A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

A tribute to legendary NKY radio broadcaster, Dale McMillen, who died Sunday at age 74

By Don Owen
Special to NKyTribune
 
If there is a radio broadcaster’s table in Heaven, a glorious catchphrase is being uttered today, 12 words that most fans of 9th Region basketball knew by heart in the 1970s:
 
“Mark it down, circle it, and put a star next to it.”
 
Those were the unforgettable words of Dale McMillen, a legendary Northern Kentucky radio broadcaster who passed away Sunday at the age of 74. McMillen’s descriptions of 9th Region basketball games were inimitable, his enthusiasm for Northern Kentucky hoops melodiously flowing over the airwaves with every basket, rebound, and blocked shot.
 
He brought audio bliss to many listeners with his unique style of broadcasting. McMillen’s radio resume included numerous basketball and football games, both high school and college. He even served as Northern Kentucky University’s sports information director in the 1970s, and was also the Norsemen’s first radio play-by-play announcer on WHKK-FM.

Dale interviews Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson. Photo from Kenton County Library archives.

McMillen eventually took his talented voice across the river to become the play-by-play broadcaster for both the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University. But for many of us, Dale McMillen was the ultimate authority for northern Kentucky high school basketball in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
During my freshman year in high school, I recall McMillen and broadcasting sidekick Hardy Tribble making an appearance at old Newport High School to bring the action of a big game in the ‘Cats Den. In today’s vernacular, McMillen and Tribble visiting your school for a broadcast would have been termed “like seeing two rock stars enter the building.”
 
Back then it was a thrill to see the Voice of 9th Region Basketball in the house, calling the action, and providing a postgame radio show at the scorer’s table with the “WHKK 101 FM” banner displayed on the front. To many of us, McMillen was a celebrity, and his presence in the gym on a Friday evening meant instant validation—and proof you were indeed watching the game of the week in the 9th Region.
 
Without knowing it, McMillen also helped provide much-needed consolation at a pivotal moment in my teenage years. And I never forgot it.
 
It happened on March 12, 1977. A damp Saturday evening, made even more miserable by the final seconds of an epic battle between Holmes and Newport. I even remember the time, around 10 p.m.
 
Holmes had just knocked off visiting Newport, 77-76, to repeat as 9th Region champions. The Bulldogs also denied the Wildcats their first regional title since 1962 and deprived a heartbroken 14-year-old boy of a trip to Louisville’s Freedom Hall for the upcoming Sweet 16.
 
Just for the record, I was that heartbroken 14-year-old boy, and a huge Newport fan. Doug Schloemer had personally shattered Newport’s hopes of a regional title by draining a baseline jumper with one second remaining to give Holmes the victory. Schloemer’s shot devastated many fans in the Newport section of a packed Evans Fieldhouse crowd, which included my older brother and me. Many people today still consider that showdown between Holmes and Newport the greatest game in 9th Region Tournament history.
 
Sitting in the passenger seat of my older brother’s 1975 Chevrolet Laguna that night, both of us suffering through the somberness of the drive home, I turned on WHKK to hear the postgame reaction. It hurt to hear victorious Holmes head coach Reynolds Flynn tell McMillen about the great feeling of winning the regional title. Two straight trips to the Sweet 16, and Flynn was understandably ecstatic. And he had every right to be. If Newport had won, I’m sure Wildcat head coach Bob Vanderpool would have been equally happy.
 
Schloemer then joined McMillen for an on-air interview, and the Holmes superstar politely shunned any talk of his winning shot and instead offered praise for Newport. In fact, Schloemer even said he could not imagine playing a better team than Newport at the state tournament, and he believed the Wildcats might have won the state championship if they had survived the 9th Region battle with Holmes.
 
McMillen agreed with Schloemer — who even as a junior in high school was articulate and supremely mature — and said Newport was one of the best teams in the state and had been a joy to broadcast that season.
 
While I might have been a sore loser and upset by the fact my school had been eliminated, I gained an unexpected measure of respect for Schloemer by listening to his interview. If not for Dale McMillen, my admiration for Schloemer — the person, not the basketball star — might not have commenced that evening.
 
But with McMillen providing 9th Region basketball this tremendous exposure on radio, I learned Schloemer was not the villain I had imagined the entire season. He was just an outstanding basketball player who happened to torment my favorite team with many points and rebounds — and a last-second jumper to give Holmes the 9th Region championship. Schloemer was also incredibly humble, and his interview that night caused me to become a closet fan of his and Holmes the following season, when they came within an overtime — and a controversial block/goaltending by Shelby County’s Charles Hurt — of winning the 1978 state title.
 
Years later while writing for The Kentucky Post, I interviewed that same Doug Schloemer for a Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame feature. The same articulate and gracious person, now an adult, a practicing attorney, and a former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, Schloemer answered my questions with a humility and profoundness that took me back to that night in which he interviewed with Dale McMillen on WHKK.
 
Finally, almost apologetically, I brought up the winning shot he had made against Newport, warning him beforehand I was a Wildcat fan and a brokenhearted kid that night in 1977.
 
Schloemer laughed and recalled the final moments of the game, but he also assured me that particular Newport team was outstanding. I even summoned the courage to ask him about a controversial play near the end of that game, when one referee overruled his officiating partner on a ball that went out of bounds off of either Newport’s Dave Schlosser or — you guessed it —Schloemer himself. I might have been in my 30s and writing for a daily newspaper, but the 14-year-old boy in me from 1977 needed to know the answer (which I will keep to myself) as I sat at the computer terminal in the Cincinnati Post building on East Court Street typing in his quotes.
 
After ending the interview, I could only reflect back to Schloemer’s postgame radio chat with Dale McMillen in 1977. And how my own sports-related pilgrimage, one that led me from teenage sore-loser mentality to objective sports writer, had been completed full circle in some respects. I had just spent thirty minutes speaking on the phone to a person I once considered the bad guy on the basketball court; he was instead a true gentleman and one of the classiest individuals I had ever interviewed.
 
That is a small-but-memorable story in my life, courtesy of Dale McMillen and his broadcasting legacy. There are countless others who have stories about McMillen, his meaning in their lives, and what those cold winter nights listening to his voice on WHKK meant. Mine is just a miniscule sample, a seemingly innocuous moment from 1977, but an example of how the vast legend forged by Dale McMillen still resonates 40 years later.
 
For many of us, Dale McMillen will always be remembered as the original Voice of 9th Region Basketball. A former colleague of mine summed it up best, saying, “Dale is a Northern Kentucky treasure. No one described the action like him. He made a lot of winter nights bearable for people in the 9th Region by coming into their homes through the radio. He was the radio guy who pulled for both teams to win the same game the same night, and there was never a loser in his eyes. Dale inspired an entire generation of listeners and probably didn’t even realize it.”
 
Mark it down, circle it, and put a star next to it.
 

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2 Comments

  1. Dougl Schloemer says:

    Don, thanks for the kind words. Dale will be missed by many. He was NKY sports as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Mel Carroll says:

    Seeing Dale and Hardy in the Holmes Gym
    (Evans Fieldhouse) was always a pleasure.

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