It’s generally not my style to slide into a place right before it shuts down but given the limitations of the 24-hour day and my 28-hour lifestyle, I had no choice and hurried into a Miami supermarket minutes before closing.
Just outside the store was a heavy-set security guard on his golf cart counting the seconds to get home to his family and finish watching the Heat game he had begun to listen to on the radio. As I zipped past him, I noted that he was listening to the Heat broadcast in Spanish, which has been aptly narrated by José Pañeda for the last 24 years.
Though I have known Pañeda for longer than we both remember, it had been quite a while since I listened to his call of a game. I rapidly picked up the couple items I needed and as I made my way out of the store, I stopped and checked on the score from the helpful guard who patiently held the door open for me — a rare sign of hospitality in a too-often rude South Florida.
Armando, a resident of Westchester via Esteli, Nicaragua, informed me the Heat was matando (killing) Lebron’s former team, the Cavaliers. As Armando accompanied me to my car while expanding on the Heat’s powerhouse squad, I heard Pañeda’s call of the action on the court from Armando’s transistor radio, which was conveniently fastened to his holster.
The narration was accurate, clean and, most important, it had the warmth and familiarity that characterize Pañeda’s style. I asked Armando if he listened to Pañeda’s broadcast because he didn’t speak English?
“I speak English. I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, for 12 years before coming to Miami,” he bellowed. “I listen to Pañeda because I like his enthusiasm and energy.”
I figured my brush with the attentive security guard was a sign from the basketball gods that I needed to touch base with my longtime friend Pañeda, whom I had not seen in several years. When we met up last week, we spoke of his ascension to becoming the Heat’s voice in español and of the blossoming of the organization from an “also ran” operation to one of sports’ premiere franchises.
“I started selling ticket packages before the franchise even had a name,” the Belen High and Florida International University graduate told me. The first Spanish voice of the Heat was the late Sarvelio del Valle, a beloved Cuban sportscaster. After the inaugural season, Sarvelio announced he would not be able to go on the road with the ball club and that opened up the opportunity for the hardworking kid. “I knew very little about broadcasting but I was eager to learn,” Pañeda said.
Learn he did. After management reluctantly gave him the nod, José Pañeda began to hone his broadcasting skills and the Spanish language — eventually becoming one of the most respected Spanish voices in sports. “I’ve never taken my position for granted. I have a great responsibility to my community and listeners,” he reflected as I told him about my experience with his fan, the security guard.
Pañeda is one of a scant few Spanish radio voices in the NBA. The league has seemingly become more conscious of Latinos in recent years. Several teams now don jerseys sprinkled with Spanish words for a few games a season. Here in Miami, it’s “ Los Miami Heat” whose games Pañeda has been passionately narrating for nearly a quarter century — nurturing the loyalty of his audience.
The other night when I said goodbye to Armando, the Heat fan security guard, his farewell spoke volumes of how Hispanic Heat fans feel about José Pañeda’s work.
“ Vaya con cuidado,” Go with caution, he said. As he walked away and Pañeda’s play-by play trailed off, Armando added: “I’ll stay here a little while longer with my friend José.”