DALLAS — Matt Bullard is now in his 25th season in the NBA, his 14th as a broadcaster with the Houston Rockets.
And Bullard, 51, a West Des Moines native who played for the University of Iowa between 1988 and 1990, credits legendary former Hawkeye coach Tom Davis for laying the foundation to play 12 years professionally, 11 in the NBA, and to then successfully transition into broadcasting.
After spending his first two seasons at Colorado, where he was named Big 8 freshman of the year in 1986, Bullard returned to the Hawkeye State to play for Iowa, a textbook no-brainer.
“When I look back on that decision, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but his coaching and forward thinking of putting big guys like me and Brad Lohaus out around the 3-point line and letting us shoot, that gave me the foundation to be able to come to the NBA and be a 3-point shooter. If I had not played for Dr. Tom, I may not be sitting here today.”
To say Bullard takes great pride in his Hawkeye roots is an immense understatement. He’s always happy to see fellow Iowa natives also making their livings in the NBA, like Mike Bourn, a scout, Chad Buchanan, Indiana’s general manager, and Nick Nurse, in his first season as Toronto’s head coach.
“It’s a great basketball state,” he said. “Gives me a lot of pride to be from Iowa and to see all my friends around in the NBA still. In fact, there’s a word for us here in the NBA. We’re called the Iowa mafia. It’s cool that in the NBA circles that all of us from Iowa are still known as Iowa boys.”
Of course, that list includes fellow ex-Hawkeye Ryan Bowen, who now works as an assistant coach in Denver, a frequent opponent of the Rockets.
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“Yeah, Flyin’ Ryan Bowen. He played for the Rockets when I was doing Rockets TV, so early in his career we got to be in the same organization,” Bullard said. “Ryan and I became good friends at that point. Now whenever we see him, it’s always fun to catch up and see how his family’s doing. He’s doing great there. The Nuggets are really having a great season. In fact, the Rockets and the Nuggets this year have had some of the best games that I’ve seen.”
Bullard spent nine of his 11 seasons as an NBA player in Houston and in 1994 was part of the Rockets’ first of back-to-back championships. All told, he’s spent 23 of his 25 seasons as an NBA player or broadcaster in the Bayou City, something he calls an incredible blessing.
“I bleed Rocket red,” he said. “It’s been surreal to think back over the last 25 years that I’m still with the Rockets. I feel like I’m sort of ingrained in the Rockets history a little bit. I’m actually more well-known as a broadcaster now than I was as a player back in the day. That’s a little bit hard to take because I still think of myself as a player, but I am getting older.”
During his time as a broadcaster, he’s worked alongside Rockets legends Clyde Drexler and Calvin Murphy, both Hall of Fame players, and longtime franchise play-by-play man Bill Worrell, who also called Astros baseball for two decades.
As both a player and broadcaster, he’s seen countless great players suit up for the Rockets and their opponents. But Bullard admits there’s no one like Houston’s current superstar James Harden, a seven-time All-Star and the reigning NBA MVP who is simply incomparable.
“James Harden’s having a season that’s historic. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George are having great seasons, no doubt, but what Harden is doing is historic,” Bullard said. “The numbers that he’s putting up, only Wilt Chamberlain has surpassed. Michael Jordan’s in the rearview mirror. Kobe Bryant’s in the rearview mirror. Oscar Robertson’s in the rearview mirror. We’re watching it on a nightly basis. It’s not lost on me how incredible it is.”
During his playing days, Bullard, like many of his NBA brethren, became somewhat addicted to the adrenaline rush of playing in the league.
And despite being retired for nearly 17 years, he admits calling games is a great way for him to remain close to a game he loves while experiencing a different type of adrenaline rush.
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“It’s not the same as playing, it’s more like a theatrical performance,” he said. “It’s more like an improv-type thing, so there’s still the same adrenaline rush.
“It’s not the same as playing, but it still kind of scratches that itch a little bit.
“Playing skills, broadcasting skills and coaching skills are three different things. I used to have the playing skills and now I’ve developed the broadcasting skills. And I’ve gotten to see some of the greatest coaches of all time use their coaching skills — Rudy Tomjanovich, Jeff Van Gundy, Rick Adelman and now Mike D’Antoni. I’ve gotten to see what great coaching looks like, too. It’s really cool to continue to do this job and to be able to learn so much on a nightly basis.”