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1998 NCAA Men's Tournament

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Columnists' Corner

  CBS Was Good, but Silence Was Better

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, April 1, 1998; Page C3

There comes a time on the road to the men's national college basketball championship when a viewer may find it necessary to make a quick exit at the Blessed Silence rest stop. The directions are simple. Proceed to the mute button, and press accordingly.

While watching the high-drama endgame between Kentucky and Utah Monday night, I reached that moment with about six minutes left in a tense championship contest. It was time to lower the volume on the Billy Babble from Packer, even if it also meant missing Jim Nantz's measured and minimalist play-by-play. It was time to let the magnificent pictures provided by all those CBS cameras to do all the talking necessary.

For the most part Monday night, Packer demonstrated his ability to spot a trend, explain a pattern, even beg to differ on coaching strategy. My goodness, at halftime Dean Smith said Kentucky couldn't win unless it started shooting and making three-pointers, only to have Packer insist the Wildcats' only chance to come back from 10 down was to pound the ball inside.

As it turned out, Kentucky did a lot of both to get even with about 7½ minutes left in the game. Not long after that, my television went mostly silent, the better to focus on the vivid visual images that also made this game so very special.

What a run for CBS Sports in March, coming on the heels of reacquiring pro football in January and just a few days from the splendor of Augusta National and The Masters. It's almost enough to make you forget the same network was responsible for the Nagano Olympics, both an artistic and ratings disappointment. And it makes you wonder why Monday night's 17.8 rating and 28 share were the lowest for a men's title game since 1972.

ESPN, on the other hand, had the misfortune of handling a women's Final Four that featured three consecutive blowouts, including Tennessee's virtuoso title-game masterpiece against Louisiana Tech on Sunday night that was over by intermission. Try as they might, announcers Mike Patrick and Ann Meyers were clearly just filling time in the second half with a long-running tribute to Tennessee that was well-deserved, even if the audience was dwindling by the basket.

Still, ESPN has done magnificent work with the women's tournament since it took over coverage in 1996. The tournament is getting the prime-time exposure CBS never gave when the women were almost an afterthought, a way to kill afternoon time until the men took the court. I particularly like the three-women studio of Robin Roberts, Mimi Griffin and Rebecca Lobo, who more than occasionally agree to disagree.

ESPN's hour-long pregame for the men's championship was palatable whenever Dick Vitale wasn't mugging for the cameras and egging on fans watching the production from an outdoor on-site set in San Antonio. The best piece on Monday night was an ESPN retrospective by Curry Kirkpatrick on the 25th anniversary of UCLA's 1973 title-game victory over Memphis State, mostly through the eyes of Bill Walton.

His performance that night — he scored 44 points, on 21-of-22 shooting — might have been the greatest single game by any player in Final Four history, and if you don't think so, Walton is still only too happy to tell you so himself. Twenty-five years later, the big redhead is still just as full of himself as always. At one point, he said that if UCLA had played Providence, which lost in the semis, it "would have been no contest whatsoever."

The same, obviously, could not be said of Monday night's breathtaking final. Despite my personal choice for the silent treatment in the final minutes, Nantz and Packer were mostly palatable. As usual, Packer's Pointers — his keys to victory for both teams before the opening tipoff — were on the mark. And when he mentioned midway through the second half that Utah was running out of gas, you could almost smell the fumes.

Packer still had on his blinders when Nantz mentioned the death on Sunday of the 95-year-old widow of Adolph Rupp, the man who first built Kentucky into a national power and scorned black players for most of his career. Packer kept referring reverentially to "Coach Rupp," but never mentioned the subject. Maybe he's waiting for "60 Minutes" to do a piece.

Nantz, to his credit, brought up the significance of Tubby Smith's presence on the Kentucky bench, the first black basketball coach in school history. Finally, Packer gave credit to Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton for his long-time efforts to promote racial harmony, as the first Alabama coach to start five black players, then as the man who had the courage to hire Smith.

I did turn the sound back on for the postgame interviews, and Smith and their players were predictably emotional, as well they should have been. It was a fitting climax to what has been a captivating goose-bump month of college basketball, and for the most part, CBS rose to the occasion. Anyone could see that.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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