Neil Funk relishing memories from ‘The Last Dance’ while his final season is on hold
He was the Bulls’ radio voice for five of their six NBA title runs, calling every game. He’ll bow out after this season, ending an NBA career that began with the 76ers in 1976.
Neil Funk was just like many people Sunday night, watching “The Last Dance” at home, reminiscing and soaking in the nostalgia.
Unlike many people, though, he lived it.
Funk was the Bulls’ radio voice for five of the team’s six NBA titles in the 1990s, the last of which is being chronicled in the 10-part documentary. And even though he called every game those seasons, he couldn’t wait for the series’ release.
“I wouldn’t have missed it,” said Funk, who watched with his wife, Renee, in their downtown Chicago building. “I was so looking forward to it because I knew it was going to be well done, and all of the sudden, the memories start coming back.”
The show conjured plenty of memories for Funk, 73, who joined the Bulls for the 1991-92 season and will bow out after this season. He recalled the oddity of the camera crews following the team in 1997-98, particularly on the buses and planes.
Though Funk was interviewed for the project about a year ago, he wasn’t filmed. That was fine by him because, as a broadcaster, he wasn’t as close to the team’s day-to-day activities as others. Still, he was privy to a lot of conversations that surely were interesting.
“Where we sat on the plane was directly across from Michael [Jordan], Scottie [Pippen], Ron Harper and whatever little pigeon they could get in their card game,” Funk said. “So you would hear the conversation and stuff like that, but any conversation that you heard was not stuff that you were going to use on the air or that you were going to tell somebody. If you wanted the players to trust you, you never would have brought up anything.”
Funk particularly enjoyed seeing and hearing old Bulls highlights with his late friends Jim Durham and Johnny “Red” Kerr on the call. Funk succeeded Durham, who had been the Bulls’ voice since 1973. Funk was calling only 60 games for 76ers TV when he learned Durham wasn’t going to return because of a contract issue. The two were close, so Funk asked whether Durham would mind if he applied.
Durham told Funk to go for it, and the job continued a fortuitous run for Funk. In his first NBA job in the 1976-77 season, the 76ers reached the Finals, where they lost to the Trail Blazers. After a stint with the Kansas City Kings, Funk returned to the Sixers in 1982-83, when they swept the Lakers for the title.
“And then I came to this situation, which was the all-time situation and place to be through the 90s,” said Funk, who moved to the TV side in 2008, joining analyst Stacey King. “I’ve been lucky in my career to kind of be in the right place at the right time.”
That was true even when Funk began broadcasting in 1971 at WITY in Danville, Illinois. He had graduated from Syracuse, but not through the famed Newhouse School, a who’s-who of sports broadcasting. Funk knew he wanted to work in sports but never thought he’d end up behind a mic.
The radio station hired him to work in sales, but it aired so many games, from high school and college sports to minor-league baseball, he got thrown into the mix.
“The guy at WITY said, ‘You’ll be a sales guy, but you’re going to get to do a hundred games a year,’ ” said Funk, who called University of Illinois basketball and football games for the station. “Well, it turned out to be two hundred games a year by the time it was done.
“Again, I was in the right place at the right time, at a smaller station, but I had a chance to learn about broadcasting and learn about my craft and how to prepare.”
Funk returned to Champaign to call Illini football games in the early 90s — his trademark “Ka-boom” originated there when he called basketball; “I just blurted it out,” he said — but he’ll be remembered as the voice of the Bulls.
He hadn’t been dwelling on the end of his career during the season, conducting business as usual aside from a reduced travel schedule (he was to call 52 games, only 11 on the road). Then the league shut down March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps foiling much deserved recognition before the home crowd.
“Immediately I thought, this isn’t going to be the way it ends, is it?” Funk said. “But it’s really hard to feel sorry for yourself with all this going on with health care workers and all the people that have been affected. I’m hopeful that this will get better soon, but we’ll see.”
In the meantime, Funk will delve into a glorious past for the next four Sundays, with two new episodes of “The Last Dance” each night. He’s looking forward to more memories returning, such as the Bulls’ trip to Paris in 1997, featured in Episode 1, that he and his wife were on.
Funk wouldn’t mind if some of his calls came rushing back, too.
“Not so much me but my wife,” he said. “She wants to hear it.”