NCAA Tournament Broadcaster Kevin Harlan Reveals The Secret Behind The Perfect Live Read

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Kevin Harlan’s voice is unmistakeable. It’s at once authoritative and warm, squarely in “how a GPS should address you” territory. Behind every call is subtext, parentheses, a whisper of can you believe I get to do this every day? In a world where “love what you do” isn’t a mantra but, instead, a tool and trick to fool people into working harder and for longer hours for the same amount of pay, Harlan still truly loves what he does. He always has. And it’s hard not to return that love while watching the games he broadcasts.

Harlan is a snug fit in today’s sports ecosystem as a bridge between the past and the future. He brings with him decades of experience calling multiple high profile football and basketball games, mixing consistency with levity, and some of his best — or most memorable — calls border on the absurd. A streaker runs on the field? Harlan will call it masterfully. Someone chowing down on bison nachos heading to commercial? Harlan will give it the treatment it deserves. Today’s sponsors require mashing Grey Goose and “Taco Bell Nacho Fries” together? Harlan’s your man.

He’s seen true Cinderellas. He’s dealt with heartbreak and epic moments. He’s called games from unheralded players he’d later see again as stars in the NBA. And he seems to be enjoying every minute of it.

Dime had a chance to catch up with Harlan prior to the NCAA Tournament West Regional games in Anaheim which he called for Turner/CBS sports, and discussed the difference between calling NBA vs. NCAA games, finding humor in the call, and those masterful livereads.

When you’re pulling double duty like this with NBA and college basketball at the same time, how do you utilize one set of information to help inform and enhance your ability to continue to call games? You’re working with different partners, you’re going to different places, and it’s basketball at the end of the day, but it is an inherently different game and set of rules.

It is. College has I think a lot more breathing space for an analyst, and I think has a real good rhythm for a two person crew, three person crew. There’s time to get your point in, you’ve got a longer shot clock, you’ve got slower play, you’ve got lot of missed shots, the skill level is lower. So, it really I think is an easier game to broadcast from that standpoint.

To me, the NBA is very difficult, especially trying to get in an analyst, because it’s back and forth so quick, shorter clock, a great skill level, so much to look at, 1,000 moving parts in every play, and just so much to take in. You sometimes have an analyst covering a basket, which really shouldn’t be the case, but it happens a lot. And it’s inherent in the game, I get that, but I just think that probably a lot of times it’s incumbent on the analyst to make sure that either he has succinct comments and is efficient with what he says, or he just stays quiet until a series of plays are over to let the play by play guy do his job.

So, when both are going, and I do both, because I do CBS on weekends during the regular season, and then Turner NBA on Thursdays, the difference to me is incredibly noticeable. I’m one of the few that do both like that, and I can tell you that in terms of a broadcast and maybe ease of listen, the college game is probably a better listen, because there’s room for analysis between plays. Whereas the NBA, you could really just have a radio call, because it’s happening so fast, and there’s so much of it. And it’s hard, I think, for an analyst to be at his or her best, because there just is not time to get out and to analyze all the great things that you can see on a particular play or series of plays.

How much do you relish that opportunity with the tournament to maybe be exposing an audience to player, coach, or a team for the first time? Maybe in the case of some of these Cinderellas, where some general fans maybe haven’t seen this program at all, or seen a superstar player for a particular team out of a smaller conference.

It’s great. It’s great to show … first of all, there’s so many things about the tournament that are just so unique and they cover both sides of your emotion. The tremendous passion that these coaches coach with, the importance of these games to these players, and knowing that it may be the last time that they get a chance to play on a stage this big, certainly. Maybe you’ve worked the three years to get there, and your fourth to play in the tournament.

To be a part of something special that really every kid who played basketball knows about, and then to look up in the stands and see moms, dads, and parents that have gone to that school, and they’ve sent their kids to that school, and they look … and they’ve got their grandparents that have been at that school, generations have worn that logo, worn that crest. So it’s a completely different feeling, there’s no pounding music during possessions. There’s still some purity left there with the game, and it just has such a great feel to it, like you’re fueled on the emotion of the fans, and you’re fueled on the emotion and the specialness it is for the kids, and that’s great.

And then on the other side, you see the despair and the agony in the complete emotional break with guys on the losing side, and how disappointing it is for teams to have worked all season long, to get to this stage, play on that platform, and then lose. In some cases, and this is the most difficult, is to see kids who have put in three or four years at a school and made the practices and missed few games, had been a special part of these programs and seen how they’ve contributed and what those four years have meant, which is the ideal. Really this is what I think everyone would be striving for is to see these kids play out the string, and have that full-bodied experience of being a college student, and getting a degree and playing for the school team and seeing it through.

We just had a kid, Jordan Murphy up in Minnesota last week, one of the all-time great rebounders in the Big Ten. I don’t know if he’ll play in the NBA, he’s undersized. Probably not, probably he’ll play overseas, make a lot of money, but nothing will compare to him playing in that great old Williams Arena in that terrific Big Ten conference, and in the tournament and to see his emotion on that sideline when they finally took him out. He had made every practice, he had played in every game. And ironically enough in this particular game, his last college game, he could only go about three or four minutes because of a back spasm, and it was the fewest minutes he had played in any college game in his career. And to see the anguish and his emotion was just like, ugh, it was just gripping, and you just felt for the kid.

Then I thought of, I don’t know if his parents were there, I’m assuming they were, or significant others in his life, mentors, and how they must feel to watch the end of this chapter in the life. That really is what it is, you’re witnessing the end of a young person’s particular chapter, and it’s hard. If you’ve raised kids, my wife and I have four, and you see these different stages, perhaps not as dramatic as that but as touching and as emotional. It really is. That’s why this tournament is so great, the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, everything in between, and just really captures all of it, I think, each individual element of it very well.

There’s a specific approach that you take to the game that allows for your signature style. But one thing that you’re tremendous at that I’ve noticed, especially during tournament games, where you’re able to take the emotion but still bring humor to it. I remember, must have been three, four years ago now, where going to break, fun game, electric atmosphere and the camera operator caught a guy just munching down on some nachos and you yelled, “I love Bison nachos!” Cutting that tension is, there’s something about that, but also the joy you bring to your calls. What’s your mindset heading into break like that?

Well you are nice to even remember that. No, there’s no … I’m kind of unfiltered that way. I’m sure it drives my bosses nuts and I’m sure they shake their head and go, “What?!” I hold myself to high levels of professionalism and wanna make sure that … I think of the great broadcasters before me has done these games, college and pro, and my quiet time when I’m at home or traveling to a game, the only thing I think about is getting it right, which is almost impossible sometimes to get every single thing right, but you try to, you strive to.

It’s kind of like when they always talk about a quarterback when he is at the line and he’s declaring his protections and he’s setting up his blocking and maybe changing a play and that when he drops back, that he knows he’s in a zone and things are moving like in slow motion and things are just so easy to pick out because everything is moving so slowly in front of him.

And those moments when you’re broadcasting if you’re just totally immersed in the game and just lose yourself in the game, and your call and your voice feels strong and you’ve got your rhythm and you’ve got your pacing and you’re feeling good about the broadcast, those seem to be the only moments when maybe those more humorous things will pop up because you are so at ease and so relaxed and so “one with the game” that they could throw anything at you and it wouldn’t come as a surprise. And your timing is good and you’re nailing your shots and that’s the only thing I can kind of equate it to. You’re so relaxed and feel like you’re on top of your call, that probably gives way to moments like that where you can maybe put that humor in and not even have to think about how it fits. It just comes out because you see it kind of like the rest of your call has felt right, and it gets in there.

Now there are other nights, Martin, when you don’t have that rhythm and it’s a struggle and you just … it’s like pulling teeth and you can’t get it out and maybe those moments are far fewer. I find, for me personally, when I’m in that zone so to speak that those moments probably happen on a more regular basis.

I’ve gotta ask about your live reads because the Red Dead Redemption 2 one really stands out.

Well, I don’t really even know what Red Dead Redemption … I don’t even know what that is. I’ve never played a game and I do the 2K series and so I’m a part of the video game business, but some of it just strikes me as funny. I guess what I’m thinking is like, “How would Marv [Albert] read that?” Or like, “How would Verne Lundquist have read that?” Or “How would Pat Summerall have read that?” And I guess I’m just having a little bit of fun with it and I’ve never been told otherwise by the people that sell this stuff at Turner. And I’m sure that they have differing opinions on it. No one’s ever said anything to me ever. I assume they’re listening, but maybe no one’s even listening back in Atlanta, I don’t know.

But when that stuff kind of comes out, some of the copy is just funny and I can’t keep a straight face and so it just kind of comes out. And actually it can kind of relax you sometimes if you do have that little moment of humor, but half the stuff I’m reading I don’t know anything about. Like we’re reading this VR stuff, this virtual reality stuff, and it’s got like 10 terms in there that I don’t even … it sounds like I’m speaking another language, like “Oculus” and all this stuff, I don’t even what it means and so a lot of it stems from that. I’m just so dumb that I don’t even know what I’m reading, but I’m just reading it because I’m supposed to.

So a lot of it comes from that and some of these different food groupings that either Burger King or Taco Bell, the way they kind of word their copies strikes me as funny, and I don’t know, maybe they feel like it probably draws more attention to the reader, or maybe it just irritates the heck out of the people that sell it back in Atlanta and they prefer I not do it that way. No one has said one word to me ever about any of it. That may change with your article but they’ve never said one word to me, either way.

Have you ever had the Taco Bell Nacho Fries and Grey Goose combo?

I’ve eaten all of it! I’ve eaten all that stuff, I love that stuff! I’m all over that stuff and actually I’ve read some things where I’ve gone back and I’ve done it myself. Like I went, I guess, McDonald’s or Burger King or whatever, if they have a special deal, I think, “Oh that sounds pretty good!” Many times I’ve gone, “that sounds pretty good, I’m gonna try those Nacho Fries.”

And now I’ve never come back and said, “Hey, by the way I tried the nacho fries last time.” But maybe I should. You’ve given me food for thought there so to speak and I can maybe extend the copy a little bit and give them a little value add. I’ve eaten it. I love it. But I’ve not played the games, or even NBA 2K. My son he plays it, he did play it, he’s in college now. But he plays with the sound down. He says, “I’ve heard too much of your voice to be in there.”

I do have a lot of parents who’ll come up to me and they’ll say, “Well I hear your voice every night down in my basement, up in my son’s room.” They know those boys are playing the video games, so that’s kind of gratifying.