KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kevin Harlan was 22 and in no position to cover a $250 hotel minibar bill, especially since he was certain he did not remove a single item from said minibar.
But there he found himself in Phoenix, arguing with hotel employees about what he owed as the rest of the Kansas City Kings traveling party prepared to leave town.
Later, Harlan learned that he had been the victim of a rookie prank executed by none other than the Kings’ coach, an old-school NBA character named Cotton Fitzsimmons.
Harlan was not a player, though. He was the team’s play-by-play man, hired the same month he graduated from Kansas in 1982 weeks before his 22nd birthday, by a woebegone NBA franchise that three years later would move to Sacramento.
Not that that mattered to Harlan. It was the NBA.
“I was very wide-eyed,” he said. “I’d see Marv Albert. I’d see Chick Hearn. I’d see Johnny Most, and I’m 22 years old. I know they looked at me probably thinking I was the producer, or maybe the statistician.”
Thirty-five years later, he’s back in Kansas City, set to call the Midwest Regional for CBS/Turner starting Thursday night at the Sprint Center, a site headlined by his alma mater.
But saying he is back is not quite accurate, for he never really left.
Since that first season with the Kings in 1982-83, he has lived outside the Kansas City area for only one year, when he first started calling games for the then-expansion Minnesota Timberwolves.
So let’s go back to how all this started.
Harlan began producing the Chiefs’ pregame and postgame shows for KCMO radio while still at Kansas, then was offered a job hosting a sports talk show on Sunday nights.
Around the time Harlan was graduating in May 1982, Kings announcer Neil Funk left for a job with the 76ers.
“The team was kind of teetering, with some real financial problems, so they wanted someone cheap and young, and I was young and I was cheap,” Harlan said.
The team heard a tape, and soon he was doing TV calls, with analyst “Easy” Ed Macauley, that were simulcast on the radio station.
As bad as the Kings’ business was, the team was not bad on the court, finishing 45-37, with Kemper Arena as its home. Larry Drew was the leading scorer. Former (and future) Knick Ray Williams was on the team, as was former Knicks player and future Knicks coach Mike Woodson.
So were three players named Johnson: Reggie, Eddie and Steve. “And when we played the Lakers, and Magic and Clay Johnson were on the floor, you had five Johnsons out there,” Harlan said. “It was tough.”
Harlan wasn’t complaining, then or now. “It was all luck,” he said. “Right place, right time.”
(Harlan family history with the NBA repeated itself when his daughter, Olivia, was hired out of the University of Georgia, at 21, in 2014 to be the Hawks’ sideline reporter for Fox Sports Southeast.)
After one season, the Kings left KCMO for another station, so Harlan became Kansas’ basketball play-by-play voice in Larry Brown’s first season there, what at one time was Harlan’s dream job.
But the Kings returned to KCMO in 1984, so he went back, then had to decide whether to move with them to Sacramento. “I’m going out to Sacramento, and I don’t want to go to Sacramento,” he said.
While he was mulling it over, Chiefs radio man Wayne Larrivee left for a job with the Bears. Harlan, whose father, Bob, was a longtime Packers executive, got offered the Chiefs job at 24. So he stayed.
He later took the Timberwolves job on the advice of Albert and Bob Costas.
A long, varied national announcing career ensued, and now, at 56, he lives in suburban Kansas City, and will call the first regional semifinals and final here since 1995, no hotel room required.
Just don’t expect any blue and red Kansas pom-poms.
“It’s great,” he said. “But at the same time, while I would like to see Kansas do well, I would rather just have a real good broadcast and ensure that my two analysts [Reggie Miller and Dan Bonner] are engaged and into it, and that I don’t get in the way.”
Showing any bias, he said, “wouldn’t be fair to Oregon, Purdue and Michigan. I challenge myself, and I might even tend to go the other way just to make sure I am overly fair. I’m rooting for a good broadcast, but I’m not rooting [for any team] . . . If I’m playing that game then I’m putting my job in jeopardy.”