Locked on Locke | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Locked on Locke 

Meet the energetic Jazz employee who refuses to hang up his headset in the offseason.

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BRENT ASAY/UTAH JAZZ
  • Brent Asay/Utah Jazz

Two miles away from an NBA arena, David Locke is speaking declaratively into a cell phone while he pulls up team statistics on his laptop. He tells the person on the other end that he's trying to remain even-keeled, even though when he runs some predictive numbers, the prognosis is undeniably good.

On this mid-NBA season morning, he's chatting in a Granary District coffeehouse, one known to be patronized by Boris Diaw, the Utah Jazz' French power forward and espresso aficionado.

Punching a couple keystrokes, he focuses on a number glowing from his computer screen. "When Favors and Gobert are on the floor at the same time ..." he begins.

This is quintessential Locke: the Jazz' gregarious play-by-play radio voice who's also a trove of NBA factoids and statistics.

He's talking to estimable NBA on ESPN color analyst Doris Burke, who's presumably preparing herself for the night's broadcast—one of the few nationally televised Jazz games at Vivint Smart Home Arena this year. Locke also will be covering the game later in the evening; he has ordered a cup of tea to soothe his vocal cords. To an outside sports commentator like Burke, looking for nuanced Jazz information, Locke is arguably the best source in town.

His insight is uniquely diverse. Locke dialogues with the coaching staff. Also an early disciple of the analytics movement, he assesses basketball through a numbers-driven lens. And having covered the NBA since the '90s, he's amassed extensive league connections and a crisp eye for the game. Conveniently, Locke—as the best sources usually are—is eager to talk shop.

"There's a chance that we might be really great," he affirms into the phone after relaying some defensive metrics.

The team's positive outlook is a welcome change for the Jazz; the state's beloved professional basketball team hadn't won a playoff game since 2010.

But as the 2016-17 NBA season hit its stride, "Jazz Nation" was again whipped into a frenzy by the prospect of this year's roster—anchored by pretty-boy all-star wing Gordon Hayward and rim-gatekeeper Rudy Gobert. The team would validate Locke's optimism by going on to win 51 games, earn a fifth-seed playoff berth and topple the talent-laden Los Angeles Clippers in a Game 7 battle on the road—their third road win in the series.

A winning record, national exposure and a balanced team comprising likable young stars and wise veterans—it's all catnip for a fan base that is recognized as one of the league's most rabid. To them, Locke is a spigot of news and analysis.

For those fans who want more updates—who, during the season, scan box scores, posit front-office trades online and devour team news as it breaks in real time—he doles out "deep-level content" on his daily podcast, Locked on Jazz.

The podcast requires considerable time and effort. Contractually, Locke is not obligated to spend his mornings preparing and recording extra stuff, but for the last six years, he's done it regardless—including through much of the offseasons. From its genesis, Locke has embraced the podcast's amateur production and poked fun at his show's opening onomatopoeic drum roll, which he pantomimes with goofy arm swings. But what the show lacks in bells and whistles, it makes up for in substance. Over time, it has grown into a sponsor-supported business. Drawing on his years as a radio host, Locke integrates commercials into his show. He's also expanded his reach and name-recognition to a national audience.

The evolution of his podcast at times included segments on league-wide analysis, but he's since splintered the Jazz focus and other NBA analysis into two podcasts: Locked on Jazz and Locked on NBA. That was the start of the "Locked on" expanse.

"I didn't think people were doing it right," he says of sports podcasts. Up until this point, most of them weren't team-centric and were released on an unpredictable schedule, both of which Locke saw as flaws. From his days in a radio studio, he knew that local sports content had an advantage because of the inherent audiences.

"Local works over national every time," he says. "Every local show that is any good is rated over a national show. Every time." The "Locked on" tag provides branding.

A fan living in central Florida, for example, can download the Locked on Magic podcast and keep abreast of the team. Locke's goal is to nurture a "Locked on" podcast for each team in the NBA, each team in the NFL, as well as specialty podcasts about golf, fantasy basketball and college sports. It launched less than a year ago.

Retaining talent has been a challenge in some markets, he says. The "Locked on" network had shows for 29 of the 30 NBA teams by the end of the season. Though he declined to disclose download numbers, he says the early indicators are good. The Locked on Warriors podcast, for one, recently announced that it reached its goal of 1 million downloads.

Clear Path
From a young age, Locke seemed destined to be a sports announcer.

The only child was raised in a two-parent home in a Bay Area suburb. He attended public school through eighth grade and private school from then on, earning decent grades, according to his father, Hal Locke. However, academics "wasn't his strong suit," Hal Locke explains. Instead, his son gravitated toward sports—especially baseball.

"I used to stay in at night and listen to my transistor radio in my bed," David Locke says. Listening to Greg Papa call Giants games, "I felt like I knew the score, I knew strategy, what was happening, and I learned a little bit about the league.

"That's my model; I hope you know a little bit more about the league, that you know a little bit more about the team, you know a little bit more about the game by the time the night's over."

He imagined action on the field even when games weren't being played. Hal Locke remembers his son manning a board game called All-Star Baseball. By himself, the budding commentator would picture the plays in his mind and verbalize the action, as if describing the scene to an invisible audience.

"He kept a play-by-play of them, and he announced them as he was going," Hal Locke says. "From quite an early age, this attracted him."

When Locke was around age 8, his father was a part owner of Solitude Ski Resort, and the two would visit Salt Lake City often. On one trip, Locke senior and junior were driving down a stretch of highway listening to the Jazz postgame wrap-up.

"David said, 'That's a great job, I'd like to have it,'" his father remembers.

Locke did some radio while studying at Occidental College in L.A., and eventually landed a job as a producer at the Jazz' flagship station in Salt Lake City. In the late '90s, he moved to Seattle to work for the Sonics franchise until he was fired in 2007. He returned to Utah and worked in sports radio until legendary play-by-play announcer Rodney Clark "Hot Rod" Hundley retired in 2009.

He says he branched out into podcasts partly because Hundley set a high bar for radio announcing, and trying to fill those shoes at the broadcaster table alone would be a recipe for failure.

"There's no road to success to try to be junior Hot Rod," Locke says. "The world's changing; technology is changing."

BRENT ASAY/UTAH JAZZ
  • Brent Asay/Utah Jazz

Team Player
Longtime podcast listeners have undoubtedly come to expect Locke's sprightly demeanor.

A parody Twitter account that spawned in May 2013, @UnLockedOnJazz, mimics his tropes and unbridled Jazz positivity and promotion ("Fans chanting 'UnLocked Podcast' at end was one of the most memorable moments of season!!" one tweet reads). It also touches at the nexus of Locke's unofficial role as information source and spokesman: One of the most influential voices examining the Jazz is paid by the very organization he's examining.

In this regard, his platform allows him to craft the team's narrative. Locke, for example, doesn't waste much breath second-guessing decisions made by Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder or General Manager Dennis Lindsey (both of whom have also been praised in national NBA coverage).

He's been noticeably soft on personnel and coaches from past regimes, though, that didn't earn general accolades.

The question about the duty of a team announcer is apparent in a host like Locke. Should insiders placate the "homers"—sports slang used to describe blind apologists—or strive for unbiased analysis?

It's a challenge ESPN writer Kevin Pelton recognizes. His friendship with Locke dates back to their days together in Seattle. But for what it's worth, he thinks Locke is doing his best.

"Striking the right balance between remaining objective and supporting the organization is a tricky thing for broadcasters and team employees, particularly in this case because of the sheer volume of content David is creating," Pelton writes in an email. "He manages to walk that tightrope as skillfully as anyone I know."

When accused of spinning the truth, Locke says he brushes off such judgments. But it's soon apparent that the accusation gets under his skin.

"On one level, it pisses me off because I'm busting my ass for you every single minute of the day doing all this extra work, and someone's response to me is, 'You're just paid by the team,'" he says. "That implies that nothing I've said to you has any accuracy at all. The most grandiose insult you can give to me is to say that I'm lying."

Locke doesn't minimize the reality that he's a team employee, he says, but that shouldn't evaporate his credibility. Taking a moment to plug a ticket package doesn't negate the latest statistical trend that he's uncovered and is prepared to dissect.

"I work for the team—there's no question," he says. "I'm never trying to deny it for one second of one day. And if you don't think the information I'm giving you is of value, don't listen."

There's a certain irrationality at the root of fandom. Ask the most impassioned sports fanatic after a loss what went wrong, and they're known to dwell on counterfactual scenarios: Had the coach made this move or the player done that, the outcome would have changed. It's flawed logic, but while Locke identifies with the impulse, he also often pushes against it.

"I think about it all the time," he says. "If I was a huge fan and didn't get so lucky to get this job and wasn't so honored as to be in the NBA, what would I be doing with social networks? I'd be killing people."

But, he goes on, it's wrong to assume one move would change a game's outcome.

Then there's the rare breed of fan that wallows in the lows, vigilantly and sadistically waiting for a team's every misstep, then paints the offending coach/player/executive of their favorite ball club as a pariah.

More than ever before, social media has given fans of all stripes a platform to publicly vent or celebrate. At its ugliest, their wrath has fallen to Locke. And though he admits he would at times like to verbally spar, he knows he shouldn't.

"I get it. I'm a public figure, and part of being a public figure is being told that he's an asshole at times," he says. "You just deal with it."

It's clear, though, that he has a loyal following that is grateful for his continual grind of Jazz-related content.

sub_jazz.jpg

Making Every Second Count
The path from childhood dreamer to acclaimed announcer reveals Locke to be less of a prodigy, though, and more an adamant guy who just can't sit still.

As a political science and sociology major at Occidental, he and a roommate went on the college dial his senior year and called football, basketball and some baseball games. Although unrelated to his fields of study, Locke got an education in the broadcaster booth.

"Two college kids," he says. "We called the Division III Occidental Tigers and had great experiences."

He doesn't know how many listeners tuned in, but guesses it was very few. The low-pressure gig allowed him to practice calling games, but it was after college that he launched into on-air analysis.

As a graduation gift, Locke's father purchased 13 half-hour radio spots at a station in L.A., he says. He took to the airwaves every Sunday night through the summer months while half a dozen friends called in. (Hal Locke doesn't remember buying this, though he does recall his son sticking around to do radio work, and says it's possible he "helped him financially.")

Locke reveres his father. When the topic strays from basketball to family, he speaks about Hal Locke with glowing superlatives. Without the paternal influence and support, he's unsure he would have ended where he did.

"He is the one who kept readjusting my career. I went to college and got lost a few times, and he is the one who kept saying, 'Hey, when you were 6 years old, you were the one playing board games and announcing them. When you were 11 years old, you said you wanted to be the voice of the Utah Jazz,'" Locke recalls.

"He was the one that reminded me: You like going to the ballpark. Just find another way to go to the ballpark."

With those guiding words, he entered post-college life eschewing his degree disciplines and focusing on sports media.

The radio spots gave him several hours of audio in addition to practice behind a mic. Armed with his tapes, Locke began to hustle for a job. As the summer after college turned to fall, he embarked on a road trip around the country, mailing demos and calling stations a few days in advance to ask for a chance to meet and interview.

It didn't work.

So he moved to Utah to teach ski lessons. After the slopes, Locke would drive to town and sit in the lobby of a small, fledgling radio station, hoping that would land him a job. Eventually, the station acquiesced and hired him. At times, he turned on the radio signal in the morning before his shift, raced up the mountain to instruct skiing in the afternoon, then drove back at night to work at the station. This job quickly led to a full-time position at an established station.

At age 25, Locke was offered a job as program director at 1320 KFAN, the team's flagship station. It was a career opportunity that he describes as "the most important move of my life." While running the station, Locke hosted an afternoon drive show and did pre-, post- and halftime segments for the games.

Despite running on fumes, ratings soared, he says, partly because Utah sports, most notably the Stockton-and-Malone Jazz, were performing well in the mid-'90s and piquing interest. But the ratings were also a reflection of the incredibly high standard of excellence, a benchmark embodied in signage around the office that read, "Use every second."

"We had an unbelievable general manager, I had leadership that taught me how to do it, we had really talented people, and then I was insane," he says. "I think anyone who worked for me during that time period will tell you, I was insane."

He says now that the high-intensity, stress-inspiring atmosphere was unsustainable.

"Luckily for everybody, I moved on," he says, referring to being poached by a radio program manager he knew in Seattle to do a nighttime show—a step back, but one that would allow him to create a better work-life balance. From there, he soon wound up calling WNBA games for the Seattle Storm, then the former Seattle Supersonics.

In 2007, Locke was abruptly fired by Sonics' management. Media reported that the then-Seattle-based franchise was overhauling its front office and scouting departments and Locke didn't make the cut. His response to the firing was diplomatic, saying that he held no ill-will toward the team, but he was "bummed," according to the Seattle P-I.

Jobless, Locke thought about what else he could do to make a living. But the introspection only revealed what he already knew: Radio was all he knew.

He moved back to Utah to work for 1320 again, (the Jazz flagship station since moved to 1280 AM), until management named him to be Hundley's successor.

Final Buzzer
In the second round, the Jazz matched against a finely tuned basketball buzzsaw that is the Golden State Warriors, a team that Locke believes to be one of the best to ever step onto the hardwood. The Warriors dispatched the Jazz in a four-game rout that ended in front of nearly 20,000 Salt Lake City fans.

Locke closed his call of the game, with copilot analyst and 1971 Utah Stars champion Ron Boone, by thanking dedicated fans for listening.

"It's an incredible honor. I hope you feel from Ron and I every single night how seriously we take it, how much we admire your passion as a Jazz fan tuning into us. How much we try to bring you every little ounce of information and insight and knowledge about the team you care so deeply about," he said.

His salutation, however, marked only the ending of Jazz basketball this season. While he could have hung up the headset and driven off to summer break, Locke immediately began putting out more content. He recorded a 13-minute "post-cast" with his colleague. ("We should all admire him," Locke tells City Weekly of Boone. "He's 70 years old and getting better every day.") The next morning, he recorded another.

Agreeing that "obsessive" and "strong-headed" accurately describe Locke, ESPN's Pelton says those characteristics benefit the Jazz fan. "The only local broadcasters I can think of who approach the amount of content he puts out are those who were inspired by his approach," he says.

Whether it be Facebook Live, Snapchat, Periscope or Google Hangouts, Locke tries to adopt any tool to connect Jazz followers to the team. He credits the Jazz organization for giving him a rein to engage fans filter-free. Other broadcasters, Locke says, are shocked by his unfettered freedom.

"There's a huge risk to letting someone like me have the voice that I have," he says, and so he grasps the opportunity. "Most organizations won't let it happen."


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