IN 15 SEASONS AS THE DENVER NUGGETS’ PA ANNOUNCER AND 12 AS THE TEAM’S CHAPLAIN, KYLE SPELLER IS USING HIS GIFTS AND TALENTS TO HYPE THE PLAYERS ON THE COURT, AND HELP THEM OFF THE COURT IN THEIR WALKS WITH THE LORD.
Kyle Speller was standing in the busy Pepsi Center hallway that leads to the locker rooms when he noticed something was up. Dozens of screens line the walls, displaying motion-graphic images of the Denver Nuggets — All-Star Nikola Jokic, veteran Paul Millsap, star rookie Michael Porter Jr. — but Speller saw a few players huddled around a smaller screen. He was lingering in the hall because arena workers moved the chapel room, so as the Nuggets’ team chaplain, he was trying to make sure guys knew where to go — players from both the Nuggets and visiting Houston Rockets, as chapel services in the NBA are open to both teams.
Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee stood down the hallway on this Sunday afternoon looking intently at someone’s phone, apparently receiving some unsettling news. After a few moments, they made their way to chapel. “Is everything OK?” Speller asked as the players entered the room. They sat down and shared what they’d just learned.
Kobe Bryant was dead.
Whatever message Speller had prepared for chapel was scrapped.
“In that moment, I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to say,” Speller remembered. “The only thing that I know to do in moments like that is to pray. So we just prayed. Just spoke whatever the Lord was laying on my heart.”
After he closed and the players returned to their locker rooms, Speller walked back down the hallway and out to the court. Stunned, he thought of games he’d seen on that very court, not too long ago, in which Bryant tormented the Nuggets with his other-worldly skill. Speller had one of the best seats in the house for those contests, because he’s also the Nuggets’ public address announcer.
So he sat down in his courtside seat, roughly three paces toward the Denver bench from midcourt, and put on his headset. He learned from his in-game entertainment directors that a plan was being put together to honor Bryant in some manner.
“I got the script that I read about eight minutes before I was supposed to read it,” he said, explaining that nearly everything he says over the PA system has to be approved. He usually has more time to review scripts.
But a plan came to fruition and Speller led the arena in a powerful moment. “Ladies and gentlemen, basketball fans,” Speller announced, “a tragedy has befallen the world of basketball.” He mentioned the crash, then proceeded to list Bryant’s more notable basketball accomplishments. “Please join us in a moment of silence for Kobe Bryant,” Speller continued. “Rest in peace, Mamba.”
Because this early Nuggets-Rockets game was the first on the NBA slate for Jan. 26, video of the tribute was picked up and shown by networks all over the country. Speller felt honored to be a small part in honoring Bryant’s life.
Never before had Speller’s dual role of announcer/chaplain been put on such display. Never again does Speller hope to endure such a heavy night.
“It was a reminder that tomorrow is not promised to anyone,” Speller says. “You gotta know where you’re going to spend eternity.”
“It’s a privilege to have both roles and I don’t take it for granted. I appreciate it, I’m grateful. As the announcer, I’m one of 30 people in the world. I’m like, ‘God just blessed me.’ When it’s like that, I just want to serve.” — Kyle Speller
Most of Speller’s nights at the Pepsi Center are like the one Sports Spectrum spent with him a week and a half before. Fist bumps and hugs everywhere he goes — to players, coaches, fans, ushers, anyone he’s seen more than once or twice in the arena. And that makes for a lot of people, this being his 15th season as Denver’s PA announcer.
Our evening begins at 4:50 p.m. local time, about 20 minutes later than Speller had hoped. He had a meeting at his twin boys’ high school that morning, which put him behind in his day job at Comcast, which meant he left his South Denver office a little late, and his drive up Interstate-25 was slowed by traffic, so it looks like he won’t be having dinner tonight. All he has time for is a cup of coffee because he needs to make his way up to the second floor, through a maze of hallways, for the in-game entertainment pregame meeting at 5:15.
About 17 minutes later, Speller — 48 years old, shaved head, dressed in a nicely-pressed charcoal suit, standing 6-foot-6, or “6-7 with shoes on” — heads back down to the court. Before leaving the second floor, he’s got a hug for Ken, who’s in a wheelchair and working security by checking the credentials of anyone coming off the elevator. Upon exiting the tunnel leading to the court, Speller also has a hug for Vicki, the most loyal fan the franchise has ever known. As he nears his courtside perch, Speller bumps fists with Woody, a security guard stationed behind one of the baskets.
As he settles in, Speller chats with his assistant for the night, who helps him stay on track with all the action going on around them. Speller reviews and jots notes on his script, marking words he needs to enunciate and ideal spots to pause in his delivery. But before long, it’s time to be chaplain again. He heads back past Vicki and down the hallway to set up whichever room he’s given for chapel; they’ll be in Dressing Room #1 tonight, he’s told.
We spend a few minutes rearranging chairs and tables, giving the nondescript room as much of a welcoming feel as possible. Then it’s down the hallway further to the visiting locker room. At 5:56, Speller pops in to tell the Charlotte Hornets that chapel will be in Dressing Room #1 and starts at 6 p.m. (Any player interested should already know it always starts 60 minutes before tip-off.) About five minutes later, two Hornets and three Nuggets join Speller.
After roughly 20 minutes, they emerge. Speller says tonight’s message centered on Isaiah 40:31 (KJV): “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” He has dozens of messages he’s delivered to NBA players, and yes, occasionally he’ll use a sermon more than once. With so much turnover in the NBA, the odds of someone hearing the same message twice are slim, but it has happened. “I really just try to rely on the Holy Spirit; that’s the only way I know to do it,” he says.
By 6:27 p.m., Speller is back courtside and it’s game time — for him, at least. Before the teams return for layup lines, the court is buzzing with pregame TV broadcasts, arena sponsor promotions and kids getting a chance to walk on an NBA court. Speller has a few minutes to chat as some young musicians are brought out for a quick performance.
He explains that his duties for the Nuggets are a dream (announcing) and a calling (pastoring), but his day job supports his family of five (wife Tomeka; 21-year-old daughter Tyler; 18-year-old twin boys Christian and Christopher). He works for Comcast full time as an Employee Onboarding Specialist, meaning he oversees new and promoted leaders to help them get acclimated. It’s Monday through Friday, but his supervisors allow him a flexible schedule; he tries to go in early and aims to leave at 3:30 or 4 p.m. on game days.
Speller has been a Nuggets fan ever since he moved to Denver from Brooklyn, N.Y., as an 8-year-old with his mother in 1979. Basketball brought him to Eastern Wyoming Junior College, and two years later to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo., an NAIA school that transitioned into an NCAA Division II school his senior year. He was “definitely a banger,” a rebounder whom one of the coaches nicknamed “Hatchet” because he always brought “a lot of physicality.”
After college, he harbored dreams of a pro career, and was invited to a tryout with the Nuggets. He had also started doing some voiceover work, and had a hunch he might have more of a future in that than basketball. So after his tryout, he asked some Nuggets staffers about announcing. Nothing ever panned out. He went into full-time ministry with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) as an urban director in Denver, and he later became an ordained youth pastor, while also finding voiceover gigs.
Then in 2005 — 12 years after he graduated from Adams State with an English degree, emphasis in broadcast journalism; after going into full-time ministry and then stepping out; after taking a job with Comcast — the Nuggets fan was on the team’s website and saw an ad. “Grab your microphones,” it read. He looked further and sure enough, the Nuggets were looking for a PA announcer.
“I saw the ad and I showed it to my wife, and she was like, ‘That’s your job. That’s your job.’ I’ll never forget that,” Speller says.
So he went into a studio in his Comcast building and needed only five minutes to record a demo and burn it onto a CD — “because I had been doing it in my head for years.” The Nuggets told him his audition was the only one they liked. “I’ve been here ever since,” he says.
As he joined the organization, the Nuggets were growing into regular contenders with a young forward named Carmelo Anthony. In Speller’s second season, Denver acquired perennial All-Star Allen Iverson. A.I.’s first game is one that stands out to Speller. “That game and that moment,” he recalls, “I can’t believe I’m getting ready to introduce Allen Iverson — is that it?”
The young musicians have stopped playing. Speller quickly switches into announcer mode — his voice an octave higher, syllables carried out a little longer: “Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Colorado Youth Symphony! To find out how you can participate in a prime-time performance, please contact the group sales department.”
Speller laughs. “We didn’t know if they were finished or not.” Before he continues on about Iverson, he’s got another announcement, this time about the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Denver.
Back to Iverson, Speller remembers watching the breaking news on TV showing Iverson stepping off a private plane in a blizzard. The fan in him first felt “ultimate excitement” at the idea of an NBA legend joining the Nuggets. But then the announcer in him started thinking, “How am I going to announce him?” He says he ultimately didn’t do anything too crazy.
“Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. You gotta know where you’re going to spend eternity.” — Kyle Speller
As our courtside conversation carries on, we discuss the uniqueness of chapel services in the NBA, where players from opposing teams attend the same service just an hour before taking the court against each other. Does he ever sense any tension?
“No, I don’t ever feel that,” he says. “The way players are kind of conditioned nowadays, [they’re like], ‘Off the court, we’re cordial; when we’re on the court, that’s when we don’t have any friends.’ … It’s interesting to see that type of dynamic sometimes where I’m watching a game and I see a couple guys that we were just fellowshipping [with], but now they’re out there on the court and they are fighting, brawls and all. It’s funny to watch. But that’s basketball, that’s competitiveness.”
In his dual role, Speller has the rare opportunity to go deeper with some of the players he’s announcing. Now in his 12th season as chaplain, he’s cultivated many relationships, mostly with Nuggets. But he’s such a consistent and energetic presence that the regular chapel-goers on visiting teams look forward to visiting Denver. He’s never missed a game or a chapel.
“He’s been the guy — even when I wasn’t here, I looked forward to Denver’s chapel just because he’s so passionate about it,” says seven-year veteran Mason Plumlee, who was traded to the Nuggets in February 2017. “He brings good energy, and he’s well-studied too. He keeps it fresh every time. For us, with our schedules, it’s hard to go to a traditional service, so we lean on him a lot.”
Though Speller was an NBA fan long before he became so entrenched in the league, he’s never starstruck when players walk into chapel…
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