Omi

You grew up in the suburbs of Chicago before attending Minnesota’s Hamline University. Did you always know you wanted to come back?

Absolutely. When I got out of college I got into law school but I didn’t go and instead became a basketball coach. I guess if my career in coaching had taken me anywhere I would have followed it but I always wanted to do radio and TV and be back here. This is my home and it’s the greatest sports city in the world so the good Lord took care of me.

How did you land in front of the camera?

It’s actually a pretty funny story. I was coaching at Northern Illinois and I was scouting in the NBA for four years. It was snowing, a Sunday morning and I got a call from this guy who says, “I’m calling from SportsChannel America. I know you’ve coached but have you ever done television? Our analyst got snowed in, he can’t get here and the game is in two hours.” It was DePaul, the number one team in the country at Allstate Arena. They were great back then. I had never done anything except watch television but I said, “Oh yeah, I’ve done a ton of television.” He’s like, “You have? Great, can you do this game?” and he hired me. Piece of cake.

Fake it ’til you make it.

Exactly! Fake it ’til you make it. If you open the door that much, I’m gonna kick it in. When I did that game it was like doing something you felt like you were born to do, I just talked basketball. Then after the game he said, “Why am I flying a guy in from L.A. to do this? You’re here, I’ll give you the 10 other games left on the schedule.” That was in 1987 and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Did you always know you would go into sports? 

Being totally honest with you, my late father was an attorney, my mom was a dietician and my brother is an eye surgeon so education was stressed. It was just the stressing part never really filtered down to me. I was not the greatest student, I was immature and I knew I had to work in sports. To some people sports is their entertainment, their passion. To me it’s my life. I’m over the top sports. Every kind of sport, you name it.

In your opinion what has been Chicago’s best sports era? 

The ’85 Bears, no question. I love the Michael Jordan era and I guess he would be the greatest player to ever come through here but the ’85 Bears captivated the city. I think if you added all six Bulls championships together they still did not have the same impact as a team on the city in the way the Bears did. It was crazy.

Having been in the business for 25 years, have you noticed a change in how athletes act as the spotlight on them grows?

No question. When I got started they were very open. They weren’t making the money they were making today so they were looking for ways to promote their brand, their name, their charity, whatever it was. Today they don’t need the media. Some of them realize they can use it to further their career or further their life beyond their playing days but they are so guarded on what they are going to do. If you see something and you report on it, you could completely screw them over so you have to get to know them and you have to really build their trust.

If you could have been a professional athlete, what would you play?

Wow, that’s a great question. So if I could pick any sport and go back and play? No one has ever asked me that! I think it’d be really cool to be the quarterback of the Chicago Bears. It’s a lot of stress but I think it’d be a lot of fun to be the guy who has so much of an impact on whether the team wins or loses. So it’d either be the quarterback of the Bears or I think it’d be really cool to be starting pitcher for a Chicago baseball team.

Do you ever get stressed juggling so many jobs? 

I don’t really get stressed. I play golf, I work out everyday. I have a wife, four boys and three dogs but really to be honest with you, I don’t feel stressed because of something that happened in my life back in 1990. I had broken my ankle playing basketball and it led to me being in the hospital. My brother, who at the time was a doctor at the Mayo Clinic, took my records and gave them to the cardiologist. It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1991 and the doctor called me and said, “I looked at your records and you have a major heart issue here.You could do nothing and stay on this medication you’re on or you could come up here and I could try to fix it.” I said, “Well, let me ask you a question. If I was your son what would you do?” He said, “I would tell you to go get it fixed,” so I said, “Done. Let’s do it.” That’s how quick I made a decision to have 9.5 hours of heart surgery on Dec. 11 of 1991. I was 31, had never been sick a day in my life. They did the operation on a Thursday and then brought me back into the operating room the following Monday. They wheeled me back in there and they don’t tell you what they’re doing, the doctor just says he has to run a test. What he ended up doing was put artificial adrenaline into me to get my heart racing as fast as it humanly can and if my heart snapped back into the bad rhythm that it had, it meant the operation was a failure. What he doesn’t tell you is that if it’s successful your heart would stop. So I’m awake during this and I’m laying on the operating table and my heart is going so fast that I can’t breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen  The next thing you know my heart stops and I can remember it like I’m talking to you right now. I’m laying on the operating table and I’m dead and all I can remember is it’s pitch black and there are stars and I’m blasting like a rocketship a million miles an hour flying through outerspace.

This can’t be true. 

I swear to you! And the next thing you know I wake up and this doctor’s screaming in my face and I go, “What the F just happened?” and he said, “You were dead for about 15 seconds and we just shocked you back to life.” I said, “Did you know this was gonna happen?” and he goes, “I expected it to happen. You’re fine. I just put you through more stress than you’ll ever encounter in your life. No matter what happens to you, that was the most stressful thing you’ll ever deal with and you are fine,” so they discharged me the next day and [knocks on table] I haven’t had another problem since.

You appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”. What was that experience like?

I used to be a college basketball coach and scout and I got a call one day saying they were doing a show on child prodigies. They asked, “Have you ever seen a basketball player in your career that you could say at young age was going to the Hall of Fame?” I said “Yeah, there’s this one guy who’s in his senior year of high school right now and I guarantee you he’s going to the Hall of Fame,” so the producer asked, “Would you be willing to come on?” I said, “Absolutely.” I thought it was going to be really cool. They pick you up in a limo and I go down to Harpo Studios and I’m sitting in the green room and there’s a 10-year-old gospel singer who’s going to be on the show. That 10-year-old gospel singer turned out to be Usher. I have the tape at home! Then there’s a 12-year-old girl who’s an actress and just made her debut in “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” with Steven Seagal. She turned out to be Katherine Heigl. Then there’s a model who turns out to be Niki Taylor. And then there’s me, so they bring me out and asked if I’d ever seen a player who I knew was gonna be a Hall of Famer. I said, “If Kevin Garnett stays healthy, Kevin Garnett is going to the Hall of Fame.” What I didn’t know was that Kevin Garnett was sitting in the audience. I hadn’t even given the producer the name! But they got him, brought him to the show and had him in the audience. She goes, “Kevin Garnett, will you stand up please?” and there he is!

What was it that you saw in Kevin Garnett at such a young age?

I had said what a great kid he is because there’s an interesting story on the side. My youngest son has a form of autism called fragile X so when he was born all he did was cry. One day we were at home on a Saturday, my doorbell rings and it’s one of my best friends who is the basketball coach at Farragut High School. I open the door and he’s like, “I’ve got two of my guys with me, they were playing in a tournament today and we were wondering if we could come by and eat lunch?” I’m like, “Yeah! Absolutely.” My wife made them a sandwich and meanwhile my son doesn’t stop crying so Kevin Garnett is like, “Dude, let me have the baby.” He’s a 16-year-old kid at the time so I’m like, “No, we’re good.” [Laughs] But he goes, “Give me the baby!” And he takes [my son] Brett and holds him for an hour and a half on my couch and Brett, who’s 18-years-old today, does not cry a peep. I never took a picture because I never at that point thought much about it but now a year later I’m on “The Oprah Show” and I say what a wonderful young man this guy is and he stands up and Oprah goes, “You just made a black man blush” because he was all embarrassed. I know his reputation in the media now is that he’s difficult to deal with but I guarantee you if he walked by here right now he would give me a hug and we haven’t talked in 5, 6, 7 years.

You need to write a book!

[Laughs] That’s what everybody tells me.

Who has been the most memorable guest you’ve had on your show?

I was a freak during the O.J. [Simpson] trial. I mean, I watched everyday. I read everything. My dad was a criminal attorney so I would call him all of the time and we’d talk about it. He would explain to me why he’s entitled to a defense and why they did this and why they did that. When the verdict happened it was the most watched thing in the history of the country, it was insane. Johnnie Cochran, this really flamboyant African American attorney from L.A. gets him off, he now writes a book and they get a call at the radio station that he’s going to do a book tour like the week after the verdict. It was this humongous white-hot story and the morning host says, “I’m not interviewing that guy! He got a murderer off.” The next show, “I’m not touching it.” Milt Rosenberg, the show after says, “Absolutely not.” I’m like, “You guys are not gonna have this guy on because of your personal biases? Think of the audience. Think of the station. This is a great topic.” I went to our program director and said, “Let me do the interview.” She says, “It’s not sports, it’s crime,” and I go, “Well, O.J. was a football player. I guarantee I’ll make this work,”so I get the interview and it’s on a Saturday afternoon. I go meet with my dad three or four times to talk about what questions he would ask, I read every book on the case and now he comes in. There are hundreds of people outside the window of our showcase studio on Michigan Avenue. I’ve got a full hour and the only deal was I could ask anything I wanted and he could not say, “I’m not talking about that.” The case was over, jackpot. I still have the reels of the interview—we did reels back then—and it was just one of the coolest moments. We went to one of the commercial breaks and he goes, “Where did you come up with these questions?” and I said, “My dad’s a criminal attorney.” Bingo! It was just really cool to talk to him.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

That’s a great question. Dead or alive? It would be Babe Ruth. I loved him. There’s just something about him. He had fun. There’s a story that they were playing at Comiskey Park where the Sox played and he ran off the field in between innings, crossed the street in his uniform and spikes and had a beer and a hot dog at McCuddy’s Bar outside the stadium and then ran back in and back on the field. He’s a guy who has a zest for living. I like personalities like that, I hate people who are vanilla. I like to push the envelope and he likes to push the envelope so if I could sit there and have a drink with him, that would be amazing.

KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY

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Omi