“Hi again everybody, Kent Pavelka alongside Ben McLaughlin tonight at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, where your Nebraska Cornhusker men’s basketball team is set to take on the Wayne State Wildcats in exhibition basketball. It’s a prelude to the regular season next Tuesday night for 2018-2019. This Nebraska basketball team with a tremendous amount of buzz surrounding it.”
With those words, Pavelka began his 32nd year broadcasting Nebraska basketball, a season in which he will reach a significant milestone, calling his 1,000th Husker game.
One of a handful of longtime college basketball radio announcers tagged by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas as an “ambassador for the game,” Pavelka has described Husker games under coaches from Joe Cipriano to Tim Miles, from the NU Coliseum to the Devaney Sports Center to Pinnacle Bank Arena.
A couple weeks ago, I sat down with Pavelka at Gate 25 to talk about his career behind the mic. A pair of old friends — I’ve covered the Huskers for the Associated Press since the early '80s, sitting next to Pavelka for years — talking Nebraska basketball, I presented him with the notion that he’s become to some the bow-tied, "bangarang"-exclaiming embodiment of the program.
“I don’t ever think of it in those terms,” Pavelka said. “When you were saying that, that never occurs to me. It never has. The first year to the 33rd year, whatever this is. I go into a zone when I’m doing these games and I don’t have any concept — either before, during or after a broadcast or a season —what it means to anybody.”
Wolgamott: I’m sure it is meaningful to people. Among the reasons — "bangarang." When you’ve got people quoting that back at you, you know they’re paying attention.
Pavelka: “I’d be disingenuous if I said that I don’t feel good about where I’m at. And I suppose, I used to say this kind of in jest, and I really think it's true. ... You don’t really have to be that good. You have to stick around. You end up feeling like a good old broken-in pair of house slippers. You grow because you’ve hung around.
“It’s been a blast though. ... You’ve probably done more than a thousand games."
Wolgamott: Maybe not, because I don’t go on the road.
Pavelka: “You didn’t miss a bunch of seasons, either, like I did.”
A Lincoln native, Pavelka began his broadcasting career working as a disc jockey at KFMQ, Lincoln’s first FM rock station while attending UNL.
“I grew up in Lincoln and when I found out they had a broadcast sequence at the School of Journalism, back in those days, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” Pavelka said. “About a half-dozen years before that, I was just mesmerized by Dick Perry, Bob Zenner. ... I think it was my sophomore year they gave us a chance to go over to Memorial Stadium and to the Coliseum and do a closed-circuit broadcast on KRNU.
"I knew that’s what I wanted to do, right then.”
After graduation in 1971, Pavelka went to Fremont, where he did hundreds of games — football and basketball at high schools and Midland College. Then, in 1974, when he was just 24, he got hired by Omaha’s KFAB. A DJ job he took in March would soon land him in the Husker football booth alongside legendary play-by-play announcer Lyell Bremser and courtside at the Coliseum calling Husker hoops games.
Wolgamott: So you were doing basketball at 24. You were only a couple years older than the kids. That’s not the case today.
Pavelka: “No, no. It’s weird. That is a really weird reality when you’re riding the bus and riding the airplane with these guys and you know you’re older than their grandparents. ... I don’t ever think about it that much. But when you get older, you kind of put it all together. It’s kind of like a dream. It’s so odd.”
Jerry Fort was the Huskers' star player from 1973 to 1976, when Pavelka began calling games. Pavelka, who succeeded the legendary Bremser, became the voice of Husker football for a generation as well, calling '90s national championship football games before being what he called “banished” in 1996.
A decade later, he got the call to return to the Husker hoops mic, where he has remained through good years and bad — and with Nebraska basketball, there’s been plenty of the latter.
Wolgamott: One thing we do have in common, you and I have watched a lot of crappy basketball and yet you’ve maintained an enthusiasm through some really-not-good years.
Pavelka: “True enough. ... Even with football, to a degree, there’s been an element of, can we ever get over the top of the hill with this thing?
“With football, it was true because we could never beat Oklahoma. We finally got there in '78. In basketball, Joe (Cipriano) had some good teams, Moe (Iba) had some good teams. Danny (Nee) had really good teams. But nobody ever won a conference championship, nobody ever won an NCAA game. We just haven’t gotten over the hill. I just think collectively, Nebraska basketball fans, we’re in this thing, despite reality.”
Pavelka no longer listens to recordings of his broadcasts and says he has little idea whether he’s changed his play-by-play that much over the last 40 years, telling me I probably had a better idea about that than he did.
From my viewpoint, Pavelka hasn’t changed much. Except for the fact that the games are faster-paced now than in the pre-shot clock era, when Iba’s teams would hold the ball for a minute or more on a possession.
“Even thinking about that, you still try to describe every detail during a minute-and-a-half possession as you do in a 30-second possession,” he said. “Maybe there’s a few more passes you’re describing. That’s always been what I try to do, just be as detailed as I can, try to give a listener kind of an unconscious mental picture."
Wolgamott: How do you develop that knowledge of the detail? Do you go to practice and see what they’re going to do?
Pavelka: "I do go to practice. I go to practices way more today than I did back in the day. I don’t know any value out of it in terms of whether I’m any good doing play-by-play, but it’s kind of the aggregate knowledge that somehow seeps through on occasion, that you can throw in.
“I’ve always been a big guy to study, to prepare. Back in the day, I didn’t have access to Synergy Sports, where I could dial up Wayne State ... or Mississippi Valley State and watch their players, so when I walk in here, I’m not trying to figure out who these guys are for the first 10 minutes of the game. That’s hard … That part, I still work really hard at."
Wolgamott: How does that extend into the game? You can convey some excitement in the game just from the way you express yourself, right? Is that natural? Do you think that stuff out?
Pavelka: “You can’t fake that. ... It’s not schtick. I go into a zone, I go into a trance, kind of. This is serious business, the ball’s thrown up, I know in the larger scheme of life, now that I’m almost 70 years old, that it’s not serious business. But in terms of the next hour-and-a-half, on this radio broadcast, for this group of players and these coaches and these fans, this is serious damned business.
“I think I probably got this from Bremser. I realized that one of the responsibilities you’ve got doing radio play-by-play is, since the fans are not at the game, if they don’t have access to television, my responsibility isn’t only to just clinically describe the play but try to give you a visualization by doing it that way. I also have a responsibility to convey what the atmosphere at the arena is like, what the fans are feeling. That’s part of the experience that people who are there have.
“What I hope happens is that a listener who is not there and has no visual aid feels like they’ve been at the game. That’s what I try to do. Since I go into a trance, it’s not manufactured. It’s like I’m out of control, kind of.”
Wolgamott: I remember this, I use this only as illustration, when we're sitting in that press box up on the side (of the Devaney Sports Center), you got plenty excited and I got bombarded by press guides, notebooks ...
Pavelka: “I didn’t spill any liquids on you, did I? I don’t know. The only time I get conscious of that, (longtime color commentator Matt) Davison sits me down. He grabs me by the torso or the shoulders. Any time I pop up, I realize I’m probably a little too animated. Other than that, I guess people who aren’t real great fans may be sitting behind me looking at me as much as the game, (saying) 'Look at this freak.'”
During our hourlong conversation, Pavelka referred to Nebraska’s 2014 win over Wisconsin at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the “no-sit” game as the best atmosphere he’s experienced at a game.
Wolgamott: Besides the Wisconsin game are there other games that stand out?
Pavelka: “Yeah, and I don’t know why these do, because there’s probably another 50 that I’m not remembering. One game I remember, you’ll remember this game, was a three- or four-overtime game against Alabama-Birmingham when Moe was here. We had a pretty good team. I think the game was in the '80s ... after four overtimes. I don’t remember a game that was any more exciting."
Wolgamott: Do you remember the game when Fort and Hercle Ivy decided they’d have a shootout at the Coliseum?
Pavelka: “I don’t know how many years ago, it had to be a (Doc) Sadler team. We’re over at Iowa State and they’re having a halftime version of what Nebraska does, bringing their old players back. We’re in a break and they’re announcing Hercle Ivy is coming out on the court. I had like 30 seconds. I walked up to him and said, ‘I just want to introduce myself, my name is Kent Pavelka. I broadcast Nebraska games when you played against Jerry Fort and I remember this game and I just had to tell you, I was there and I broadcast it.’ He just lit up.
“You and I are the only ones in the Western Hemisphere that will remember that. But it was cool.”
Wolgamott: We’re talking names and games here that nobody remembers, like Jerry Fort. He was a great player.
Pavelka: “It’s like when we used to go on the road in football and Fox (late Husker sports information director Don Bryant) would be holding court either the day before or afterward over cocktails, and he’d name one of those coaches from the '20s and '30s and my eyes would glaze over. I was like, ‘Who are you talking about?’ I realize now if I make the mistake of talking like this in front of somebody that wasn’t there, their eyes are going to glaze over.”
Wolgamott: Maybe, in a way, that’s something you’re bringing. It’s a continuity of the program and it connects back to Jerry Fort.
Pavelka: “Sure, there will be a conversation in this bar, if it’s still open, with people saying I remember when Tom Allen was a sophomore back in 2018 and he did this and we beat so and so. And we’ll be 40 years dead.”
Wolgamott: Maybe they’ll win an NCAA Tournament game before we’re gone. You want to call an NCAA Tournament win?
Pavelka: “I’ve said this to myself a million times, and I’ve said it out loud a couple times. I might just hang it up then and there. They’re going to go from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight and I’m done. My last football game was a national championship. This is the last piece of the puzzle for me. How foolish that is because I don’t even play. But it speaks to investment, the emotional investment.”