For 25 years, David Steele has been the radio and TV voice of countless Magic moments.
Courtesy of David Steele
Twenty-five years later, Steele sits on his front porch that is almost within dribbling distance of the Amway Center, where the Magic now play. He, Williams and the team’s equipment manager, Rodney “Sid” Powell, are the only three employees who have been with the organization for all 25 of its years. Not even the original arena has survived for this silver anniversary.
It’s been a long journey, and for Steele it began because of that sympathy card.
At the time, Steele was the broadcasting voice of the University of Florida’s football and basketball teams, the man who had succeeded the legendary Otis Boggs at the school. Steele thought he’d spend his broadcasting career with the university, enjoying the stability that comes with attaching oneself to an institution that’s been around since 1853. But then the Magic, and specifically co-founder Pat Williams, came calling.
“It was a tough decision coming here—a gamble,” Steele says. “I talked to a couple of close friends and they both told me the same thing: not all pro sports jobs are created equal. It depends on the quality of ownership and the people running the organization. After I got that card from Pat, I remember thinking, ‘If this is the guy who’s the face of the franchise, then I want to be a part of it.’”
A quarter-century later, he still is, prompting Williams to proudly proclaim: “David Steele’s voice has been the soundtrack for the Magic.”
In the beginning, it was a lone voice, doing both the play-by-play and color commentary for the Magic’s radio broadcasts. Williams knew nothing about Steele, or his ability to broadcast solo. He’d heard about Steele through Bob Poe, the Magic’s director of broadcasting and sponsorship sales. Years earlier, Poe had started the Florida Radio Network and become familiar with Steele’s work at UF. He once heard Steele carry an entire Gator basketball broadcast on his own, without a color analyst, and knew this was “a unique and impressive talent.”
As Williams recalls, “Bob Poe told me he had one choice to be our radio voice... and that he had no second choice. He was absolutely bullish on David Steele. Bob Poe would not be denied.”
Williams liked what he saw during the interview process. “David was very pleasant, very polite, even-keeled. He’s not going to blow your socks off with personality, but right away you could sense that he had a strong family and that you weren’t going to face any of that goofy stuff away from the microphone that you do with some broadcasters. He was intrigued with us, but at the same time he was concerned with what we were all about. Were we going to be as solid as him? Some ownerships in pro sports can be shaky.”
Thankfully for them, Steele chose to leave the security blanket of UF and move his young family—a wife and three kids—to the unknown newness that is a neophyte NBA franchise.
But Williams was still uncertain about Steele working solo on the radio. Laughing, Poe says, “Pat was hesitant about using one guy instead of two for our radio broadcasts. But I think what sold him is that Pat is cheap. This way, he’d only have to pay one guy instead of two.”
It quickly became apparent that Steele was the one man for a task that normally requires two. Eventually, in Steele’s eighth radio season, the Magic added a color analyst. For the last 15 years, Steele has done the team’s TV broadcast—currently working with Jeff Turner after sharing the booth seven years with former Magic coach Matt Guokas and, before that, Jack “Goose” Givens.
Through the years, among the manifold things that Williams—and fans—have appreciated about Steele is his utter selflessness on the air. In an era of hey-look-at-me broadcasters and journalists, Steele keeps his focus on the court, the game and the players, while seamlessly working with a color analyst, rather than wrestling with his colleague for airtime.
Not surprisingly, those are traits that Steele prides himself on and looks for in others whenever he’s listening to a broadcast. “There’s nothing better than a good, crisp announcer,” he says. “And that’s what I try to be. I just call the game. I call what I see. I try to be conversational. I want people who are listening to feel as if they’re listening to someone having a conversation with the person he’s working with. Beyond that, the three things I adhere to are to be 1) credible, 2) accurate and 3) entertaining.”
Steele is known for his relentless preparation and dogged attention to detail well before a microphone is in front of him, scouring statistical information that reveals a story he can tell, whether it be about a player or a team. It’s all part of his pursuit to take Xs and Os and raw numbers and add flesh and blood to them. The box score is important, sure. But so is thinking outside of it. “I’m always digging for nuggets,” he says, “something interesting that will humanize a player.” Steele also is one of the few broadcasters who keep their own score sheet during games. It’s all part of a routine that is now a ritual. “If I don’t prepare the same way for every game, I feel like I’m going into a game without any clothes on.”
Now 60, Steele had no inkling that this would be his life’s work. Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., he was “one of those kids with the transistor radio under his pillow late at night listening to faraway radio signals. It was magical. I loved listening to games on the radio.”
He loved playing games, too, and thought he’d become a Major League Baseball player. He was a slick fielding shortstop with one problem. He hit just .155 his freshman year at Carson-Newman College. “That’s when I realized how far in over my head I was, and that I’d better do something else.” He transferred to the University of Georgia, where in his junior year he was rooming with a pitcher on the Bulldogs’ baseball team and one day fell into doing a game broadcast for the campus radio station, WUOG. Soon he was broadcasting the university’s baseball games and the junior varsity basketball games. “It wasn’t very hard, and I remember thinking the first time I broadcasted a game, ‘I can do this.’ Something about how my brain works, I knew I could do it. It probably had something to do with listening to all those games from that transistor radio under my pillow, falling asleep to those great radio voices.”
So the kid who grew up in the shadow of the University of Tennessee, who graduated from the University of Georgia, eventually continued his schizophrenic Southeastern Conference journey to Gainesville and the University of Florida, where he settled in for what he thought would be a long career. He sometimes ruminates on what might have been had he stayed at UF, “especially those fun years when they were winning national championships in football and basketball. There would’ve been some good memories.”
Instead, there have been some very good ones with the Magic.
Steele was there when the Magic played their first home preseason game during the 1989-90 inaugural season. It came against the Detroit Pistons, who were the defending NBA champions. “The Pistons walked into a beehive. Our fans treated it like it was the seventh game of the NBA Finals. We won that game and the Pistons never knew what hit them. That whole first season was a great experience. I sometimes wondered, though, when I was wrapping up a 97-75 game in Portland at 1:30 in the morning, just how many people were listening. But it was a lot of fun.”
In those early days before 24-hour TV coverage, moments that today would be replayed again and again on ESPN before retiring to a permanent spot on YouTube.com never so much as scratched across the surface of celluloid. But they do remain trapped in Steele’s memory.
“Penny Hardaway’s rookie year,” he says, launching into one of his stories. “We were playing in New Jersey and Penny was having stomach problems and was in the bathroom. At halftime, our equipment guy, Rodney Powell, was yelling for him, ‘C’mon Penny, let’s go! The second half’s ready to start!’ When the second half did start, nobody noticed that there were only nine players on the court—five Nets players and only four for us. No Penny. All of a sudden, on the first possession, Nick Anderson grabs a defensive rebound and from the corner of my eye, at the other end of the court, I see Penny jumping over the bench and sprinting onto the court just in time to get a fast-break pass and lay the ball in.”
Steele’s most famous on-air moment—the one most recognizable to Magic fans—was the utter exuberance in his voice while calling the epic moment when Nick Anderson stole the ball from Michael Jordan in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Chicago Bulls. It came with the Bulls leading 91-90.“[Toni] Kukoc will inbound it. Jordan takes it. Anderson’s there with him. Anderson trying to steal it. Jordan dribbles around him. Clock is down to 12. And Anderson stole the ball! Hardaway picks it up, two on one. Penny bounce pass to (Horace) Grant. He dunks it! 6.2 seconds to go! Nick Anderson stole the ball! Nick Anderson stole the ball from Michael Jordan!” Even now, when Steele hears that audio clip, it gives him goose bumps, as it does for Magic fans. “When I hear that cut, I hear that sheer excitement. That pure joy.”
Some memorable moments didn’t happen on the court. Steele recalls a historic blizzard that hit Pennsylvania in January of 1996, forcing the team to land in Allentown, where they remained stranded for two days; their game in Philadelphia was canceled. “We were holed up at the Allentown Hilton with Marilyn Manson, the cast and crew from the Sesame Street ice show and some poor wedding party. Seeing Shaquille O’Neal shooting pool in the hotel sports bar with Marilyn Manson is an image I’ll never forget.”
He’ll also never forget that in the middle of the first night there, the fire alarm went off. “Everybody was coming out into the hall, including all the guys from Marilyn Manson’s band. It smelled like marijuana. We were with all these guys with tattoos and spiked hair, going down the stairs to the lobby when Richie Adubato, who was an assistant coach, turned to me and said, ‘I think we’re dead, because I’m pretty sure this is hell.’”
As Steele recalls the story, he erupts in laughter. It’s been 25 years of good times and a good ride, one that he hopes doesn’t end anytime soon. At the same time, he wonders where all the years went.
“You stay busy doing your job, and then one day you look up and 25 years has passed,” he says. “Your kids are grown, the city has changed and suddenly the franchise has a history.”
A history of which he’s been a major part.
David Steele’s Top 5 Magic Memories
1 Nick Anderson stealing the ball from Michael Jordan. “It was a huge, turning point play that sealed the victory for the Magic in Game 1 of the 1995 second-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, amplified because it was against Jordan and the Bulls. I believe the confidence the young Magic team gained from that victory was the springboard to the Eastern Conference title.”
2 Beating Indiana in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1995. “Overall, the series was sensational. Game 4 was one of the best NBA games I’ve ever seen, with four potential game-winning shots in the final 13 seconds. Indy won that game, the Magic won a close Game 5 in Orlando, Game 6 was a Pacer blowout in Indy setting up the dramatic seventh game. I recall boarding the plane in Indianapolis after the Pacers’ big Game 6 win. Shaquille O’Neal looked at me and said, ‘We got ’em, bro. No problem.’ The Magic blew out the Pacers in Game 7, and owner Rich DeVos’
‘Why not us, why not now’ slogan became the battle cry.”
3 The first preseason game in Orlando, against the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons. “Packed house, fever pitch, a playoff feel. Our fans didn’t know, or perhaps just didn’t care, that it was only an exhibition game. There was an incredible energy in the building. As I recall, [Detroit coach] Chuck Daly left his starters in the game late in the fourth quarter trying to win, but
the Magic held on. The old Orlando Arena was rocking.”
4 Scott Skiles’ 30-assist game on December 30, 1991, which is still an NBA record. “Denver was coached by Paul Westhead, and he just wanted to get up as many shots as possible. Defense took the night off. Skiles was sitting on 29 assists at probably the 4- or 5-minute mark in the fourth quarter. He broke the record in the final minute when Jerry Reynolds hit a 20-footer from the left side of the top of the circle. From my courtside view, which was right on line with the shooter/basket, it appeared Reynolds’ shot curved slightly from right to left in midair before finding the basket.”
5 Dwight Howard’s game-winning dunk against San Antonio in February 2007. “With eight-tenths of a second left in the game, Hedo Turkoglu threw a midcourt inbounds pass to the rim. Dwight Howard caught it with one hand and in one quick, violent motion dunked the game-winning shot over Tim Duncan, who watched helplessly from below. When Turk’s pass left his hands it looked like the pass was going into the stands behind the basket. Howard’s incredible athleticism was never more on display.”
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