Al Michaels fumbles for a word. He can see the word. Taste it. For a moment the most celebrated play-by-play announcer in the history of television stares down at the table, like the word is swimming in his wine. He can't think of it. How strange is it to see the man who is never at a loss for words, well, at a loss for words. What's that word?
This is an article from the Feb. 22, 2010 issue
"Al can be hard on himself," says Linda, Al's wife of 44 years. She looks over, and Al is still staring at the table, the din of an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles blaring around him, still trying to come up with that word. He doesn't hear her. He is lost in his own world of....
"Whimsy!" he shouts triumphantly, in the exact same tone with which he shouted at the end of a certain hockey game 30 years ago. "The word," he says, "is whimsy."
Bob Costas had said, "You have to be there for this." And at an NBC production meeting before an NFL playoff game last month, he looks over at a visitor, smiles, gives a thumbs-up. Here it comes on the screen in a Dallas hotel conference room: The triumphant Costas-Michaels scene from the goofball 1998 movie BASEketball, in which they played co-announcers.
Al Michaels: "I don't think I've ever been this excited!"
Bob Costas: "You're excited? Feel these nipples."
The room breaks up, with Costas laughing loudest of all. BASEketball, a sophomoric comedy in which Costas and Michaels appeared with such acting heavyweights as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and ex-Playmate Jenny McCarthy, was not exactly a highlight of Costas's brilliant career. But here among friends the absurdity hits the perfect note. The "feel these nipples" line was in the television trailer, which, as Costas says, meant many people saw it (unlike the movie). "If that had not been in the trailer," Costas says, "then it would not haunt me to this day as it does." And he laughs again. He is not haunted.
We know them, or we think we do. That's the thing about sports announcers, isn't it? We have no choice but to know them. In other areas of television, we have choices. Don't like Brian Williams? Watch Katie Couric. Don't like CSI? Watch Law & Order. Don't like George Clooney? Don't see his movies. But sports announcers come with the games. We like them. We dislike them. Either way, we are stuck with them. And we get to know them.
We know Al Michaels and Bob Costas more than any of them. In Vancouver they are covering an Olympics together for the first time—Costas as NBC's prime time host, Michaels as the daytime emcee—but the two have dominated the sports landscape for 30 years. They have won 26 Emmys combined. Their voices are as familiar as Beatles songs. Think of a great sports moment in the last 30 years and there's a good chance Michaels or Costas was there providing the lyrics.
The 1998 NBA Finals? There's Costas beautifully summing up Michael Jordan's last big shot: "That may have been—who knows what will unfold in the next several months—but that may have been the last shot Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA.... If that's the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it?"
And, of course, there's the biggest moment of all, the U.S.-Soviet Olympic hockey game at Lake Placid in 1980. Everybody remembers Michaels's goose-bump-inducing call at the end: "Five seconds left in the game.... Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
Two things about that call you may not know. One, Michaels says that if he had thought of that line beforehand, he would not have said it. The line just came out—the nine-year-old inside him shouted it. That's what made it great. Two, Michaels stayed around afterward to call the Finland-Sweden hockey game. And so while the whole country was riveted by the game (which was shown by ABC on tape delay), Michaels was working hard to keep all the Erikssons straight on the Swedish team. When he left the arena, he saw people waving flags and going mad. At the hotel someone came up to him and said, "Wow, that was incredible what you said."
And Michaels, for a second, thought, What did I say?
Bob Costas will tell you: He developed his timing in his father's car. He was nine, he sat in the driveway in Commack, N.Y., and he let those radio voices sweep him away. There was Bob Prince on KDKA in Pittsburgh, Ernie Harwell on WJR in Detroit, Waite Hoyt telling stories on WLW in Cincinnati. It was his training ground.
He might not tell you why he was in the car. John Costas sent him out there. John was an electrical engineer on Long Island and a character. He was also, in the words of his son, "an inveterate, bet-the-mortgage gambler." On summer evenings John would send young Bob out to the car to get scores on his bets.
And so Bob would sit there, sweating, listening anxiously as, say, KMOX's Jack Buck brought news—news that would shape John's moods and Bob's young life. A loser, and Bob knew that things would turn dark. A loser, and Bob would quietly slip into the house and whisper that he could not pick up the score.
But if Jack Buck brought winning news? Bob would rush into the house and speak in the deepest voice he could summon. Ken Boyer knocks a single to center.... Bill White follows with a double to rightfield.... Gene Oliver walks.... Stan Musial, the old master, singles to right, and two runs score! Bob would carefully watch the changing expression on his father's face. He knew then what he wanted to do with his life. "Calling games was the biggest dream I could come up with," Costas says.
At 22, after attending Syracuse, Costas was hired to call games for the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis—he had boomed the bass on his audition tape to sound older. He was hired by NBC at 27 and quickly became a superstar. But John Costas never saw his son on TV. When Bob was a senior in high school, John was struck by a heart attack while walking through Kennedy Airport. He died before he hit the ground. At the funeral Bob was given an envelope by one of his father's cronies. The man only said, "Your father was up when he died. Give this to your mother."
Inside the envelope was $6,000 in hundreds. That was his father's estate.
Al Michaels lived the archetypal 1950s Brooklyn childhood, the sort that they make Broadway plays about. Stickball. Front porch stoops. All that. His father, Jay, would take Al to Ebbets Field, and while Jay (like all Brooklyn fathers) pointed at centerfielder Duke Snider, Al would stare at the radio booth where Red Barber called the games. "I never really thought about doing anything else," he says.
Like Costas, Michaels was a broadcasting prodigy. When he was 14 the family moved out to Los Angeles—same year as the Dodgers. At 18 he went to Arizona State to study broadcasting, and while registering for classes on his first day, he met future All-Star Sal Bando. They would meet again at the 1972 World Series, which the 27-year-old Michaels was covering for NBC. When he was 21, Michaels and his wife worked for game show titan Chuck Barris. (Al would cold-call people to get them to go on The Dating Game; Linda would set up the travel and on occasion serve as date chaperone.) When Michaels was 23, he and Linda moved to Hawaii, where Al described every bouncing ball on the islands on TV and radio and worked hard to properly pronounce names with a lot of vowels. At 26 he was hired to call games on WLW for the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds. Not long after that, he was sharing the booth with Howard Cosell on Monday Night Baseball. In 2006, after 20 seasons as the voice of Monday Night Football on ABC, Michaels jumped to NBC to do Sunday Night Football. "Sure, I had this belief I would become a sports announcer, but I was totally unrealistic about what it would take," Michaels says. "I'll tell you, naiveté is the best thing you can have when you are young."
Costas and Michaels have been friends for 30 years. They know stuff about each other. Costas leans left politically. Michaels is to the right. Michaels refuses to wear a winter coat; if you catch him walking around Vancouver, you will probably see him in a thin Member's Only--type jacket. Costas dreams of going to a small town—Chattanooga sticks out in his mind—and calling a summer of minor league baseball. Michaels claims to have not eaten a single vegetable since he was a kid. Costas can recite lineups of Strat-O-Matic games he played in 1966.
But, that's just ... stuff. What they mostly know about each other is what we know about them. It's what they see on television.
Costas brings with him a near photographic sports memory and an almost supernatural facility with language. He often writes his television essays in one take. He admits—a bit sheepishly—that he can't remember ever having that feeling of not being able to think of a certain word. That verbal nimbleness has made him the most versatile guy in the business. He has called baseball, basketball and football play-by-play. He is hosting at his ninth Olympics. He has appeared on network TV, cable and radio. "If there was a decathlon for sports announcers," says NBC Sports executive producer David Neal, "Bob would win hands down. He might not win every event. But he'd finish in the top two in every one."
He's also as good an interviewer as there is on television. At the Olympics, Costas will most likely interview everyone from gold medal winners to visiting dignitaries, but that's nothing. In the late '80s and early '90s Costas was host of the freewheeling late-night interview show Later With Bob Costas. The cosmic height might have been when Costas asked heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne why he had urinated on the Alamo. Ozzy replied, "Everyone has a few skeletons in their closet, Bob."
"Bob has this unique ability to ask exactly the question that you wanted to ask," Michaels says. "People think that's easy. It's not. It takes a special talent in that moment to word a question in such a way that you think, That's exactly how I would have asked it."
Michaels is more of a grinder, a play-by-play lifer. This Olympics is his first hosting gig in nearly a decade—it's his first Olympics since 1988—and he readily admits that he does not have Costas's natural ease with words. He prepares relentlessly for games. He works hard on the basics; never mispronounce a name, never say anything before you know, always remember that a player runs up to the 50-yard line and then down past the 50-yard line. His sense for detail is remarkable. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows the football rule book better than Al," says NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. "He's like that with everything. Al is ready for anything that happens. He is the best announcer in the history of pro football."
But Michaels's greatest gift is his ear. He knows how to call a game without intruding on it, to talk to his audience without jolting them out of the moment. "When I listen to Al do play-by-play," Costas says, "he's not just calling a game. He's conducting. A little bit of crowd noise. A few words. The sounds of the game. A few more words. It's like music."
So here they are in Vancouver, Ebersol's Olympic dream team, the most celebrated host and the most celebrated play-by-play man in sports television.
That lack of choice with sports announcers? It often means we are stuck getting batted over the head by shtick and catchphrases and look-at-me buffoonery. You can't help but think half the time, Why are they yelling at me? "What people don't understand is it takes so much more confidence to call a game without trying to be noticed," says CBS's Jim Nantz, who calls games in the same spirit as Costas and Michaels. "It takes so much more confidence to not shout, 'Hey, over here, look at me.'"
We're lucky to have Bob Costas and Al Michaels, have been for more than 30 years. Yes, they have won all the awards and fame. They have been the background music to the biggest moments, and they have taken a few hits along the way too. But it isn't just that. Michaels is 65. Costas is 57 ... and they're still doing it. Why? Well, they can explain. Last fall they sat in a hotel lobby in Dallas, in leather chairs across from each other, and they talked. It was almost as if they were in a booth, calling their lives.
Michaels: "I know you hear athletes say it all the time. But I think I will know when it's time to step away. Whenever I don't get excited before a game, I will know."
Costas: "Here we are doing exactly what we wanted to do all our lives. It's still a thrill."
Michaels: "Absolutely. I mean, think about it. We're going to be broadcasting from the Olympics? How great is that?"