Decades before embarking on his award-winning broadcast career, Mike Gorman had to get creative if he wanted to see the Celtics play in person. For the Dorchester native, this meant finding a way into Boston Garden without a ticket.
“I used to sneak into the old building, the old Boston Garden, when I was in high school,’’ Gorman said. “I’d take the train in from Dorchester, climb up the fire escape, and bang on the door. Somebody on the second balcony would come and eventually open the door and let us in.’’
As the play-by-play voice of the Celtics since 1981, Gorman has already narrated multiple NBA championship seasons for fellow fans in Boston. Currently broadcasting Celtics games on Comcast Sportsnet New England, the 68-year-old hopes to be a part of at least one more title run before stepping away from the microphone.
In his years calling the exploits of all-time Celtics like Larry Bird and Paul Pierce, Gorman has also been a part of his own legendary team: He has paired with color commentator Tommy Heinsohn — a Hall of Famer as a Celtics player and coach — to form one of basketball’s most enduring and entertaining broadcast tandems. Gorman may be considered the more neutral member of the duo, but he still thinks of himself as a fan at heart.
“I am that guy in the second balcony,’’ Gorman said. “I’m the same guy. I used to sit in the second balcony, now I just get a better seat.’’
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Do you remember your first game as a Celtics broadcaster?
I do remember. It was against the Indiana Pacers. It was here at the Garden, or, the old Garden. It was back when we were Prism [a forerunner of Comcast SportsNet], and we had these kind of lime green blazers that we had to wear. That’s the biggest thing I remember about Prism.
I had done some college basketball with Tommy before. The first college game I’d ever done with Tommy, I came in, I sat down, I opened up my score sheet. It was done in three or four different colors, had little anecdotes about players: where they were born, how many in their family, what their major was in college, and all this.
So Tommy looks at it and goes, “What’s that shit?’’ I go, “Oh, that’s stuff we’re going to use during the game.’’ And he went, “No we’re not,’’ and crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. And he went, “We’re going to talk about what’s going on in front of us, and we’re not going to talk about anything else.’’
And that’s kind of the way we’ve done the game for 35 years. We don’t do a lot of bio information. I’ve had the chance to do some network stuff. I understand when you’re doing network games across the country, you have to familiarize people with the players. But I don’t need to familiarize you with the Celtics.
When people do flashbacks, I’m amazed, because the dialog, the timing, between Tommy and I is exactly the same.
How has calling a game changed since then?
I don’t think it has at all for me. I’ve always been from the less is better school. I tell Scal [Brian Scalabrine, who substitutes for the 81-year-old Heinsohn during Celtics away games], who I really love working with, to think about: There’s a third person in the booth who doesn’t say anything, but you’ve got to give him time.
That’s probably the biggest thing I do that I don’t hear from some of my peers. But with my peers that I like, I hear it. You want to hear the game breathe a little bit. You want to hear the sneakers squeak. If you have a good audio guy, which we do, we have a great one here in Boston, he can pick up the sounds of the game.
That’s what you want to hear. You don’t want to hear my voice straight for two hours. That would get very old if that was the case.
You began your Celtics career during great times for the franchise, but then saw the team endure some lean years. How was that transition?
Once I decided to get in this, I was really in the right place at the right time.
I was in the right place at the right time in the Big East Conference. and I was happy to be in Providence, doing some Providence College basketball on Channel 12. And then it became a major part of the Big East when the Big East was real good. And I also got the Celtics job in Larry Bird’s first year. A nice accident on my behalf. I was very lucky then.
I’m glad the good years came first. Back then, I was doing six, seven games a week — four college, three pros. The reason I was doing the college games was, I didn’t do the away games. Tommy and [Bob] Cous[y] did those. So I went and did the Big East.
So I’m doing Larry Bird at his peak. I’m doing Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullen, Earl Washington, all the great names of the Big East at their peak, in sold-out buildings.
There was one year there in the ’80s, we only lost one home game. I found out very clearly then that if the team is good, the fans think the announcer is good. If the team is bad, people think the announcer is bad.
So I was fortunate enough to build up a pretty good pile of chips during the good years, and when the bad years came, people were patient.
Is there a business concern in those bad years that fewer wins means fewer viewers?
Without question. Having grown up here, I’ve always maintained that Boston primarily is a hockey town. In its heart, it’s a hockey town. It’s not a Patriots town. It’s not a Red Sox town. I know people think that, but I think it’s a Bruins town. I’ve always thought that.
The Patriots have a wonderful following. The Red Sox have had great, great runs. But in its heart, it’s a hockey town.
When we would get these terribly low ratings in the ’90s, I told the guys, all the team has to do is get good and the numbers will jump up vociferously. The Celtics fans are out there, but they say, “Hey, call us when you’re good again.’’ And the die-hard fans are always there rain or shine, but it rained for a long time.
But all you have to do is go back to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen teams to understand. Boston became a Celtics city once again.
What does it mean to be the voice of a team?
When you’re the voice of the team, you can root for the team.
One of the things I’ve found, which is kind of fun, when I’ve done national games, I used to root for both teams. ESPN would get letters from people for a game I did claiming I was a homer for both sides. And I was like, exactly right, I did my job.
Now, I’m just a homer for the Celtics. I try not to be irrational, but I want the Celtics to win every game. I make no bones about that.
Some guy went off on Twitter the other night. NBA TV picked us up and we were shown nationally. He’s screaming, “Are these guys announcers or are they homers?’’ We’re homers. It’s who we are, it’s what we’re supposed to do.
Do you benefit from Tommy being considered such a homer? It might make you look a little more centrist.
Yes, I do benefit from that. I’ve heard some people say I become more of a homer in the games I work with Scal. Scal is certainly not Tommy in the sense of his homerism.
With Tommy, do you ever feel like you need to manage it? And how do you do so?
“Manage it’’ is good. I like “manage.’’ Rein in.
We do a lot visually with each other because we’ve known each other so long. And he knows when I think he’s gone a little over the edge. And he’ll either back off or make fun of the fact that I think he’s gone over the edge. Either way, it defuses the situation.
Tommy’s passionate, and God love him. I don’t want him to ever lose that passion. He wants the Celtics to win every single game by 30. He’s not happy when they’re ahead by 20. He wants them to be ahead by 30. That’s wonderful.
From the time he graduated from college, he’s never worked for any other organization. He’s been a coach, been a player, been a broadcaster, been a spokesperson for the team. People say he defines homerism and I think that’s a compliment.
You sort of sounded like a homer yourself before the playoffs last year by predicting the Celtics would beat the Cavaliers in six games.
Yeah. I was really upset, pissed off, at the fact that the Celtics were being totally dismissed by everybody. They had gone 24-12 in their last 36 games. They had played excellent defense. They were playing well. They had a shot.
Yet everybody was like, “Cavs in four, Cavs in five, Celts don’t have a chance.’’ So I was like, “To hell with it. I’m going to say they’re going to win.’’
Did you believe it?
I hoped it. I hoped it. I wanted to believe it. The objective part of me didn’t believe it. But the Celtics fan in me, in my heart, I believed it. I sure wanted them to win, and not to make me look good.
Do you think objectivity has a place in local broadcasting?
If you’re a national broadcaster, you need to be objective. You do.
But when I’m doing a Celtics game, 98 percent of the people who are watching are rooting for the Celtics. So why shouldn’t I? For me to be objective would be way out of step with the people I’m dealing with.
On a national level, you need to be objective. On a local level, I think it’s a mistake to be objective.
With Tommy only calling home games the last few years, you’ve had a number of other partners, including one year working with a pretty sizable rotation of analysts. How has that been?
It was kind of difficult to deal with because you didn’t have anybody for very long.
You need to get four or five games with someone before you can understand their rhythm, where they want to talk, where they don’t want to talk, where you have to lead them, if they need to be led. If somebody just sits in for one game, it’s hard to gather all of that.
I thoroughly enjoyed working with [Celtics radio broadcaster and former player] Cedric Maxwell. I think Max is really great at what he does.
How has the relationship with Scalabrine developed?
Scal and I have been friends for a while off the court, so it’s been easy for me to learn.
He’s going to be very, very good. He loves the game. He’s smarter than people think. He’s funny. He’s self-deprecating. He has this fictional character of Scal. It’s not really who he is but the fans want Scal and he gives them Scal when they need it. He’s going to be very good.
How many more years do you have left in the tank?
I’d like to ride around the city in a duck boat one more time. How long might that take? Three, four years?
I love what I do. I love that Tommy at 81 just signed a two-year contract. I really thoroughly enjoy time on and off the court with Scal, and I think Scal can be really good at it. So I find that kind of challenging, to be a little bit of his mentor for his early years in broadcasting here.
No one will do anything longer than Tommy ever again. Tommy is 50-something years with the same organization. I’m only 35, I’m a puppy. I’m not going another 17 years.