Van Earl Wrong

March 01, 2004

As a kid I never wanted to be Joe Namath or Jerry West or even
Jim Murray. All I wanted to be was Curt Gowdy, sports announcer
and god.

Sadly, upon puberty's pummeling, I abandoned the dream.
Sportscasters were dashing baritones. None had a tin voice
whining through a can-opener nose under a forehead tall enough to
fit a 72-point MAN WALKS ON MOON!

But then ESPN gave us Dream Job--its reality show that had 10,000
amateurs vying for one spot at the SportsCenter desk. It's down
to 11 this week, and a few of the finalists look like mooks you'd
use to fill a police lineup, Brillo-haired and neckless.

My hopes rose. I begged ESPN for a tryout, just to see what the
Dream Job guys were up against. "Sure," said ESPN senior vice
president and executive editor John Walsh. "We put ugly people on
TV all the time!"

Uh, swell!

He gave me a shot last Friday night, in the much-desired
midnight-to-12:30 a.m. slot on ESPNEWS. Perfect. So few people
would be watching, it might as well be E-SPAN. Yet it would be
live. The ESPN guys suggested that I come to network headquarters
in Bristol, Conn., and train for two weeks. I suggested two days.
I mean, how hard could it be?

The first guy I talked to when I got there on Wednesday was Chris
Berman. "You're going to make a million mistakes," he said. "Just
remember: They're off to Pluto. Let 'em go and move on."

Then I met the anchor who would be my partner for the half hour,
Stan Verrett, who said our audience would be about 500,000
(gulp). On Thursday he let me sit just off-camera during one of
his telecasts. Somehow, while directors yelled into his earphone,
Verrett seamlessly called highlights he hadn't seen before,
involving hockey players whose names looked like a spilled
Scrabble box.

When I tried just a seven-minute rehearsal--with nobody in my
ear--I fell behind twice, used the same stupid "Take that, Lex
Luthor!" on all eight dunks I called, and covered the desk in
spittle.

I sincerely missed my DELETE key.

"Don't worry about it," said SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt.
"A lot of the people watching you will be in bars, drunk, with no
sound. They'll think you're great!"

I rehearsed again on Friday and was worse. I kept saying, "Now
watch this!" as if people were suddenly going to start staring at
the hat rack instead of the TV. I yelped a dunk line--"Somebody
get us a new peach basket!"--when we were already into the
Detroit Red Wings highlights. I gave three scores, two of them
wrong. "Where'd you go to school again?" asked my senior
coordinating producer, Barry Sacks.

I had nightmares about sitting at the desk, pantsless, as someone
was saying in my ear, "O.K., the Serbian all-star hockey game. In
3, 2, 1.... "

Still, it was cool to be living inside a SportsCenter ad. George
Karl was shoehorned into a tiny cubicle. Digger Phelps fumbled
for change ahead of me in the cafeteria line. Stuart Scott was
changing in the men's room. "Just don't be one of those guys with
25 ways to say dunk," said Scott.

"No way!" I said, hiding my list of 25 ways to say dunk.

But when midnight struck, something serendipitous happened. Maybe
the last of my ephedra kicked in. For no good reason, everything
went right!

On a splendid floater by Carmelo Anthony: "You had me at Mel-lo."
On a long trey by Tracy McGrady (singing): "We're goin' to
Sizzler!" On the five goals that beat St. Louis Blues goalie
Reinhard Divis: "Hey, Reinhard, we'll keep the light on for you!"

Verrett was laughing, so I kept firing. One shooter was "hotter
than a $3 pistol!" A hole in one was "allergic to daylight!" And
John Daly just set a record--"the 117th straight day he didn't
marry anybody!"

O.K., so I still got behind on some highlights. And, true, I said
a hockey game was in the "first half," and then, instead of
letting it go to Pluto, recoiled at the horror of my gaff and
blurted, "second quarter--I mean, second period."

And, yes, perhaps it was wrong, when asked on-air by Verrett if I
was nervous, to say, "You know, I had a fifth of Scotch right
before the show, so I feel pretty good."

But, still, I was thinking Curt Gowdy would've been proud--until
I came out of the studio and saw Sacks looking like he'd just
swallowed a moth. "Uh, I'm not sure you can say somebody beat a
goalie 'like Liza's ex,'" he said.

Oops.

"And even though it was about his assists, you can't call Greg
Ostertag 'your neighborhood dealer,'" he said. "And I'm not sure
I'd let you call BALCO ''Roids R Us' again."

If it had been a different reality show, he would have added,
"You're fired!"

I was watching myself in the newsroom and saw, for the first
time, just how vast my forehead appeared on camera. "My God, that
looks like Half Dome," I moaned.

SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn happened to be standing there.
"Yeah," she said, sympathetically, "imagine what it'll look like
in high definition."

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

I begged ESPN for a tryout. "Sure," said senior VP John Walsh.
"We put ugly people on TV all the time!"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)