“A truly super super-sectional game”

As I prepared to announce last night’s UIC-Loyola women’s basketball game, a name popped out at me from the Loyola roster. The Ramblers have a brand new coaching staff and their first-year Director of Player Development is Chanise Jenkins.

I haven’t thought about Chanise Jenkins much over the last decade but the second I saw her name, I was instantly hit with a deluge of memories. It was in the winter of 2009 that I first became aware of the then-high school sophomore, who was playing her way through the Illinois state playoffs.

But if I want to make this story about me (and I do), it actually goes back a good deal further than that. I knew from the time I was a small child that I wanted one day to be a sports announcer and that was all well and good as a dream but I had no idea what broadcasting sports was actually like. For all I knew, I would hate it if and when I got the chance. Then, during my junior year of high school, I became the play-by-play broadcaster for our school’s basketball teams and the job somehow managed not just to live up to my outsized expectations but to exceed them. I loved everything about my high school broadcasting career: the game prep and teaching myself how to pace a broadcast and learning just the right phrasing I should use to maximize the excitement of a play. But more than anything else, I loved the atmosphere. There’s nothing quite like being in a packed gym for a big high school basketball game, to hear the band playing and the crowd cheering, and it was even more special to know that I was a part of it, that the special atmosphere I was surrounded by was able to be experienced by fans at home solely because of the broadcast I was bringing them. I may have wanted to be a sports announcer from the time I was little but it wasn’t until high school that I was absolutely certain this was the life I wanted to live…until I started college.

I was lucky enough to jump right into the broadcaster’s chair as a freshman at Saint Xavier and I immediately started calling basketball games there. But there was something missing from these college games. That atmosphere that I loved so much in high school was non-existent. I still loved broadcasting but it was really hard to get excited for a game that had 30 fans watching from a nearly silent arena. And that special feeling I got for bringing the experience into people’s homes disappeared with the realization that nobody really cared.

I was just starting to think that I may have chosen the wrong vocation after all when our school station got the go-ahead from the IHSA to broadcast the high school girls super-sectional final that was going to be held at our gym in early March. By this time, I was over the excitement of broadcasting basketball. I was happy to be calling the game but the thrill had diminished. But that night, as I entered the gym, I was hit with that old feeling again. The building was packed. People were getting turned away at the door and inside there were fans hanging from the rafters. All of a sudden, the adrenaline was back.

It turned out to be a good game, not a thriller, but a fun one none the less. The broadcast went well and afterwards, we hosted an hour-long postgame show. We even opened the phone lines and actually got a steady stream of callers. At a small college radio station! It was unheard of.

After that, the high school super-sectional became the highlight of my year. I missed the next year’s game because I was out of the country but I couldn’t wait for my next chance to call big high school basketball.

The opportunity finally presented itself on March 2, 2009. As soon as the dates and locations were announced for that year’s high school playoffs, I got permission from the IHSA to broadcast and then sat in eager anticipation for weeks about the super-sectional final, which again was coming to Saint Xavier. The sectionals that year were played at Mother McAuley High School, right next door, so I got to see a few rounds of the tournament play out before the sectional winner came to our gym.

About a week before the game, while walking around campus, I ran into my brother, Angelo. He had graduated the previous year but still always seemed to be around. As I excitedly told him about the big broadcast, I mentioned that our alma mater, Fenwick, was playing in the McAuley sectional and that if they could pull off the upset of Whitney Young – the number one team in the state – they’d be playing in our game on Monday. He thought that was pretty cool and suggested that he announce the game with me as it’d be a nice touch to have a couple of alumni broadcasting for Fenwick. For the only time in my college career, I actually had a pretty good stable of broadcasters at the radio station and surely could have gotten someone else to call the game with me but I agreed that it’d be fun for the two of us to work the game together. Angelo had been a member of the radio station when he was in school and the two of us had called many games as partners before but it had been a while and I knew there wouldn’t be many more opportunities since he had already graduated.

I was disappointed, though not surprised, a few nights later when I watched Fenwick fall in the sectional final to Young. There were still a few Fenwick players left on the team from when I had been their announcer in high school, so I was really excited about the prospect of calling one of their games, but I swallowed the disappointment, knowing that the super-sectional was going to be a magical night regardless of who was playing.

As the day approached, I was dealt a second blow. After a recent road basketball broadcast at Loyola University, I had accidentally left the power cord for my audio board at their court. I called the university but they couldn’t find it. We ordered a new cord and I prayed that it would arrive in time for the big high school game but by the afternoon of the super-sectional, it still hadn’t arrived. I desperately sought another solution. We broadcasted through ISDN, a fiber optic phone line that required a specific board to be used and that board required a specific power source. I must have spent six hours that day going through every piece of equipment we had available at the radio station and running back and forth to Media Services trying to find another power cord that was compatible with our board but to no avail. By the end of the afternoon, the studio had been either completely reorganized or totally torn apart, depending on who you ask.

With gametime looming, I knew that I was out of time and went with my backup plan: broadcasting over a standard telephone line. To this day it kills me that the audio from that night sounds like we’re talking over a phone (because we are).

As I set up my accursed backup equipment, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was somewhat lacking. Two years earlier, the matchup had been Marian Catholic against Marist, two Southside Catholic League powerhouses with a rivalry that would have driven a crowd out even if they weren’t playing for anything. This time, with Marian taking on Whitney Young, a city school with a further distance to travel and no built-in rivalry, the same buzz wasn’t in the arena. Marian turned out well but Young’s side was only a little over half full. All in all, it was a good crowd but a far cry from the raucous atmosphere of two years ago.

Bit by bit, my energy was draining. I had built this game up in my head until it was the biggest moment of the year but nothing had quite worked out the way I wanted it to. Angelo was coming from work and so didn’t arrive until shortly before tip-off. When he reached the broadcast table, he looked confused. “Where’s Fenwick?” he asked.

“They’re not playing,” I told him. “They lost last week.”

“I thought you told me Fenwick was playing in this.”

“No. I said they might but only if they upset Whitney Young. They didn’t.”

“Oh, too bad.”

He seemed completely unfazed by the fact that the game was about to start and he didn’t even know who was playing but I was taken aback. I had spent days researching these teams in preparation for the game. I assumed that he had at least checked the IHSA website to see which schools had made it. There was no use in dwelling on it, though. We had to get the broadcast rolling and we thought we did. The game got off to an exciting start with the two teams trading baskets but late in the first quarter, I got a call from our producer back in the studio telling me that he had been getting phone calls saying we weren’t on the air. Anything that could go wrong was going wrong.

Angelo left to drive to the studio and find out what the problem was while I stayed at the arena ready to pick up the broadcast whenever we got it back up and running, which turned out to be the start of the second quarter. I announced the first half of that period solo while Angelo made his way back to the gym. At halftime, he angrily explained to me that the reason the first quarter hadn’t made it to air is because our producer had pressed the wrong button on the board so that only he could hear us in the studio. The rest of the world was getting dead air.

By this point, I had lost all enthusiasm for this broadcast. I tried to be professional about it but it just hadn’t been the evening I had planned for. A week before, I was looking forward to this game like it was Christmas or the Super Bowl or both combined, but now I just wanted to get through it and go home. That all changed over the next hour. Despite my disappointment, the game had other plans for me. Marian Catholic extended a narrow halftime lead and appeared to be pulling away until Whitney Young put on their trademark full court press and made a run of their own, tightening it up. In the second half, the game had become a real doozy, making it difficult for me to stay in my snit.

There are so many details of this game that I will never forget, but as I’ve been thinking about it these last few days, I decided to go back and listen to the entire thing, probably for the first time ever. There’s something very strange about listening to a 21-year-old version of yourself for two straight hours and even stranger when that younger you is talking that whole time with someone you haven’t been able to talk to in real life in almost 12 years. Having said that, there were a few things that stood out to me about my broadcasting. For starters, I did a HORRIBLE job of updating the time and score. Half the time I was listening to this broadcast, I didn’t even know who was winning. Also, I spent most of the second half delivering every line with a kind of nervous chuckle, almost like I was embarrassed by how excited I was by the game.

Other than that, there’s very little to distinguish the broadcaster of that game to the one who announced that Loyola-UIC game last night. That’s probably a pretty strong indictment of my current broadcasting level.

In the final 30 seconds of the game, with Whitney Young trailing by one, their senior star, Ashlee Anderson, connected on two free throws to give her team a one-point lead. Then Anderson stole the ensuing inbounds pass and knocked down two more free throws. It seemed a fitting end to what had been a quite exciting contest. Anderson had been an all-state performer but was having a nightmarish game shooting the basketball. To see her get redemption and the apparent game winning points was a satisfying conclusion but Marian Catholic had other ideas. After the two free throws that put Young up by three, Marian ran the clock down to the closing seconds before Valerie Finnin hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer that sent the game into overtime and sent Angelo and me into hysterics. After our initial high pitched shrieking, we both stayed silent for 14 seconds and let the considerable sound of the crowd take over the broadcast – probably the element that I’m most proud of in listening today.

Overtime was a tightly played four minutes that didn’t see either team take a significant advantage. It was still tied on the final possession for Whitney Young but Chanise Jenkins, the superstar sophomore, appeared not to realize how much time was on the clock. She never even looked toward the basket as she let time run out to force double overtime. That made me surprisingly angry. I typically try to avoid excessive criticism on the air. If a player makes a mistake or a bad play, I always acknowledge it but I tend not to harp on those miscues. In this case, though, I sounded almost personally offended by Jenkins not getting a shot up. Looking back, maybe I was. I may have felt like she had robbed me of my chance to call a game-winner at the buzzer.

So, play went on into double overtime. By now, even if it wasn’t fully packed, the crowd was at a fever pitch and Angelo and I could barely hear each other even with our headsets on. After another thrilling four minutes, Young was ahead by one with ten seconds left. It was the third straight time that Marian trailed in the final ten seconds. They had forced ties at the end of regulation and overtime. Now, here in double overtime, they went for the win. Kaila Turner, the Notre Dame bound all-stater drove and missed a layup but her teammate, Mallory Eggert grabbed the rebound and scored on the second effort to give Marian a 76-75 lead with 4.54 seconds remaining.

“What poetic justice!” Angelo shouted in kindly reminding the fans that Eggert had “turned the ball over time and again” but was now redeemed. For the second time tonight, it seemed we had our fairy tale ending but there was still one more possession to be played.

The ball went in to Chanise Jenkins, the unquestioned star of the team. Jenkins had scored 21 points in the first half but went cold after that and had been scoreless for over 20 minutes of gametime. She was also still in my doghouse for her misplay at the end of the first overtime. Within five seconds, all was forgiven. Jenkins took the inbounds pass and streaked down the sideline. With the clock about to strike zero and Jenkins a step and a half past half court, she heaved an off-balance three-pointer that fell through the net as the buzzer sounded.

The place was stunned, elation on the side of Whitney Young and heartbreak in the Marian Catholic section. It was a shot that deserved a call from the play-by-play announcer worthy of its magnitude (In a game that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!). Vin Scully was nowhere in sight, though, so instead Angelo and I just screamed like lunatics for several seconds, my voice cracking and falling off into one more incredulous chuckle.

Listening to the broadcast again was fun and brought back a lot of those memories. I had spent the previous week going to all of Whitney Young’s games to scout them at Mother McAuley and did an inordinate amount of reading about Marian Catholic to make sure my broadcast didn’t sound one-sided. I remember clearly being afraid that I would sound clunky trying to work in my stories about those games, as if I was just trying to show off that I knew some stuff, but listening to it now, I think that I actually pulled it off. Throughout the game, I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

My on-air chemistry with Angelo was interesting. Throughout the game, we constantly interrupted and talked over one another but we generally seemed to be on the same page, a dynamic that probably could only come out of sharing a bedroom for 16 years. His lack of preparation didn’t seem to hurt things much as he was able to cover it up with analysis of the game and a string of non sequiturs. At one point during a tense moment, he started talking about how weird it is that more teams aren’t named Dolphins and even after the game, surrounded by the pandemonium of the amazing finish, he insisted that we check with our producer before signing off to see if anyone had called into the station to identify other teams called the Dolphins. My contribution to the exchange was wondering why all the teams that are called the Dolphins seem to wear orange. Earlier, Angelo expressed disappointment that Michelle Obama wasn’t in attendance and I was shocked to hear my response that she probably had more important things to do. I would have bet good money that I’d have said, “She’s probably at home listening to us.”

For ten minutes after the final shot, we carried on with a postgame show that consisted of increasingly hyperbolic descriptions of what we had just seen. Angelo claimed it was “The best high school basketball game of the season if not all decade-long. Bob Sakamoto will tell you as much tomorrow.” In rehashing this game, I went searching for Bob Sakamoto’s byline from March 3, 2009, but couldn’t confirm Ang’s prediction.

I’ve had a very fortunate career as a broadcaster. I’ve worked national championships, Major League Soccer games, I’ve called no-hitters in baseball, but from a pure excitement standpoint, it’s hard to imagine I’ll ever work a better game than this one. In closing the broadcast, I said, “As an announcer, you cannot possibly ask for more in a basketball game.” That’s as true today as it was then.

It’s rare to have a day where everything you’ve prepared for seems to go completely wrong; rarer still that it becomes one of the most memorable days of your life for all the right reasons.

Click here to hear the last few minutes of double overtime