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COMMENTARY : With Bob Ferry 'On,' NBC Off and Running


Bob Ferry is under no illusions about his future as a television star, despite a multiyear contract to work as one of NBC's "insiders" on "Showtime," the network's lively pregame show for its weekend telecasts of National Basketball Assn. games.

"I always felt like I had a radio face," Ferry said the other day. "In the beginning, I was very apprehensive about even trying out for it. I felt like they expected me to create controversy, and I wasn't comfortable with that. But they haven't asked me to be anything other than myself. I'm happy I did it. And if the people at NBC think it's good, I'll do it again."

The people at NBC have been ecstatic about their first year of televising the NBA after the league's long run on CBS. Said NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol: "The NBA took us out of the 'made-for-television' sports business. Putting on old-timers softball was getting to be painful."

These days, however, are pure pleasure as NBA ratings are on the upswing. And now, with the dream matchup in the finals between Chicago and Los Angeles, otherwise known as Magic vs. Michael, NBC's decision to spend $600 million over four years for the rights looks better all the time.

So does Ferry, the general manager of the Washington Bullets for 17 years before he was fired last spring. Early on, Ferry seemed somewhat ill at ease during "insiders" segments with Peter Vecsey, a USA Today columnist who occasionally dominated the discussion of NBA news and gossip. But as the season wore on, Ferry became far more relaxed in his role-reversal from guarded NBA general manager to inquisitive reporter. Now he more than holds his own.

"I always had great respect for reporters," Ferry said, "but I also felt that my people came first. There are certain things you can say, and certain things you can't say. I've learned a lot about reporting. I work hard at this. For three days during the week, I'm on the phone talking to people, just like I would as a GM. I'm not looking to say things that will hurt someone, and I do the homework to get both sides of a story.

"They are intent on us getting out news items on the league, and that's what I've tried to do." Ferry said he was the first to report Chuck Daly would be the U.S. Olympic coach and that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski did not want to be an Olympic assistant. He also will admit that his report several months ago that James Worthy was close to re-signing with the Lakers was rather premature. Worthy still has not signed the contract.

"I think we've been very accurate on almost everything we've said on the air," Ferry said. "I've found that guys I used to battle with as a GM have been extremely cooperative with me. They always return my calls, and people have been as honest as they can be."

Still, coverage of the games -- the real story here -- generally has been outstanding. America is now discovering what New Yorkers have known for years -- that yessssss, Marv Albert is the best basketball play-by-play man alive. The same cannot be said for color man Mike Fratello, although the former Atlanta coach has improved. Dick Enberg and Steve Jones have handled the Trail Blazers-Lakers series capably, although Enberg's oh-my routine is getting oh-so-tiring and Jones tells you the obvious and doesn't do all that much analysis.

We also could do without those mostly vacuous reporter-in-the-stands interviews from Ahmad Rashad and Tom Hammond, who actually spent precious air time Tuesday night focusing on an empty chair on press row. It was supposed to have been occupied by ex-Blazer Bill Walton, who wrote a column in the Portland Oregonian that had incensed Blazers Coach Rick Adelman. But Walton wasn't there, and the empty chair had no comment.

Despite those minor annoyances, the production generally has been solid. Replays come up instantly, and courtside hand-held cameras focus on the games inside the game, the pushing, the woofing, the elbow to the gut.

"The way these people are able to put things on the air so quickly is still amazing to me," Ferry said. In fact, NBC gave Ferry something he never had in 17 years with the Bullets -- a chance to take the No. 1 pick in "Showtime's" mock draft Saturday.

Ferry chose Larry Johnson of UNLV for the Charlotte Hornets, who reportedly are not at all pleased with J.R. Reid.

"But they wouldn't let us make a trade," Ferry said. "If I'd had that pick, I would have traded it to Sacramento (picking third) for their choice and gotten a veteran player or another pick with it. Either way, Johnson or Billy Owens (Syracuse) would have still been there."

But such is life for Bob Ferry, an insider now watching from the outside.

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