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Since the 1980s, Lawrence Tanter has called out the names of some of the greatest players in basketball history, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The only name you will not hear him introduce in dramatic fashion is his own.
“That’s a little bit too self-indulgent," says Tanter, who's in his 37th year as the public address announcer of the Lakers. "I'm just really cognizant that I'm surrounded by superb, talented athletes and just happy to have that opportunity to be in their presence.”
For the entire 20 years the Lakers have played at Staples Center — and for 16 of their final 17 years at the Forum before that — Tanter’s smooth baritone has provided the vocal soundtrack to their games. In return, the job has provided him with the best seat in basketball: at the scorer’s table on the floor, right at halfcourt. He’s not quite close enough to touch the players. But he can talk to them.
"I remember one night, Michael Jordan, in a preseason game, was just destroying the Lakers — lighting the team up," Tanter says. "And he came back into the game in the fourth period. And I normally don't do this, but I told Michael — he was in front of me in the scorer's bench about to check in — I said, ‘Mike, lighten up a little bit.’ And he looked at me — have you ever had the devil look at you and say like, ‘How dare you ask me to lighten up? That's not a part of my motif. I don't lighten up.’ And I didn't say anything after that. I said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Jordan. I apologize.’ "
Falling In Love With Basketball
Tanter’s first brush with basketball greatness came in his hometown of Chicago in the 1950s, when his father took him to see the Harlem Globetrotters, featuring Wilt Chamberlain.
"That was an indelible memory seeing a man of that stature and that tall," Tanter says.
And that was when Tanter fell in love with the game. He soon started playing it himself.
“On the courts with chain nets, playing against some incredible men," Tanter says. "I remember after school, we would play against the guys coming from the factory. And you had to play tough. So when I played high school basketball, it was nothing compared to playing against men coming from the factories.”
Tanter accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Dubuque in Iowa. And that’s where he first found himself behind a microphone at the school radio station.
"Looked at the campus newspaper one day, and they were looking for announcers," Tanter says. "I had already had an affinity toward music, growing up in a musical family. My uncle played with Charlie Parker. My sister used to sing with the Floyd Campbell Orchestra. So there's been this musical connection in my family over the years. And I got the audition at the campus radio station."
After college, Tanter moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and started working at jazz radio stations. A few years later, when the Lakers acquired a fellow jazz aficionado who happened to be pretty good at basketball — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Tanter started going to their games at the Forum.
"And listening to the public address announcer who at that time was John Ramsey, and I said, ‘Wow, that's an interesting gig. I think I could do that,’ " Tanter says. "I said, ‘Maybe I should apply to be a backup. Everybody needs a backup.’ "
Tanter was friends with a player on the Lakers, Jamaal Wilkes, who put him in touch with the Lakers’ publicist.
Tanter submitted his audition tape and resume. He didn’t become the next Lakers PA announcer — that was a man named Larry McKay. But when McKay’s job at a local radio station changed his shift to nights, that meant he could no longer work the games. Tanter got the call — and a job offer — from the Lakers in 1982.
He was brand new, but he benefited from the guidance of Chick Hearn, the legendary play-by-play voice of the Lakers since they arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
"See, there's no public address announcer school," Tanter says. "It's on-the-job training. So, Chick, being the legend that he was and had traveled around the country for 30 years prior to that, gave me some insight in how to approach the job. He said, ‘First of all, try to be informative. Try to be precise. And try to envision talking to somebody in the audience that's blind so they can feel what's going on verbally.’ "
Tanter has been on the job ever since — with the exception of one year in the 1990s, when he ran a radio station in Sacramento.
Finding His Voice
Tanter added his own personal touches over the years. If a travel is called, he'll say, "too many steps."
"I never thought about it. It just happened," Tanter says. "Just came about. ‘Too many steps.’ Which is pretty short, concise and to the point."
If you listen to how Tanter says each player’s name, you can get a sense of how he views them — from the grace of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the power of LeBron James.
"Kareem is my favorite all-time player," Tanter says. "I think he's the greatest. And to roll off his name, ‘Kareem Abdul Jabbar.’ It sounds kind of majestic, when you think about it."
I ask him how he correlates a name with a sound.
"I think that's like in music, improvisation," Tanter says. "A lot of it depends on the activity, of the event on the court.
"I remember this last summer people asked me, how am I going to introduce LeBron James? Well, I've already given him flavor. Just because of his acumen as a basketball savant over the years. So I wasn't sure, you know. And I practiced it a little bit. I gave it some thought. And I hope it comes out the way it should."
Tanter says "LeBron James" with a slight growl in his voice. James Worthy, he says, was a smoother style.
"He was what Sade called a ‘smooth operator,’ " Tanter says.
Tanter won’t hesitate to acknowledge greatness from the visiting teams as well. You’ll hear a begrudging bit of respect when an opposing player gets hot.
One of his favorite current players is Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, whose greatness mandates what Tanter calls "a little flavor."
"A little flavor means just a little bit of pepper, little oregano," Tanter says. "Nothing heavy. No hot sauce."
A Changing League
Not every name rolls off the tongue that easily. There are now more than 100 international players from 42 countries playing in the NBA. There are dangerous collections of consonants lurking on every roster.
And while the league puts out a pronunciation guide to help ...
"I also go to the visiting broadcasters," Tanter says. " ‘How do you say this person's name?’ ‘How do you say Giannis Antetokounmpo?’ ‘How do you say Bismack Biyombo?’ ‘How do you say Nikoloz Tskitishvili?’ I mean every year, man, this thing just gets more and more like I'm in a linguistics class becoming a foreign exchange student pronouncing all these names. It's just unbelievable. Not too many Lou Hudsons any more."
The makeup of the league keeps changing, but the PA voice of the Lakers remains the same. That gives it extra weight. It meant something to LeBron James that the same person who called the past four decades of Laker greats would say his own name.
And while the NBA has moved toward louder, more attention-grabbing PA announcers, Tanter’s low-key style makes him a throwback. A classic, even.
In that same vein, Tanter has been on the mic for eight Lakers championships. And yet, you won’t find him flashing any of his championship rings — they’re tucked inside a safe deposit box.
"I would never wear one of those rings," Tanter says. "A little bit too ostentatious for me. Not my style."
He won’t add to the ring collection this year, as the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. There’s a chance Tanter won’t be on the microphone for the next Lakers championship. He says he evaluates his job year by year. One day will be his last day, and Laker games won’t sound the same.
This segment aired on May 4, 2019.
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