Saturday, February 19, 2011

David Kaplan

David Kaplan hosts "Chicago Sports Night" weeknights on WGN Radio (AM 720). He also hosts "Chicago Tribune Live" every night on Comcast SportsNet.

Rick: You’ve had a pretty crazy last couple of months over at WGN. Has all the dust settled? Are you back in the groove again?

Kap: Yeah, absolutely back to normal. The guy I give the most credit to for keeping the ship afloat is Tom Langmyer (photo), the GM of WGN. I have no complaints at all with him. He’s been 100% honest with me throughout all of this, totally straight up. Even when things didn’t look so good for me he said “Hang in there it’s gonna work out.” And things really are back to normal. I’m feeling good again about our direction.

Rick: I’ve always been a fan of Brian Noonan (who has been co-hosting the show). I thought he was languishing on those weekend overnight shifts. And he obviously has a pretty good handle on sports. How do you two get along?

Kap: Amazingly well. The funny thing is, I had never worked with him—I had really only met him in the building, that was it. When Tom decided to bring me back, I asked him if he wanted me to do the show by myself or with someone, and he said he’d really like to have a second voice in there, and thought that Brian Noonan and I would have a great chemistry. And he was right.

Rick: How would you compare him to your former co-host Tom Waddle?

Kap: Totally different. Brian (Photo) is one of the funniest humans you’ll ever hear. He has a background in stand up comedy, and he’s razor sharp, he’s got a very quick wit. Tommy was witty and funny too, but he was also a professional athlete, so he came at from it a totally different perspective.

Rick: Do you keep in touch with Waddle now that he’s over at ESPN?

Kap: All the time. I just talked to him yesterday. I worked so long with Tommy, I consider him the best friend in the world. We did ten years together. It was the longest running sports talk show in Chicago radio history.

Rick: Do you prefer doing the show with a partner, or by yourself, because you’ve done it both ways now.

Kap: I got comfortable doing it myself too, but I enjoy having a partner; someone to laugh with, someone to pitch in, someone to help carry the show. It’s really difficult carrying a show all by yourself. Three hours is a lot of time to fill.

Rick: A new PD (Bill White) started this week. Have you met with him yet, and what are your impressions of him?

Kap: Haven’t met with him yet, and I probably won’t really get a chance to sit down with him for a little while. I’m heading down to spring training next week, but we’ve exchanged e-mails, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about the guy.

Rick: Now that the Michaels/Metheney era is finally 100% in the rear-view mirror, what are your thoughts about that tumultuous couple of years?

Kap: This is the way I look at it. People that aren’t from here, simply don’t understand Chicago. We’re a very provincial town. That’s not to say that you can’t learn about Chicago, but if you’re an outsider, you need to spend some time learning the city rather than just coming in here thinking that you can do a cookie-cutter version of something that works somewhere else. That’s especially unforgivable when you’re dealing with an institution like WGN. This radio station and this city are unlike any other. They didn’t understand that.

Rick: This is just my opinion, but I couldn’t believe they thought it was a good idea to eliminate sports from a station that carried the Cubs and the Blackhawks...

Kap: And Northewestern! Yes, it was mindboggling for sure. Tom Langmyer gets it. He’s a sports guy and came from a sports background, and though he has never said this to me, I’m sure these past few years were difficult for him.

Rick: Even when you weren’t doing WGN Sports Night on WGN, you were doing the nightly show on Comcast. As a multi-media star, give me the pros and cons of television versus radio.

Kap: And a newspaper column too.

Rick: That's right, "Around Town" with Fred Mitchell. So you work in three different media.

Kap: I love ‘em all. Comcast is awesome. Jim Corno Sr. is amazing to work for—he really runs a first class organization. He’s so approachable and so accepting. The whole staff over there is outstanding. As for comparing radio and TV, they are a bit different.

In radio you never know where the conversation is headed, because someone can call in, and the show will go in a whole different direction than you thought. In TV we plan it out a lot more. We have a noon meeting every day and throw everything against the wall, discussing what we’ll do any given night. It’s still free-flowing on our particular show, but it’s a little more structured than doing a radio show.

As for writing, I’ve been doing that for a long time, even before I did either radio or television. The "Around Town" column with Fred Mitchell gives me a chance to work with an absolute pro. Plus, it gives us a chance to call attention to worthwhile causes, the benefits the athletes and coaches do, and there’s an opportunity to break stories too. We broke the Marmol extension weeks ago, but it didn’t officially come out until this week.

Rick: I was still working at the Loop FM when you first started on WMVP years ago—and I don’t think people even realize this about you anymore because you do every sport so well—but you were a basketball guy, first and foremost.

Kap: I was an Asst. coach at NIU from 1982 to 1986, and I was a scout for the Indiana Pacers and Seattle Supersonics after that. John McDougal (the NIU coach) was like a second father to me—he took a chance on this unknown 21 year old kid with one year of high school coaching. I really cherish my time there. The relationships that I formed in basketball are still important relationships to this day. (USC Coach) Kevin O’Neil is one of my closest friends. We’ve gone through divorces and weddings and the death of a parent together. I walked down the aisle at his wedding with (MSU coach) Tom Izzo. There was a time back in the 80s, when we were all working our way up, and Kevin was the only one that could afford a hotel room. So one night, four of us all stayed in his room—Tom Izzo, (Indiana coach) Tom Crean, and me. These guys were friends before they were famous, and they have been very loyal to me. Tom Izzo called in on the radio show the night before his first national championship game.

Here's another great Tom Izzo story. The first time I got to do a major basketball game on national television (years ago), it was Loyola vs. MSU. Tom was so great to me. He said “This is confidential, but it will help you. Here’s the scouting report, here’s the plays we call, and the plays they call.” Right before the game started, he came up to the scorer’s table and said: “Tell everyone on the broadcast that you’ve been watching 8 hours of tape, and if MSU wins the tip they’re going to run a quick hitter to get Charlie Bell a triple.”

So, on the air, my partner said “Any final thoughts?”

I said just what Izzo said I should say, and boom it happened. Izzo, who is about the most intense guy you’ll ever see during a game, looked over at me and winked.

All of these guys I met during my basketball years still give me tips and scoops. I always tell kids that networking is the key to the whole world. If you’re good networker, you’re bound to do well. That’s just a fact.

Rick: You’re also obviously a major Cubs fan. That’s one thing I love about listening to your show. You feel our pain. How big of a thrill is it for a life-long Cubs fan to have such an important role on the Cubs flagship radio station?

Kap: It’s an amazing honor, although if you know about my history it is a little ironic. My brother (who is now an eye surgeon) and I were vendors at both ballparks to make a little extra money. We sold a shirt after the 1983 Sox season that said “So close we can taste it” with a bite out of the baseball. Well, in 1985 the Cubs were coming off their big year, so we figured to sell a version of the “So close we can taste it shirt” for their fans too. If you remember that year, the Cubs were in first place in June, so we had these shirts made up, and sold ‘em outside Wrigley before the game. One day some guy bought ten of them, but I only had nine in my bag. I said “I’ll go get the other one out of my car and bring it to your seat. What’s your seat number?”

So I did. He was sitting right behind the bullpen. But when I tossed the shirt to him, he thought he was doing me a big favor by holding it up for everyone to see. Unfortunately, one person that saw it was Dallas Green (photo), who was watching from the box. He found me and had me fired as a vendor for copyright infringement. A friend of mine wrote a letter to him on my behalf, but they wouldn’t take me back. A week or two after I was fired, the five starting pitchers all went on the DL, and the Cubs fell apart. So, yeah, it is an honor to be working on the Cubs flagship, but it’s a little ironic too.

Rick: You’ve interviewed just about every Chicago athlete over the past few decades. Do you have any favorites?

Kap: Michael Jordan was the best. Obviously he’s probably the greatest athlete of all time, but he was also great to me. I got to play golf with him, and that was an amazing experience. The most impressive thing about him was the way he handled the press. The first reporter would ask a question, and he would answer it respectfully, but then some kid from a school newspaper or someone that wasn’t in the room would come in and ask the same question—and sometimes it was a ridiculous question, but he would just smile and calmly answer it again. I never saw him snap at anyone. In that regard, he was a terrific role model.

Another memorable interview wasn’t technically sports-related, although I guess you could say it was. Two weeks after the OJ trial, I got an exclusive one-hour interview with Johnny Cochran. The only rule was that there were no restrictions on the interview. We sat in the showcase studio, and man, was I ready for that interview. My late father was an attorney, and he helped me prep. I had these questions on a legal pad and just started firing, and Cochran looked at me during our first break and said: “Who prepped you for this?”

Another one that I’ll never forget is Bobby Knight. I got to know him a little bit and one day we had dinner. It was a mind blowing experience—he’s the kind of person that is just a life force—he takes over a room. When he got fired at Indiana, I called him that night, and left a voicemail asking for an interview. You remember how crazy that story was? Well, the next night he did the exclusive interview with Jeremy Schaap at ESPN, but the following day he called my office and said “What are you doing on Wednesday?” I said “Nothing.” He said “Come and see me.”

So, on Wednesday, I pulled into his driveway as Bob Verdi was pulling out, and I spent the next five hours in his family room. He pulled out his contract and showed it to me. There was a clause that basically said that anything related to the basketball operations was the sole domain of Coach Knight, and since he was fired for violating the chain of command, he said to me: “Sounds like I don’t have a boss, so how could I have violated the chain of command?”

I got enough tape from him to do a full hour show. I was getting calls from all over the country asking me how I managed to secure this exclusive interview, and I wondered too. I asked him point blank, and he said: “Because I trust you, and I know you won’t screw me.” A few years later he came to town with Texas Tech, and I asked him to do the TV show (I was free-lancing at Channel 5 at the time), and he came right in.

Those are probably the three that come to mind first.

Rick: Finally, I like to ask native Chicagoans this question, just because it’s fun to see what influenced you as a broadcaster. You’re a Niles East grad, and a Chicago guy through and through, and I know you’re a real student of Chicago radio history. Who did you listen to when you were growing up?

Kap: For me, the number one guy, bar none, was Harry. Harry Caray was the voice of the fan. I remember listening to Harry, even when he was with the White Sox. (My brother was a Sox fan.) I loved the honesty. I was enthralled. I also loved Jack Brickhouse—he was a Chicago institution. But as for non-sports, the show I never missed was Steve and Garry. When I was out recruiting I had that show on in the car every single day. I loved it. Those guys were geniuses.

Rick: And now you follow Garry Meier every night.

Kap: And I’m still a big fan. I think he has been a great addition to the station.