George Blaha sat at midcourt with Isiah Thomas on Wednesday night, sharing memories of The Palace and the Pistons’ farewell season before moving to Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit.
Thomas, the greatest Piston. Blaha, the greatest voice. Both greats in their own right.
Blaha will be honored during a halftime ceremony of tonight’s game against the Spurs for his 41 years as a Pistons broadcaster. In many ways, he could be placed on the Pistons’ Mount Rushmore of legends along with Thomas, Dave Bing and Bob Lanier.
Through two team owners, three arenas, three championships, 20 coaches, thousands of games and countless more players, Blaha has been the constant with the Pistons.
From his trademark “Count that baby and a foul!” after a made shot to the familiar “Off the high glass!” Blaha has been for many Pistons fans what Ernie Harwell was to Tigers fans or Vin Scully was to Dodgers faithful — a golden voice.
“When you think about it, every important moment that’s ever happened in the history of the Detroit Pistons, it has George Blaha’s voice behind it,” said Joe Abramson, who has worked as Blaha’s statistician for 34 years. “You can’t say that about anybody else in this town and there aren’t many other franchises where you can say that.”
With so much history, Blaha, 71, doesn’t take any of it for granted. He continues on the rugged NBA travel season of 82 games — and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Even when he’s next to Thomas or any of the Pistons greats, he holds his own, regarded highly by fans, but maintaining his humility through it all.
“To be accepted by these fans here for so many years is absolutely awesome. Mr. (Bill) Davidson was kind enough to hire me; Mr. (Tom) Gores was kind enough to keep me on, but if the fans wanted to fire me, they would have done that years ago.
“I know that they’re the reason I’m still working — and I appreciate it.”
Blaha has been the voice of the Pistons on TV and radio, when they played at Cobo Arena. Since then, he’s done thousands of games and seen the franchise through many ups and downs.
But it wasn’t necessarily a slam-dunk hire.
When he applied for the job as the play-by-play announcer in the summer of 1976, he didn’t have much experience, but decided to take a shot anyway. And Frank Beckmann, who was in charge of the hiring, took a chance.
And it paid off.
“All I had was a high school basketball tape. I had done some Michigan State football and hadn’t even done any college basketball,” Blaha recalled. “Pistons ownership listened and had me do an audition out of training camp and they liked the audition well enough to give me a chance. The fans have been kind enough to keep me around.”
It’s been an ongoing love affair between the Pistons players, organization, fans and Blaha. And it’s lasted through four decades — through the move to the Pontiac Silverdome, to the first season at The Palace in 1988, to the back-to-back championships the next two seasons, plus the reprise in 2004 with the ‘Goin’ to Work’ squad.
They’re all in the memory bank for Blaha, but he hearkens back to one of his first home games, in 1976 at Cobo. It’s where he learned to embrace the moment and have a healthy respect for what he was embarking upon.
“The first game I broadcast there, I wasn’t looking at the fans; I was looking at the court. I watched Bob Lanier and Wes Unseld walk out for the opening tip — and I realized this wasn’t high school anymore and this wasn’t even college,” he said. “This was the big leagues, with those big guys going at it.
“That’s an evening I’ll never forget. I was so excited that when I went to drive home — I lived in Okemos at the time — I didn’t realize which way I was going.
“Next thing I know, I was in Grosse Pointe because I was so fired up about being able to broadcast NBA basketball.”
Blaha’s broadcast partner on Fox Sports Detroit, color analyst Greg Kelser, first met Blaha when Kelser was 18 years old and playing at Michigan State, coached by Blaha’s friend, Gus Ganakas.
Even then, Kelser was a fan.
“George brought excitement to his call of the game, even if you’re listening to him on the radio,” Kelser said. “If a person could paint a picture vividly so much so that you don’t mind that you’re not seeing the action — but you’re able to hear it on radio and be comfortable with that — it says something about the artist painting the exhibit. He has the ability to do that.
“My listenership has spanned 41 years and his passion, energy and enthusiasm has not waned. He’s a point guard play-by-play guy. He definitely has a feel for what’s going on. He knows when to bring it down, when to raise it up and it’s not fake or manufactured.”
And that goes for every game — thousands and thousands of them, over the years.
The NBA season has many dog days, and announcers, as much as players and coaches, can hit a proverbial wall with the long stretches over a six-month season wrought with travel and condensed schedules. But his colleagues marvel at Blaha’s ability to push past it.
And to treat each game with the respect it deserves.
“He absolutely loves his job and he calls a game, whether it’s Game 7 of the Finals or the first preseason game, he calls them with the same enthusiasm and he does the same preparation,” Abramson said.
“It’s how diligently he prepares for every broadcast. I’ve worked with a lot of good broadcasters over the years but nobody is as prepared as George.”
Although Blaha loves the Pistons and doesn’t plan on hanging up the mic any time soon — “I don’t think I want to set any records, though maybe I already have,” he jokes — he looks forward to traveling with his wife, Mary, and just doing his job, whether it’s Pistons or Michigan State football broadcasts.
There are no signs of him slowing down, either.
“One of the biggest about George is his sustained passion,” Kelser said. “All those great ABA players who came in the league that year (when Blaha did): Moses Malone, Dr. J, Maurice Lucas, George Gervin, Bad News Barnes, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel — they’re all gone, and George is still here.”
And like them, he’s still one of the greats.