re 70 years old. What are you doing here? What are you doing?’

“And that was probably the moment that hit me more than anything else. I would continue on tomorrow if they were telling me I could just do the home games forever. That’s not a problem. That’s fun actually. Walk up, show, do the game, game’s over, you leave. That’s the ideal. But that package wasn’t quite available. I understand why it shouldn’t be. And I have other things I want to do. I’ve spent my whole life doing basketball. It’s going to be nice to, after the Final Four goes by and the NBA playoffs are done, to know that that’s done, too. That now when I wake up in the morning, I’ll go do what I want to do, not what the day tells me I should do or I have to do.”

SI: Did just doing home games extend your career? 

MG: “No question it did. And it would be nice if these guys [go on] to win a championship now in my last year and give that to me, going out. I’m sure it’s high on their priority list (laughs). But yeah, it kind of all came together in that parking lot. I swear, I’m not kidding. It’s just that I’m saying myself, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this?’ It was one of those nights I remember specifically where it’s snowing like a bandit. We played in Detroit or someplace like that. We’re flying home so we could play some other team that wasn’t very good. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Come on, Mike. You love to do the Celts against the Knicks, Celts against the Lakers, Celts against anybody. You’re not really wanting to do the Celts against the Pistons anymore.’ ”

SI: It’s been four years since your longtime broadcast partner, Tommy Heinsohn passed away. How did that affect you?

MG: “There’s no lie, every day I think of him at least once about either what he would do in a certain situation. What would Tommy do? I should have a button like that that says that.

“It did change my style because a good part of my time that I spent with him, Tommy was a bit of an unguided missile on the air, so I had to keep it straight. So I would try to bring him back to reality. I know every time that he would make some really particularly outrageous or perhaps even offensive statement to somebody, I would count to 10 in my head without saying a word, because I was going to make it hard for them to match my quote with anything I might say up against what Tommy just said. And he would look at me like, ‘Well, aren’t you going to back me up on that one?’ I’d be like, ‘No, that’s, no, I’m not.’ But that was OK with him. He didn’t mind. It didn’t affect our friendship. Didn’t affect our relationship. 

“And Scal [Brian Scalabrine] has been great. He wants the job. He’s got a great enthusiasm for the job. Sometimes he gets a little lost in the trees. I got to feel like I got to pull him out when he starts talking the lingo of the assistant coaches that most of us, even me, don’t understand. But Scal’s going to be just fine. He’s funny. He’s a nice guy. As I said, he wants the job and unlike a lot of people I have worked with, he will accept criticism for what it is, and he will try to improve if he believes that’s an area of weakness. And not that many guys do that, especially guys who are ex-athletes, they don’t want to be told anything.”

SI: If you were going to write a book … 

MG: “I am writing one.”

SI: OK, so what will be the best story?

MG: “Well I want to write a fiction book. Or a screenplay. I think then I can really say what I want to say about a lot of people, but not put their real names down there. I have certainly had my run-ins with my share of characters in 40-odd years. So I just know about changing the name or change the vowel or two here. I can make them what I want them to be or expose them for what they were. And if they can find out who they are by guessing in the book, fine. But that’s my goal is to write a nonfiction novel or write a screenplay, one of the two.”

SI: Let me rephrase, then: What would your favorite broadcasting memory be? 

MG: “It’s just in a court sense, when Isiah [Thomas] threw the ball away and [Larry] Bird had the deflection to DJ and the layup and that had taken The Garden from dead silence right before that moment to blowing the roof off. And we had those games. That was before the NBA sold its soul to ESPN and all the other television networks out there and left us, as the locals, out of the picture as soon as the first round of the playoffs were done. And I’ve never really gotten over that, and I’ll never forgive the NBA for that. And I understand owners won’t need the money, I guess, but to do 82 games and then maybe do three or four in that first round and then see you later. 

“Let the network pick up the game, that’s fine. But I think the local broadcasters should at least be allowed to work. It’s a very sophisticated world we live in and they could provide a feed of me and Tommy, for instance, that just went out there. If you didn’t like it, you could take Mike Breen and whoever else he’s working with that particular week. But yeah, I just felt so when people say, ‘What’s your favorite game? What’s the biggest moment?’ In the first round, I guess, there are no big moments in the first round. You just got to survive to move on. So that hurts most of all.”

SI: I completely agree. 

MG: “I’ll remember all the people I worked with. I’ll remember all the guys around The Garden. I’ll remember Jack, I’ll remember Jimmy, I’ll remember all those guys. And I will, it’ll be those people who stick out in my mind, not necessarily the players. Paul Pierce will live forever in my head because I just love Paul. He’s such a good guy. I saw [Rajon] Rondo in the stands [recently], that started all sorts of rumors flying around. But yeah, again, if you ask me one thing I remember, it may not be the answer that you’re looking for, but it’s just the fans, it’s the people that I’ll think of most. And I’ll miss that most. It’s fun to walk through The Garden, hear people call your name. And they’re not looking for anything, they just come on, a wave and say hi and say thanks.

“If I could do one thing over, I probably would’ve waited until maybe the first of the year to announce I wasn’t going to come back because what it’s done, it’s afforded everyone a task to come say goodbye, which is nice. But I feel like I’m at my own wake. I just sit there and people come by, they tap you [on] the shoulder. Don’t care if I’m on the air or anything else, they just, ‘Just came by to say hi, Mike. Thank you very much. Yeah, thank you.’ So yeah, those are the folks I remember.”

SI: You are a phenomenal play-by-play man. But I’ve always thought one of your strengths is knowing when to let the moment breathe a little. Is that intentional? 

MG: “Without question. I try to tell anybody I work with, and Tommy was a firm believer in this, too, is pretend there’s a third person in the box with you, whether there is or not, and you have to leave him time to talk. And if you do that, then you’ll get a nice blend of what the play-by-play guy has to say, what the analyst has to say and what the fans are saying, what the crowd noise is like. I mean, at big moments, I hear guys all the time trying to impose their voice over big moments in the game and let the big moment in the game happen.

“You can do that later, when you’re reviewing it. But let the game breathe. Let people hear what it’s like to be in that seat at The Garden when that layup is hit at the buzzer. Don’t be so worried about what your call is and does your call make ESPN SportsCenter that night. I would say, it’s less is better. I’ll take that as a compliment, not as a knock.”

SI: It absolutely is. 

MG: “So many people come to The Garden and that’s no easy night. If you have two kids, you go to The Garden and you get all the paraphernalia, they get in the seats and everything else, you’re down a nickel before they throw the ball up. So that’s tough. So at least I try to give them a chance if they’re at home and not in The Garden, to get the feeling for what it’s like to be in the crowd and not to have Mike Gorman’s voice running all over the thing.”

SI: Was broadcasting always an ambition?

MG: “In the Navy, everybody has a collateral job when you’re in the squadron. And mine was the public affairs announcer. And we used to have this AOM, which is an All Officers Meeting, which in the case of a squadron up in Maine as we were, about 50 or 60 guys. And so we used to have these AOMs and I was in charge of all the AOMs. So I used to stand up in front of 60 guys with a microphone and tell them what was going on. And I found that I felt very comfortable doing that. I had seen guys who weren’t comfortable doing it. It was hard to watch them. They’d read it. They couldn’t handle being in front of a crowd. I started interjecting jokes in it and started doing a little bit of standup before the thing began, which is always my dream that I wanted to do standup.

“There’s not a lot of big demand out there right now for 77-year-old guys who do standup. So I’ll get that in the next lifetime, I guess. But yeah, so I felt comfortable with a microphone, and there was a kid who was one in the squadron and he had worked at a radio station before he came into the military. And he kept telling me, he said, ‘You’re pretty much a natural at doing this. You should take advantage of this when we get out. If you’re going to stay in, doesn’t matter, but if you’re going to get out, this is probably the best skill I seen you have.’ So that was my impetus to try to look for jobs in radio. But then I realized once I get out, you don’t just walk into WBZ in Boston unless you get lucky. I mean if that baseball cap is not sitting in the backseat, I tell you, I’m probably the basketball coach at Dorchester High School.”

SI: You mentioned your affection for Paul Pierce. Why him?

MG: “It was the timing more than anything else. And I feel like, with him, I watched him grow. And I have a little bit of that watching Jayson Tatum now and watching Jaylen Brown now. But with Paul, Paul had many more hardships off the court that he had to deal with. And how he dealt with them and how he came back from them, I just admired. And we had a little thing. People used to say, ‘Boy, it’s great the relationship you have with Paul Pierce,’ because every time, second time through the layup line, Paul would come and give me a hug no matter where I was. People said that’s great. Well, what was happening was Paul would give me the hug and say, ‘Who we got tonight [officiating the game]?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s Chris, Danny’s the Black guy, and Joe is the white guy. He’s kind of bald.’ And then Paul would go through around the layup line, I’d see him go, ‘Hey, Danny, how are you tonight, Paul? What’s happening over there?’ And I swear it used to buy him one or two whistles every game at least.”

SI: So a lot more time with family now, right? You’re a grandfather now. 

MG: “Without question. Again, how many holidays did I have to work? You always seem to be working and traveling on Christmas day. But to be out there on Christmas day and to be traveling on Easter to be traveling during stretches like that, you miss a lot. And once you miss it, it’s gone. You can’t say, ‘OK, now I’ll have that second year of life back.’ I want to watch that happen. So to live all this through my granddaughter all over again and to be Pap Pap, that’s cool. I like that.” 

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