Sports media: David Kaplan unplugged — the stories that didn’t make the story
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David Kaplan can talk with the best of them, and he had a lot to say for my feature, which appeared at chicago.suntimes.com June 14 and in the Sun-Times the next day. More than 10,000 words, to be more specific. Among the topics that didn’t appear in the story, which you can read by clicking here:
- His adventure through the Grand Canyon with his wife, Mindy.
- How he has developed an insanely extensive list of contacts.
- The stories behind his book, “The Plan.”
- How he was rejected by coach Gene Keady at Purdue but hired by coach John McDougal at Northern Illinois.
And there’s so much more. What follows is the transcript of my interviews (a follow-up was required) with Kaplan:
What made you do the rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon?
My wife works for Malnati’s. She’s the marketing director. Some of the guys there in the management, Mark Malnati and some of them, did this rim to rim hike, and my wife said, why didn’t you invite me? They didn’t really have an answer. So she’s like, honey, will you do this rim to rim hike with me? I’m like, yeah, I’ll do it. So we trained, I mean, we got after it. Worked out like crazy. We did a 23-mile hike in Lake Geneva a week ago around the entire lake. It prepared us mentally. You have no idea until you get there and you’re like, oh, God, what did I get myself into. Holy smokes was it hard. By far the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
One, it was to have done it with her. If she hadn’t wanted to do this, I would never have … I never had camped. I’m not a camper. My wife and kids camp; I do not. And so when she came to me and said, I want to do this, but I want to do this together, but I want to train together, I want to do all of this, I’m like, all right, I’ll do it with you, I’m in. And so we did it, and the sense of fulfillment when you see the south rim and you’re like, oh, my God, we actually have completed this? Yeah, it was amazing.
What did you do to prepare?
We did a ton of stairmaster. I did at least three times a week on the treadmill at the highest possible incline, it goes 15 degrees, with 30 to 35 pound dumbbells in my backpack. Because my pack that I carry had 3 liters of water, a change of clothes, snacks, blister tape, and you pick it up, and you’re like, woa. So we did all sorts of things like that. And when I hiked on the treadmill, I wore my hiking boots to break them in. So it was just a bunch of different things. And then we hiked at Starved Rock, we did this shore walk around Lake Geneva where you park your car downtown and you go literally 23 miles all the way around the entire lake and all the way back downtown. And while it didn’t have the elevation changes, 23 miles in one day is no joke.
How long did the rim-to-rim take you?
We met this group that we hiked with Monday [May 28] morning in Scottsdale at 8 a.m. We got down to the north rim probably 3 o’clock, and then we set up camp. We camped at the north rim on Monday night. And then Tuesday, 4:30 wake-up. We hiked from the north rim all the way down to a place called Phantom Ranch, which is right by the Colorado River on the floor of the Canyon. That was 15.2 miles. And then we ate dinner, took a shower, slept, all eight people, including our guide, in the same cabin. It was very spartan. And then woke up at 4:30 on Wednesday. Ate something, and we were hiking by 5:50. And we got back to the south rim, I think we walked up there it was about 2:15, 2:30. You were hiking hard. And then, on Tuesday when we were going down, the time you’re in the sun, which is 98 percent of it, it was 115. And then yesterday going up, which – some people found going down harder; I guess I really trained my legs a lot, squats and all of that, so my legs weren’t bad going down like some were – but going up, oh, my God.
[What were the temperature changes?] So when we camped on Monday night, it was 38 degrees when we got in our tent. And by the time we reached an hour into our hike on Tuesday going down, it was already in the 70s. And by the time we got to noon, it was 115. So you had both extremes, and you cannot drink enough water. They keep telling you that. Can’t drink enough water. And you just keep trying to pound it because you have like a tube that runs from your backpack right by you. Just grab it and drink as much as you possibly can, and then you’ll eat whatever salty stuff. My wife was really good about, she packed macadamian nuts, beef jerky so that you have salt in your system because you burn an insane number of calories. We’re going up yesterday, as you go up, the first three miles yesterday was I would say more rolling, it wasn’t super inclined, past the Colorado River, and then all of a sudden you hit what’s called switchbacks where you go 75 yards to the right, 75 yard to the left, and it crisscrosses going all the way up the Canyon. So it was getting brutal. I mean brutal, to the point where you’re like, oh, God, there’s a little tree where I can get shade for like a minute. And so there was no refueling station like for water, so we had to make sure we were carrying it the first 5 miles. Then there was one at the 5-mile mark, there was one at the 7½-mile mark, there was one at the I want to say the 8.75-mile mark and then you had that last mile and a quarter, mile and a half going up. Holy smokes, I’m telling you what. When I saw the thermometer, it said, in the sun today it is 110, this is at 9:30 in the morning, I’m like, woa.
Take me from the end of your time in basketball to the beginning of your time in media.
My first job was back in 1987, I get a phone call on a Sunday morning from some guy, and he calls and goes, hey, Dave, my name is blah blah blah from some channel back then and said our analyst got snowed out, he can’t get to Chicago, can you do the DePaul game in two hours? DePaul was No. 1 in the country at the time. That was what I felt like I was born to do, was to be doing games and doing the radio, that was my dream. And he says to me, have you ever done television? I know you coached, you were recommended. I said, oh, I’ve done a ton of television. I’d never done anything but watch television. And he said, oh, you have, thank God. Can you do this game. And I said, yes, absolutely. I went and did that game, and I’m like, boy, that was fabulous. And he said, hey, why am I flying a guy in here from California? Would you be interested in doing like eight or nine or 10 of these the rest of the year? I said, are you joking? Of course. So I started doing games, that was 1987. I want to say it was SportsChannel America, something like that, which is long gone. And so, I did the game. Then I started doing more games.
And at the same time, I was scouting in 88-89, 89-90 for the Seattle SuperSonics. And this guy I had met when I was doing, I always engaged with the scouts because I had been a college coach, and so this one guy who’s deceased now, his name’s Jerry Workman, he was really nice to me, he said, how many of these games are you doing on TV? And I had been in the 6-4-and-under professional league, the World Basketball League, I was the player personnel director of the Chicago Express. We had a really good team, we got to the final game, we lost in the championship game, and this guys says, well, if you’re going to be at all these games, would you be interested in being a regional scout for us. He said, anytime you’re doing a game, and can do the game and write a report on if there’s anybody worth anything. And then when you don’t have a game, I’ll send you to see guys throughout the Midwest because I could get in my car and be, in Chicago I can see whoever’s playing Loyola, DePaul, UIC, Northwestern, I can get to so many others. So I said, yeah, done deal, I’m in. So I end up scouting for him for two years, and then he was leaving to go, I think it was the Hawks but I can’t remember, he went somewhere, and then he passed away. And this guy George Irvin, who was a legend in the ABA, he was working for the Pacers, he and I always talked about he was a Dodgers fan and I was a Cubs fan, so we would always talk baseball, we went to a Cubs game together, but we were working for different franchises. And I said, yeah, my guy is leaving the Sonics, I don’t know if the new guy is going to want me to be there. He goes well just come work for me. He worked for Donnie Walsh, I don’t know if he was GM or player personnel. He goes, scout for us. So I scouted for them for a couple of years.
And then The Score had already started. So I had been a guest on there a few times with North and Jiggetts talking basketball. And then Greg Salk hired me at this fledgling WMVP AM-1000. And Chet Coppock deserves credit. Chet did a lot to help me get in there. And so I was doing a weekly basketball show, and I would get all my favorite contacts on. I had Rick Pitino on. I had, Joey Meyer was big then. You name the coach, I got them on. Bob Knight came on. And so now the season ends, and I assume I’m done on the radio until the next basketball season. And Greg and Larry Wert call me into their office and said, hey, man, is there any way you could talk other sports? Are you kidding? Of course I can. I’m a frickin’ idiot. I’m a junkie. So they’re like, all right, tomorrow night, we got an opening. Can you work 11 at night till 2 in the morning by yourself. And we want you to put your show together, book your guests, the whole deal. So I’m like, all right, I gotta knock this out of the park. So I pick up the phone, I call a friend of mine, it’s Tom Crean. Tom was in Alma College when I got to know him and then got to Michigan State and worked his way up there as an assistant and then ends up being this very famous head coach. But I knew Tom when Tom had nothing. And so I called him up and I said, hey, Tommy, I need a favor. What do you need? I got this opportunity tomorrow night, I’m gonna do this radio show, they want me to book guests, can you get your brother-in-law to come on? His brother-in-law is Jim Harbaugh, and he’s the Bears’ quarterback, and he’s like, yeah, I’ll get that done, no problem. So Jim Harbaugh comes on at 11 o’clock at night, which is … you don’t get the Bears’ quarterback at 11 at night. So then I picked up the phone, I swear to you this is true, if I had a tape I’d play it for you, I called this coach who now his huge. He was big then, but not like he is today. I called this coach, I said, hey, I need a big favor. I got this opportunity, and I’m really wondering if I can get you to come on. What time? Well, it would be like midnight your time or 1 o’clock in the morning. He goes, yeah, I’m actually going to be coming back from a trip. No problem. Mike Kryzyewski. So Coach K is on like midnight Chicago time. And then I called Steve Stone, he was in Arizona. He’s like, yeah, it’s two hours earlier here. I’ll do it for you. He came on. So I have Harbaugh … I think it actually went Krzyzewski first, Harbaugh second and Stoney third.
And the next day they said, well, why don’t you just work weeknights 11-2 with Norm Van Lier. So I’m doing a ton of shows a week with Norm for several months, and then Jay Mariotti got let go. And I was working, after Norm moved to afternoons with Lance McAlister, this guy Jim Kozimor and I did this 11-2 show. And then Jay got fired. There was a whole to-do. And I get a call, hey, you’re switching, you’re going 1-3 starting tomorrow. And the next day I was on 1-3, me and this guy Jim Kozimor. I worked there for several months. And then I was at the Cubs Convention, and it’s really weird how things work out. Kind of like destiny. I got up, I had a 102 fever. I was sick as a dog. I’m working without a contract. I’m not going to miss my show. I drive down there, and I go do my show from 1-3. I was doing college basketball for the Great Midwest Conference – it’s now called the Horizon League, I think it was the MCC back then – and I’m doing all these games, and my partner on a lot of my games in the Great Midwest was Thom Brennaman, who was the voice of the Cubs at the time. So Thommy calls me that day, right before my show, he’s like, hey, Cubs Convention’s today. Why don’t you come see me at this media social. I’m like, dude, I got a 102, and I’m sick as a dog. I’m going home. And he’s all over me: Don’t be soft. Come see me. I’m like, all right, I’ll be there. I got over there, and it’s funny how the world works. If I don’t go there sick, I’m not having this conversation with you.
I go over there, and I’m talking to Thom, and this really nice lady walks up. She says, hey, Thom, I need to see you for a second, please. And he’s, like, OK. Please say hi to my friend David Kaplan. And she’s like, oh, hi, David, I’m Tisa LaSorte, the program director at WGN Radio. I absolutely have listened to your show. I’m like, oh, thanks a lot. She said what is your status? I said, my status? She’s like, do you have a contract? I said, I don’t, I work without a contract there. They didn’t give them. So she said, well, Chuck Swirsky just left, he’s going to the University of Michigan. Would you be interested in interviewing for this job? And I said, yeah, I absolutely would be interested. So interviewed the next week. And then this thing dragged on for like six weeks. She was traveling. Anyway, you can probably find it if you can go through old [Robert] Feeder stuff, but 1995, I feel like I’ve got a great shot at this job, I interviewed with her, I interviewed with her boss, Dan Fabian, the GM at the time at ’GN.
And I pick up Feeder, and it says that they had hired someone else, and that was Mike Greenberg. And I’m like, really? I lost out, huh? I didn’t even get the courtesy of a phone call. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t get the job, not that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t get a call before it hit the media. It’s not 60 seconds after I look at the paper the phone rings. Hello? David, this is Tisa LaSorte. Have you seen Robert Feeder’s column? I said, I have. She’s like, it’s not true, I haven’t hired him. I don’t know where he got that. So I said, OK, great. She’s like, I’ve narrowed this thing down. Could you come in and meet with Dan Fabian again? I went in and met with Dan. Dan had this abstract painting on the wall that was so bizarre. He asks a few questions, then he said, OK, take a look at that painting and tell me how that relates to your life at WGN if we hired you. And it was literally like you took six cans of paint in different colors and just threw it on a canvas. And I looked at it, and I’m like, well, look, do you see the orange bright spot way down there? That’s the bright light that WGN is in this market. I made up some real b.s. story. And he laughed. And then she called me the next week and offered me the job. I was there almost 22 years.
What kind of training did you have, if any, to broadcast?
I never took a broadcasting class in my life. I have a degree in English. I always felt like I could write, and I always felt like a I could speak. But in terms of knowing the protocol, the ins and outs, it’s just watching people I respect. I always believed … like, I would get a phone call, and they would say, hey, are you available Friday? We’re going to do the high school game of the week, and it pays $25. Done, I’m in. Because you could literally tell me I had to pay you $25 and I would have done it because I still believe today every time a microphone is in front of me, it’s a chance for me to get better. And so here I’m trying to learn this business, and I get this opportunity to do high school game of the week here. You know who Mike Breen is, voice of the Knicks, voice of the NBA. He was my partner on the national high school game of the week. I had him on last season, and we were talking NBA, and he’s like, Kap, you remember you and I doing the national high school games of the week? Yeah. This was probably, I think he was doing the game with me when Tom Kleinschmidt broke his foot, I think it was his senior year of high school. So that must have been 92. So I think it was the 92 season, but it was way back when. Way back.
How have you developed relationships to have such an extensive contact list for your shows?
I believe that the whole world, whether it’s sports-talk radio or TV, whether it’s being a salesmen, whether it’s being whatever, it’s all about networking. I keep telling my boys that. If I’m looking to hire someone to write for my newspaper and there’s two really good candidates but you happen to have a contact that’s somebody that I trust, you’re getting the job. And then, I think the lost art in today’s times, it’s I’ll shoot you a quick text. Kids today, they can’t look someone in the eye and have a conversation because nobody reads the papers, nobody wants to really follow what’s going on in the world. I tell my kids all the time. For example, there was someone at another radio station, it was a music station, they were doing a concert. And one of my kids wanted to go with his girlfriend. And so I called the guy, it was Rod Zimmerman. I said, hey, Rod, this is David Kaplan. Hey, how ya doin’? I said, you’ve having this, whatever it was, winter bash or jingle bash. One of my kids wants to go with his girlfriend and another couple. He’s like, I got plenty of tickets here. You need four? I’ll send them to you. So he sent me the tickets. I gave them to Alex, and I said, now I’m going to teach you something. You’re going to go to Walgreens, you’re going to buy yourself a thank-you card. Not a text. Not an email. And you’re going to go to Starbucks, and you’re going to buy that guy a $25 gift card. You’re going to put that in there, and you’re going to handwrite a note, thank you, I really appreciate what you did. And you know what? The next year, Rod called me, he goes, wow, that was amazing. Does he need tickets this years? Yeah. It’s just being able to connect, thank people.
And then I’ll never sandbag an interview. Hey, would you come on, and then drill you with something that you totally would never have agreed to come on. Now, if I have a topic and I’m going to ask you, hey, is it OK if I ask you this and you say no, then it’s up to me to turn the interview down if you’re going to set ground rules. Like, we just did this Sammy Sosa thing, and off the record I said to them, I’d like to ask him about PEDs. They said, no, he’s talking about … because we’re doing this documentary called the “Summer of Sammy” about all his home runs. You guys want him to participate in that, that’s great, but this isn’t an expose on how he lived his life. So we’re doing this documentary, everyone at NBC weighed in and we said, well, we’d like to have him. We can’t really do a “Summer of Sammy” 98 without him. And so I asked one question that was, it opened the door to PEDs, and he would not answer it. And I said, hey, Mark McGuire came out a couple weeks ago and said, boy, I would have hit all those home runs without PEDs. You competed against him. What did you think? And he just looked at me and went, I’m not going to talk about that. Mark was a great player. That’s all I’m going to say. So I gave it a shot, but I would never come out and go, Sammy did you use PEDs? Because that was not the reason I was down there.
I think we when [Theo Epstein] first got here, I sat down with him. I called, I asked if I could have some time just to talk to him. Didn’t ask him for anything other than the chance to come in and talk to him. And I sat with him, and I said, look, man, I’ve been around here a long time. If you need to ask a question about why this is that way or why they don’t that, I’ll be glad to answer anything and I will always treat you with respect. I’m not one of those slash-and-burn guys that’s looking to get a quick hit and move on. I said, I’m going to be around here a long time, God willing. So if I can ever be a help, you yell. And he called a few times to ask me a question about this or how did you get that? And I’m like, I can’t tell you my source, but here’s exactly what’s going on. And we just developed a really, really nice working relationship.
How do you prepare for work and all the time you have to fill?
Because it’s how I choose to live my life. So I’m on social media all the time. All these guys all bust on me, you could never go five minutes without looking at your iPhone. No, I probably could not. That’s the truth. And doing this hike, there was no internet, there was no nothing. I mean, I literally was trying to find out, hey, did Golden State win on Sunday night because we lost cell service and the Rockets were up 11 at the half. And I did not know until yesterday, which is way out of the norm for me. That’s the first time in my life I can ever remember that. But it was actually kind of cool. I went to the Masters, and you can’t have your cellphone there. You have to turn it in. It’s a throwback time. But I just try to pride myself on being on top of every single thing that’s going on by always being locked in on social media, always listening. I’ll listen to music driving home, but other than that, I’m listening to sports talk, I’m listening to MLB Network Radio, to NFL Network Radio, to ESPN national, to you name it, I’m listening. It’s what I enjoy. It’s what moves me.
You went from being an assistant at NIU to being the biggest name in Chicago sports media. Have you ever wondered how that happened?
There’s been times when they’re like, wow. Like, I dreamed of doing what I’m doing. I don’t think I ever let myself think it could ever get to as big as it’s gotten where I’m doing radio, TV at these two great stations and doing the Chicago Cubs. I’ve been doing their pregame/postgame in one form or another since 1995. And I have no plans on slowing down. To be honest with you, I don’t ever see myself retired. I don’t. I wake up every day, and I’m like, let’s go. 4:30 is not … I love it. I love being up that early.
When you were coaching, was it in the back of your mind that you might get into media?
Yes. There would be a lot of times I can distinctly remember … you know, it would be a big deal if we were going to be on TV when I was coaching at Northern if we had a big game. I remember we played Ron Harper in Miami, and we had Kenny Battle at Northern and we were going to be on what is now NBC Sports Chicago. Whatever it was back then. SportsChannel or SportsVision. Bill Hazen was coming in to do the game with Ann Meyers. I’ll never forget looking going, someday that’s what I want to do, right there. I loved recruiting. Loved it. Loved when I would go on the road and be out in the 200 days or more in a year and go watch kids play. Loved it. But I never, ever looked and went, I’ve gotta be John Wooden. No. That never moved me. But to be doing radio and TV, that moved me. Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray. Like, Jack for me is the greatest announcer in the history of Chicago sports. But Harry was my guy because he was irreverent and he was opinionated, and I feel like I’m pretty opinionated. So I connected more with Harry, but I looked at Jack because he was so unbelievably versatile from interview presidents to Bears to Cubs to White Sox to this to that to the news. Yeah, he was amazing.
Who were some of your influencers while you learned the job?
Thom Brennaman was huge. He’s opinionated. He works his tail off. Thom had a big influence on me at the start. Growing up here listening to … the only two sports-talk shows that were really around regularly were Coppock and Swirsky. And so I listened to both of them religiously. Swirsky was doing “SportsCentral,” and Coppock was doing “Coppock on Sports.” And so those were huge in the 80s when I was a kid. And both of them, when I started my high school and college newsletter, those guys both put me on, and I’ll always be grateful to both of them. I’m indebted that they both put me on. Chet gave me a forum when there was nobody talking college recruiting and college basketball. So, yeah, Chet deserves a ton of credit. He was great to me.
Was it your goal to become a multimedia personality, or did circumstances lead you in this direction?
I wouldn’t say it was my goal. I always wanted to do sports talk when that genre started. I’m like, well this is awesome; that’s what I want to do right there. It was never my goal, God, I gotta do radio, I gotta do TV, like, I didn’t check them off on my list. It just happened. The TV show was “Chicago Tribune Live,” and my agent, who’s also one of my closest friends, Steve Mandell, he called me one day and said, hey, they’re making a change on “Chicago Tribune Live.” Would you be interested in hosting that show? And I said, well, it conflicts with my sportscast at WGN. It wouldn’t conflict with doing “Sports Central” because the show is 5:30 to 6:30, and I could easily get back to do my radio show at 7. But I needed the blessing of WGN to say I could do my sportscast from over at what was then, Comcast SportsNet. And so it took some arm twisting and all of that. Dennis FitzSimons was amazing to me. And the next thing I know, I’m hosting “Chicago Tribune Live,” but at the same time I’m doing my sports updates every day at WGN, and then racing back to the tower to either do Cubs post or to do my radio show if the Cubs didn’t have a night game. So it just jammed everything into the latter part of the day. So for the better part of 20-some years, not including my coaching time, when that was all at night, I was working nights all the time. And it was fine.
Why do you feel the need to do what you do with all the platforms you have?
I’ve said this to a lot of people when that question’s been asked. My answer: I don’t work for a living. I really don’t. When that alarm goes off at 4 o’clock in the morning, I get up, I go downstairs, I hit the coffee machine, I make my coffee, I grab my workout stuff, I put it on, I have my clothes for the day, I’m in my car like 4:40, I’m out the door, I’m not going to work. I don’t work. I really don’t. I put in a lot of time, but I’ve always believed that if you want to beat the system, find something that makes you incredibly happy and incredibly engages you. And if you can also make a nice living and raise your family doing that, you’re beating the system. How many people get up every day and go, this job sucks, but I gotta pay my bills, and they’re crying through their days waiting for 5 o’clock so they can get out. If you said to me when I get done doing a game at night, we get off the postgame at 11, and someone says, hey, there’s something else, you can do this, I’ll go do that game next. It’s awesome. I’m the most blessed guy in the world to be able to do what it is that I do.
[That’s a lot of work still.] It is, but I’m very lucky that my wife is so supportive and completely is 100 percent on board with this lifestyle, with my schedule, with me being at dinner and I’m looking at my phone to see if anything happened on Twitter. We were all at breakfast one day. It was a Sunday, and, it was, I don’t know, it must have been 11:30, we’re getting breakfast at the Egg Shell Café in Deerfield, and my phone rings and I see the number and I know it’s Chris Farrell at ESPN television. And if you asked Chris today – he’s not with ESPN anymore – he could tell you the game, the circumstances because I saw him back probably six months ago he was in town, he goes, you remember that game? I said, yes, Syracuse. He said, yep, Syracuse-Marquette. Donnie Marshall packed his clothes and checked his bag. Never, ever check your bag when you’re going to do a game. Because if you don’t get your clothes, you don’t have a suit to do your game. He calls, and he’s like, they lost my bag, I don’t have a suit. [Chris is] like, all right, I’ll find someone to do the game, and I got that phone call. And he’s like, hey, the game’s at whatever time, 5 o’clock. You be in Milwaukee tonight? Done. I’ll be there. My wife said, pack up the food, boys, we gotta go. And we got up from the table with our breakfast, took it home, and I took a shower, shaved, grabbed my suit, in the car in a half-hour, up to Milwaukee, and I had Marquette and Syracuse. It was awesome.
How did your book “The Plan” come about, and what was that process like?
So Steve Mandell calls me up. He says, hey, Kaplan, you wanna write a book? And I’m like, yeah, OK. Uh, no one wants to read about my life every day. No, no, that’s years down the road. I’m talking about a book on this upcoming Cubs season. And I said, dude, we’re gonna be really good, and you can ask the publisher of the book, I said to him on the phone, he goes, look I’d love you to have a conference call with this guy Mitch Rogatz. He has an idea he wants to do a book. Just get on the phone with us. I’m like, all right. He gets Mitch on the phone, he said I would think we should write a book on the upcoming season 2016. I said, and what do you want it to be about? Just the season. I said, Mitch, there’s gonna be 4 billion books when the Cubs win, and they’re going to win this year. He’s like, oh, after 108 years you know they’re gonna win. I said, trust me. I’ve been at spring training, that team’s gonna win the World Series this year. So I said, you’re missing the boat. I said, if you do a book on the season, there’s gonna be a Sun-Times book, there’s gonna be Tribune book, a Daily Herald book and 16 different authors are gonna write their take on the season. Why will this be any different? I said, now if you want to write a book on the rebuild since the day Ricketts bought the team and then hired Theo and Jed, now you’ve got something I think that can really be interesting. But if they don’t win, who wants to read a book called The Plan? And I said, that’s a great point, but they’re going to win. He’s like, all right, I’m in. Let’s do it.
And so, this was late February, early March 2016, and I started making a list of everyone I had to talk to. And I will never, ever be able to say thank you enough to Theo and Jed, Ricketts, Crane, Joe Maddon. They were very, very accommodating with their time on multiple occasions. Theo gave me three hours sitting in the stands at Wrigley one afternoon and said, you ask anything you want. There’s nothing you can ask me that I wouldn’t answer. And I have it all on tape. I called Billy Beane. He doesn’t know me. I leave a message. He calls me back, gives me 50 minutes. I literally kept a recorder in my car, Bluetooth, and so the phone would ring, hey, this is Billy Beane, is David there? Hi, Billy. Here’s what I’m doing. He goes, can you tape it now? Absolutely. On goes the recorder, and I’m just driving asking every possible question I could think of. There’s not one person. Jake Arrieta pulled me into the Cubs’ weight room after batting practice. Game’s getting ready to start, and he’s like, yeah, no one’s coming in here, we’re good. And he wasn’t pitching that day, and he gave me an hour. Jon Lester, an hour. I mean, it was unbelievable. And so now I’ve got all this information. I’m like, oh, my God, there is some amazing stuff about how poorly run they were to how they’re a machine now. And so that’s how the book came about, and it was a labor of love.
That was a lot of work because I’d get home from doing a postgame show at 11:30, and I gotta go to work the next day, and I would stay up until 5 o’clock in the morning writing because I had so much in my head that I had learned that night, either at Wrigley or talking to Todd Hollandsworth would give me an idea. And I’m like, I don’t want to lose this now, and I’d just keep cranking. Next thing you know, I had this book. [The transcribing must have been a lot of work, too] I did it all myself. I did every single thing myself on it. Except I hired a guy named Chris Kamka, he’s our stats guy at NBC. We call him “the cruncher.” That guy was unbelievable. I couldn’t have done the book without him.
You don’t hide your Cubs fandom. Why are you comfortable showing that on the air?
It’s funny because a lot of people have asked that. Looks, some guys, gals, whoever in the media, I cannot be a fan, I am simply a journalist looking for the best game and I don’t care who wins. I don’t believe that. I think they’re lying to themselves. Maybe they truly do, but that’s not me. When I turn on the mic, you’re going to get exactly who I am. You like me, great. You don’t like me, nothing I can do about it. Not everyone’s gonna like you, and so I simply want to entertain you. I want you to go away and go, OK, I may not like that guy, but at least I was entertained. Just keep the dial on. As long as you’re listening or watching, I’m doing something right. And I am that guy who was this diehard Cub fan, got this dream to get in the media, and I’ve been able to do it. And I’ll be critical. There are times I’ve been highly critical. I’ll never forget, I blasted them, and next morning I get a phone call, um, yeah, could you please call Mr. FitzSimons? He would like to speak with you. He was the CEO of the company, and at the time, I don’t know the guy hardly at all. And I’m like, uh oh. And I probably had crossed the line, maybe. And I call his office, and his secretary answers, and I’m like, hi, my name’s David Kaplan. She goes, uh, Dennis is expecting your call. Hold on. I’m like, oh, God. He picks up the phone, he’s like, hey, Kap. I was in my car last night. That was quite an interesting rant you went on. And I said, well, I was just being honest Dennis. He said, I just want you to know I’m not calling to criticize you. When you say that, it gives you credibility with the fan base because it’s coming from your heart. He said, did I like hearing it? I didn’t. Is it probably accurate? It is. So keep doing what you’re doing, and I just wanted you to know, no one in this tower will ever tell you what to say. I’ve been really, really blessed.
The late Jim Dowdle, the Cubs drafted Ben Christensen, I’ll never forget it. He was the kid who threw the fastball that hit Anthony Molina in the eye. And before the draft I had said, I hope this guy goes undrafted, bad guy, blah blah blah. First round, twenty-whatever overall, Chicago Cubs select Ben Christensen. I go off on the “Spike O’Dell Show” in the afternoon. “This company should be embarrassed. It’s a joke.” I ripped Jim Hendry, Andy MacPhail, the Tribune Company, all of it. I go into the lunch room to get lunch the next day, there’s Jim Dowdle. He’s like second-in-command of the company. And he’s like, wow, a little harsh weren’t we yesterday? I said you guys never should have drafted him. He said, well, you gotta give your opinion. That’s what we pay you for. And we walked away. And I’m like, oh, that’s pretty good. And then I get to the ballpark, and Jim Hendry comes out of his office to rip me. I mean, in my face rip me. And I said, Jim, nothing you can say would make me change my mind. And he and I became friends. We had a really good relationship. But for a good month, he’d walk right by me and I’d get nothing. He was mad. And then one day we shook hands, and we were cool from that point on. People can think the Tribune would tell you what to say. I swear to you on my life, never was I ever micromanaged by the Chicago Tribune.
How did you manage doing television and radio at the same time at CSN and WGN?
At Comcast, I was doing “Chicago Tribune Live” and Cubs pre and post. And at WGN, I was doing “SportsCentral” at night 7 to 9, and then I was doing my sports updates on the afternoon show, which at the time I think was Steve Cochran’s show and then Garry Meier. So I would do Spike O’Dell to Cochran to Gary Meier. I think those were the three afternoon hosts I worked with most of the time. And I did their updates, the 3 o’clock news, and the 3:30, 4, 4:30, 5, 5:30 and 6. I would do them from Comcast. They had an ISDN line in there. “Chicago Tribune Live” back in the day was 5:30 to 6:30, and then at 6:30 I would race out the door and go over to Tribune Tower and do my radio show from 7 to 9. Then it got expanded up to 7 to 11 for a while. That was probably in 2013 or 14.
Was there a reason you didn’t get into media before coaching?
First of all, I’ve never taken a broadcasting class in my life. So I never even pursued broadcasting back then. I had been a high school basketball coach in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and after that … I graduate college, and I apply to law school dreading the thought of ever going. My late father was an attorney. My brother’s an eye surgeon, my mom was a dietician; she’s now retired. They were all really good academically. I was probably the worst student of the group. Just a fact. So I graduate, and my parents are saying, you should at least go to law school and get the education. And I’m thinking, I don’t want any part of a classroom anymore. I just don’t. But I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself. So I apply to law school, and I end up getting accepted. I don’t want to go. I was accepted at I think it was called Louis at the time but now it’s Northern Illinois. And then I got into another one in Minnesota called William Mitchell. So I don’t wanna go. So I pick up the newspaper, I will never forget it, I’m sitting at the breakfast table at my parents’ house, I just graduated college. I have exactly one year of high school coaching experience. One year. And I pick up the paper, and you know where the transactions column is? So I pick it up and I look, and it says Purdue University fired assistant basketball coach so and so and so and so. And I’m like, I can do that job. I pick the phone, and I can tell you the number. I haven’t called Purdue University in 20 years. I can tell you that that number, I don’t know if the area code has now changed because of all the expanded area codes, but it’s 494-3214. I can guarantee you if you called it, it was 317 back then. They answer the phone: Purdue basketball. I said, hi, is Coach Keady available? And they said, yeah, who’s calling? I said David Kaplan from Kellogg High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. So they go, hold on. He gets on the phone. And he’s like, Coach Keady. I said, Coach, my name’s David Kaplan. I’m from, Little Canada, Minnesota, was the suburb, actually. And I’m calling from Kellogg High School, I’m one of the coaches. Yeah, how can I help you? I saw you just fired your two assistants; I want to apply for that job. He goes, well, what’s your level of experience. I’m 21 years old, but, Coach, I can do this job. And he chuckled. And he goes, yeah, OK. Go get some experience and call me back in a few years. So I hang up dejected. I’m like, just got shut down.
It was not two or three days later that I’m looking at the same transactions column that I always read, and it says Northern Illinois University announced the resignation of Mark Coombs as the assistant basketball coach. And he ended up at Illinois. I pick up the phone. Now I don’t even know who the coach at Northern is. At least I knew Gene Keady. I don’t know who the coach at Northern is. There’s no Google back then. I call 411, can I have the number for Northern Illinois University? Yeah, 815-753-1000. I call it. Hi, Northern Illinois University? I said, yeah, who is your head basketball coach? For men? Yes. John McDougal. Could you transfer me to him, please? Yes, the extension is 1633. I have a freaky memory for phone numbers. I could literally write you a list of 500 numbers and tell you who they belong to. Now, at Purdue, the secretary answered. At Northern, they didn’t have a secretary. It was not at the level of Purdue. And it’s, basketball, Coach McDougal. I said, Coach McDougal, my name is David Kaplan, and I saw that Mark Coombs just resigned and you’re looking for another assistant. I am. I said I coach at Kellogg High School in Little Canada, Minnesota. Blah blah blah, I want that job. And he says to me, look, I appreciate your call. It’s just we’re gonna get somebody who’s got college experience. You’re a little young. Blah blah blah. And I keep pounding away on that phone call. Never forget it. You’ve gotta talk to me. I’m telling you, you need someone that can go out and sell Northern Illinois University. I’m your guy. He died in October 2016, but he became by second father, and I’ve always said that. John was the classiest, greatest man in the world next to my dad. And so I beg him, Coach, just let me drive out there and give me 20 minutes to talk to you. And before he died, he said to me, you know, David, I only let you come out to get you off the goddamn telephone. And so I drive out there the next morning, 9 a.m. meeting with him. We walked the campus for three hours. You know how you meet someone and you go, I’m marrying that person? Like, that’s gonna be my best friend. We just clicked. And so we get done, it’s like 12, 12:30, I’m gonna drive back to Chicago, and I said, so what do you think, Coach? He goes, look, you’re a hell of a nice young man. You’re utterly unqualified for this job. And I’m like, Coach, I can do this. He goes, David, look, I think you’re great, I love your personality, your spunk. I gotta get somebody with college coaching experience. OK, thanks a lot. And I drive home, and I’m just dejected.
So I’m like, I gotta to frickin’ law school, and don’t want to do it. What else am I gonna do with a degree in English. So I end up going to a clinic in the first week of August in Milwaukee. It’s the Hubie Brown-Mike Fratello basketball clinic put on by Medalist. They used to be the big clinic people. I pay my own way, I go this clinic, again, there’s no cellphones, there’s no nothing. And somebody comes up to me from the front desk [and] said, are you David Kaplan? I said, I am. We’ve been paging you. I said, oh, I was in that session. You have an urgent phone call. Call your mom. I’m like, oh, God. I call my mom, and she’s like, everybody’s fine. Coach McDougal called. You’ve gotta call him back this afternoon. I’m like Coach McDougal from Northern? Because they had already hired someone. I call him back, and he’s like, hey, I have a third position on my staff, the “part-time assistant,” or restricted earnings assistant. While I couldn’t give you the other one, if you want this job, it pays $4200 and you’ll be working with us full time. But that’s what it pays. I don’t know if you want that. I said, done. I’m in. And I was starting law school in a week. I said, done. He said, 4200 bucks, that’s all it pays. And I’ll pay you to work the camp. I think I made another grand to work camps the next summer. I’m like, Coach, I’m in. Done.
Came home and said to my mom and dad. Sit down, we’ve gotta have a discussion. My mom will tell you she thought I was telling her I got somebody pregnant, whatever. And I said, Coach McDougal called, offered me this job, and I’m taking it. To my parents’ credit, they went, you know, you’ve got no children, you’ve got no wife, this is your dream, follow your dream. And I did. And I was there four years, and my second year there, one of our assistants … and ironically, the guy who got the original job that I went after was one of the guys who got fired at Purdue. That’s irony. [He was going to Louis for law school.] So the guy from Purdue gets the other job, and now I’m the third guy. So we had one assistant who was grossly overweight, and he got sick my second year there. And they called me in and said, hey, we’re going to promote you into Willy’s spot. If you’re interested, you can be on the road recruiting. You’ll be taking his spot because he’s gonna be out six months. He was really sick. I said, done. I’m in. What is my salary gonna be now. They said, oh, no, you’re not getting any more money. Same money, but you’re gonna now be out recruiting. So I made the same $4200, but I was on the road day after day and loved it. It was the greatest thing I ever did. It was just crazy amazing. And so I’m now out recruiting every day, going to high school games, driving to this junior college and that junior college. And it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. So for the next three years, they had me out a lot recruiting, and it was unbelievable.
When did the Windy City Roundball Review begin?
So Coach McDougal gets fired in March of 86, and they bring in a new coach and he offers me to stay but to go back to being the third guy and no recruiting. I’m like, I’ve already been there, done that. Now I’ve been on the road. Why do I wanna go do that for no money? So I ended up saying, I’m done, and I was packing up my office, and I’m like, what am I going to do now? I literally was sitting in my office there. It’s midnight, and I’ve got all my stuff in a box. I have no idea what I’m going to do with my life, and I’m like, if I gotta go to frickin’ law school, I guess that’s what I’m gonna do. So my plan was, I’ll guess I’ll see if I can get back into law school for the next year. How am I going to make money? I’m not taking the money from my parents. I gotta make it on my own. And so I said, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m going to type up a scouting report on all the kids I’m recruiting at Northern Illinois. And, again, there’s no email, there’s no cellphone, there’s none of that. So I type up a report [player, height, high school, tendencies, GPA, ACT score, coach’s office & home phone numbers.] Stuff guys could not get. And so now you’re the coach at Purdue, and you go, wow, I wanna look at this kid. He’s rating him a high major player that’s a sleeper that no one knows about, and, on top of it all, I can call his coach at home? Because the coach back then controlled it. There was no AAU then. And so I figured if I can get 100 guys in college basketball to pay me 100 bucks, one-time newsletter, it’s gonna be one copy, the only copy I’m gonna do, 100 bucks, that’s 10 grand, minus my postage, I think I have enough to pay my first year of law school. Well, within a month, I’m getting back checks thinking it’s a monthly newsletter. I’m getting notes from guys, dude, this is awesome, I can’t wait for the next edition. I’m like, next edition? You got all I got here.
So I said screw law school, and I started hanging out at you name the spring league in the inner city. I mean the heart of the inner city. And I got to know Taylor Bell and Jerry Shnay and Barry Temkin. And so I would go to all of these places, and I would get to know the kids and I would get to know the coaches. And so now my newsletter becomes a monthly thing. And next thing you know, I’ve got 250 schools that are getting it, and they asked me to start doing some interviews during college games or Chet Coppock was really, really good to me. He was really great because I remember I mailed him a copy of my newsletter. Not any expectation he’s ever going to get back to me. And I get a phone call, remember we had recorders back at home, you didn’t have voicemail. And I hit the play button, and my mom was standing there with me, and I hit the play button, David, Chet Coppock, “Coppock on Sports.” Got your newsletter. Great stuff. Would you be interested in coming on my show tonight talk about DePaul recruiting? I’m like, hell, yes! So I stated doing a lot of regular hits with Chet. He was on MAQ and then on the Loop. And so I would go on with him a lot to talk recruiting. And then I get a phone call in December 87. Same thing. Record, I hit play and it’s, David, this is Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls. Please call me back as soon as you get this message. My buddy does a spot-on Jerry Krause impersonation, my buddy Dave. So I call Dave, and I’m like, yeah, funny guy. He’s like, what are you talking about? I said, I got your stupid Jerry Krause message. He’s like, dude, I swear to you, I’m at work. I did not call you. I’m like, oh, God. Jerry Krause called me? So I call him back. He takes the call. He’s like, yeah, David, what you do has come to my attention. I’m fairly new here, I don’t have a large scouting staff. I’d love to have you come in and meet with me.
So I went in and met with Jerry, and he said, would you go scout, for no money, college games in the area and then write reports on the players? I wanna see your work. I remember the first game I ever went to see was Mississippi Valley State at Chicago State, and they had the leading scorer in the country, a guy named George Ivory. And I went in and watched him play. And I’m like, yeah, Jerry, he’s OK. I wrote a report. And so he kept sending me to games, and then he would have me come to the Chicago Stadium and watch the Bulls, and I’d have to scout the offense and the defense of both teams and go here’s what Seattle ran, here’s the Seattle personnel. And then he had me go to the predraft camp, and I was there in 87, I’m sitting with Jerry, and he’s like, what do you think of that kid? He was like No. 57 or 58. He had this odd number on his jersey because there’s like 100 kids there. And I’m like, that kid’s really athletic. He’s like, I think we can possibly steal him in the third round. Keep him quiet. And then the next day, we watched the same kid, and he is just killing people, and Jerry’s like, well, screw the third round, I’m hoping he’s not going in the first round. And the third day, Jerry’s like, son of a bitch, I don’t know if he’s gonna be there when we pick. And the Bulls were picking in the first round high. And it was Scottie Pippen. That’s how quickly Scottie went from off the radar, Jerry was the only guy to go really get involved down at Central Arkansas. Marty Blake, the scouting director, recommended people go see him. Yeah, ok, whatever. Skinny, athletic kid, there’s a million of them. Jerry followed up, and Jerry loved that kid and ended up having to trade to get him. But Jerry was scope-locked on that kid.
Wouldn’t you consider this your first media job in some respects?
Yeah, probably doing all the stuff for Chet. I can tell you I remember Dan McNeil was Chet’s producer, and I remember Danny Mac would send me a message, hey, dude, can you come on tonight, we had a cancellation, we gotta fill this slot, can you come on at 8 o’clock. Well, I had a date to go to a movie with some girl, and I would get up in the middle of the movie and go out in the lobby of the theatre and get on a payphone and do whatever Chet wanted, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, take calls. Whatever he asked, I did. And I remember once, a girl came out, and she’s like, are you kidding me? And I’m like, hey, you know what? Sorry, this is my life. This is what I do.
What’s left for you to do? Have you thought about what you might do next?
Boy, I’m a pretty happy guy doing what I’m doing. I really am. I like being up early. I like doing a show at 9 a.m. I guess I’d like to do some more games, maybe. Like add is some different basketball games. I do the Atlantic 10, I do the Horizon, I do the Missouri Valley and I do the Illinois-Chicago package on NBC Sports Chicago. So between all of that, I’ve had seasons where I’ve done 45 games. I think last year I did 34 games. So there are days where I get off the radio at 12, after cross talk with Carmen and Jurko by 12:30, I get in the car, I drive to Illinois State, I do Loyola at Illinois State on a Wednesday night, get back in the car, drive home, I’m home by 12-12:30, and then I get up in the morning and crank it all up again. I love doing those games. You don’t get rich doing them, believe me. But I do it because I enjoy doing it and it’s a great way to network. My lifestyle is not for everybody, and I’ll be the first to tell you that. I need a wife who is the most understanding human being in the world when … hey, hun, I know we were supposed to do this on Saturday, but I just got a call, I gotta go do this game. My wife will be the one that says, all right, either I’ll go with you or gotta do it. Go do the game. That’s what puts the roof over our heads, that’s what pays our bills and all of it. So I’ve been really, really, really fortunate to have her. Look, my first wife, she’s a great mom to our son Brett, who has got fragile X syndrome. She’s great. She does all she can do with him. Brett and I have an amazing relationship. But my first marriage, it was different. She didn’t understand, what do you mean you have to run now and do a game? It was just different. We were too different people.