Al Michaels fumbles for a word. He can see the word. Taste it. For a moment the most celebrated play-by-play announcer in the history of television stares down at the table, like the word is swimming in his wine. He can't think of it. How strange is it to see the man who is never at a loss for words, well, at a loss for words. What's that word?
"Al can be hard on himself," says Linda, Al's wife of 44 years. She looks over, and Al is still staring at the table, the din of an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles blaring around him, still trying to come up with that word. He doesn't hear her. He is lost in his own world of....
"Whimsy!" he shouts triumphantly, in the exact same tone with which he shouted at the end of a certain hockey game 30 years ago. "The word," he says, "is whimsy."
Bob Costas had said, "You have to be there for this." And at an NBC production meeting before an NFL playoff game last month, he looks over at a visitor, smiles, gives a thumbs-up. Here it comes on the screen in a Dallas hotel conference room: The triumphant Costas-Michaels scene from the goofball 1998 movie BASEketball, in which they played co-announcers.
Al Michaels: "I don't think I've ever been this excited!"
Bob Costas: "You're excited? Feel these nipples."
The room breaks up, with Costas laughing loudest of all. BASEketball, a sophomoric comedy in which Costas and Michaels appeared with such acting heavyweights as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and ex-Playmate Jenny McCarthy, was not exactly a highlight of Costas's brilliant career. But here among friends the absurdity hits the perfect note. The "feel these nipples" line was in the television trailer, which, as Costas says, meant many people saw it (unlike the movie). "If that had not been in the trailer," Costas says, "then it would not haunt me to this day as it does." And he laughs again. He is not haunted.
We know them, or we think we do. That's the thing about sports announcers, isn't it? We have no choice but to know them. In other areas of television, we have choices. Don't like Brian Williams? Watch Katie Couric. Don't like CSI? Watch Law & Order. Don't like George Clooney? Don't see his movies. But sports announcers come with the games. We like them. We dislike them. Either way, we are stuck with them. And we get to know them.
We know Al Michaels and Bob Costas more than any of them. In Vancouver they are covering an Olympics together for the first time—Costas as NBC's prime time host, Michaels as the daytime emcee—but the two have dominated the sports landscape for 30 years. They have won 26 Emmys combined. Their voices are as familiar as Beatles songs. Think of a great sports moment in the last 30 years and there's a good chance Michaels or Costas was there providing the lyrics.
The 1998 NBA Finals? There's Costas beautifully summing up Michael Jordan's last big shot: "That may have been—who knows what will unfold in the next several months—but that may have been the last shot Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA.... If that's the last image of Michael Jordan, how magnificent is it?"