Some basketball pairings sync seamlessly. Think Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Bill Russell and Red Auerbach and Eric Collins and LaMelo Ball.
That last tandem might not be the first to come to mind. But Collins, the Charlotte Hornets’ television play-by-play announcer, has served as the ideal conduit to introduce Ball and his dynamic play to a wide N.B.A. audience.
“He’s seeing the game five seconds ahead of everyone else,” Collins said.
Collins calls games with an energy and exuberance that seem impossible to sustain over 48 minutes. “Here comes LaMelo Ball with his hair on fire!” he exclaimed during one otherwise mundane fast break.
Collins has been widely appreciated among N.B.A. League Pass watchers who have tuned into the Hornets to watch Ball and have discovered Collins as a bonus. He’s just as excited for a Miles Bridges dunk — “Oh my goodness! Hum diddly dee! — as a 3-point attempt by center Bismack Biyombo.
He is in his sixth season as a broadcast partner with Dell Curry, the former longtime Hornet and the father of Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Philadelphia’s Seth Curry. He was a sideline reporter when Michael Jordan, who owns the Hornets, won a second “three-peat” as a guard with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
Collins, who described his style as “quirky” and maybe “a little bit scary at some point,” recently spoke to The New York Times about his high-energy broadcasts and why he doesn’t listen to other announcers.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What has it been like watching Ball, who recently returned from a fractured wrist, progress this season?
I understood that he had a following, but I didn’t understand that he had a game that actually merited the following. And he’s just been unbelievable. I got a high bar. I’m always looking for greatness and looking for joy and looking for wonder and sometimes it’s hard to meet what I want. And he met it basically Day 1 with just the distinctiveness that he has.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it before. He just plays with flair and élan, and I love it. And at age 19, he plays the game like his game is smiling, but then when he’s not on the floor, his body shows you that he’s smiling. He’s someone you want to be around.
Have you noticed more interest in the Hornets this season and more people being introduced to your broadcasts?
I’ve got a daughter who’s in high school, and for the first time in her life, she’s noticing that basketball actually exists here in Charlotte. She’s got friends who wear Hornets gear and talk about the Hornets and do what kids do on social media about the Hornets. And so, yes, it started hitting me more. But I don’t know if it’s just ’cause I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter in my house or because there’s actually a real phenomenon going on.
And that’s partly because you don’t use social media, correct?
I’ve always been a broadcaster that believes in the old school of “I want to broadcast to you.” And when you start broadcasting back to me, that changes everything that I’m about. I put in the time. I put in the thought, and I put in a lot of the man-hours to get my brain and my skill level to the point where I feel like I can broadcast outward with a certain amount of authority. And I don’t want to take any of that broadcast back in toward me because that affects how I do a game. I want to be in my own Eric Collins bubble.
I don’t want to give people what they like, I don’t want to give people what they don’t like — I want to give people what’s me. And if they like that, then that’s great.
“I don’t look like anyone else. I don’t have the same demographics as anyone else. I’m biracial, and that’s a huge part of who I am as a broadcaster”, said Eric Collins, left.Credit…Scott Cunningham/NBAE, via Getty Images
That goes in line with you also not listening to other announcers. Why did you start that policy?
I was a sideline reporter for six years in the N.B.A. and I also used to dabble. I would be a sideline reporter and in-game reporter for the Chicago White Sox. And I started to do more and more play-by-play, and I was realizing that I was sounding like other announcers that were in my ear when I was doing games. And I said, “This is the absolute death of me.”
I don’t look like anyone else. I don’t have the same demographics as anyone else. I’m biracial, and that’s a huge part of who I am as a broadcaster. I look different than everyone else, and I think it’s important for me to not shy away from that. And I don’t want to look like anyone else and I don’t want to sound like anyone else.
So yeah, I haven’t listened to anyone since probably the late ’90s. I watch sports, and I don’t do pregame shows. I won’t watch a halftime show. I watch a highlight show. I form my own opinions. That’s what I believe in.
How are you able to sustain your energy throughout the lengthy season?
I just think it’s the way that I was born and the way I was raised, what’s in my body. To me, it’s easy to get excited and to be full of wonder at a basketball game, at a sporting event, at a baseball game, at a women’s volleyball game. I’m a competition junkie, and if people are putting in the amount of effort that it takes to get ready for a game and play the game, I always put enough energy and thought to get ready for that game. And once the ball is thrown up, I’m ready to go.
You also did a stint as a news reporter, correct?
I spent a year of my life at the CBS affiliate in Rochester, and I was doing news. I was going to City Council meetings. I was doing arsons. I was doing homicides. I was waiting out in blizzards telling people not to go outside. It was really tough. I got so much respect for people who can do that long-term because sometimes it’s not very bright.
I think there’s a lot of young broadcasters who spend a lot of time worrying, ‘OK, I can’t say this’ or ‘I can’t go here,’ because they’re not confident about what journalistically they can do. I had that down. The amount of years that I spent getting into the business, I understood journalism, the rules, the ethics, all that kind of stuff. And that freed me for when I actually got a microphone and was able to start doing play-by-play, to just concentrate on being me because I understood the basics.
The Hornets have put together a lot of highlight-worthy plays this season. Do you have a favorite call?
I guess maybe the tail end of the Golden State game that the Hornets won. The one that Steph actually didn’t play. Terry Rozier hit a nice shot. And that’s one of the things that I liked just because play-by-play isn’t always about the exact words that you use. It’s about the way that you’re able to use your voice, and use the moment. Without fans, I think, sometimes that’s one of the things that I like to play with a little bit more this year — is just my voice and how I can bring it up and bring it down and staccato, and just the rhythm of what I’m trying to do. And I thought that we did a good job for that game winner by Rozier, just using the voice in an empty arena to make it as exciting as it was.