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Kevin Harlan’s path to Marv Albert’s chair at the conference finals

NBA

Kevin Harlan’s path to Marv Albert’s chair at the conference finals

About an hour before tipoff at the NBA All-Star Game in February, Kevin Harlan pulled out his phone and started pecking out a text message. He was getting ready to call one of the league’s signature events for Turner Sports, taking over the assignment from the retired Marv Albert, a giant in the broadcasting field and a voice that had been synonymous with the league itself over the previous three decades.

Before Harlan could feel comfortable settling in to take over, he felt compelled to acknowledge the irreplaceable man who preceded him.

“I may be broadcasting the game tonight,” Harlan’s message to Albert read, “but this will always be your chair and that fact is not lost on me.”

Little did he know that Albert, who responded with a kind message of his own, was finding his own seat at the arena, just a few rows behind where Harlan called the game at center court. Whether Albert will be in San Francisco for Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Golden State Warriors spirit Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night remains to be seen, but Harlan will again find himself in Albert’s chair. It is a new day at Turner Sports and on the TNT screen in these conference finals, which were narrated by Albert for more than two decades. He retired last year after a 55-year career that included 22 with Turner.

Albert’s departure left an opening in Turner’s two premiere spots – the All-Star Game and the conference finals. The rights for the NBA Finals are held by ABC / ESPN, so the conference finals are as high as an announcer can currently rise at Turner, where Harlan, Brian Anderson, Ian Eagle and Spero Dedes now serve as play-by-play men. Turner has yet to designate one of them as the No. 1 voice, but Harlan has been given the first two plum assignments in the wake of Albert’s retirement. He will call the Mavericks-Warriors series with Stan Van Gundy and Reggie Miller in the three-person booth and Allie LaForce as the sideline reporter.

“There will never be another Marv Albert,” Harlan said in a telephone conversation. “We all embrace that and feel that we all want to do our best to live up to the standard he has set historically in the NBA. It will always be his chair. Whoever is in that chair is sitting there for that night. ”

For Harlan, the series represents another step closer to the top of the broadcasting mountain. In a radio and television career that started in 1982, Harlan has called Super Bowls, Final Fours and Monday Night Football on the radio for Westwood One, NFL games on television for CBS and has been calling NBA games for Turner Sports since 1996. He dipped his toes in the NBA waters right out of college when he called games for the Kansas City Kings, but really started to establish himself in the league when he arrived in Minnesota to be the radio play-by-play man for the expansion Timberwolves in 1989.

In the early, loss-filled days, the team’s radio broadcast became a haven for slapstick comedy and irreverence. Harlan worked with Tom Hanneman, Kevin McHale and Trent Tucker over the years, infusing the calls with wild proclamations, fake callers to the halftime show and a fictitious announcer from the ALPO radio network named Bill Beek. It was all aimed at getting someone, anyone, to listen while the team was losing 60-plus times a season.

“My wife will bring this up all the time. She will say, ‘It is shocking that you were not fired early on in your days there,’ ”Harlan told The Athletic in 2020 after Hanneman died. “I said, ‘I know it. I know it. I can not believe it. ‘”

On the contrary, Harlan became one of the most revered elements of a franchise that was lost in the wilderness until Kevin Garnett arrived in 1995. In what can be a buttoned-up broadcasting world that can take itself a bit too seriously, Harlan let it fly. When Tom Gugliotta made a big play, he would say, “Googli-oogily-oogily baby!”

When Garnett scored and was fouled, Harlan once bellowed, “He’s gone mad! He’s got mad cow disease! ”

“With Kevin McHale and Tucker and Hanny, it would be like holy smokes, these guys have personalities, and it would be wrong if we did not, in a 15-win season, if we did not get that in there,” Harlan said.

When he was called up from local to do national jobs, the approach would change. The games themselves had much higher stakes and so Harlan never wanted to trample on the fan experience or the gravity of the contest by wandering too far off the path.

“I definitely knew the difference between local and environment and culture and national stuff,” Harlan said. “That never crept into those broadcasts. That was network. I never went there. ”

But in recent years, he has allowed himself to have a little more fun every once in a while. Like when a streaker ran onto the field in San Francisco, when a cat wandered onto the field in New York and reached “the CDW red zone. CDW, people who get it, ”or when reading a TNT promo about a docuseries on the Wu Tang Clan.

“It really has not been until recently that I’ve had a little bit more fun in the NBA,” Harlan said. “Whether it’s feeling confident or feeling like it was appropriate. Even now, I think twice before I jump off the ledge and say something funny. ”

It is all part of Harlan’s reverence for the responsibility placed on his shoulders and his vocal cords. He knows the footsteps he is walking in, and he knows how important these games, those like Game 1 on Wednesday night, are to those participating and those watching at home. This series will be particularly compelling, with the Warriors trying to mount another championship run after several years of injuries and setbacks and the Mavericks advancing to the conference finals for the first time since they won the title in 2011.

Stephen Curry versus Luka Doncic. Steve Kerr versus Jason Kidd. Draymond Green versus, well, everybody. And those watching on TV at home will be relying on Harlan to help paint the picture.

“If the game is lopsided, you can let some of that (fun) come out,” Harlan said. “But at the end of the day, fans watching wanting to know you and the analyst are friends and having a good time. But they want to watch the game. The game is what is key. ”

Harlan said he is looking forward to working with Van Gundy for the first time. The former coach is a keen observer of the game with a skilled way of breaking it all down in ways the casual fan can digest. Van Gundy also has a sense of humor and humility that should mesh nicely with Harlan’s approach to calling a game.

“I just find him a fascinating guy,” Harlan said. “When you get to work with a lifer, these guys just see the game and their minds construct things so differently that it is to me fascinating to hear their take on things and how they see the game. That is going to be so enjoyable to work with him and hear his take and know that you can have some fun with him. ”

Add to that the familiarity he has with working alongside Miller, one of the league’s clutch playoff performers, and LaForce’s storytelling chops, and Harlan said he is looking forward to the opportunity. And he knows Marv will be watching.

“I’ve done it before and I’ve done it on radio, but I’ve not done it for Turner, in Marv’s chair,” Harlan said. “That’s a big deal.”

(Photo: Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images)

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