MIC CHECK

Houston broadcast icons sound off on grave media misstep

Image via: Fox Sports/Screenshot

Last week, one small, three-letter word may have ended Cincinnati Reds and NFL broadcaster Thom Brennaman's remarkably successful career.

Brennaman, believing his microphone was turned off in the seventh inning of the first game of a doubleheader between the Reds and Kansas City Royals, used a homophobic slur to describe a city. We don't know, and it doesn't matter, which city he was talking about. The comment was heard live and people instantly condemned Brennaman on social media.

Brennanman knew immediately that his slur went out over the air, but didn't get around to apologizing until the fifth inning of the second game. And that's when Brennaman made a bad situation much, much worse.

He began, "I made a comment earlier tonight that I guess went out over the air that I am deeply ashamed of."

No, you aren't guessing it was heard over the air, You know it did.

"If I have hurt anyone out there, I can't tell you how much I say from the bottom of my heart, I am very, very sorry."

No, it's not "if." You did. The word "if" doesn't belong in an apology.

And in the middle of his apology, he stopped to announce that a Cincinnati player hit a home run to give the Reds a four-run lead. He concluded, "I don't know if I'm going to be putting on this headset again."

That part he got right. No one knows where Brennaman goes from here. Can he recover his career? Possibly. We live in a country of forgiveness. In 1972, Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam and posed on an anti-aircraft gun pointed at U.S. military planes. She came back to the U.S., put out exercise videos and won an Academy Award. For many, especially in Hollywood and workout gyms, "Hanoi Jane" became America's sweetheart. Beatle John Lennon once said, "We're more popular than Jesus." In the '60s, that comment raised a ruckus and there were public burnings of Beatles records. Now Lennon is practically a saint.

Brennaman left the broadcast booth in the fifth inning of the second game and a different Reds announcer took his place. The next day, Brennanman issued a longer apology in a Cincinnati newspaper, in which he claimed, "I had no idea it (the homophobic slur) was so rooted in hate and violence."

Really, you thought that word was embraced by the gay community and American culture in 2020?

By the time that newspaper hit the street, Brennaman was placed on indefinite suspension by the Reds, their local broadcast partner and Fox Sports.

In the blink of one small word, a successful 33-year career broadcasting Major League Baseball and National Football League games, the highest echelon of his profession, may have ended.

GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) released a statement calling Brennaman's apology "incredibly weak" and demanding action from the Cincinnati Reds, MLB and Fox Sports.

I asked two Houston broadcasting legends, "What happens next for Thom Brennaman?

"Thom Brennaman is a good friend and a great broadcaster, but he broke the cardinal rule of broadcasting. Always assume you are talking on a live microphone. His audio guy left his microphone live when he used the gay slur. Everyone heard it," said Bill Worrell, who's announced Houston sports for nearly a half-century.

"I was shocked he would say that, even in private, but he did, so he is gone. We live in a world now with no second chances. But I think he can get back in, maybe in several years."

Bill Brown, who broadcast Cincinnati baseball games from 1976 to 1982 before being hired to do play-by-play for the Astros, added, "I like Thom Brennaman's broadcasting. I've said things thinking they were not on the air. In those situations, we just have to take responsibility and ask for forgiveness.

"Maybe 20 or 30 years ago a broadcaster could apologize and keep his job. Not these days. I hope he gets another chance, but that would be somewhat surprising in today's world."

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James Harden returned to Houston on Wednesday night. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

"James Harden will always be a Houston Rocket" – Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, Tuesday March 2, 2021.

Really?

Then that must have been some other bearded fellow notching a triple double and leading the Brooklyn Nets to a 132-114 drubbing of the Rockets at Toyota Center, Wednesday March 3, 2021.

What a difference a day doesn't make, as the Rockets fell to their 13th consecutive defeat.

The Rockets played a tribute video for Harden, marking his first visit to Houston since the Rockets traded him, practically at gunpoint, to Brooklyn. On the same day Fertitta bizarrely fantasized that Harden will always be a Rocket, the team owner also announced that the Rockets will retire Harden's No.13.

What is wrong with you, Tilman? You sound like a jilted shnook who goes on the Jerry Springer Show to beg his runaround ex-wife to come back. Harden dumped you, remember? He wanted out of Houston so badly that he turned down your contract offer that would have made him the highest-paid athlete in American sports history.

Don't you recall his farewell comments as a Rocket? The Rockets were "just not good enough. I mean it's just crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed."

That's burning down the house on your way out. Not exactly Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth," and praising his Yankee manager, teammates and owners.

Sure Harden was a video game scoring machine during his eight years in Houston. But he also chased away teammates. The Rockets never won a conference title with Harden. He stunk up the joint during some playoff games and disappeared in others. Overall, Harden was a spectacular player on a consistently good but never great team. That's his legacy in Houston.

I expected a tribute video for Harden and he probably deserved it. Why not? The Rockets did similar videos for role player Trevor Ariza and Russell Westbrook, who played all of 57 games during his one pandemic-shortened season in Houston and immediately demanded a trade.

A tribute video for Westbrook? What's next, a statue of Moochie Norris outside Toyota Center? Renaming Polk Street … Vassilis Spanoulis Way?

Retiring Harden's number 13 doesn't compare to similarly honored Rockets legends who played their hearts out, brought a title home or loved this team to their last playing breath, like Hakeem Olajuwon (34), Clyde Drexler (22), Calvin Murphy (23), Rudy T (45), Moses Malone (24) and Yao Ming (11).

James Harden crapped all over the Rockets on his way out the door. He was the ultimate prima donna during his time here, moody and mopey, demanding special travel arrangements, alienating teammates and taking playoff losses so hard he almost didn't make it to the strip clubs before closing time.

You know the saying, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. In Harden's case, he got going to Brooklyn. So much for the captain going down with the ship. Wednesday night, Rockets fans greeted Harden with some cheers, but more lusty boos on his return to Houston.

"I gave him a special introduction, like a home team introduction, but there were way more boos than I expected," said Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas.

Harden finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists, a routine triple double for him of late. He controlled the Nets offense and dominated the game.

Of course it was a regular season game. It's what he does.

For those of you scoring at home: the NBA team with the most retired numbers is the Boston Celtics, with 22 jerseys "hanging in the rafters." That's the most of any team in any U.S. pro sport. The New York Yankees are next with 21 retired numbers. The Montreal Canadiens lead the NHL with 15 retired numbers. Not coincidentally, the Celts (17 – tied with Lakers), Yanks (27) and Habs (24) all lead their leagues with the most championships.

The NFL team with the most retired numbers is a strange one. It's the Chicago Bears with 14 jerseys that will never be worn again. The Bears have won nine titles, second to the Green Bay Packers with 13 championships.

Harden's jersey will not be the first "13" hoisted over an NBA court – far from it. Three teams, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Golden State have retired Wilt Chamberlain's No. 13. The Harlem Globetrotters also retired The Stilt's jersey, but I guess they don't count.

The Cavaliers retired Bobby Phills' No. 13 after his fatal car crash. Portland retired Dave Twardzik's jersey. Here's some synergy, the Suns retired Harden's current coach Steve Nash's No. 13. And the Spurs retired the No. 13 jersey of James Silas (no relation to Rockets coach Stephen Silas.

And as Charlie Pallilo – and only Charlie Pallilo – will tell you, the first retired number in North American pro sports history belonged to Ace Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs retired his number in 1934 after Bailey suffered a career-ending injury the year before.

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