By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Tom Nelson’s resume starts with a letter of recommendation from the San Diego Chicken.
To say the rest is well-rounded might be an understatement.
The 46-year-old Chisholm Trail Broadcasting play-by-play announcer and ad salesman has been a general manager for two United States Basketball League teams and helped found one of them, sat on a Continental Basketball Association team bench as a player and an assistant coach, with zero previous experience as either, and was the first Dodge City Legend’s play-by-play caller to be thrown out of a game.
The broadcaster-turned-general-manager-turned-salesman-slash-broadcaster now takes all of it to the booth, hoping to make the smallest of games a big event.
“When I call a ballgame, I try to make it sound like a big-league game,” Nelson said. “That’s the goal … The kids deserve that. I want somebody to be listening to that game, and I don’t want them to think, ‘Ugh, this is a 30-point game’. I want them to kind of hang on it.”
Selling the event for Nelson started before his career did, his first big success coming while he was working in the university relations department at Fort Hays State in Kansas.
Needing halftime entertainment for a Friday night game against Wayne State, a league bottom-dweller, Nelson put a call into Ted Giannoulas, more commonly known as the famed San Diego Chicken mascot, and a longtime fixture at San Diego Padres games and on Saturday morning television.
The university’s athletic director scoffed at the Chicken’s $7,000 fee, and accepting it wouldn’t happen, Nelson called Giannoulas to share the bad news.
Instead, he was given a counteroffer.
“I wouldn’t make this offer to anyone else, but you sound like you can make it happen,” Giannoulas told Nelson.
The deal: Whatever the average attendance for the Wayne State game, the university can keep. The rest goes to the Chicken.
Typically totaling less than 2,500 tickets sold, more than 12,000 — 5,000 for the women’s opener and an over-capacity 7,500 for the men’s nightcap — showed that Friday.
“He ended up walking out with 20 grand,” Nelson said.
In return, Giannoulas wrote Nelson a glowing open letter of recommendation to any and all future employers. Less than a year into his first job as a sports anchor for WIBW TV in Topeka, Kan., Nelson used that letter to leave the graveyard anchor shift for greener pastures working for the Topeka Sizzlers, a CBA basketball franchise. To Nelson’s fortunate surprise, the man interviewing him for the job had three autographed pictures of the San Diego Chicken on his wall.
“I hand him the letter, and he gives me the job on the spot,” Nelson said.
He sold advertising and wrote press releases as “basically assistant everything,” for the Sizzlers, but his tour de force was learning to operate the team’s dot-matrix scoreboard, a relatively big deal for a minor league team in 1989, but an untapped resource. Before his arrival, the most the scoreboard was used for was the score and the next event.
“That first year, I had out-of-town scores, clapping hands, team logos and all this stuff,” Nelson said.
That season, the Sizzlers’ owner, dismayed by an 0-10 start, decided to stop pouring money into the franchise. The team’s general manager, director of media relations and director of marketing were cut loose, but Nelson stayed — at $200 a week, he was too cheap, and too efficient, to get rid of. More importantly, he had one irreplaceable skill.
“You can’t get rid of the guy who runs the scoreboard,” the disgruntled Sizzler owner’s wife apparently had declared. “He makes the hands clap.”
His one season as a jack-of-all-trades for the Sizzlers is where the bulk of the head-scratching items in his previous experience came from.
The team needed two assistant coaches. When they were one short, Nelson pretended to be one, his job duties extending only as far as checking how many timeouts the Sizzlers had. The league mandated at least eight players be suited up on the bench, so he filled that role, too. At least he looked the part.
“I got introduced,” Nelson said, pantomiming his jog onto the floor. “‘6-foot-7, from Fort Hays State, Tom Nelson.’”
The team was blown up after the season, and for the next 10 years, Nelson was back in the broadcasting business, working Kansas State games in Manhattan, Kan., high school and junior college games in Garden City, Kan., and video production in Dodge City.
There, Nelson helped assemble the Dodge City Legends in four months in 2000, setting up the team for a championship run in its first season and another in 2003, both times led by former University of Kansas player and 3-year NBA vet Darrin Hancock.
But it’s not the titles, nor a pair of nods for the league’s best executive in the same years, that yielded the most interesting honor for Nelson as a USBL GM.
In 2000, when Nelson was with the Legend, one of his duties was providing play-by-play coverage for the team in road games, broadcasting back to Dodge City. On one of those occasions, when the Legend visited the Washington D.C. Congressionals, Nelson arranged a visit with an old high school teacher. The trip was a short one, so Nelson’s few opportunities to chat would be during the game’s two-minute media timeouts.
To one particularly quick-triggered official, that just wouldn’t do.
“So I go up and talk to my friend, he’s five rows behind me,” Nelson said. “At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the official comes over to me and goes, ‘You need to be more professional.’ I haven’t been critical of the officials, I’ve just been calling the game.”
Nelson ignored the warning without understanding exactly his offense, and shortly after was thrown out, along with his former teacher and the Legend coach. The ejected party would get the last laugh though. When the building cleared, Nelson and coach returned to the arena and hosted a post-game show, the cap of an episode that drew some of the most response from fans and listeners during the Legend’s tenure.
“I’ll never forget this,” Nelson said. “The players are coming off the floor, and they see us looking in the window, and they’re just rolling … (the radio station) found out how many people were listening to the games, and they made a plaque for me that said, ‘Tom Nelson, the only radio guy ever to get thrown out of a game.’”
Nelson was lured to Enid by a lucrative offer to run the Oklahoma Storm, and hasn’t left since.
He was the Storm’s full-time general manager for one season, settling into his post at CTB in 2004 and remaining in a partial role with the Storm until the USBL folded in 2007.