The Voices of Los Rockets

When KXYZ/1320 AM broadcaster Danny Gonzalez announces a Houston Rockets road game, he sits in the station's studio with his finger on a 13-inch Hitachi screen, as if touching the television connected him physically to the faraway contest.

On this night, thanks to their quick and tenacious defense, the Rockets are off to a good start against their opponents, "los Jazz de Utah." The game, at least at first, looks like a throwback to the Rockets' glorious November and early December, when they were virtually unbeatable. "Saben complicar los disparos del oponente," says Gonzalez, his finger tracing the flight of the basketball and the scrambling movement of the players.

His audience -- listeners from all over the Spanish-speaking world, from Spain to Latin America to Houston -- understands him to say that the Rockets know how to force the opposition to take tough shots.

On the offensive end, Rocket guards Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell are penetrating early in the game, and Hakeem Olajuwon is pouring in his fadeaway over the outstretched right arm of Jazz center Felton Spencer. Sitting in the Radio 13 studio, Gonzalez and his color man, Jorge "Tico" Rojas, discuss the effect that losing center Mark Eaton has had on the Jazz this year. In part because the 7-foot-6 Eaton is no longer the force he once was against El Sueno Olajuwon, the Rockets have beat the Jazz six times in a row, including three wins in the previously forbidding Delta Center in Salt Lake City. Eaton has been out all season with back problems. Gonzalez, a native Argentinian, and Rojas, a Costa Rican (hence "Tico," which is the apodo of all costarriquenos), speculate that Eaton's body can no longer stand the impact of his 290 (or so) pounds slamming against the hardwood floor. The air-filled soles of his basketball shoes are apparently no longer enough of a shock absorber.

"No hay burbuja de aire que aguanta Eaton," says Gonzalez, and the two men laugh at Gonzalez's image of the massive Eaton bouncing on a bubble of air.

Gonzalez, 37, is a former professional "futból soccer" player. He arrived in Houston from Argentina in 1980, when he came to join the Houston Hurricanes soccer team. He didn't stick with the team (in part because of the league's maximum of three foreign players), so he moved to San Francisco and played semi-pro soccer while learning sports journalism. He started as a writer in a Bay Area Spanish-language paper. After the 1989 earthquake left his wife permanently afraid of California, he returned to Houston and took up broadcast journalism.

This is his first year to do Rockets play-by-play, and his delivery retains the cadences of a Latin American soccer announcer. When Kenny Smith hits a long jumper, Gonzalez's call lingers over the final vowel in the erratic guard's name -- "Kennyyyyy." When either a Rocket or a Jazz player hits an impressive shot, his call of "doble!" or, if they've fired from behind the arc, "triple!" is a vivid echo of the "gol!" call of soccer.

The first quarter ends with the Rockets comfortably ahead. "Tico" Rojas has let Gonzalez do 90 percent of the talking, but he has kept score on a yellow Post-it pad and listened to KTRH's broadcast of the game to pick up information they can't get from watching the screen. When each quarter ends he pulls the sheet off and sticks it below the window between the pair and their producer, a Salvadoran.

This multi-national trio is typical of Radio 13's cosmopolitan audience. "Other Spanish stations concentrate on one country," Gonzalez says, "usually Mexico, because so many [Mexicans] live here. But we are for all the Latin Americans in Houston." To that end, Gonzalez has curbed his Argentinisms and retains little of the typically guttural Argentine pronunciation. "We try to speak pure Castilian," he says. "Just like Peter Jennings, a Canadian, speaks a pure, professional English, so that he sounds American."

Gonzalez and Rojas try to use internationally accepted Spanish terms for team names. For example, the Chicago Bulls are los Toros. But this isn't always practical. The Jazz are el Jazz. "Lakers" doesn't translate particularly well. Gonzalez isn't sure why the Rockets are not known as los Cohetes.

They also use standard Spanish to name the positions and describe plays. Scott Brooks throws pases; Hakeem slams home un clavado; the Rockets are last in the league in offensive rebotes. Hakeem is el pivot; Otis Thorpe is el ala de fuerza (literally "the strong wing"); the struggling (and since traded and un-traded) Robert Horry is the ala pequena ("small wing"). Kenny Smith's point guard position is the base, while Vernon Maxwell's two-guard is the base de apoyo. But Anglicisms have crept into their calls. Rudy Tomjanovich (a mouthful in Spanish, with its carefully enunciated syllables) is el head-coach. In the pregame they discuss los matchups.

Gonzalez is happy to see the Rockets playing well again. It's hard work to make a detailed and intense play-by-play off a small television screen (during home games, Gonzalez and Rojas broadcast from the Summit), but when the Rockets are playing badly "it takes you out of the game," Gonzalez says.

You wouldn't know it from the grace of his broadcast, but Gonzalez is in his first season of calling the Rockets. He worked at KXYZ as a sports reporter (and baseball color commentator) until the beginning of the basketball preseason, when he was asked to replace an announcer who had moved to Miami. Gonzalez was determined to call a more precise game than other Spanish-language basketball announcers around the country. According to Rojas, other announcers "don't tell you exactly what is happening. They just say, 'Oh, Olajuwon is having a nice game. He just made another basket.'" But Gonzalez's goal is to be as descriptive as an English-language announcer. That isn't as easy as it sounds.

"Our language is longer. The words are longer. You can make an image in English with two words, but in Spanish it takes five or six," says Gonzalez. He says that's fine if you're calling a slowly developing game such as soccer or baseball, but at first basketball left him gasping for air.

After calling the first two exhibition games, Gonzalez was distraught with his performance. He simply couldn't keep up with the action. "I went home and yelled at my wife and kicked my dog." What he really did was take videotapes of NBA games and stay up "until 5 a.m. practicing the calls, screaming and shouting until I got it right."

But that's not the job's only demand. Besides their live broadcasts and daily news updates, Rojas and Gonzalez do a weekly call-in show on which they discuss both U.S. and Latin American sports. "We have to know everything that's going on in American sports, and in 13 Latin American countries," says Gonzalez. "In Houston there are 45,000 Colombians who don't want to hear about Mexican soccer, so we have to be sharp about the news from every country." They keep informed by calling sports directors in those 13 countries every Sunday. They also take calls from Latin American stations eager for news about U.S. sports. They even take calls from Greeks and Italians eager for soccer scores from their native lands.

"It's much more difficult than being a sports reporter in Latin America," Gonzalez says. During a recent trip to Central America, he realized that people there "talk sports all day Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. But only about soccer, and only about their own country."

Gonzalez estimates that 35 percent of their calls deal with U.S. sports. "Latin Americans are part of the Houston community, and they care about American sports," he says. "The Sunday before the Super Bowl, that's all we talked about."

Rojas estimates that "15,000 to 20,000" listeners tune in to their Rockets broadcasts, but Gonzalez reckons that's a low figure. Baseball, of course, is an even better draw, "because that's the game Latin Americans play."

Rojas and Gonzalez turn back to the small television as the second quarter begins. Following the action with his finger, Gonzalez traces the Rockets' decline. When Hakeem goes out with foul trouble, he notes that the Jazz "esta buscando el centro" for short, easy shots. The game goes badly, but the pair manage not to sound too disgusted with the floundering team. They are more candid than their English-language counterparts (what language does Gene Petersen bellow in?) when they discuss the Rockets' "problemas internas," including players who are whining for more playing time.

Watching Rojas and Gonzalez work reminds me of the three years I lived in Mexico and followed our Petroleros (during Earl Campbell's prime) on Mexican television. The station would have a three-man panel calling the game from a screen in their Mexico City studio, and beneath their voices you could hear the gringo announcers. You see the same practice today on Spanish-language cable stations. The other day I was channel-surfing and came across a pre-boxing-match broadcast. Three well-dressed men sat behind a dais and apparently discussed the upcoming fisticuffs. I say "apparently" because the sound was screwed up, and KUHF radio was coming in. This wasn't unusual. I've listened to Garrison Keillor while watching the fights, but that day when the long-distance talking heads opened their mouths, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" emerged.

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best

Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.


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