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Inside the Game

Inside the Game
By Skip Tate

Two hours before the Xavier men’s basketball team takes on La Salle University, Joe Sunderman walks into the Cintas Center and steps onto the court. It’s quiet. There are no fans and no players yet, only a few arena workers mingling about. It’s a scene few get to see, but one Sunderman knows well.

He walks over to the visitor’s bench, takes a seat and looks around at the surroundings. Xavier basketball, he says, has come a long way. He, arguably more than anyone, would know. For the last 29 years, Sunderman has spent his winters with the Xavier basketball team—five as a player and 24 as the team’s broadcaster—making him the person most closely associated with the program for the longest period of time. Sunderman played in 99 games as a player and, entering the 2003-2004 season, broadcast another 702, making him directly involved in 41 percent of the 1,944 basketball games the University has played dating back to the sport’s first season in 1919.

It’s been a long road, but one easily traveled, he says. “How lucky can I be?” he says.

As the players start appearing on the court for warm-ups, Sunderman unfolds his 6-foot-9 frame from the folding chairs, grabs his briefcase and heads toward the media room. He pulls out a digital tape recorder and patiently waits until head coach Thad Matta sticks his head in the door and gives a nod that it’s time to do the pregame radio segment. At 6:30 p.m., the nod comes. Matta likes to do the show as close to game time as possible.

With Matta’s comments fully encoded, Sunderman walks out to his courtside seat in the middle of press row and finishes his game preparations. He digs through his briefcase and emerges with a tattered file folder stuffed with notes. Among the papers are two laminated cards, one reading 700WLW and the other 55KRC, that help him remember which station the game’s being broadcast on. Because Xavier and its crosstown competition are both carried by the same station, the Musketeers get bounced to another station if both teams play at the same time.

He pulls out two large sheets filled up with the names and numbers of each team’s players, each written in a different color marker. The folder is filled with other items that stay filed for now, including a piece of paper with a basketball court drawn on it and names attached to various spots—top of the key, near baseline, far baseline, right elbow, left elbow. There’s also a lengthy sheet with catchy phrases he’s picked up over the years, such as “rips the cords” for a basket.

He digs more into the folder in search of one more item, another laminated card that reads “Time and score.” He sets that on the table. When he first started doing the play-by-play, he asked Mark Wagner, a longtime friend who now sits next to him during the games and feeds him stats, for feedback. The time and score are really all people want to know, Wagner said. The point was driven home by former coach Pete Gillan’s wife, who once said she wished Sunderman would give the time and score more often. So the card is now a fixture in front of him during games.

Typically, the transition from athlete to broadcaster seems all too easy—the knowledge of the game and capacity for insider information are there—but the communication skills are usually lacking and all too often the experiment fails. For Sunderman, that hasn’t been the case. Broadcasting came inexplicably easy.

Bill Meredith, who broadcast Xavier games during Sunderman’s playing days, asked him on several occasions to go with him and do color for the high school game of the week. Sunderman finally relented.

“Joe’s on his way to one of those high school games and he calls me and asks me to listen if I get a chance,” says Wagner. “Growing up, Joe was always very quiet—never said much, always respectful of people, treated everyone the same, nobody was better than anyone else. And he’s still that way. But I turn on the radio and my first reaction was, ‘Who’s this guy?’ It was amazing. He was a natural.”

When Bob Staak was hired as the Musketeers’ coach, he wanted a former Xavier player to do the color commentary, and an alumnus, Paul Olding, heard the games Sunderman did and recommended him.

“It wasn’t something I naturally wanted to do,” says Sunderman, “but I thought it would be a good experience. What surprised me is how much I enjoyed it.”

Over the years, Sunderman’s been the lone constant through a stream of broadcast partners—Bill Sorrell, Dale McMillan, Red Pitcher, Andy MacWilliams. And in the case of MacWilliams, he was also the calming influence.

“We were doing a game against Detroit in 1995,” says MacWilliams. “It was Xavier’s last season in the MCC, and Michael Hawkins was bringing the ball up the court, and one of the Detroit guys grabbed him by the jersey. It seemed like an obvious intentional foul to me, so I jumped up out of my chair and started screaming about how the officials had to make that call. Joe grabbed me and pulled me down and tried to be the rational one. It was a real role reversal because it’s usually the former player who is the excitable one.”

The next game, former director for athletics Jeff Fogelson had a seat belt installed on MacWilliams’ chair.

If Sunderman’s career has had a low point, it’s that his entry into doing the play-by-play was borne of tragedy. MacWilliams was stricken with abductor spasmatic dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes the voice to fade. During a game against St. Louis University, MacWilliams’ voice faded completely, and Sunderman was forced to do play-by-play for the second half. “It was a tough way to get into it,” he says.

At the end of the season, Sunderman was given the opportunity to take over. “My intention was to do this until Andy Mac came back.” That was six years ago.

Doing analysis was easy, he says, because you’re just reacting to the play and discussing basketball. Doing play-by-play, though, requires a lot more preparation beforehand, something he’s had to make adjustments for because he also has a fulltime job with Interior Supply, selling building products to architects and contractors.

“Fortunately, the nature of my other job is flexible and allows me to do this,” he says. “It gets busy. There really aren’t any days off, but it’s something I wanted to do, and I’ve worked into my lifestyle.”

That’s a pattern for Sunderman. After graduating from LaSalle High School on Cincinnati’s west side in 1973, he signed on to play at Xavier. He describes himself as “a hack,” but was good enough to start—and smart enough to take advantage of his scholarship. After sitting out one year because of knee surgery and part of another because of a broken thumb suffered when his car slid on some snow and crashed into a train near campus, he spent his off time studying. The result was earning his bachelor’s degree in business and his master’s of business administration in the same year.

He simply shrugs at the accomplishment.

“The time is there if you organize yourself,” he says. “Most of the classes were at night and it’s something I wanted to accomplish.”

The same holds true for juggling dual careers. It’s not the hours you put in—it’s what you put into the hours. And if you love doing it, it’s easy.

“And I do love doing this,” he says.

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