Ian Eagle is in his 25th season calling Nets games — one on radio and 24 on television — and will be honored by the YES Network and Nets at the Feb. 21 game against the Trail Blazers at Barclays Center.
Eagle spoke to Newsday about the milestone before Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets.
Nets games for 25 years! Does that number amaze you?
Eagle: It amazes me, absolutely. I turn 50 on Saturday (Feb. 9), so literally half my life has been spent doing this job. That’s very difficult for me to wrap my brain around, when you start thinking of it in those terms.
How did the job first come about?
Eagle: In 1994, it all happened very quickly. I read that Howard David was not coming back as the radio voice of the Nets. I somehow got forwarded to the Nets broadcast department and secured an interview with Jon Spoelstra, the president of the team.
I had no right getting this job. I went in for the interview, and after I realized that we had a little bit of chemistry, I took a huge risk and I told him that I believe I’m going to have a long career in broadcasting, and if he chooses me for this job he forever will be known as the individual that gave me my chance. He did a double-take and then he smiled, and I felt pretty strongly walking out of the meeting that I was going to get the job.
Then a year later, you’re on TV.
Eagle: [Executive producer] Pete Silverman was at SportsChannel and I believe there were three finalists. I had a meeting with Pete at a diner in Roslyn. I had just moved to New Jersey . . . This is pre-GPS, pre-MapQuest, so I had no idea how long it was going to take me to get to this diner in Roslyn. I left my house for an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting at 5:30, not having any clue as to how much time it would take. I pulled into the diner at 6:08.
What game or games stand out over the 25 years?
Eagle: By far the game that resonates the most with me was Game 5, 2002, first-round [best-of-five] series, Nets and Pacers, Nets a shocking No. 1 seed, taking on Indiana with Reggie Miller. Game goes to double overtime, win or go home, and it’s me and Bill Raftery courtside.
It was just very emotional for the franchise. They were looking for relevance, validation. It could have gone one way or the other. Jason Kidd willed them to victory [120-109]. And it was the first time it ever felt like a legitimate homecourt advantage inside The Meadowlands. It just felt like they exorcised a lot of demons that day.
Any calls in particular that stand out?
Eagle: Vince Carter got traded to the Nets [in 2004]. His first game in Toronto [on April 15, 2005], there was a lot of vitriol up North over how that divorce happened. I remember my circumstances were such that CBS needed me in a last-minute situation to do a UConn game, so I had to fly the morning of to Toronto, stay at LaGuardia Airport, I’m working on no sleep whatsoever.
It turned out to be a classic game [won by the Nets, 101-90, with Carter scoring 39 points]. I just thought I was in the moment. I remember feeling as if I did well in what could have been challenging circumstances, that I handled it, and felt good about it.
You have seen a lot of losing. Has that challenged you professionally?
Eagle: I think I was so happy to have the job that it never struck me as being difficult. I’m so fortunate to be calling NBA games. I was doing it at such a young age. So there was never that blasé attitude. I took every game seriously.
I still to this day view it that someone’s tuning in, and they’ve never heard of me, they don’t know my work. They’re going to form an opinion based on a very small sample size. So if it’s Nets-Grizzlies on a Tuesday night, I treat it like I would an Elite Eight game in the NCAA Tournament. I take it seriously.
Who is your favorite partner?
Eagle: Hah! It’s like children. I wouldn’t be able to choose. I’ve had quite a few. On Nets it would be Bill Raftery, Jim Spanarkel, Mike Fratello, Kelly Tripucka, Mark Jackson, Greg Anthony, Sarah Kustok, Richard Jefferson. And I can honestly look back and say I felt like I had chemistry with each one, that I found some common ground. And that’s part of the job description, to get the most out of your partner.
Bill Raftery being my first television partner set me on a course that changed my career, because sitting next to him I realized that the difference when the red light goes on and the red light goes off shouldn’t be that drastic. It should be a continuation of who you are. Energy, enthusiasm, an organic approach, all of that was based on sitting next to him and working with Bill, truly. If I had a different partner to open up with, I don’t know if I would have achieved the things I achieved. He opened my eyes to how it’s supposed to be done.
How did the move to Brooklyn in 2012 affect your personal and professional life?
Eagle: I think I built it up in my head that it was going to be very tough. What I learned was that it changed my life by about half an hour on the front end and the back end. I live in New Jersey. I leave a little bit earlier, I get home a little bit later. But it hasn’t been nearly as challenging as I first thought.
And the reality is, it’s been better for the franchise. It’s been better for the broadcasts. It’s given them a true home. In New Jersey it just always felt like they were an afterthought. And now they’re building a base.
What has this season been like?
Eagle: It’s been a metamorphosis in many ways, and it’s been a pleasant surprise. I feel like they have a plan, and that’s all you hope for if you’re a fan of a team. You just want to know that the front office, the coaching staff, are on the same page, that they’ve created a template that they’re going to follow and they’re doing it the right way.
You can’t just say that flippantly. They truly are doing it the right way. They’re not taking shortcuts. They’re not making hasty decisions. Previous regimes had done that, because they felt stress and pressure to compete. They’re not operating from that perspective.
When you look back at the Marv Albert situation (when he briefly supplanted Eagle as the lead play-by-play man in 2005), what do you think?
Eagle: I look back now and I see only positives. It opened up my schedule to do other things. I never would have taken on “Thursday Night Football” on the radio. I ended up doing a talk show for Sirius [satellite radio] for three years. Eventually I signed on with the Tennis Channel to work the French Open. Things that I probably would have shied away from I was now open to.
So in a way it helped my career. I never would have predicted it at that point. And I feel like I handled it the right way. I wasn’t bitter. I did my job. Marv and I have a fantastic relationship, so nothing was affected on that level.
Is it strange to be turning 50?
Eagle: I don’t feel different. I still feel young. I still feel like I’m aware of pop culture and I’m still on top of what’s happening. It’s a little strange that people view me as a veteran, and that I meet fans who look fairly old and they say, "I started watching you as a kid, and now my son has become a fan." You start doing the math in your head. There’s a lot of follicly challenged people who will pull me aside and I look at them and say, "Are you sure about your math?"
Obviously beyond the Nets you have a high national profile on CBS; what do you hope to do over the next 10 years?
Eagle: I want to continue doing what I’m doing at a high level. I hope that some opportunities will pop up, but my life isn’t based on whether I get a No. 1 job. I just don’t view my career that way, truly. There are people in this business that get caught up in the labels and rankings and I really don’t view it through that prism.
New York currently has a lot of longtime local announcers working; is that a plus?
Eagle: I think there’s a comfort zone [for the fans], and a familiarity that comes with being in this business a long time. That goes a long way, in credibility and fans connecting with a long-time announcer. I grew up in New York. I grew up with Marv as the voice of the Knicks and the voice of the Rangers, and Bob Murphy as the voice of the Mets and Phil Rizzuto with the Yankees.
Would you like to continue doing Nets games indefinitely?
Eagle: Yeah. I love the NBA. I’ve been associated with this team for a long time, half my life. I don’t see an end date in sight. I’d like to continue as long as they’ll have me.