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Lawrence Tanter sets the tone for the Lakers, and jazz station

FAN OF THE HOUSE

The Lakers public address announcer for 28 years is classically old school, stating the facts in a pitch-perfect voice. He brings the same passion to his other job as program director at KJazz.

March 23, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • Lakers announcer Lawrence Tanter has been a part of the Lakers' in-game experience for 28 years.
Lakers announcer Lawrence Tanter has been a part of the Lakers' in-game… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

The man with the trombone voice straddles two American art forms, jump shots and jazz, not quietly, mind you, for that horn of his is probably incapable of a mere whisper. But deftly and slyly, with frequent 16-hour workdays spent juggling two wildly divergent careers.

Lawrence Tanter has been the Lakers' public address announcer for 28 years, and over that time you've probably heard him croon "Koooo-Beeee Bryant" or "Laker Girrrrrrls" hundreds of times. As the gold standard of NBA stadium announcers, he introduces the teams, then keeps you up on developments during the game.

Simple, right? Not so much. His job involves reading hand signals from the scorekeeper and making sense of NBA refs. Try it some time. It's like serving tea at a bar brawl.

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Fortunately, Tanter is the classic old-school announcer, calmly dishing out stats, scores and substitutions with the rich, chug-a-chug rumble of an idling Harley. There's also a little Lou Rawls in that pitch-perfect voice.

"The PA gig has changed around the league," the 61-year-old notes. "It's morphed into a sort of cheerleader position. Dr. Buss has never told me to change, so I haven't."

For that, we can be thankful, because Tanter brings a big-market professionalism to his job — a touch of West Coast cool. Indeed, it'll be a lousy day when Lakers games no longer feature that soulful "voice of God" narration. It fits just right. Like Dyan Cannon's sweaters (trivia morsel of the day: Before games, Cannon brings brownies to him and the scorekeepers).

But although his Lakers persona is well-known — and sometimes taken for granted — there's another side to Tanter's life that you probably didn't realize. Indeed, the man with the trombone voice doubles as program director at KJazz (KKJZ, 88.1 FM), one of only five full-time jazz stations left in the country.

He has been there since August and, as program director, is responsible for the announcers, the playlists and the public service pleas for such things as Red Cross aid. Pretty much anything that goes out over the air comes virtue of one of Tanter's computer keystrokes in his Cal State Long Beach office.

"I'm more Phil Jackson, and our station manger is more Mitch Kupchak," Tanter says in explaining his role.

So those circles under Tanter's eyes don't come easily. On game days, he is at the station at 7 a.m., picking out Freddie Hubbard or George Benson tracks for upcoming shows. About 4 p.m., he races up to Staples Center for Lakers games. He often doesn't arrive back at his West L.A. home until 10:30 or 11 p.m. On away games, he is the booth announcer for Lakers pre- and postgame shows, which requires screeching runs to the Studio City broadcast center.

"The other thing I do is listen to lots of music," he says of his late-night quest to find new tracks. "Forty to 50 CDs a week.

"It's kind of therapeutic for me, believe it or not," he explains.

How much does Tanter love jazz? He named his son Miles.

Sure enough, music has always been a family thing for the Tanters. His own passion for jazz started early, in a south suburban Chicago family that fought over who should be on the turntable ... Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck. The young Tanter played sax and clarinet in high school, and forward on the basketball team at Thornton, a Chicago-area powerhouse that he helped lead to the state title.

For a while, he considered a career in pharmacy, but while playing basketball at the University of Dubuque, the 6-foot-7 Tanter answered a campus ad seeking a host for a Sunday night jazz show. And a music career was born.

Tired of the Chicago weather, he moved to L.A. in '71, drove a cab for a while, then caught on at radio station KJLH in 1972. He made contacts around L.A., including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes. Seeking a possible fill-in role as Lakers PA announcer, he asked Wilkes where he might submit a sample tape. Jerry Buss ended up hiring him full time, even though Tanter's previous basketball experience included announcing a single high school game.

"The guy who helped me out immensely was Chick Hearn," Tanter recalls. "I always wanted to talk to Chick because there is no playbook on how to become a PA announcer.

"His best advice was to think of it as talking to someone who is blind and can't see the game. That's how I always approached it."

Almost three decades later, eight championships, 13 NBA Finals series, 1,400-plus games ... lots of friends, millions of memories.

Tanter even remembers the Forum fondly: "The Showtime era was like no other," he says. "There was something very earthy about the Forum experience."

His favorite players include Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and George Gervin.

"Kobe is in the top one or two of the players I've seen up close," he says. "The only other work ethic I could compare that to would be Magic."

Obviously, work ethic is big with Tanter, a pro among pros, who understands a mania for craft and preparation.

It is, he knows, how you pay back a world that lets you do the things you love.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com @erskinetimes

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