NBA – and Chicago – loses broadcasting great Jim Durham

November 7, 2012

It has been over 20 years since the Chicago Bulls radio and television broadcasts were brilliantly conducted by Jim Durham: He began his NBA career in Chicago in 1973, announcing the good, the horrible and finally a championship for the Chicago Bulls in 1991, before serving as the NBA's number one ESPN radio play-by-play man.

But still, after all these years, Jim meant a lot to us. Last Sunday, Durham passed away suddenly, on his farm in Texas at the age of 65. It seems appropriate to dedicate a tribute to this man, heard and loved by fans and respected and admired by those of us lucky enough to work with him.  

NBA Senior Vice President Brian McIntyre began his career with the Chicago Bulls in media relations in 1978. This Hall of Fame league executive worked with Durham, a Hall of Fame announcer, for 35 years. McIntrye had this to say about Durham’s abilities behind the microphone:

To be able to process a fast pace game like NBA basketball, to see what is happening and unfolding in front of your eyes, to have the ability to quickly process that and put it into words that were so vividly descriptive  it just made your radio come alive. He had a way with words and I always wondered if he saw it in slow motion, because he could process it in a nano second. He was very well prepared; couple that with his pipes, his sense of humor and love of the game — that is what made him so good.

Mike Downey, former Bulls beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and former columinst for the Chicago Tribune, added this:

Bulls ball was bad back when I was covering the team for the Sun-Times. In my two years on the beat, they lost more than 100 games. But we had a ball. 'Super Fan' sprinted around the arena while Nancy Faust played the William Tell overture from courtside. And we had a guy broadcasting the play-by-play, Jim Durham  yes, the Bulls' Durham  who made that team as entertaining as the Lakers or Celtics to listeners throughout the Midwest. He was a pro's pro, no shtick, no catch phrases; just as solid a man with a mike as you'll ever see or hear. It was a pleasure to know him.

Jim O’Donnell covered the Bulls for the Daily Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times:

Jim Durham was fun and energized, and his ability to call a basketball game was overwhelming in the talent and texture it suggested. He was world-class, and everyone from Barcelona to Back of the Yards who ever heard one of his calls could recognize it. In tandem with Johnny Kerr, Bulls fans had the extraordinary privilege of listening to two supremely insightful infotainers who could make a broadcast entertaining whether the two-guard was Mitch Wiggins or Michael Jordan. Away from it all, he never, ever wavered in his prioritization of family first, then faith, then career.

Personally, he constantly challenged me to come down some summer and work my lazy reardom a month or so on his family's farm in Tomball, Tex., 'to get a lesson in what the real world was all about.' That never happened. But among the numbing sadness this week is the keepsake grace that at least he and Brian McIntyre made it into the Naismith Hall last year via the Curt Gowdy Award. Jim was simply the best.

WMAQ Radio, the station I used to work for, acquired the radio rights for the Bulls in 1985. That was when the nuances of Durham's distinctive, creative style of basketball announcing came into focus for me.

Durham painted the picture, detailing who had the ball, where it was going and how much time was on the clock. You could leave the game for a few minutes, then turn the radio back on and be brought up to speed instantly. Many people in the last few days have described their Durham "driveway moments"; they would stay in their cars to catch the end of the game. He made the game that entertaining and was just that good.

I spoke to Jim on many occasions. Whenever he came to Chicago we would re-connect; he was approachable and humble. But Brian McIntyre said it best about Jim: “He belonged in the Human Being Hall of Fame.”