Bob Rathbun has been the TV voice of the Atlanta Hawks for 24 years, making him one of the longest-tenured single-team broadcasters in the NBA. Even as the team’s composition and league standing has changed many times over, his dedication to preparation and letting the game be the star never has.
But his story starts long before 1996, back when he was a young boy who figured out a way to get as close as he could to sports broadcasting greatness and learn everything he could.
Bob sat down with TBW’s Ray LeBov to share both his memories and insights into becoming a successful play-by-play caller in this interview that has been edited for clarity and length.
RAY LEBOV: What was your path to getting into the business that eventually led you to the Hawks?
BOB RATHBUN: I grew up in a small town in Salisbury, North Carolina. When I was 12 years old, one Sunday afternoon I picked up the telephone and called the radio station in my hometown. I said how much I enjoyed listening to the sports news. The response was, “Well young man, if you’re interested, come on down, we’ll give you a tour of the radio station.”
And so my mom and dad brought me down. The second I walked in that place, I fell in love with radio and broadcasting.
It became an every Sunday ritual where I would hang out at the station and do what 12-year-old kids do: Take out the garbage and get records and stuff like that. One Sunday, the sports guy showed up and said, “If you love sports, come help us broadcast the American Legion baseball game.”
We broadcast the games because it was the biggest thing in our little town. They had a great state championship team, and they packed the park every night. The games were on the radio because everybody in town was interested.
One night, the announcer asked me if I was ready to make my debut. And I told him that I guessed I was. So I got the microphone.
In the bottom half of the seventh inning of this game, our first baseman hit a home run—a Ruthian blast over the Coca-Cola sign on the scoreboard. I made the call and I don’t remember what I said.
The game’s announcer got the microphone back at the top of the eighth inning and said, “I’ve been waiting all season to call a home run like that. And when we hit one, I’ve got some 12-year-old kid on the mic!”
That announcer was Marty Brennaman who just now retired as the longtime voice of the Cincinnati Reds. That’s how I got started. By the time I was 19, when I was a full-time college student, I was also a full-time employee at a radio station and I’ve been doing it ever since.
RAY: How did you go from that beginning to, 24 years ago, doing play-by-play for the Hawks?
BOB: I got my first big job when I moved to Norfolk at the beginning of the regional television cable explosion. I started doing games on TV for an outfit called Home Team Sports, which is now MASN in DC and Baltimore. I would fill in on Washington Bullets games.
That was my first taste of TV basketball. Then I went to work for ESPN and CBS. In the summer of 1996, there was an opening here in Atlanta to do baseball for the Braves and also to do Hawks games as well as college games. I’ve been here ever since.
RAY: Do you have a philosophy of broadcasting?
BOB: Not a formal philosophy, but my home town was the host city of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. (It has since been renamed National Sports Media Association.)
Every year they would honor the 50 state winners in broadcasting and sports writing. They brought in the national award winners as well.
When I got my driver’s license, I would go to the Charlotte airport and get these guys and bring them back to Salisbury for the award ceremony. So in the backseat of my car, I had the titans of the industry. I had Ray Scott and Chris Schenkel, for example. You name it.
They were all in the backseat of my car, so I had a chance to pick their brains when I was 16 and 17 years old.
I was telling them that this is what I wanted to do one day and asking for any advice that they would give me. One year, I had Lindsey Nelson in the backseat. You may remember Lindsey from the outrageous sports coats that he wore.
I said, “Mr. Nelson, I’d like to be a sportscaster one day. Do you have any advice?”
And Lindsey said, “Robert, if you don’t have any talent, dress funny.”
So that was my indoctrination into the upper echelon of major league sportscasting. It helped demystify the business for me.
These were great guys. They were great mentors and teachers, and I took a little bit of something from everybody that I had a chance to meet. The overriding philosophy was to be precise and that the game is not about you.
The game is about the players and the coaches, and you are there to describe what goes on. You are not there to inject your feelings about what the coach should have done. None of that. You are there to broadcast this game right down the middle.
When you call a game, the game is the star. That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten.
RAY: I’ve always appreciated when a broadcaster realizes that it isn’t about them.
BOB: Don’t thank me. You can thank all those guys that hammered that home to me. I had great mentors at the radio station starting with Marty. He was just starting out, and little did we know that we were listening to a Hall of Fame announcer.
He sounded the same when he was calling American Legion as he did when he was calling Cincinnati Reds’ games. Instead of Pete Rose, it was Johnny Yarborough. But we didn’t know. To us, he was just Marty.
I learned from him, sort of by osmosis, how to make an accurate call and to have my facts straight. That was great training at a very young age.
RAY: In your time doing Hawks’ games, you’ve had some great players and some great teams. Can you pick an all-star starting five over those 24 seasons as well as an opponent’s starting five?
BOB: It’s gonna be hard to nail down five guys for the Hawks. They are my guys, not only as players but as people as well. I may have to fudge and go with six…
So we’re starting at 1996. That eliminates Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins, Doc Rivers, Dominique Wilkens and all those guys from the years prior to then.
Starting in 1996, my point guard is unquestionably Mookie Blaylock. Obviously, he was a defensive savant, but he also had a three-point shot and wasn’t afraid to take it. I would pick him if I had to pick one guy to hit the game-winning shot.
Either him or Joe Johnson from later on. Mookie was on my very first Hawks team, and I watched him lead us brilliantly.
One of the challenges in putting this together is that there were a lot of great players that weren’t here very long. For example, Dikembe Mutumbo would be in the middle for me, but he was only with us four and a half years. For that brief time, he was very impressive, winning Defensive Player of the Year and so forth.
— Bob Rathbun (@BobRathbunTV) April 17, 2020
But it’s not like some of these franchises where you’ve got guys that are there for 12 to 15 years. We just don’t have that.
I would go with Steve Smith as my two-guard or maybe move him to the three to accommodate Joe Johnson. Joe is one of the more underrated All-Stars of all time, not just in Hawks’ history. He made six consecutive All-Star appearances for us, and they were all coaches’ decisions. He was never voted in by the fans.
He was as good a clutch player as I’ve ever seen.
It’s funny to watch The Last Dance and see all those game-winning shots by Jordan. I think that Joe Johnson is third all-time in the number of buzzer-beaters to win games.
The problem for Joe from a PR standpoint was that he wouldn’t jump up on the scorer’s table and scream and beat his chest and holler. He would just go back to the bench and sit down. He seemed so emotionless that he really never connected with our fans as great of a player as he was.
For my fours and fives, I mentioned Mutombo but I’ve got to put Al Horford in there somewhere. Al was a transformational guy in our franchise: a big man that could step out and shoot. Very cerebral. Just a great winner from college and he brought that to us. A fierce competitor.
I hated to see him leave.
The other guy got to put on there is Paul Millsap. He’s one of the most underrated free-agent signings in the history of our franchise, for which I give Danny Ferry all the credit. He identified Paul as a guy that could come in and help us, and he was the glue that held us all together through some very good seasons.
Great worker, smart, incredible hands defensively, Paul has never gotten his due for as great a player as he is because, sadly, it is such a stat-driven league. If you don’t average more than 20 points a game, people tend to forget you.
For the opponents, I picked the guys that wore us out. These guys would come into Philips Arena or State Farm Arena, and they would absolutely slice us up.
Allen Iverson was number one at the top of that list. The guy was just incredible. He still holds the arena of scoring record of 53 points in a game. He just wore us out.
LeBron has got to be on there because we’ve yet to beat him in a playoff game. He tormented us with Cleveland, then he tormented us with Miami, and he did it again when he came back to Cleveland.
Another guy who always played well against the Hawks was Carmelo Anthony. He was amazing here even when he just would come once a year with Denver. 35-40-point games routinely against the Hawks, so ‘Melo is on there.
I put Kyrie on there because of the torture that he inflicted with Cleveland and Boston. And then, a sort of a sentimental pick is Kobe Bryant. He never disappointed.
RAY: How do you assess this year’s Hawks from a growth perspective? What do you think they need to do to complement this current core and its likely growth arc?
BOB: I thought we had a pretty good year, even though the record didn’t show it.
We’ve got a lot of room to grow defensively before we can make the leap into challenging for a playoff spot, but the teardown and build-up was about putting together a young nucleus that can grow and win together. They’ve accomplished that: The five core guys are all 22 or younger.
They haven’t even hit their stride yet, but we’re getting remarkable consistency offensively from guys like Trae Young and John Collins. Trae is having a season for the ages, and it’s incredible how good Collins has been. He only played in the 41 games because he was suspended for 25.
But the 41 that he did play, he averaged 21 and 10 consistently. He didn’t fluctuate wildly. He was good for that almost every night. There aren’t too many guys in the league with those averages.
Couple that with the fact that he’s shooting 58 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 80 percent from the foul line, and he’s been one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA this season. I’m sure that goes back to our record, but nobody puts up numbers like that.
And Trae was on course to do something special.
He jumped his scoring average by 10 points a game and made the All-Star team. His shooting prowess is renowned from the depth standpoint, but there’s nothing that he can’t do offensively. He gets to the line nearly 10 times a game and is a master in the pick and roll with Collins. He’s perfected the floater.
Adding to that mix, you’ve got rookies DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Cam came on like gangbusters at the end. Kevin Huerter played through a lot of injuries this year and was very solid as the two-guard starter. That’s the core.
The challenge is to augment it. That’s the offseason job for Travis Schlenk and Lloyd Pierce.
The Hawks have the most cap room in the league. They’ve got to come up with the guys behind this group to make the next step.
The one guy that we’ve added that we haven’t seen, of course, is Clint Capela. That’s why I’ve got my fingers crossed that we can get this season restarted. That would give us a chance to see what it would be like to have Clint and Collins on the floor together.
RAY: There have been a lot of changes and trends in the game during your time with the Hawks. What stands out to you?
BOB: I think the dearth of big people is alarming. I think our game is out of balance with the way it’s played—with the preponderance of three-pointers at the expense of everything else.
You see that happening again with the way things are now. If somebody gives birth to the next Shaquille O’Neal, it’ll change. But maybe until that happens, we may be kind of stuck with this.
And there are some nights where you just can’t live by the three. Houston has proven that in the most crucial of situations. I do think our game needs a little more balance. I don’t speak for our management, and I don’t speak for our fans, who I think like the shootouts. They enjoy the 140 to 130 every night.
The game could use more balance because there’s a whole group of players that can excel in the mid-range, and two points is two points.
I’ve been watching The Last Dance. The game was different back then. Nobody was saying anything to Michael Jordan about his shot selection. He seemed to do okay.
So, I think there’s a place of the game for that, and I’d like to see it switch back. But I have more of a quarrel not so much with the philosophy of the way the game is played today, but with the rules of the game.
You don’t need to have Pier Six brawls in the lane, but we’ve swung the pendulum so far the other way that it makes it unfair for defenders. There’s no touching, no hand-checking.
There’s just no way to really defend that would prevent these outrageous scores every night.
You just sort of throw up your hands because any contact puts the offensive player on the foul line. I think we need to go back toward the middle a little bit in terms of the rules of the game and the way that it is adjudicated on the court. The referees are just doing what they’re told.
So I would like to see a little bit of a change in allowing a bit more contact just to slow these guys up a bit and give the defense a chance.
RAY: You’ve seen a lot of ups and downs with the Hawks over the years. Do you call the game differently in those different contexts?
BOB: No, not really. The NBA game is so fast that you just have to call what’s in front of you. Of course, it’s more fun when you’re winning. Everybody loves you more when you’re winning.
But in terms of what we do to present the game on television, it really doesn’t affect us. When you’re losing, maybe you have to work a little harder to keep everybody interested.
Our ratings were actually up this year over last year by around 40 percent. The fans are falling in love with Trae, even though we’re out of the playoff race. Our fans are excited about the future, and this Hawks team is fun to watch.
Even though we’re not winning like we’d like to, the fans are hanging in there with us and like what they see. I think the promise of the future is what’s got them on board and will keep them on board.
RAY: We’ve seen so many teams when they were where the Hawks are now, but they lose patience and go for the big (free agent) score when it isn’t the right fit for the overall growth of the core, And it all blows up in smoke. I think you’ve got the right kind of management, but that kind of patience is the real test.
BOB: You’re right. Management has got the right tone. Just a few weeks before we had the shutdown, Lloyd threw the challenge out there that we’re going to be a playoff team next year.
That opened a lot of eyes around here because that’s going to be a quantum leap for this bunch to go from what would have been a 25-28 win team to make that jump into the high 30s or 40s. It is going to take quite a leap to be challenging for that eighth spot.
But Lloyd is of the opinion that we are at the stage of the rebuild where the guys need the challenge to approach next year like we are going to make playoffs. They need to amp up the effort, the energy, the defense, everything it takes to make that happen. We’ve had three years of this, and now it’s time to start winning some ball games.
And everybody around here feels like we have the guys to do that.
RAY: I respect that he has that vision. And I’m not surprised at all. This is more evidence that the team is on the right track and won’t be dissuaded by the siren song.
BOB: I think it’s it’s a great leadership lesson. This is professional basketball. It isn’t AAU. Everything you do on the court is meaningful.
That’s a lesson that they’re learning. And Lloyd has emphasized it, saying, “Now it’s time to apply the lessons that you’ve learned from the beatings that you’ve taken and turn it in your favor and start winning games.”
I think it’s very refreshing.
RAY: Let’s talk about Dominique. How many years have you been working together?
BOB: When I was starting off in Salisbury, I was assigned to broadcast Salisbury High School. One year, we made the state tournament, as did Washington High School, and so Dominique and I met in the state quarterfinals. He was a junior on the Washington team, starting at small forward.
So I had a chance to call a Dominique Wilkins game in high school!
And I did his games at Georgia, in the NIT one year, and then with the Hawks at the tail end of his NBA career. Now he sits next to me every night. So, I go back a long way back with Mr. Wilkins, and he’s been with me here for the past 10 years.
My man was cookin' with grease! On this date, @DWilkins21 cut down the Nets for 57 in 1986 at the Omni! That tied the franchise record for points in a game (Bob Pettit, Lou Hudson.) Nique also had 57 vs the Bulls in Dec. of '86. @ATLHawks @HawksOnFSSE pic.twitter.com/7Zzfpul7Qm
— Bob Rathbun (@BobRathbunTV) April 10, 2020
RAY: You clearly have developed great chemistry.
BOB: Well, if you’ve ever spent any time around Dominique, you know that he’s never met a stranger. He’s the life of the party.
He is a Hall of Famer in the truest sense of the word. He played so hard and gave it his all every night. He is so big in this town that the only guy that even remotely approaches him is Hank Aaron. He owns this city.
He knows everybody. He loves everybody, and everybody loves him. He is just one of those people who is universally loved. And he is the biggest icon in our franchise.
And he’s just made a natural progression to television.
Because of his background, his knowledge, the stories that he can impart, he’s a Hawk through and through. He can not only do the color on TV, but he also mentors the young guys. There isn’t a player in the league that doesn’t come by to pay homage to Dominique and speak with him. He brings star power to our telecast, and it’s very easy to work with him.
RAY: There have been discussions about, for future seasons, carrying over some of the changes that might happen after the hiatus ends—such as starting the season later, changing the number of games, switching the order of the draft and free agency, etc.
BOB: I do think that they can flip flop the draft and free agency. I’ve never understood why we had the draft first. There’s no magic to 82 games, but the guys want to get paid for 82. So I don’t see really that changing. 82 games is fine.
50 years ago, everybody seemed to play 82 and they weren’t superhuman. But we might tweak the schedule. In order to save this season, we may push the re-start to August and play until September and then wait until Christmas to start the 2020- 2021 season.
The sooner we can develop a vaccine and get fans back in the arena—without fear for any health implications—the better off we’re all going to be. So maybe this is the time to try it. And we might find that it’s great starting at Christmas!
RAY: Regarding the hiatus, it’s obviously very different for you because, during the season, it’s a frenetic schedule, particularly some of the road trips. What’s it like to adjust to conditions under the suspension?
BOB: The only thing I’m not doing is the actual game preparation, but my morning routine is basically the same.
I’m checking the newspapers and all that stuff, including Basketball Intelligence, which I check religiously!
What’s different is when it gets to be around two or three o’clock in the afternoon when normally it would be time to go to practice, time to go to the plane, time to go to the arena… Now you don’t leave your house. During off days, normally I would be watching League Pass from 7 p.m. until 1 a.m.
Now there is nothing to watch other than replays.
— Bob Rathbun (@BobRathbunTV) April 18, 2020
RAY: Watching you, it’s always obvious how prepared you are. What goes into getting to that level?
BOB: It’s twofold. One is like what I’m doing now: going through the clippings and the articles and storing them until it is time to play that team.
Then there’s sort of a game-specific preparation. For that, I have a checklist of about 25 things that I go through. That makes me feel like I’ve got everything covered. One thing I do every day to get ready for a game is a complete update of the player bios.
I go through all 15 or 17 guys that the opponent is going to bring to Atlanta that night.
For example, our next opponent was going to be the Cavs. Since the last time we played, they had a coaching change. So I’ve got to get all of JB Bickerstaff stuff and take out John Beilein and get them up to date.
Then I go through the notes and stats that are provided to us. I am a big fan of reading game stories, primarily off AP. They give me a good summation of what’s going on.
If there’s something intriguing that I read about, I’ll go to NBA.com and look at the video of that particular play. I also watch however much I need in order to feel comfortable with player identification, trends, etc. to get a feel for what they’ve been going through over the past couple of weeks.
I’ll start pulling stories and looking at stuff two weeks away so that when game day hits, it isn’t cramming for a final exam.
I get a scouting report together with stats that show who’s hot and who’s not as well as where they like to shoot it from and how they like to shoot it. That stuff is so I can impart it to my producer and director to set up in advance some storylines with replay angles and matchups.
That way they know who’s going to guard who and here’s what they might try. For example, is Cleveland going to trap Trae at midcourt to try to get the ball out of his hands?
One thing we do get is a Hubie sheet, named after Hubie Brown. For every game, he would have a sheet prepared that would include the team’s statistics and league ranks in every category.
It is my Bible because it tells exactly what the trends are for that team. It just gives you clues as to how this team plays, like fast-break points allowed, fast-break points scored, points in the paint, etc. All of that and a lot more is contained in one sheet. I also check the Rotoworld website for any late-breaking injury news.
It’s a labor of love. It takes me probably six hours on game day to get everything ready.
RAY: If the season resumes, it is going to be without fans. Have you ever done any broadcasting in a fanless environment?
BOB: I’ve had some games that were low attended, but I can’ think of a game where we didn’t have anyone there by edict. What would that be like?
Do you remember the game at Madison Square Garden where everything was turned off? The only thing left on was the score. That freaked everybody out.
So I have suggested a couple things to our producer: We could put something to fill the seats. We can have music that is appropriate to the designated home team. It could give the players a sense of relaxation because that’s what they normally would hear instead of just hearing the coach screaming at them. I think it would smooth out some of the edges of the dead noise in an empty arena.
RAY: Any final thoughts?
BOB: Just to reiterate what a blessing it is to do this for a living, to be in such a great game, and such a great league and blessed to be with a wonderful franchise. To do it as long as I have, I have to pinch myself. I can’t imagine not doing it. It is so much fun.
I love our fans. They treat me so well. The team treats me so well. Fox has been an unbelievable partner over the years, and I am so thankful for the opportunity that I’ve been given.
I know that it’s a business and that you’re only as good as your last broadcast. That probably inspires me more than anything.
There is no way on this planet that I could let these people down. I’m never going to phone it in.
I’m never thinking that I’ve made it or anything like that. Every game is fresh and new and exciting.
Want more great NBA broadcaster profiles? Don’t miss Ray’s previous interview with Golden State Warriors announcer Jim Barnett.
Ray is a co-Founder of TBW and frequent contributor. He has a B.A. from Yale University and J.D. from the University of Southern California and is the owner of Ray LeBov and Associates lobbying and consulting firm as well as Capitol Seminars. He is currently Executive Director of the Association for Professional Basketball Research (i.e. the world’s’ pre-eminent professional basketball historians organization) since 2010. He is the founder, publisher, curator and editor of Basketball Intelligence (BI), including a daily email of the best 20-25 NBA-related internet stories as well as original content and podcasts.