Soaring to New Heights

Tip-off Time with Atlanta Hawks Steve Holman

Written by Carl Danbury, Jr.

Iconic NBA play-by-play announcers normally are a big swatch in a team’s quilt! The Lakers had their Hearn. The Cavaliers had their Tait. The Celtics had their Most. What they lacked in physical attributes like the players they waxed about, they offset with their eyes, ears and mostly throat for the fans that set their radio dials to the stations that broadcast their team’s 82 games a year.

Holman_Headshot-2012For the Atlanta Hawks, whose stream of success since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis for the start of the 1968-69 NBA season has been akin to a dripping faucet in the Sahara, play-by-play man Steve Holman hasn’t missed a call since taking over those duties from John Sterling, March 1, 1989. When the NBA playoffs begin this month, Holman’s consecutive game streak will have reached 2,222 games (barring an unlikely setback), and unfathomably his beloved Hawks have a bona fide chance of soaring to heights where none of the previous 46 editions ascended.

Grabbing the Mic
Holman chose his career path more than 53 years ago. While listening to legendary broadcaster Johnny Most call a Celtics game on WHDH, Holman decided that career was for him. Nine years later, Holman’s dream came true when as a high school senior, he began working full time at Curt Gowdy’s WCGY radio station in his hometown of Lawrence, Mass., for $110 a week and “all the records [you] can steal.” While Gowdy meant musical records at the time, Holman has indeed stolen an incredible record of consecutive games broadcast for the Hawks.

Before leaving the Boston area in 1980, Holman, who used his connection at WCGY to score media passes to Celtics games, worked up the nerve to introduce himself to Most, and eventually became Most’s statistician. In 1976, Most literally lost his voice for a few weeks, and Holman stepped in for his mentor. His first taste of play-by-play enabled him to score several gigs in the Atlanta area, including sports talk shows on WGST, WSB, and for bits with the Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League. Within five years, Holman won a job with the Hawks, serving as an analyst and occasional play-by-play man. When Sterling, still a good friend of Holman’s, left to become a New York Yankees broadcaster, Holman grabbed the mic and hasn’t relinquished it since, for both regular season contests and playoff games. Fittingly, his first game in his new role for the Hawks was at Boston Garden against the Celtics.

Holman-3Enthusiasm over Outcome
Before this season, the Hawks had captured division titles just four times, and have never exceeded the second round in any of their previous playoff appearances. Holman and the Hawks shrinking fan base endured seven straight years of missing the  playoffs from 1999-2000 to 2006-07, and that included the 2004-05 debacle when the team went a miserable 13-69. But Holman has always managed to maintain his zeal for the team and for the audience, despite witnessing fewer wins than losses during the past 30 years.

“Even during those days, I enjoyed what I do. I try to call every game like it’s my first one. I can maintain my enthusiasm that way and I just look forward to it every game,” said the 61-year-old Holman, who was inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame in 2011 and was named the 2014 Georgia Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association (NSSA).

This season, Holman has to contain that emotion, as the Hawks are fighting with the Golden State Warriors as the top team in the league, despite having no iconic star on the team and lukewarm coverage from the national media. Head coach, Mike Budenholzer, has instilled a team-first attitude with a fervid commitment to defense, and his players have executed his plan magnificently.

The Hawks are rather parliamentary, relying upon each team member for contributions rather than relying upon a more autocratic system. While the NBA media and fans seem to revel in the part being greater than the whole, the Hawks balance makes them a dangerous foe leading into the NBA playoffs.

“[The Hawks players] really seem to embrace the team concept. It doesn’t seem to fit the mold of what ESPN or some of the national commentators are looking for. It’s kind of the round peg in the square hole,” Holman offered. “Here we are leading the East and they still leave us out of the conversation of which team is going to win the conference, or which team is going to be in the Finals. It’s Cleveland, or Chicago, Toronto or Washington, but they never seem to buy into what we’re doing. It probably upsets me more than it does the players. They don’t really seem to pay attention to all of that.”

All-Star AttentionCleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks
Forward Paul Millsap, point guard Jeff Teague, center Al Horford, shooting star Kyle Korver and forward DeMarreCarroll led the Hawks to 17 straight wins in the month of January, became the first team in NBA history to go undefeated in a calendar month with at least 10 victories, and have all fi ve starters average in double-digit points, but not one to average more than 20-plus points. Key reserves off the bench include Dennis Schroeder, Mike Scott (a fractured toe suffered on March 11 in Denver will force him to miss up to six weeks), Pero Antic, Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha.

“We’ve got five guys in our starting lineup that can make the final shot in a game. I’m not a mathematician by any means, but it seems to be easier to shut down a couple of guys than it is to shut down five guys. I think we have that advantage and I don’t think anything is going to change for us when the playoffs come,” Holman said.

“[Horford] has been in three All-Star Games, [Millsap] has been in two now, and [Teague] and [Korver] were All-Stars this season. So, we’ve got good solid players, a good solid bench, which I think is going to be very important when the playoffs come. I just think everything is pointing in the right direction.”

And at long last, ticket sales at Philips Arena are ascending too. Last season, the Hawks finished 28th of 30 teams in attendance. Although, with the lack of past playoff success, fans may still be operating upon a wait-and-see approach, which in Holman’s mind is counterproductive.

“All of us here in Atlanta have to get beyond the old Atlanta-sports mindset. This team is not any of the previous Hawks teams, or any of the Braves teams or Falcons teams. This is a team that can do something very special,” Holman offered.

And rather than distance the present from the past, Holman believes management is doing a better job of shining the spotlight on those players and coaches that have been a meaningful part of the team’s history.

“Whether you have won championships or not as a franchise, I think history of a franchise is so important, and I think we need to embrace that. Rather than move past it, we need to salute the past players who have been here. I think they are starting [to do] that by bringing in a lot of the old players back into the family.

[Dominique Wilkins’s] statue, that’s going to live on forever, and now he and Hank Aaron — the two most famous figures in Atlanta sports history — have statues. ”

Holman-8On and Off the Court
Holman travels on the team plane for road games, and often sits in the last row with Wilkins, with whom he has a special, enduring relationship. While it is said not to get too close to the players, Holman has forged many relationships over the years and enjoys the camaraderie.

“Back in the old days, we were all closer to the same age. Doc Rivers, Jon Koncak and [Wilkins], we all kind of grew up together and it was a tight-knit thing for us. We all saw each others’ families. I still have a very good relationship with Doc and with ‘Nique. He sits with me in the back of the plane on every trip, so we’ve been pals for all these years,” Holman offered.

“One of the more recent guys that I have a good relationship with is Zaza Pachulia. I spent some time in Milwaukee with him when we played there. He is such a good guy. As time goes on, though, there is more of an age gap now between the players and me, so they’re like my kids now. It was easier to be pals back in the ‘80s when no one had cell phones and game systems to occupy your time.”

While his broadcasting duties have become almost a full-time job throughout the year, Holman does enjoy his time off particularly during the summer with his wife Mary Jane at their home in Newnan. The Holmans lived in Alpharetta/Johns Creek for 16 years, but opted for a location nearer the Atlanta airport, which of course, he uses often. Holman enjoys grilling outdoors, watching baseball and football when he can, but focuses much of his attention on his 3-year-old grandson Connor, who along with Holman’s son Scott and daughter-in-law Amy, lives in Jackson, Miss. Another son, Steve Jr. resides in the Atlanta area.

Before he gets more time to relax during the off-season, Holman knows there is real opportunity to increase his earnings in 2015. This team set the Hawks franchise record for road wins in a season with 23 on March 16 in Sacramento, Calif. And, barring a complete collapse down the stretch, they will surpass the all-time franchise record for regular season wins too, eclipsing the previous record of 57.

While regular season success doesn’t guarantee a solid performance in the playoffs, as Holman said recently, “The jersey still says Hawks, and still says Atlanta, but this is a whole different team, a whole different feeling!”

Just like the players, the farther the team advances in the playoffs, Holman is rewarded.

“Yes, I get a little extra [money if they win],” Holman laughed. “I do get a playoff share. I root for them to win. If they win, I win!”