Q&A: Matt Devlin on NBA hiatus, Jerry Howarth’s impact on his career

Toronto Raptors' play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin speaks to the crowd during the 2019 Championship parade. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — Rewind a few weeks back, before we were all slowed to a near standstill. Longtime Toronto Raptors play-by-play man Matt Devlin was watching the team roll through a successful road trip, hoping to turn four games of dominance into a five-game win streak upon returning to Scotiabank Arena.

Now, those game notes may as well be a remnant of a lost age, with all minds on more pressing matters.

It’s the abruptness with which that switch was flipped — from thinking about basketball to ensuring loved ones were safe from harm — that has defined the experience of navigating this pandemic, says Devlin.

“For me, obviously the number one concern that we had immediately was making sure our oldest son, Jack, was able to get home,” Devlin says. “He’s in a program at the University of Iowa called the ‘UI Reach’ program, which is for young adults with special needs…. Getting Jack back was a major relief, and then knowing that: ‘Here we are as a family — everything’s good.'”

Since the Raptors had gone toe-to-toe with the Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert, who became the first professional athlete known to test positive for the coronavirus, just two nights before the NBA shut down on March 11, Devlin himself was tested himself on the morning of March 12. That triggered a hectic start to this hiatus stretch as his attention shifted wholly to where everyone else’s is right now.

“I was in self-isolation and quarantine up until talking to Toronto Health. And then I think just like everyone, you’re checking in on your loved ones, making sure that they’re okay,” Devlin says. “You know, my parents are both 79 and live in New York City. So, fortunately they were able to, about a week and a half ago, get out of New York City and be with my brother, which is important. Those are the sort of things I think everybody is honing in on.”

With two whirlwind weeks in the books since the night the NBA hit pause, Sportsnet caught up with Devlin to talk his early days in the broadcasting world, how the athletes and coaches he’s used to seeing every day are handling the hiatus, and the potential impact the stoppage could have on all those at lower levels of the sport trying to follow their dreams.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Let’s go back to the beginning — when did you first make that definitive decision to go into broadcasting?

Matt Devlin: It really wasn’t until my senior year in university. At that point, as I looked to get internships, which I was able to get, somebody said to me, “Start in a small town, make all your mistakes, try to get better and keep moving up the ladder.” And so that was all I knew, you know. I started in Abeline, Texas. Somebody said, “Hey, you want a job on TV at the NBC affiliate?” I started there in 1991 and then it was into 1992 where I really decided I wanted to get into play-by-play. I started in baseball play-by-play, because it provided you the most games possible to announce on a daily basis. And that put me on track to ultimately get to where I am today. But it took obviously a lot of work.

SN: There’s been a lot of focus on COVID-19’s impact on the top leagues in the world. But you worked at a number of different levels on your way up. When you think of everyone working among those lower levels like you were, what impact do you think these stoppages have had on them?

Devlin: Well, it’s not easy. And you know, when you’re climbing up the ladder, or attempting to, there’s so much uncertainty. And that’s what we’re currently in now, uncertain times. I couldn’t tell you how each individual person feels because everyone has their own journey. There are those that have gotten to my spot in broadcasting that have never left the city, right? They’ve only worked within that city…. So everybody’s individual journey is so different. But you hope … that you get through all this and that the seasons will begin again. And you try to do everything you can to make sure that when those seasons do begin again that you are prepared for it.

You know, every day that I was working in the minor leagues, or calling high-school football games or basketball games, calling college games, at the end of the day or the beginning of the day I would do something that I felt would help me get to that next spot, whatever that spot was. And that was listening to my tapes, listening to my broadcasts, or reaching out — back then, obviously, you didn’t have email and there wasn’t texting, right, so it was picking up a phone and making a phone call and asking somebody within a network or a team to listen to my tape, or watch my tape if it was television-related, and then you would hope that you would get a little bit of feedback.

I remember in 1993, when I was announcing for the Palm Springs Angels, going in on an off-day to Anaheim’s stadium at the time to watch the California Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays. I had a press pass and before the game started, I went to the Blue Jays’ broadcast booth and introduced myself to Tom (Cheek) and Jerry (Howarth), and they were exceptional to me. I still have the letter that Jerry wrote me when I sent him my broadcast tape, and the recommendations that he had in order to improve. Tom actually ripped out a scorecard page of his book that he kept score in, and he said, ‘Hey, here’s how I keep track of everything.’ And it was amazing. Those are kind of the moments that you think back now, and those are the people that are impactful.

SN: In the marquee moments in your career — the Raptors’ title run, for example — have you ever taken time to reflect on that journey and how far you’ve come?

Devlin: I think the time that I did was this fall, when I was named the sports media broadcaster of the year. I had both Jack (Armstrong) and Leo (Rautins) introduce me at that event, and I think I didn’t realize it would kind of go the way it went with respect to what Jack and Leo were saying. It made me reflect upon my career and, you know, at the end of the day, it’s not just one reason or one person as to why you are where you are. It takes people believing in you along the way. So for me, it was early in my career, bosses giving me an opportunity, then along the way, my wife, who was willing to move and provided me great support as I looked to make a career out of this.

That was probably a time, that day at the Royal York, where I reflected back upon all the hours on busses, all the audio cassette tapes I was sending out, all the phone calls made, and all the other different things that you did trying to get to that next spot and trying to get that next job. And for anybody — at least my belief — that ends up getting to where they ultimately want to be in life, it’s because they’re not there just by themselves — there’s a lot of people along the way that assist in that. And that’s what makes it special.

SN: Where were you when you heard the news of the NBA suspending the season? What was going through your mind?

Devlin: I was back home, actually. I was at the Nick Nurse Foundation dinner on Wednesday night and then we were tested early Thursday morning. You know, I think it was the inevitable. I was not surprised at all by the decision of the NBA. The Ivy League on that Tuesday had cancelled all of their tournaments and sporting events, and so you knew that with Rudy Gobert testing positive that it was the right thing to do, and ultimately, inevitable that it would happen.

SN: You’re around these players, coaches, officials, and you see how invested they are. How do you think they’re handling this abrupt halt and change of mindset?

Devlin: I think everybody, whether you’re in the NBA, whether you’re in the NHL, whether you’re in any industry, I think everyone hopefully is going about what they need to do to make sure that we get beyond this, as healthy as we possibly can, and flatten the curve. I’m sure just like everyone, you’re checking in on loved ones, you’re checking in on friends — you know, I’ve spent a lot of the day calling and touching base and texting with everyone, making sure everyone is doing okay.

For the athletes themselves, there’s obviously the thought that the season will begin again, so they’re putting in the work that they have to put in given the constraints that everyone is under. It kind of becomes a new norm in every passing day. I spend over half of the year on the road — so for me it’s a great opportunity, if you look at it in that vein, of being at home and spending some valuable time with my family. And that’s how I choose at this time to look at it. Let’s look after the things that we all need to look after, and that’s first and foremost the people that are around us, and not only that — that extends out into the community, your neighbours, your town, your city, your province and your country.

Sign up for Raptors newsletters
Get the best of our Raptors coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

Raptors Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

SN: In terms of the history of the game and of the media landscape surrounding it, what ripple effects do you think might come from what we’re living through now?

Devlin: Well, a few different things — number one, when you look at the history of sports, they’ve always been a great diversion in times when people need that. And this is a rare situation where that has obviously not been there. So Sportsnet and TSN re-showing the Raptors games and their playoff run is certainly important for people to tune in and think about happier times.

But this is still evolving — it’s changing, and where this ultimately goes as far as an industry, I think like everyone, it’s something that you look at and you realize that it has changed and it will continue to change. Because the news every day changes ultimately what you’re looking at, and changes what you may think or theorize could happen in the future. But right now, the most important thing is the health and safety of everyone.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.