Rich Chvotkin phoned home a week ago last Sunday, and his two boys, 14-year-old Loren and 12-year-old Evan, were soon engaged in an animated long-distance conversation with their father over the Georgetown basketball team's upset loss to Texas-El Paso the previous afternoon.
It was very long distance.
Chvotkin, the long-time play-by-play voice -- no, make that primal scream -- of Georgetown University basketball, was calling from Saudi Arabia, where he is now stationed as a lieutenant colonel with the Army Medical Services combat psychiatry unit. And while the boys were providing their own report of the Hoyas' defeat, in the background, Lynn Chvotkin, Rich's wife, was "just losing it."
"They're talking Georgetown basketball," she said, "and I'm shouting, 'Is he alive, is he well?' They're saying, 'Dad, you can't believe how they lost.' They're talking points, rebounds. I'm asking, 'Is he breathing? Is he eating well? Is he regular?' "
Lynn Chvotkin finally wrestled the telephone from her sons and got some answers. She only had two minutes, but anyone who's ever listened to her husband's rat-a-tat descriptions of the Hoyas knows that if you give Chvotkin 120 seconds, he'll give you "War and Peace."
He told her he was calling from a coastal town in Saudi Arabia and would soon be deployed at a field hospital in the desert with his reserve unit -- one of two in the entire country that specializes in combat stress. He's living with a thousand other GIs in what she described as "this wooden, stilt-like thing with plastic on top. They've all got their own wooden cots. He said to me, 'It ain't the Hilton.' And he also said the amount of weaponry they've got is staggering."
Chvotkin is a full-time staff psychologist at the Washington Psychiatric Institute. Now he's the unit's acting commander. "God help us," Lynn Chvotkin said, laughing through her tears and admitting her husband never dreamed he'd get to see Operation Desert Shield up close and personal.
His call-up earlier this month was thoroughly unexpected. "He'd even called some of his friends at the Pentagon and they told him his unit was so far down on the totem pole, there was virtually no chance," she said. "When it happened, he was floored. Me? I lost it. It was just so fast."
He's been in the Army reserve for 21 years, five more years than he's done play-by-play for the Hoyas. It's a hobby that began when he was a student at Penn and did some games on the campus radio station. He hooked up with the Georgetown program in its infancy when no one else was interested, often selling the advertising himself in the early years. He's been rattling off the cliches -- "tickling the twine," "charity stripe," "hitting the trey" -- ever since, on seven different stations.
With Chvotkin in the Army now, WWDC executives also had to scramble to fill his combat boots, and that led to another strange development. The station's first choice was Glenn Harris, the voice of Howard athletics and a perfectly capable and competent replacement.
Harris, who also does two drive-time sports shows and has a provocative Sunday talk show, "Let's Talk Sports," on Howard's station, WHUR-FM, has been paying his dues in local radio and television for years, not to mention with his good work with disadvantaged kids in the community. He was thrilled to have been asked to take over such a high-visibility job covering a top-20 team, even if he knew it would be only until Chvotkin came back.
But the same thrill apparently was not there for WHUR management, specifically station general manager Jim Watkins. He wouldn't allow Harris to do the games, a seemingly incomprehensible decision considering the dearth of black play-by-play announcers at any level. The people at WWDC were even willing to plug WHUR during the games, telling Harris he could sign off by telling his listeners "you can hear me every afternoon and Sunday evenings on WHUR." But WHUR still said no.
Watkins did not return repeated phone calls over the last four days to explain his reasoning. And Harris said he preferred not to comment, saying only "I really can't talk about it. I was just very disappointed. I thought it would be great. I wasn't going anywhere. WHUR is my life, my heart. I love the station. You'll have to ask them why."
Meanwhile, WWDC finally handed over its microphone to another young black broadcaster, Charles McNeil, who uses the on-air name Charles K. He's 29, lives in Lanham, and was recommended to the station by John Thompson. The Georgetown coach had seen his work on BET, where McNeil did some play-by-play and on-air reporting in the last few years.
Recently, McNeil was working for Sports News Network in New Jersey until he was laid off by the cable network that folded its tent last week. McNeil is now looking for a full-time job while trying to hone his play-by-play skills with on-the-job training at WWDC.
He's got a pleasant voice and definitely does his homework, spouting scads of stats as the game wears on. In Saturday's broadcast against Ohio State, he gave frequent updates on the score and the time remaining, but his description of the action left something to be desired. On several occasions he misidentified players (though, to his credit, he corrected himself). There was little emotion, virtually no analysis of strategy and almost every shot was a "pull-up," almost every miss "rattled around the rim."
He's young, he's probably going to get better, and for now he's the voice of Georgetown basketball while the real voice is in Saudi Arabia.
Rich Chvotkin, for one of the few times in his life, was not available to comment. We hope that soon will change.