As Bill Worrell makes his way through Toyota Center on game day, his progress is…slow. There are fist bumps with James Harden, hugs with Patrick Ewing, bows to doormen, selfies with Andre Ware. When he finally starts to walk up the stairs to his broadcast perch at club level, a fan shouts his name. “How you doing, man?” he calls back.
In this world, Worrell is royalty: an elder statesman of Houston sports broadcasting, all the more revered after the retirement of his contemporaries Gene Peterson, Milo Hamilton and Bill Brown.
Now 72 and in his 32nd season as the play-by-play voice of the Houston Rockets, Worrell is remarkably spry, with bright-blue eyes, affable charm and a wry sense of humor. He grew up on Houston’s west side, attending Lamar High School, then UH on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry before switching to communications and starting on the radio at KUHF.
“I wasn’t so hot on dentistry,” he says today. “My mother was upset. She wanted me to be a doctor.” But switching majors was the first of many savvy career choices on Worrell’s part.
In the late ’60s, with his name at the top of the draft list, Worrell, still in college, joined the Air Force reserves. Stationed in North Texas—“I always tell people, ‘You never saw any of those Viet Cong get past Wichita Falls, so I did my job’”—he convinced his commanding officer to let him attend the 1968 Game of the Century at the Astrodome between UH and UCLA in exchange for autographs from Elvin Hayes and Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Worrell managed to score both and, shortly thereafter, his first career break: an interview with the mercurial Alcindor. “No one had it. He didn’t give interviews,” Worrell explains. The recording ultimately made its way to ABC Radio, which paid him $300. “They snapped it up,” he remembers. “I probably should have asked for more.”
As Worrell retells the story, he’s occasionally interrupted by fans and friends passing by the broadcast area. He takes it in stride. It’s about 30 minutes before the Rockets take on the Charlotte Hornets in a game taking place halfway through the season, which isn’t as tough on him as it used to be.
Worrell has scaled back a bit this year, calling only home games and a smattering of road games, all in Texas. “It was a grind,” he says of his old schedule. “The travel was killing me.” With his lightened workload, he has no immediate plans to retire; the Rockets, he says, are allowing him to decide when it’s time to step down.
Reviewing stats sheets and looking for trends that will inform his call of the game, Worrell chats about parallels between this Rockets squad and previous teams. “I’m old-school,” he says. “I see chemistry.” He believes James Harden is behind only Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone in the pantheon of franchise greats.
When you consider Worrell’s three-plus decades with the Rockets, and add to that his 20 concurrent years with the Astros (1985 to 2004) and the decade he spent working for KPRC Channel 2 (1970 to 1980), you realize that few have witnessed sports changing, up close, the way he has.
It was while he was still at UH that Worrell caught the eye of legendary newsman Ray Miller at Channel 2. “Everybody told me I was going to have to go to a small town to get started,” he says, “And Ray Miller offered me a job.” In 1974, after the station’s long-time sportscaster died suddenly, Worrell received his first sports assignment: covering Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium. He joined cable sports network Home Sports Entertainment in 1983, a move many found risky at the time, but that ultimately paid off.
Worrell reminisces about his life as he makes his way from club level to the Toyota Center floor, where he’ll do a live game preview, greeting players, season-ticket holders, and arena and Rockets staff along the way. “That’s my man,” he says, more than once.
He’s joined by color commentators Matt Bullard and Clyde Drexler, with whom he has rapport, to be sure. But it’s clear that the most magical connection of his career took place over the nearly 15 seasons, from 1989 to 2004, Worrell spent alongside Calvin Murphy, who now does the pregame, halftime and postgame shows. The Hall of Fame guard was the yin to Worrell’s yang, his flashy, boisterous personality the perfect foil to the steady-handed broadcast veteran’s.
The two pushed the envelope on air, shooting friendly jabs at one another, sometimes taking on topics that made their bosses uncomfortable. Murphy would pick on Worrell’s lack of rhythm, say, and the play-by-play man would slyly suggest his outlandishly attired cohort looked like a pimp he saw the night before. “We could get by with saying things because people knew we were friends. It was the best. We just clicked,” Worrell says. “Our bosses were a little shocked at first, and they would tell us to tame it down. But every time, we’d just ratchet up another notch.”
There’s plenty of quick-wittedness and needling among Worrell and his current on-air partners, too. “You have to learn how to have a good time,” Worrell explains. “We are with our audience all the time. We’re not doing one broadcast a week.”
All of which explains Worrell’s penchant for nicknaming players: Dream and The Great Wall and Stevie Franchise are, it would seem, his creation. He’s also known for his signature phrases, such as “cold-blooded” and, of course, “bamboozled." Then there are his calls for three-point plays, which Worrell likes to say originated not just from behind the line, but from Houston neighborhoods. “I can’t tell you how many tweets and letters I’ve gotten saying, ‘You said Deer Park. Say Channel View next time.’”
Right before tip-off, Ware, the former UH Heisman Trophy winner who’s now a color commentator for the Texans, stops by to poke a little fun at Worrell for how the broadcaster had a word for seemingly everyone at a recent Cougars basketball game. “That’s what I do,” Worrell laughs. Then, it’s game time.
When the final buzzer sounds—it’s a narrow win for the Rockets after a furious Hornets comeback in the fourth quarter—Worrell starts to pack his things. “That was a little too close for comfort,” he says. We ask what keeps him coming back. “The sheer beauty of the sport is like a drug to me,” he says, then turns to an older gentleman who’s stopped to say hello. “Hey, man, how you doing?”