Voice of the Rebels Preaches Patience

UNLV basketball’s play-by-play voice on going from lawyer to broadcaster, calling Single-A baseball games and his one-word plea to Rebel fans

Photo by Kin Lui

Photo by Kin Lui

➧ Jon Sandler’s path to the radio booth didn’t exactly follow the usual formula. While in the midst of a lucrative career as an attorney with a big Silicon Valley corporate law firm in the late 1980s—and with his 30th birthday rapidly approaching—Sandler had one of those “What am I doing with my life?” epiphanies. So he traded in his briefcase for a scorebook, “took a 93 percent pay cut,” and moved to Salinas, Calif., to become the play-by-play man for the Salinas Spurs of the Single-A California League.

The Las Vegas Stars (now 51s) promoted Sandler to the Triple-A ranks before the 1993 season, and he’s been here ever since, manning the microphone for virtually all of the city’s sports institutions, from minor league hockey (Las Vegas Thunder) to UNLV men’s basketball (he’s in his ninth season calling Rebel basketball games on ESPN 1100-AM and 98.9-FM). Nearly a quarter-century after hanging up his suit and tie, Sandler remains content with his career choice, even while joking, “I went to Stanford for undergrad and Virginia for law school—I’m wasting a hell of an education!”

How did you make the transition to broadcasting?

The shorthand version: I [worked] part time at my law firm and interned at KCBS in San Francisco. The guys there, whom I respect greatly to this day, told me, “You’ve got some talent; you’ve got to go get some time on a microphone somewhere.” I got a job with a little radio station—the radio station—in Paso Robles, Calif., and for the first two weeks, I was the nighttime DJ; we played both kinds of music—country and Western—and I’d play the national anthem at 11:58 and 40 seconds, then turn off the transmitter at midnight. But a buddy of mine got the job as the general manager of an independent team in the California League in Salinas, and I called him up and said, “I want to be your broadcaster.” And he said, “OK, just don’t cost me any money.”

What do you remember about that first season?

Oh, it was crazy. I remember the very first home game: They plugged in the hot-dog warmer, and the left-field lights went out—it was beautiful!

It was an independent team owned by Don Nomura—the guy who brought [former major league pitcher] Hideo Nomo over from Japan—and he stocked the team with about 10 Japanese players, because there were no minor leagues in Japan. Our first baseman was Kenichi Yamanouchi, our center fielder was Arihito Muramatsu, we had Tsuyoshi Nishioka. I actually had the quote of the year in Baseball America that year—they asked me how I dealt with all the Japanese names, and I said, “I just pray they never get anybody in a rundown!”

This year’s Rebels team is stacked. Are your expectations as high as everyone else’s?

I’d like to think I’m a little bit more grounded than some. I know how much talent there is on this team, but at the same time I know how difficult it is to integrate eight new guys into a system and get them to play how everyone wants them to play right away. I do think in the long run the ceiling is very, very high, and the future is incredibly bright. But when you’ve got this many freshmen and this many new faces, you’re going to have nights when it looks great, and you’re going to have nights when you’re shaking your head going, “What’s going on here?”

Are they Final Four-caliber?

On paper, they have the talent to be in the conversation. [But] they have a lot of new guys, they have a lot of young players. They have Anthony Marshall—who is a terrific basketball player and an even better human being—at [point guard], but he’s not a true point guard. And that’s a challenge. But the biggest thing is for them to play as a team and play hard every night out. That may sound so elementary to fans—why wouldn’t you? Because they’re 18- to 22-year-old kids. Look at Texas, which just lost to Chaminade. It happens. So yeah, on paper they have the talent. But is it reasonable to expect this team, relative to more experienced teams, teams with four starters back, [to reach the Final Four]? Eh, I think you’d have to favor [more experienced teams]. But this is the most talented team the Rebels have had in 20 years.

Do you have a message for fans as this season ramps up?

Patience! The two Ps: passion and patience. And the Rebels fans are fantastic at passion, but like most passionate fans, not real good at patience—totally understandable. But it’s going to take awhile for this group to get it together.

Do you still have aspirations to reach the big-league level at some point?

Obviously, when I started, my ambition was to get to the major leagues in baseball—got close a couple of times, and I’d like to think that if I stayed a little bit longer than the seven years in Triple A, I would’ve had an opportunity to do the big leagues. But understanding that’s a commitment of basically February to November—that’s a long time to be away from home. And that becomes your life. And at some point I became OK with the idea that that wasn’t going to be my life.

As far as ambitions in basketball, I’m not the biggest NBA fan in the world—although the money for anybody associated with the NBA is pretty darn good. But if I’m the voice of the Runnin’ Rebels for the remainder of my career, I’m probably going to be OK with that. It’s a great gig, you’re associated with the marquee team in the community, and I love the way the program is headed.

It says on your Twitter account that you’re a bit of a wine snob. What’s the last great bottle of wine you drank?

1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc. It was for my 50th birthday, and I had it at L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon at the MGM Grand and had an amazing meal. It is truly, truly a spectacular bottle of wine. If you’re talking about that hall of fame, angels singing as you take a sip, yeah, that was it.

Do you have a wine collection at home?

Yeah, I have few of bottles of that [Chateau Cheval Blanc], I’ve got a couple of really nice bottles of French Bordeaux, a bunch of really good California cabernets. People these days are making wine to drink really young, because the business has dictated that. But wine, like lots of things, takes time to mature, and it’s a shame to drink it when it’s not ready. So the idea—and I’m not doing it for an investment; I’m doing it to drink—is to put together a collection that allows you when you want to have a nice bottle of wine to have one that’s ready to drink all the time.

You were a practicing lawyer, right?

Almost! [Laughs.] I wasn’t terribly dedicated—I didn’t have a real passion for it, let’s put it that way. The honest answer is I was good at school. I didn’t really [like] the sight of blood, so medical school was out. If I’d been a little more mature or aware, I might have chosen something different and maybe even have gotten into sportscasting earlier. But law school was the path I chose, and I owed it to myself and my parents, for sure, to give it at least a semblance of a try.

Do you ever regret your decision to give it up?

No. If I had stayed and applied myself, I’d probably be a pretty wealthy guy right now and living a completely different life. But I was dumb enough to think that happiness was more important than money! [Laughs.] … I don’t want to make it sound like I “figured it out,” but if you have the courage or the cajones or the dumb luck to pursue your dream, if there’s something you’re passionate about, go do it. I lost both my parents—my dad relatively early—and one of the lessons I took from that was life is pretty short, and if you can do something you’re passionate about, it will impact your life positively in every way.

Was broadcasting something you always had an interest in?

No. I wasn’t one of those kids who sat in front of the TV with the sound off and [announced a game]. I kind of had a couple of people tell me they thought I might be good at it. And I guess I was just dumb enough or just courageous enough to say, “I can.”

You’ve done baseball, football and basketball, and even some hockey. Is there one that you prefer, and what’s the most difficult sport to broadcast?

My first love is baseball. But I put baseball and college basketball as my two favorites. Very different rhythms, very different styles, very different approaches, very different preparation, very different seasons—144 games in baseball with a methodical pace, to say the least, and you try to stay objective, keep it in the middle, whereas college basketball, you’re broadcasting for that home team, and the fans are passionate and you need to reflect that passion if not match it.

In terms of hardest? Eliminating hockey, because it’s like listening to a machine gun on the radio, I’d say baseball, because of the fact you’ve got 25 minutes of actual action in a three-plus-hour broadcast. It’s the hardest to be really good at, and the hardest to entertain people over a long period of time. Basketball is difficult because you have to keep up with the action without overly anticipating, and you have to understand the game. But if you can do that, it takes care of itself. Baseball can be a grind.

What’s your advice to the UNLV broadcasting student who dreams of being a famous play-by-play announcer but might not realize the difficult path that lies ahead?

Be willing to sacrifice early in your career and do whatever it takes to get on the air, because there is no substitute for … being on the microphone, talking, understanding what’s involved in terms of preparation. And treat it with the respect it deserves. You are the eyes and ears and the senses of the people who really care about that team. When I started out in Salinas, Calif., there were maybe 100 people listening every night, and the radio station reached both ends of the block where the transmitter was located. You owe those listeners your best every night.

What do you make of the game-day atmosphere you’ve seen grow over the last nine years at the Thomas & Mack Center?

Awesome. Just absolutely awesome. From reaching back to old traditions to the Rebellion—to get something started that quickly, to be that good … I mean the student section fills four sections now. Any student section can stand up and flip their middle finger at the other team. These guys are doing it the right way—they’re being creative, they’re being smart, they’re being funny, and they’re not offending fans who might get offended, or more importantly sponsors who might help them. The atmosphere at the Thomas & Mack is as good or better than anything I’ve seen on a consistent basis. The attendance numbers speak for themselves.