There’s the Rose Bowl and Dodger Stadium – and in other American settings, there’s Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Augusta National Golf Club.
Some of the most prominent athletes in American sports history have been raised in the Los Angeles area – Jackie Robinson, is one – as there have been throughout many large, medium and smaller cities and towns across the United States.
But if you’re searching for the aspect of Los Angeles sports culture that thoroughly delineates it when compared to that of other cities, it can be found by adjusting the radio signal or picking up the remote control and listening in to the great storytellers that have provided entertaining, informative, accountable and passionate interpretations of the schools and sports franchises they have the enjoyment of covering.
Vin Scully is and always has been a charming conversationalist and represents the finest example of pure, unspoiled storytelling in sports. The late Chick Hearn had a profound impact on shaping the American basketball vernacular.
Since 1973, Kings fans have relied upon the passionate yet clear and levelheaded diction of Bob Miller, who has always produced “appropriate energy to cover the situation,” according to Jim Fox, his color commentator since the 1990-91 season. Miller, who will turn 75 this weekend, was honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award in 2000.
Los Angeles Daily News sports columnist Tom Hoffarth writes a weekly media feature and produces an annual rankings of the finest and most influential sports broadcasters in Los Angeles. For the first time in 2013, broadcasting tandems were ranked (article) as pairs instead of separately as play by play broadcasters and color commentators, which disqualified Scully from the list.
Topping the rankings were Miller and Fox – the radio tandem of Nick Nickson and Daryl Evans clocked in at fourth – with Jim Fox’s depiction of Miller’s “appropriate energy” articulated well by Hoffarth in a phone conversation.
“You wouldn’t know probably in Southern California just what a hockey broadcaster is supposed to be like until you listen to Bob because you would think that with a fast paced game you’d have to be like Chick Hearn and be high energy, and be on top of everything, and be like a circus barker sometimes, and Bob is never going to be that way,” Hoffarth said. “That’s great for us, and it’s great that the Hockey Hall of Fame figured it out that that’s probably one of the reasons why hockey has sustained itself so long in Southern California – because of Bob’s presence and history with the team and with the sport.”
When the Kings take the ice tonight (Wednesday night) against Ottawa, and Friday night against Carolina, and Sunday against Florida, and for 73 of the 82 games the team plays this season, viewers on FOX Sports West/Prime Ticket will have the pleasure of sharing in the excitement with the duo, which is among the most widely respected broadcasting partnerships across the sport.
Among the keys to articulating an informative fidelity throughout the broadcast is conveying the excitement of live hockey featuring a recent Stanley Cup winning team that in 2013-14 is expected to be among the most successful teams in the Los Angeles sports landscape.
“I look at it that especially this time of year, with baseball playoffs, and football going on, and everything else that’s going on, we’ve got to make this team where people want to watch the telecasts, they want to go to the games, they want to get excited about the prospects of the Kings this year. So at least when we’re on the air, I hope we’re making it with some energy and exciting for everybody,” Miller said.
The energy and excitement is apparent, but the degree of accountability in Jim Fox’s efforts to coherently offer a pithy and educational explanation of important plays provides a strong case study in the methods a color commentator interacts with a play by play broadcaster.
“Jim’s not one of these ‘I’m a former player. I know what I’m talking about’ [types]. He just lets his vision and what he says take care of that. You understand where he’s coming from as he’s talking about what he’s seeing,” Hoffarth said. “The thing that amazes me to this day, too, is how much the two of them pick up from watching a live play in front of them, and then on the replay it just verifies what they saw. It doesn’t really change what they saw. A lot of times a broadcaster’s first look at a play will be incorrect. It’s just that it happened so fast. But both of them are so much on top of it that the replay never really shows that they made a mistake. It just sort of allows them to keep the narrative going and keep the flow of the play.”
Miller similarly referenced Fox’s clear and concise ability to divulge information while cutting out the weighty and unnecessary details.
“An ex-player or ex-coach can get into such technical talk, that the guy watching is, ‘I’m lost. I don’t know what he’s talking about – the F1 or the F3, and this guy high,’” Miller said. “But Jimmy simplifies it, and does it so well on the telestrator, better, I think, than anybody I’ve seen. I obviously watch a lot of games on Center Ice, and I see ex-coaches who can’t explain to me as simply as Jim does, ‘Here’s what’s going on. Here’s this player’s responsibility.”
The telestrator was emerging as a valuable broadcast device at the time Fox debuted on television alongside Miller, and he pointed to John Madden’s use of the on-screen graphic pen as an important moment in the advancement of clarification through broadcast technology. “It is the ultimate teaching tool,” he said.
“It’s the clearest way to tell people ‘why,’ and fundamentally if you break down the analyst’s position, that’s the job to tell ‘why,’” Fox said. “The ability to emphasize with that visual makes it as clear as possible.”
It also enhances the explanation of how mistakes occur. Every goal scored in hockey is the result of at least one particular mistake by a player without the puck – some of which are incredibly subtle and unrecognizable to those without a firm understanding of a team’s systems and positioning.
Fox has adeptly balanced the ability to provide an objective depiction of the root of those breakdowns without placing an unfair onus on the player or players responsible for the goal against.
“I think, first of all, today’s athlete is used to being criticized publicly, and if you’re going to show the replay, it’s not going to lie. So if you take those things together, you find yourself in a position where yeah, you are being critical,” Fox said.
“But I break it down into two things: The breakdown for the team without the puck, and then how the team with the puck attacked that breakdown or created the breakdown. Forced error. Unforced error. Most times, it’s a forced error. That’s what you try to do. The finish, the puck going into the net at times can be very exciting, but we have to take it back to the point of the critical moment, and that’s what you hope to do with a replay, with a telestrator. To just replay how the puck goes in the net is not covering the situation enough.”
It’s a balance that has developed through the comfort he has generated with Miller.
“It starts with the father,” Fox said, referring to his Hall of Fame broadcast partner.
Similar to the way the players develop chemistry through the repetition of their shifts – sometimes upwards of 20 shifts a night, for up to 82 regular season games a year – Miller and Fox developed their chemistry through an early adjustment process that provided one of the most significant challenges in Fox’s career.
“I went from on top of my profession as a professional athlete to being awful at something else,” he said.
Eventually, the natural ability for Fox to convey the “why” deftly alongside Miller’s already established “who, what, when and where” improved considerably and allowed him to firmly etch out his own role.
“The one thing I appreciate a million times over is as I started to get more comfortable, Bob allowed me more space in the broadcast, and I think he sensed that. He sensed when I started to come on. That’s my appreciation factor, is that Bob said, ‘OK, maybe he is starting to communicate effectively. I’m going to let him do it more. I think there is a decent balance now. I think there’s nights like any night when you critique your work, your own work, where I’m talking too much, and you’re always looking for that balance, especially the way Bob calls the game. Again, I’ve said it a thousand times before – ‘appropriate energy to cover the situation.’ I don’t think anyone does it as well as Bob. So you’ve got to work your way in. We never really had a conversation about it. We talked about it a little bit. I think Bob started to get more confident in me, and he showed that by just opening up and giving me a chance to offer the point of view.”
The comfort established in the 1990s continues to pay informative dividends for Kings fans.
“That’s really what makes them a great team, because they learn from each other,” Hoffarth said. “Bob learns about the game now from Jim, and Jim learns about broadcasting from Bob, and it’s become really a family, I think, as well as broadcasters. As a team, they’re the longest-running team in L.A., and I don’t think anything else could match that because of when they were formed together, their bond, their respect for each other, the way they treat each other – this could kind of be an ego-based business where you worry about your job security – and they’ve looked out for each other year after year.”
For Miller, this stems from his passion of providing an account of a live and unscripted event.
“I’m excited still about live television, which sports and news are the only things that are live, almost anymore. And I’m still excited that every night we go on at 7:30, and we’re going to be on for two and a half or three hours, and it’s live, it’s exciting, and are we going to be able to do it with a minimum of mistakes?
“Obviously I make mistakes – and we all do – but we try to get through, and that’s exciting for me to say, ‘We’re live on television’ so many times during the season.”