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INSIDE STORY

Knowing It All

FOX'S KEITH OLBERMANn IS THE MOST POLARIZING SPORTSCASTER ON TV. VIEWERS LOVE OR LOATHE HIS STRONG VOICE, SMART MOUTH AND SHARP ELBOWS.

November 26, 2000|DAVID DAVIS | David Davis is a Los Angeles writer whose last piece for the magazine wasabout filmmaker Ron Shelton

Keith Olbermann can't stop talking.

The words flow in undulating paragraphs, complete with semicolons and parenthetical asides, as he eats Sunday brunch. He speaks at a pace more measured than his TV delivery--which is slightly slower than frenetic--and softens his familiar baritone, roughened by years of cigars and pipes, to a lawn mower's purr.

"Previously, sports was a diversion and an area for hero-worship," he says, his Groucho Marx eyebrows bristling as he digs into his granola yogurt and berries. "Now sports has become a secret code by which we debate the really important matters in society. Look at South Carolina. That damn Confederate flag has been there since the Dixiecrats, for 50-plus years. But they didn't take action until [football coaches] Lou Holtz and Tommy Bowden and a bunch of other guys you previously thought were well back on that 'I'm-going-to-stick-my-neck-out-for-something' line, well behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, who were dead silent on this . . . those guys participate in a little rally [against the flag] and the New York Knicks cancel their training camp and Serena Williams says she won't play at Hilton Head . . . ."

It's Keith Olbermann, unplugged. And if you're listening, he's talking. Maybe he's right. Maybe sports is bigger than the final score, maybe it does reflect and help shape society. Or maybe he's full of it. Maybe sports is just sports. Maybe he gets away with it because his audience (to put it delicately) isn't terribly informed or doesn't take it seriously when someone dresses up the incidental as profound.

The debate over this colorful 41-year-old broadcaster is as acerbic as his reputation. Is he brilliant? Does he suck every last bit of oxygen from a room? Can both sides be right? Regardless of your answer, there is one indisputable truth about Olbermann: He's the most independent thinker in sports broadcasting, the modern heir to Howard Cosell. Olbermann's opinionated insights, backed by an Ivy League education and an encyclopedic knowledge of sports history, meld into a style that's made him a pivotal figure in the titanic struggle for supremacy between sports broadcasting giants Rupert Murdoch's Fox Sports Net and Disney's ESPN.

In 1998, Fox Sports Net signed him to a three-year, $8-million contract, plus a car and driver, not so he would merely narrate daily sports replays. No, Olbermann was expected to supply the network with a face, an attitude and, most important, a bellwether voice.

And so, with little prodding, Olbermann does what he was hired to do and what he was born to do: he talks and talks and talks. To sit with him for an hour, which stretches to 90 minutes and makes necessary two additional interviews because his lengthy tangents lead to so many follow-up questions, is to sit with the brainiac from junior high, complete with nerdy glasses and ever-present smirk.

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WE ALL KNEW KEITH OLBERMANNS IN SCHOOL. THEY WERE THE smart ones, maybe a touch shy or smart-alecky, who would have traded IQ points for a chance to score on court. They didn't have the size or quickness to make the team, but they picked up on the lingo and the locker room humor. At Tarrytown, just outside New York City, Olbermann never rose above intramural sports in high school, aside from appearing for a single at-bat with the freshman baseball team. After that, he resigned himself to being student manager and statistician for the team.

Yet he never lost his fascination with sports, especially baseball, even if he loved it more than it loved him. He'd grown up on New York Yankees baseball and Rangers hockey broadcasts, and the enlightened sportscasts of former-Yankee-pitcher-turned-announcer Jim Bouton. Something of a prodigy, Olbermann embarked on his own broadcast career before the age of 13. At his high school radio station, the student sports director, a big lunk named Chris Berman, now better known as ESPN's ubiquitous "Boomer," needed someone to do play-by-play broadcasts of hockey and baseball. Soon Olbermann was at the mike, developing the basic skills of a play-by-play announcer.

His on-air shtick came later, while he was a freshman at Cornell University. There, while gathering material from the wire services one night for his sports show at the student radio station, he listened to a local sportscaster and realized that the content of their shows was identical. He needed something extra.

"I knew that there were people who spoke better than I did, more mellifluous and more announcerish," he recalls. "I thought, 'Well, maybe if it makes me laugh, it might make them laugh.' So I told it the way it was. In the middle of my sportscast was 31/2 minutes of Howard Cosell, not sugarcoating anything, and then I'd end it with something that amused me, something I found ironic, a punch line that both filled the need to tell the story and made a point or made a laugh."

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