BOZICH | The reassuring voice of Dick Enberg took college basketball national
Hall of Fame announcer Dick Enberg died Thursday. He'll be remembered for his work in the NFL, baseball and Wimbledon but he helped make college basketball a national game.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Before college basketball was available on 17 channels and 14 devices eight days a week, I remember crossing my fingers that I'd be able to watch one game per weekend.
Especially this game -- UCLA and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) against Houston and Elvin Hayes.
From the Astrodome in Houston.
Jan. 20, 1968 (Trust me. I didn't have to check the date, just like the one-and-only Dream Game was played in Knoxville on March 26, 1983).
Eddie Einhorn put together a broadcasting syndicate to carry the game. An affiliate in Chicago was kind enough to carry it. My father and I sat in front of a black-and-white TV for two hours inhaling every dribble, bank shot and word from the announcing crew.
That announcing crew included former LSU star Bob Petit as the analyst and Dick Enberg delivering play-by-play.
That was my first introduction to Enberg, who became the voice of the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, major league baseball and nearly every other event with an open microphone.
Enberg's fabulous work on college basketball was the first thing I remembered early Friday morning when I learned that Enberg, 82, died. (Enberg worked Louisville's first NCAA championship win over UCLA in 1980 -- this is the link.)
The Super Bowl, Wimbledon and baseball were already carved firmly into the American sports calendar.
College basketball wasn't.
Enberg changed that.
Some argue that the Magic Johnson (Michigan State) vs. Larry Bird (Indiana State) 1979 NCAA title game, which Enberg also worked, was the moment that college basketball went national.
Enberg knew better -- as he told Mike Lopresti of NCAA.com in an interview last year.
"(Bird vs. Johnson) was a booster game into the stratosphere," Enberg said about 1979. "But the launching pad for the incredible popularity of college basketball on television, I believe, started right there in Houston, close to NASA. That really shot the rocket into the sky.
"There was an enormity about it, everything from the Astrodome to the meaningfulness of these two great basketball teams."
Enberg contributed to the change with his work on that Houston-UCLA telecast (which the Cougars won, snapping a 47-game Bruin winning streak). He changed it with his work as the voice of John Wooden's UCLA dynasty.
He changed it with his earliest work on the Indiana basketball radio network. (Enberg earned a graduate degree in Bloomington).
But mostly he changed it with his fabulous work on the three-man NBC college basketball game of the week crew with Al McGuire and Billy Packer.
McGuire was the entertainer, telling funny stories about cracked sidewalks and tasty chili served by waitresses with chubby ankles.
Packer was the analyst, a guy who had a sharp mind for basketball analytics without any assistance from Ken Pomeroy or Synergy Sports.
But Enberg was the conductor, slipping in and out of the conversation without causing a scene.
He made certain you knew the score, the circumstances, the backgrounds of all the players, the history and all the important facts and figures.
He set the scene with reassuring authority, with a voice as smooth and rich as a caramel latte, never soaring into a scream or lapsing into a whisper.
Two-men broadcast crews had been standard network operating procedure until NBC changed things in the late Seventies by placing Enberg in between McGuire, the former Marquette coach, and Packer, the former Wake Forest guard, who made his TV name as an analyst for Atlantic Coast Conference games.
Enberg made it work, allowing McGuire and Packet to fuss and mix it up without overshadowing the broadcast. They were funny, irreverent, emotional and entertaining -- and Enberg made certain they did not forget they were there to cover the game.
That could not have been easy. Packer and McGuire were both big personalities, guys convinced their way was the right way.
Enberg made it sound easy.
With Enberg at quarterback, the Enberg/Packer/McGuire team helped transform college basketball from a mostly regional game to one that earned its place on the national stage.
As Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim noted on Twitter Friday, when Enberg and the NBC crew came to your arena that confirmed your status as a big-time program.
Enberg, McGuire and Packer came to Louisville often. Former U of L coach Denny Crum and athletic director Bill Olsen were eager to play any team that NBC recommended -- Houston, UCLA, Virginia, North Carolina State, St. John's.
It was ambitious scheduling that helped grow the University of Louisville program -- and programming that grew college basketball's appeal on television.
Others noticed. Before there was ESPN and the other platforms you enjoy today, there was NBC, Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer. They helped take a mostly regional game and give it national appeal.
College basketball fans everywhere should thank the wonderful Dick Enberg for that.
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