Dick Enberg did everything there was to do in sports broadcasting--baseball, football, the NCAA basketball finals, Wimbledon, the Olympics. You name it, he did it.
But now that he's gone, there's one thing Dick would want us to remember. It all started at UCLA.
Dick broadcast eight of John Wooden's championship teams and NBC was watching.
"They said, 'Let's hire this Enberg,' and that was the start of things for me," he said.
Dick's memories of those early days were high on his list of his accomplishments when he talked to Eddie Einhorn for a book Eddie and I did together a dozen years ago. Dick told of how he was contracted to broadcast UCLA's games on Friday and Saturday night and a game in the Midwest Saturday afternoon.
"I'd do a UCLA game on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion, and as soon as it was over, I'd drive over to the airport and catch an 11 or 11:30 red-eye to the Midwest," Dick said. "I learned very quickly that after flying all night it didn't make any sense to go to a hotel and have to leave for the arena two hours later for a Saturday afternoon game. So I'd go right from the airport to the arena. But I had to make arrangements for a guard to let me in through a security door. I'd go to the first-aid room, where they always had a cot, and get a couple of hours sleep, then I'd shave in the men's room before they opened the gates. I'd do the game, go back to the airport, fly back to LA. and do the Saturday night UCLA game. No wonder I'm losing my mind."
Dick was the broadcaster when somebody came up with the bright idea of taping UCLA's home games and showing them at 11 p.m.
"That will never work," Dick said. "People aren't going to watch a game that's three hours old."
But he was wrong. This was in Lew Alcindor's heyday and fans all over the city stopped watching the news for fear they'd hear the score before they could watch the replay. "My father was living with me then and when I'd call home he wouldn't answer the phone," Dick said. "I had to say, 'I'm not going to tell you the score, dad. I just want to talk to you.'"
Though it wasn't ranked high on Dick's list of accomplishments in the obits I read, he always felt UCLA's game against Houston in the Astrodome in 1968 was the single most important event he ever covered because it foretold the future of college basketball. What Dick remembered most about that game was how primitive the conditions where for those watching and broadcasting it. The fans were located very far from the floor and to protect the sight lines, holes were dug in the floor to accommodate the television crew.
"We were sitting in foxholes with only our heads above the ground," Dick remembered. "When Houston won, we could hear the sound of the fans running. It was like the charge of the Alamo. They were leaping over our foxholes to get onto the floor to celebrate."
The ads that ran during the game weren't exactly high-tech either. As it appeared Houston might pull off the upset, calls from advertisers began pouring in and Eddie in his foxhole wrote down the copy and relayed it to Dick.
"You didn't have the best handwriting in the world," Dick told Eddie, "and I was trying to decipher those 10-second drop-in commercials. I was plugging cars and shaving cream and everything else, all from the handwritten notes you were giving me."
The most fun Dick might have had on an assignment was also supposed to include UCLA--a trip to China in 1973, the year after Ping-Pong Diplomacy marked the beginning of the thaw in U.S.-Chinese relations. But the Bruins pulled out, Dick said, because "It was Bill Walton's team and those were the burn-baby-burn days with all kinds of anti-war stuff going on."
Years later, Dick would kid Walton by saying, "I can't believe somebody as intelligent as you would turn down a trip to China."
"Don't talk to me about that," Walton would say. "I'm still sick to my stomach that I didn't go."
Eddie saved the day by taking an all-star team to China and he and Dick stayed in a former ambassador's residence where, Dick said, "When you looked out the window, you saw soldiers from the People's Liberation Army teach elementary school children how to throw hand grenades. And in Canton, a city of four million people or so, the airport had three cars in the parking lot. Four million people, three cars!"'
None of the Chinese electrical equipment worked so Eddie used small portable cameras to show Dick posing before the Great Wall of China for his intro. When the game began, they were told to expect an important dignitary and wondered if it would be Chou En-Lai or even Mao Tse-Tung himself.
"We were all lined up to see who it would be," Dick said, "and there came Madame Mao wearing an ugly gray dress. It was the first time she had worn a dress since 1949 or something.
"We had some fun, didn't we?
Ron Rapoport is a contributing writer to LA Observed and, with Eddie Einhorn, the author of "When March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America."