Ray Clay was trending on Twitter. Or so his son had informed him by text message one day this past summer. Clay, now 59 and a decade removed from his job as the Chicago Bulls’ public address announcer, didn’t have a clue what that meant.
As it happened, a few months earlier, a groom-to-be from Denver had made overtures to the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, hoping to track down Clay, the man responsible for turning the championship-era Bulls starting lineup into a national benediction. In the years since his unceremonious ousting following the Bulls’ 2001-02 season, Clay had picked up gigs announcing games for the Sky and the University of Illinois at Chicago, his alma mater. He had also maintained a side business doing voiceovers for weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate events, and the like a—for a few hundred dollars a pop.
“Usually it gets played at a wedding and I never hear about it,” said Clay, who wears glasses to go with his gray goatee, mustache, and hair.
But the Denver man decided to upload his wedding party introduction on YouTube, where it soon caught fire, amassing almost 150,000 views and cameos on a number of sports blogs.
Yes, just in case Ray Clay was wondering: he’s missed. And the online tribute has gone on, unabated, for quite some time.
A YouTube clip posted six years ago, of Clay announcing a 1997 NBA Finals game between the Bulls and Utah Jazz, has racked up over 2.2 million views and a comment stream more appropriate for commemorating a rock legend.
“This intro automatically meant one thing,” one commenter wrote a few months ago, “YOU’RE F—– IF YOU’RE THE OTHER TEAM!”
The introduction of the Bulls starting lineup has been amped up since Clay held forth with his soaring baritone. The introductory video on the United Center’s hanging scoreboard was given a CGI upgrade a few years ago, and fireworks now shoot from the tops of the baskets as a kaleidoscope of Bulls logos spin around the floor. But—with all due respect to Tommy Edwards, the Bulls’ current P.A. man—you don’t hear fans talking about getting “chills” anymore.
It was 11 years ago this month that Clay met his fate, when Michael Jordan returned to the United Center for the first time as a member of the Washington Wizards. In the end, Clay was a casualty of the blood feud that defined the Bulls’ relationship with its franchise player. Even now, a full decade later, the team refuses to discuss the incident that ultimately led to the NBA’s most iconic P.A. announcer being cast out of the temple. But Clay, who spoke only briefly about his termination at the time, recently opened up about that chapter of his life.
Jordan’s return to Chicago, on Jan. 19, 2002, would account for just the second Bulls sellout of that season. A few weeks prior, Clay was seated at the Bulls scorer’s table, preparing for a game, when sports reporter J.A. Adande, then covering the NBA for the Los Angeles Times, approached and casually broached the topic of how Jordan might be introduced when the Wizards came to town.
Clay told Adande, now of ESPN, that he wanted to give fans “the full-blown Michael Jordan,” adding, “Ninety percent of the people here remember it and want it that way.”
The sentiment didn’t sit well with Steve Schanwald, the Bulls’ executive vice president of business operations.
“All of a sudden, someone comes up and they’re burning my shorts and [Schanwald] says, ‘How could you say that?’” Clay recalled. “He was ripping me a new asshole.”
Through a Bulls spokesman, Schanwald declined to address the circumstances of Clay’s dismissal. “We hold Ray in the highest regard, appreciate his years of service, and have always wished him well and continue to do so,” he told ChicagoSide in a statement.
Clay said he apologized at the time for speaking out of turn, although he never understood why it so unnerved the Bulls brass.
“They were very anal about what they were going to do when a certain player came here,” he said. “So I would have thought that a big game like Michael Jordan coming to town, that they would really have things in motion and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it.’ And I made the mistake of assuming that that’s what they were going to do.”
Clay said he was consequently barred from speaking about it to the press.
But a few days before the Bulls-Wizards game, former Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti called Clay to inquire about the Jordan introduction.
“We’ll be doing the regular visitors’ introduction for Michael,” Clay told Mariotti. “That’s what the Bulls want, so that’s what we’ll do. I’m sure most fans would like to hear the original. Probably 90 percent would want it and 10 percent wouldn’t.”
After the quote appeared in Mariotti’s column, Clay said he got a phone call from a thoroughly displeased Schanwald.
When the big night came, Clay stuck to his boss’s orders, introducing Jordan in the flat, dispassionate tone reserved for the away team. The United Center fans nevertheless showered Jordan with a standing ovation that lasted a full three minutes; and the Wizards won the game 77-69. The Bulls would go on to compile a 30-52 record that year, finishing with their fifth losing season in a row.
Clay said he was already looking to lighten his game load when, shortly after the season ended, he had lunch with Jeff Wohlschlaeger, the Bulls’ senior director of game operations. It was there that Wohlschlaeger informed Clay that the team had decided to go in a different direction—the company line the Bulls have maintained ever since.
“He said he didn’t know of the reasons,” Clay said. “I said, ‘I know the reasons.’”
At the time of his ousting, there was some speculation that former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who had a fractious relationship with Jordan, was responsible for Clay’s dismissal. But Clay says he thinks the decision rested entirely with Schanwald. Wohlschlaeger, who recently left the Bulls to take a job with NASCAR, declined to get into specifics.
“Obviously, from a personal standpoint, it was really difficult because…he and I at the time [were] and we still are really good friends,” Wohlschlaeger said of Clay. “To not be working with him moving forward was really difficult.”
Steve Scott, the former WLS-AM morning anchor, was brought in as Clay’s replacement and when the Wizards came to Chicago the following season, the reins had evidently been loosened by Bulls brass. Scott gave Jordan a full-throated introduction, which Clay took note of in the Tribune. “What a difference a year makes,” he told Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson. Scott spent the next three seasons as the P.A. announcer until he left to take a radio job in New York. The team then turned to a familiar voice in Edwards, who had been Clay’s predecessor.
“If there was a Hall of Fame for stadium P.A. announcers, Tommy would be in it,” Schanwald said at the time of his re-hiring.
Clay had spent several years announcing UIC hockey and men’s basketball games when, in 1990, he learned that Edwards had decided to step down from the Bulls. He heard the news listening to a Bulls game on the car radio, while he and his wife were driving to a wedding. Clay said his wife immediately encouraged him to apply for the job; half-seriously, he sent in a demo tape. A week later, Clay was brought in for a tryout, made to announce the starting lineup during a game against Milwaukee.
And so it was on that night, in the din of the old Chicago Stadium, that Clay’s guttural roar came into being. Annnnnnnnd nowwwwww…. the starting lineup for your Chicago Bulls.
“I just screamed it out,” he said, “because I didn’t know if anyone would be able to hear me.”
A few days later, Clay was called back to the Bulls front office. He was played the recording of his player introductions, then a version of Edwards. The Bulls wanted him to mimic Edwards style exactly, right down to the emphasis of “Ho-” in power forward Horace Grant’s name.
Clay’s rendition of “Michael Jordan” was left alone; “No one can hear you, anyway,” a Bulls staffer told him.
For the next 12 seasons, Clay became the voiceover to the NBA’s greatest dynasty and the most identifiable sporting event announcer next to boxing voice Michael Buffer and former New York Yankees announcer Bob Sheppard. It wasn’t a particularly lucrative gig—the Bulls only paid him $125 a game—but it had its perks. Among other things, Clay landed a guest appearance on “Married with…Children” and a cameo in the Spike Lee movie, “He Got Game.”
After his departure from the Bulls, Clay said the Phoenix Suns initially reached out to him about taking over their announcer duties, but the money wasn’t good enough to move his family across the country. Clay eventually got his chance to give MJ a proper sendoff the following season, when the Philadelphia 76ers flew him to announce Jordan’s name in the final game of his career.
Afterwards, the two embraced at center court.
These days, Clay announces about 17 UIC and 17 WNBA games each season. Since retiring from his full-time job as UIC’s director of campus recreation a few years ago, he’s been a physical education teacher at Burbank Elementary School in Chicago. The kids don’t really know who he is, but their parents do. He’s been to three Bulls game since leaving the team, including the one he accompanied his 23-year-old daughter to last year for her birthday.
Clay said he misses the people more than the work and doubts he’d ever be up to do the job again, even if the Bulls asked him to return, which he never expects them to do. Would he ever help out in a pinch? Maybe.
“I don’t think there’s a wound,” he said of his relationship with the team. “I’d hate to try to count how many friends I still have in the organization, and there are probably one or two people who aren’t friends—and they’re the one or two…who count in this whole thing.”