By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Among 30 National Basketball Association (NBA) franchises, the Sacramento Kings is the only one to employ two Black play-by-play announcers.
Mark Jones and Kyle Draper have handled the duties for almost two seasons for NBC Sports California. In a league of roughly 75% Black athletes, Jones remarkably is only the second lead Black play-by-play announcer for any franchise. The talented Jones appears on three networks that broadcast NBA games. He also works for ESPN and ABC, both of which are Disney subsidiaries.
That makes Jones’ and Draper’s presence special and inspiring in a city where 13.4% of its residents are Black, according to Census Bureau information from 2019.
“I know where I stand in sports broadcasting,” Jones said. “No, there are not many of us in this field. My brother [Canadian sportscaster] Paul Jones can tell you that, too. But it was the right decision [to take the Kings job].”
Marc J. Spears, senior NBA writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated and former chair of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Sports Task Force, said that by hiring Jones and Draper, the Kings are exhibiting for the league an important lesson on how diversity is supposed to operate in professional sports.
“The Kings are starting to build a reputation as being on the forefront of diversity, inclusion, and caring about people of all colors,” Spears told The OBSERVER. “So let’s give credit to Vivek Ranadivé, the Kings’ chairperson and owner who was vocal about how he felt after the Stephon Clark shooting. Ever since then, the Kings have been a standard for getting representation and opportunities for women, too.”
Draper hosts “Kings Pregame Live” and “Kings Postgame Live” on NBC Sports California. He was also hired to handle play-by-play in Jones’ absence at the insistence of Joelle Terry, the Kings’ former vice president of communications. Terry also assembled one of the NBA’s first all-female broadcasting teams when the Kings played the Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden 1 Center on March 27, 2021.
Draper came to Sacramento from NBC Sports Boston, where he had worked since 2009 as host of “Celtics Pregame Live” and “Celtics Postgame Live,” and as the fill-in play-by-play announcer.
A communications graduate from Winona State University who runs a firm that manages broadcast professionals’ careers, Draper told Boston.com that taking the Kings’ play-by-play gig was a no-brainer.
“It was, ‘All right, I’m 45. It’s either stay and host the next how many or so years, which would be great. Or see if you can do something even greater,’” Draper said. “My thought was, ‘It’s either now or it’s not going to happen for me.’”
Spears reported for The Undefeated in July 2020 that Eric Collins, the voice of the Charlotte Hornets since 2015, was the NBA’s only Black play-by-play caller. He held that dubious distinction until Jones and Draper joined the Kings before the 2020-21 season.
Spears also reported that during the 2019-20 season, 11 NBA teams had had the same TV play-by-play voices for 20-plus years. The job is not only competitive; it is also difficult to get opportunities when marked by such longevity. Jones replaced Grant Napear, who had been the Kings’ play-by-play TV announcer since 1988.
“Joelle Terry, she’s the one who made me comfortable in coming to Sacramento,” said Jones, 60. “From my perspective, it’s not like [Sacramento] was getting some scrub. I’ve called the NBA Finals on ESPN 3-D. When you’re doing the right thing people want to hire you.”
One of the sports industry’s most sought-after jobs, play-by-play requires a melodic voice, preparation, research, note-taking, above-average communications skills, and knowledge of the game.
“A big part of this job is being well read, having knowledge of the game, and having a big command of the language,” Jones told The OBSERVER. “When you are in that moment you have to be able to describe it and do it dramatically, colorfully, and specifically.”
The job also requires charisma. Jones learned his craft in part by observing other Black television sportscasters, whether play-by-play or color commentary. He pointed to Bryant Gumbel with NBC Sports and James Brown of CBS in the late 1970s and early 1980s as touchstones.
“I watched how they set up the scene, told stories, and watched how they presented information,” Jones said. “I’ve always felt in the business that if you give people the nuts and bolts, then the icing belongs to you. That’s where your personality is. That’s where you differentiate yourself from other guys.”
Jones was familiar with Sacramento before moving here. In 1995, he covered the Mobil USA Track and Field Championships at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium for ABC Sports. He also met his future wife, Sara, in the River City. She was a track and field athlete in town to support a University of Wisconsin teammate.
“Yes, I’ve made a full circle with Sacramento,” Jones said.
Terry, who previously worked in the Obama administration, has moved on to become Vice President of Community Impact and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) Communications for Comcast Corporation. But before doing so, she charted a path to making Sacramento’s only major professional sports franchise reflect the league in terms of players and personnel.
After Jones and Draper were hired, NBC Sports California added former Kings players Matt Barnes and Kenny Thomas, who both are Black, to do studio work. The new broadcast team also includes Morgan Ragan, a female color analyst for the NBA-affiliate Stockton Kings of the G-League. She was promoted to host live pregame and postgame segments with Draper, Barnes and Thomas. Kayte Christensen was moved from courtside reporter to color commentator alongside Jones. Christensen, like Ragan, provides background information during the Kings’ games.
Spears, one of the most respected NBA writers in the business, told The OBSERVER that there needs to be more color representation in the play-by-play chair in all sports.
“I’m not just talking about in the NBA,” he said. “I’m talking about all sports levels, and on the minor-league level. Ninety-nine percent of the play-by-play announcers I have ever met in my entire career — whether they have been on television or radio — it typically has been a white male who gets that position.”
The ups and downs in the sports industry of Paul Jones, Mark Jones’ older brother, reinforced Spears’ assertions.
Paul Jones now handles radio play-by-play for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors on Sportsnet 590 The Fan and TSN 1050. But before that, he was an educator, vice principal and principal for 20 years while doubling as a video footage editor and a sportscaster for Canada’s The Sports Network (TSN).
For a time Paul, who first was hired to call Raptors games on radio in 1995, was the NBA’s only Black radio play-by-play announcer, he said. A new program director surprisingly moved him to the color analyst chair. Despite the slight, he stayed and navigated the course.
“I’m capable of [serving as an analyst], but I worked 12 years to get into that [play-by-play] chair,” Paul Jones said. “I wasn’t complaining. Sometimes we can’t complain too loudly. It was a little upsetting. But now I am in a unique situation where on one station I am the play-by-play guy and on the other, I am an analyst.”
Paul Jones has called the action at numerous international tournaments, including the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Olympics. He surely has paid his dues to call games on radio and television. But he is fully aware that play-by-play jobs remain elusive for Black sportscasters. The path to changing that, he said, is clear.
“At the top of the ladder, we need people that look like us in the hiring positions,” Paul Jones said. “We need decision-makers. We need people of color, we need diversity, and we need women at the top. If it’s not at the top … you can only step so far up the ladder.”
Paul Jones credits the NBA for being what he called “the most progressive league of the four major sports.” Still, he, like his brother, does not shy from pointing out that the league celebrating its 75th anniversary didn’t allow a Black player, Earl Lloyd, on the floor until Oct. 31, 1950. That’s 3½ years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. A long journey remains, Paul Jones said, for the NBA in the 21st century.
“Achieving racial equity is like running the marathon. It’s 26 miles,” he said. “The NBA, I figured, has run about nine or 10 miles, baseball maybe a mile. Hockey just put its shoes on, and football may be a half mile in front of baseball.
“The NBA is way down the road. But when you’ve run 10 miles, there is still a long, long way to go.”
In the face of such realities, Paul Jones said, it’s imperative to just focus on the job.
“I never think about [color],” he said. “You just do the work because we’re already conditioned that we are minorities. Don’t look around to see if anyone looks like you … just keep running.”