If a motley band of NBA castoffs and culls turned into a Bullets team of special grace this season, so did the Bullets' patched-up television crew. Who ever thought a supersub and a recently raw recruit could work so well?
Frank Herzog had been Glenn Brenner's caddie so long, most people forgot he'd been championship material on Bullets' radio in 1977-78. James Brown, until recently a rube behind the mike, had bobbed up and down with Jim Karvellas and (the thought hurts) John Sterling before he was matched with Herzog.
The result? An altogether pleasant surprise. Herzog and Brown might not go to the finals, but they'd certainly get past the miniseries. Herewith, our one and only grade sheet on local and national NBA crews: Frank Herzog/James Brown (WDCA-20)
Once again, Herzog proved himself the most versatile and perhaps most polished sportscaster in town. He lost his reporter's instincts in the Bullets' championship season four years ago and literally became a cheerleader, but that's a sin he hasn't repeated. His call is accurate, properly enthusiastic for a home-town announcer and objective.
Best of all, Herzog knows a local play-by-play man should be as invisible as the third base umpire. Viewers know the players; why tell 'em Kevin Grevey shoots left-handed and can score from 25 feet? Unlike the insufferable Sterling, Herzog isn't a mike hog. He may go in too much for basketball jive talk, but--saving grace--he doesn't try to outanalyze Brown.
Brown may be a bigger surprise as an announcer than Jeff Ruland is as a player. Two years ago, it took J.B. two trips down the court to finish a comment about a baseline move that took place sometime the season before. Now he's all quick dashes of color. No rambling; few $5 words. J.B.'s in, now he's out; only later do you realize he packaged his thoughts well.
Lately, Brown has been getting feelers from NBC Sports. They like his insight. Wednesday night, for example, he noted that Kevin McHale of the Celtics knows that Boston Garden's rims are loose. Since the ball will come down after a short arc, McHale can position himself close underneath for rebounds.
Heady stuff, this "inside" commentary. Unfortunately, Brown still tends to be redundant, still overuses superlatives and cliches (isn't it "fantastic" how so-and-so was "not to be denied?"), and tends to play favorites at the expense of analysis. Witness his support of John Lucas at the expense of Frank Johnson Wednesday. "That was all basketball-motivated," Brown said afterward, "but it may have had more emotionalism than it should have."
Herzog: A minus.
Dick Stockton/Bill Russell (CBS)
Stockton always has been the decathlon champ of sports announcing: maybe not the best at any one sport, but he's going to win overall when you add up the points. This year, handling the No. 1 NBA game each week, he's emerged as Dick Enberg's equal on basketball.
As the backup announcer behind Gary Bender last year, Stockton came across as a shouter. The problem was, the former CBS producer of the games loved his announcers to be "up." He turned up the dial on the crowd noise in Stockton's earphones, forcing him to talk louder. This year Stockton is more subdued--and much improved.
Stockton has a reputation for doing more homework the week of a game than any two dozen network broadcasters put together. It comes through. He has a feel for the pro game that Frank Glieber, say, does not. In a certain sense, too many play-by-play men see the game but don't see the game. Stockton's not among them.
Bill Russell, now in the final year of his contract with CBS, just may be optioned to the Continental Association next year. Right now, he's surviving solely on name value. Russell breaks just about every rule in Bill Paley's manual: he rambles; he mumbles; he can't get out his lines, and (a surprise this year) what he does say is too often obvious.
The fact is, Russell is turning into a basketball version of Don Meredith--he no longer keeps contact with the players, and his act has become mannered. He can seem bored for long periods, sometimes checking out of a game and ignoring the mike in front of him for five minutes. You wonder what he's thinking about if a game isn't close. His tee time?
Russell does have a wonderfully dry wit. He put it on exhibit last weekend when Stockton explained how a mechanical repair to the backboard was being made. "Yes, Dick, we're going to get you a job with 'Popular Mechanics' . . . ," Russell cracked. Moral of tale: Jack Benny had a dry wit and big name too, but he wasn't a color commentator.
Frank Glieber/Hubie Brown (CBS)
Glieber, better known for working NFL games, is the kind of announcer who can do everything well enough that the network is not going to get flooded with mail. Neither is he going to distinguish himself.
Glieber's most annoying trait: every time you come back from a commercial, you're coming back to a game that "couldn't be more exciting"--even when one team is leading by 10 in the third quarter and the crowd is overdosing on No-Doz. Also, Glieber never exhibits a feel for the tone or cadence of the game. Think of Lindsey Nelson or Keith Jackson on football. They have a sense that Glieber doesn't.
As for Brown, the former coach-turned-USA cable announcer, picture sitting next to a nonstop talker on a bus ride out of New York. You might listen to the first few things he has to say. But by the time you get to Altoona, you've gone back to your book and tuned him out.
That's the way it is with Hubie. You've got to have sympathy for Glieber, who must either cut Brown off or get trampled by a stampede of words. Listening to the Lakers-Suns game Sunday, I was struck by how seldom Brown listened to Glieber. Yet another problem: Hubie talks down to his audience. It's like, "I'm the coach, you're the student. Now hear this!"
In fairness, give Brown this: nobody on television, with the possible exception of Hawks Coach Kevin Loughery (who may pop up on a backup game or two) can better anticipate the final two or three minutes of a game. It's an ability that almost borders on the psychic. The only problem is, by game's end, we've long since passed Altoona.