CHICAGO – Gene Honda has learned from experience.
Twelve years ago, when Honda first was hired as the voice of the NCAA Final Four, he was determined to be ready for every player’s name, every tricky pronunciation. So when the tournament bracket was released on “Selection Sunday,” Honda poured over the rosters from all 64 teams that possibly could make it to the Final Four.
“And then I realized, wait a minute!” Honda said with a laugh recently from his perch on the seventh floor of the United Center, where he serves as the Blackhawks’ public-address announcer. “So now, I haven’t even looked at the brackets. I won’t worry about it until after the weekend.”
This week, then, Honda can turn his attention to the remaining Sweet 16 teams, which sounds like a much more reasonable number than 64.
Many people know about the players and coaches who have come to symbolize March Madness. Maybe you think of Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing or Duke’s Christian Laettner. Maybe you think of Michigan State’s Matteen Cleaves or Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony. Remember a runner-up Memphis guard named Derrick Rose?
But unless you have the ears of a German shepherd, you probably don’t realize that the voice in the background of the past 11 Final Fours has belonged to Honda, a 59-year-old Chicagoan whose other roles include serving as the voice of the Blackhawks and White Sox. Next week, Honda will travel south to Arlington, Texas, for his 12th year as the NCAA Final Four’s public-address announcer.
Beyond the TV broadcasters, listen for Honda’s deep voice on the stadium speakers. It will be loud and clear, as it always is, showing no signs of the nervous excitement that Honda will feel as he enters the stadium on the morning of the first game.
“It’s a ton of fun,” Honda said. “It’s a great experience. If you’re going to get scared about anything, it might as well be something worth getting scared over.
“The minute you walk in the building, you can’t help but notice it’s the Final Four. It’s wonderful to be a part of. I keep telling people, even if your school isn’t there, if you ever get a chance to go to a Final Four, you’ve got to go. It’s that kind of event.”
It’s impossible for Honda to list all of his favorite Final Four memories, although he’ll never forget his first tournament in which an electric freshman (Anthony) guided Syracuse to a national title against Roy Williams and the Kansas Jayhawks.
Honda has seen the Florida Gators win a pair of titles thanks in part to a fiery big man named Joakim Noah. He saw Kansas point guard Mario Chalmers calmly drain a 3-pointer that would force overtime and eventually knock out Memphis. A year ago in Atlanta, he saw Rick Pitino guide Louisville to its first championship since 1986.
As a graduate of Illinois, Honda never will forget the Fighting Illini’s 2005 Final Four run, which ended with a loss to North Carolina in the championship game.
At that year’s Final Four site in St. Louis, Honda flashed his wry sense of humor when his bosses asked whether he could call the Fighting Illini games without bias.
“They were worried about me,” Honda said with a grin. “ They said, ‘OK, are you going to be impartial?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“And so because they asked enough times, I showed up to the offices down in St. Louis in my orange and blue jacket.”
The prank worked perfectly.
“You can’t wear that!”
“I’m off duty!”
Honda laughed at the memory. The one-time general engineering major never could have expected his career to turn out this way. His approach is simple: Make the most out of today, because nothing tomorrow is guaranteed.
“The other thing is, it’s not a job,” Honda said. “It’s your annual audition.
“You’re auditioning all the time, both to get invited back and because you never know what happens next.”
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.