Jim Zabel: Gone too soon at 91

'Z' made countless friends and memories in Iowa and beyond

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It's going to take a while to wrap my mind around the fact Jim Zabel has died, even though he was 91 years old.

Though I guess he technically was retired from WHO Radio, he was still doing  "Two Guys Named Jim" for the station on Sunday nights with former Iowa State football coach Jim Walden. The last time I listened to the show, which was in mid-February, he still had enthusiasm and fun in his voice.

The last full broadcast of that show was May 12. Sunday's program was interrupted for the station's coverage of severe weather.

His wife, Jill, said "Z" died Thursday while working on that show. Maybe he was working on his ad libs, as I heard him say many a time.

Zabel's voice and personality thundered across Iowa and the Midwest in an era when radio ruled. First, there were no televised games. Then, there were very few. But there always was radio, 50,000 booming watts of it sending word-pictures into kitchens, cars, warehouses, and bedrooms of boys who liked to listen to college basketball broadcasts on winter nights.

Zabel was synonymous with his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes, of course, but I remember hearing him call Drake games when the Bulldogs were mighty good in the 1960s. He also was a fixture at high school state basketball tournaments and the Drake Relays. In central Iowa, he was a big television presence, too, be it sportscasts or "Beat the Bear," or "Let's Go Bowling."

The state knew him, though, from broadcasting Hawkeye football and basketball games. He called Iowa football games for 49 years. He was an unabashed homer, he could play fast and loose with details of the game, and it didn't really matter. He made mundane games sound fun, he made big games sound enormous, and none of it was faked. He loved it, he loved it, he loved it.

It's late Thursday night morphing into Friday morning, and if I were to call everyone I know who knew Zabel better than I did and had fabulous stories to tell about him, I'd be on the phone until July. But I do have personal memories that I'll happily share now.

In 1986, the Iowa men's basketball team, with just-hired coach Tom Davis, went on a two-week trip to South Korea and China to play, I think, eight games. The only media to accompany the team were me, the Gazette's beat writer for Hawkeye basketball at the time, and Zabel. However, it was merely a vacation for him. He was a widower at the time, and there was no better vacation in his mind than traveling for a couple weeks with a Hawkeyes team.

I have no idea how it happened, but I bopped around Seoul's Itaewon shopping district one night with Zabel and Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl. Details are hazy -- it was a long time ago -- but I remember we all had a lot of laughs though none of us really knew each other yet.

I had my own hotel room in Seoul. But once we got to China, I was assigned a roommate. It was Zabel. I think we were both uneasy about it. Davis still finds it funny. "Z" was 64. I was 28. He was black-and-gold to the bone. I was not. I just wanted to write the stories, whether the team was good, bad or neither.

Our first stop in China was Shanghai. We stayed in luxury hotels in Seoul, Beijing and Hong Kong. But the hotel in Shanghai was roughing it. It wasn't much to look at inside or out, and it was a haven for roaches. The only way I was able to fall asleep there -- to the sound of the roaches scurrying about -- was to get a little medicated. By that, I mean by hitting the hotel bar.  Tsingtao beer was my late-night friend for a couple nights.

Like I said, I was 28 and Zabel was 64. Yet, he outlasted me at the bar every night. I'd be asleep when he got back to the room, and he'd wake up before me in the morning as if he'd done nothing more the night before than have a glass of warm milk. He'd put on a collared shirt and sport coat, even though the weather was very warm everywhere we went, and he would be ready to hop on the team bus and go touring to whatever amazing sightseeing opportunity awaited that day.

He couldn't simply watch the basketball games in the evenings, though. Soon into the trip, he was taping play-by-play. I don't know if the tapes aired on WHO or if Iowa matched them up to game film, but he wanted to broadcast, not spectate.

It was kind of inspiring, to tell you the truth. All of it.

After the basketball was done in China, the traveling party flew to Hong Kong for a weekend of strictly tourist stuff before jetting home across the Pacific. On the flight, the Chinese airline's very friendly staff was a little too friendly. They passed out complimentary cognac. To everyone, including the players.

It became a silly flight. It came after two weeks on the road in totally unfamiliar places, a lot of basketball games, a lot of food that was unusual and not always appealing to us, a lot of touring, a lot of summer heat, and a lot of people who could easily have been very grouchy. Traveling can be hard work.

Actually, some of the adults on the trip acted as silly on the flight as the players, if not more. I'm not talking about anything scandalous. Just wearing wacky hats, posing for funny photos, that sort of thing. Even always-dignified trainer John Strief, who did a typically masterful job of keeping the trip on the tracks the whole time, allowed himself to loosen up a little. I remember that blew the mind of player Bill Jones, a good young guy who tried to act cool as a rule.

Hong Kong was a virtual steam bath when we got there late that night, and everyone was exhausted as they rode from the airport to the hotel. As we sat together on the bus, Zabel quietly asked me not to write about anything I saw or heard on the flight. It was asked to protect his team, but it was a common-sense suggestion that I heeded. No one had done anything unseemly on the flight. Some tired travelers let their hair down for a little while, and that was that. Zabel, who had seen and done far more in his life than I had or ever will, knew it was no big deal.

The next morning, he was up and at 'em, ready to go see Hong Kong.

Before that trip, I had looked at him from a distance as a homer and an egomaniac. I didn't think broadcasters should be such blatant fans of the team they covered, or promoters of products, or self-promoters. And I still think that. But once you got to know Zabel, that stuff simply didn't bother you because you saw things that were more important. You quickly learned he was genuine. You saw how so many people brightened when they were around him. You never heard any meanness from him. You realized what an intelligent person of so many interests beyond sports he was.

Mostly, you found out he was a hell of a guy who was a lot of fun to be around. Once or twice I got to dine with Zabel, Bob Brooks and Ron Gonder somewhere on the road on the night before an Iowa basketball game. You could have been eating gruel and the experience still would have been delightful.

The last time I saw Zabel was in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December 2011. He was at an Insight Bowl press conference, in a wheelchair. He lived nearby. But though he was frail and finally had begun to look his age, he still was full of laughs, stories, jokes, memories for everyone there that he knew, and probably a few people he didn't. He reminded me of the time we were roommates in China and laughed.

I'm just one person. Thousands of thousands and thousands of Iowans and Americans have their own warm memories about "Z." How many people go through this life and have that said about them?


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