Dan Shulman is a men's college basketball and baseball play-by-play commentator for ESPN. He works the Saturday primetime game with Jay Bilas and is the voice of the World Series on ESPN Radio. Additionally, he calls Toronto Blue Jays action for SportsNet. He sat down with The Big Lead for a conversation on the vastly different broadcast environments, working with big personalities, and Canadian interest in Duke basketball.
Kyle Koster: I realized baseball and college basketball are my two favorite sports and that it's an odd mix when you consider the pace and atmospheres. What's it like to be at the top, calling those two things that are so different?
Dan Shulman: You're right, they are very different. If you go back 25 years I could have just as easily wound up doing football or hockey or something like that. When I was coming up in Toronto radio I was known as a baseball-basketball guy, this is actually before the Raptors, so no one talked basketball back then. I guess in some ways those were two favorites but in some ways it's just where I got my opportunities.
I always say that first college basketball game, it's like I'm having a leisurely stroll on the treadmill and someone floors it. Then here I am doing a game going a million miles per hour in front of 18,000 screaming people. I'm very happy and fortunate that I can do two sports that are so different. The beauty of them is the two seasons fit together perfectly. There's no overlap, but there's no gap either. It's hard to do sports that overlap -- and a lot of guys do that -- but these two have worked out for me for over 25 years.
KK: What do you feel when you're courtside? What can you hear?
DS: It's funny because we have headphones on always during the game so there are some times when in a big moment I won't say anything for a few seconds, just let the crowd go. There will be the odd time that I take my headset off just to feel it, to understand how loud it is. It depends where the students are too. If they're right behind you, then you literally feel it. You can absolutely tell the difference between a great college basketball environment and an average college basketball environment.
That's one of the things I love about this the most. My favorite college basketball game is when Goliath comes into David's house and David plays his ass off and gives Goliath a run for his money. When Kentucky or Kansas or Duke goes into another place and gets a real battle, I love that. That could be the whole season for those home fans.
KK: You grew up in Toronto and I'm curious what the relationship is between Canadians and college basketball.
DS: For most people it doesn't start until March Madness. Then everyone's an expert. All my friends want me to help them pick their sheets for them and, of course, I never get them right. For most people, they don't know a whole lot about college basketball. It's not readily available on TV up there as it is in the U.S. We don't get ESPN on our cable package, you have to order an extra sports package and college basketball is part of that. There are hardcore fans because they're buddies of mine and I hear from them doing games. Most people don't really follow it that much. They follow the NBA much more, especially since the Raptors became as good as they are.
The one exception is Duke. Last year they did an August tour in Toronto. Bilas and I did the games. They played at an 8,000 seat arena in Toronto against two Canadian schools and they sold out both games. Two months before the Canadian national team played a game in that same building -- like a meaningful FIBA game with R.J. Barrett on the team -- and there were maybe 3,000 people there. And 8,000 people came out to see Duke.
Nine out of every 10 Canadians I know who asks me a question about college basketball or for tickets, asks about Duke.
KK: You work with two very different energies. Dick Vitale, who is eternally optimistic and excitable, and Bilas, who is more sardonic. How do you play off of them? Do you go into a broadcast trying to be the same Dan Shulman or a slightly different Dan Shulman based on your partner?
DS: You might be able to answer that question better than me. I've worked with them so many times. I've done hundreds of game with each of them so at this point I don't even think about it anymore.
It's similar to a catcher working with different pitchers. You know where the pitcher likes you to set up, how still he wants you to be, how he wants you to frame a pitch. After a while, it's just muscle memory. I honestly have never thought about needing to do something different because it's Jay or Dick. I know the topics of conversation each of them really like and what makes them laugh -- if that's what's called for. You know their hot zones, to use a baseball term again.
I might think about it occasionally if I'm working with Dan Dakich or someone else. Then I put a little bit of thought into it, but I've always been of the mind that my job is to set up the analyst. Keep the ball moving and let them knock down the shots.
I just try to listen to them. Really, listening is one of the most important things. Listen to them, read them, and get the ball to them where they can succeed.
KK: From the outside it seems as though ESPN's college basketball strategy is to highlight big personalities in the analyst chair. There's the three guys you mentioned, plus Jon Crispin, who is new to the team this year. As a play-by-play guy, though, do you want to be noticed or is a good broadcast one where you aren't noticed?
DS: I think it's a little bit of both. I want to be appreciated for the work that I do but I don't ever need to be a star or anything like that. I've always looked at myself as the point guard. We have the analyst, we have the reporter, we have the producer, we have the director, we have the graphics, we have the replays, and I'd much rather get the assist than knock down the shot.
The first few years of my career I had a few bosses say 'you need to make yourself more noticeable, you need to have a signature call.' I don't have a signature call and I never have. Covering sports on television is a team game and I just want to get the team win, I don't have to score the winning basket.
KK: You're one of the voices of the World Series. When you hear that said out loud, how does it feel?
DS: It feels great. Just like it feels great to be sitting here at Michigan State. It feels great to do Duke-Carolina. To be calling the World Series is a dream come true. I'm a Canadian kid who doesn't have a drop of journalism or broadcasting education. I didn't go to school for it, fell into it backwards and sideways not knowing what I was doing. For me to wind up calling the World Series -- I've done the last nine I think on radio -- it's a dream come true. But I never dreamt of television, I never dreamt of ESPN. I just thought I was going to be a talk-radio host in Toronto.
To hear someone say it out loud, like you just did, it's humbling and wonderful. I'm at the age where you start appreciating things a bit more. I'm old enough now where I'm really savoring all these great opportunities I've had.
KK: You say you don't have a signature call, but you do have a few memorable ones like the Christian Watford buzzer-beater.
DS: I got very, very lucky that not only did Christian Watford make the shot, but Watford for the win, people love alliteration. Had it been Jones for the win, nobody would know. But God bless him, his name begins with a W so I'm eternally grateful. That one's probably up there.
I get asked a lot about being live on Sunday Night Baseball when we found out about Osama bin Laden. My first World Series was the David Freese, the triple and then the homer. Those are the ones I get asked the most about.
KK: What's one that you're proud of that people don't ask about?
DS: The Bartman Play. I did the Cubs and the Marlins. And that's a scary play for a broadcaster. That ball's 350 feet down the line and is it fair, is it foul, is it in the seats or not ...
KK: And it's not the greatest angle at Wrigley either.
DS: No. You don't have the best angle and do you look live or do you look on your monitor? You're putting a lot of faith in if the shot is going to be there because if I look and it's not, then it's too late. I actually don't know word-for-word what I said because I don't think that's an easy call to find. I do remember the moment walking out of there and saying, "thank God."
KK: Did you react after Moises Alou's reaction?
DS: Yeah, I think so. Because you see him upset. I know one thing that I said right then was, 'the ball clearly appeared to be in the stands, not in the field of play so as upset as he is, it shouldn't be interference.' And that was the crux of the matter. If they call interference, he's out and maybe the Cubs win the World Series that year.
Those are the scary moments. It doesn't happen as much in basketball. You try not to lose sight of the ball or what's happening out there. You try to understand the rules if something crazy is going on. When you're doing the World Series or a playoff game or a Duke-Carolina game, it's a pretty big moment. A lot of people are watching or listening and you don't want to screw it up.
KK: Do you fill out a March Madness bracket?
DS: SportsNet, my Canadian employer, has asked me to do one the past few years and they put it on their website. It's a disaster, like everybody else's. I mean, how could you predict what happened in those last three Virginia games last year? How could you predict two years ago Virginia was going to lose in the first round? So I do it if they ask me to, but I don't enjoy doing it because then everyone I know just gives me grief for three weeks. These people who wouldn't know Cassius Winston from Tre Jones are giving me hell.