Jesus. What If Howard Eskin Was Your Dad?
The first thing you notice about Spike Eskin is how little the 36-year-old resembles his father. Lean and wiry, with blond hair that stands at attention, Spike gives off a preppy rocker vibe, like a hipster who showers regularly and enjoys the NBA unironically. He’s wearing purple and red Nike high-tops, and the sleeves of his olive green flannel shirt are rolled up, revealing a rainbow of tattoos running down both arms. His first ink was on his right bicep: an image of the knife-wielding psycho from A Clockwork Orange. Spike was 17 and needed a parental permission form to get it. Howard doesn’t like tattoos and would call the average Eagles fan a dope for wanting one, but he signed anyway. Howard is mink coats and Rolexes. Spike is army jackets and rubber wristbands.
As much as Howard lacks introspection and a sense of humor, Spike is acutely self-aware and self-deprecating. His CBS bio ends with this line: “His father is Howard Eskin, but he’s asked that you not hold that against him.” When talk turns to the Sixers during his show, the first hint of a family resemblance surfaces.
“The NBA sucks,” Howard says, knowing it’s Spike’s favorite league.
“No it does not,” says Spike, looking his dad in the eye. “You’re out of the demo.”
“Why? Because I don’t like all that hip-hop nonsense at the All-Star Game?”
“What do you want? Six-foot white guys taking set shots? What’s the game supposed to be?”
“I want the game, as Larry Brown would say, to be played the right way. Gregg Popovich would say the same thing.”
Maybe it’s Howard’s name-drop of Brown that gets Spike riled up; along with Mike Schmidt, Andy Reid and Charles Barkley, the former Sixers coach is either one of Howard’s best sources or the possessor of one of the asses he kisses most, depending on your point of view. Spike loses his cool.
“Gregg Popovich is a coach in the NBA!” he yells, spittle flying. “He is part of the NBA product!”
Spike cools down, but Howard can’t resist tweaking him with some insider information from his son’s childhood: “Wait a minute. You’re the kid who liked John Starks, and he’s a stiff.”
“You like Doug Collins, and they’re 15 games under .500,” Spike says without a beat missed. “So I guess we’re even.”
That’s when things get really weird. First, they both laugh. Ask any of Howard’s co-hosts over the years—all of whom have suffered from post-traumatic Eskin disorder—and they’ll tell you that few arguments with him end in détente. Then, as Howard’s segment wraps up, I figure he’ll be out the door, en route to his Delaware County home or off to send flowers to Chip Kelly. Instead, he hangs out for another hour, microphone off, just listening. Howard would never do something as fun and goofy as Made-Up Trade Hour. But it turns out it’s a hit. The phone lines are full. One caller, Ethan, wants to send Sixers center Spencer Hawes back to Sacramento. “I admire you for punishing the team who gave you Spencer Hawes in the first place,” Spike says. “Ten for comedy, two for realism.” Howard cracks up.
Growing up in Glen Mills, Spike struggled to separate his father from “The King,” a 24-hour role that left Howard little time at home with his three sons and two daughters. Howard’s absence left holes he tried to fill by giving his eldest VIP treatment most kids would brag about for a lifetime. Spike wore Barkley’s massive Coogi sweaters, sat in the second row for Schmidt’s Hall of Fame induction, watched as the Cubs played the first night game at Wrigley, and slept over at Pete Rose’s house.
Howard rattles off such memories with pride, including a photo of father and son with Wayne Gretzky. For Spike, they’re bittersweet. “I had some amazing experiences,” he says. “The trade-off was, he wasn’t around a lot.” Maybe your dad helped you with extra batting practice after a Little League game; Spike’s threw out the first pitch one season—from a helicopter—and was nearly tossed from the stands once by an umpire. What Spike remembers about the Gretzky photo was that he was roughly eight years old and not entirely sure who the Great One was. “I was so un-thrilled,” he says. “For my dad, it never stopped. Sometimes when you’re a kid, you just want to sit down.”
That might sound like the whining of a suburban brat with a famous pop, but in another contrast that calls his DNA into question, Spike is humble and polite almost to a fault. One night at a Sixers game, as an intern hands out halftime stat sheets, he’s the only person on press row to offer an audible “Thank you.” He once sent the WIP morning crew an email to express his appreciation: “Thanks for being so gracious to me … as you can imagine, with my father’s history here, I wasn’t at all sure how my presence would be received. But you guys have always been supportive both on and off the air.”
He’s also quick to acknowledge what Howard’s hard work afforded him—an education at Episcopal Academy and Syracuse University, and local television and radio internships that jump-started his radio career. A stint at WYSP led Spike to an alt-rock station in Chicago, where he stuck with his college-radio pseudonym—referencing the punky haircut. By then, he’d also dropped his last name, to erase any hint of nepotism. Though he felt like a new person, Spike, like his dad, enjoyed being a renegade; as a program director, he once played a leaked White Stripes album, prompting a call from Jack White and making national news. He was also a bit of a hothead as a manager. “I learned to find what someone does well and bring that out of him,” he says of his eventual mellowing-out. “For most people, screaming doesn’t bring the best out of them.”
Spike returned home to ’YSP in 2007, but a few years later, when the station flipped formats to sports talk—the same day Howard “retired” from the afternoon drive—he found himself jobless. With nothing else to do, he developed a social-media presence through his sports and music website and a swelling Twitter account (now at 11,200 followers and climbing). That led to his current gig at CBS Radio, where he’s WIP’s social-media director and fill-in host, a sports editor for CBSPhilly.com, and a sports reporter for KYW Newsradio. “Going into WIP, I was scared about how people would perceive me,” he says. “I hear whispers in the industry that people think the only reason I got my job is because of my dad.” (A Twitter debate between Spike and Buzz Bissinger turned nasty when Spike took a jab at the writer: “Didn’t you write a good book 15 years ago?” Buzz later called him “a no-talent punk who got his job because of his father.”)
If those rumors swirled at WIP, the day they died was November 6, 2012, when Spike was the catalyst for what Cataldi calls “a miracle.” Howard and Cataldi were jousting over the Eagles’ disastrous season until Spike couldn’t take any more of his dad defending the coach. He ran down the hall from his office, and Cataldi waved him over to a microphone.
“Say he’s done a bad job!” Spike demanded. “Say it!”
“You’ve got to have players,” Howard demurred.
“Andy Reid picks the players! He picked the quarterback you’re complaining about! … Crush him!”
Cataldi sat back and let Spike hammer away until Howard finally surrendered: “Andy Reid’s done a bad job!” The morning-show crew erupted into applause and declared Spike a hero. “Howard has never given in to anyone on anything,” Cataldi says. “I guess we found his soft spot—his son.”