David Steele, a college student in Tennessee at the time, had career plans. He, like many young athletes, thought he was going to be a Major League Baseball player.
As a shortstop on the Carson-Newman College baseball team, the thought of being a broadcaster had not yet been considered. Rather than being the announcer who talked about the athlete, Steele would be the athlete who the announcer talked about.
“It became pretty obvious that that wasn’t going to happen,” Steele said with a laugh during a recent phone interview with Orlando Pinstriped Post.
Steele struggled at the plate and later transferred to the University of Georgia, where he says he soon realized he was the third best shortstop on campus. With baseball no longer a viable career option, Steele considered sports journalism or advertising.
Then during his junior year in college, when his roommate was a pitcher on the baseball team, Steele decided if he couldn’t be on the baseball field, the next best thing would be to sit in the broadcast booth. To trade in his bat and glove for a headset and microphone.
“I walked into the campus radio station,” Steele said of WUOG. “They must have had a low bar for hiring people because, as I remember it, they just kind of put me on the air.”
Steele has been on the air ever since.
In September, one month before his 30th season as play-by-play announcer for the Orlando Magic, Steele received an email. It was from Magic CEO Alex Martins, who invited Steele to lunch.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be about,” Steele said. “To be honest, I thought he might say 30 years has been long enough, this might be your last year. But it turned out to be quite the opposite.”
Steel, who began as the Magic’s radio play-by-play announcer in the team’s inaugural season before transitioning to television, was told he would become the eighth member of the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame, the ceremony for which will be held on Friday at Amway Center.
“I was surprised,” Steele said. “I was joking around and said, ‘You don’t know something about my health that I need to know, do you?’ Because usually you do this when someone is getting ready to retire or fade from history. He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I was kind of blown away by it. Very honored and very humbled.”
Steele is one of three members of the Magic organization that has been with the team since day one, joining current senior vice president, Pat Williams, and team equipment manager, Rodney Powell.
Steele was first approached by the Magic in the fall of 1988 when he was broadcasting games for the University of Florida. Leaving a successful college program for an upstart NBA franchise came with risk.
“It was not a no-brainer,” Steele said. “I tried to minimize the risks as best as possible and make a smart decision. I spoke to veteran broadcasters that I knew, and they said the same thing: ‘Don’t go to a pro sports team unless it’s really solid ownership and the kind of people you want to work for because pro sports teams are not all created equally.’ That was a key. Pat Williams had a lot to do with my comfort level with the ownership and management. He really impressed me. Basically, he sold me on the future of the NBA in Orlando.”
Steele accepted the position as the Magic’s radio play-by-play announcer. It didn’t take long for him to realize he had made the right decision. In fact, that realization came in the Magic’s very first preseason game in 1989 against the defending champion Detroit Pistons.
“The city was on fire about the team,” Steele said. “That game felt like some kind of championship event and it was a meaningless preseason game. So, I felt pretty good about the direction this franchise was headed just based on how it began.”
Steele recalls experiencing anxiousness and nerves while sitting in the booth for that first game. The same nerves he feels all these years later before each game.
“I’m sure even more so back then,” he said.
Steele went on to spend nine seasons as the Magic’s radio play-by-play announcer, nearly all of which were spent as the lone voice on the broadcast. He then shifted to television play-by-play announcer, teaming with color commentators like Goose Givens, Matt Guokas and Jeff Turner.
“I wanted to be careful in not over-describing the action and allowing the color commentator to have plenty of room to analyze what people were seeing,” Steele said of his transition from radio to television. “The big thing is you have to step out, don’t describe the events you are responsible to do on the radio.”
Steele says he prefers not to be part of the story, but to be the storyteller. A narrator.
“I like to be very prepared, very professional,” he says. “I think it’s important that you let your bias for your team your broadcasting for show, but at the same time you have a responsibility to be accurate and honest and let people know what’s really happening or you lose credibility. Those are some of the things that I base my career on as a play-by-play announcer.”
Steele has broadcasted nearly 2,400 Orlando Magic games. In 30 years, based on calculations tallied to the best of his ability, he has missed just 127 games.
Steele says he missed two games during his radio tenure for a funeral. National television broadcasts during the Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard eras cost Steele some games, while others he missed due to his commitments to SEC college basketball broadcasts. He says he also missed 10 games in 2004 after slipping on ice and suffering a broken leg that required surgery.
While there has been plenty of team success in the Magic’s three decades, with Steele putting the Nick Anderson steal on Michael Jordan in Game One of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals at the very top of the list, the team has suffered losing seasons in each of the last six years.
“It’s important to try and stay professional and upbeat because fans don’t want to hear a lot of negativity,” Steele said of the challenges in doing play-by-play for a rebuilding team. “In the sports world commentary, especially with social media, everybody else is pretty negative when you are down for five, six, seven years. So, I think it’s important to stay positive and professional and give people hope as best you can.”
The Magic are beginning to show signs of turning things around, something Steele attributes in part to the leadership and infrastructure built by president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond.
“You have a front office and coaching staff and a group of players that are all working on the same page,” Steele says. “We finally have a chance to turn the corner and get this thing on the right track.”
Asked how many more years Magic fans will be fortunate enough to have him as their broadcaster, Steele, now 65, said he takes it one year at a time.
“As long as I can stay healthy,” he said, “I plan on being around for a while.”
So, for the voice of the Magic, with 30 years in the books and his spot in the Hall of Fame secured, there are plenty more moments, games and seasons to come.
“It’s pretty special to have had that kind of longevity,” Steele says. “When you go into it, you’re not thinking in 30 years I’ll still be doing this. Now that I’m here and at this point looking back, it’s really a pretty remarkable situation. It’s a great organization to work for and has been since the beginning.”