The NBA all-star break offers a brief break for many media folks whose lives revolve around professional basketball, a few days to go to bed early, sleep late and not think about sports.
For Dave Johnson — the Wizards’s radio play-by-play announcer, and perhaps the hardest working man in D.C. sports media — this winter’s all-star break meant a couple shifts at Comcast SportsNet. One night he anchored the network’s news programs. Another night he hosted the Capitals pre- and post-game shows.
Why would Johnson — who also serves as WTOP’s sports director, D.C. United’s television play-by-play voice, a writer for CSNWashington.com and an occasional announcer for Fox Soccer — anchor hockey shows during a rare winter break?
“I’m always afraid if I stop, I’ll like it, and then I won’t want to get back on the horse again,” he joked last week, during the Wizards’ six-game road trip. “I’ve taken vacations before, and then you get that good night’s sleep and you think ‘Wait a minute, this is pretty nice.’ You lose your edge a little bit.”
(In point of fact, Johnson also said he feels a loyalty to his many employers, and when they ask him to help out, he hates to say no.)
Johnson’s insane schedule is not some brief dalliance with multi-tasking; it’s been his life. As a kid in the Maryland suburbs, he would wake up before dawn and watch television test patterns, waiting for the newspaper to arrive and the morning broadcasts to begin. Early in his professional life, he simultaneously worked as the sports director at WNAV in Annapolis, the play-by-play voice for Navy basketball and lacrosse, a weekend country-music radio DJ in Baltimore and a co-publisher of a soccer magazine.
He was hired as WTOP’s sports director in 1995, and offered the Wizards radio job two years later. He figured it was one or the other, but WTOP said he could do his morning sports updates from the road.
Before the era of widespread Internet access, this meant calling into the station at 1 in the morning, so the news desk could read him sports headlines. Before the era of wireless technology, this meant unscrewing telephones, begging hotel catering directors to borrow rooms, and occasionally doing sports updates from underneath a hotel desk, to get a better signal.
The technology has made life easier, but there are still hiccups, like the time news broke of Joe Gibbs’s return. Johnson had just flown from Houston to New Orleans with the Wizards and was hoping to get a few hours sleep; instead he worked through the night, did his usual 5-11 a.m. shift on air, napped briefly, and then went to the arena. On Elvis impersonator night.
“Everywhere I looked, there was someone who looked like Elvis Presley: in the men’s room, in the media room, everywhere,” Johnson, 47, said. “I’m thinking ‘I really hope I’m awake, and not just having this bizarre dream.’”
Last season, there was a lengthy delay during a train ride home from a Wizards night game in New Jersey; Johnson wound up doing live WTOP spots from between two cars, so he wouldn’t wake sleeping passengers. Another time, he called a Friday night Wizards game in Denver, caught a red-eye back to D.C. to do a Saturday afternoon D.C. United game, then flew that night to California for a Sunday game against the Warriors.
Even on normal road trips, Johnson leaves NBA arenas at 11 or midnight, sleeps briefly, and wakes up at 3 a.m. to prepare for his first sports update at 5:15.
“By mid-day, it’d be a good time to try to sell me a time share,” he joked. “I’m a little foggy headed and cloudy at that point.”
No other NBA play-by-play guy also has a full-time job doing morning updates. Johnson, though, isn’t complaining.
“I’m not coal mining,” he said. “When it’s what you’ve always wanted to do and what you love doing, it’s natural adrenaline. I’m not going to a library or writing a paper; I’m going to an arena that’s jumping and bopping, and whatever fatigue you had doesn’t exist any more.”