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Jeff Simon: Let's hear it for the folks in the booths, from Humble Howard to Jeff Van Gundy

Jeff Simon

Roone Arledge was a genius.

I never realize how spectacular a TV invention "Monday Night Football" was until I watch, say, a 40-point blowout at an NBA playoff game where the resident announcers--one seasoned pro, two ex-players  -- have nothing remotely interesting to say among them.

A fellow I know whom no one has ever been tempted to call a genius, once confidently lectured me in my hopeless ignorance and amateurism that basketball was too fast a sport to ever put up with three mouths in an announcing booth.

It is indeed a lightning fast game. There is a lot going on at all times. When you've got a play-by-play guy as prolix and accomplished and glib as Mike Breen of ABC and ESPN, he alone is putting a lot of verbiage into the air.

But the fact is, all sports have the same problems sometimes in the booth. What the devil do you do when you've got a two-and-a-half hour time slot and the game is a 40-point blowout -- or its equivalent in other sports -- from the opening play?

What you do is what you have to do, which is count on your announcing team to be intrinsically interesting in and of themselves, regardless of what's happening.

That's where the genius of Monday Night Football will always outshine everything else that has ever been on TV. My Lord, what a threesome Arledge invented: Frank Gifford, the handsome, colorless, perfectly corporate play-by-play guy; Howard Cosell, megalomaniacal controversialist, contrarian and brazen talking toupee who always understood how much more important than sports was the world of sports; and "Dandy" Don Meredith, the ex-Dallas quarterback and pub-crawling good old boy who was a walking party (or, to put it another way, an antic locker room joke waiting to happen).

With the world's most perfectly neutral human being -- Gifford -- in the middle (his predecessor Keith Jackson had a voice almost as sharp as Cosell's), you had both sides of the audience covered: the avid consumers of news and ideas and the seekers of off-the-field tattle and celebration.

Can you imagine this whole current kneeling business going down in the era of Cosell and Meredith and Arledge on Monday Night Football?

No matter what the devil was happening on the field, all that Howard/Dandy Don towel-snapping was a show in and of itself.

Everything that has come after it in sports television has tried to learn from the magic of what Arledge invented.

Fox's pregame show with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson showed us football's good old boys having a grand time being good old boys.

ESPN has found all sorts of off-center personalities to fill out announcing booths and pre-and-post-game analyses. Sometimes -- as with Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons on ESPN -- they can become so feisty that their post-Cosell prickliness couldn't be tolerated in a world of corporate lockstep.

ABC's and ESPN's hoop threesome is by no means, that explosive; nor is it even close to the equal of "Monday Night Football" in its Golden Years (when -- can you imagine -- it was Cosell who announced first to the TV audience that John Lennon had been murdered).

But they're never boring either. Breen is as glib and polished and informed as any play-by-play guy around. Ex-player and coach Mark Jackson has that wonderful Cosellian gift of packaging uncut vocal pomp as if it were true seriousness.

The perfect seasoning for those two in the middle is Jeff Van Gundy, a guy from a successful basketball family, a former coach of the Rockets and the Knicks and a guy who looks like the manager of your favorite local supermarket. He is a peppery eccentric whose almost every utterance is unpredictable.

One second, you're liable to get a technical discussion of a play only other ex-coaches will understand completely; the next, you're liable to get an ex-coach fed up to here with zillion-dollar players coasting on salaries as big as the Honduran annual budget or yet another stupid call by a ref who seems to insist on gumming up a perfectly watchable game with miniscule misdemeanors.

I love it when VanGundy gets ticked off by some nonsensical rule and explains it to the audience so we too can accept the fact there is no job anywhere that is entirely devoid of officiousness, not even multi-million dollar point guard on a championship basketball team. Van Gundy is a guy who understands extremes; he coached Yao Ming, for pity's sake, one of the biggest giants to ever play the game.

The other unpredictable thing about Van Gundy is that he's got kids that he obviously pays attention to so he's liable, at the oddest moments, to bounce pop cultural references off the wall for a little delightful incongruity when others get too serious.

When you consider that Mark Jackson used to play for Van Gundy, you've got three guys in the booth who are interesting no matter what is happening on the court.

When the game is good, they make it better. When the game is a low-energy, high-point blowout, they can pluck juicy subjects out of thin air to keep you tuned in to what they're saying.

The cable sports channels have developed specialists in the art of controversy and "color" comedy. Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser invented their acts at keyboards for the Washington Post. Trouble-maker Stephen A. Smith would rather perish entirely than have nothing to say and, my favorite, Shannon Sharpe, is still plugging away on Fox Sports.

The subjects these days, heaven knows, are there. They're huge -- concussion in football and the terrible frequent cost of playing the sport at the highest level, the place of patriotic displays at sporting events. But no one out there now comes close to the Monday Night Football bunch in being able to deal with them with magnetism, charisma and common sense at the same time.

Let me, then, make my usual modest proposal to the TV honchos: please find somewhere another Roone Arledge, i.e., a guy so creative he's unafraid of screwing up big time (pairing Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner?), but also visionary enough to figure out that one room containing Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith would always be worth eavesdropping on.

For a couple of decades, I've been confessing openly the comedy of ex-sports stars on pre-and-post game analyses is more interesting to me than most sitcoms. "Roseanne?" No thanks. I prefer Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley and Kenny "The Jet" Smith talking hoops on TNT.

Wouldn't it be amazing if we ever found out on the air what they actually sound like when they're off the air trying to entertain each other -- before, that is, we returned to our previously scheduled programming of running, jumping, bumping, shooting and dribbling?

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