With halftime approaching in the 1996 Elite Eight matchup between Kentucky and Wake Forest, a stern voice crackled from her earpiece.
“Michele Tafoya, get down to the table right away.”
As Tafoya wove her way from courtside to press row feeling a bit like a kid called to the principal’s office, she crossed paths with fellow broadcaster Sean McDonough, who was about to sprint off through the Metrodome’s maze to find a place he could, uh, toss his cookies.
“Michele came over, almost with a look on her face like, ‘What are you doing to me?’ ” McDonough recalled. “And I remember saying to her, ‘I’m sorry. Oh, believe me, I’m not trying to do this to you, and I will come back as fast as I can. If I can.’ ”
That’s how Tafoya, the Emmy-winning sideline reporter for NBC Sunday Night Football and the Olympics, made her first appearance as a play-by-play announcer — literally called off the bench at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
McDonough, sick with flu-like symptoms, had drank some lemony concoction his stats guy swore would prevent him from losing his voice. But that led him to counting down the clock, cursing every whistle, realizing he might not make it to halftime.
At the under-four-minute media timeout, he told producers he needed a bucket or a swift exit. They chose the latter. Enter Tafoya.
The 31-year-old was only about two years into her stint with CBS Sports. Suddenly, she had to call an important basketball game in front of a large national TV audience. And she had never done it before in her life.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” Tafoya said, recalling how the statistician kept pointing to the number 10 on the reference board, trying to communicate how a player had scored his 10th point. “… I had no idea what he meant, so I just looked at him like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”
In all, Tafoya was only wearing the headset for about 10 real-time minutes, finishing out the first half before McDonough made his recovery. Tafoya said it’s still mostly a blur, but she does remember some surprising aftermath.
Like how some people really took offense to analyst Bill Raftery, who introduced Tafoya as “a much better-looking partner” than McDonough. And later, when Kentucky players swarmed Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan, Raftery told Tafoya, “You have this same problem when you walk into a room, a lot of people are attracted to you.”
Tafoya laughed it off with a quippy “not that quickly,” knowing Raftery was just trying to lighten the mood.
“We were in a situation where we had to explain to the audience why I’m suddenly sitting there doing play-by-play, and we had to make it not seem like Sean was off dying somewhere,” Tafoya said. “… It was just funny, and honest to goodness, it did not bother me in the least because he’s a friend of mine.”
One article insinuated Tafoya hadn’t wanted to give the headset back to McDonough, when in reality, she was so uncomfortable, she would have paid him to retake his spot. But producers waited until the second half to make the transition.
The chaos did earn Tafoya a small piece of history: the first woman to call TV play-by-play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Tafoya joked she’s not sure what she did really qualified, considering all she can remember saying was, “And it’s Duncan with the shot!”
McDonough, though, called Tafoya a pro’s pro, and he misses working with her talent and intelligence now that he’s at ESPN. Reliving this cringeworthy, can’t-help-but-laugh-at-it memory actually spurred him to call her and catch-up.
Tafoya, who lives in Edina, went on to call collegiate women’s basketball and volleyball around the Twin Cities as well as the WNBA. But that basketball game from nearly 25 years ago still remains as one of the craziest days on the job.
“I remember one writer wrote something like, ‘Wow, a female did play-by-play, and we’re all here, still alive to talk about it,’ ” Tafoya said. “As though, you know what? It’s really OK.
“This can be done.”