Houston broadcasting legend shares shocking Rockets stories
Legendary play-by-play man Bill Worrell retired last Friday night – after nearly 40 years announcing Houston Rockets games on TV. Over his long, amazing career, Worrell also broadcast Astros and Oilers games, plus everything from rodeo to table tennis, volleyball to boxing, and golf to synchronized skating.
"I got there two hours early and they tried to explain the sport to me. Basically I just did the introductions and turned it over to my color analyst. Whatever she said, I agreed with it," Worrell once told me.
Funny thing, if it weren't for a class scheduling conflict at UH, Worrell might never have become a sports announcer. He'd be William Worrell, M.D. today.
Worrell, whose father "Dub" Worrell served as team dentist for the UH Cougars, Rice Owls, Houston Oilers and Rockets, entered UH in 1964 as a pre-med student and lefty baseball pitcher. When he tried to register for Introductory Biology 101, the class was scheduled for the same time as baseball practice. Pre-med or baseball? That was an easy choice for Worrell, and he switched his major to radio-TV.
"I was a pitcher of limited ability, with a pretty good curveball and a good pickoff move. I needed that move because I walked so many batters," he said.
Fun and weird fact: Worrell started a game against Texas A&M in 1964, walked the first three batters and picked each one of them off first base. That's got to be a record of some sorts.
After graduating, he took a job with Channel 2 and eventually advanced to sports anchor. In 1983 he was hired as the Rockets play-by-play announcer on TV, and as they say, the rest is history. In Worrell's case, historic.
We caught up with Worrell the morning after the night before - his final game for the Rockets.
SportsMap: Did you go anywhere after the game Friday night to celebrate your retirement?
Bill Worrell: I went home. I am 77 years old, and it was past my bedtime. That's part of the reason I retired!
SM: What was the single wildest, funniest moment of your career?
BW: I think it was the game in Indianapolis when the refs called a foul on Reggie Miller and the crowd went nuts! They started throwing pennies at first and then some of the fat cats threw in some quarters, and when they came up short of the court they were hitting me and Calvin Murphy right in the back of our heads. Calvin reached back and grabbed some lady's umbrella, opened it up, and put it over our heads. You could actually hear the coins hitting the umbrella. The lady wasn't too happy, but it saved us some bumps. It ran on the highlight shows for about a week, and they still haul it out from time to time. The lady was mad at first, but we put her on TV and she lightened up.
SM: You were a pretty good pitcher in college at the University of Houston. When you broadcast Astros games early in your career, did you ever fantasize that you were on the mound?
BW: Never. I topped out at 87 mph. Ray Charles could hit me.
SM: While you watched the retrospective of your career that the Rockets and AT&T SportsNet put together, did you reminisce about your once-luxurious dark hair?
BW: I never look at my hair now, because at my age, I don't go around mirrors anymore. At least I still use a brush, most of my friends are bald.
SM: As a broadcaster, was it a struggle to announce this past season, the Rockets' worst ever?
BW: Sometimes it was difficult to stay positive, but they played hard, so I broadcasted hard.
SM: On a personal level, who was your favorite athlete to hang out with on the road?
BW: When I first started it was Calvin and Rudy Tomjanovich, they were like brothers. Then I got older and the players got younger. At the end, they could have been my grandkids. We didn't have a lot in common.
SM: You're not retiring, as in we'll never see you again. What will your relationship with the Rockets be moving forward?
BW: I will handle some specials and interviews and whatever they need from me. It will give me 40 years in basketball with the Rockets, and 50 years in Houston broadcasting when you include the 10 years I was with Channel 2.
SM: What was your favorite meal on Rockets road trips?
BW: Liver and Onions at Jimmy Neary's in New York. Best bar, nicest people and excellent food! I sent a lot of my friends there over the years and they have never been disappointed. Jimmy is 90 now and still at the place every night.
SM: You were a pioneer in Houston broadcasting and a mentor to many young sports announcers. Who was your mentor, the person who inspired you?
BW: Ray Miller was my mentor at Channel 2 when I started. He taught me everything about writing, reporting and presentation. In sports it was the great Bill Enis. I also loved working with Gene Elston, who taught me how to get the most out of the fewest words. That lesson was perfect for television. Don't overtalk the game.
SM: You called Rockets games primarily at The Summit (later Compaq Center) and Toyota Center. Rate them.
BW: The Summit was perfect. People jammed in, rocking the house. Those two championship seasons were wild. Toyota Center is the most fan-friendly arena in the league. Good sight lines, and great food, as I'm sure you can attest to.
SM: You've been so busy over the years broadcasting games. Do you have any hobbies?
BW: Golf and singing in the shower.
SM: Which players were your favorites to interview, who gave the most interesting answers?
BW: The best were Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Calvin Murphy, Kobe Bryant, John Lucas and Yao Ming. Yao Ming had a great personality and picked up English in about two years. There were several tough ones, but most were great.
SM: Little known fact, you had a band in high school and college. What kind of music did you play?
BW: You mean "Bill Worrell and Jokers Wilde?" We played a lot of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and later the Beatles, because their songs were so easy to learn.