Amidst all the continuing speculation about what Tiger Woods’ fall from grace will mean to his golf, his endorsements and his legacy, there was a note in the paper this morning about Dick Enberg signing on to do 110 to 120 games on TV for The San Diego Padres this coming season.
I’m really not sure how to take that news. I sincerely hope Dick is happy about it because he’s one of the absolute good guys that I’ve met through the years. What I know is good is that he lives in the San Diego area so this will cut down his travel considerably and I can remember talking to him years ago about constant travel being the one downside of what we all do. Of course back then he had young children so it was tougher, I would guess, than now.
He doesn’t look it on or off camera but Dick is going to be 75 next month.
The first time I laid eyes on Dick Enberg was in December of 1968 when I was a kid trolling the stands at Madison Square Garden for autographs during the Holiday Festival. He was sitting with the UCLA players watching the third place game and, after I’d gotten Lew Alcindor, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks to sign, someone told me that the guy in the front row did the play-by-play for UCLA. Since Marv Albert was a hero of mine I figured it was worth asking him to sign too. I still remember that he asked my name and wrote, “To John,” before signing his name.
I became more familiar with him when I watched the old TV show, “Sports Challenge,” in the 70s, a show which seemed to somehow get every big sports star you might imagine to come on to answer—or in most cases not answer—sports trivia questions. I liked watching for that reason but also because I knew the answer to most of the questions. One thing I DIDN’T like about the show was that when they showed replays of historic moments in sports, Enberg had re-voiced them—no doubt because the technology made it difficult to get a lot of the actual calls. It was nothing against Enberg, it just didn’t feel real to me.
I first really got to know Dick covering college basketball for The Post during the golden era of Enberg, Packer and McGuire on NBC. There was really nothing like watching a game with Packer and McGuire screaming at one another and Enberg playing traffic cop—which he did brilliantly. Back in those days the three of them did a Sunday game-of-the-week and their PR guy, Tom Merritt, would frequently invite writers who were covering the game out to dinner on Saturday night. That was how I first got to know both Al and Dick (I already knew Packer from covering the ACC).
Al was, of course, the star—at dinner and on-the-air—but there was a warmth to Enberg that was, at least to me, clearly genuine. He often joked that he always knew what his future was because Al was seven years older than he was and would always tell him what was in store for him. Whenever Al would crack up a room with a story he would turn to Enberg and say, “Still got it Dixie.”
The break-up of that trio when CBS got the NCAA broadcasting rights prior to the 1982 tournament is still one of the bigger disappointments of my life. Enberg and McGuire stayed together to do regular season games on NBC but Packer moved to CBS. They were briefly re-united in the 90s when all of them landed at CBS.
I got to know Enberg better covering tennis since Bud Collins took me under his wing and often brought me along to various NBC-related events. One of my more vivid memories had nothing to do with NBC: Bud and I and Bob Basche, who worked with Bud at NBC forever, went out for a lengthy dinner in Paris one night and ended up back at the bar at the Hotel Crillon—where NBC stayed in those days—drinking something called Armanjac—not sure if I can spell it and I sure as hell couldn’t drink it. We were all on another planet when Enberg made the mistake of walking past the entrance to the bar, heading to bed with his wife Barbara.
“Monsieur Enberg!” Bud screamed in a bad French accent. “Monsieur Enberg!” He got up and chased Enberg down the hall, demanding he come have a drink with us. Enberg knew—KNEW—he shouldn’t go anywhere near us but he bravely walked into the bar, had a drink AND bought. The fact that I remember any of this is a miracle.
Dick and I were also witness one night to one of Al’s greatest calls. Duke and Arizona had played a game in the Meadowlands in 1989—a showcase for player-of-the-year candidates Danny Ferry and Sean Elliott. Duke was down two in the final seconds when Christian Laettner—who was a freshman—got loose, drove to the basket and got fouled with no time on the clock.
Everyone cleared the floor while the entire crowd—it was a sellout that included Richard Nixon—stood to watch Laettner. He missed. Game over. As soon as the shot rolled off the rim, Mike Krzyzewski raced onto the court, grabbed Laettner and pointed a finger in his face. “Don’t think for one second you lost that game for us,” he said. “You gave us a chance to win.”
That night, Dick, Al and I went to dinner in New York. “I’m gonna tell you something,” Al said. “I’ve seen a lotta things in basketball. What K did right there (he never tried to pronounce his name on or off the air) was one of the best coaching moves I’ve ever seen. I guarantee you—I mean guarantee you—that kid will never miss a big shot the rest of his career.”
If you follow college basketball, you know the rest.
Watching Dick the last few years has been a bit melancholy for me. CBS has treated him well and he was still their number one play-by-play man on tennis but he was reduced to small roles at The Final Four and The Masters (he’d be the first to tell you golf was never his strength) and fell behind Jim Nantz in the football pecking order.
I felt worse for him during the U.S. Open awards ceremony this past September. When Juan Martin del Potro asked if he could say a few words to the crowd in Spanish, someone in the truck was CLEARLY screaming in Dick’s ear something like, “no, no time, get to the corporate sponsors.”
Even at my level of doing TV I know what it’s like when someone is yelling in your ear, sometimes telling you to stop in mid-sentence because, “Pete has Coach so-and-so.” Or when you’re in the middle of telling a story about someone (something Dick always did superbly) and the producer says, “we’ve got a replay of the last foul,”-and throws it on the screen forcing you to break off in mid-sentence and say, “yeah, that’s a foul.”
This was worse. Del Potro had just won the U.S. Open and was very sweetly asking if he could say a few words to the Spanish fans who had cheered him on and some dope in a truck (I suspect I know who it was) is telling the great Dick Enberg to flack for a car rather than give the kid 60 seconds.
Awkwardly Dick said, “Sorry, no time,” and began doing the car schpiel. To Del Potro’s credit he listened and then asked again if he could speak in Spanish. “Okay,” Dick said. “Very quickly.”
Oy. It came off badly. Dick was SO caught in the middle there I really felt for him. CBS later “defended,” him saying it had contractual obligations to mention the sponsors. Fine. The broadcast had already gone past 7 o’clock on a Monday, the producer or director should have let Del Potro have his 60 seconds. What CBS should have said was, “there was a bad call made in the truck that made Dick look bad.”
Now Enberg is leaving CBS—at least for college hoops and the NFL. My bet is he’ll end up not doing tennis even though that possibility was left open. I know he loves baseball so I hope this new gig goes well for him. I’m just sorry I won’t see him on the road—or on CBS—anymore. At his best, he was the best. And he was—and is—always a class act.
One comment from yesterday’s comments: Gordon, a regular poster, made the point that Bill Clinton was not impeached because of his post-Monica Lewinsky attitude but because he lied under oath. Of course that was technically the reason for his impeachment but my point was Congress never would have had the nerve to do it had it not sensed that the public was very angry with Clinton about his approach to the whole mess. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to the Tiger Woods, “I was wrong but the media is (always) more wrong,” apology. Time will tell.