‘Got it!’ The winding, improbable journey of Celtics voice Mike Gorman
Here, he shares a few stories for the first time: a Naval tragedy that still haunts him, the time he nearly fought Tommy Heinsohn, and an important beer-league softball game.
With another Celtics broadcast complete, Mike Gorman removes his headset, puts on his coat, and heads into the chilly winter night. The fans still trickling out of TD Garden do not know him personally, but plenty call out to him by name and treat him as an old friend anyway, which is exactly how he has tried to connect while serving as the team’s play-by-play announcer for 38 years.
After a short walk, Gorman is home. It’s a much easier commute to the Garden than he once had, when he lived in upper Manhattan and would drive four hours each way on game days, snowstorms and bottlenecks be damned.
Now, he just goes a couple of blocks, tells his doorman how the Celtics played, and takes an elevator to his penthouse apartment that has pleasant views of the Garden and the glowing Zakim Bridge.
Inside, there are signs of the life Gorman will lead whenever he retires. The Xbox console for soccer video games. The two computer monitors that he uses to day-trade stocks. The Gibson hanging on a wall, one of his five guitars that were mostly purchased while covering games in Memphis (“I’ve gotten pretty good, but my wife is better”).
Gorman prefers not to look back at his career, because when you’re 71, that’s usually a way to acknowledge a looming end, and he is not there yet. But he has stories he has never told publicly before, from a tragedy in the Navy that still haunts him, to the time he nearly fought Tommy Heinsohn, to how a few home runs in a beer-league softball game put him on the path to becoming the voice of one of the most famous sports franchises ever.
So after a phone call with his wife and a video chat with his daughter, he shakes some potato chips into a porcelain bowl, pours a beer into a glass, and begins a different kind of play-by-play.
Fatal crash, lasting memory
The son of an office secretary and an insurance agent, Gorman was the youngest of three growing up in a single-family home with a small yard in Dorchester. He was an altar boy at St. Brendan Parish and he hawked copies of the Boston American newspaper, usually ending up sitting on a curb poring over NBA box scores.
Gorman loved basketball but did not have much money, so when the Celtics played, he would climb a fire escape outside the old Garden and bang on a door at the balcony level. If an usher opened it, Gorman would scamper back down to the street. If it was anyone else, he would slither inside.
He became a standout guard at Boston Latin School and hoped to someday become a teacher and a coach. But after graduating from Boston State College in 1969, he was drafted into the Navy, enrolling in officer school and becoming an aviator.
His Brunswick, Maine, squadron deployed for 6-8 months at a time to places such as Spain, Portugal, and Bermuda. They would soar above the Atlantic in four-engine turboprops, mostly patrolling for Russian submarines lurking below.
The missions were for reconnaissance, not combat. When the Russians realized they’d been spotted, they would surface, and the US planes would drop care packages filled with cola, snacks, and Playboy magazines, mostly to show they were not there for trouble.
“You’d see the Russians standing on the deck of their sub waving and holding a centerfold in the air,” Gorman said. “It was all kind of a charade.”
Gorman became one of his squadron’s most trusted aviators. On June 3, 1972, he was scheduled to fly a routine mission off the coast of Spain when he was summoned to handle office paperwork instead. The plane took off from Naval Station Rota in dense fog without him, and about an hour later, it crashed into the side of a 2,700-foot mountain, killing all 14 men on board.
Gorman was devastated to lose friends, and wracked with guilt because he was not in the air to help them find safe skies. He returned to the US and went to 14 funerals over the course of a week. He never flew again, and about a year after the accident he retired from the service.
He still has an interest in aviation and checks in with the pilots before Celtics charters, usually to tell sideline reporter Abby Chin what kind of turbulence to expect. But he has never truly left that fateful day behind.
“I don’t really like to talk about it,” he said. “It’s just not something you ever forget.”
After leaving the Navy, Gorman moved back in with his parents in Dorchester, grew his hair out, and did not know what to do next.
A friend in the service used to talk about working in television and radio, and it sounded magical. So one morning Gorman drove to WBZ’s radio studios, charmed a fellow veteran at the security gate, and talked his way into the office of longtime sportscaster Gil Santos.
WBZ did not have an opening, but Santos told Gorman that WNBH, a small station in New Bedford, did. Santos made a phone call, lied about Gorman’s radio experience, and secured him an interview that day. The station was essentially a rundown house with some antennas attached.
“Do you know how to play softball?” the station manager asked Gorman.
The company team had a game that night against a rival, and it needed help. Gorman hit a couple of home runs, and WNBH won the game. Over beers later, he accepted a job that paid $150 a week to rotate tapes that played elevator music on the company’s FM station.
Courting in the Big East
Gorman expressed interest in sports broadcasting but was told it would be feasible only if he sold the advertisements, too. So he contacted local businesses and peddled $15 ads that would be read during the high school games he was calling. The station even offered an unethical package deal: If a business owner had a child in the game, Gorman would embellish their performance at no extra cost.
He then became a news reporter at WPRO radio in Providence before being hired as a sportscaster at WPRI television. That station broadcast some Providence College basketball games, and the timing was perfect, because PC athletic director Dave Gavitt was forming a new basketball conference called the Big East, and he needed voices.
Gorman and former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery became the lead tandem for ESPN’s Big Monday games, and stars such as Patrick Ewing, Pearl Washington, and Chris Mullin turned the league into a sensation.
Before one game, the 7-foot-1-inch Ewing barreled over Gorman in the locker room tunnel, then stood over him and used an expletive to tell him to stay out of his way. Gorman was rattled, but also loved the intensity of it all. (Now when he sees Ewing, who is Georgetown’s coach, he jokingly uses an expletive to tell Ewing to stay out of his way.)
Gorman met his future wife, Teri, when she was working as the television stage manager for a Villanova-Boston College matchup. On one of their first dates, Gorman took her to a Syracuse-Georgetown game at the Carrier Dome. He was still working on the romance part.
Teri started to produce Big East telecasts, and the couple would edit features in their living room, or rush to the hotel bar after road games to see their highlights. They were married in 1988 and together raised Gorman’s infant daughter from a brief previous marriage, Kristen.
When Gorman called games, his wife would put on the telecast in Kristen’s bedroom, and she’d fall asleep to the gentle cadence of her father’s play-by-play. When he was home to read her bedtime stories, she’d often interrupt and ask him to use his TV voice instead.
(Kristen went on to work at Gorman’s side as a stage manager on Celtics broadcasts for a few years. At one game, a fan came down from the stands and asked her out. He’s now her husband.)
Mike and Tommy
Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics legend who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach, was the team’s lone broadcaster until Prism Broadcasting wanted to add a play-by-play man in 1981. Heinsohn had called a few college games with Gorman and believed they would be a good team.
Before their first Celtics game, Gorman stood in the booth in the Boston Garden’s upper reaches holding a pad filled with color-coded stats and facts. The 6-foot-7-inch Heinsohn glared at him.
“What is this [expletive]?” he asked, before tossing the pad over the ledge. “We’re going to talk about what we see in front of us.”
Their chemistry was unmistakable. Heinsohn was the boisterous, emotional franchise legend who crushed referees on air when things went sour. Gorman was the steady, soothing presence who could make viewers feel like everything would always be fine, even when it was not.
During a game in Orlando many years ago, one of the monitors on the broadcast table started smoking and caught fire. As crew members and Heinsohn quickly tried to smother it, Gorman kept speaking to New England, calm as a nap.
“Mike’s our fail-safe,” said NBC Sports Boston’s longtime game producer, Paul Lucey. “I might be jumping up and down in the production truck going crazy about something, but you’d never know there’s an issue when Mike’s on the air.”
Heinsohn likes to joke that he and Gorman have had just one argument over their 38 years, and that it has not ended yet.
But there actually was one that required mediation. About 20 years ago, the two were at a pregame production meeting in an Orlando restaurant when Heinsohn suggested that anyone could do Gorman’s job. A shouting match ensued, and the two had to be separated.
“It wasn’t good,” Gorman says. “It wasn’t pretty.”
That afternoon, Gorman strode past Heinsohn to get on the team bus, still fuming but prepared to do the broadcast anyway. Then Heinsohn grabbed Gorman and wrapped him in a bear hug. They called the game and have pretty much been fine ever since.
“When we do a game,” the 84-year-old Heinsohn says now, “I feel like we’re friends watching together with popcorn and a beer.”
In 2012, former Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine began filling in for Heinsohn and now does the road broadcasts. Scalabrine is energetic, loud, and sometimes over-the-top. For many play-by-play announcers who have had one teammate for so long, it could have been a jarring transition.
But Gorman’s adjustment was seamless, and he and Scalabrine, 41, now have a chemistry of their own. Gorman educates Scalabrine on broadcasting and banter — “What does penultimate mean?” Scalabrine asked on air after Gorman used the word in a recent broadcast — and the knowledgeable Scalabrine gives Gorman a different view of the NBA.
‘Basketball comfort food’
On game days, Gorman usually has a one-hour workout and a half-hour nap, and he spends another hour scanning the detailed notes that stat guru Dick Lipe e-mails to him every day.
Gorman does not like to jam a broadcast with this information — Heinsohn warned him about that years ago — but he likes to have an extensive menu to choose from when something fits.
Many broadcasters fill games with noisy calls and nonstop dialogue, but Gorman has never been tempted to alter his understated approach. The fans can see what is transpiring, so they don’t always need to be told about it.
“Mike tells me that the third man in the booth, our audience, is our silent partner,” Scalabrine said. “And we’ve got to give him the proper amount of space and respect.”
After Gorman started with the Celtics, he wanted to create a signature call. The team’s legendary radio announcer, Johnny Most, used to follow big shots by saying, “Bang!” Gorman came up with “Got it!” He ran it by Most, who gave an approving nod. It remains Gorman’s trademark line today. “Takes it, makes it,” is another favorite. But Gorman does not overwhelm a broadcast with catchphrases or hot takes.
“Instead of screaming all game long, he just calls the game,” said ABC’s lead NBA announcer, Mike Breen, a longtime friend. “And then when that voice goes up you know, ‘Uh oh, I’m seeing something special.’ ”
Added Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca: “Mike’s kind of like a home-cooked meal. He’s basketball comfort food.”
Dimming the lights
When Teri got a job helping found the WNBA in the mid 1990s, the couple bought an apartment on 85th Street in Manhattan. Gorman commuted on game days, usually making it home just before 3 a.m. Once he made it back just in time to wake up his wife and daughter to walk to the Hudson River and see a meteor shower, but the trips were usually less romantic than that.
The family eventually moved out of the city and bought a house on a private lake in South Salem, N.Y. Motorboats are not allowed on the water, and when the trees are covered in leaves, the place is almost invisible, just as Gorman likes it. He fishes and kayaks and is looking forward to living there year-round again someday.
While the end of his career is not here, Gorman knows it is within sight. He skipped a pair of road trips this year and may do that more frequently. He is under contract for two more seasons, and NBCSB holds an option for a third year.
“He’s obviously earned the right to call his shots how he wants this to finish up,” Lucey said. “He’s in charge of that. He’s still very, very popular with the bosses at NBC.”
Gorman hopes to witness one more Celtics championship, mostly so he can see coach Brad Stevens win his first. Teri remembers when the couple was on a duck boat in the 2008 championship parade and they rolled past a group of children proudly yelling “Dorchester! Dorchester!” to Gorman.
“That was just a visceral moment for me,” Teri says. “It was like, ‘Wow, they really appreciate him here.’ ”
Sometimes Gorman thinks about the various points when his career could have veered in a different direction.
He thought CBS might offer him a national college basketball job after he called a game for the network in the 1970s, but an executive approached him afterward just to say he’d done great reading a promo for the network’s hit show, “Murder, She Wrote.” He was contacted about the New York Mets play-by-play job in the mid ’80s, but he never pursued it.
But Gorman has no regrets. For 38 years and counting, he has chronicled the team he used to sneak in through fire escapes to see. He has covered championships won by Larry Bird and Paul Pierce. He has become a Boston institution. Someone recently told him that any Celtics fan under 50 really only knows what it’s like to watch a game with his voice as the soundtrack.
“I’m flattered by that,” Gorman said. “But at the same time, I wonder if maybe it’ll be time for somebody else’s voice soon.”