When we first heard that Matt Devlin was going to be the new play-by-play guy for the Raps we reached out to him almost immediately. We had heard him broadcast games and we were excited for him to become the new media face for the franchise. Matt was gracious enough to accept our interview request and below is transcript of the conversation we had. As you will see we touched on a variety of topics, from his beginnings as a play-by-play guy to the situation in Charlotte.
There are a few things I feel are important to make note of after having conducted the interview. First off, Matt loves basketball and loves to talk basketball. Much like last year we decided to go continue with our "15 Questions" series, but Matt and I talked for upwards of two hours and this easily could have been a 45 question interview. His willingness to take the time to talk ball with me and share his opinions really says a lot and the HQ very much appreciates it.
Second, there is no questions that Matt has big shoes to fill but after speaking with him I have no doubt that he will do a fantastic job being the voice of the Raptors. His style will undoubtedly be different from what people have become accustomed to, but to me it will be a change for the better.
Last, this interview has really put me over the top regarding how excited I am for this season to start. It is going to be a different team with a different feel both on and off the court. I for one, am ready to watch, and listen to, this season play out.
On to the interview…
HQ: Can you give us the 411 on your background on how you ended up where you are today as the play by play man for the Toronto Raptors?
Devlin: Well I started out in Abilene Texas, which was the location of my first job out of Boston College. In my senior year at Boston College I interned at WCBB in Boston as well as KTRK which were both ABC affiliates. KTRK was located in Houston Texas and I started putting together resume tapes, and sent it out to every market imaginable from Anchorage, Alaska to Fargo, North Dakota to Aboline Texas. Like I said, I ended up with my first job in Aboline as a sports anchor reporter. From there I got interested in play-by-play. The interest really came from watching Bob Costas interviewing Vince Scully and they were saying if you really wanted to be a good sports broadcaster then you needed to try your hand at play-by-play. So that’s when I jumped into that world. I mean if Bob Costas and Vince Scully said it then I didn’t know any better.
I ended up starting out as an announcer in Springfield Illinois with the Springfield Cardinals which was the minor league baseball team. After that I ended up doing everything from minor league baseball to high school football to college basketball.
There were a lot of different stops along the way, including Palm Springs, and a basketball job at the University of California Irvine. There I did play-by-play for $25 dollars a game. Then I had a job with the New Haven Ravens which was a minor league baseball team with the Rockies. When I went there not only did I do baseball but I also did Sacred Heart University basketball which was a small Division I school. At that time they didn’t have a radio package and so I convinced the athletic director to have a radio package where I would supply the equipment from the radio station and he would pay me $100 a game. He came to me after the first game and said "We can’t pay you". I went home wondering what to do, and I decided to stick with it. I was trying to see the big picture. Above all I needed tape of me doing basketball and that led to getting other jobs including the UCONN women’s basketball team and filling in on the men’s. That led me to Atlantic 10 basketball which in turn led to the Madison Square Garden Network where I first worked with Jack Armstrong doing WNBA games and college basketball. It was like building the foundation of a house and you have to lay one brick on top of the other.
Through those experiences and getting involved with NBA TV in year one, led me to play-by-lay in the NBA.
It’s interesting in that some guys make their way up through one market while other guys have to be willing to pick-up and go to the next opportunity. For me as I was building my resume to do play-by-play so in order to fulfill that dream of doing NBA play-by-play I had to be willing to pick up and go to the next spot. I am extremely excited about the Toronto situation because to me it truly is one of the great jobs in the NBA. That’s because of the fan base, the organization and the commitment to winning with Bryan Colangelo there. The fact that it’s the country's only team makes it a unique situation, and I really am privileged to have this opportunity.
HQ: What up to date has been the biggest highlight of your broadcasting career?
Devlin: Great question. There’s not one moment. You would think there would be one moment that would stand out but you pay your dues everyday and you are thankful just to be there and fortunate to be one of those guys I don’t think you ever have a real moment where you say "Oh, I have made it now". For me, there were times in my career where I have said to myself "Wow, I am fulfilling my dream", and that to me is what is amazing. I have done major league baseball, the NFL and the Olympics but now I cover an NBA team on a daily basis. How fortunate am I to have that dream come true? That to me, above all else is something that stands out.
There are things you remember. I remember filling in for Jack Buck back in 1997 and that was really my first big break. I also remember the first night I was on NBA TV, and I remember the first ever game I did for the Memphis Grizzlies. I also remember the first game I did for Turner and for the NFL on Fox. Those things stand out, but above all else I am fortunate to be living my dream because along the way there are a lot of times when you are doing games for $25 dollars or for free and you just don’t know if it will ever work out.
I do know I wouldn’t be where I am today without such an understanding wife in Erin and a great support system throughout. Picking up and moving is not the easiest thing to do but she is a courageous and great person and someone that has been a big part of why I am able to do what I do.
HQ: How do you think the NBA community views the city of Toronto both as a city and as a franchise?
Devlin: The NBA community has a high regard for the city and the organization. There is not one person that I have talked to, either from another organization, the league office or networks that cover the NBA that don’t speak highly about the city and Bryan Colangelo.
Everyone loves coming to the city of Toronto, believes that it is a world class city and believes that Bryan Colangelo has the organization on the right path to be extremely competitive. There are always times and situations where you re talking with someone and you hear something about an organization and that was not the case with Toronto. Toronto has an unbelievable reputation as a city. I mean my wife and I have heard from so many friends saying they want to visit. When we were in Memphis and Charlotte we didn’t get the word that we were going to get a ton of visitors but when friends heard we were coming here we got word to expect a ton of visitors.
As far as an organization it’s on the right path because Bryan Colangelo has an unbelievable track record and is somebody that is held in high regard. I am not just saying that, it is the truth. I worked with Mike Dunleavy during the post season and Mike Fratello with Turner during the season and both were raving about Colangelo. Dunleavy and I had the two Toronto games against Orlando in the first round and before and after games we were talking basketball which is always fun to do and he was raving about Colangelo.
Colangelo, when you look at his track record, you know he will do everything it takes to put a winner on the floor and he has the wherewithal to do that. If you look at the Jermaine O’Neal trade, if he is healthy it is an unbelievable deal and from an NBA cap standpoint it is an unbelievable deal. It is a win-win situation. Don’t forget O’Neal is only 29 and turns 30 this October, I just think this was a great move.
HQ: What’s your relationship like with Chuck Swirsky and what has he told you about the team's fans and what you can expect in your new position?
Devlin: Chuck and I have talked throughout our days in the NBA together but that also has intensified over the course of the past year, more specifically since I talked to the Raptors about the position. He has been so open and honest with me about Toronto and what a great city and organization it is. We have swapped emails and texts, spoken on the phone and he loved and still loves Toronto and it will always hold a special place in his heart. The fans loved him.
He’s a friend of mine and I am glad to see that he had so much success in Toronto and I wish him all the best in Chicago. We have talked about the situation and I told him that in TO he had a great situation in that the organization loved him and the fan base loved him.
HQ: Chuck had his own style. How would you describe your style of play by play?
Devlin: I think Chuck and I share a passion for the game. I love basketball and love talking about basketball. There are a couple of guys who are good friends of mine, one of whom is Carl Scheer who was president of the Nuggets, Clippers and Hornets. We talk ball everyday and run up huge time just covering the whole league. So my passion is certainly there. Our styles are different but our passion is the same.
My style is a little more straight-forward, I always believe it is about the game itself and it will dictate where you go and what you do. In a tight game you are in that game where in a blowout that’s where the chance comes to talk about other things and discuss different story lines. A pre-season game is different from a regular season game which is different from a post-season game. The game's not about me, it’s about the analyst, the players on the floor and the fan base that is watching so you want to inform and entertain. You do that through story lines and through the action on the floor. If there is a break-away dunk I am going to be excited, I mean who isn’t excited on a break-away dunk? If the play dictates that you need to go in a different direction then you do. You talk about the play on the floor and other storylines.
HQ: Do you expect to carry over any of the "chuckisms" like the salami and cheese reference?
No More "Salami and Cheese".
Devlin: I have heard such a mixed reaction to that from all the emails I have received. Some have said, "Welcome, just be you" and others ask if I could mention those things. I believe that out of respect for Chuck that those are Chuck’s. Chuck is a friend and that is like plagiarizing. That’s his special connection to the fan base and hopefully through time, it might not happen in the first week or the first year, through my hard work and passion for the game, that the fans will come to accept the way I call a game.
Ultimately those are Chuck’s and out of deep respect for him I could never take that from him. That would take away something from Chuck and his experiences with the fan base.
HQ: If there was one criticism of Swirsky’s style it was a lack of objectivity when doing a game. As an employee of MLSE how does this, or will it, effect how you call a game?
Devlin: Well number one I want the Raptors to win. That is first and foremost. There are however, times in which, throughout the course of a game where the team may not be performing up to what you expect. There are times when you may have to point that out. If the team starts out 1 and 10 it can be just a bad start and you can say that. Is there a trend though? Is it something that happened the game before? Fans know when the team is playing poorly and you can’t fool the fans. They know when the team is playing well and when they are playing bad. If you say when they are not playing so well that they are playing great, then how will the fans look at it when the team is actually playing great? You have to be fair, but I want them to win. I won’t be on them every night, but there might be times when there is something obvious and you have to call it. Of course there may be situations where the team is in the second half of a back-to-back and there is a reason why they are playing poorly, so there are often times when you have to explain why something is happening and not just make a blanket statement.
Of the six years I have called for teams, only one year was it a winning season. It was the season in Memphis with Hubie Brown and they won 50 games. You need to understand where teams are, their expectations and what the team is going through. The team this year is trying to get to the next level and become an elite team in the East and expectations are higher.
HQ: We here at the HQ are excited to see that Jack Armstrong has a new contract to broadcast Raptors games. What’s your relationship with him?
Devlin: Jack is one of the great guys. He is a great friend, first and foremost, and he is just a great guy to do a game with. He knows the game, can deliver it, can tell you why things are happening and has he ability to have fun. He’s the perfect combination because he has so many different ways to make your job easier. He is someone I have always enjoyed doing games with.
When you do a game with Jack you smile. He is the kind of guy you want to sit around and talk hoops with. That comes across on the air and that makes him a special sports broadcaster. He has great perspective. He has seen it all and he has a great background with great teachers like Hubie Brown and the "five star" guys like Brendon Malone and Mike Fratello.
HQ: Having come from the Bobcats organization why do you think the team has trouble garnering interest while being located in the hotbed of basketball?
Devlin: There isn’t an easy answer. It’s a complex situation. It all started when the Hornets left and they had an unbelievable amount of success. They lead the league in attendance for 8 to 10 years. Off the court they had issues, the owner and the city didn’t see eye-to-eye and then it left. Then the NBA re-enters a market for the first time ever. It’s not a typical expansion situation and things have changed in the city. It now has the Carolina Panthers of the NFL. The community as a whole right now just doesn’t agree with everything going on with the franchise.
I hope that with Larry Brown that the situation will change because Charlotte is a great city with great fans there. I went to the ACC Tournament everyday this past year in Charlotte and it was jam packed. They are extremely passionate about their college basketball and always have been. At the end of the day from a professional standpoint you have to show your fans that you are committed to win and you have to put a winning product on the court. Hopefully with Larry Brown there that will happen.
There is not just one thing. There has been a lot of turnover and there were some things heading in the right direction but time didn’t allow for them to happen. They just took their first big step as an organization in re-signing Emeka and they needed to do that. That tells me that Larry Brown is now in control and it tells me that he wanted DJ Augustine to be the point guard. Augustine was the guy Larry Brown wanted, and he wanted to keep Okafor. Larry Brown, a Hall of Fame coach, with the resume he has, is going to try and lead the revitalization of that organisation.
HQ: You are heading over the Olympics shortly. What will you be doing over there?
Devlin: I will be covering wrestling for NBC sports and working with Rulon Gardner who won the 2000 Olympic gold medal. I covered wrestling at the US Olympic trials about a month ago and I am looking forward to it. Any time you can involve yourself with another sport it keeps things fresh and keeps your mind fresh. I have really enjoyed studying and learning a sport and learning about the individuals and the sacrifices they have made in their lives to get to this point.
It’s amazing in that no matter what country an athlete is from, each has a great story. I am always interested in that perspective, what makes people tick and what gives them the willingness to sacrifice so much to achieve. In a lot of situations it’s about people who have been knocked down but have gotten back up.
In the US they have a Greco heavyweight, Dremiel Byers who was Rulon Gardner’s wrestling partner and Dremiel for one year was at the top of his game and Rulon was off because of an injury but it was Rulon who beat him and went to Athens in 2004. Now Dremiel through all the trials and tribulations in his life, being raised by his grandfather in Kings Mountain North Carolina he is headed off to Beijing. Then there is an 18 year old Jake Deitchler from Minnesota who knocked off veterans and here he is at 18 heading to Beijing. It is hard to believe what he has accomplished but it is amazing to see.
HQ: In one word who is winning the gold medal in men’s basketball?
Devlin: In one word…I mean they are calling it the road to redemption and everything is in place. After the embarrassment in Athens in 2004, and it was an embarrassment, I think the governing body recognized that, and they did the right thing by putting hall of famer Jerry Colangelo in charge. Under his direction they have proven to be a team that could be the best. He went out and got Coach K and has surrounded the coach with people that understand the international game and then he has gone out and gotten players to commit which has always been a big issue. It’s because he is Jerry Colangelo and a Hall of Famer that he is able to do that. The program is in the right person’s hands and they have the right coach. It’s now up to the players to execute and make the shots.
Everything is right but it won’t be easy. When you look at Spain and their roster you see a pretty good roster and a great team. For the US however, they have a deep roster and they will recapture the gold. There’s your one word answer!
HQ: Who do you think is the best play-by-play guy and the best colour commentator in the NBA today or who are your favourites?
Devlin: Hubie is great. There are a lot of quality announcers. Marv Albert sets the bar in the NBA. From an analyst standpoint I would have to say Hubie Brown. I have worked with Mike Fratello and I think he does an outstanding job. Doug Collins does an outstanding job. Those three really stand out to me.
HQ: In all your broadcasting time what’s the craziest or funniest thing you have ever witnessed as a broadcaster?
Devlin: You would think one thing would pop-up but then you starting thinking about all the games you have called. One thing I will never forget though was when I was calling Quinnipiac University basketball and they were playing Pace in New York. The game was at Pace and the gym was like three stories below the ground and there may have been 10 people in the stands. I am the only person calling play-by-play so everyone can hear me. You are young in your career and everyone can hear you. The whistle blows and a kid from Quinnipiac goes to the free throw line and he’s standing at the line looking back at me like "Can you stop talking" and I felt like I should go into a Jim Nance commentary for golf and start whispering! You can’t though because it’s basketball.
HQ: What the most exciting game you have ever called or been a part of?
Devlin: I can tell you the greatest game I have ever seen was when I was in high school. I didn’t call it but I was at the Boston College-Miami college football game where Doug Flutie threw the Hail-Mary pass. My brother was at BC at the time and it was during Thanksgiving and he flew down to Miami from school and Dad got us in the old Chevy and we drove down from there and we were at that game. That is the one game that stands out. Brent Musberger had the call. I was at that game.
As far as calling games I will never forget Hubie Brown, before the playoff game against San Antonio where he was awarded Coach of the Year, being given that trophy. It gave me goose bumps the reception he received. It was a great moment for the organization.
I have seen Kobe Bryant put up 56, I have seen Dwight Howard go 20 and 20, and there have been a lot of moments where you say "wow, I am sitting courtside and I get to see this".
[Editor’s Note: After taping the call the other moment that came to Matt’s mind was this years playoffs and calling the New Orleans – Dallas series and watching Chris Paul absolutely dominate.]
HQ: What is your prediction for the Raptors this year and how good can this team be?
Devlin: I think they could be very good. Number one health is the most important thing. It’s important for Jermaine O’Neal and at the PG position with Jose. It is extremely imperative that Jason Kapono plays the way he did in the playoffs and I think with the combo of O’Neal and Bosh and the idea of "ok who is going to get doubled" it will create a lot of problems for the opposing team.
For Jose, everyone knows that he is the guy. That is important and will help the team. For any team though it is about health. For example if you look back at this past year and the Celtics and all the talk about "if they stay healthy"…well they did and they accomplished great things.
People seem to forget about health when they look at Elton Brand with the 76ers. People are getting overly excited. Sure with Dalembert who is talented, Iguodala who is talented and Andre Miller who was so important to them last year, the team looks good but Elton Brand is coming off a very significant injury.
I think the Raptors are poised to do great things. What is that? Is it a first round team? A second round team? I think they have the ability to be a second round team. O’Neal said he is healthy for the first time in two years and you know when talking to him you can see that he is someone who wants to prove his place and be on a winner. He has been a six time All-Star, has the money, is proven, and there is no better way for him to redeem what has happened over the past four or five years then to come to Toronto and help them achieve what they want to achieve. The other thing to remember to is that when you have someone like Bryan Colangelo running the organization that he will put the organization in a position to win and win big.
The other key guy to the team's success is Bargnani. The great thing is that Bargnani now knows what his role is. He has to be a key guy coming off of the bench. He needs to fill a void and that can only help him develop and gain confidence.