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The Last Dance: A Clinic in Michael Jordan’s Image Control

“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti says The Last Dance is presenting Michael Jordan’s story exactly how Jordan wants it perceived.”

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Even as a rookie filmmaker, Michael Jordan is forever the badass dictator, controlling “The Last Dance’’ like a mash-up of Craig Ehlo, Bryon Russell, Jerry Krause, Steve Kerr’s chin, Reggie Miller’s eyeball and Isiah Thomas’ feelings. The 10-part documentary series finally addressed one of Jordan’s dirty deeds, his gambling missteps with various creeps and cocaine dealers, yet somehow, hints of an all-time American scandal were spun Sunday night into a profile in perseverance and a triumph over unscrupulous media.

“A hobby,’’ Jordan called it, never mind that the IRS found his $57,000 check in the account of a convicted drug trafficker and three checks totaling $108,000 were discovered in the briefcase of a murdered bail bondsman.

“Michael was betting on his golf game. But given Michael’s earnings, it never reached epic crisis levels in my belief,’’ said David Stern, then the NBA commissioner, who said he dismissed a possible gambling problem because Jordan’s wealth justified the extravagant amounts he was betting.

And this from Phil Jackson, who suggested criticism of Jordan’s infamous gambling trip to Atlantic City and other accusatory stories inspired the Chicago Bulls to their third NBA championship: “Respond, he did.’’

As always, Jordan has slayed another challenge. He owns this production the way he owned sports and Planet Earth at the close of the 20th century. The badass smirks as he clutches the ball, waves it in the faces of mesmerized millions, peeks in at co-conspirator Scottie Pippen, allows superfreak Dennis Rodman his load management, lends a respectful ear to Jackson, imparts a master’s wisdom to Kobe Bryant, conquers popular culture and sneaker commerce, and, in the end, toys once again with every obstacle, real and imagined. And when the series wraps in two weeks, he will have taken that ball, soared through the mob like Jumpman himself and slammed his honed legacy into the grills of LeBron James — who foolishly anointed himself “the greatest player of all time’’ in 2018 — and an ignorant cult of LeBron-obsessed, recency-biased millennials and Gen Z-ers who’d buried Jordan as some cobwebbed myth.

The man has crushed all else. Why wouldn’t he take over Hollywood, too, not only controlling the narrative but enhancing it forevermore?

It should be clear now that “The Last Dance’’ — as approved, influenced, shape-shifted and executive produced by his Jump 23 company — is designed to maximize Jordan’s grandeur, minimize his flaws and leave no doubt about historical basketball supremacy. Because only he would survive with barely a smudge when, in the fifth episode, he defended his aversion to political commentary thusly: “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.” Jim Brown, a vocal critic of Jordan, would have provided a thoughtful counterpoint. Colin Kaepernick, too. Jordan has already succeeded, gloriously, in presenting his story as he wants it perceived. If Jordan didn’t brow-beat director Jason Hehir into exquisitely sculpting every nanosecond of the film, then his trusted business advisors, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have served as obedient gate-keepers for the first six episodes. He really should add his byline: “The Last Dance, by Michael Jordan.’’

And don’t expect revelations in the final four shows, either, now that Hehir has pleased all parties: presenting the gambling subject in a way that satisfies Jordan and the NBA and answers media who thought the angle would be played down. Yet to be tackled is his father’s murder, which came amid the gambling stories and Stern’s investigation, a succession of events that rattled the land in the still-murky haze of 1993. The director could have broken new ground by interviewing Daniel Andre Green and Larry Demery, convicted of murdering James Jordan Sr. that July. We’ll likely only hear Jordan’s take and NBA-friendly comments with no attempt at definitive truth-telling.

See, none of the principles invested in “The Last Dance’’ — from Jordan to NBA Entertainment to ESPN — is interested in any lasting result beyond the advancement of the Jordan legend for posterity. Of course, he wouldn’t be participating without complete say-so over the content, no matter how much Hehir raves about access and his willingness to answer any and all questions. Jordan’s aim is to celebrate himself without warts. This drew the wrath of the acclaimed American documentarian, Ken Burns, who has refused to watch and told the Wall Street Journal that Jordan’s editorial influence has tilted the series into a journalistic sham.

“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,’’ Burns said. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”

To which Jordan surely chuckled. Typically, he’s just trying to win the game — the documentary. Though he’ll never admit it, his purpose within the process is to win the Greatest Ever debate, as engaged by James, by beating LeBron at his own game: movie-making. Let’s not forget when Jordan decided to dust off and release footage of the Bulls’ final title, from the 1997-98 season, and present it to a new generation: the day after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 1-3 deficit in the 2016 Finals to upend the Golden State Warriors. The world was buzzing about LeBron as the G.O.A.T. and forgetting about Jordan, who had been mostly media-reclusive while suffering as owner of a nondescript franchise in Charlotte. As quickly as he said yes to the pitch of producer Mike Tollin, Jordan was armed with the leverage to circumvent All Things LeBron and make his own documentary in his own words, effectively bringing his pre-eminence back to life in a matter of five weekends in 2020.

Notice how “The Last Dance’’ has yet to include any contribution from James. The series has featured basketball greats who have made Jordan’s case for him, augmented by video evidence that encompasses 500 minutes. As Magic Johnson put it, “Young fans that never got to see Michael play now understand why he’s the (G.O.A.T.) of basketball. For me? Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Beyonce are the three greatest entertainers of my lifetime, and you probably could throw Muhammad Ali in there.’’ Jordan never has involved himself in the James debate, preferring to take the high road. As a Chicago columnist, I cornered him in a United Center hallway during James’ rookie NBA season, just after Jordan had retired from the Washington Wizards, and asked what he thought of LeBron.

“What do you think?’’ said Jordan, refusing to go there.

As recently as four months ago in Paris, Jordan shrugged off a James-as-G.O.A.T. question before a Hornets-Milwaukee Bucks game, saying, “What was the name again? Pardon me, who? Oh, is he playing? I just think we’re playing in different eras. He’s an unbelievable player, one of the best players in the world, if not the best. … I’m a fan of his. I love watching him play. But when you start the (Jordan-James) comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a standup measurement. I take it with a grain of salt.’’

It doesn’t require passive-aggressive expertise to translate. Jordan knew “The Last Dance’’ was coming. He also knew what James had said 13 months earlier in his own production, “More Than An Athlete,’’ claiming his title in his native northeast Ohio put him over the top. “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt,” James said. “I was super-super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year (title) drought. The first wave of emotion was how everyone saw me crying, like that was all 52 years of everything in sports going on in Cleveland. And after I stopped, i was like, `Shush, that one right there made you the greatest player of all time.’ … Everybody was just talking about how (the Warriors) were the greatest team of all time, like, it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’ ‘’

Special? Yes. Transcendent in the tiresome greatest-ever debate? No, not when James has lost six times in the Finals and not always maximized the talent around him as Jordan did. LeBron, who tends to whine at times, might claim Jordan has the advantage of a captive global documentary audience during a pandemic. I would suggest apologies are in order, along with an acknowledgment that James’ upcoming Space Jam project — assuming we’ve ever allowed to enter a theater without a Hazmat suit — was a ripoff of Jordan. As was the day he decided to wear No. 23. (My God, now I’m partaking in the debate.).

The docu-series also has succeeded in using interview subjects who mostly buff Jordan like one of his $200,000 sports cars. To his credit, he didn’t nix Sam Smith, a longtime Bulls beat writer (and operative of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf) who wrote a seminal book, “The Jordan Rules,’’ that painted Jordan as a tyrant and presented a less-than-glowing look as he was rising as a global phenomenon. Sunday provided a glimpse into media-related dysfunction surrounding the team; Jordan said teammate Horace Grant was a prime Smith source for the book, which Grant denied while raising suspicions that Jackson and Reinsdorf provided leaks to Smith. Media politics were a central part of the story in that some who covered the team took sides — Smith was embedded separately with Reinsdorf and Jackson, prominent national columnist Michael Wilbon was a Jordan guy, and Chicago-based Rick Telander was a lightly opinionated bystander who wrote as-told-to-pieces for ESPN The Magazine from the mouths of Jackson and Jordan. Journalism students, if any still exist, are reminded to remain independent and avoid appearances of trying to make money by climbing into bed with the people you’re covering.

So far in the docu-series, no media person has been permitted to make Jordan look even remotely bad. Hehir chose to use Barack Obama to effectively smooth over the political controversy when Jordan uttered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Rather than presenting a Detroit side of his still-fiery feud with Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons, Hehir allowed Jordan to condemn Thomas — “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole’’ — while showing 1991 video of Thomas and teammate Bill Laimbeer refusing to shake hands with the victorious Bulls. This gentle coverage of Jordan’s controversies has led influential basketball journalists of the time to wonder why they were omitted from the docu-series. Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum was front and center as an objective chronicler of Jordan dynasty. Where is he?

“I would be less than honest if I said it didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t interviewed for the doc, though over the years I have pontificated about Jordan and others of his generation on outlets too numerous to count,’’ McCallum wrote recently on the SI site. “I was scheduled on at least four occasions to talk on camera, but each was called off, one of them because, I was told, `We have to do J.T.’ ‘’

Justin Timberlake.

And where is Peter Vecsey? His Bulls coverage was must-read material during a stretch when he was the ultimate NBA insider, dishing scoops in print and on NBC’s weekly coverage. “ESPN never called me about `The Last Dance,’ ” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s absolutely amazing to me that they could be that stupid. I had so many inside stories that were printed that they are not even going to address it. It’s amazing. They interviewed Sam Smith; they couldn’t avoid that. I was involved in all of that stuff.”

We’re also left to ask if Reinsdorf was allowed editorial approval, or if he leaned on his high-placed connections to protect him. As controlling owner, he had the power throughout the ‘90s to stop the never-ending madness — how Pippen and Jackson were woefully underpaid by market standards; how Jordan had to play out an eight-year, $24 million contract before he was paid his worth; Krause’s vengeance-fueled whim to run off Jackson and prematurely break up the Bulls; the decade-long tensions pitting Jordan, Pippen and Jackson against Krause. But Krause, who passed away in 2017 and unfairly can’t present rebuttals, is painted at every turn as the lone villain, with Reinsdorf allowed by Hehir to sit back as a narrator of the dysfunction rather than one who could have stopped it. As TNT analyst and former Jordan confidante Charles Barkley pointed out on Dan Patrick’s radio show, Reinsdorf was the owner, wasn’t he?

“(Krause) didn’t take that apart — anyone who thinks that is a fool. That thing was orchestrated by Jerry Reinsdorf,’’ Barkley said. “The notion that that little man broke up the Bulls is asinine and absurd … Jerry Reinsdorf broke up the Bulls ‘cause he didn’t want to pay anybody. You think about this — he let Horace Grant go because he became a free agent and they didn’t want to pay him. They probably don’t want to talk about that in the documentary. That’s why he went to Orlando. He only paid Michael the last two years. When he had Michael at a bargain, he was happy. To try to make Krause the bad guy, I thought that was very disingenuous of Reinsdorf.’’

And why wouldn’t Jordan use the docu-series to crucify Reinsdorf, as he has done in conversations with a few media people, myself included? Oh, maybe because Jordan, as an NBA owner, prefers to smear Krause and protect a fellow owner who always could exact stealth revenge on Jordan in league circles. Even at 84, Reinsdorf keeps secrets. He would have been a much better private investigator than sports owner; beyond Jordan’s six titles, of which any owner could have rode the coattails, Reinsdorf’s dual ownership of the Bulls and Chicago White Sox has produced only one championship in almost eight decades of collective ownership.

Hehir won’t be winning an Oscar, not that he deserves one. Technically, “The Last Dance’’ isn’t eligible, says Dawn Hudson, CEO of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “If you meet our requirements for being a movie — you have been scheduled for a theatrical release, which the ESPN series is not, and you are presented in one sitting, which the ESPN series is not — then you are eligible for the Oscars. But that doesn’t apply to this series, even though it’s terrific content,’’ Hudson told the Hollywood Reporter. With Jordan running the show, “The Last Dance’’ can’t possibly have the same gravitas of ESPN’s Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made In America,’’ the five-part miniseries crafted by director Ezra Edelman that didn’t have O.J. Simpson as a creative overlord.

Gambling? There will be no investigative attempt to ask if the murder had anything to do with Jordan’s wagers and seedy North Carolina connections — including Slim Bouler, the cocaine trafficker who took Jordan’s money on golf courses. Another Jordan image cop, longtime agent David Falk, told WFAN Radio: “At the end of the day, Michael was almost Teflon. There’s very few things people criticized him for. The gambling thing was it. He loves to gamble. He’s an extremely competitive guy. If he loses $150,000 playing golf, big freaking deal. If I told him tomorrow, `Hey, I’ve got an appearance for you for five minutes for $150,000,’ he’d laugh at me. If it was $1.5 million, he wouldn’t do it. So yes, he lost money in gambling and it sort of had a little bit of a black eye for five minutes. He apologized and the thing went away. But any of these Oliver Stone conspiracy theories that somehow it pushed him out of basketball were ridiculous.”

Not so ridiculous: the possibility that Jordan, who was wagering obscene sums and was exposed by former San Diego sports executive Richard Esquinas in a book (“Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction — My Cry For Help!’’), was vulnerable to betting-line extortion if he was down a few million on another bad golfing day. Esquinas was the former president and general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena. Did it occur to Stern that the NBA Clippers, before moving to Los Angeles, played home games in that arena? That Esquinas had a direct connection to the league? Jordan denies betting on NBA games — “I only bet on myself,’’ he said, which is what Pete Rose said. The league constitution mandates a fine, suspension or expulsion for “any player who, directly or indirectly, wagers money or anything of value on the outcome of any game played by a team in the NBA.’’ But did the league truly conduct a legitimate and comprehensive investigation of Jordan in the summer of ’93, when he was threatening to retire because of the probe? And shouldn’t the probe, headed by former federal judge Frederick Lacey, have intensified after the murder of Jordan’s father? Wasn’t it peculiar when the NBA closed the probe only two days after Jordan announced he was leaving the Bulls? And why was Stern, before his 2019 death, so defensive and dismissive about Jordan’s gambling “hobby’’ instead of emphasizing public transparency, especially as baseball was coming off Rose’s gambling scandal?

We won’t be getting more answers in the 10-part docu-series, even after 100-plus subjects were interviewed. “I found out later what kind of people I was dealing with. But the act of gambling, I didn’t do anything wrong,’’ Jordan said.

So this could be the biggest of all his victories, in a sense. He indeed has achieved Rare Air, somehow floating above the scrutiny of society’s biggest sports greats and celebrities. Jordan knows his audience wants celebration, not revelation. He also knows he’s lucky: The pandemic has created a hunger for the upbeat. Witness the lines Sunday inside and outside an Atlanta mall, where people waited to buy his newest sneaker model — “Air Jordan 5 Fire Red 2020’’ — that sold out outline. Were they even thinking about Covid-19?

The most majestic athlete of our lives finds himself nearing another fourth quarter, armed with the usual untouchable lead. He could relegate the final four episodes to the cutting-room floor and still know he has won again. Michael Jordan didn’t have to spend millions of dollars or plot deep strategies to control his image.

He just called ESPN.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting

The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.

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Maryland Matters

As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.

For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.

While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements. 

While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized. 

Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.

People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.

First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.

The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues. 

None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.  

As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.

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Saban v. Jimbo Is WrestleMania for College Football Fans

Ryan Brown says the Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher feud is one made for pay-per-view and we have nearly five months to hype the match.

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It was the day after I turned eleven that Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre ‘The Giant’. WrestleMania III filled 90,000 seats at the Pontiac Silverdome and the living room of one of the houses in my neighborhood. Real or fake, we didn’t care. Three decades later, Nick Saban versus Jimbo Fisher is 100% real and it is coming to a living room near you.

I live in the capital city of SEC Country – Birmingham, Alabama. SEC football needs no additional drama here. You get a complete college football obsession at birth. That said, the October 8th Texas A&M visit to Alabama will be among the most anticipated regular season college football games both regionally and nationally.

One would think CBS will use their annual prime time date for that Saturday just as they did for last season’s Alabama at Texas A&M game, you know, when Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher were on speaking terms. Not knowing how the season will play out, it would be no surprise if ESPN’s College Gameday is in Tuscaloosa as well. While we are at it, let’s just cut to the 2024 chase and schedule a Presidential debate in Tuscaloosa that weekend, as well.

Not one person will be surprised if Alabama is undefeated and the top ranked team in the nation that week. The surprise, based on the rest of the Jimbo Fisher era, will be the Aggies being unbeaten. Their trip to Alabama comes at the end of a five game stretch that includes Appalachian State at home, Miami at home, Arkansas in Dallas and a road game at Mississippi State. Incidentally, the same Texas A&M team that was able to upset Alabama last season also managed to lose to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Just the prospect of the two teams being unbeaten and highly ranked causes some to say this game would need no extra storylines. Shouldn’t that, and being on CBS in prime time, be enough? The Saban-Fisher Feud already has people discussing this game nationally and Lee Corso hasn’t even donned a body odor-filled mascot head yet.

I would like to project this game to deliver the largest TV audience of the regular season but I can’t, for one reason: I’m not certain it will be close. I think Alabama is that much better than Texas A&M. That’s why the build up will deliver a huge first half audience.

For perspective, in the 2021 regular season, the Alabama at Texas A&M game had the fifth largest TV audience, in a game that went down to the final play. The Ohio State at Michigan game had 15.8 million viewers on as part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff, almost double that of Alabama at Texas A&M on CBS in prime time.

That brings me to another misconception: big games have to be in prime time to get a big audience. Of the top ten largest college football audiences in the regular season and conference championship weekend, only half were prime time games. College football fans, and NFL fans for that matter, will find the best games no matter where they are placed.

So, back to Saban v. Fisher; why is it a bad thing? Would SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey prefer it not happen? Of course. Will it bring more attention to a game in the conference he oversees? I say, absolutely. Heck, my daily show is already selling t-shirts for the game. You may say “shameless plug”, I say paying for my kid’s college. Tomato, tomahto.

This is what made “Mean” Gene Okerlund a household name in the 1980’s. He was the far too serious host that interviewed the wrestlers who challenged other wrestlers to a grudge match in exotic places like the Macon Coliseum and the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum and the Dallas Sportatorium. Why did they do that? First, it was entertaining but, primarily, it sucked the viewer into making plans to view those matches.

I mean, if Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat said he was going to rip the head off “Big” John Studd, was I going to miss that?

That was why a bunch of kids crowded into a living room in Anniston, Alabama in 1987 to watch WrestleMania III, The Main Event. I can’t tell you who was on the undercard that night. The only wrestlers we cared about were Hulk Hogan and Andre “The Giant”.

Actually, my friend’s mom thought the Ultimate Warrior was “cute and had a great body”. He wasn’t on the card and I thought it was odd she told us that but she was footing the bill for the pay-per-view and had mixed the fruit punch Kool-Aid, so who am I to judge one’s wanton desires?

Texas A&M at Alabama will be the SEC’s main event this season and, if the cards fall right, it may be college football’s main event. What happened between the two head coaches might not be the proudest moment in SEC history but it will bring more attention to that game. And, my word, we finally have a nano-second in which two prominent coaches weren’t pre-programmed robots refusing to deviate from the script.

As amazing as WrestleMania III was for my childhood, it was scripted. The Tide and the Aggies will not be. College football remains one of the greatest values in sports. I pay very little to watch unscripted game after unscripted game. Truth is, you couldn’t even script most of what we see on a college football Saturday. 

Texas A&M at Alabama is already beyond what the most creative writers could imagine and that is why this fuel to the already smoldering fire adds to this game. Now, if Nick Saban will just try to bodyslam Jimbo Fisher, we’ll have something.

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Doc Emrick’s Love Letter is Hockey and… Language

The Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick developed his love for the sport and the art of the call early in life and never let go of either.

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LA Kings YouTube

LaFontaine, Indiana is a small rural town in the northeastern sector of the state with a population of just under 900 people. Located between the cities of Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, it is similar to the village illustrated in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” and its name, rooted in the French language, translates to “The Fountain” in English.

In the summer of 1955, the local Cub Scouts managed an organized softball league, and once children graduated to become a member of the Boy Scouts, they would transition to play baseball. One nine-year-old child in the summer of 1955 had the common realization that he would not likely make the major leagues since he was not considered an elite-level athlete. While he enjoyed playing the game, he enjoyed listening to the game on the radio even more, so much so that he wanted to pursue broadcasting as a career.

There would often be a softball or baseball game being played on a near-nightly basis in LaFontaine, with upwards of 100 people attending. The town ballpark had a public address system; however, it had no steady announcing presence, instead relying on adults to volunteer to provide the play-by-play for the spectators. For this prospective broadcaster with a nascent avidity for baseball, sitting behind the microphone and vivifying the action became something hardly perfunctory, but rather an inspired art form. It afforded him the chance to interact with his community and his friends as a familiar voice, and helped prepare him for what would become a 47-year professional career carrying out this very task, albeit in different settings for different audiences through different mediums, and primarily in an entirely different sport. 

Going to a Major League Baseball game from LaFontaine was quite the trek for the young Mike Emrick and his family; therefore, attending was often a once-a-year event that took place in the summer. Driving northwest through the corn fields for approximately 150 miles without the presence of super highways, he and his brother Dan, accompanied by their parents, would eventually reach their “Field of Dreams” in Chicago, Il., where they would take in an afternoon game. From the time he was young though, Emrick cheered on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call games of hall-of-fame outfielder Roberto Clemente on the wide-ranging KDKA radio signal.

Emrick had always had an interest in calling baseball games; however, that all changed one day in 1960. At the age of 14, he attended his first hockey game just before Christmas, a matchup between the visiting Muskegon Zephyrs and Fort Wayne Komets in Fort Wayne, Ind. The game ended in a tie, but Emrick was enamored with the game’s nuances, spontaneity and occasional fights nonetheless. While on the way to the car in a snow-filled parking lot to return home, he realized that this fast-paced game on ice would be the outlet through which his voice would be heard and passion for sport expressed.

“When I saw my first hockey game,” Emrick said, “overnight the whole idea changed from baseball to hockey. Then the question was: ‘Well, how do you get to do that?’”

Emrick closely followed the Komets after his realization, learning its players and the game of hockey listening on WOWO radio. While he was a fan of the team and enjoyed watching its hockey games at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, he was also there for another purpose in his quest to become a professional broadcaster.

“After I got my driver’s license at age 16, I would drive 40 miles on Wednesday nights to Fort Wayne and sit in corner sections of the old Coliseum… and do games into a tape recorder and try to get better at it,” Emrick recalled. “It was taking those games and using those sort of phony games; I used legitimate names of players because I would get a lineup and learn who they were. Then I would save the tape – and that was eventually my first audition that I sent out.”

Emrick grew up within a pedagogical household where great emphasis was placed on the proper use of the English language. His mother, Florence, was a home economics and physical education teacher while his father, Charles, was a high school principal, and the family owned a music store on the side as well. From the time he was in fifth grade, he received a salient piece of advice from one of his teachers about the inculcation and subsequent expansion of his vocabulary which he carried with him throughout his career.

“Once we used a word five times, it was ours for life,” Emrick recalled. “[My teacher] encouraged us to build our vocabulary, and so that was influential, I think, along the way.”

Emrick landed his first broadcasting job in 1973 as the radio play-by-play announcer in the International Hockey League for the Port Huron Wings (later renamed the Port Huron Flags) on WHLS radio for $160 per week. That job came after a series of rejection letters from a legion of hockey broadcasting outlets, the stationery located in a binder he keeps to this day.

The next season, despite nearly landing the Pittsburgh Penguins radio play-by-play job, Emrick added another job to his résumé by becoming the team’s public relations director and continued broadcasting games. While he had the will and determination to succeed and become an NHL broadcaster, his backup plan of becoming an educator was quite genuine in scope as his time in the minor leagues continued.

Shortly after he graduated from Manchester University in 1968 with a B.Sc in speech, and, one year later, an M.A. in radio and television from Miami University, Emrick’s foray into the world of college instruction began. Prior to working in Port Huron, Emrick resided in Pennsylvania, teaching public speaking classes at Geneva College and managing it’s 15-watt campus radio station. In addition, he volunteered to work as a correspondent for The Beaver Sun Times coverage of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a season press pass so he could further immerse himself in the game of hockey.

One of Emrick’s mentors in broadcasting was Bob Chase, the Fort Wayne Komets’ play-by-play announcer for 63 years, and someone who had a profound influence on his career. Chase called hockey, along with various other sports including basketball and racing amid his time behind the microphone, and while there were many other announcers doing play-by-play professionally, Chase was representative of Emrick’s soundtrack of hockey.

“I was a college guy and befriended him and he was very kind to me and would listen to my work,” said Emrick. “He was the one person that I listened to because at the time there was not a national TV package for the NHL, and so he was about the only guy I had access to.”

Emrick sought after his Ph.D in broadcast communications to ensure he would have a successful teaching career if his broadcasting dreams fell through. While in the doctorate program, Emrick honed his craft and earned his nickname “Doc,” a pseudonym he was called throughout his broadcasting career. In fact, his dissertation was titled “Major League Baseball Principal Play By Play Announcers: Their Occupation Background And Personal Life,” and signed off by Detroit Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell, his nonacademic advisor. Later in his career, he famously used 153 different verbs in a single game to describe the movement of the puck, including “squibbed,” “flagged” and “galloped” – an aspect of his broadcasting style, per se, that demarcated him from others in his profession.

“I always tried to use words that were hopefully interesting, but also I didn’t want to come across as talking down to the audience,” said Emrick. “I just wanted to use something that was creative and maybe amused people a little bit. Once one of those words was used, I tried never to repeat it the rest of that night because you don’t want to hammer people with the same one.”

Prior to the 1976-77 season, Emrick relocated to Portland, Maine to serve as the radio play-by-play voice and public relations director of the brand-new Maine Mariners in the American Hockey League – an affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. After three more years of hard work in the minor leagues, he finally made it to the pros with the Flyers as its television play-by-play announcer for home games on PRISM cable beginning in the 1980-81 season.

Having worked in both broadcast mediums, Emrick knows that radio requires the announcer to evoke imagery within the mind of the listener, while television is centered on the announcer’s reaction to the already-cultivated picture. While he never broadcast a boxing match, Emrick uses an analogy within that sport to describe the difference between the two broadcast mediums.

“I’ve heard it described before, and it’s probably accurate, [as] the difference between a boxer leading or counterpunching,” said Emrick. “In radio you basically lead, and in TV you counterpunch.”

Regardless of the medium though, what truly makes a broadcast unique is in how effectively it goes beyond the action taking place on the ice. Being able to do that comes in one’s preparation and knowledge of the game, both of which Emrick possessed and continued to grow upon being named the inaugural television play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Devils in 1982 on the MSG Network.

“The legs that get you from one thing to the next are the identity of the players,” said Emrick. “I think that’s still the most important thing of any play-by-play description is… the ‘who’… because it’s the people who are competing that draw the audience, and you need to identify who it is.”

Emrick returned to the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1982-83, first as a spot announcer, and upon his departure from the Devils in 1986, as an studio analyst on UHF telecasts. In the same year, he began his first of many years of national television work as the lead play-by-play announcer for NHL games on ESPN, working alongside former NHL forward Bill Clement.

Before the 1988-89 season, Emrick was promoted by the Flyers to be the team’s lead television play-by-play announcer, working with his analyst Clement for a majority of the time in both his regional and national obligations. Working in both roles simultaneously, he has had to be cognizant of his audience – meaning that the preparation for regional and national games, while similar in methodology, differed from one another in terms of the time devoted to each team.

“Usually with a national telecast, it’s 50-50 on how much you talk about one team or the other,” said Emrick. “With a local broadcast, it’s usually 70-30 or 80-20 because if there’s one team that is supplying all of your viewers or most of them, you go that way.”

Emrick’s presence on regional sports networks continued upon his departure from the Flyers after the 1992-93 season, as he returned to Newark as the play-by-play voice of the Devils on MSG Networks. Broadcasting within the three-team New York-Metropolitan area marketplace for the Devils from 1993 to 2011, Emrick stayed up to date not only on his primary team, along with the Rangers and New York Islanders. As a result, the shift from regional to national television became smoother for Emrick, and with it, the allocation of the time he spent discussing each team more consistent.

“You treated it like a network telecast and I was very comfortable shifting from regional games to network because you had fans of numerous teams living in New York,” said Emrick. “Whereas in Philadelphia, you made the assumption that most of the people that were watching… were Flyers fans.”

Over his years at ESPN, Emrick called two Stanley Cup Finals, something that would render itself into an annual occurrence once he joined Fox in 1995. From there, Emrick called 20 more Stanley Cup Finals with Fox, OLN, Versus and NBC Sports – providing the description throughout the final roadblock standing between one team and a championship. Television, being the visual medium that it is, not only requires an announcer to be aware of their audience, but also of the moment and what will best transmit the atmosphere within the arena to the viewer. Throughout the course of enduring moments that stand the test of time, including game-winning goals, penalty shots and highlight-reel saves, Emrick uses his words judiciously, following a tried-and-true philosophy that requires discipline from the announcer with the potential to put an indelible stamp on the action.

“Less is more. Especially with television, you have a lot of people that have qualified to be in trucks and operating cameras and placing microphones in arenas,” Emrick stated. “Just like you are qualified to be there to describe it, they are the best at their profession… You don’t have to do everything. You have a lot of help.”

Emrick worked his first of seven Olympic Games in 1992 while on CBS, calling the ice hockey championships. While he had to consistently learn names of new players and adjust to the cultural differences of the host country, the quadrennial worldwide showcase built on tradition has induced games that have helped grow the game of hockey on an international scale. One of his most memorable broadcasts emanated from the thrilling conclusion of a gold medal matchup between Canada and the United States from Vancouver, B.C. in February 2010.

The game drew 27.6 million viewers, the largest television hockey audience since Al Michaels was behind the microphone for the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game between the Soviet Union and the United States aired on tape delay in 1980 from Lake Placid, N.Y. 

“Sam Flood, our executive producer at NBC, always told us [for big games] to broaden the brush,” said Emrick. “In other words, never try to talk inside stuff because we were going to have a lot of extra viewers, and you didn’t want to talk [about] inside stuff and have them feel like they were being left out. And so we basically let the game do the talking and did not try to do a lot of strategy or things like that.”

Part of a broadcaster’s job is to recognize their role within the greater production of a live sporting event. Sure, they are often omnipresent throughout the broadcast; however, they are hardly, if ever, supposed to be the main character. The job of the rest of the production crew is to adequately tell the story of the game, whether it be through camerawork, graphics or interviews. While they are not scripting the moments on the ice, the broadcast director coordinates the assorted roles to help the team’s vision of the end product come to life. It is a task that allows for creativity, but also requires evolution to shifting consumer trends – achieved through collaboration.

Down by one goal in the gold medal game, the United States pulled it’s goaltender Ryan Miller for the extra attacker, which led to forward Zach Parise tying the game with 24 seconds remaining in regulation time. Then in overtime, Canada forward Sidney Crosby scored the “Golden Goal,” giving Canada its first gold medal since the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I think I said, ‘…and Crosby scores – the goal to Canada,’ and then I said nothing for almost two minutes,” Emrick recollected. “I didn’t need to say anything because what we showed and what the people in our truck and the people operating cameras provided was the sound of the crowd and the microphones on cameras”

Over the years, Emrick has worked with numerous analysts, including Bill Clement, John Davidson, Bobby Taylor, Chico Resch, Doug Sulliman, Sal Messina and Eddie Olczyk. As a play-by-play announcer, Emrick ensured that his analyst would be implemented into the game, usually when he felt they could contribute to the broadcast or when he needed to take a breath. By including them in the broadcast, a greater ethos is established with the viewing audience and multiple perspectives are acknowledged.

“I think our business is analyst-driven,” said Emrick. “Those of us in play-by-play are there to enhance the game but not get in the way of it. It is when the play stops that you really learn about what has happened or what could happen in the future. Those of us who are describing the game don’t have time to throw that in, and if we did, our credibility is not nearly that of people who have actually experienced it, and that’s why analysts are there.”

Following the 2010-11 season, Emrick relinquished his role as the play-by-play announcer for the New Jersey Devils and continued to work as the national play-by-play voice of the NHL on NBC for the next decade. His final season as an announcer was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once professional hockey made its return, Emrick found himself calling games remotely – something he had never done in his illustrious career.

Emrick officially announced his retirement from broadcasting in October 2020 after 47 years behind the mic calling over 3,750 hockey contests, including 22 Stanley Cup Finals, 45 playoff Game 7s and 19 outdoor games. Prior to his retirement, Emrick won the Foster Hewitt Award for “outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster” presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Today, the NHL is in the first of new seven-year contracts with both ESPN and Turner Sports worth a reported $1 billion. For Emrick, the specific networks carrying the games do not mean as much to him as the continued worldwide dissemination of the game of hockey itself.

“I cheer for everybody who winds up being on the air doing games… because this is a game that is wonderful and needs to be continually promoted by whoever winds up with the rights,” said Emrick. “I’m not a businessman; I don’t have billions of dollars in my pocket.”

Following the conclusion of the 2010 gold medal game, sideline reporter Pierre McGuire interviewed Miller and Crosby, and the two athletes, despite being on opposite ends of the outcome, spoke about the significance of competing in the Olympics and how special it was to play the game on an international stage. Reflecting on that broadcast sequence, Emrick affirms that he had never been more proud to be associated with the game of hockey because of the eloquence, class and humility with which they spoke. Therefore, as ESPN and Turner Sports are in the midst of presenting the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to millions of hockey fans around the world, Emrick hopes that they focus on telling the stories of the athletes – the primary reason for which people tune in to the games.

“The athletes are wonderful, and they have been all the way back through the first years that I started going to IHL games and getting to meet them for the first time,” said Emrick. “The number one thing that we have to sell is not only the speed of the sport, but more importantly, the guys who play it because they’re really good people.”

Whatever the future of hockey broadcasting holds, Emrick has undoubtedly become an integral figure in the history of the sport – all while never donning skates on an ice rink in his life. The half-a-century he covered hockey would not have been possible without his steadfastness towards becoming a professional broadcaster, avidity for the game of hockey and the group of people who allowed him to expatiate on the proceedings situated on a 200-foot sheet of ice. Emrick continues to watch hockey to this day and listens to the next generation of broadcasters be themselves while calling the action, the very advice Bob Chase conferred to him early in his career.

“It was the realization of a lifelong dream to get to do hockey games anywhere to anybody, but to be chosen to do national games was a great honor and responsibility,” Emrick stated. “I never took it lightly, and I always appreciated those who gave me a chance.”

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