This season, no TV play-by-play announcer and NBA team make more sense together than Eric Collins and the Hornets. Collins has called Hornets games since 2015, but this year’s team is infused with a degree of drama and excitement that neatly aligns with his own uniquely exuberant and insightful approach to broadcasting.
You can’t see Collins during games, but he’s lively enough to make every gesticulation seem heard. He’s hysterical in the most enjoyable ways without losing sense of the stakes on any given play, especially in crunch time, where no team is having more success than these Hornets. And not to bury the lede but Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball plays for this team. Ball’s flair is to Collins what a blank canvas was for Monet.
Last week, Sports Illustrated caught up with Collins to discuss this season, working in a pandemic, why he doesn’t listen to any other play-by-play announcers, how LaMelo Ball reminds him of Michael Jordan and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: What’s the biggest thing that stands out to you when you watch this team, night in night out, that you might not have expected heading into the season?
Eric Collins: I love the fact that there’s not one particular alpha. I think it’s really cool that every single night it’s either Terry Rozier, who was nails last [Thursday] night. It’s Gordon Hayward making big shots in the fourth quarter. It was Devonte’ Graham during spurts this year, a ton last year. P.J. Washington can step up and have a big game. And then LaMelo Ball just kind of binds everything together. I’m still waiting for him to hit his first game-winner, but he’s the type of guy that has made such a radical difference because there’s really not just one guy that the ball funnels through, and to have a facilitator like LaMelo getting everyone else involved ... everyone else is chronically disrespected. I think the Hornets have so many guys who are a tick above average that when they play well together, I think you really have a chance for something special, because the style of play is entertaining to watch and it’s been effective.
SI: Did you think they would be this good? The standings are bunched up, but they have a decent shot at making the playoffs and maybe even avoiding any play-in games.
EC: I was one of the believers at the tail end of last year. Last year, in late February and early March before our season shut down and didn’t resume, the Hornets were playing good ball. Terry Rozier was playing phenomenal, and I’d seen enough of him to realize that he was a special talent. Devonte’ Graham had played well and P.J. Washington [had] a good rookie year. I’ve always been a believer in Miles Bridges and the type of energy he brings. I think a lot of the basketball world just didn’t even recognize what was happening at the tail end of last year. And then when they didn’t get invited to the bubble, even more so.
But this is real, man. If you just take a look at the individual parts, the parts are pretty good! And then the way that those parts play together, it makes it just a little bit better. I don’t think that this is blind luck by any stretch of the imagination. I think the Hornets are a good club, and I think they have been for a while; circumstances have combined to conspire against them over the last year, but everyone’s healthy and good to go now. It’s exciting times.
SI: Do you feel any additional, I don’t want to say pressure, but just an awareness that there’s probably a lot more people watching Hornets games now than any time since you’ve had this job?
EC: I do. And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the arena is always empty, but there still are people talking about the Hornets. The people in my neighborhood are still excited about the Hornets. I realize the power of television. It’s not because they’re going to the game as a season-ticket holder and they’re marveling at what LaMelo Ball is doing. Their only source of finding out what’s going on with the Hornets is by watching the broadcast. And that’s pretty cool. It’s a pretty good responsibility.
But I’ll be honest with you, my broadcasting style for years has always been, number one, pretend like there’s no one there. That’s kind of been my thought process. And then the second prong is, if there is someone there, I want one person watching in their basement in Beatrice, Nebraska, just to be blown away by what he’s hearing and saying, “Oh, my God, am I the only person who gets this guy?” That’s my audience, because I always feel like I’m trying to come up with something that would be entertaining to this one guy. So that kind of keeps me away from thinking about the gross numbers of people who might or might not be watching.
SI: This might be a strange question or a hard one for you to answer, but in trying to reach that one viewer in Nebraska, you tend to say things no other play-by-play announcer in the NBA does. How do you come up with some of the stuff you say?
EC: I used to play small, not high-level basketball, and when I played I always had a buddy, generally, every season who was sitting next to me, and we would just have fun talking about the game and coming up with different things that we found interesting. There’s one phase of my life where I was playing college basketball at St. Lawrence, and every single time someone would do something, we would try and come up with some form of ... we would say, “This guy shoots more jumpers than a rabbit hunter! He’s got more moves in the paint than Picasso!” And we would just try and do it the entire game, for the entire season.
A lot of the stuff has just been percolating in the back of my brain for 30 years, just because I don’t know, I think basketball and sports [broadcasting] in general have been done the same way for years and years and years, and I think that people hear the way a game is broadcast and feel like that’s the way you’re supposed to do it. I vehemently disagree. I want people to watch a game and ... I’m always respecting the game, that’s the most important thing. But I don’t think it needs to be cookie-cutter. I am vehemently opposed to cookie-cutter, and I will try everything I can just to try and make the game interesting.
The game is enough to keep people 85% of the time, but then that other 15%, I want people to stay because the announcers are talking about things maybe in a way that they’ve never heard before. Or bringing up a point that they’ve never heard of before, talking in a language that they’ve never heard before, or telling a joke that may have never been told at that particular time because maybe it’s awkward or it’s quirky. To me, that’s my job as a broadcaster. I’ve got two hours and if people are only listening for 20 minutes, I didn’t do my job. I want them for the entire two hours. Whatever I can do to keep them is my goal, and hopefully, you know, it’s broadcasting so I want a broad audience liking it. What can I do in terms of humor, in terms of history, in terms of language, in terms of statistical information? That’s all in my grab bag and I try to pull from it whatever I can.
SI: Linguistically there’s a uniqueness to your broadcast but also your energy. I was going to ask if there were any announcers you’ve modeled your style on, or who you enjoy listening to, but recently read that you don’t watch games with the sound on?
EC: No, no, I don’t listen to anyone. I’ll be honest with you; I have all the respect in the world for anyone who’s gotten a job. Anyone who was picked to be one of the 30 television play-by-play guys has obviously done a lot of things right. But I go around the league and I ask my standard questions every single time I’m in a new building, questions that I want answered from the other play-by-play guys (because it’s always guys), and inevitably no one knows the answers to my questions. So I know I’m doing something right because I’m asking the hometown play-by-play guys for ... pick an NBA team, and they’re like, “Oooh geez, I never thought of that,” or, “I don’t know the answer to that.” Number one, it kind of annoys me that they don’t know their team as well as I feel that they should. Like, to me, you’ve gotta know your team like the back of your hand. But it also reaffirms my belief that I don’t need to listen to anyone else, because I don’t think that they do the research, or I don’t think that they take the time that I do. And I know it sounds a little bit cheeky, but that’s my thing. I put in a ton of time and I know what I’m talking about, and I know what I’m trying to get out of a broadcast. I think my preparation is different from other people’s and I don’t even want to associate with that in my brain. I want my own clean line of thought, and my own style. That’s why I don’t listen to anyone else.
SI: Sometimes, as a writer, I’ll specifically avoid certain articles before I’m working on a similar subject because I don’t want that work to influence what I’m trying to do. Is that your line of thinking?
EC: 100%. I used to be the in-game reporter for the Chicago White Sox, and one of the most distinctive Major League Baseball play-by-play guys in the history of the sport was Hawk Harrelson. And I had to listen to Hawk for years on end. Obviously, supremely talented, but he influenced how I call baseball games when I got a job doing minor league baseball. I could never let that happen again, you know, I need to trust what I see. And I need to trust my language, and he’s taking the originality away from me if I’m listening to him and I’m letting him seep into my brain. That’s when I went cold turkey.
SI: If I were to call these Hornets “a broadcaster’s dream” would that be too strong? Or do you sometimes feel that way?
EC: They do play close games. They win close games. There’s a lot of elements that make them a really fun team to cover. It’s actually been great for me because, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been in this business for a while, and I worked with the Los Angeles Dodgers for five years. I only did the road games. I alternated with Vin Scully. Vin would do the home games and the games in California and I would do all the games against Colorado and everyone else east of that. So because I only did road games, I actually never did a walk-off win for the Dodgers. So there was never really any time that I could unleash and really get into a Dodger win. They always had to get those final three outs and that would be the end of the game.
And then I started with the Hornets, and they had the longest streak of one-possession losses in the history of the NBA. I think the number is 14. So I went a full couple of years without ever having a game-winning buzzer beater for the Hornets. And so they’re kind of making up for lost time over the last year and a half because James Borrego and his staff came in and for some reason we’re winning close games again. It’s been a long time coming for me. I truly missed out on like eight professional sports seasons of never having a walk-off win or a buzzer beater and now it seems to be coming in torrents.
SI: The Hornets have the best offense and defense in crunch time in the NBA this season. They’re 13–5 in those situations. Are you developing a sense when the game is close that they’re going to pull it out?
EC: I don’t know if I have a sense or not. I’m always looking for it. To me that’s gold. I had Stephen F. Austin against Duke last year, when Stephen F. Austin won in Cameron, which was a stunner. I was doing the game with Dan Bonner, who is a dear friend and one of the most talented people in the business. The game was early and Stephen F. Austin had a lead 10 minutes in, and I started to push it forward. “Hey, is this the time that Duke loses at home to an unranked team, to a non-conference team? Is this gonna be the night? Stick around!” And so we go to a commercial break and Dan looks at me, kind of rolls his eyes and said, “Come on, kid, what are you talking about?” And I was like, “You never know! This could be the night. Let’s let’s look for it. Let’s look for the joy.” And so I kept building it and building it and building it. I don’t really believe this because I was a journalism major. I do believe in the truth. But someone told me a long time ago that if the legend is better than the truth, tell the legend. I’m always pushing that. To me it’s like, what could happen? Where’s the joy? Where are we gonna find it? Where’s the excitement gonna come from? I’m always rooting for something fun to happen.
SI: What’s it like to be at the ground floor of LaMelo’s career?
EC: Thirty years from now, it will probably be one of the things that will define what I do professionally. I did a lot of games when Michael [Jordan] played. I was the sideline reporter for the Chicago Bulls and I saw what that was like. I hold my head up high and I have great pride when I tell my daughters that I saw the greatest who ever played during his prime when he was winning championships. He used to drip sweat on me after every game. I was that close to greatness. I don’t know if I want to go that far yet with LaMelo, but it’s pretty cool to be there when he’s just starting, and to get an opportunity to do his games when he’s 19. If he ages well and stays around in Charlotte, and I get a chance to do his games for 10 years or 15 years, whatever, I think it’s gonna be pretty cool. That’s one of the great things about sports, is you can fall in love with a player, with a city and with a team. He’s an easy guy to fall in love with.
SI: What’s your most memorable or favorite call from this season?
EC: I don’t know what I said, but I remember getting really excited and enjoying a Terry Rozier dunk on top of Kevin Durant. Those are always unexpected. And it wasn’t this year, but I think the best thing I’ve ever—God’s honest truth—I think the best thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to do anything similar actually came in a loss, so I don’t think many people even heard it.
Zach LaVine had a historic final 30 seconds against us at Spectrum Center. I don’t want to sound weird, but if I was teaching a course in play-by-play, I would be proud to play that piece and say, “Folks, this is a way to capture the moment with not a lot of words, with matching words to the actual moment, not overtaking the moment, but being part of the moment and making the moment even better.” That’s been my best work, in my opinion, in the six years that I’ve been in town. I don’t think anyone even heard the call because it was a Bulls win, and so everyone’s probably playing the Bulls call. Like, “Oh, my God the Bulls win, who knew da-da-da-da-da?” But the devastation in my call, I really enjoyed.
It was totally appropriate for the game. It was respectful of Zach LaVine. It was respectful of the Chicago Bulls winning a ball game. I’m not gonna lie: I’m not a homer, but I am a Hornets fan, and I broadcast the Hornets games from a Hornets perspective.
SI: I’ve mentioned your energy a couple times. Has it been challenging to maintain that during a season where there haven’t been fans in the arena for almost every game?
EC: I’ve always broadcast the game the same way. It’s very physical. It’s a very active broadcast. My arms go up in the air. Sometimes I will stand up. It is loud. That’s just who I am. That’s what got me here, and I’ve never felt like I can do anything else. [The empty arenas] make no difference. I’ve done years and years of women’s softball and events where there’s very few fans. It’s my job to be me. I’d be doing a disservice to people at home if I only decided to get, you know, amped up when there’s 20,000 people in the building. So it doesn’t make a difference. I get into the game, and I don’t realize that there’s no one or there’s 20,000.
SI: How else has the pandemic impacted your job?
EC: My big thing is information. I was a sideline reporter for six years in the NBA back in the ’90s and the early 2000s and I know how to get information. And I used to get all my information right before the game. I’m walking the hallways and Kyle Korver is walking by and is getting ready to get shots up. I’m like, “Kyle, why do you wear No. 26 again?” And those are just small things that are off limits now. You can’t rely on a Zoom to get that kind of stuff because there’s 15 things on my checklist that I like to get answered before every game. So the access to information and the players is just, it’s been night and day.
SI: Speaking from your role as a broadcaster, who’s your favorite opposing player to call?
EC: I really respect Steph because my broadcasting style is I’m always looking for joy. Where can we find it? Let’s celebrate joy together for two hours. It is so clear that he plays for joy, like at the end of the first quarter, he will shoot it from 80 feet away. He’s literally the only person in the NBA that will do it. He’s the greatest shooter to ever play and he’s on the all-time lists for the greatest three-point field goal percentage, and he will put that on the line by shooting an 80-footer that’s got like a 1% chance of going in. He shoots it because he’s on an eternal quest for joy. I love that, and I want to celebrate that. Nothing burns me more—and I actually call people out on it, one of the few times I ever do because these guys are the best in the world—than when a guy purposely takes an extra dribble at the end of the first quarter, at the end of the first half, just to throw a half-court shot and it won’t count against them. That annoys me. Whenever someone does that, I make a point in every single broadcast to say, well, “Tyler Herro, didn’t want to take a hero shot! We’ll remember that one, Tyler!”
SI: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I did or anything else you would just like to say?
EC: Just for your own clarity, I think it’s important for people to know I’m not cookie-cutter. It’s by design. I don’t look like anyone else. I don’t have the same background as anyone else. I’m biracial. I consider myself Black. And it was hard for me to get a job, probably because I didn’t look like everyone else and I didn’t sound like everyone else. So I think it’s important for people to realize that different doesn’t have to be scary. And that different, more often than not, is good.