In addition to hosting a daily show on 92.9 FM-ESPN (and 680 AM), Eric Hasseltine is enjoying his 10th season as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Memphis Grizzlies. He hopes to be extra busy in June, when the NBA Finals are played.
What was your first play-by-play gig? Believe it or not, it was in high school [De La Salle Catholic in Concord, California]. We had a little TV station, which gave us the opportunity to take a broadcast journalism class. Our high school basketball team was really good. [Hall of Famer Rick Barry’s sons played for De La Salle.] I loved to play and I wasn’t terrible, but we had three or four guys going to Division I colleges. It was just two games, but I realized I loved it.
What did you find most challenging about describing a live basketball game? It helps having played the game. You understand the game. When you watch it, you see what’s happening and realize how good these [NBA players] are. You have to know your team, and know the style of the team it’s playing. The speed can get you, but if you’re prepared, you can be comfortable behind the microphone.
You became the Grizzlies’ radio play-by-play man after the death of Don Poier (in January 2005). That had to be a mix of emotional extremes. It was tough. I got to work alongside Don the first three years [the Grizzlies were in Memphis] and that first half-season at FedExForum. I never learned so much from somebody. Not just the game, but how to prepare, how to follow the team you’re covering. He took me under his wing. I went through a lot of the struggles he did at my age, handling relationships. It’s tough on a family to be in this business. I was fighting to get to his level. We had a great rapport. He told me at the end of every season, “You’re going to be a play-by-play guy in this league.” That’s a day I’ll never forget. I was being sued for violation of a non-compete clause by a station I had begun working for here. I was meeting with attorneys when my boss came in and said they wanted to see me in the vice president’s office [at FedExForum]. The first thought that came into my mind was that I’m getting fired. I had a newborn and my marriage was already struggling. Now I’ll have no job. What will I do for money? I was asked to sit down, but chose to stand, thinking if they’re firing me, I’m walking out the door. I won’t lose my temper; just calmly leave. That’s when they told me Don was gone. You’re expecting to hear one thing, then hear something totally out of the blue. I had never fainted, but I almost passed out. I dropped to one knee. After the shock settled, they told me they needed me on a plane to Denver [where the Grizzlies were playing]. I’m thankful we didn’t have TV that night. Pete Pranica did the radio broadcast. So I flew to Salt Lake City the next day. Did radio that night and haven’t missed a game since. When we got home and had the tribute at the arena, Barb Poier came over to me. She knew I was a wreck. She put her arm around me and told me, “If there’s one guy Don would want to take his spot, it’s you. He loved you like a brother. Make him proud.” Had she not said that, I’m pretty sure I would have left in the offseason.
How would you describe the connection the Grizzlies have built with this city, particularly over the last five seasons? I came from Sacramento, where they had an incredible relationship with the team because it’s all they had. Here in 2001, it was a big difference. There were a lot of [University of Memphis] Tiger fans who didn’t think an NBA team and major college program could work in the same city. I felt there should be enough room in hearts to root for both teams. The Grizzlies, at first, were not a very good team. It was hard to get behind them.
The last five years, fans have connected with the mentality of the team, with Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, with Marc Gasol growing up here. I love being the voice of this team, and for the way the team has connected to this city, that small-market mentality. You in the big city may not understand what we’re all about. But we in this fan base don’t care. Don’t be surprised when that unity and strength puts you in a position of weakness. These fans care more than a lot of fan bases could imagine.
Who has been your favorite player to interview over the years? I loved talking with Lorenzen Wright; he cared so much about this city. Shane Battier was always an incredible interview. But from day one, Mike Conley has been the ultimate professional. I was stunned at what a good interview he was at 19 years old. He took so much criticism [early in his career], but was so willing to talk. So forthcoming. Mike has gone from a kid fighting for respect to one of the most respected point guards in the league. He does a tremendous amount of charity work. He’s shared a lot of personal stuff in interviews, and that’s not easy to do. I haven’t met a guy who’s as quietly competitive as Mike Conley.
Among the hundreds of games you’ve called, which stand out in your memory? The first one [is from the 2006-07 season]. Tony Barone had just taken over as coach [from Mike Fratello] and he basically changed the team’s style, saying we’re gonna run, we’re gonna be fast. They beat Golden State, 144-135. There was no stopping. I remember getting out of that game exhausted.
And obviously when the Grizzlies won their first playoff game, Game 1 [of the 2011 Western Conference quarterfinals] in San Antonio. Shane Battier hit a three-pointer to clinch that win. He was ten feet to my left and when the ball left his hands, I knew it was good.