Jim Karvellas is hoping the celebration of his 30 years as an NBA sportscaster at the Baltimore Arena tonight will be less traumatic than his debut as the voice of the then-Chicago Zephyrs, the forerunners to the Bullets, at the Chicago Stockyards in the winter of 1962.
"Actually, I started the year before as the P.A. announcer for the Chicago Packers, making $5 a night, when I sold [team owner] Dave Trager on the idea of broadcasting the games on a regular basis," said Karvellas, a Chicago native who has made his home in Maryland the past decade.
"The Bears, Cubs and Blackhawks kept the sports crowd hopping. I don't think eight people cared about the Zephyrs [the Packers, with a name change] or even knew who they were."
Equipped with a self-made radio set and harness complete with a coat hanger as an aerial, Karvellas was ready to launch his radio career on WFMQ. Well, not quite.
"The floor at the Stockyards was as slick as glass that night," Karvellas said. "The Zephyrs were playing the St. Louis Hawks, who, at the time, had some great players like Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan, Lenny Wilkens and Zelmo Beaty. Their coach, Fuzzy Levane, sees these guys skating around like Dick Button and pulls them off the court.
The game got held up an hour, and most of the fans left before it started. It was a heckuva way to break in the business."
When the Zephyrs moved to Baltimore in 1963, and were rechristened the Bullets, there were no guarantees Karvellas would come with the franchise, along with a plump, young office helper named Jerry Krause (yes, the same Krause who now masterminds the Bulls).
"I had to fly to Philadelphia and plead my case to a guy named Ian Flamma, who had the ad agency that was hiring the announcers for Baltimore," said Karvellas.
"I'd lost my only game tape and had to ad-lib a whole game to sell myself. They had about six other guys audition. When I didn't hear from Flamma, I got desperate. I told him, 'I'm the best play-by-play man available. If you don't hire me, you're making a terrible mistake.' "
Flamma went for the pitch, and now, some 1,500 games later, Karvellas is back in the arena where he built his reputation.
Faithful Baltimore Bullets fans got accustomed to Karvellas calls that had "the Pearl" (Earl Monroe) passing the ball to "Murph" (Kevin Loughery), who came off a pick by the "Honeycomb" (Gus Johnson) to fire home a "twisting jump shot."
"Those were the days when people called each other "Slim" and "Spike," he recalled. "Just about everyone on the Bullets had a recognizable nickname. "We also had 'Mad Dog' [Fred Carter], 'Waxie' [Don Ohl] and 'Razor' [Eddie Manning]. The in fans knew who I was talking about. Only Wes Unseld didn't have a nickname. I think we were too scared to call him anything but Wes."
And there was Karvellas' patented call of "bull's eye!" whenever a Bullet ripped the nets with a perimeter shot.
"That was something I kind of borrowed from Buddy Blattner, the old New York Giants infielder who was doing Hawks basketball games when I grew up in Chicago," he said. "He used to yell 'Bingo!' when a guy made a good shot, and it kind of stuck with me.
" 'Bull's eye' fit in perfectly with the Bullets, but the first time a sound man made that ricocheting "B-ding" noise at the Arena, it almost gave former Celtics great Bill Russell a heart attack.
"That's right," said Karvellas. "Russell was a civil-rights activist and had joined Martin Luther King in some demonstrations in Alabama that summer before we came to Baltimore. He had experienced all kinds of death threats.
"And now Russell is jumping against Walt Bellamy to start our first home game in Baltimore, and they make that 'B-ding' sound. Russell hit the floor, covering his head. He figured it was an assassination attempt."
Ah, the good old days.
"Yeah, Bellamy was a superstar. He averaged a ton of points and rebounds that first year in Chicago and got paid $18,000. Almost all the players held jobs down in the off-season. But the NBA was low man on the sports totem pole back then.
"That's the most rewarding thing for me, watching how this game has evolved and mushroomed in fan interest and salaries over the last four decades," said Karvellas, beginning his second tour of duty with the Bullets on Channel 20 after a brief hiatus with professional soccer in Baltimore and Washington, and the last six NBA seasons as voice of the New York Knicks.
"We've got some great individual players today like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler. But because of money, agents and egos, the down side is you don't see the great team play the Celtics displayed in the 1950s and the Knicks in the '60s.
"But I'm just lucky to have lasted this long in this business. It's been a great run."