David Kaplan had no job, little money and no idea.
It was March 1986.
Kaplan had been an assistant for four years under Northern Illinois basketball coach John McDougal. But McDougal had just been fired, and Kaplan sat in his former office with all of his belongings in a box.
The realization pained him, but he figured law school was his best bet. That’s where he was headed four years before, having been accepted at Lewis University, until McDougal called and saved him. There was no one to save him this time.
But how would he pay for it after making $4,200 per season? He refused to take money from his parents. Then he had an epiphany: He’d type up scouting reports on all the high school players he was recruiting at NIU and sell them to college coaches. Kaplan loved recruiting, and he had information that wasn’t easily attainable.
He figured if 100 coaches paid him $100 each for the one-time offer, he’d have enough money to pay for his first year of law school. But a funny thing happened once his reports hit the market.
“Within a month, I’m getting back checks [from people] thinking it’s a monthly newsletter,” Kaplan said. “I’m getting notes from guys, ‘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.”
Kaplan started hanging out at any Chicago inner-city spring league he could find. He acquainted himself with the kids and their coaches. Eventually, more than 250 colleges subscribed to the Windy City Roundball Review, which indeed became monthly. But it wasn’t only colleges that noticed.
Kaplan sent copies of the newsletter to Chet Coppock, host of the Chicago radio show “Coppock on Sports.” One night, Coppock’s guest list was light. He asked his producer, Cheryl Raye-Stout, to “call this kid in Skokie, and let’s see if he can talk.”
Right away, Coppock thought Kaplan was special.
“His first night, he was raw, but you could feel the potential,” Coppock said. “And you knew this: He knew what he was talking about.”
Kaplan became a regular on Coppock’s show, and he wouldn’t miss the chance to go on in a pinch. If there was a cancellation, Coppock would reach out to Kaplan, who wouldn’t let a date at a movie keep him off the air.
“I would get up in the middle of the movie and go out in the lobby of the theater and get on a payphone and do whatever Chet wanted, 10 minutes, 30 minutes, take calls,” Kaplan said. “And I remember once, a girl came out, and she’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And I’m like, ‘Sorry, this is my life. This is what I do.’ ”
So began the metamorphosis of “Kap” into the tireless multimedia star he is today.
How did he do it?
Or maybe the question is, why did he do it?
“It was never my goal, ‘God, I gotta do radio, I gotta do TV,’ ” Kaplan said. “I didn’t check them off on my list. It just happened.”
Kaplan hosts a daily radio show on ESPN 1000 (WMVP-AM) from 9 a.m. to noon and a daily TV show on NBC Sports Chicago at
6 p.m. He hosts Cubs pregame and postgame shows on the same network. He’s a college basketball TV analyst for the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference and the Horizon League. And, for good measure, he wrote a book on the Cubs’ rebuild that was published last year. (Spoiler alert: He’s a diehard Cubs fan.)
With such an extensive résumé, one might be surprised to learn that Kaplan never took a broadcasting class. He earned a degree in English from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He coached basketball for one year at Kellogg High School in Little Canada, Minnesota, before coaching at NIU.
What he has learned in broadcasting he has learned by doing.
What shouldn’t be a surprise is how Kaplan received his first TV job. In 1987, an analyst assigned to do a DePaul basketball game couldn’t make it to Chicago because of a snowstorm. The network carrying the game called Kaplan, who came recommended. Still, the person asked Kaplan if he had ever done television?
“I said, ‘Oh, I’ve done a ton of television,’ ” Kaplan said. “I’d never done anything but watch television.”
Kaplan’s performance earned him encores, mostly because of his natural ability, but also because of his availability. He refused to turned down opportunities.
“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,” Kaplan said. “Because you could 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.”
Kaplan’s first radio show was a weekly basketball program at the fledgling WMVP-AM 1000 in 1993. Coppock helped him get the job, and Kaplan ran with it, featuring a guest list that was a veritable who’s-who of the game cultivated from his time in coaching and on the recruiting trail. Soon, he proved capable of handling a daily all-sports show, which led to his big break.
But it took some prodding from a friend and colleague: Thom Brennaman.
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Kaplan had a fever of 102, but because WMVP didn’t give contracts, he didn’t dare miss his show. Afterward, all Kaplan wanted to do was go home, but Brennaman, a Cubs announcer at the time who also partnered with Kaplan for college basketball games, convinced him to meet at the Cubs Convention media social.
“He’s all over me: ‘Don’t be soft. Come see me,’ ” Kaplan said. “It’s funny how the world works. If I don’t go there sick, I’m not having this conversation with you.”
At the convention, Kaplan met then-WGN Radio program director Tisa LaSorte, who had heard his show before. She asked if Kaplan would be interested in interviewing to replace Chuck Swirsky, who had left to be program director at WJR in Detroit. The job included doing sports updates, hosting Cubs pregame and postgame shows and leading a station staple, “Sports Central,” basically Kaplan’s dream job. Eventually, it was his, and he was at WGN almost 22 years.
In 2008, he was hired to host “Sports-Talk Live” on what was then Comcast SportsNet. It took some coordinating to pull off. Kaplan did sports updates for WGN’s afternoon show every half-hour from CSN’s studios across the street from the Merchandise Mart. Then he hosted the TV show from 5:30 to 6:30. After that, he raced to WGN’s studios on Michigan Avenue for “Sports Central,” which began at 7.
Kaplan’s workday is more spread out now, but the pace remains the same.
“And I have no plans on slowing down,” he said. “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.’ ’’
Kaplan isn’t your typical sports journalist. In fact, Kevin Cross, NBCSCH’s vice president of content, has a name for Kaplan’s occupation: professional fan.
“This group is different because they combine all the facts and figures and access that a traditional journalist has, but they aren’t necessarily weighed down by the obligation of objectivity,” Cross said. “I think fans connect with him on that level.”
Kaplan is an unabashed Cubs fan. It doesn’t appeal to all viewers, but it does with most, including his bosses.
“Chicago has always been a city where their play-by-play announcers have worn it on their sleeve,” said Jim Pastor, ESPN 1000 senior vice president. “If it didn’t work, I think you’d know it by now.”
Kaplan’s partiality toward the Cubs hasn’t stopped him from breaking news or being critical of the team.
“He goes after them and [manager Joe] Maddon when he needs to,” ESPN 1000 senior program director Adam Delevitt said, “which is great because he gets phone calls from an exec or someone else all the time about something he said on TV or radio. He is who he is.”
Who he is is the genuine article. There’s nothing fake about Kaplan. How could there be? It isn’t possible for someone with his lifestyle, waking up at 4 a.m. and going to bed potentially 20 hours later.
“My lifestyle is not for everybody. I need a wife who is the most understanding human being in the world,” Kaplan said of his wife, Mindy. “I’m very lucky that my wife is so supportive and completely on board.”
So how did David Kaplan become the sports-media king of Chicago?
It’s simple. He was himself.