All Al, All the Time

May 09, 2004

"It's 97 degrees here, and my toilet's overflowing," Al Michaels
says from his home in Los Angeles, in a voice so pleasing that he
makes plumbing sound poetic. Instantly familiar, even on the
telephone, Michaels's voice is recognized by airline reservation
agents before he gives them his name. "Especially when I begin by
singing, 'BUM-bum-bum-bum,'" he says, sounding the first four
notes of the Monday Night Football theme.

He's kidding, of course. But when you're inescapably identified
with two rhetorical questions--"Do you believe in miracles?" and
"Are you ready for some football?"--life is easier if you give
the people what they want. And so Michaels consents, on occasion,
to record the voice-mail greetings of strangers. "I have done a
couple of those," he says. Do you believe Bob is away from his
desk right now? Yes!

Which is to say that on voice mail or telephone, as on television
or radio, Al Michaels may be the best all-around play-by-play
announcer ever. The 59-year-old has called games of every variety
for ABC Sports in the last 28 years, and he keeps, in his closet,
the canary-yellow blazer to prove it.

"I guess it's canary yellow," he says of the hideous garment worn
by all ABC sportscasters until 1984. "I always thought of it as
putrid yellow." Yet that blazer (last worn to a Halloween party
and now faded from its full banana glory) has seen wondrous
things.

"I don't think of myself as a sports Zelig," says Michaels,
laying down his plunger for a moment. Yet he's steeped in
baseball (he won a news Emmy for his coverage of the San
Francisco earthquake during the '89 World Series), synonymous
with football (as the host of MNF for the last 18 seasons) and
forever blessed by hockey: His signature call of the Miracle on
Ice stands with quotations from Neil Armstrong, Bob Dylan and the
like among the most famous American utterances of the 20th
century.

"I still get chills when I hear the words or see the video or
even watch the game acted out in a movie," Michaels says of his
Miracle call, which was used this year in the film Miracle. "But
it's almost in the third person now--I don't think of it as me
saying those words."

Last fall Michaels was asked to become ABC's lead NBA announcer,
though he hadn't attended an NBA game in 15 years. He accepted,
in part because the league's Western Conference is so dominant.
"I do so much traveling in the Eastern-dominant NFL, in which my
closest games next season are Dallas and Seattle," he says.
"There are no teams in L.A., Arizona is terrible, San Diego's
terrible, and the Bay Area teams are coming off down seasons." He
sighs, knowing that his NFL schedule will exile him for weeks on
end from his beloved Bel-Air Country Club.

From an electric cart Bel-Air seems less golf course than
celebrity-sighting safari park. Star wattages vary. Astaire,
Gable, Tracy and Hepburn were all members. "I see Humperdinck out
there from time to time," says Al, of Engelbert. "Saw Pat Boone
the other day...."

At the height of Boone's white-hot, white-buck celebrity in the
1950s he was represented by Jay Michaels, who managed talent
during the Golden Age of Television. But Jay's son Al was more
enamored of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who played at Ebbets Field,
three blocks from the Michaelses' home. "I loved to watch Curt
Gowdy," says Al. "You heard his voice and knew it was a big
game."

More than that, "I love the way Curt lived his life: one wife,
three great kids," says Michaels, the father of two grown
children, who has been married to Linda for 37 years, in which
time his has become the Voice of the Big Game. So this June,
Michaels will call the NBA Finals before easing back into MNF
like a man into a warm bath.

"I love, love, love, love doing Monday Night Football," says
Michaels, his lavatorial catastrophe slipping ever further from
his mind. "I still get a tremendous adrenaline rush an hour
before the game--the field lights are on, the stadium's filling
up--knowing that in 60 minutes a large percentage of the country
will be watching."

He calls those games for a nation as divided as it is united by
sports. Twenty years ago Michaels ran into Howard Schnellenberger
in an airport. Schnells, then coach of the national football
champion Miami Hurricanes, told Michaels--at least
half-seriously--that the Miracle on Ice was "the greatest
sporting event of the century until the [1984] Orange Bowl."

Michaels roars at the memory: "I remember thinking, Boy, all news
is local news."

The truth is, there will never be--never can be--another Miracle
on Ice. "Now," says the man who called it, "we're fighting guys
who have chemical weapons in briefcases. We'll never take on a
terrorist organization in a sporting contest."

And so Michaels will never again have cause to utter his most
famous phrase. Or will he?

"Every once in a while I do bring it out," says Michaels,
sheepishly. There is a long pause, and then he confesses: "It's
usually on the golf course. After a long birdie putt."

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY

Instantly familiar, Michaels's voice is recognized by airline
reservation agents before he gives his name.

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)