When Ted Leonsis officially took over all umbrellas of the former Washington Sports and Entertainment (which he then renamed Monumental Sports and Entertainment), he pledged to bring "101 visible signs of change" to the Verizon Center. Some of these "visible signs of change" are tough to notice, like the new cupholders in the bathrooms. Some, though, are easier to spot.
A new public address announcer falls under the latter category. This is for obvious reasons -- after all, it's that person's voice that the crowd hears on pretty much every single play. But it's for less obvious reasons too. More than any one non-player or coach in the arena, the public address announcer is the person that sets the mood of the audience. They get the crowd pumped up during player introductions, spur the crowd's rooting interest with exaggerated calls of the home team's points, tone the silliness down during public service announcements and keep everyone loose during the lighter moments like the Kiss Cam.
Few fans would admit they go to a basketball game just to hear the PA announcer, but a great one can push the atmosphere to new heights. Just ask Bulls fans who listened to Ray Clay during Michael Jordan's heyday, or Pistons fans who sat through John Mason's pregame introductions during Detroit's recent success. In other words, the PA announcer is the key figure in the game operations effort.
So Leonsis and his staff decided to make a change, in typical Leonsis-ish fashion: an open invitation. Two hundred and twenty people filled out an online form to be put in the running for the position. From that group, 50 were invited back for a final tryout, after which Leonsis himself, Wizards Executive Vice President of Business Operations Greg Bibb and Senior Director of Game Operations Danny Zollars would collectively pick a winner.
Except, they couldn't. At least not right away. Five people stood out so much that the team decided to postpone their decision until around 1 p.m. today.
How did we get to this point? My journey begins around 6:30 p.m. I walk inside a side entrance, finding a desk with sheets of paper with a number on them. Fifty people have been invited back, but only 31 were able to show for the tryout. I'm told this is actually a "good turnout," for what it's worth.
As I arrive, the group is going through a preliminary round. The press release tells media members that the proceedings begin at 7 p.m., but the participants are told to get there by 6. Inside the concourse, there's an area walled off by a black curtain, where the tryouts are happening. I'd tell you what they were saying, but we weren't allowed in yet. As I wait, I try to engage in some small talk with one of the participants, introducing myself. The contestant responds by saying hello and not giving his name back in response. Maybe I should just wait in silence like a normal person.
Eventually, everyone performs, and we are let into the stadium. Inside, the 31 remaining contestants remain, sitting in the stands awaiting their fate. Holding packets in their hands, some flip through nervously, while others engage in small talk with their competition. Danny Zollars eventually walks down the steps and addresses everyone before reading off the 16 numbers that would stay for the main competition. The last time I saw someone read off a list of numbers like this, I was in fifth grade, trying out for a travel select hoops team. There aren't nearly as many tears this time.
The contestants that remain look on. Mike Prada/SB Nation
The 16 finalists are tasked with announcing the following: a public service announcement, a couple in-game plays (a foul on Gilbert Arenas, two free throws for John Wall and a "Chevy Chase Bank deposit from JaVale McGee," which I assume refers to a dunk he completes rather than one he gives up), the Wizards' starting lineup (which includes seven players, in case injuries strike) and an ad lib kiss cam segment.
One of the contestants asks Zollars whether they had to be "politically correct" during the kiss cam segment. Somehow, Zollars doesn't go off on him in answering, essentially, "duh." In a related story, this person is probably the most boring contestant of them all on the kiss cam.
That doesn't mean there aren't some laughs. One contestant shouts "Bullseye!" when one couple kissed quickly. Another says "Touchdown," which is both odd and the wrong sport. Another proclaims "Come on, put the purse away!" when one couple was reluctant, which is actually funny. (I guess you had to be there). Finally, one contestant whips out the line "Don't ask, don't tell. What happens in the Verizon Center stays in the Verizon Center!" after two Dallas Mavericks ignore the camera. I immediately decide to root for this guy to win, just for comedy's sake. Of course, he gets sent home. Frown face.
Oh, and Andray Blatche also walks in after what looks like an evening workout. "Let me get a tryout," he pleads, after saying hello. "After we finish," says one contestant. The organizers disagree, and they let Blatche walk over to the microphone. He sits down, sort of says one word, then gets up. "I was just messing with y'all, I can't do it," he says. One voice from the peanut gallery yells "Good job, Andray!" At least he didn't appear to be limping much on his injured foot.
Andray Blatche: clearly a better basketball player than PA announcer. Mike Prada/SB Nation
When it is all said and done, that guy and 10 others are asked to go home. The guy who decides to do his best to sound exactly like Ray Clay (right down to "The Man In The Middle" bit) was cut, as is the guy who tries to imitate Mason's "B-B-B-B-B-Billups" bit with "G-G-G-G-Gilbert Arenas," which is a very bad idea. The five remaining contestants are then asked to do the starting lineup again with a little more personal flavor. As Zollars tells them, in an obvious snide shot at the Ray Clay imitator, "We're not looking for a Chicago guy."
Let's meet the finalists:
Harvey Williams is the contestant that one observer says "came out of nowhere." That doesn't mean he lacks announcing experience, of course, but he's certainly was the surprise of the competition. Williams is a engaging, talkative person who still manages to take his craft seriously. Before his final run-through of the starting lineups, he was meticulously re-reading his notes, to the point where they had to ask him several times if he was ready.
Williams' announcing experience has always been more informal than the other contestants. He currently works for the Department of Defense, but he was stationed in the Air Force for several years, traveling to Japan, Germany and Iceland, among other places. Every one of those spots had a basketball team, so Williams passed the time by doing play-by-play and PA work for their games. He ended up being the radio manager for the Air Force, which naturally led him to announcing. But Williams hadn't yet had the chance to be a PA man for a team until his brother called him to tell him about the Wizards' opening.
"Everyone's always said, 'Why don't you just do NCAA or Pro [Basketball]?" he says. "My brother called me and said, 'They're doing auditions.' So I decided to give it a shot."
Williams says he's been a fan of the team since the Wes Unseld years and admits he was inspired by former Wizards and Redskins announcer Frank Herzog. As noted above, he's a pleasant fellow, admitting that one of his favorite parts of the day was that "I met some friends." His final routine was much more engaging than many of the other finalists, as he took the opportunity for a little more freedom seriously. He even smiled when I politely reminded him that the Wizards' coach is Flip Saunders, not Flip Sanders. He thinks this ability to connect with people is an essential part of the job.
"PA really reconnects you to people. It gives you a situational awareness. You're basically the [fans'] point of contact," he said.
Charles Trahan is the contestant that didn't expect to be here. It's not that he lacks confidence in his own abilities, but when he saw the professional experience of his counterparts, he wasn't sure he could stack up. So when he got the chance to do the Kiss Cam, he decided to try something different.
"A lot of people, especially people that I went to college with, were like 'Why are you here? You should be doing radio.' So I figured, why not change it up and do a little bit of a quiet storm DJ remix to it, just to see how it would turn out," he says. "It was either sink or swim."
Showing off a Barry White-esque voice that made everyone laugh, Trahan's gamble clearly paid off. He certainly stood out among the other contestants, and made it this far despite lacking the professional experience of his peers. Trahan is a Oxon Hill High School graduate that did a lot of PA work at Florida A&M in college. He then went to ESPN, where he worked as an associate producer until 2004. He never formally was on air, but his colleagues often asked him to record short voiceovers for commercials and other little segments. Trahan has been a first-grade teacher in Baltimore City until recently, when the Board of Education there "messed up my certification" and laid him off.
Due to his nature, Trahan's presentation lacked the energy of the others. However, he was the only one of the five who used the nickname "Great Wall of Chinatown" when announcing John Wall's name. He says he saw it on the Internet and decided to incorporate it into his routine.
Mike Clapper is the contestant who really wants this job. Okay, that's probably unfair, since everyone wanted the job, but nobody took a longer road to the arena than Clapper. You see, Clapper currently resides in Columbus, Ohio, meaning he needed to drive six and a half hours to get to the Verizon Center. He shrugged it off as no big deal, and even told Leonsis that he was willing to stick around for them to make their decision, but that's certainly some dedication.
Clapper is a lifer in this business. He's done some fill-in work for the Cleveland Cavaliers (we'll forgive him for that), and has announced several high school and local college games. But he's never been the guy for a professional team, maybe until now. He lacks the over-the-top style of several of his competitors, but he manages to create an easygoing setting that soothes the crowd. There aren't many histrionics, but you'll also never see him make a mistake.
Byron Hudtloff is the contestant who knows the scene. As the Wizards' backup PA announcer for several years, Hudtloff certainly has the experience and familiarity with the setting. He's also the assistant PA announcer for the Capitals, the head PA announcer for George Washington women's basketball and the fill-in PA announcer for George Washington men's basketball. There's nobody that's more experienced in this field, that's for sure.
Hudtloff says he got his start at the 1998 BB&T Classic, when one of the members of the team's hierarchy noticed him.
"Wes Unseld heard me, gave some nudges to people and wanted to bring me in," he says.
Since then, he's been announcing all around town while maintaining a day job as a real estate agent. His web site, SoldByByron.com, advertises as being the premier place to search for real estate in the D.C. area. He says his day job provides him all the flexibility he needs to be able to commit to so many announcing gigs.
Hudtloff's style is pretty straightforward. I ask him if he has anything special planned for John Wall, and he says he's willing to do whatever management wants him to do there. But like Clapper, Hudtloff rarely makes mistakes and is always reliable.
Ralph Wesley is the prodigy, of sorts. For Wesley, pretty much everything has been building up to this very moment. A 2003 graduate of Delaware State University, Wesley had truly made it his life's work to be a public address announcer. He just completed his first summer as the head public address announcer for the Washington Mystics, and he also does Delaware State basketball games, D.C. Diva games and even a few public service announcements for the Redskins.
Wesley's performance displays a contrast in his on-mic and off-mic personality. Off the microphone, Wesley is pretty subdued. While many other contestants killed time with small talk, Wesley sat several chairs away, mostly studying his packet. When the other four finalists went outside to walk around before the start of the final competition, Wesley stayed in his chair. On the microphone, though, nobody is more animated. Wesley's facial expressions are a sight to behold, as he exaggerates his mouth to make sure he is really getting the crowd pumped up.
"When you're trying to convey a certain idea to the crowd, you have to be animated. When you're just doing a monotone, it's a little different. You can drive people away. You want to maintain that attention," he says. "It helps me to get my point across."
As the youngest finalist, Wesley is certainly the one with the most potential to stay for a long time. A graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, Wesley says it would be a "dream come true" to be the voice of one of his favorite local teams. Even if he does not win, though, he certainly will get more chances.
From left to right, Harvey Williams, Charles Trahan, Byron Hudtloff, Mike Clapper and Ralph Wesley. Mike Prada/SB Nation
Five choices, one winner. So who did the Wizards decide on?
We catch Ralph in the middle of one of his signature facial expressions. Mike Prada/SB Nation
The Wizards ultimately went with youth and energy over his more experienced counterparts. Considering their desire to find a person who could fill the role for years to come, Wesley was an obvious choice. Of the five, he was certainly the loudest and the most animated, which should bode well for Leonsis' attempts to liven up the Wizards' stadium atmosphere.
Congratulations are in order to Wesley. You can follow him on Twitter at @RalphTheVoice.