On Sunday, July 26, just before 6 p.m. Barcelona time, a production assistant in NBC's Olympic studio in the International Broadcast Center at the foot of Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c will tell Bob Costas he has 15 seconds to air, 15 seconds, now 14, before he begins hosting the first day of Olympic competition.
At the count of 10, Costas is being cut from the Commack (N.Y.) South High basketball team. At nine, Syracuse Blazer goon Bill (Harpo) Goldthorpe is threatening him, the club's rookie broadcaster, with a hacksaw. Eight, and Costas is substituting for the host of Bowling for Dollars on WSYR. Seven, he fiddles with the bass to make himself sound older on his audition tape for the ABA Spirits of St. Louis job. Six, shortly after KMOX in St. Louis hires him, he leaves a $3.31 tip at Stan Musial's restaurant in homage to The Man's lifetime average. Five now, and he is walking on his home field, Busch Stadium, as part of the NBC broadcast team for the 1982 World Series. Four, live on a New Year's Eve broadcast from the festive maternity ward of a New York City hospital, Costas tells David Letterman, "Meanwhile, the plaintive cries of desperately ill men and women go unheeded." Three, he is jumping on the bed of his New Orleans hotel room, bopping his wife, Randy, on the head with a pillow and shouting, "Welcome everyone to NBC's telecast of Super Bowl XX." Two, he is interviewing Paul McCartney and wondering, What would the guys back in Commack think? One, let the Games begin.
In the moments before he goes on the air, Costas says, "my life often flashes before my eyes." And while there's no telling what he'll be thinking on July 26, there is one certainty about that telecast. When he does go on, Costas will be collected and prepared and quick-witted. He always is.
If you don't know Costas by now—from his baseball work on NBC's late lamented Game of the Week, his football work on NFL Live, his basketball work on NBA Showtime, his radio work on Costas Coast to Coast and his talk-show work on Later with Bob Costas—then you can't help but catch him from Barcelona. NBC will have 161 hours of Olympic coverage, about 80 of which will be anchored by the 5'7", 145-pound, 40-year-old righthander and father of two, one of whom bears the name of a certain Minnesota Twins centerfielder.
Costas is up to, and for, his Olympian task. "I'm not going to pretend to tell you who's going to win the gold in taekwondo," he says. "But neither am I going to show up in Barcelona on July 23 and ask, 'So, what's the deal here?' " Actually, Costas will be going over to Barcelona in late June to acclimate himself.
He is taking this assignment so seriously that he temporarily moved his family from St. Louis to Connecticut earlier this year to better prepare himself for the Olympics. He has been reading—Carl Lewis's autobiography and Robert Hughes's Barcelona are on his nightstand—and poring over the material prepared for him by the NBC Sports research department. In his New York hotel he has a VCR for the purpose of playing the collected works of Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. In addition he has been going to various Olympic trials and meets. By the start of the Games he will know as much about Javier Sotomayor (the Cuban high jumper) as he does about Julian Javier (the former Cardinals second baseman), and that's saying something.
He also knows full well the responsibility and the recognition that comes with hosting an Olympics. "When I started in this business," he says, "and people asked what I did for a living, I would say, 'sports announcer.' Invariably, they would say, 'Like Howard Cosell?' and I would answer, 'God forbid.' Then they'd say, 'Like Jim McKay?' And to that I would answer, 'I wish.' " Wish granted.
On the first day of competition in Barcelona, Costas will be working a virtual 12-hour shift, from noon to midnight with a one-hour break. Daunting as that sounds, it is nothing unusual for Costas. On Sunday, May 17, he anchored an NBA playoff doubleheader from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.—traveling back and forth between Rockefeller Center and Secaucus, N.J., for the NBA draft lottery—and did his live radio show from 9 to 11 p.m., interviewing Ferdie Pacheco, the Fight Doctor, and Donald Fehr, the head of the Major League Players Association. In between, Costas answered the proverbial question of how you get to Carnegie Hall—by practicing for his appearance at a benefit there the next night, when he would read a version of Casey at the Bat called Bucky at the Bat.
Barcelona is a long way (23 years and 3,842 miles) from the bleachers of Commack South, which is where Costas began his vocation, doing play-by-play of the basketball games he couldn't play in for the benefit of those sitting around him. While at Syracuse University, he landed a job with the Blazers, an Eastern Hockey League team right out of the movie Slap Shot. On one bus trip Goldthorpe snatched a newspaper out of the kid broadcaster's hands and ripped it up. Costas couldn't resist. "I said, 'Don't be jealous, Goldie. I can teach you to read.' The next thing I knew, I was lifted up and pushed against the inside of the bus, and Goldie had a hacksaw—the players used it to cut their sticks—about an inch from my throat. The other Blazers talked Goldie into sparing my life. He released me, and I slid down the wall into a pool of my own sweat."
Boyslaughter averted, Costas got his chance to do Bowling for Dollars and pursue a broadcasting career that has been, in his own words, "one happy accident after another." Lowering his voice on that audition tape got him the job in St. Louis at KMOX. St. Louis, which remains close to Costas's heart, proved to be a gateway to a stint as a regional NFL and NBA broadcaster for CBS. In 1980 Costas was hired by NBC to do the backup Game of the Week, even though, much to 30 Rock's surprise, he had done a grand total of four baseball games in his life, two of which were minor league. Similarly, he was made the host of the NFL wraparound show in 1984 even though he had little experience in the studio.
To continue the serendipitous theme, Costas first came to the attention of the hip late-night audience by doing David Letter-man's now-fabled elevator races only because Marv Albert passed on them. That, of course, led to the legendary New Year's Eve broadcast from Lenox Hill Hospital. When Bob and Randy had a baby of their own in May 1986, they named him Keith Michael Kirby Costas, the second middle name chosen to fulfill a promise he had made to name his child after Puckett if he was hitting .350 at the end of May.
Last but not the least of the happy accidents was Later with Bob Costas. He practically had to be dragged by Dick Ebersol, now the president of NBC Sports, into doing a show that has expanded his and insomniacs' horizons. What other show gives you Elie Wiesel one night and Smokey Robinson the next, not to mention McCartney?
Despite his forays into the real world, Costas remains, above all, a sports fan, the kind of guy who remembers Musial's batting average and carries around a Mickey Mantle baseball card. He still gets genuinely excited about covering big events, as Randy found out on the morning of Super Bowl XX.
(The following paragraph was not written by somebody in publicity at NBC Sports.)
There may be nobody better at walking the fine line between whimsy and journalism than Costas. Under Mike Weisman, who was the executive producer of NBC Sports from 1983 to 1989, Costas was encouraged to show his lighter side but not at the expense of the more serious stuff. Over the years he has become equally adept from both sides of the plate: the Bryant Gumbel side and the David Letterman side, so to speak. While there are plenty of wiseacres on television nowadays, Costas is one of the few broadcasters—Albert at NBC and Al Michaels at ABC also come to mind—who can bring insight and drama, as well as fun, to the games.
That's one man's opinion, of course. Here's another, that of the dean of Olympic hosts, ABC's McKay:
"NBC's Olympic coverage is in very good hands. Anchoring the Olympics sometimes requires you to change course quickly, and Bob does that very well. You have to know so many different sports, and he knows them. You have to have a nice sense of story, which he has. You have to be a good interviewer, and having been the subject of a two-parter on Later, I can tell you he's an excellent interviewer. Audiences are so much more sophisticated than when I started doing the Olympics, and Bob will bring that sophistication to the viewer. I'm sorry I won't be in Barcelona to do the Olympics, but if I have to watch anybody, I'm glad it's Bob Costas."
Because Costas makes it look so easy, he is often accused of being glib or, worse, of being "a TV guy." Costas hates that. He prides himself on his ability to connect with people. That's why he continues to do his radio show, even though he doesn't need the money and can hardly spare the time. His one remaining ambition, in fact, is to be a radio play-by-play baseball announcer, to be Vin Scully telling his listeners, "Pull up a chair...."
The Olympics, though, is a gig Costas never dreamed of on the Blazer bus. In Barcelona he will be connecting with a much wider and much more varied audience than he has ever had before, and that, more than anything else about the assignment, appeals to him.
Costas tells this story, a story with no real point, except that we live in a small and interesting world:
"Last year, between Games 3 and 4 of the Lakers-Bulls playoff series, Marv Albert and I went to a Laker practice at Inglewood High School, which isn't in the best neighborhood in the world. After practice Marv goes to get the car, and I tell him I'll meet him out front. So I'm sitting on a bus bench, waiting for Marv, and a hobo comes along and sits at the other end of the bench. It's 80 degrees, but he's got four layers of clothes, and his Dodger cap is black with grime. I'm staring straight ahead.
"The guy suddenly says, 'So, Bob, do you think the Lakers have a chance?' I tell him, 'Sure, depends on how well they keep Jordan in check, but yeah, they have a chance.' There's a pause. Then he says, 'So, Bob, do you live in New York?' And I tell him, 'No, I do a lot of work in New York, but actually I live in St. Louis.'
"And then he says, 'St. Louis, huh. I understand they're opening a Lord & Taylor in the new Galleria there.' "
Pull up a bus bench, America.