Sean Grande is rarely at a loss for words. He’s especially adept at finding the right ones in his role as the play-by-play voice on The Sports Hub’s Celtics broadcasts, a gig he has had since he was united with analyst Cedric Maxwell for the 2001-02 season. But this stirring Celtics season — they enter Friday’s game at San Antonio with the best record in the league at 22-4 — brought Grande at least one unique challenge.
How does a broadcaster describe something in real time that defies description? How does a broadcaster paint the picture of a player who makes the extraordinary a nightly occurrence? How does Grande find the words to describe what Kyrie Irving is doing this season in the moment that he is doing it?
“Let’s put it this way,’’ said Grande. “There’s perception that hockey is the hardest sport to call on the radio. Hockey and basketball, if you’re trying to do both exquisitely, with just as much detail, are probably equally as hard. There’s just as much action going on.
“The difference between them is not dramatic. But Kyrie makes basketball even more challenging to call. He does so many things with the basketball in such a short time that it has been challenging to try to figure out how to do that, to get it right and accurate in that small window.
“The best way I’ve come up with to describe that is, you know how when you go to a game and they have that rapid-fire shell game on the Jumbotron? You’ve got to follow the ball? That’s what it’s like with Kyrie. His handle and skill level is just ridiculous even by NBA standards. I’ll take trying to describe it rather than trying to stop it.’’
Grande said Irving’s appeal, even after just 26 games as a Celtic, is as great as that of any player he has seen during his years as the team’s broadcaster. As evidence, he cited a scene from outside the Celtics hotel after a win at Indiana Nov. 25. As the team bus returned to their accomodations for the night, Grande tweeted a picture of a significant crowd waiting to catch a glimpse of the Celtics — and one player in particular.
“I’ve been here for KG [Kevin Garnett], [Paul] Pierce, Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal], whatever, I’ve never seen a crowd like the one outside the hotel to see Kyrie,’’ he said. “Since we’re all older than we think that we are and pretend that we are, I don’t think we fully grasp Kyrie’s appeal to a younger generation.’’
Irving has been every bit the superstar, especially with his knack for taking control of tight games in the fourth quarter. But the Celtics’ remarkable start has truly been a team effort, with virtually every player on the roster contributing in a way that has exceeded early expectations.
“Going into the season, I thought this was the widest range of possibilities with a team that I’ve had in maybe 20 years, the high end to the low end, because there were so many new players and so many moving parts,’’ said Grande.
“I will say this about predicting win totals with Brad [Stevens]. I was generally very good at it until he got here. But I’ve underestimated it every year. They’ve won more games each of the last few years than they should have or you probably thought they could have. That’s his effect.’’
Of course, the Celtics have done this despite losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward approximately six minutes into the season when he broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in the opener against the Cavaliers. Like the vast majority of disappointed Celtics fans, Grande figured the team’s expectations would have to be recalibrated.
“Did I expect this? No. No. No,’’ said Grande. “The beauty of this is I don’t think any of us knew what they were going to be before it started. The NBA is the most predictable of the four. You might think the Red Sox are going to win 95 games, as will the Mets. And then one of them has all of those injuries and they win 75 games instead. That can happen. Same thing in football, where you think there might be an 11-5 team, a couple of things go wrong and they’re 5-11.
“In the NBA, you have a lot more certainty because you have fewer players. There’s drastic change only when a superstar gets hurt, like a LeBron or David Robinson that year with the Spurs.
“I thought it was possible that they could be really, really good with Gordon, that they could go rolling through the schedule. But without him? Who knew?’’
Grande recalled a grim scene when the Celtics’ flight back from Cleveland after the opener arrived at Hanscom Air Force Base.
“We were all sitting in the back of the plane waiting for them to take Gordon off the plane. They had an ambulance waiting for him, and it was like a receiving line at a funeral or something like that. We all kind of went by and said our piece and went to our cars.
“And it wasn’t just for him. The season was profoundly affected. We all overplayed it in the moment. It wasn’t a human tragedy, he just got hurt. But for the season, it really felt like everything was ruined. I mean, it was followed by a loss the next night. And it’s somehow become this.
“Anyone who says they say this coming is either a liar, insane, or probably in broadcasting.’’