That is, except for one last announcing commitment that bestows upon Kevin Harlan the additional honor of “soundtrack to the NBA since 2005” in the words of his wife, Ann.
Handling play-by-play for the “NBA 2K” video game for 14 of its 20 editions—paired remotely this year with ESPN pro basketball analyst Doris Burke—carries so much name recognition that it can’t be called just a final loose end for Harlan’s work year.
The makers, 2K Sports, built a studio on the Door peninsula to accommodate Harlan, who lends his call to the bestselling sports game in the United States and second-ranked in the world behind EA Sports’ “FIFA” soccer simulation.
“The main group is based in Boston, but it’s amazing what they do with the computer system and Skype and (allowing me) to see the ‘action’ I’m calling and the person I’m doing the broadcast with,” Harlan, 58, said during a sit-down at his home on the bay shore side. “They must have 200 NASA scientists working on this thing.
“When I go do NCAA (basketball) games for CBS and introduce myself, these young players go, ‘Yeah, I know who you are...,” Harlan said. “At that age, they grew up with your voice more than maybe anyone associated with the game. That is a built-in investment you don’t know about until 10 or 15 years into it.”
If Harlan’s name rings a bell from his radio and TV work with the NFL, NBA and NCAA hoops, it should set off a clanging cacophony in Wisconsin because he’s the son of retired Green Bay Packers president Bob Harlan, the man who hired Ron Wolf and helped bring Super Bowl eras back to Titletown.
Bob Harlan also campaigned exhaustively in 2000 to push through a $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field, more than half of it funded by a local sales tax increase.
Anyone traveling along Lombardi Avenue can see how things turned out—a towering, modern brick façade surrounding the stadium, replacing drab, green corrugated steel; spacious atrium open to visitors; a tony bar/restaurant; enlarged, high-tech hall of fame; and year-round destination for weddings, banquets and other events. But if voters had turned a thumbs-down on Harlan’s vision, it’s quite possible the team would have slipped into distress on the balance sheets—and, consequently, the field—struggling to keep up with rivals in far larger markets.
Bob Harlan, who also has a home here a few miles from his son’s, was a rising executive with the Packers when Kevin was young. Dad put son to work during training camp fetching footballs, cleaning locker rooms, bottling Gatorade and hauling tackling dummies around in a golf cart. His buddies at the former Green Bay Premontre High School didn’t know his father’s exact role with the beloved Green and Gold, except that it got Kevin onto the practice field sidelines.
Kevin developed his pipes as a sportscaster for the Premontre radio station. He broke in professionally at 22 as radio and TV voice of the NBA’s Kansas City Kings (since relocated to Sacramento) and also worked for the University of Missouri and the powerful hoops program at his alma mater, Kansas. At just 25, he was already in the booth for a plum NFL job with the Kansas City Chiefs (1985-93) and, four years later, became the first play-by-play announcer for the expansion NBA franchise in Minneapolis, the Timberwolves, a post he held for nine seasons.
In that same year of 1989, his father also enjoyed some exciting career news—history-making, in fact.
“When he was named (Packers) CEO, all of us three kids flew up to surprise him that night. All of his very close friends were there,” Kevin said of his father, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, and graduate of Marquette University. “It was big because he was the first non-Green Bay born and bred president. That had been a stumbling block with the executive committee.”
The Harlans of Door County
Today, Kevin and Ann split their time between homes in Door County and Kansas City, Missouri. Ann said they’ll “never give up” their Kansas City residence because middle daughter Haley lives nearby with her husband and was expecting their first grandchild at the time of the interview. But they keep finding reasons to extend their stay on Wisconsin’s thumb beyond spring and summer, she said.
“When our youngest went off to college, we thought, let’s linger a little while into September and see how that goes,” Ann said. “Then the next year it’s into November, and before you know it, it’s Thanksgiving and the holidays, and then a cozy January or February weekend. Now we’re here at least a weekend (per) month, at least a portion of every month.”
The couple spends time boating, bike riding, relaxing on the patio or just enjoying the natural beauty and a “great group of local friends,” Ann said. Their dinner club with those pals makes the rounds of the Friday fish fry at Sister Bay Bowl, Alexander’s of Door County or what they call the “four W’s”—Wickman House, Whistling Swan, White Gull Inn and Waterfront Restaurant.
The (virtual) NBA assignment might be weighty but at least permits Kevin a chance to stay home and enjoy the Door, following nearly nine months of coast-to-coast travel from the NFL openers in early September through the NBA conference semifinals in mid-May. He gets back into the swing of things by taking the TV microphone for Packers preseason games in August on the team’s statewide network.
His three employers for national football and basketball coverage are competitors and don’t give a whit about working together to go easy on Harlan’s schedule. His Sunday football game on CBS-TV might be on the opposite coast from his Monday night radio gig, which he’s had for 10 years; his Saturday college basketball assignment for CBS could be several time zones from his weekday NBA stops for TNT.
“We don’t even blink, we’ve got the commute system down so well,” Ann said. “When we’re here for a ‘weekend’ at those times of year, it’s Tuesday to Thursday. Tuesday is the new Saturday.”
Their 2018 Door County respite has been eventful to say the least.
Mid-April saw a 100-year blizzard strike days before Kevin had to fly to the West Coast for the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ first playoff game in Oakland, Calif. Harlan credits his wife with a great call before the weekend storm.
“We thought we could still fly out Monday night, but then they started predicting 2 feet of snow and Annie said, ‘We better get out of here now,’“ Kevin said. “We flew out Friday morning instead, and lucky thing because the (Green Bay) airport closed for the weekend after that.”
“We (originally) thought it might be fun to stock the refrigerator, hunker down and just watch it,” Ann said.
Then, in July, the Harlans became in-laws to NBA player Sam Dekker of the Los Angeles Clippers, a Sheboygan native who helped the Wisconsin Badgers to consecutive Final Fours in 2014-15. Kevin said he’s glad his daughter, ESPN sportscaster Olivia Harlan, didn’t listen to him about avoiding star athletes in the courtship game—advice Kevin said was based on some hanky-panky he knows of among players he covered.
“I told her, No. 1, don’t get into broadcasting and No. 2, for god’s sake, never date a pro athlete. She violated both of those,” Kevin said. “But when I think about it, I have been lucky to work with former athletes who are great husbands and fathers: Steve Kerr, Danny Ainge, Clark Kellogg, Bill Raftery.
“Sam Wyche, Rich Gannon. All of them played or coached and still had great marriages. So on second thought, I don’t know how I came up with that exactly.”
Olivia Harlan and Dekker didn’t meet through their sports connections but the old-fashioned way, set up by mutual friends. Their Door County nuptials were billed as “Wisconsin’s royal wedding” and gained praise for the couple’s request that guests donate to charity in lieu of wedding gifts.
After their son and three daughters were grown and the Harlans became empty-nesters, Ann started joining Kevin for many of his travels and likes checking out different cities and watching the games he calls. But when the job occasionally requires those redeye, cross-country flights, she gladly stays behind as a football widow.
The zenith comes on Super Bowl Sunday when Harlan is heard by more than 25 million listeners on Westwood One’s presentation of the grandest day in American sports. The audience is three to five times more than that of his other big radio pulpit, for “Monday Night Football.”
The atmosphere’s even crazier if it’s a great game, and Harlan has witnessed three classics in the last four years: an end-zone interception saving the New England Patriots in February 2015; the Patriots’ comeback from a 28-3 hole in 2017; and more than 1,000 combined yards in the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory last season.
For a game where an estimated 175 million people catch at least part on TV, who’s left to hear it on radio? Safe to say, Harlan knows the makeup of his Super Bowl audience on that unofficial national holiday.
“People who can’t get off work that day,” he said. “People who are driving between parties, or have to leave a party at halftime because their babysitter has to go home. It’s not easy for some to sit in front of a TV for three-hours plus.
“The Armed Forces Radio Network, we have 175 ships at sea (that tune in). I’ve gotten text messages from soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan or the DMZ in Korea.”
Harlan has called eight Super Bowls on radio, his first being the Packers’ victory in Super Bowl XLV in February 2011. He also handled CBS-TV’s secondary feed of the 2001 Super Bowl, presented with an emerging technology called high-definition.
His 2017 top sportscaster award is voted on by peers and puts him in the company of legendary winners like Vin Scully, host Al Michaels of NBC-TV’s “Sunday Night Football,” Bob Costas and Chris Berman.
“Al is the best in the business and (partner) Cris (Collinsworth), if he’s not No. 2, he’s on the top line,” Harlan said. “But (TV) presentation is more personality-driven. Al and Cris have more facetime, and you are accenting the picture (viewers) see on the field. Radio, you’re calling every single, solitary detail. You have to be far more of a reporter.”
The fact that Harlan can toggle smoothly between both media forms elevates him to the same class as those other giants of the business. He even multi-tasks during Super Bowl week, fulfilling his basketball obligations up until the day before the big game.
Asked if being pulled in so many directions hurts his preparation for the ultimate broadcast on his calendar, Harlan said, “No. The Super Bowl is the culmination of two weeks (of hype), and by then the storylines are so well-known. At that point of the season, between TV and radio, I’ve seen every team in the league at least once.
“(Radio partner) Boomer Esiason said it best, that what we’re doing is setting the record (for posterity) one series at a time, one quarter at a time. Just be the best reporters we can be. That’s an incredibly important responsibility.”