Preacher: The price of tickets is just absolutely too high. Thirty dollars for every ticket in the place. It's not fair to Joe Fan, who wants to come out with his kids.
Teacher: System plus athletes plus coaches equals W.
Screecher: Look at Rice's speed! A little shake 'n' bake. Showtime! Party time! Here he comes. He converts! He finishes! He finalizes!
Whether you love him or hate him, and it seems that almost everyone either loves him or hates him, Dick Vitale has become the voice of college basketball. So much so that, while clicking through TV channels one night earlier in the season, I stopped upon hearing his voice, figuring that whatever game was on must be important. The final matchup of the ACC-Big East Challenge, between Georgetown and North Carolina, was just getting under way on ESPN.
I turned on the VCR, cranked up the sound and began puttering around the house. What began as background noise soon caught my attention. I became enthralled by the strange and wonderful language of basketball color and play-by-play.
Calling a football game is one thing; after virtually every play there are 20 or 30 seconds of dead air to fill, leaving plenty of time for John Madden to scribble all over his Telestrator and for Dan Dierdorf to wax eloquent about how wonderful it is to hear the grunting in the pit. You would think the nonstop action of a basketball game, being described in rapid, staccato fashion by the play-by-play man, would leave little time for the color guy to get a word in edgewise.
Or rather you would if that guy wasn't Vitale. Having become so captivated by his routine, I decided to analyze it, a job that required transcribing the entire broadcast of the Georgetown-North Carolina game. During the game Vitale got in 7,706 words, and each time he took over the microphone, I discovered, he uttered an average of 26 words.
When you add to Vitale's words the 5,360 spoken by the game's play-by-play man, Tim Brando, you come up with a pretty impressive figure of speech. In a single two-hour broadcast they rattled off enough verbiage to fill 12 solid pages of text in this magazine. And that doesn't include the duo's pregame, postgame or halftime numbers.
Were Vitale and Brando an anomaly? I wondered. Driven by an obsession with language, shaped in my years as a writer and editor, I looked for a comparison. The next week CBS aired its first college game of the season, between DePaul and North Carolina. On went the VCR. During the game James Brown and Billy Packer combined for 10,101 words—not quite up there with Vitale and Brando, but plenty of chat just the same.
Everyone jokes about the silly things television broadcasters sometimes say. But have you ever really listened to them? Granted, it's not easy to ad-lib continuously for two hours. Yet the strategy, it seems, is to just keep talking.
Apparently, rhythm is important, too, though an English teacher would cringe at the poor elocution such pacing encourages. Brando, for instance, is the and man. During the Georgetown-North Carolina game he began a whopping 38% of his sentences (or, more accurately, sentence fragments) with and. However, the and's are his way of stringing together the rapid, disparate actions that make up the ebb and flow of a basketball game. Brown, CBS's play-by-play man, started 30% of his calls with and.
The color guys fare better, because they can take off on any play, person or issue. Packer's and percentage was 17%, and Vitale's was an impressive 7%. They have their crutches, too, though. Vitale often starts sentences with well. Packer prefers ya' know.
How do our men perform as a team? Brando gives viewers short, precise calls, often using only a few words at a time (an average of 6.1 words per sentence). Vitale punctuates Brando's play-by-play with exclamations, pronouncements and Vitalespeak: He hits the three-pointer. They know he's the trifecta man! It tickles the twine. It's NBA. It's nothin' but nylon.
Actually, punctuates is too gentle a word. Vitale's steals-to-turnover ratio, if you will, is pretty embarrassing; he interrupted Brando 21 times during the game to ramble on about one thing or another. He tried to break in another 29 times, but Brando stood his ground. How many times did Mr. Microphone give way to the And Man? Twice. By comparison, Brown and Packer, Mr. Polite and Mr. Proper, hold a conversation, usually one in which the banter is well coordinated.
But this is college basketball, you say. Enough speech analysis. Get to the excitement—the jams, the rejections, the fun stuff. That's what counts. O.K., love him or hate him, no one calls a jam like Vitale. From the Georgetown-North Carolina game:
There's gonna be all kinds of Jam City tonight! There goes Bell! Ding dong Bell! Jam City! Uh-oh! Good night, high-riser....
Mourning! Oh! That's a monster mash, baby! That's a monster jam! Oh, Alonzo. It's Alonzo time. Up, up and away! [Mourning coolly backpedals after the slam.] Look at him. Look at him. He says, "No problem. I've got it under control. I'm the supreme court justice. I rule the court."
Where does Vitale get all his stuff? He draws from his days as an assistant coach of Seton Hall, coach of the University of Detroit and then as coach of the Detroit Pistons. But he also mines his broad traveling experience:
Oh baby! Jump City! Mutombo! Part of the M&M gang....
Lynch gets a taste of Rejection City!...
That's the Intimidation City of the shot blocker of Rejection Row....
Uh-oh. Turnover City!...
It's Jam City, U.S.A., down in Hoya Land.
Vitale makes his share of mistakes. Not too many, though, considering that two hours is a long time to wing it. Then again, he's not working the local high school game.
Look. Right there, he's offensively charging. (Ever see a defensive charge?)
Ronny Thompson is definitely potentially a three-point shooter. (Pick one, Dick.)
This is all fun and games, of course. However, Vitale incites his critics most when he turns preacher. In the Georgetown-North Carolina game alone, he complained about the tournament ticket prices (too high), the officiating (spotty), the three-point line (not far enough from the basket), the Big East's new six-foul limit (too many) and, on four separate occasions, the Hoyas' soft December schedule:
I wanna make the Georgetown schedule up. Can I make their schedule up? Eliminate that Hawaiian Loa Mia Mya thing. They should play UNLV. Love to see 'em in that game. They should play Oklahoma, instead of Oklahoma playin' Angelo State—sounds like my Uncle Angelo. They should play against teams like, well, we'll even give them a little easy one—we'll put 'em with a Kentucky. I mean, they should play some of the giants. John Thompson can dictate his schedule. I don't see any sanity at all in playin' St. Leo's, or U.S. International. I really don't. I don't see anything to be gained by it, with a program of the magnitude and quality of Georgetown's. That's where John and I disagree. But he's bigger than I am, so I don't want to get him mad at me.
As if all that weren't enough for one broadcast, as the game wound down Vi-tale went on a tirade when Brando mentioned that ESPN would be giving viewers updates and then round-by-round summaries of the Uno Màs fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran which was about to start:
Ah! I don't wanna know! Two Ripoff Cities, for millions and millions of dollars. Two has-beens. Two washed-up guys. That's the old-age home, that fight. Are you serious?! People payin' millions. People followin' it. Ah, I don't wanna know nothin' about it. That's almost as wacky as the baseball world with the salaries they're layin' out. Let's get back to basketball. This is real sports.
Packer may interrupt Brown far less than Vitale does Brando, but doing away with the niceties is what makes Vitale exciting. At one point, a replay showed that Thompson's three-pointer had been released from just inside the line:
That shoulda' been a deuce! That shoulda' been a deuce! No way is that a trifecta. They gave him a three-pointer. No. No. No. No. Three guys coverin' the floor!
And when Georgetown guard David Edwards streaked from midcourt, leaned into North Carolina's big forward, George Lynch, took the ball to the hoop, scored and drew the foul:
Oh! Edwards! Will somebody run over and tell Edwards that this is North Carolina, this is national television, this is a sellout crowd, this is not the streets of New York. He's a freshman! [The replay comes on.] Look it, doin' a little shake 'n' bake. He says, "Come on, Lynch. Vitale says you 're a diaper dandy. Watch me take the rock to the goal against the big people." And he kisses it off the glass. Convert it and score. Put it in your book, Mr. Brando.
And speaking of Edwards, Vitale seemed to be impressed that he played so well for such a small guard. He referred to him as "little Edwards," or the "little guy" 14 times. In fact, Vitale seems to have a fixation with size. He called John Thompson "the big guy" five times: I've always felt that big players progress more than little players. Were you listening, Spud Webb?
"I'm a kid in a candy store, a junkie, an out-and-out addict when it comes to basketball," wrote Vitale in his 1988 autobiography. "I live and breathe the game. Always have. Always will. Don't ask me to explain it, at least not in so many words. You know what that might mean. There would be so many."
You got that right, Mr. Microphone, you high-riser, you.
Mark Fischetti, who lives in Stockbridge, Mass., spent 20 hours transcribing both tapes.
*Stats from Georgetown vs. North Carolina, on ESPN, Dec. 7, 1989.
VITALE VS. BRANDO
Stats from georetown vs. North Carolina, on ESPN,Dec.7, 1989.