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The faces behind the voices

(Original publication: February 16, 2005)

When the opportunity to audition for the job of Knicks public address announcer came about in 1989, Mike Walczewski already had years of experience preparing for the role.

And it didn't come during his 11 years as "King Wally" on Sports Phone, when he worked alongside such familiar names as Al Trautwig, Gary Cohen, Michael Kay and Howie Rose.

"I used to imitate John Condon in the shower because the shower has the best acoustics," said Walczewski, a 48-year-old Hastings resident.

Condon had served as Knicks PA announcer for 43 seasons until his death in 1989.

"He was legendary," Walczewski said.

But Walczewski, who works about 80 percent of the home games for both the Knicks and Liberty, has become a legend of his own.

After all, can you imagine a big Knicks game at the Garden during the 1990s without Walczewski's distinct "Pat-rick Ewing" call?

But for every Mike Walczewski, there are scores of other PA announcers who go about their work with far less fanfare at high school and college football fields and gymnasiums near you.

In fact, there's even a new organization based in Kansas City, Mo., called the National Association of Sports Public Address Announcers. It was formed, according to founder Brad Rumble, because "sports public address announcers had no place to turn for assistance or professional development."

The NASPAA will be introducing a three-hour-long online training/certification course.

Walczewski didn't have the benefit of taking any announcing courses when he started doing PA for Fordham men's basketball home games shortly after his graduation from the university in 1979. He worked Westchester Golden Apples USBL games at the County Center before getting his break with the Knicks.

"They were comfortable enough to have someone sound very vanilla my first couple of years," Walczewski said. "But when (Dave) Checketts came (as Knicks president in 1991), it loosened it up. They didn't want crazy stuff, but did want me to have fun."

Jefferson Valley's Kevin Van Meter does just that by mixing music with announcing.

The 52-year-old first announced games while in high school and didn't start incorporating music until 1987. Van Meter, who does PA for Iona men's basketball and football, has a collection of around 1,200 CDs, of which he brings about 30 to each game he announces.

"I will never play 'Hit the Road Jack' if someone fouls out," Van Meter said. "Ask any MAAC coach and they'll say, 'Kevin is a class act.' "

Rich Leaf, a retired social studies teacher at Louis M. Klein Middle School in Harrison, is known for playing it straight as the voice of the Section 1 boys basketball final four. He will mark his 25th year in that role next week. He also announces Harrison varsity football and basketball games.

"Before the games in the County Center, as they called the starting lineup, I would be so charged up," said former Kennedy basketball star Dan Gumb, now a freshman at Roger Williams. "Hearing your name being called is a memory of a lifetime. You feel like a star."

Though Leaf has thrilled thousands of players through the years, he maintains the same straightforward approach.

"I feel I am there to inform, not entertain," Leaf said. "Some announcers look at it differently; they get all riled up, and that's fine. I just believe in keeping it simple."

That philosophy also applies for Leaf when it comes to the equipment that's used.

"You're talking to someone here who is lucky he can turn the microphone on and off," Leaf said. "The sound system is always provided by the venue."

Pace University, the host site for the six-game Winter Hardwood Classic that Leaf announced on Jan. 8, has a portable microphone that is hooked into the system at the Goldstein Center. At Harrison games, Leaf uses a portable mike and two portable speakers.

Jim Long, senior support engineer for the Minneapolis-based Telex Pro-Audio Group, said outfitting a 1,000-seat-capacity gymnasium with a permanent sound system that would sound "very good, like a stereo" would run around $30,000.

But you can't put a price on one important thing Van Meter has learned about PA announcing through the years.

"The less wordage I use, the more people accept it," he said.

Accuracy is also important.

"You should never assume a name is pronounced the way it's spelled, because sometimes it's not," said Walczewski, who said he arrives at the Garden about an hour before game time, checks in with the game-operations coordinator, and then goes over pronunciations with a media-relations representative from the visiting team.

Despite his 16 years with one of the NBA's marquee franchises, Walczewski said he's paid only "a few hundred dollars per game."

"You definitely need a day job," said Walczewski, who is a partner in an executive search firm in White Plains. "It really is a labor of love."

"For Westchester Flames (soccer) games, I get $100, but I also do scorekeeping and the clock and a little bit of the music," said Eastchester's Jerry Fishoff, a retired businessman who has been calling the Section 1 football championship games for the last 10 years.

Leaf said his love for high school sports — not money — brings him back each year.

"I guess I'm just being a gym rat at heart," he said. "I'd probably be there anyway. This gives me a courtside seat."

Send e-mail to Joe Lombardi




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