I had a beer with Robert “The General” Lee on Tuesday to talk about his 14 years as the voice of Siena basketball.
So, of course, we spent half the time talking about horse racing. Because that’s what always happens.
You could say his Siena career started at the track, in a sense, since it was on the drive home from Ellis Park in Indiana after an afternoon betting the ponies that he got a call from Jason Rich at Siena offering him a job.
Despite having graduated from Syracuse University, which is two hours away from the campus, the Cincinnati native had no idea where in the hell Siena was. “Never heard of it. Ever,” he said. He took the job.
Coaches come and go, but over the course of 14 years, the General has become synonymous with Siena basketball by virtue of his work as the radio play-by-play man who has seen record losing seasons and incredible victories over the likes of Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament. Much more good than bad, and it’s not even close.
Through it all, his was the sober voice of reason and the crescendo voice of passion, but Siena fans will have a new radio voice with Tom Huerter this season, after the General resigned last week because “the time is right for me to explore other opportunities in my career,” he said in a blog post. Read into that what you may.
Even as the General, who has a day job with GTM Payroll Services, has surrendered his radio job, he is not in full retreat. You can still catch his TV call for 10 Siena home games on Time Warner Cable, and he said he’ll still do some high school games for Time Warner.
There is a family component to the decision to rein in his horse a bit, too. Robert and his wife Victoria have a baby girl who doesn’t get to see as much of daddy as she’d like when he’s coming home from radio road trips well after midnight.
I have little doubt that Siena will hire a competent and talented play-by-play person. In the meantime, it was fun to sit down with Robert and chew over some of the highs and lows of his tenure behind the mic.
“It’s going to be strange,” he said. “They’re the only team I’ve been associated with on a longterm basis. There’s just so many things I can think back on and people I’ve met, games I’ve done, games that I don’t want to remember. It’s just been an incredible run.”
There was no more incredible single moment than the 74-72 victory by Siena over Ohio State in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament in Dayton, Ohio.
Ronald Moore knocked down a three-pointer at the end of the first overtime to tie the game, then hit the game-winner with 3.9 seconds left in the second overtime.
It will forever go down as the “Onions! Double order!” game that Bill Raftery called on TV, but Robert has listened to the clip of his own call — “He got it!” — 100 to 200 times, he said. It will never get old.
“It’s not quite as famous as ‘Onions, double order.’ Unfortunately, Raftery stole my thunder on that one. That’s why he gets the big bucks,” Robert said.
“That one, I don’t know if it’ll ever be topped. Period. To be there, and my wife flew in the game, and it ended at 1 in the morning . . . people don’t remember that. We wanted to go out to the bars afterward, and everything was closed.”
If that wasn’t enough, the Saints went into the second round and had the top overall seed, Louisville, slack-jawed and on the ropes heading into a timeout with less than seven minutes left and Siena leading by four.
The Cardinals got their act together and won 79-72, but . . . phew.
“Always overlooked, two days later, there was a moment in the Louisville game that was even better than that [Ohio State win],” Robert said. “Clarence Jackson lays it in, [coach Rick] Pitino runs out on the court, calls a timeout. And I’m telling you, for however long that timeout was, two, three minutes, I think I represented everyone, that ‘O-M-G, this is really happening.’ ”
I was the Siena beat writer for six of those seasons and frequently relied on the General and Tom Huerter to deliver road games to my earbuds.
I’m not a fan of hyperventilating broadcasters who believe that they’re the show; Robert is the opposite of that.
His voice is easy to listen to, and he’s informative while balancing that part of the job with the storytelling and emotion that befit each moment, whether mundane or dramatic.
“There were some down years. Anybody who says it’s not more fun when the team is winning, they’re lying,” he said.
“That’s [dreadful seasons] where the real professionalism and preparation, devotion and love of the game, really, comes into play. There have been plenty of games that we went into and certainly were going to lose and probably by a lot — Kansas and Duke — but you’ve got a job to do, you’re getting paid for it and you’re responsible for painting a picture. That’s the biggest challenge, keeping the listeners engaged when the team is not very good.”
Another balancing act is giving the listening audience a game call while tempering the urge to cheerlead.
Robert said one of the most gratifying responses he got through social media, etc., after announcing his resignation was from a former player who said he appreciated the fact that the General went out of his way to be impartial and call it like he sees it.
“It’s a fine line,” Robert said. “I think there are certain fans who probably dislike the fact that Tom and I are relatively neutral. We want Siena to win, and I think to anybody who listens to us, it’s clear that we want Siena to win.
“We are not afraid to say if Siena’s not playing well or if the team’s just not performing up to expectations. I think there’s more respect and credibility for what you’re doing if you actually do tell it like it is rather than sugarcoat everything.”
Over the course of 16 years — Robert was first hired by
Siena to call games for women’s basketball and the now-defunct football team — he has been embraced by the Siena fans and community.
The feeling is mutual, for a Cincinnati kid who couldn’t find Siena on a map and never thought he’d be here this long.
“It’s really remarkable. I think coach [Jimmy] Patsos makes a great point that, for everybody in the MAAC, Siena is their game,” he said. “It’s their chance to come to the Times Union Center, play in front of six, seven, eight thousand people. This is their Cameron or whatever you want to call it.
“And it’s really a credit to the Siena fan base that, through good and bad, they’re loyal. I can’t even tell you how many games there were on the road where Siena had more fans than the home team. Or they were more vocal.”
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