I’ve always felt there was a cinematic quality to a basketball telecast. The sound of sneakers squeaking on hardwood with the crescendo of the crowd in the background, and the voices of the broadcast team in the foreground. The picture being painted by the play-by-play announcer, accompanied by astute analysis from the color commentator; makes for a seemingly flawless production played out on the small screen.
And for the past 17 seasons, Atlanta Hawks fans have been treated to one of the NBA’s golden voices in play-by-play. During this time, Bob Rathbun has graced television sets as lead broadcaster on the Hawks’ FOX Sports South and SportSouth telecasts. In the process, he’s become one of the most recognizable and respected men in the profession.
Rathbun’s talents, however, are not only limited to calling games on the NBA hardwood. Since becoming a broadcaster, he has worked in a multitude of sports on all levels. Along with being the voice of Atlanta Hawks television, Rathbun is also the play-by-play man for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, Atlantic Coast Conference college football and hoops, and Atlanta Braves baseball between 1997 and 2006.
For his outstanding work, Rathbun has received multiple honors and accolades from his contemporaries in the industry. He’s been named Georgia’s Sportscaster of the Year twice – as recently as 2012 as well as six times in Virginia during the 1980s.
Learning all of this about Bob, I thought it would be a awesome idea to do my best 50 Cent impersonation and ask him 21 questions. In this edition of Behind the Mic’, Rathbun discusses his experiences as a broadcaster, his career ascension, and his thoughts on the upcoming Hawks season.
Hello Bob! On behalf of The Pick and Roll and Atlanta Hawks fans out there, it’s a pleasure to interview you. Thank you for your time!
JTP: Can you begin by telling our readers a bit about yourself and your background as a sports broadcaster?
BR: I’m in my 18th season as the Voice of the Atlanta Hawks and college sports for FOX Sports South and Raycom Sports.
JTP: I read that you got your first taste of doing play-by-play at the ripe old age of 12, broadcasting an American Legion baseball game. What was that experience like as a young kid, and was that the catalyst that sparked your interest to do this professionally?
BR: I always had an interest in radio and sports, and one day called the radio station in my hometown of Salisbury, NC. The announcer on duty invited me to visit the station. One day, the sports announcer invited me to help him broadcast that Legion game. I got to do a half-inning and I was hooked.
JTP: What events or occurrences prepared you for the position you hold today?
BR: I was lucky growing up in Salisbury. It’s the home of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, so early on, I got to mingle with the giants of broadcasting and sports writing. Later, working and going to college fulltime, the Speech Dept. at Catawba College watched over me like I knew what I was doing. They were so helpful.
JTP: As you began doing play-by-play, who were some people in the industry who influenced you? What, if anything, did you take from those individuals to mold you into the broadcaster you are today?
BR: I was always a Vin Scully and Milo Hamilton fan, and of course, my early mentor, Marty Brennaman. But I enjoyed all of the established announcers. I tried to learn from them all.
JTP: In your career, you’ve worked in high school, collegiate, and professional athletics-covering just about every sport. Can you expound upon a few of the similarities in calling a game in those different sports and levels? What are some differences?
BR: I’ve always maintained that if you can broadcast high school sports well, the big leagues would be a breeze. And I found that to be true. Prep sports was a great training ground. You prepare and execute a high school game just like you would an NBA playoff game.
JTP: Many of The Pick and Roll’s followers may not know that you actually covered Hall of Famer (and your current broadcast partner) Dominique Wilkins when he was in high school. How great a player was ‘Nique in his prep days, and were there any indications then that he would become one of the NBA’s All-Time greatest players?
BR: It was men against boys! The high school team In Salisbury faced Nique’s Washington HS team in a state tournament game. It was the blowout you can imagine. Nique wasn’t the human highlight film then, but he was on his way. Yes, we all saw Nique’s great ability as a scorer and his tremendous attitude and how hard he played.
JTP: On the topic of the NBA, when did you get your first opportunity to broadcast a game in the Association? How overwhelming was it to you?
BR: My first NBA games were on TV for the Washington Bullets on Home Team Sports. I did them on a fill-in basis for the main guy, Mel Proctor. I loved it! I grew up around the ABA covering the Carolina Cougars, so I wasn’t intimidated at all. I have loved pro basketball forever so I felt very comfortable.
JTP: When you became voice of the Atlanta Hawks in 1996, what was it like to work for the franchise at that time, with the excitement around the Dikembe Mutombo signing?
BR: It was great. That 96-97 team won 56 games. We were a very good defensive team and Deke made us that much better. He turned Mookie Blaylock loose on the perimeter for a ton of steals.
JTP: 17 seasons have passed since you began doing play-by-play in Atlanta and you’ve obviously established many great relationships with players and coaches. Are there any individuals, past or present, who you particularly enjoyed covering with the Hawks?
BR: Too many to list here, for fear I’ll leave some one out. But breaking in under Lenny Wilkens, having pro’s pros on my first team like Steve Smith, Deke, Mookie, Ty Corbin, etc., a classy GM in Pete Babcock, those guys set the standard for me.
JTP: There have been many great games and moments you’ve called in your time as the voice of Hawks basketball. As difficult as it may be, can you pick one game or moment that stands out more than the rest?
BR: When we made it back to the playoffs 6 years ago as the 8th seed and took Boston to a 7th game. Philips Arena was as loud as it has ever been. And to sweep those guys all three in Atlanta was about as thrilling as I can remember. I long for those days when the city was behind the team like the old days at the Omni.
JTP: Along with calling Hawks games, you are also play-by-play man for the WNBA’s Eastern Conference Champion Atlanta Dream. Between Hawks and Dream games, how exciting is it to have competitive basketball played in Philips Arena on a nightly basis
BR: It’s a “dream” come true. I’ve called a lot of women’s college basketball over the years, including the Final Four for ESPN. So it’s a blast to do the games. Plus, they’ve won the East 3 times in the last 4 years. That’s been very special.
JTP: The transformation of the Hawks has undoubtedly taken place over the course of the last two years. With Danny Ferry as general manager and the new coaching regime, how confident are you that these new look Hawks are going to be competitive in 2013/14?
BR: We will be a work in progress. Our main guys must stay healthy. But Danny and Coach Bud have us on the right path.
JTP: A lot of roster turnover has taken place with this team. Of all the new acquisitions, which player are you most excited about seeing play in a Hawks uniform this upcoming season?
BR: Have enjoyed watching DeMarre Carroll in the pre-season, and I think the Hawks have a diamond in the rough with Dennis Schroeder.
JTP: Now that Al Horford is the undisputed leader and franchise player for Atlanta, do you envision him elevating his game to a higher level for this team?
BR: I think Al will be Al and that’s plenty good enough. He’s not the type of player who will average 25/15. His numbers will be about the same, but where Al needs to grow is as a leader in the clubhouse and on the court.
JTP: Many people are intrigued with what Mike Budenholzer’s system may involve and to what extent it will duplicate the Spurs. What elements of the San Antonio model do you believe will be most effective with the pieces the Hawks have in place?
BR: Player development. The Hawks will have to raise these young people the right way, and no one has done that better than the Spurs. Great model to follow.
JTP: Jeff Teague will also have a larger role this season. Under the tutelage of Budenholzer, do you believe he will he have the best season of his career?
BR: It’s up to Jeff. He has all the talent in the world. He must develop a Type A personality to be a front line PG.
JTP: Many Hawks fans have been concerned with the depth at small forward and center. What players on the current roster do you envision competing for significant playing time in those spots? Will the lack of depth prove to be an issue for the team as the season progresses?
BR: Carroll is going to have to contribute. I’m more concerned with our lack of size.
JTP: Obviously, Philips Arena is home to you and the outstanding broadcasting crew for SportSouth. When you’re not in the friendly confines of The Highlight Factory, which NBA arena do you most enjoy calling a game in?
BR: Anywhere there is a big crowd and the game in an event: MSG, Staples, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Golden State. Give me great basketball and a great crowd and I’m there.
JTP: Anyone who attended the games or watched Hawks telecasts over the past few years enjoyed the nightly fist pound to the crew before tipoff by Josh Smith, who has moved on to Detroit. When he returns to Atlanta on November 20, can we expect one last fist pound to “J-Smoove” for old time’s sake?
BR: Can’t do it! They’ve moved us to the 2nd row!
JTP: Your work has not only been limited to the sports realm, but also as a keynote and motivational speaker. Can you share with our readers what your efforts in that arena involve, and what your inspirational messages entail?
BR: I speak to all kinds of businesses large and small, explaining that the best of what sports leadership has to offer, they can implement in their business to become more successful.
JTP: Lastly, you are one of the most decorated broadcasters in this country with accolades and awards throughout your career, including being named Sportscaster of the Year in Virginia and Georgia multiple times and induction into the Sports Hall of Fame at your Alma Mater. How encouraging is it to be honored by your peers in the media for your work over the years? Does that motivate you to continue your excellence?
BR: I’m humbled by it. My motivation comes from good, old fashioned Irish guilt. I’m petrified that will not be totally prepared for one of my assignments. That’s all the motivation I need!
JTP: Bob, thank you once again for taking part in this interview and sharing with me your experiences and opinions and most importantly, your time!
BR: My pleasure. Come visit with me at Philips this season.
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