The sportscaster from Forest Hills - Queens Chronicle: Queenswide

The sportscaster from Forest Hills

by David Russell, Associate Editor | Posted: Thursday, August 8, 2019 10:30 am

Ian Eagle finally has some free time.

The broadcaster who grew up in Forest Hills is busy in the fall, winter and early spring calling basketball and football for both television and radio. The summer is for relaxing at home.

“I actually have skin that could be considered somewhat tan,” Eagle — who this year was honored by the Brooklyn Nets for 25 years calling their games — said of his temporarily quiet schedule.

He was 8 years old when he told his parents he wanted to be a sportscaster.

“Both of them said, ‘Then that’s what you’ll do.’ So that was very empowering to get that sort of validation from your parents,” Eagle said.

His father did point out that Eagle might want to work on getting rid of his lisp. After two weeks of working with a tape recorder and listening back to himself, he was able to fix the problem.

Eagle’s favorite sport was baseball — he was a Mets fan and his father had been a Brooklyn Dodgers supporter — and everything else was a distant second. The other sports became part of the equation later on.

He was initially raised in Rego Park before moving to Forest Hills Gardens. His father, Jack, portrayed “Brother Dominic” in the popular Xerox commercial of the era.

Eagle attended PS 101, Russell Sage Junior High School and Forest Hills High School.

“You found like-minded people and I didn’t feel as if I was the residential know-it-all,” he said. “There was a lot of big sports fans. I found a group of people that loved sports as much as I did. It made it easy to talk sports on a daily basis.”

His favorite announcer was Marv Albert.

“His versatility, his ability to build the drama, his back and forth with his broadcast partners,” Eagle said of the sportscaster who called Knicks, Rangers and football games in addition to boxing and other NBC assignments. “I felt he had a little bit of the sarcasm gene which kept viewers and listeners on their toes and he was omnipresent.”

Eagle added, “That’s what I aspired to. I wanted to be able to multi-task and not get pigeonholed into one sport or one specific assignment.”

Because of that, Eagle was eager to accept anything that came his way.

“When opportunities pop up, I decided early on that I would be open to all of them,” he recalled. “And I said yes a lot.”

He graduated from Syracuse University in 1990 and worked at WFAN, where he had interned as a student.

“It just seemed like the perfect place to work,” he said. “It checked all the boxes.”

Eagle took a job as a producer though he was advised it wasn’t a gig to take if he wanted to get on the air. He believed it would be a good environment and in September 1991 he was given his first update shift.

“I felt that I was going to be able to make a living talking about New York sports, that I was going to stay home,” Eagle said. “That was always the goal.”

In 1993, the year he was married, Eagle began doing Jets pre- and postgame shows. The following year he became the play-by-play announcer for the then-New Jersey Nets at the age of 25.

“I didn’t know what a jughandle was,” he said, referring to the state’s much-debated left turn slip lanes. “That was a main challenge early on in my tenure. Just getting around the state of New Jersey was difficult. I grew up, obviously, as a New Yorker and had very strong opinions on New Jersey despite the fact that I didn’t have a deep reservoir of knowledge.”

Eventually he “bit the bullet” and the New Yorker moved to New Jersey.

For his second year with the Nets he was teamed with Bill Raftery, the former Seton Hall coach who combined insight with a sense of humor. Eagle said it was probably the best thing to happen in his career.

“It opened my eyes to how you’re supposed to do this job,” Eagle said. “It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be organic. And I learned from him. Not him telling me, not teaching me, but just being in his presence I learned valuable lessons on how you’re supposed to handle your business when the red light goes on.”

He received a break in 1998 when he was asked to fill in for CBS on an Arkansas-Vanderbilt basketball game when a number of network sportscasters were in Japan for the Winter Olympics.

Happy with his work, CBS asked him to call NCAA Tournament games that March. During that time, the network acquired rights for NFL games in 1998, the first time it would air football in five seasons.

The network was looking for some new blood as opposed to just hiring NBC announcers and Eagle, who called Jets games on the radio in 1997, was hired.

“I was in the right place at the right time and it changed my career,” he said.

The first game he called was a matchup between the Colts and Dolphins, pitting Peyton Manning in his NFL debut against Dan Marino in the twilight of his career.

Eagle said he was impressed with Manning from the first time he met with him for a production meeting.

“He knew my name,” Eagle said. “He used my name when answering the questions. He looked me in the eye. He had not played a regular season game yet but he had the presence of a veteran. Each meeting that I had with him over the course of his career, I learned something.”

Manning spoiled Eagle, though.

“Because he’s literally the first player I met with in this new position so I just assumed that everyone was at this level,” Eagle said. “And I quickly learned, no, he was unique.”

As great as Manning was, the legendary quarterback retired after the 2015 season and Eagle is still announcing.

“Maybe when young people start making decisions about their careers they’ll think of broadcasting as an option because of the longevity as opposed to being a professional athlete,” Eagle said.

He has called tennis, boxing, golf, volleyball and track and field in addition to the football and basketball he is closely associated with.

Over his career, he has been able to work well with a multitude of different partners in the broadcast booth.

“My philosophy has always been, it’s my job to make the analyst comfortable,” Eagle said. “And that means you have to be malleable. If the analyst isn’t doing their job well, the broadcast will suffer. I never viewed it as being a solo act. You’re part of a team.”

He credits having a selfless attitude for his ability to make a good combination with his analysts.

“The audience is going to react based on how you sound together, not just how one individual sounds and how the other individual sounds,” Eagle said.

To pick a favorite memory from his career, Eagle said he would have to categorize them. There are all the people he’s met and the friends he’s made. There’s the traveling around the world.

And then there are the games. Seeing Michael Jordan beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals. Watching up close as the Nets went from laughingstock to a pair of NBA Finals appearances led by Jason Kidd. And Duke winning the 2010 national title when a halfcourt shot from Butler’s Gordon Heyward just missed the mark.

The Nets celebration of Eagle’s 25 years announcing for the team was held in February.

“Usually you’re retiring or you’re dead when these things happen,” he joked.

Eagle has won four New York Emmys for his Nets play-by-play work on the YES Network and a fifth as part of the network’s broadcasting team. He was also nominated for a National Sports Emmy in 2015 for his NFL and NCAA March Madness play-by-play work for CBS Sports and Turner Sports.

Eagle has some advice for anyone who would like to become a sportscaster.

“If it’s something that you are truly passionate about, you have to immerse yourself in it,” he said. “You can’t just stick your toe in the pool.”

When he had some free time as an intern with WFAN he would read not only about sports but about all the announcers.

“I made it my business to learn everything that I could about the industry. And that included memorizing the bios of every play-by-play announcer in the four major professional sports. Where they went to college, what their first job was and their journeys, their paths.

“I felt the only way to figure out your own path is to take note of how others have done it. And then when I started on that path it didn’t feel out of place. It felt like I was writing my own story.”