Breaking the sound barrier
New voice of Nuggets pleased to announce one dream came true
Speller marks a page of his script before the Nuggets' game against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 8 at the Pepsi Center. In order to prepare for his task at hand, Speller usually gets to the arena about 90 minutes before tipoff.
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By James B. Meadow, Rocky Mountain News
March 25, 2006
It is 1 hour and 20 minutes before the game, the Pepsi Center is a tomb, The Voice is silent.
Well, not completely silent. His lips move as he inaudibly practices reading the scripts and spiels placed before him by the brain trust of the Denver Nuggets marketing team; practices pronouncing the names of tonight's opposing players, vigilant that there will be no tongue-crippling surprises in the form of a Sarunas Jasikevicius or a Zydrunas Ilgauskas lurking on the roster. His gaze is intense, his focus as sharp as the lapels of the GQ-worthy brown suit he is wearing over a crisp white shirt and gold tie.
Hunched over his sheets of paper, The Voice doesn't betray any discomfort at having his 6-foot-6, 265-pound synthesis of arms, legs and shoulders jammed into one of the metal folding chairs that adjoin the scorer's table. Cramped? So what if he's cramped? He's got the second-best seat in the house; no, not on the court, but this close to it. Close enough that he can live with the fact that his first dream - the one from childhood, the one nurtured by hope but betrayed by NBA physics - might be gone, but his second one is full of breath.
Just like The Voice, the clock has moved on. The tomb is now a caldron of sound and fury. Music blares, cheerleaders flip and prance, a spotlight sweeps like a prison break is going on. Then, like thunder rolling across the prairie, a rich, amplified baritone erupts, and in a tone reverent and incendiary implores, "Give it up for YOUR Denverrrr Nuuuuuuggggggets!"
And with that, The Voice gets down to business.
The first thing you should know about Kyle Speller, game announcer for the Nuggets and a guy who has spent time visiting prisons, is that he is an assistant pastor for his church, a network supervisor for a cable company, a graduate student, an athlete, a husband, a father and a rabid fan.
The second thing you should know about him is that he's convinced that his nighttime gig is the "best job in the world."
"Oh, man, if I could have any job in the world, this would be it. Announcer for the Denver Nuggets!" he says, enthusiasm and disbelief invading the words of the 34-year-old native New Yorker who came to Colorado when he was 8.
He grew up tall, tall and agile enough to be a gifted basketball player. First at Regis High School, then as a starter for Adams State College. You bet he was good. He just wasn't good enough.
"It was always my dream to be part of the NBA," he says, a wistful smile governing his handsome face.
Unlike most guys with that dream, Speller got a chance to realize it. In 1999, he wrangled an invitation to the Nuggets' free-agent tryout camp. For three glorious days, he was a professional. Then, on July 25, reality smacked him with a two-by-four. They thanked him for his time, shook his hand and sent him "back to life as usual."
What made the experience so frustrating was that Speller knew he hadn't been ready, hadn't gotten into "NBA shape." Hadn't done all he could. He felt as if he let down God.
In college, he had "given my life to the Lord." Become a devout member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Then he had asked God to give him a chance to play pro ball. He got his shot.
And look what he had done.
As Speller returned to the real world, he vowed if he ever got a second chance, things would be different.
In the meantime, there was real life to contend with. He was married, the father of a toddler. He worked for a ministry. It had a basketball league. And then . . .
He and some teammates got the idea to take the word of God into prisons. Only they would start with a tongue inmates could understand - the word of "balling" - turning the basketball court into "our pulpit."
Zigzagging across the state - Limon, Fremont, Florence, Buena Vista - Speller and his team competed in all kinds of facilities, minimum security, maximum security. Speller enjoyed being an "ambassador of Christ" who shared the Scriptures with the prisoners at halftime. Enjoyed letting them know that even if they were lifers, "there was a still a purpose to their lives."
Just to help get the crowd more into it, before he walked out on the court, Speller would handle the pregame introductions, announce the likes of Speedy, Huff, Bump, Big Bird, G-Money, Big Mama to the crowd.
He relished the intros, hearing his voice ricochet off the walls of those crowded prison gyms, knowing his patter "would pump everybody up," knowing that "it was my time to shine."
Always in the back of his mind was the knowledge that his voice was a special gift, a gift he shared with his disc jockey uncle back in New York - "The Dixie Drifter" to his listeners on WWRL. As a kid, he always had pretended to announce the games he watched on TV. He would hear people comment on his "unique voice." Hear them ask, as he got older, "Are you on the radio?"
Maybe, he wondered, I should be.
The Voice comes of age
He began to hone The Voice. Because by now, he had a new dream.
He once casually had asked a Nuggets staffer if the team ever used backup announcers. A glimmer of encouragement persuaded him to take a class "to learn the ins and outs of the business."
When he wasn't learning the ins and outs, he was honing his skills as an assistant pastor, presiding at weddings, funerals, baptisms, you name it. When he wasn't ministering in the name of his lord, he was showing up in high school gyms to announce games nobody but the kids and their parents cared about.
When he wasn't doing this, he was recording announcements and promotions, picking up a few extra gigs to supplement his day job at Comcast. Good thing. By now, he had three kids and a wife.
He also devoted a lot of effort to nonpaying chores, putting in studio-polished demos of The Voice. Then he'd launch these demos at the Nuggets. Y'know, just in case.
Someone got back to him. They liked his stuff, but there were no openings. Speller jumped at this morsel of praise. He sent more demos.
This time, he got no response.
The silence didn't stop him, because, "Meanwhile, I was getting prepared. I was doing whatever I could to keep that hope alive."
He had been forced to preside at the funeral of his first Nuggets dream. But then, he had made that deal with God. If he got that second chance, he was going to be ready to baptize a dream come true.
And then, it happened.
It was mid-September, and Speller was going about his multiple routines of job, church and family (to which he had added the nighttime pursuit of a master's degree). As usual, he was per- using the Nuggets Web site when - hallelujah!
"Grab Your Microphones," said the ad inviting announcer wannabes to audition. The team's previous voice had left; the Nuggets were looking for his replacement.
It took Speller "about 30 seconds" to get started. He already had "just the right music" in his head - he was going to be ready, remember? - and in a few hours, he had everything else. He e-mailed his tape and waited. And agonized.
"Being a man of faith," he prayed to God and asked for a little divine intervention.
A week later, the call came. The Nuggets liked his tape. Wanted him in for an interview. (Speller, by the way, has the message saved "forever" on his cell phone.)
His tryout came during the team's final scrimmage. He passed. He passed big time.
"One of Kyle's strong points is he knows the game," says Harlan Hendrickson, senior director of entertainment for Kroenke Sports, the team's ownership umbrella, adding, "His was, by far, the best of all the ones we got."
And how many did you get?
Today, Speller essentially is working on a game-to-game basis - neither he nor the Nuggets will say what he's paid. Still, he doesn't appear to have much to worry about. At least, not if you ask Hendrickson.
"Kyle will be here for the entire season," he says. "We love the job he's doing. His knowledge and extra enthusiasm, they're not fake - he's genuinely excited. All we've had is positive feedback. Fans love him."
Apparently, so do referees.
According to Speller, during one game, Dick Bavetta, dean of the league's officials, came up to him and "Told me I was one of the best he'd heard and he really enjoyed me.
"I don't know if he tells that to everyone, but he told it to me."
Did Bavetta say anything else?
"Yeah, he also said he wanted my suit," Speller says, breaking into a mellifluous laugh.
A gauze of lethargy is wrapped around tonight's game. The Nuggets are sluggish. So are the Toronto Raptors, a team going nowhere - although, lucky for Speller, a team whose trickiest name is Pape Sow.
And so tonight, The Voice has to work harder, mine some new vein of enthusiasm from the crowd. Not that this is particularly hard for him.
"I'm a homer, no doubt about it," he says. "I'm a true fan."
"Ooooh, Meh-LOWWWWWWW taking it to the house!"
"B-B-B-Boykins for 1! . . . 2! . . .3!!!"
"Do you know what times it is? It's the fourth quarter and THIS IS OUR HOUSE!"
"I have to calm Kyle down a lot," Hendrickson says, explaining with a laugh, "If we're going into overtime, I always have to say, 'Take it easy.' He gets as amp'd as anyone on the floor during games. If we hit a big basket with a few seconds left, he'll be on his feet with a fist in the air."
But before euphoria, or despair, can arrive, the game must be finished. And before the game is finished, there are many things for The Voice to handle. Yes, there are the shouts of exultation when a Nuggets player scores on a dunk ("Mile High B-b-b-bam!") But there are also the calls to arms for "Your Denver Nuggets Cheerleaders!" Or "Your Denver Nuggets Dancers!" Or "Rocky!" the Nuggets mascot.
There are also the endless spiels for sponsors - Yellow Cab, Powerball, Crown Royal ("It's about quality, not quantity"). After each energetic announcement, Speller drops the script to the floor, indifferent to the small landmass of paper growing around his size 15 shoes.
Beyond the huckstering, and the going ga-ga about the the team's on-court exploits aside, another key element of Speller's job description is letting the fans know how the other team is doing. But here, the key is to be informational, not sensational. Which is why whenever the Raptors score a basket or go to the foul line, Speller employs an indifferent monotone, sounding more like he's reading the label on a can of soup. The Voice subsiding to a voice.
The game is over. The Nuggets have won 107-101. The arena rapidly is emptying. The pile of papers by Speller's feet is out of control. He takes a sip from his water bottle.
"That was pretty close," he says with a smile. "But we won."
He is weary. He is also a bit hoarse. But with Kyle Speller, it's a hoarse of a different color. Because after 2 1/2 hours of shouting, exclaiming, pattering, pitching, what comes out of his mouth still is percolating with volume and enthusiasm and determination. All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that when it comes to psyching up a crowd and fulfilling a heavenly promise, The Voice definitely has got game, b-b-b-baby.
meadowj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2606