Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Keeping it real in the booth
By Bill Simmons
Editor's note: This column appears in the February 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
I love making fun of sports announcers. It's my bread and butter. Or as Shannon Sharpe might say, it's my breaded butter. So when ESPNU offered me a chance to provide the color for two college games last month, I jumped at the chance to see if announcing was more difficult than it seemed. Naturally, I assumed the experience would lead to some you-can't-believe-how-bad-I-was stories and a newfound appreciation for the genre.
Only one problem: It's not that hard.
Hoping for a D-minus and willing to settle for an F-plus, I ended up a solid C, even if my rickety pipes made me sound like the love child of a young Michael J. Fox and Robby Benson. Two things saved me: preparation and trust. As I found out, any color guy can survive by busting his butt doing research, memorizing jersey numbers, preparing relevant anecdotes, allowing his play-by-play guy and technical crew to handle the heavy lifting, coming up with a few observations and jokes and making sure he doesn't drop an f-bomb. That's pretty much it. Otherwise, it's just shaving, dressing, showing up and heeding the directions in your headset. It's really no different than working the drive-thru at McDonald's. Any basketball fan can handle the gig as long as he clicks with his partner and doesn't freeze on camera.
To be fair, fate did intervene: The network teamed me with Rob Stone, the voice of MLS and a good buddy of mine since college. So much for chemistry problems. We aimed for an unconventional broadcast, a Mystery Science Theater approach highlighted by top-five lists on topics like "Why You Should Apply to College in Southern California." Why not shake it up a little?
Our first assignment was San Francisco at Pepperdine, two floundering WCC teams playing in front of just 250 fans, thereby removing any and all pressure. I studied more tape than Bill Belichick before the AFC title game. By tip-off, I was practically a WCC expert, which ranks among the most useless talents I've ever had (right up there with my impersonation of Neil Diamond singing the Teletubbies theme song). Clicking with Stoner and breaking down the game turned out to be fairly easy; mastering the nuances was tougher, like Stoner teaching me how to apply makeup in the men's room. (I don't want to talk about it.) I drank too much water in an effort to keep my voice fresh, then had to fight off the urge to pee for an entire half. I forced myself to glance periodically at Stoner during those extended halftime close-ups even though it's easy to forget and to stare into the camera looking like Reche Caldwell. I wrapped up points as a producer counted down to commercial in my headset ("7 ... 6 ... 5 ... ") and watched replays without falling into the trap of narrating them. I waited for Stoner to finish talking before I jumped in and remembered to press the "COUGH" button before coughing. I even successfully ignored the inevitable headset-headache coma at the 90-minute mark.
Like anything else, the more you practice, the better you get. My biggest flaw? I didn't "punch" my points hard enough. For instance, in normal conversation I might say something like, "It's hard to believe Eddy Curry can gain weight and become more effective." As a TV guy, you have to say, "Eddy Curry is the only NBA player who can gain weight ... and become more ... effective." Takes some time to get that down. I also had some nagging vocal crutches I didn't catch until I watched the tapes. In the first game, I said "uh" too many times. In the second game, between San Diego and St. Mary's, I started too many of my points with the phrase "I'll tell ya." I'll tell ya, I probably said "I'll tell ya ... " 50 times in two hours. And I'll tell ya, I had no idea I was doing it until I, uh, saw the tape.
Apparently, those tics fade away with diligence and more seat time. Well, unless you're Dan Dierdorf. And maybe my voice is a lost cause unless I start smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking scotch every day. But I could solve every other problem over time (especially with some coaching). Within a year or so, I could develop into an absolutely mediocre announcer -- no better or worse than 90% of the guys doing it now. Although I am pretty sure I'd eventually be fired for making an inappropriate joke.
Regardless, I'm more riled up than ever about color guys. Why aren't more people better at it? Why does everyone borrow the same tired routine: mention that you talked to both coaches 40 times, tell dumb stories about players, narrate every single replay, avoid criticizing anyone or making funny comments, fake-laugh at your partner's bad jokes ... it's color-guy karaoke. Only a few guys (Bill Raftery and Steve Lavin are my
favorites) sidestep the trap.
There is no reason to settle for the most generic approach. At one point, Stoner mentioned that USF transfer Antonio Kellogg was expelled from UConn, ending the anecdote with, "He didn't mesh well with Jim Calhoun's program." The words lingered until I chimed in: "Or the Connecticut police." Why don't real announcers make jokes like that? What's wrong with complaining that San Diego had 150 fans at the game because most of the students were gone for their six-week winter break? These lucky bastards get to attend college in San Diego and they get six weeks off? How is that fair? That's the kind of stuff Stoner and I discussed. Sure, maybe things went too far when I belittled San Diego's mascot, a bullfighter with a creepy mustache who looked like he was carrying 10 grams of Rohypnol under his costume. But that's what we'd talk about in real life, right?
It just boggles my mind that networks don't value chemistry more. Every No. 1 announcing "team" is more like a corporate merger: Al Michaels is a big name, John Madden is a big name, so of course they're combined into MaddenMichaels. Meanwhile, the best 2006 NFL broadcast was the one ESPN threw together for a Raiders-Chargers game with a one-time crew that included Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil, two old friends. We felt like we were sitting on the sofa with them for three hours. I loved it. Why not hire more friends to announce together? Then we wouldn't have so many teams sounding like they're on an awkward blind date. After my ESPNU gig, I'm more convinced than ever that chemistry is 90% of the battle. That's why Pat Summerall and Madden were great, that's why Sean McDonough and Raftery are great, that's why Marv Albert and Steve Kerr are great. And that's why Stoner and I were passable even though I may have sounded like a wobbly amateur. If you get along, so will the game.
More than anything else, I feel vindicated because we proved announcers don't have to say, "We talked to him before the game." For my two appearances, I didn't talk to a single coach. Maybe Joe Theismann and Billy Packer just had coronaries reading that, but it's true. You don't have to talk to the coach. You really don't. The broadcast will survive. See, there are multiple ways to provide color analysis. Someday we might even get to hear some of them.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.