Sunday, July 19, 2015

Uncle Van

I can tell you when the first time I ever saw Van Miller on television, give or take a month or two. I can tell you when the first time I ever saw him in person was. And I can tell you when the last time I saw him in person was.

I just find it a little difficult to tell you how surprising it is that I ended up being something of a friend of his over the years.

The start of this "relationship" with Miller, who died on July 18, came in 1965, when our family moved to Elmira, New York from northern New Jersey. Elmira wasn't close to much in the electronic sense back then, and we had to sign up for some fancy invention called cable television in order to see any channels besides the one (!) that was in Elmira. The Syracuse and Binghamton stations were on there, but so was one from Buffalo - WBEN-TV. I quickly dove in to watch the local sports news, and at that time Van Miller presented the sports during the 6 and 11 p.m. news.

I knew about the National Football League in those days, having followed the New York Giants in New Jersey. But I didn't know much about the American Football League then. Van offered a course in the AFL, and as the play-by-play announcer of the Bills, you could tell he wasn't too objective about them. It should be added that the Bills were in one of their few glory periods then, and you could count on Van to wave the flag for them on his sportscasts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I moved to Buffalo in 1970. I already had a head start on sportscasters of the town, although I think I started watching Ch. 2's Mike Nolan for whatever reason when I arrived - probably because he was on first. But I listened to Van broadcast the Bills when the games weren't on TV, and heard him do the play-by-play of the NBA's Braves. He was obviously really good, an announcer who could bring the action to life. Our high school group watched him courtside as he broadcast Braves' games. When one of the Buffalo players went up for a dunk, Van rose from his chair right along with him to give him a figurative boost to the hoop.

More importantly, I saw Van for the first time up close in person during the winter of 1972-73. My high school fielded a team for the quiz show, "It's Academic." Van was the host. The taping was held at the Ch. 4 studios on Elmwood Ave. As a high school reporter, I talked my way into joining the studio audience for the show so I could write about it for the school paper. Van was glib and professional as a broadcaster in that role too. I no doubt was too shy to say anything to him at the time, but it was something of a thrill to see a real NFL/NBA announcer in the flesh.

After 1973, I went to college, came back to Buffalo, and started to pop up in local press boxes for games. I went to enough of them to become a familiar face, and got to know just about everyone in the sports media in town. That eventually included Van, probably through my friend and Ch. 4 weekend sports reporter Brian Blessing. It was easy to see that Van had something of an on/off switch. Sometimes he'd be quiet and sit in the background. Of the three TV sports directors at the time, Van probably was the least accessible - with Ed Kilgore the most visible and open, and Rick Azar just ahead of Van. But when the situation called for it, Van could turn on the personality and become the person you saw on the air. When I introduced him to friends, because all of them knew Van and wanted to meet him, he was always friendly and gracious to them.Van would joke a little with the guys and flirt a little with the girls.

When I started working for the Sabres, Van would sometimes call up for information. Let's say there was no other caller like him. I'd pick up the phone and hear, "It's Uncle Van!" I'd laugh and say hello, and then Van would say, "Where are WE practicing today?" Sometimes I'd answer, "I don't know where you and I are practicing, Van, but the team is out at Sabreland in Wheatfield." All in good fun.

One of my favorite Van stories centered on a conversation in the Sabres' pregame media room, where dinner was served. My friend Glenn and I were talking about football free agency with Van over a meal. It should be noted that the media room frequently ran out of silverware, causing some odd eating moments. Well, Glenn made the point that no matter how much money Bills' star Bruce Smith was getting, it was a bargain compared to what he'd make as an unrestricted free agent. Van looked at Glenn and said, "You make a good point for a guy who eats steak with a spoon." We all dissolved into laughter.

One time Van and I were talking when he showed up a little late for a game, and I told him, "It's 2-2, but the game is closer than the score indicates." He loved it - he repeated on the air a few times over the years.

Eventually in the late 1990s, Van started to cut back on his duties. He retired from Ch. 4 in 1998, and stayed on the Bills' broadcasts until 2003. I'd see him occasionally at events, watching the slow decline that can come with moving into one's 80s. The last time I saw him was in 2013, when Larry Felser - whose story parallels Van's for me when it comes to going from larger-than-life figure to friend - died. At Larry's funeral, Van wore a Bills sweatshirt. He's the only one who could get away with it. I made sure to go up to him after the service - "Hi Van, it's Budd Bailey, good to see you again." He said the right things back, but it was tough to tell as he spoke through his personal fog how much he actually remembered.

That's not the way I want to remember him, of course. I can still hear him providing the soundtrack to some great moments in Buffalo sports history, expertly described with genuine enthusiasm. There won't be another like "Uncle Van" any time soon.

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