How Law Degree, Raw Demo Tape Made John Michael the Cavaliers’ Radio Voice
CLEVELAND -- Talk to John Michael about his eight-year career as the radio voice of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he’ll gladly offer up his favorite memories.
The first one that comes to mind? Calling the team’s historic Game 7 win at Oracle Arena to cap a 3-1 series comeback against the 73-win Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Finals.
“It's interesting because you have a general idea of what you want to say, but you're not exactly sure how it's going to come out, you know?” John tells CloseUp360. “And you don't want to have something scripted because it would sound scripted. So you have ideas in your head and then you just let it rip. You prepare yourself as well as you can and you get ready to go and then, all of a sudden, that moment is there.”
It wasn’t easy to prepare, either, with the game neck-in-neck in the final moments. To John, those last three-and-a-half minutes—with Kyrie Irving’s shot, LeBron James’ block and Kevin Love’s defense on Stephen Curry—felt more like 45.
“Until the very, very end, there was no time to think about it and I don't know if that helped,” he recalls, “but all of a sudden, woah! It was there.”
John’s path to that moment was anything but sudden. It came, rather, along a far more circuitous route, from the drudgery of life as a lawyer to dues paid in the minor leagues, with a realization that flipped his life entirely en route to not only witnessing, but leaving his imprint on one of the greatest moments in sports history.
John Michael (middle) celebrates the Cavs' 2016 NBA championship. (Courtesy of John Michael)
Where sports might be just pastimes for some, for John, they comprise an outright fixation.
“Here's an example: If we're driving in Arizona, right? The Grand Canyon would be on one side and the Diamondbacks' ballpark would be on the other side. I’d be looking at the ballpark saying, 'Oh, look how neat that is,'” he says. “I know it's strange, I know it's odd, but that's the way I operate.”
It’s also common for folks from John’s hometown of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Around 30 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, the town of fewer than 10,000 people is the home of NFL Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett, along with the late NBA legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich and former Major League Baseball player Tito Francona.
While John played four sports in high school at Sewickley Academy, he would not follow the same path as those greats. Instead, the road he took had more twists and turns than he could have ever imagined as a teenager.
Set on attending the University of Notre Dame after graduating from high school in 1990, John didn’t have much of an idea for a major. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he grew up, but math and science were his favorite school subjects, so he went with mechanical engineering.
That was just the first of John’s degrees there.
He realized that he was too much of a people person to spend his life stuck in a lab, so he applied to Notre Dame’s law school. The program offered a plan for a dual degree in law and business administration. He completed that in four years, as intended.
John speaks at Cuyahoga Community College with Magic Johnson. (Courtesy of John Michael)
By 1998, John had earned three different degrees in eight years at Notre Dame. Yet, it was the experience of being on campus in South Bend, Indiana—when the Fighting Irish were winning big under head coach Lou Holtz—that made him love the place.
“If you torture yourself to be there for eight years with the wind freeze, with the wintery weather and everything, you better love it,” John says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “And I did. It was great.”
Most importantly, to him, it’s where John met his wife, Julie. While he was studying law, she was captaining the women’s soccer team to a national championship in 1996.
After graduation, John got a job as a trial attorney at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart (currently K&L Gates), one of the largest law firms in Pittsburgh. While specializing in construction litigation, he earned a six-figure salary and lived a good life.
“I liked going to court,” he says. “I liked doing depositions. I liked the process of litigating.”
During his second year on the job, John was working on a solo trial. Months passed as he plugged away on the case. Whether he was in the shower or tossing and turning in bed, that was the only thing on his mind.
The verdict, fortunately, came out in his client’s favor.
“It was great,” he recalls. “I went back into my office, shut the door. But then I thought to myself, What did I just go through for the last two or three months? It didn't quite…you know?
Though John was good at his job and didn’t have any gripes about the work, nothing “clicked” for him after his wins. One Friday night during the fall of 2001, he turned on the radio while on the road in Aliquippa and flipped from one high school football game to the next.
“You can go up and down the dial, there's 10, 12 different games,” he says. “Just driving around one night listening to different games. I said, 'You know what? I would love to do that. That's something I'd really like to try.’”
John put his thoughts into action right away. He saw that ESPN Classic was going to re-air the 1984 Orange Bowl, so he began preparing as if he was going to broadcast it live. He studied the Nebraska and Miami rosters and, using his law firm’s Dictaphone (a sound recording device), he called the game and saved the audio.
With a demo in hand, John applied for a play-by-play job. He sent the tape to Don Rebel, a host and operations manager at NSN Sports Network, a Pittsburgh radio network currently known as TribLIVE HSSN.
“While the internet was young, most of the tapes I would get were, at that point, CDs of guys who have done things,” Don says, "whether it be a college radio station or maybe a small radio station, whatever they were able to put together.
“John's was unique because he didn't really have that experience. He did 10-15 minutes of [the Orange Bowl game] and it just stuck out to me. I thought to myself, That's something I would've done if I was looking to get into the business and had no experience. I just thought it was unique and it really caught my attention.”
After one of NSN’s high school football play-by-play announcers fell ill, Don called John to fill in, and he quickly accepted the offer. The first game he broadcast live was an hour and a half away between a couple of one-win teams, Plum and Penn-Trafford, but he loved every second of it.
Recognizing the passion in John’s voice, NSN asked him to do another football game the following week. Don knew how good John was. The newly-hired play-by-play man just had to dial things back a notch.
“Something he had to work on, even when he started with us, was just pace,” Don says. “He would be so amped and so excited to be broadcasting—whatever the sporting event—that sometimes he would want to go 150 miles an hour. It was just, ‘Slow things down a little bit.’”
Yet, Don didn’t want to discourage John’s enthusiasm—the very element that drew NSN’s head man to the one-time attorney.
“I think a lot of people, young broadcasters, want to fake it,” Don says. “If it's undefeated teams, 'Yeah, I can bring it 'cause I'm pumped, I'm excited.' But if it's two mediocre teams, then it's, like, ‘Ugh, man, this is a grind.’ That was never a problem with him.”
NSN asked John to do another game the week after, and soon he branched out to different sports.
“At the end of football season, they said, ‘Can you do basketball?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, I can do basketball and hockey. I never did any. In this profession, you say, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”
Suddenly, John was doing basketball, then hockey and baseball. Any opportunity that arose, he took.
All the while, he kept working at K&L during the day and dissecting his broadcast tapes in his spare time, usually picking out a few things he liked and pages of things on which he felt he needed to improve.
“I had done that on the side for about three years. I was basically moonlighting,” he says. “And it wasn't exactly clear with the law firm, if you were allowed to like have two jobs at the same time. So, in fact, for a lot of those games that I called with the high school network, I said, 'Don't pay me.’”
After four years of practicing law, John could no longer call broadcasting a hobby. Listening back to himself, analyzing his work, preparing for games—play-by-play had taken over his life.
“I started sending my resume and my tapes out everywhere,” he remembers. “To every minor league hockey team, every minor league baseball team, arena league teams—anything I can think of.”
In 2003, John received a phone call from the Hagerstown Suns, the Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants at the time. The organization offered him a $5,000 salary for the season.
Despite that disparity in pay and stability, he decided to commit himself to broadcasting. Family, friends and colleagues questioned his thought process.
“I faced one of those crossroads moments,” he says. “I said, ‘If I don't do it now, I might, I might never do it.’ And I figured I'd take a chance and roll the dice, and off I went.”
That began what's become a 15-year odyssey for John.
Following one year in Hagerstown, Maryland, he spent two years calling games for the Johnstown Chiefs, a minor league hockey team in the Pennsylvania town where the movie Slap Shot was filmed. Once he earned the East Coast Hockey League Broadcaster of the Year award after the 2004-05 season, he knew he was destined for bigger things.
From there, John spent four years in the American Hockey League—two apiece with the Springfield Falcons (now defunct) and Lake Erie Monsters (now the Cleveland Monsters).
While in Cleveland, John met Dave Dombrowski, the director of broadcasting for the Monsters and NBA’s Cavaliers. As part of a hiring group comprised of five people—including Randy Domain, the Monsters’ COO—Dave played an integral part in John’s hiring to the minor league expansion hockey team.
Despite John being a late entry in a pool of more than 50 applicants, he impressed with a vibrant performance inside of a suite at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We all went, 'Wow! That's the guy,’" Dave says. “And I don't know what he said or what he did, but he was just very, very sure of himself. He really blew us all away. He likes to say that [with] his years as a trial attorney, he was fit for being able to address a group like that.
“And being a first-year organization with the hockey team, it was a good gamble we took and it turned out great, for both us and him.”
Over John’s time calling the Monsters’ games, Dave grew to admire his talent. Knowing that Joe Tait, the long-time voice of the Cavs, would soon retire, Dave encouraged John to practice calling basketball games at Quicken Loans Arena.
"'Don't pigeonhole yourself into hockey because your resume is baseball and football and basketball,'" Dave told him. "'Make sure you do everything.'"
Dave had engineers set up a makeshift broadcasting station in the back row of the media section. John obliged, calling playoff games against the Washington Wizards in 2008 and Orlando Magic in 2009 all by himself.
“Those series were fantastic,” John says. “So I started to fall in love with the Cavs before I was even doing basketball.”
Dave held onto those tapes because John had other things in the works.
FOX Sports Ohio noticed John’s work in minor league hockey and asked him to join their Columbus Blue Jackets’ broadcast team. He had already dabbled in TV with the Monsters (the games aired on FSO). With some nudging from Dave, John took the job and moved to Ohio’s capital in 2009.
“What I thought was interesting with FOX is that it provided me with the experience to do work at the desk, hosting work, which I had never done before,” he says.
Though John appreciated the opportunity to do something different, it only reinforced his passion for play-by-play.
“I had forgotten in Columbus how much I missed it and how much I loved it,” he says. “And just how much I love breathing in the sport and being a part of the entire play-by-play portion of what takes place through the course of the game.”
John got his chance to do just that when, in 2011, Joe Tait retired from the Cavs' booth.
While still fulfilling his duties at FSO in Columbus, John called Don to ask about coming into the NSN studio to dig up some old high school basketball tapes, so he could put together a demo for the open position in Cleveland. Along with the recordings of the playoff series, John thought having some extra sound to provide would help his case in the search.
Dave once again played a part on the Cavs’ hiring team with six people. The goal was to find somebody willing to work in a two-man booth who would be the voice of the organization for a long time. Being familiar with John and knowing his work ethic made for an instant top choice.
“[Dave] called me up out of the blue and said, 'We've listened to your tape along with the 200-plus applicants that we've received and if you want to throw your hat in the mix, you're in the top 10,'” John recalls.
After a series of interviews with John, Dave and the hiring team “unanimously selected him as the number one candidate.”
Being the radio voice of the wine and gold never crossed John’s mind. However, when Dave called to give him the job, there was no hesitation.
“It was not like it was something I aspired to do,” John says. “It was not even something on my radar at all, but something that when they offered me it, of course, you know, [I] wildly jumped at the opportunity.”
But a lockout delayed the 2011-12 NBA season, John's first with the Cavs. So FOX Sports Ohio kept him on the Blue Jackets’ broadcasts despite knowing his intentions, for which he still is incredibly grateful.
All the while, John prepared for his next role by studying everything he could about the Cavs—from "over 100 practice games" to each of the team's 82 games in 2010-11—as the lockout dragged on through September, October and November toward Christmas.
“It was like I was in law school again,” he says. “I had tons of note cards that I'd use to just get familiar with the league and the players, and everything else. I was raring. I was dying to go two months after I started.”
John's Favorite Radio Calls
1) LeBron's game-winner in Chicago (2015)
2) LeBron's game-winner vs. Raptors (2018)
3) Matthew Dellavedova vs. Al Horford (2015)
4) Delly vs. Stephen Curry (2015)
Still residing in Columbus, John spent his first weeks in Cleveland—shortly after the lockout officially ended on December 8, 2011—living in a hotel. That labor impasse left everyone scrambling toward a shortened training camp and two-game preseason before the Cavs' home opener against the Toronto Raptors the day after Christmas.
“There wasn't even time to be nervous or anxious,” he says. “I mean, we basically had to hit the ground running and off we went. I knew basketball. That wasn't a concern for me. But, you know, the perception is always something you need to be concerned with. I also, oh by the way, was replacing a Hall of Famer, a legend who had been here for 39 years.”
Creating relationships with the Cavaliers came easy for John. Byron Scott, the team's head coach at the time, and his whole staff helped John adjust to his new job.
“Byron was, as he likes to say...the head of the snake,” John says. “But Paul Pressey was phenomenal. I mean, assistants like Nate Tibbetts, Joe Prunty. It meant a lot to my wife and I. We didn't have kids at the time. They went out of their way to welcome us. I think that's good to be a part of the family here at work, but also off the court as well. And it was huge.”
It also helped that John had a welcoming team to work with on broadcasts. Jim Chones, a former Cavaliers player, was the in-game radio analyst when John joined. The team also featured longtime studio host Mike Snyder. Together, they ensured that succeeding Joe on the call would be a group effort.
“This was a very hard position,” Dave says. “You don't ever want to be the guy that replaces the legend. You want to be the guy after the guy that replaces the legend. We didn't want to say that John Michael was replacing Joe Tait. We said that our new broadcast team is John Michael and Jim Chones, along with Mike Snyder, and we believe we have one of the best, if not the best, radio broadcasts in the NBA.”
The players made it easier on John, too—particularly LeBron James upon returning to Cleveland in 2014.
“As a broadcaster, it was a perfect relationship, a perfect broadcaster-player relationship,” John says. “We liked each other, talked about our families, say, ‘Hey, how’s the family doing? Oh great, how’s your family doing?’ And that’s it, and it was great.”
Since joining the Cavs, John has seen LeBron and Kyrie Irving come and go, along with Cleveland’s 52-year pro sports championship drought. John was blessed to make the final call on that comeback, and earned a championship ring, to boot. Still, in his eyes, that wasn’t what it was about.
“To me, it was being able to sit on top of that convertible and ride, rocking the streets of downtown Cleveland with 1.2 million of our closest friends,” he says. “And everybody was smiling.
“It was so hot and it took so long and everybody was still smiling. All walks of life—men, women, young, old, every different kind of nationality you can think of. And that's something I'll never forget. I mean, you can have the ring. I'll have that memory of the parade and seeing all those people enjoy the championship for the first time in over five decades.”
Just as John has built relationships with his colleagues and players alike, so too has he connected to the city of Cleveland with his attention to detail and impeccable timing.
“He’s grown on our fans,” Dave says.
John celebrates the Cavs' 2016 championship with then-head coach Tyronn Lue. (Courtesy of John Michael)
Nowadays, the Cavs’ roster from that parade is all gone, except for Tristan Thompson (and an inactive J.R. Smith). John, too, has seen his duties change.
Along with Rafael Hernandez Brito—the Cavaliers’ Spanish radio play-by-play man and one of John’s closest friends—he hosts CavsHQ, a televised podcast, with guests ranging from players to media personalities, to provide unique perspectives on the team. He also co-hosts the Cleveland edition of the Road Trippin’ podcast alongside Channing Frye.
It’s one thing to like sports. It’s another to be immersed in them for a lifetime. But this is what John wanted, and that hasn’t changed.
“If you do what you love, it'll never feel like you're going to work,” he says. “And it still doesn't.
“It's been eight years for this team and even broadcasting in the minors, when I was riding uncomfortable buses and all the traveling that takes place and inconvenience. It never felt like work. It felt like something special. That, to me, is the crux of why you do what you love.”
Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.