- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Stacey King has always had something to say and it has usually been funny.
Even when he came to the Bulls, and rookies were seldom seen and even more rarely heard.
"Stacey is about as likable as it gets but he dished it out as good as he got it," former teammate John Paxson recalled. "He could battle you word for word, so there weren't many guys who could take him on."
Not that they didn't try.
"MJ got on everybody when it came to basketball," Horace Grant recalled of Michael Jordan. "But as a person, if Stacey wasn't in that locker room, it wouldn't have been the same and we all knew that. Stacey always took the edge off with his jokes when we were tight, in those playoff games against the Knicks and Pistons. Or if we needed someone to pick on, he was there too. And we all loved him for it."
Grant rarely misses a Bulls game on television from his home in Northern California, where he roots for Derrick Rose and the fellas, and still cracks up at his former teammate now behind the mike.
"I laugh hysterically," Grant said. "Stacey is like that fine wine. He gets better over time. ... Basketball was his sport, but talking and broadcasting is his calling."
When the Bulls host Portland on March 16, United Center fans will receive a Stacey King bobblehead while supplies last. The Bulls have had bobblehead nights for nonplayers and former players before, among them Bob Love and legendary player, coach and broadcaster Johnny Kerr. A Scottie Pippen bobblehead is in the works to honor the Hall of Famer later this season.
But never have they had a talking bobblehead until now.
"Fans will hear four or five of some of Stacey's most recognizable sayings," said Steve Schanwald, the Bulls executive vice president for business operations and longtime marketing and broadcasting chief. "For an announcer, it's perfect."
For King, it's a natural.
In his sixth season as analyst for the Bulls' broadcasts on Comcast SportsNet, WGN-TV and WCIU-TV with veteran play-by-play partner Neil Funk, King is experiencing a popularity that rivals that of Kerr, his late predecessor who held down the job for 33 years.
"When you talk about Johnny 'Red' Kerr, Harry Caray, Hawk Harrelson, these guys were iconic, bigger than the games they called," King said. "Hopefully one day I will aspire to be like that, but I'm still a long way away."
Just the same, King, 45, with his dictionary of catchphrases featured on the Bulls' website; displayed on T-shirts in his newly created clothing line, King 21; and repeated on national telecasts by broadcasters who brazenly steal King-isms on a routine basis, has developed a following of near-cult hero status.
Recently, someone tweeted King that their 5-year-old son was shooting a Nerf basketball and yelling "Give me the hot sauce," a King trademark that accompanies a Kyle Korver 3-pointer. And in junior high schools throughout Chicagoland, where many kids aren't even aware that King won three championship rings as a member of the Bulls, he is as popular as Xbox.
While Rose and the Bulls are surely responsible for most of it, the team's TV ratings are higher than ever this season with King and Funk on the call, Comcast SportsNet recently reporting a 58 percent increase over last season (an average 6.2 rating) and a 112 percent jump for adults ages 25-54.
WGN-TV's ratings for Bulls game have gone up 33 percent.
Jim Angio, longtime director on Comcast SportsNet telecasts, harks back to the days when the Jordan-led Bulls would be No. 1 in the network's Thursday night time slot, beating such "Must See TV" shows like "Friends" and "Seinfeld."
"We'd be live in the locker room after games with one camera and wipe out the Channel 7 news because people would tune in to see Michael's comments," Angio said. "We don't do live in the locker room anymore but it's that kind of following I see. There's something special happening here."
King said Rose coming to the Bulls 10 years after Jordan left is "like Halley's Comet striking twice in Chicago and once again, I'm in the right place at the right time."
The first time around, the Big Eight Player of the Year and sixth overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft had visions of stardom. But King faced an immediate reality check.
"Of course you want to score 20 points a game and make the All-Star team, but I realized from day one that I wasn't going to be able to do that on this team," King said. "B.J. [Armstrong], Jeff Sanders and I were told 'You're pieces of the puzzle.' I remember Jerry Krause saying, 'You don't need to score. Play defense, block shots and you'll help us win a championship.'
"The bottom line is I've won my whole life and when I look at personal accolades, I'd rather have won a championship. A lot of great players never got out of the first round of the playoffs. I look at the big picture. When you have success as a team, everybody prospers and I think sometimes guys don't understand that."
King understood, though not before being put through the paces by veterans like Bill Cartwright, who provided the first of the rookie's "Welcome to the NBA" moments.
"We were doing drills the first week of practice and I had to deny him the basketball. I was younger and quicker and kept going out and stealing it from him," King recalled, lapsing into a dead-on impersonation of the gravel-voiced veteran center. "Finally he goes, 'Hey, if you do that again, I have something for you.'
"I was like, 'Just play, man,' and sure enough, the next time I ran out for the ball I get one of his sharp elbows right in the throat. I swear I thought I swallowed my Adam's apple. I thought I needed the Heimlich maneuver. And as I was lying on the ground, he looked down at me and said 'Hey rook, I told you I had something for you.'"
His second memorable NBA moment, King said, came in a game against the Pistons, a rivalry he admitted he did not fully appreciate at the time. With warnings from his now-mentor Cartwright and other teammates ringing in his ears to play through any cheap shots and not to get intimidated, King was promptly yanked to the ground by his neck in a tussle with center Scott Hastings.
"I automatically, instinctively swung at him," King said. "It was the first time I ever played the Pistons and my first ejection. I wasn't going to be one of those guys who gets pushed around. And I think it won over the fans and the guys in the locker room."
Still, he longed to make a bigger impact. And in '94, one year after the first Bulls three-peat, King was dealt to Minnesota for Luc Longley, a deal he said he welcomed as the Bulls had already lost Jordan, talk of rebuilding had begun and King saw it as a chance to be a starter, a new place to prove himself.
Not only were the Timberwolves bad ("led" by Christian Laettner and J.R. Rider, they finished 20-62 that season) but King was instantly confronted by one of the principal adages in sports.
"I tell players now that the grass ain't always greener on the other side," King laughed. "I learned that really quickly once I got to Minnesota. One thing I took for granted was the Bulls professionalism. Not only the players and coaches, but everything about the organization was first class. I get to Minnesota and guys weren't coming to practice, missing games for really weird reasons, not showing up on the team plane.
"The first day I go to the shootaround an hour early all jacked and ready to go, and by 10:15, 15 minutes late, there's two freaking players. We had to walk through with trainers and ball boys. That's when I knew, 'This might have been a mistake.'"
If his playing career hadn't quite worked out the way he envisioned, ending after stints in Miami, Boston and Dallas, he could still appreciate that big picture.
"I had an important role on three championship teams," he said. "When you look at the grand scheme of things, we were idolized and immortalized in Chicago, and doors open up for you when your career is over. I can still go anywhere in the world and people will know me because of that team."
A journalism major at Oklahoma, King had his future mapped out. He would coach and he would become a broadcaster.
He became head coach of the CBA's Rockford Lightning in '01, leading the team to its first title game in 16 years, and followed that with a season in Sioux Falls, N.D. And then the doors opened.
At ease in front of the camera since his college days and remembered fondly for his personality as a Bull, King was first asked by Schanwald to fill in for Kerr, who had an out-of-town obligation. That led to pre- and postgame work from the studio for Comcast SportsNet and then a role as the third man with the team of Kerr and Tom Dore for two years as Kerr worked throughout much of his battle with prostate cancer.
"Johnny was such a warrior and was going to keep doing it until the end," King said of Kerr, who died in February 2009. "One of the hardest things to do was coming in after a legend. It was very difficult because Johnny was set in his ways and did things a certain way. And I didn't want him to think I was going to take his job. I just wanted him to know I was there to support him, like a relief pitcher.
"But it gave me the chance to spend a lot of quality time with Red those last two years, to see what a truly great guy he was. He welcomed me with open arms, which a lot of older guys would not have done. And he told me, 'You can do this as long as you want to. Just make sure to be yourself.' I will always remember those words. I took them to heart. And I've been myself the whole time."
Being himself meant allowing his quick wit to simply flow. The first time, with Kerr and Dore, that meant comparing Washington Wizards rookie Oleksiy Pecherov to the "Family Guy's" Stewie Griffin after then-Bull Andres Nocioni scored over Pecherov on a monstrous dunk.
"I didn't know who Stewie was," admitted director Jim Angio. "But one of our graphic operators, Tina, did and during the timeout, she found a picture on the Internet and we put Stewie up there, and then had Stewie's head [superimposed] on [Pecherov's] body."
Fans loved it, Pecherov's teammates, watching a replay in the locker room after the game, howled in delight and a broadcast star was born.
"Stacey is pretty quick with his wit, so if you're not on top of it, it can go by you pretty quickly," said Funk, who teamed up with King the following season. "But the one thing Stacey has is the ability of not only being entertaining but informative and he's able to articulate that, which is a rare combination."
But Funk, an award-winning broadcaster who called his first NBA game in '76 in Philadelphia and counts Doug Collins, Hubie Brown and Chuck Daley among his partners over the past five decades, admires King's work ethic the most.
"A lot of guys would step in as an analyst and not work at it," Funk said. "Stacey works at it, he wants to get better, he wants games to sound and look the right way and he's just a quick study. Counting all the analysts I've ever worked with, Stacey is the best with the telestrator. He has a way of explaining things so that fans at home can understand and does it in a language that is not only entertaining but informative. He's just really good."
Paxson, who also had a stint as a Bulls broadcaster before moving to the front office, was not surprised that the chatty player who exchanged putdowns with his teammates took to broadcasting work so naturally.
"The one thing people don't understand about Stacey is that he's really a student of the game," Paxson said. "He did very well as a coach and he has a really good eye. Stacey has always seen a lot of things on the floor and been able to process them. The good color analysts have to be able to explain what they see in a short amount of time and he does that well."
King also has just the right touch, said WGN-TV producer Jon Walgren, when it comes to being critical.
"He can say something about a guy dogging it and get his point across by doing it with humor in a way that doesn't make it sound like he's riding the guy," Walgren said.
King's calling card, however, and the root of his ever-expanding popularity, is his gift for the quip, remarks that become instant catchphrases, which have been showing up increasingly on posters in visiting arenas as well as at home.
"Too big, too strong, too fast, too good," to describe Rose is recognized nationally. But that hardly scratches the surface as King can't help himself, blurting out "If you're scared, go buy a dog," "I don't want a massage, I asked for a facial,"
"Welcome to the Taj Mahal" and "Asik and Destroy." And, of course, there's his nickname of "White Mamba" for Bulls reserve Brian Scalabrine, playing off Kobe Bryant's "Black Mamba."
King swears he never plans what to say ahead of time.
"Nope, it just pops up," he said. "People who know me know I talk all the time and give a nickname to everybody I meet. Things just come to me."
And now they come to others as well.
"Everyone identifies with Derrick Rose and some of the national guys have taken 'Too big, too strong' and used it on their broadcasts, just straight plagiarism," King half-jokes. "Kenny Smith used it for Dwight Howard. And Charles Barkley used 'White Mamba' in the playoffs last year for Dirk Nowitzki. Fans tweet me and tell me.
"It's a humbling thing, a compliment. It shows me other people are watching. The only thing I don't like is when they try to pass it off as their own just because they're on national TV with bigger audiences and they can get away with it."
"Stacey loves to talk and he loves to talk basketball," he said. "He has a great personality but he doesn't take himself too seriously, which is so important for a broadcaster. Some guys think they know more than every player and every coach. Or because they're a Hall of Famer or a former All-Star, they come off as too judgmental and second-guessing. Stacey is informative and jovial."
So much so that Funk admits to sometimes looking over at King in disbelief after another of his colorful descriptions.
"Sometimes I just shake my head like 'What the hell are you talking about?' but I wouldn't change it," Funk said. "That's part of who Stacey is and what makes him so entertaining and makes him appealing to fans watching Bulls games."
King credits the partnership.
"One thing about Neil that people probably don't know is that Neil is funny," King said. "Sometimes his sense of humor is dry but he has a great sense of humor. From the first day he welcomed me and said, 'I'm going to let you do your thing.' We're kind of like Stockton and Malone. He throws me nice lobs and I go get it."
King, who was divorced four years ago after 20 years of marriage, is the father of three sons, Erick, 20, Garrett, 19, and Brandon, 16, football players who their father claims still can't beat him in pickup basketball.
"I will never let that happen. Even if I'm in a wheelchair, I'm still going to find a way to win," said King, who is engaged to be married to Kathleen McGuire, the wedding planned for this fall.
In the meantime, his legion of fans seems only to be growing, a great thing for King if a little worrisome for his employers.
"I'm just afraid he'll leave for a bigger stage," Angio said. "One of these days, TNT will put him on set with Barkley or someone like that and he's going to shine. Hopefully, being a Chicago guy now, a family guy, he's here for the long run. But in the back of my mind, you worry, 'How long is this going to last?'"
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.