Final farewell to Jim Durham; best wishes to Bob Brenly
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media November 10, 2012 4:48PM
SPRINGFIELD, MA - AUGUST 11: Jim Durham addresses the guests at the Bunn-Gowdy Awards Dinner for receiving the Curt Gowdy Award for electronic media as part of the 2011 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony on August 11, 2011 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2011 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Buter/NBAE via Getty Images)
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:30AM
This was intended to
lament the loss of Bob Brenly to the Chicago baseball scene until word came of a real loss: Jim Durham, the radio voice of the Bulls to a generation of fans, was only 65 when he died last week at his home in Texas.
It speaks to the regard in which Durham was held that the tributes were as heartfelt as they were voluminous, and he hadn’t worked for the Bulls in more than 20 years.
He might have lacked Jack Brickhouse’s ubiquitous longevity and Harry Caray’s outsized personality/ego — and the pre-Michael Jordan Bulls were a relatively low-profile operation — but Durham was every bit those Chicago icons’ equal as a broadcasting talent. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called him the best he ever heard at calling a basketball game, and a lot of people would agree with that assessment.
The NBA on radio is a tough assignment. The action is almost nonstop — no between-pitches breaks to charm the audience with anecdotes or stats, no between-plays pauses to allow a color man’s avuncular analysis of what just happened. The best basketball guys have a clear, rapid-fire delivery that fits the pace of the game and a savvy understanding that allows for both vivid descriptions and instant interpretation that a layman can grasp.
Chick Hearn with the Lakers, Marv Albert with the Knicks, Johnny Most with the Celtics, Bill King with the Warriors — they defined the craft. Jim Durham played in their league.
ESPN made a wise choice in hiring Durham for its NBA radio package, keeping him accessible to Chicago. Dr. Jack Ramsay, the 87-year-old analyst, sometimes sounds as though he were at the Springfield Y when Dr. Naismith hung the peach basket, but theirs turned out to be an inspired pairing of two guys who really got basketball and loved talking about it.
Listening to them was a hoops fan’s delight. A playoff game on the car radio with J.D. and Dr. Jack on the call always made a long drive seem shorter.
Yes, it’s often knee-jerk and borderline cliché to insist that the recently departed wasn’t only a great talent but an even better guy. In Durham’s case, it happens to be true.
Let’s say the same for Brenly while he’s still with us.
I met Brenly on his first day in the big leagues, and he remains the same down-to-earth, regular fella he was 31 years ago, impossible not to like.
The players’ strike in 1981 was the salvation of Brenly’s career. He had been buried in the Giants’ farm system, written off as a career minor-leaguer at 27, about to abandon the dream he had been chasing for a high school teaching/coaching job in his native Ohio.
But Frank Robinson, in his first season as the Giants’ manager, used the downtime of the strike to inspect the minor leagues. Brenly, he decided, was the equal of any catcher he had in San Francisco. When the strike ended, Brenly was called up. He went on to have a decent 10-year big-league career, but he was ever conscious of the break he had caught, and his appreciation has been refreshingly evident in every job he has held in baseball.
Some of the suits in the Cubs’ executive suite thought Brenly was a little hard on the boys in uniform, and the cozy relationship between the Cubs and WGN eventually might end as those suits seek true market value for the team’s broadcast rights. But Brenly insists there is nothing mysterious about his departure. The Diamondbacks, he said, ‘‘literally stepped up with an offer I couldn’t refuse. And as much as I love Chicago, I didn’t think I could say no to a chance to work at home at this point in my life.’’
Remember the outrage when Steve Stone stormed out of the Cubs’ booth after a messy end to the ill-fated 2004 season? Brenly well might have been an upgrade. His candor, humor and easy rapport with Len Kasper were gifts from the baseball gods, difficult for any successor to replicate.