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Mark Smith: Roberts ‘The Voice” is sorely missed

Of course I grew up listening to him.

Who didn’t?

Like many, I turned the radio up and television sound down during many New Mexico Lobo basketball games. Who cared if sometimes they weren’t in perfect sync? This was The Voice. He truly brought you courtside.

As I got of high school age, I’d still listen to Mike Roberts call Lobo games. But that ref-baiting started wearing on me. As the son of a star athlete, educator and part-time official, the homerism was annoying.

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Still, I loved the way The Voice could make you stop whatever you were doing with his dazzling inflection during key plays.

Flash forward to 1980. Now a young broadcaster, I was still a Lobo fan. Still a Roberts fan, but now his competitor.

He was weekend sportscaster at KOAT TV-7. I had the same gig at KOB TV-4.

One evening a bunch of us media folk played a charity basketball game at the old Civic Auditorium, I think against coach Norm Ellenberger’s women’s pro team.

Roberts was media coach and watching us warm up. I couldn’t miss.

“You’re really good,” he said to me. “I’m going to put you in the starting lineup. What’s your name?”

Huh?

I’m supposedly the guy’s main TV competition, and he has no clue who I am?

You know what? I’m sure he didn’t.

Because Roberts, indeed, never felt he had any competition.

Truth is, he really never did – on TV or radio.

Unusual show

A few years later, Mike left TV to do radio full time. As fate had it, he became my fill-in at KOB TV.

One day I was sick, and Mike was glad to help.

In TV, there are two basic ways to show highlights: a voice-over – where the anchor announces details over silent highlights (or as I preferred, with music) – or a package, where the anchor pitches to a piece with another reporter’s voice.

I mostly did the former, which my rookie intern – former UNM track star and current Albuquerque lawyer, Roger Moore – knew.

Typically, I’d get to the office about 10 a.m. for the 6 and 10 p.m. weekend shows. I’d go over plans with Roger and my staff. That day, Mike strolled in around 5 p.m. and told Roger what stories he wanted on video.

Oh, my.

Roger edited a number of V/Os with music.

Mike didn’t know that. On air, he pitched to pieces thinking they were packages.

“Today, the Dallas Cowboys played Philadelphia,” Roberts said, or something like that. “And the game went like this.”

Up popped the video. But outside of some instrumental by the Ventures, Focus or, maybe, The Edgar Winter Group, there was no audio. Not on the tape. Not from Mike. He never even gave the score.

It happened a few more times that show, along with “A freeze frame of a basketball player’s butt, because I hit some wrong button by accident,” Moore said Wednesday as we reminisced about that infamous day.

So how did Roberts react after the broadcast?

“He was great,” Moore said. “To him, it was like ‘Nothing to see here folks – just keep walking.’ He was really cool about it.”

Side by side

Still years later, I spent a lot of time with Mike – at practice, at games, on flights, at hotels, at lunch. I was the Journal’s Lobo basketball beat writer for 15 years, and Mike was still The Voice of the Lobos much of that time.

He loved his Lobos. I was a down-the-middle, neutral sportswriter. I despised homerism, and I couldn’t resist taking a shot at him in print on occasion. He never apologized for bleeding Lobo Red.

Deep down, we respected each other and were, basically, friends. I interviewed him many a time, and he interviewed me on many of his shows.

Like nearly everyone who ever stepped into the hallowed grounds of the famous Pit, I was saddened when his 41-year run as Mr. Lobo ended in 2008.

I called him when he was ousted and we had a long conversation about it and many other moments we had shared over the years.

My respect for Mike only grew when he started calling high school games at KQTM 101.7 FM. He was brilliant. He didn’t have to root for one side or the other. He didn’t have to blame officials. He just called the games – and did so like no other.

His love for the Lobos was in the review mirror, but his talent was still full speed ahead.

“The preparation he did for games was incredible,” says Brian O’Neill, who was Roberts’ prep hoops color analyst.

On Tuesday, Roberts died of throat cancer at age 83.

He was my competitor, colleague, rival, traveling partner, interviewer and interviewee. He was a homer. He was a friend.

And he was The Voice – the best damn voice I’ve ever heard.

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