While covering basketball at the Olympics, senior writer
Alexander Wolff was conscripted into additional duties, as a
basketball analyst for BBC Television. His report:
"Due to illness, one of our commentators has returned home. We
are looking for a journalist/broadcaster with in-depth
basketball experience who could do colour commentary."
I responded to the notice out of a sense of mercy: If this
document fell into the hands of Dick Vitale, it would be
curtains for the King's English. But just when I could have used
a little limey in my larynx, I had a frog in my throat--a case
of strep diagnosed by a physician who cleared it up with
antibiotics and, in the Olympic spirit, a shot of a steroid
My play-by-play partner, Clive Tyldesley, warned me that I
couldn't assume much hoops knowledge among our viewers. Our
insomniac audience--the 10 p.m. tip-off for Dream Team games
came at 3 a.m. London time--would hear Clive speak about how the
Brazilian women fell 10 points "adrift" of Italy before "the
interval" and then found themselves "easing eight points clear."
To you and me, Shaquille O'Neal weighs 301 pounds; to Clive's
viewership Shaq is "21 1/2 stone." John Stockton is a fine
"user" of the ball; Reggie Miller "fastens a shot into the
basket"; and Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns finished "mid-table"
in their division.
This was all too baffling, so I stuck to providing color, not
colour. Late in the rout that was the U.S.-China men's game, I
made a convoluted reference to how the Dream Team was denying
China most-favored-nation status. Clive winced, and I could
imagine the mocking remark my words must have occasioned in
Nigel Martzke's column in the London Daily Belch.
But after a few games Clive and I fell into a rhythm, and by the
end of the fortnight, I had even begun to refer to the event
unfolding before us as a "match" instead of a "game." After
Lithuania's 7'2", 297-pound center lumbered oafishly through one
sequence, I said, "Arvydas Sabonis has the requisite altius and
fortius, but he comes up a little short in the citius
department." Clive smiled, and I knew I had caught on to the
vaguely arch sensibility that characterizes "the Beeb."
"Lovely," I heard an engineer say in my headset after we had
signed off. "Splendid."
I stifled the urge to tell Clive the tale of Wally Pipp, lest
baseball present new opportunities for cross-cultural confusion.
Besides, I'm not giving up my day job. But Chancellor of the
Telly-strator is a title I'll hold proudly for the next four