We viewers are like the kid who got an Atari for Christmas, realized his birthday was coming up on New Year's and suddenly demanded an Intellivision. Spoiled rotten, they used to say. The networks cover college basketball so well, we now feel short-changed by the home-town boys.
Spoiled or not, viewers couldn't help noticing that local college basketball got off to an uneven start when its TV season began in earnest Wednesday night. Only Billy Packer, the little sharpie, saved the evening. He was so perceptive they should have let him handle the camera shots.
You had to have antennas in your head to catch all three games. There were the Maryland-Carolina and Virginia-Notre Dame games on Channel 7, both produced by Metrosports in Rockville. And there was the Georgetown-St. John's game, otherwise known as "Chvotkin's Landing," on Channel 5.
Metrosports is the packaging house headed by Maryland grad Lenny Klompus that recently won the rights to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball (it's had the rights to Notre Dame since George Gipp got his fever). The two games probably served as a yardstick for what to expect this year.
First, the talkers.
When Metrosports is sending us one game at a time, then praise be! That means we get Jim Thacker and his partner in rhyme, who probably are the best basketball announcing duo this side of NBC's Dick Enberg and Al McGuire. All comparisons of Thacker/Packer (the Maryland game) with Harry Kalas and Tom Hawkins (Virginia game) were odious.
Thacker is as comfy as an old pair of slippers. Packer is Mr. Opinion. Go ahead, Billy, rip the refs if they deserve it. His chief virtue is that he dispenses praise and criticism in equal measure. Above all, he's fair. He's an ACC announcer but he's not an ACC homer. Big difference.
After Packer had raced over on the Beltway to catch the Virginia-Notre Dame game in progress, Hawkins asked him who was better, Virginia or Carolina? Almost every other announcer would have hedged. Packer said Carolina is better, and he backed up his opinion with reasons.
When Metrosports has two games to show, look out. That means they have to wheel Tom Hawkins out of the Notre Dame basketball Hall of Fame. He reminds me of a windup doll. See Tom talk. See Tom do a parody of a jock announcer who reads his comments from a script.
Hawkins rarely tells you anything that's not obvious. The guy is so stilted it hurts. "We hope the injury (to Notre Dame's Dan Duff) isn't too serious," he says, as if we thought he was a sadist. "We're at 54 seconds and counting . . . " he says. What is this, a space shot? Finally, he calls everybody over 6 feet 9 "the big fella."
I hadn't heard this big fella before. I'll go out of my way to avoid him from now on.
As for Metrosports' work in the truck, there's room for improvement. If Klompus and his boys were playing in the ACC, they'd beat Maryland but get blown out by Carolina. Inconsistency is the order of the day.
I felt much more involved in the Virginia game than the Maryland contest. The reason? Tighter camera shots. There were plenty of cuts to handheld cameras in the corners, dozens of reaction shots of coaches and players. You were in the game--a small miracle, considering the score.
Klompus himself produced the Maryland game. His big shot was a wide-angle, faraway view of the court--supposedly the better to illustrate Maryland's defenses. Bad mistake. It was like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
Maryland's athletic office griped about cameramen getting in the way of spectators, so we got few close-ups from courtside. But that's no excuse for never showing the second-half incident in which James Worthy angrily bounced a pass off a referee's hip.
One positive sign this year will be "Fastbreak Flashback," a well-conceived halftime feature in which Metrosports takes a nostalgic look at a former ACC star. This week, Channel 7 lost half the piece. They flashed us back to a Carolina player of the '60s identified only as "Lee," as in Lee Shaffer. "Mystery Theater," anyone?
This leaves us with the Georgetown show on Channel 5.
Stealing glances at this game, I felt the unusual urge to cry out in my living room: "Look out, everybody, here comes the Chvotkin from outer space. He's yelling, he's cheering, he's blinking, his lights are flashing, he's got it! He's landed at Madison Square Garden!"
Rich Chvotkin does the play-by-play of Hoya TV with Bernie Smilovitz on the color. Chvotkin goes into such fits of ecstasy when the Hoyas win that you can imagine what he was saying with the Hoyas in front, 39-9. The Chvotkin is untamed, breathless, a passionate announcer/fan, not to be taken altogether seriously.
But--and this is a big but--you can't help liking the guy if you take him in moderate doses. Love conquers all, and anybody who loves anything as deeply and unashamedly as Chvotkin loves Georgetown can't be all bad. Besides, the sardonic Smilovitz is a good counterpoint.
Smilovitz's strength is his spontaneity, not his expertise. Neither talker seemed able to explain why St. John's lost its composure so completely. Smilovitz was too busy expressing surprise, Chvotkin was too busy checking his afterburners. There also were a shameless number of ticket pitches for a two-hour game.
Tomorrow, the local boys will move their trucks in from out back of the gym once again. Metrosports at 3 p.m. (Channel 7) will take on CBS and NBC at every other hour of the afternoon. CBS has locked up Packer for the day. Now you know how Custer felt at Little Big Horn.