Links: Not Awesome, Baby

by September 09, 2008

by Lang Whitaker

A few years ago, I wrote something particularly blunt (but, I felt, honest) about a television announcer, and a few hours after posting the article he emailed me with his home number and asked me to give him a call. Who it is isn’t important, and what I wrote to anger this man was, basically, that I wasn’t a fan because he seemed fake to me — I felt like the person announcing the games was an invented persona designed to entertain and draw attention. I was being honest. He did sound that way to me. And he does sound that way to me.

(By the way, what does this say about the current state of sports announcers when the person I just described could be any one of about two dozen people?)

So I called him, and we had a long, civilized conversation about why I don’t like him. I told him I watch NBA games for the basketball, not for the announcers. I like announcers who can bring me closer to the game via insight and insider information, not through bluster. Call the game, make me feel like I’m not missing out on anything by being at home, and if you can in any way make the experience more enjoyable, by all means do so, but please don’t try to distract me from what’s happening on the court. I tuned in to watch this particular game, after all.

As you might imagine, this was a slightly surreal experience — telling another human being exactly what you don’t like about the way he does his job as he listens in. I stressed numerous times that he shouldn’t take it personally, since we’d never even met, but my man was rational and listened to me, disagreed with me when he disagreed, and we hung up on good terms, basically agreeing to disagree. Since then I’ve listened to the same guy call a few games, and I can’t tell much difference.

Years ago, when I was in college, I read an interview with David Letterman where he talked about how he felt there was nothing worse than someone with an audience not entertaining that audience. I’ve always tried to remember that and make that rule No. 1 when I’m writing, whether it’s The Links or a SLAM feature or whatever. Hopefully I can give you some information along the way, but if reading my words doesn’t at least make you feel like it was worth the time you invested in my product, why would you bother to come back? Some of you may argue with my success at entertaining, but, hey, I’m trying. I try not to fall back on the same stuff again and again, I try to come up with different angles on stuff than you’ve seen elsewhere, and most importantly I want you, the reader, to have some sort of anticipation when you’re clicking on something I’ve written. (Hopefully you’re not anticipating anything like, “Well, let’s see if it’s more of the same old crap…”) Meanwhile, there’s a fine line between distracting and entertaining. Perhaps too fine for some.

Saturday night in Manhattan, I was wedged into the backseat of a taxi, riding to a dinner in Midtown through a heavy rain. These days they have television screens in the backseat of every taxi in NYC, and whether you want to watch or not, they have news headlines, weather updates, all kinds of crap to keep you occupied. Being something of a sucker, I tapped the screen to read sports headlines and saw: VITALE STEALS HALL INDUCTION CEREMONY

Great, I thought. Here was a ceremony where some of the greatest athletes to ever play basketball (and Patrick Ewing, too) were honored, perhaps for a final time in public, and Dick Vitale is the person making the headlines.

Dick Vitale used to be my favorite basketball analyst, and then I hit puberty and started actually playing basketball and learning about the game. Vitale was fun to watch because he was so wildly different than anything else out there, and with his catchphrases and the seemingly genuine spirit he projected. Eventually, I realized Vitale hated the NBA, which was something I didn’t understand. I loved college basketball, but I liked the thought of players who were good college players being able to advance to a League that was even better than the NCAA game. I liked watching Kenny Anderson play at Georgia Tech, and I couldn’t wait to see him in the NBA, going up against better players, with better teammates around him. But all Vitale did (and does) is rail against the NBA (which ESPN didn’t have the TV rights for at the time) and talk up the college game (which ESPN did have TV rights for). Some people call this being “an ambassador for the college game.” I call it being a shill, both for his network and his buddies who coach college ball all over the place. (We know they’re his buddies because he’s spent a large chunk of the last few decades telling us how amazing Bob Knight and Coach K are, both as coaches and men. Neither of them has ever coached a bad basketball game, it’s always someone else’s fault. We get it. Can you tell us how to break a 1-3-1 zone trap now?)

Give Vitale this, though: He’s consistent. And he’s even figured out how to leverage ESPN getting the rights to the NBA by making little guest appearances during the NBA Draft to talk about how great the college game is and how all these kids need to say in school, not mentioning that the kids probably shouldn’t make money for themselves when the NCAA and ESPN and CBS and Bob Knight and Coach K and the sneaker companies and many, many others are waiting to cash in off their backs instead of them. There’s only so much cash to go around, after all. And if you’re looking for college basketball’s number one lobbyist, look no further than ESPN.

Is he still entertaining? Probably, to some people. He must still get ratings, because he stays on the air. But to me it’s past the point of predictability: PTPers, diaper dandies, what an atmosphere, etcetera, etcetera. Dick Vitale is a broken record. And I don’t know many people who like listening to broken records. Because that’s definitely not entertaining.