Voices of the Game | Kevin Calabro was energetic Sonics voice, now he's revving up Sounders fans
Kevin Calabro said goodbye to the Sonics and is saying hello to soccer fans in his new role with Sounders FC. His passionate style rubs off. "I get into it," he says. "It's hard not to."
Seattle Times staff reporter
Age: 53, born June 27, 1956.
College: Butler University (1978).
Family: Wife Susan; children Anthony, Nick, Lauren and Joe.
Broadcast history: Started in 1980 at WIBC Radio in Indianapolis, where he did play-by-play for a minor-league hockey team. In 1983, he began broadcasting Kansas City Kings basketball games. Chosen in 1987 to work alongside Bob Blackburn, the original voice of the Sonics. Replaced Blackburn in the early 1990s and held the position until 2008, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. Hired July 2008 to handle play-by-play duties for the expansion Sounders FC soccer club. Has also been a play-by-play contributor for TNT, TBS and ESPN Radio broadcasts for NBA games. In January, signed with 710 ESPN Radio to host a three-hour sports talk show.
Awards: Named "Sportscaster of the Year" for the state of Washington in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 by the National Sportscasters and Sports writers Association of America.
Voices of the Game | Day 4
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On a drab Wednesday night above the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field, the radio broadcast is coming to a close as thousands of Sounders FC fans stream for the exits and pour onto Occidental Avenue South.
When engineer Lloyd Glaeser gives the nod that the microphones are dead, Kevin Calabro finally says what he's been dying to say since the Sounders squandered a two-goal lead in the final minutes and limped away with a 3-3 tie that felt more like a heartbreaking defeat.
"Gosh dang it!" the Sounders play-by-play man blurts in his deep baritone while jabbing a fist in the air. "Man! That hurts."
Calabro is a recent convert to the sport, and the beautiful game has engulfed him now. This new role with Seattle's expansion Major League Soccer team has forced the former voice of the Sonics to grow as a broadcaster in ways he never imagined when he was carving out a reputation as one of the finest play-by-play announcers in the NBA.
"Were you like this with the Sonics?" asks analyst Pete Fewing, Calabro's broadcast partner for this game.
"You know, come to think of it, yeah, a little bit," he says, laughing. "If we were up by 18, then blew the lead and blew the game, yeah, I'd get a little salty."
He's reminded of the time when his off-air criticisms of the Sonics to a reporter made their way into the newspaper in 2000 and nearly had him fired if he hadn't apologized to coach Paul Westphal and the organization.
Lesson learned, says Calabro, 53. He's older now and a little wiser. Still, he's as passionate as ever about the games he covers.
"I get into it," he says. "It's hard not to. Does that help or hurt calling the games? I don't know. I'd like to think that if the audience hears me getting into it, then they'll want to come along for the ride."
Former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley and general manager Bob Whitsitt recognized that same enthusiasm when they hired Calabro in 1987. He worked alongside Bob Blackburn, the original voice of the Sonics, in an awkward arrangement in which they alternated the play-calling and analyst duties during games.
"I remember before games we'd flip a coin to decide who gets to call the fourth quarter," Calabro says.
In 1989, he took over the play-by-play job full time in an unpopular move at the time. Blackburn remained with the team until 1992.
Over the years, Calabro, an Indianapolis native, endeared himself to Sonics fans with a bombastic delivery, homespun Midwestern storytelling and quirky street-seeped observations that spawned a slew of colorful catchphrases.
But in this new life with Sounders FC, there are no references to Miss Molly, magic carpets or flying chickens in a barnyard, staples of his NBA broadcasts.
Instead during a home match against D.C. United, Calabro's call of the night is: "[Fredy] Montero crosses over with the left foot. Hits a bender. Gooooo-oooooal! He put some mustard on it with the left foot."
"He's a pro," Fewing says. "He's one of the best in the business. I love going to practice with him and sitting next to him. He's asking questions all the time. He's committed. He's serious. His learning curve has been fantastic.
"The word on the street in the soccer community is everybody really likes him. They appreciate what a pro he is and the expertise he brings to soccer."
The transition hasn't been easy. Calabro admits that not every Sounders FC fan likes his play-calling and he has the nasty e-mails to prove it. Much of the criticisms were deserved, because early in the season he'd confuse goal kicks with corner kicks and the end line with the touch line.
"I'm still learning the nuances of the game and the subtleties," Calabro says. "I don't think I'll get that for a while.
"I'm still trying to come up with terms to describe where the ball is.
"You know, there are no yard lines. Beyond the 18 and center field, you have no way of telling other than approximating where the ball is at for the audience."
The fish-out-of-water analogy fits, but it's a familiar feeling for Calabro.
After working part-time at radio and television stations in Indianapolis and studying broadcasting at Butler University, his first big break into sports broadcasting came in 1980, when he landed the play-by-play job for the Indianapolis Checkers, a minor-league hockey team, on WIBC Radio.
He knew nothing about hockey, but worked more than 100 games that season before Whitsitt, then the general manager with the Kansas City Kings, hired Calabro in 1983 to handle play-calling.
It was Calabro's dream job. Ever since he can remember, Calabro has wanted to call NBA games. Maybe it's because radio is in his blood.
Before Kevin's father Paul became principal at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, he was a radio man, working communications on a naval vessel in World War II. Paul told war stories to his sons Kevin, David and Ron, who played with transistor radio, and grew up to emulate their father.
David, a TV sports anchor in Indianapolis, pursued a career in broadcast journalism while Ron became a teacher.
Kevin pursued a life in radio. His first stint in the NBA lasted just one season because his station lost the rights to the Kings in 1984. He called University of Missouri football and men's basketball in 1985 before being fired and moving to Seattle to work as sports anchor for an FM station.
That's when Whitsitt called again.
During his tenure with the Sonics, Calabro dabbled with network jobs and had been linked to Mariners and Seahawks openings, but he would have been content to continue as the Sonics' play-by-play man if the team hadn't moved to Oklahoma City last year.
Calabro and his wife Susan didn't want to uproot their family, so he needed to adapt. He took on the new challenge of hosting an afternoon sports-talk radio show on 710 ESPN and accepted the job as voice of Sounders FC.
His jobs give him the flexibility to call a handful of NBA games on ESPN, but the pain of giving up his dream job still lingers.
"It's like saying goodbye to your first love," Calabro says. "It hurts. I suspect it will always hurt. But, hey, you move on. Heck, you have to. So now I'm into MLS and the Sounders, and it's really cool. I'm having a blast."
And the soccer aficionados are finally beginning to embrace Calabro as one of their own. How does he know?
"I get fewer e-mails blasting me," he says. "Either that or they just got tuckered out and tired of killing me."
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278