Eddie Einhorn, 80, left his mark on sports and media

eddie-einhorn-book.jpgI was a little disappointed to see the report of Eddie Einhorn's death reduced to two meager sentences in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, if only because the mark he left on UCLA basketball was almost as great as his influence on the game itself. He was, in a word, a visionary and while he would smile at the lack of attention his passing drew out here, he should not be allowed to depart without a recitation of some of his greatest hits.

Eddie first became interested in college basketball at a time when almost nobody else was, except perhaps for the students at the schools where the games were being played. There was no network television, very little radio and no understanding at all of the national phenomenon the game would soon become. When Cincinnati played Ohio State for the NCAA title in 1962, for instance, the only place you could see the game live was in the state of Ohio. Everybody else had to wait for "Wide World of Sports" the following day.

By then, Eddie was four years removed from putting together a radio network that broadcast the 1958 tournament on the radio. His office was his dorm room at Northwestern University's Law School, his office phone was at the end of the hall and his mailbox was at the post office.

"I was always afraid the universities and radio stations I was dealing with would get wise to me," Eddie told me. "Somehow, they never did."

That set the pattern for the rest of Eddie's career. He came up with the then-radical idea of broadcasting games from Madison Square Garden to the home towns of the competing teams. It wasn't until game time that a Garden executive pointed out that they owned the television rights.

"Well, nobody told me," said Eddie, who paid a hastily negotiated rights fee and pocketed $200.'

Shortly thereafter, he created his own network, TVS, and hit the road where station by station, conference by conference, independent team by independent team, he began broadcasting road games back home. His phone was no longer in his dorm room, but rather on the wall in the lobby of a building on Fifth Avenue that had a common answering service where he could pick up his messages.

In 1965, Eddie set his sights a little higher. He began broadcasting games not just to the various colleges' home towns, but on regional networks with a larger reach. And even when the broadcasts began to prove popular and he had more than 200 local stations in his fold, the three major networks remained unmoved.

"I started booking games on the local stations the networks owned in some of the largest cities in the country," he said. "Pre-empting their own shows, in other words. But they were slow to react."

There were some college basketball people who could see the future, however, and one of them was J.D. Morgan. The UCLA athletic director was overseeing the greatest college basketball dynasty the game would ever know and he was intent on spreading the brand to the nation at large. Soon Eddie was broadcasting UCLA in intersectional games, which culminated in its fabulously successful home-and-home series with Notre Dame. (John Wooden was not a fan of these games--he preferred non-conference games against teams he knew he could beat--but Morgan saw that national interest was dependent on competitive games and ignored his complaints.)

Eddie's greatest triumph came in 1968 when he matched UCLA against Houston in the Astrodome. This was the first game ever played in a large arena so the venue itself was a big talking point. And on that one night, all the stars were aligned. The two top teams in the country--both of them unbeaten--with No. 1 UCLA riding a 47-game win streak. The two top players in the country--Lew Alcindor (as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known then) for UCLA and Elvin Hayes for Houston. Two of the top coaches in the country--Wooden, who would win 10 NCAA titles, and Houston's Guy Lewis, who went to the Final Four five times.

By the day of the game, the national frenzy had peaked and it seemed as if every advertising agency in the country wanted in.

"Here's the thing I'll never forget," Dick Enberg, who broadcast the game, told Eddie when they were reminiscing more than 40 years later. "By the time the second half started, the telecast had become a huge hit around the country and we were getting calls from all over from advertisers wanting to buy time. So while the game was progressing, you were passing me hand-written notes--you didn't have the best handwriting in the world--and I was trying to decipher them. I was plugging cars and shaving cream and everything else, all from the handwritten notes you were giving me."

The game itself was a thriller--Houston won, 71-69, as Alcindor was hampered by an eye injury he had suffered in a game a week earlier--and Eddie was in his glory. But he had planted the seeds of his own destruction. Now that he had proven what college basketball and national television could do for each other, the much-richer networks bid up the rights and Eddie sold TVS and moved on to other jobs in television.

The idea of becoming a TV mogul himself never seemed to have occurred to him, nor was he consumed by wanting to be a hugely wealthy man. What Eddie liked was working for himself, traveling wherever the spirit of the moment took him, going to Broadway shows when he was home in New Jersey and enjoying himself as he saw fit.

In 1981, Eddie threw in with his former law school classmate Jerry Reinsdorf to buy Chicago White Sox. His broadcasting background led to him helping negotiate baseball's first billion-dollar television contract, but he was frustrated to find owners of baseball teams no more forward thinking than the network executives to whom he had shown college basketball's future years earlier.

"ESPN was just starting out and was looking for a partner," Eddie said. "Baseball could have bought a major interest for very little money and passed. I could cry just thinking about it."

A dozen or so years ago, Eddie hit the road in earnest one last time. He'd had some health setbacks, including a kidney transplant, but he was feeling better now and had an idea. He would travel the country and look up many of the great coaches whose games he had once broadcast--Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Joe B. Hall, Denny Crum, John Thompson, Jerry Tarkanian and so many more. And some of the great players--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Elvin Hayes, Lynn Shackelford and others. And the great announcers who had worked for him--Enberg, Al Michaels, Dick Vitale, Billy Packer, Jim Nantz and more. And the pioneering television executives, conference commissioners and television ad salesman, too, all of whom had wonderful stories to tell.

As he traveled, Eddie kept telling me how thrilled he was to be able to see his old friends again and swap stories, but as I read over the transcripts of their conversations I realized it worked both ways. They were delighted to see him, too.

"One of the first calls I made was to John Wooden," Eddie said, "and I was a little nervous, wondering if he'd remember me and feeling a little sheepish for not having been in touch for so many years."

I am now imagining the smile on his face as I recall the first thing Wooden said when he picked up the phone:

"Eddie! Where have you been!"

Ron Rapoport is co-author, with Eddie Einhorn, of "How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America."

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