At the Buzzer

March 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Announcers reflect on their careers

Houston basketball fans may not instantly recognize their faces, but fans certainly know their voices. Like old friends, Gene Peterson and Jim Foley are invited into homes, offices and cars. For the next couple of hours, the two talk basketball. If it’s a good night, the conversation ends with, “How sweet it is!” For more than 30 years, Peterson and Foley have provided the play-by-play and analysis for radio broadcasts of Houston Rockets basketball games. Both broadcasters announced their decisions to retire following this season.

Born for basketball Basketball has always been in Foley’s blood. His career started in Milwaukee at Marquette University’s sports information department where he worked with hall-of-fame basketball coach Al Maguire. From there, Foley jumped to the NBA and joined the Milwaukee Bucks’ front office. “After only three years with the team, I got a championship ring,” Foley says, recalling the Bucks’ 1971 NBA title. “I thought, ‘I could get used to this.'”

The following season, the Houston Rockets, who had recently relocated to Texas from San Diego, offered Foley a public relations position. Thirty-six years later, he is still a vital part of the organization. As his tenure continued, he found a new role — one that would endear him to Rockets fans around the world. Foley was paired with Peterson (who joined the team in 1975) behind the microphone for home radio broadcasts. Soon, that partnership extended to playoff games, and finally, the entire 82-game schedule beginning in 1987.

Best was yet to come Peterson’s road to the Rockets started from a small radio station in the Midwest. “I was the news director, sports director, everything,” he says, his signature baritone voice booming. “My wife and I would mop and wax the floors on weekends with our child sitting in a stroller. We would do anything we could for a little bit of extra money.”

He later became sports director at KPRC AM 950 and then joined the Rockets. Although he has enjoyed many memorable moments in his career, Peterson looks back on his meager early days fondly. “The early years, as tough as they were, are special; I wouldn’t trade those times for anything,” Peterson says. “But, the time with the Rockets has been the best. There have been all the ups and downs, good times and bad times. Most of the time I’ve been here, we’ve been to the post season, 14 playoffs and four finals. It’s been a great run and a wonderful career.”

Courtside Broadcast partners for parts of 33 seasons, Foley and Peterson probably know each other better than some siblings and have a deep admiration and respect for each other. “You really wonder where the time went,” Foley says. “This will be 36 years for me, 33 for Gene. This is our 21st year full-time together.”

After calling more than 2,500 games together, Peterson and Foley operate like a well-oiled machine. Their mechanics are simple: Peterson does the play-by-play and Foley gives the in-game commentary. “Jim is terrific, he’s like my right arm,” Peterson explains. “When we first started, we worked things out. He knows when I’m talking and when I’m going to stop, and I know when he is going to stop. I say what I see. It’s as simple as that. I don’t make up anything — any analysis is done by Jim. That’s it. There’s no secret.”

Foley agrees: “I always thought I was allowed to speak up when the ball was dead but when the clock was going, it’s Gene’s time. We never had the problem of talking over each other.”

Fond memories Both Peterson and Foley point to the 1993-94 and 1994-95 world championship seasons as the greatest in Rockets’ history. “For so long, this team was just on the verge of going all the way. For a couple of years, we had so much trouble beating Seattle.” Foley remembers. Then [in the 1994 playoffs], Denver knocked them out and we went all the way. When we finally won, to see the reaction in the entire city, it was amazing. We finally did it. The championship parade is still one of the all-time greatest things to ever happen for us. People were in the parking garages, literally hanging out of them as we rode the fire trucks downtown. There could have been a million people out there.”

Peterson recalls the excitement of the 1986 Western Conference Finals against the storied “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers. Rockets center Ralph Sampson sank an off-balanced jumper at the buzzer to win the series. While a stunned crowd at the Great Western Forum stood silently in disbelief, the Rockets celebrated their victory — as did Foley. “He went nuts,” Peterson says, laughing. “I couldn’t hear myself. Jim broke his microphone when [Sampson] hit that shot he was so excited.”

“It was great,” Foley recalls. “I jumped and almost strangled myself with the microphone cord. It was a great moment in our history.”

End of an Era After 12 eye surgeries, Peterson says now is the time to call it a career. “I’ve had six surgeries in each eye. We used to be courtside, but now they have moved us up [to a higher press area]. I’ve been struggling with the eye problems for a while,” Peterson explains. “It’s just time. It’s absolutely time. My wife asked me how I feel about this and I said, ‘Absolutely terrific.’ She said that was great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited about the season, but I’m looking forward to retirement.”

Foley says he and Peterson made the decisions to retire independently. When the final buzzer sounds ending the Rockets’ season, the pair know they are leaving with their heads held high. “No regrets. I’ll walk away smiling,” he says. “There will be a tear in my eye when I walk out of here for the last time, but I know we gave it all we had.”

As the season goes along, Foley and Peterson are greeting their share of well-wishers, and they reciprocate the enthusiasm their listeners have for them. “We’ve had wonderful fans here and they have been great to us,” says Peterson. “We want to give our heartfelt thanks to our listeners over the years. Without them, there wouldn’t be a broadcast or a team — we appreciate them so much.”

Their careers will end with the Rockets’ last game of the season, which could be anywhere from late April, the end of the regular season, to late June, when the NBA Finals end. “Here’s hoping for late June and Gene says ‘How sweet it is!'” Foley says. When it ends, both broadcasters and their fans can look back over the last 30-plus years and say, “How sweet it’s been.”

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