Play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun, the voice of the Atlanta Hawks telecasts on Bally Sports Southeast, has been calling games in Atlanta for 25 years. He answered questions about his start in broadcasting, what brought him to Atlanta and some of his favorite memories from the past 25 years:
Q: What initially led you into broadcasting?
A: I got started when I was 12 years old. I grew up in Salisbury, N.C., and on a Sunday afternoon I called the local radio station and told them I loved sports and listening to the radio station. The announcer on duty said, “Well young man, if you like it that much, come on down and we will give you a tour of the radio station.” My mom and dad took me down and that day I fell in love with it.
Q: When did you first experience what being a broadcaster was like?
A: I started hanging out at the radio station every Sunday and one day the sports guy showed up and asked if I wanted to help them broadcast the local American Legion baseball games. I am 12 years old doing stats and getting the guy a hot dog and he says, “Are you ready to make your debut?” I said, “Well I guess I am,” and in the bottom of the seventh inning I got to call the half inning on the radio. Lo and behold, our first basemen hits a home run, one of the three they hit all season. The play-by-play announcer got the mic back in the 8th inning and said, “Ladies and gentleman, I have been waiting all season to call a home run and when we hit one, I have a 12-year-old on the mic.” That announcer was Marty Brenneman, the now-retired Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Cincinnati Reds, who was just getting his career going back then. That’s how it started.
Q: What announcers did you look up to at a young age?
A: I looked up to Marty (Brenneman). We didn’t know at the time that he would be a Hall of Fame radio announcer, but he sure had the talent. In my hometown, we had the National Sportscasters and Sports Writers Association (now the National Sports Media Association) there for many years. When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, I was placed on the transportation committee. I would get a rental car and go to Charlotte to pick these guys up at the airport and take them to Salisbury. In the backseat of my car, I had the legends of the industry, writing and broadcasting. Keith Jackson, Chris Schenkel, Vin Scully, Jim Murray, you name it. And they were all in the backseat of my car. These were great broadcasters that were so willing to help and talk.
Q: After high school, did you jump right into broadcasting?
A: I was on the air full-time at 19 years old, working full-time and going to school full time at Catawba College, my alma mater. It was a great benefit to me. That little radio station I worked for sent four guys to the professional leagues in different sports. There was Marty Brenneman with the Reds, Warner Fusselle, who was the voice of This Week in Baseball, and Doug Rice, who has been the long-time voice of NASCAR on the radio. We had a lot of talented guys around as mentors for me. It was a great way to grow up and a great way to start a career.
Q: When did you realize broadcasting was in your future?
A: I pretty much knew what I wanted to do in high school. When I went to Catawba, the head of the department, Dr. Karl Hales, who turned out to be a dear friend and mentor, said to me, “We don’t get many guys in here who know what they want to do so let’s clear a path and tailor it for you.” I was a speech major and a physical education minor. He made me take the P.E. courses to get the coaching classes such as how to coach baseball and how to coach basketball. That helped me become a better broadcaster. I was a speech major so I was giving speeches and was on the debate team. It was a pretty regimented training. What was great about it, is that I was applying what I learned in the classroom that day when I was in the station that night. I would record myself and take it to the professor to listen to and he would critique it. The next day I would do it again. That really accelerated my learning curve, having great teachers and mentors behind me in college.
Q: What is a lesson you learned early on in your career?
A: The lesson that was instilled in me early on was that it’s important when you are on the air to know that your words are powerful. You have to tell both sides of the story. Those radio lessons instilled in me a long time ago I think still serve me now with Bally Sports and calling the Hawks and ACC games for us. There is a story to tell. Every game is different and you have to be totally immersed and invested in each broadcast to be able to tell each game’s story. Whether it is a win or a loss, you have to be present every day.
Q: When did you first start calling professional sporting events?
A: I moved to Virginia for my first big job. I was working at WTAR radio and WTKR TV in Norfolk, the old CBS affiliate there. It was a great place to work. I loved every second of it. I was doing radio and TV. I did a lot of fill-in work for a regional network in Washington D.C. that is now MASN and back then was Home Team Sports. I was Mel Proctor’s fill-in for Washington Bullets and Baltimore Orioles games. I went to Detroit to do the Tigers on the radio and then moved to Atlanta after that to do Braves and the Hawks in 1996. I have been more immersed in the pro game ever since, but I still do college as well. I just completed my 32nd year doing ACC games and still love everything about college athletics, but I do the majority of my work at the pro level.
Q: What has kept you in Atlanta for 25 years?
A: I came in October 1996 and my family moved down around Christmas time that year. We have been here ever since, living in the same house we bought back then. Two guys, Steve Craddock, who was our Executive Producer back then and one of my line producers at Raycom Sports, was interested in bringing me down. Our General Manager at the time was Hunter Nickell. I met with those two guys and they were kind enough to extend an offer. I have been here ever since and have loved every second that I have been with our network. It has been a great sense of pride and accomplishment.
Q: What are some of your most memorable calls?
A: I get that question quite often. The things that meant a lot to me was being in the ballpark to watch Greg Maddux spin a masterpiece, watching Andres Galarraga come back from cancer, watch Bobby Cox control the clubhouse daily. Those are the things that stand out to me. For the Hawks, until we get to that promise land of winning an NBA championship or playing for one, it is going to be hard to top that 60-win season that we had in 2014-15 because of the way it galvanized the city. Had we stayed healthy, I am convinced we would have went to the NBA Finals. That was pretty special.
Q: How do you prepare for every broadcast?
A: The preparation is something I have always prided myself on. It takes a lot of work and a lot of hours watching video tape. The information age is a blessing and a curse because you can’t run out of things to watch or read, but I think I have fine-tuned the process over the years. It generally takes me somewhere between 8-10 hours to get where I feel comfortable about my game preparation. I have to know both teams and coaching staffs. I have to know the rules of the game. I have to know all the things we need to do from a Bally Sports perspective to carry out the telecast. I want to be just as fresh and as energized today as I was 25 years ago. I think I have been. I can’t wait to get to the arena. I always think of the quote from the great Don Shula: “The closer I get to the stadium, the faster I walk,” meaning that excitement of getting to the arena to watch the incredible athletes do their thing. That’s what keeps me going.
Q: What is it like having Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins as your broadcast partner?
A: ‘Nique and I go back a long way. People may not be aware that when I was first starting out I called Salisbury H.S. basketball games and they played against Dominique Wilkins’s Washington H.S. team in the North Carolina basketball state tournament. I got to call that game. Later, when he played at Georgia, I got to call an NIT game between UGA and Old Dominion. I was not yet full time in the NBA, but I called some of his games at the tail end of his NBA career. Now he has been with me for over 10 years as my partner. We have been joined at the hip for a long, long time. He is one of the nicest human beings on the planet. To be as humble as he is with being one of the greatest of all time, tt makes me sad that as time has passed people don’t appreciate how hard he played and how good he was. He scored 26,000 points and they weren’t all on dunks. He was an amazing player and everyone gravitates to him now because he is such a great person and has so many stories.
Q: How different has it been calling games during the pandemic?
A: Meeting with the announcers, coaches, players and referees has all been taken away from us. The hardest thing for us from a television production standpoint is we just can’t see what we want to see. We are at the mercy of a video feed for away games. We have one camera we can control and that is it. It is the stuff that is behind the play, like if the coach at the other end of the floor is giving it to the referee and both of them are outside of the camera shot. We kind of know but we have to guess, and I don’t like to guess. For the viewer at home, I don’t know if they can really tell.
Q: Has it sunk in that this is your 25th season?
A: I have, and I haven’t. I am very proud that individually and collectively I have been a part of 12 Emmy Award winners, covering all sports. I’ve had the play-by-play on Braves games that have won, college football that has won, college basketball and with the Hawks I have won individual Emmy’s. I am most proud though of the team effort, and that is what all those Emmy Awards represent, it isn’t just one person. That tells me that we are doing a good job, our audience appreciates what we do and our colleagues appreciate what we do. I am proud of my team. All of my producers and directors, audio engineers, guys on tape and the relationships we have with the PR people to make it all come together make it a collective effort. I’m on the front porch of our network and that is a responsibility I take great pride in. I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I’m grateful but I want that next game to be our best game.
Q: What advice do you give to a young person interested in the business?
A: Learn how to write well and how to speak well. That is something that will take a lifetime to master, as it does all of us. But if you can do those two things, you will have a leg up on everyone else. There are 1,000 or more graduates every May who want to do what I do and another 1,000 in December. There aren’t that many jobs, so what is going to differentiate you from everyone else. Your ability to tell great stories in whatever your role, play-by-play, analyst, sideline, host, any of the jobs we have in broadcasting, if you can learn how to tell great stories, you are going to be ahead of the pack. How do you tell great stories? You have to be well-educated on the topic, you have to have the language behind you, you have to have your voice behind you, you have to be able to connect with people when you tell the story, all those things gel together to make a great piece of television. I can’t wait to dive in and watch tape, read the stories, talk to the coaches and hear from the players to tell that story. If that drives you, then you have a future in this business. Be well-read and well-spoken, and if you have those two things you have a great head start.
Q: You have started a business to help athletes with public speaking, can you tell us more about that?
A: I’ve partnered with a great speaker, Dez Thornton, who is the former president of the Georgia National Speakers Association. We want help athletes, administrators and coaches, but are focusing mainly on athletes who are being called upon to speak publicly now more than ever and not just in formal sports interviews situations. Many are getting involved in social causes or have charity work they like to do. Dez and I felt like there was a need to help these men and women become great speakers. We don’t deal with the content so much as the delivery. There are very different audiences out there whether you are speaking at a basketball camp, giving a testimony at a wedding or funeral, or in a room talking to business executives. They are different types of speeches and require different types of speaking disciplines. Dez and I want to encourage as many athletes as possible to check it out and see if we can help them. We think we have a course that we can put someone through to make it easy to shift and adapt to any speaking situation.