It was billed as the "dream game" by the Turner Broadcasting System, which should keep dreaming.
Saturday's dream game wasn't Virginia versus Georgetown, though Turner -- and the rest of us -- hoped against hype that it would be. If there was a dream game this weekend, it was Houston-Syracuse, a sizzling, back-and-forth thriller broadcast as a matter of course earlier in the afternoon by CBS.
Before the Orangemen ultimately won, CBS announcers Gary Bender and Billy Packer did us all a favor the Turner folks couldn't do later on: they refrained from calling it a great game until it was one. Turner's on-air crew for Virginia-Georgetown, Steady Skip Caray, Laid-Back Abe Lemons, Broadcast Bob Neal and Blue-Collar Red Auerbach, were not so lucky. Because Ted Turner thought he'd make a fortune from it, he paid a relative fortune for this game; it had to be great.
Big pressure showed on the court. Ditto on the air.
Turner, who was watching the game down on his South Carolina farm (and we know this because Caray told us so, adding: "Boss, we hope you like it too . . ."), might even have got the idea afterward that money doesn't buy everything, especially not magic. The game actually did approach magic -- particularly after a tensely played, primarily defensive and dull first half gave way to second-half fireworks. But the telecast itself was more like mortal life: occasionally fun, frequently annoying and mostly mundane.
The earliest warning of a letdown came even before the telecast began. "Stay tuned for Virginia's Ralph Sampson versus Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, in the college basketball game of the decade," said the announcer just seconds after the "M*A*S*H" rerun ended on Channel 5. WTTG-TV-5 was one of about 100 commercial stations Turner and Russ Potts' Sports Productions Inc. slapped together for the event, a harbinger of Turner's latest dream of a fourth commercial network. You heard the name -- Turner Network Television -- about 15 times.
The pregame, titled "Countdown to the Showdown," intercut taped features with live standups from courtside at Capital Centre, wherein the bland and happy Neal interviewed Auerbach, the effusive stevedore ("It's unbelievable! It's like the final four! The crowd is unbelievable . . .") as well as Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick, who said, "It's a made-for-TV game, sure, but that's not all bad."
True. The pregame did include nice words from Elvin Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who met on the court in a classic UCLA-Houston matchup on Jan. 20, 1968, back when Abdul-Jabbar was called Lew Alcindor.
"People remember the place, the time, and what they were doing at that time because that was the game of the century," said Hayes, whose team won in the Astrodome in the first nationally televised prime-time college basketball game.
Abdul-Jabbar was more reflective. "It fit in the scheme of things," he said. "I don't know if it was as big a game as everybody said it was."
Just in case Saturday's game was as big a game as everybody said it was going to be, Turner had six game-coverage cameras (four is normal), three tape machines (instead of two), two TBS Sports trucks (instead of one) and even had a camera ready for a live "cut-in" from Charley's, a fan-filled bar in Charlottesville.
TBS' man in Charlottesville interviewed two fans. One said, "Hi, Mom." The other, an unidentified woman, was asked: Are you a basketball fan? ("Yes!") Who's gonna win? ("U-Va.!") Why? (" 'Cause we're the best!")
Director Tom Smith's pictures and producer Dick Dodson's pacing were probably the most consistently good part of the telecast. Smith cut away from the court to cheering fans only once too often -- missing a crucial steal, but catching it on several replay cameras.
But one major complaint: Why must we be subjected to largely meaningless shots of network bigwigs? Do closeups of Potts or of WTBS executives Robert Wussler and Terry Hanson do as much for the sports fans at home as they do for the production crews who put them on?
The game's commentary was adequate, but knowing the work of Bender and Packer, I felt oddly unsatisfied. Caray, who does the Braves and Hawks games for WTBS, is a forceful, reliable presence--but even he was caught once unawares, describing the start of the second half as the start of the third period. He realized his mistake -- college ball has no quarters -- and apologized.
Lemons, the one-time winning Texas coach who has done sportscasting only one time, made no apologies for what seemed a general lack of homework on his part. His comments were limited primarily to the game -- no perspective, no anecdotes, few relevant statistics.
During the repeated timeouts in the game's final minute, for instance, instead of talking about what strategies Georgetown Coach John Thompson or Virginia's Terry Holland might try -- or had tried in similar past situations -- Lemons and Caray chatted about Virginia's upcoming trips to Japan and Hawaii.
Lemons is, ordinarily, a highly erudite, quirkily quotable guy. But he added little -- except at the very end of the broadcast, when for some inexplicable reason he followed Caray's "Good night" with the exclamation, "Banzai!"
Maybe he knows something about TNT's future sports-broacasting strategy that we don't?