BOOK EXCERPT--AL BERNSTEIN: 30 Years, 30 Undeniable Truths
UNDENIABLE TRUTH #3: UNLIKE REALITY TV, LIVE SPORTS TELEVISION IS ACTUALLY REAL
In the wonderful movieMy Favorite Year, set in the 1950s, aging movie star Alan Swann (played expertly by Peter O’Toole) is just about ready for his guest appearance on The King KaiserShow, and he says, “I feel so good I think I’ll get it in one take.” A young producer responds with a chuckle, “Here we always get it in one take—it’s live.” A horrified Swann asks, “Live, what do you mean live? You mean everything we say just spills out there for people to hear?”. The producer says, “Well…yes.” Alan replies, “I can’t do that. I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.”
In live sports television it all just “spills out” to everyone as it happens. And so it is exhilarating to do live sports television—but there is no delete button. In thirty years of doing this I have seen, and been responsible for, some noteworthy gaffes. Except for the only perfect sportscaster, Bob Costas, we have all had our moments. Well, come to think of it, even Bob may have made a mistake once in the 1990s…or was it the 80s?
If sportscasters have had their share of imprudent or mistaken comments, active participants in sporting events have had even more. These things happen either because someone is nervous about being on television or they are so relaxed they forget they are on television. Except for comedians on cable networks who do it on purpose, most people curse on TV because it is part of their DNA and they forget they are live to the world.
One such person was a lightweight boxer named Kenny “Bang Bang” Bogner, who was a frequent combatant on theESPN Top Rank Boxingseries in the early 1980s. He was always in exciting fights—his 1982 win over Kato Wilson was judged the best ESPN fight of that year. He had a large and vocal fan base in the Atlantic City, New Jersey, area, and they were there in force for his fight with Wilson. I was trying to interview him in the ring after the win, and his adoring fans were still cheering wildly. I asked him a question about how he achieved his victory and he squinted at me as though he could not hear, so I repeated the question. He responded, “Al, I didn’t hear a f$@#ing word you said.” So, I leaned in closer and asked the question as loud as I could. He responded, “Oh! Now I hear you. I didn’t hear a f$@#ing word you said before.” After that, his answer to the question was a bit anticlimactic.
As a side note to this, a year later Kenny was scheduled to fight Ray Mancini for the world lightweight title, but a Mancini shoulder injury derailed the match. For that fight Frank Sinatra was actually scheduled to be a commentator at ringside and do interviews on the telecast. I’ve always wondered—if Old Blue Eyes would have been faced with a similar situation with Bogner inside the ring—I’m sure Frank would have been deeply offended, having never heard that kind of language before.
Ever since microphones found their way into boxing corners in the 1980s, we have been treated to some colorful and entertaining monologues from trainers. I remember one who spent about fifty seconds of the one-minute break berating his fighter with a profanity-laced diatribe that would make Sarah Silverman blush. Then he looked at the cameraman, got a horrified look on his face and shouted “Oh f$@#, I’m on TV.”
Many have been mistaken about the round number as they dispensed advice to a fighter. On an ESPN show in the early 1990s, a trainer told his fighter that it was the last round coming up. The boxer looked at him and said, “No it’s not.” Trying to save face, the trainer said, “Oh, right, I was testing you.” Gee, the previous thirty minutes of him getting punched wasn’t the real test?
Another time a trainer got into the ring and started his instructions when a particularly exquisite ring-card girl went by their corner. As if it were choreographed, both the trainer and fighter swiveled their heads to follow her progress. The trainer interrupted his instructions with one word, “Jeez.” Then he went back to talking boxing. When the scene ended, my witty broadcast partner Barry Tompkins wryly commented, “See, it takes concentration to be a great athlete.” So, there was an example of perfectly chosen words delivered well by a sportscaster. Oh, if it were only always so.
After Sal Marchiano left ESPN in 1982, there was a six-year period before Barry Tompkins arrived for his almost eight-year stint as my partner. During that six-year interim period just about everyone who ever passed through ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut, appeared at least once as my broadcast partner. During one stretch of our weekly boxing series I worked with eight different partners in eight weeks. One fellow, whose name mercifully I really can’t remember so he can be anonymous, was as nervous as anyone I have ever worked with. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face for two-and-a-half hours and hung on by his fingernails until the final moments of the telecast, and then he lost his grip. He closed the show by saying, “So I’m Al Bernstein for my partner [his name], saying goodnight.” Ouch.
Wit was not restricted to Barry on theESPN Top Rank Boxingseries. Sal demonstrated it while covering up for a rookie mistake I made in 1981. We were in an empty arena in Worcester, Massachusetts, doing the close of a show. Normally, when we went to video highlights of the show on screen, we were never put back on camera again. So, while Sal was wrapping things up with the highlights showing, I took off my microphone, got up, and started to leave. At that precise moment they came back to us on camera, just in time to see me exiting the shot. Sal said, “We will see you next week in Atlantic City, and that’s Al getting a head start.” I never did that again, but I have done other things.
As of the writing of this book I am still gainfully employed as the boxing analyst onShowtime Championship Boxing—by far the best job I have ever had on television. The fact that I still have that job is an indication that the folks who run Showtime have a sense of humor. I’ll explain. We were doing a match in 2009 from the Home Depot Center, just outside of Los Angeles. I was on camera with Steve Albert, and I was supposed to make a comment about the fans who had braved rain showers to come out to the event. When it was my turn to talk I said, “And these great fans have braved the elements to see boxing tonight at the Home Box Office Center.” Home Box Office, of course, stands for HBO, Showtime’s competitor. At that moment the sound I imagined hearing was the gnashing of teeth by Showtime executives across the country in New York. Steve rescued the moment by saying, “Well, Al, I guess you just had your YouTube moment.” Indeed I had.
Some sixteen years earlier I barely escaped what surely could have been an embarrassing episode. I was assigned to do a pay-per-view fight and arrived in Phoenix two days before the card. Then I contracted perhaps the worst stomach flu I have ever had. For about forty-eight hours I stayed in my hotel room and threw up. It was beyond horrible. On the day of the fight I was barely able to get dressed and go to the arena. My broadcast partner for the evening was the very gifted Sam Rosen. He took one look at me and said, “You need help.” That was an understatement. Someone found the ring doctor and brought him over. I explained what was going on and he said, “No problem, I’ll fix you up.” He gave me a shot for the nausea and I was feeling better in a remarkably short period of time.
What that doctor forgot to mention is that those shots can also make you very drowsy. About thirty minutes into the telecast my eyelids were drooping. Every time my head slumped forward a bit, Sam elbowed me in the side to wake me up. I contributed precious little of note to that telecast—Sam carried me through the whole thing, and I know there were a few rounds where I nodded off to sleep briefly. The intriguing part of all of this is that no one commented on my lack of contributions, which either spoke to Sam’s excellence or the low expectations people had of me. I’m rooting for the former, not the latter. We can all name television personalities who have put viewers to sleep with their commentary—but I may be the only one who ever succeeded in puttinghimselfto sleep during a broadcast. That takes true talent.
I admire and respect Marvin Hagler as much as any athlete in history. He’s a great boxer and a stand-up guy. He and I have always had an excellent relationship. So, it is ironic that my two worst on-the-air mistakes were saved for Marvin’s fights. Both mistakes slightly tarnished important moments in his career.
The first came in 1985 after his win over Tommy Hearns. I announced the fight with Al Michaels on pay-per-view, and after Hagler’s stirring KO win in round 3, I said the following: “This amazing victory more than compensates for his loss to Roberto Duran.” Well, as any casual boxing fan knows, Marvin didnotlose to Duran, something I certainly knew, since I also announced that fight on pay-per-view.
Hagler won a close decision over Duran in which many felt he was too passive against the smaller Hands of Stone. He won nonetheless, and probably by a wider margin than the judges’ scorecards indicated. I wanted to say in my comment after the Hearns win that Hagler had surely put to rest any criticism he may have gotten for not stopping Duran. What came out of my mouth was unfortunatelynotthat thought.
We now flash forward to 1986 and the fight between Hagler and John Mugabi. Hagler had scored an exciting TKO win in the 11th round, and I was up in the ring interviewing him about the win. We were nearing the end of the interview and the producer said something in my ear that went a little longer than it should have, and I did not hear all of one of Marvin’s statements. The part I heard was: “Would you all mind if I left?” I thought he meant he wanted to end the interview, so I said, “No problem Marvin, you worked hard enough tonight, congratulations.” Then I turned back to the camera to do a final analysis of the evening, as planned, leaving a slightly befuddled Marvin Hagler in my wake. As the great Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story.
The full comment that Marvin had made in the interview was, “Since this is my 12th title defense, maybe it’s time to retire, would you all mind if I left?” Well, by missing the first part of that statement, and dismissing Marvin, I was ignoring a potential retirement announcement on the air from boxing’s biggest name. So…that went well. Only later did I find out about my blunder—I did not sleep very much that night.
These two incidents make it look like I was dedicated to trying to ruin Marvin Hagler’s legacy. However, in between these two incidents I gave him hundreds of richly deserved compliments on the air. So, apparently I was actually more intent on ruiningmycareer. Somehow I survived those two mistakes made on boxing’s center stage.
Sometimes on live television, craziness is thrust upon you through no fault of your own. We often did our ESPNTop Rank Boxingshows from various spots in Massachusetts. A good number of the fans there were, well, let’s say enthusiastic. Ok, maybe I can go so far as to say they were a little out of control. Wait, what’s the word I’m searching for…oh, yes…NUTS! Alcohol was usually involved in their erratic behavior. Some of it was a bit hostile, like the time in Brockton when Sal Marchiano and I were doing our on-camera open to the show, and for reasons known only to them, the fans right in front of us started to chant, “You guys suck.” I was only about one-and-a-half years into my sportscasting career, and I don’t mind telling you I was a bit rattled. I fought my way through the comments I was supposed to make, looking at these angry and raucous souls out of the corner of my eye—to make sure they weren’t rushing us. Sal, on the other hand, was chuckling and said on the air, “I guess you can hear how much they love us here in Brockton, we’ll be back with our first bout right away, so stay with us.” As we sat down at ringside during the commercial I said to Sal, “Wow, this is crazy.” He said, “Hey, it could be worse, at least nobody’s throwing anything. Wait until that happens.”
Well, I knew that from time to time fans at a boxing match would get a bit disturbed at a decision or a fight stoppage and toss a few items toward the ring— you know, coins, bottles, spouses…whatever they could lay their hands on. But, what I did not realize, and most people don’t think about, is that a television commentator is the most vulnerable person in that arena under those circumstances. Why?Because we can’t move.We are tied to our spot by the cords of the headsets and the fact that we are on live television, so we can’t leave.
Over these thirty some years I have been ringside when crowds have been a bit distressed and chose to vent their anger by throwing things at the ring. Amazingly, for almost twenty-nine of those years, I avoided any genuine direct hits—oh, once or twice something grazed off my back, but nothing worrisome. Then came San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2011. Hometown hero Juan Manuel Lopez was defending his featherweight title against Mexico’s Orlando Salido. Lopez was undefeated and the favorite in the fight. But, apparently no one told Salido this, and he spent the first seven rounds blasting Lopez around the ring—even putting him down once. In the 8th round Salido landed a couple of good punches and stunned Lopez, but Lopez had actually been hurt worse earlier in the fight, and he is famous for his resiliency. And, the referee was from Puerto Rico. So, you wouldn’t expect a quick stoppage there. You wouldn’t expect it, but that’s exactly what happened.
Even though Lopez may well have been stopped in the next minute or next round or later, this was odd timing for the stoppage. The fans were somewhat justifiably upset. So naturally, they started pelting the ring with objects. I was a bit oblivious to the items raining down at first, because I was concentrating on doing the replays. Ironically I was in midsentence suggesting that the booing fans may have a point about the stoppage being a bit too soon, when a full water bottle hit me about a quarter-inch from my right eye. It hit so hard the thud could be clearly heard on the air through my microphone. I gave an audible groan from shock and pain. Gus Johnson, my broadcast partner for the evening, announced, “My partner has been hit.”
One of Gus’ charms as a sportscaster is his ability to capture the drama of the moment, and perhaps enhance it a bit—well, one might surmise from his call that a sniper had shot me. But, however heated, his description was accurate—and I had a cut and a bruise under my right eye to prove it. I took my headset off to get myself together—I was dazed to be sure. A minute later I was talking on the broadcast again, but with an aching face and a headache to beat the band. It dawned on me later that I could have said something really loopy on the air—I was still a bit groggy. But, then, given some of the on-air gaffes I have admitted to in this chapter, how much worse could I have done, and in this case I would have had a built-in excuse.
It’s actually a miracle that it took twenty-nine years of broadcasting fights to get hit on the head with something. It’s as if all the people throwing things all those years had the kind of aim it takes to be a Chicago Cubs pitcher. I received e-mails, tweets, and letters from many Puerto Rican fans who apologized for their countrymen—which was very nice but completely unnecessary. The Puerto Rican boxing fans are among the nicest and most knowledgeable in the world. Besides, I’m sure that bottle wasn’t meant for me…unless of course, Marvin Hagler was there that night and he was just getting even.