Verne Lundquist, the minimalist maestro of play-by-play, could have run out of words by the time Thursday night staggered into Friday morning.
He had finished captioning back-to-back-to-back-to-back second-round games of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament from Louisville, Ky., during a 12-plus hour stretch as part of the CBS/Turner TV coverage, and he wouldn’t get to bed until 3 a.m.
“Our producer, Craig Silver, just told us at that point: Sleep until you wake up (on Friday),” said Lundquist.
But the soon-to-be 75 year-old broadcaster with 50-plus years experience in TV has learned about self-preservation. It’s just that a case of chronic bronchitis left him sounding worse for wear just before he circled back Saturday morning to call the UCLA-UAB and Kentucky-Cincinnati third-round games.
In between, he submitted himself to a Q-and-A that was completely unnecessary in his prep work for the rest of this tournament, which might necessitate a trip to L.A. to cover the West Regional semifinals and finals at Staples Center this coming week:
Q: Does the recovery process from four games in one day ever get any easier?
A: I can certify that it does not. The first time I had to do this kind of thing with a crew was 1999. At the end of the day, that last half of the fourth game you pray that it’s competitive because then that gets you energized.
Q: You may not have any buckets to empty at that point?
A: The buckets are gone. And they’re not even a quarter full.
Q: How do you wind down from such a long process?
A: We didn’t really limp out of the arena until 1 o’clock (Friday morning) because after the last game is over, we have to do a dot-com report, a summation of all four games. And at that point, you almost can’t remember who played in the first game.
Q: That’s today’s media, always bleeding you to do something more for another platform.
A: That’s it. And we’re servicing them all. So then our production supervisor arranged a meeting room for the crew to gather, and we had a little pizza, some beer and wine, just to come down from the day. Again, it’s not just me, Jim Spanarkel and Allie LaForce, but the guys in the truck have been as every bit busy. Think of the camera guys. There’s one – the midcourt mini-camera position– who sits in a chair to the stage manager’s right and shoots all four games carrying that heavy equipment. For all 70 of us, or how many there are, once you’re finished, that’s decompression time.
Q: This must be like childbirth. You know it’s going to be painful and you forget about that fact once you sign on to do it again next year because the joy involved.
A: That’s a very good comparison, I think. As long as I’ve done this, I still get a kick and it’s an enormous pleasure being part of an event like this. You look around, Thursday we had three one-point games, and the last game (Kentucky-Hampton) we were buoyed along by a crowd of 20,000, all of whom were wearing blue (representing both teams). There was still an energy in the building. So, this is my 31st tournament, and it’s still such a privilege to be a part of it.
Q: And you didn’t run out of words.
A: At the end of our second game Thursday (UCLA-SMU) the studios in New York and Atlanta were trying to coordinate audiences from different games and different networks. It can be a very complicated process. We already have the controversy of the goal-tending call so we are going long to review that, but then we were told, in our TV language, to ‘vamp,’ which meant, ‘just keep talking.’ And we really did run out of things to talk about. And there was some indecision in the studio about where to take our audience. So even then, that’s something we really didn’t need at that point in the afternoon, but it happens.
Q: So, maybe complete this sentence: In 2015, March Madness means …
A: Another opportunity to participate in one of the best events in sports.
Q: Is it a sign of madness to bet against Kentucky in this process?
A: I would think so. I know they’re upset-able, but this may be the best college basketball team I have ever seen.
Q: You’ve said that your default position-phrase is to just say ‘Wow.’ Is that what you’re left saying about Kentucky at a certain point?
A: They elevate the ‘wow factor’ to a level I’ve never seen. They’re so tall, so deep, in mind the most gifted college basketball team I’ve seen.
Q: This past week, the media has been quite particular in pointing out just all that’s wrong with college basketball and what needs to be fixed. There’s even President Obama on ESPN endorsing the 30-second shot clock, widening the lane, pushing back the 3-point line. Is the game broken, and if so, what adjustments would you endorse?
A: The one I’d like to see is the shortening of the shot clock, just to increase the number of possessions. It doesn’t have to be 24 seconds.
Q: You must be kind of weary seeing so many 30-29 halftime scores.
A: It’s tedious. We had a 93-73 game in the Atlantic 10 Conference and you may forget how enjoyable it was. People like offensive basketball.
Q: You referenced recently that you once did a game where current UCLA coach Steve Alford was at Southwest Missouri State and they were playing Wisconsin in a game to get to the round of 16, and you referred to it as the worst game you had ever seen. Why was that one so so unmemorably memorable?
A: Isn’t that funny? It was 1999, I was doing the game with Al McGuire, and Dick Bennett was the coach of Wisconsin – celebrated, not notorious, for his deliberate, slow style of play. It was almost unwatchable. And Steve’s team (a 12th seed) kind of fell into that pattern. The final score: 43-32 (which was the fewest combined points in an NCAA tournament game in the shot-clock era). I remember it because it was so tedious.
Q: Almost like the year after UCLA won the title in 1995, they were a fourth seed and faced 13 seed Princeton in the first round of the ’96 tournament and lost 43-41, and that was painful on a lot of levels for them. And L.A. viewers. But these days it feels more the norm than an aberration.
A: I definitely agree with that. But then one year (1991), CBS memorably paired Loyola Marymount against Princeton. It was quite obvious a made-for-television game. I did the game, the year after the LMU NCAA tournament run, they’re still averaging 120 points a game. Paul Westhead against Pete Carril, The shocker was Princeton’s ability to slow Loyola Marymount down (in a 76-48 win). Don’t ask me how they did it.
Q: So if we could flip that previous question about what’s wrong with the college game – what do you think is right and good and fair about the sport these days?
A: I go back do when I used to do NFL games – 16 years on Dallas radio, 16 more years for CBS. Then they asked me to do college football. I’m a sucker for the surroundings of that game. I buy into all that. For 3 ½ hours on a Saturday afternoon, I can convince myself that everybody goes to class, they’re all student-athletes … because it’s so easy to become cynical. The cynicism may be justified. There are reasons why we are cynical. But for the game experience, I still feel like I’m 25 years old when I’m doing any college game – the bands, the cheerleaders, the alums who are so involved in backing their schools.
Have you watched the Kentucky cheerleaders? They’re just amazing gymnasts. I get swept up in it. When we’re talking about basketball, too, the NBA seems to take narcissism to a new high. At least there are elements of non-self-aggrandizing behavior in the college game. Look at the Hampton team. In their first-round win against Manhattan, Quinton Chievous goes down time after time after time. His coach told us that he would play (against Kentucky) but he wasn’t at the shootaround. Well he played about 35 minutes Thursday. He was a warrior. Those are things I find to be so immensely appealing about this game. There is a lot to celebrate about it.
Q: Then there was the talk that UCLA didn’t belong in the tournament. On just their first-round win alone, did that prove to you they belonged?
A: I never doubted they belonged. There were certain guys in the studio who were pained by it. And I’m speaking as someone who did the UCLA-Kentucky game (in December from Chicago) and the Bruins trailed 41-7 at halftime. But they’re fourth in the Pac-12, got to the semifinals of their tournament. I wasn’t as upset about it as some of my colleagues were.
A: Yes they do. That had some subjective impact on the decision even if the committee denies that.
Q: Your crew could end up in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight at one of four sites after Sunday – L.A., Houston, Cleveland or Syracuse. What if you are sent to Syracuse for the East Regional – right into the eye of another college basketball storm these days? Does the Jim Boeheim story put a dark cloud over that region?
A: I think so. You can’t be in Syracuse without talking about it. It’s a dominant part of the event because it’s still so fresh.
Q: What do you make of this Bill Raftery youngest working his way into the A-team for calling the Final Four and title game this year?
A: I love it. I would obviously have mixed emotions. We’ve been doing this tournament together the last 15 years. We first worked together in 1983. We are great friends.
A: I didn’t foresee in any of this that I might be collateral damage in something that happened to Greg Anthony, but in a sense we all were because every broadcast team was affected from the year before. All eight teams are new. I was affected more than most I think because in all our years, we had generated a respect for how we approached the game. The friendship will last. I sent him a text Thursday night and told him I somehow got through the first four games without his presence. Bill Raftery has deserved this spotlight for a long time. I’m thrilled he’s getting it.
Q: When you call Kentucky games these days, do you see people still wearing the shirt “I Still Hate Christian Laettner”?
Q: Do you have to correct them? Without Christian Laettner, there’s one of the great calls you got to make (the 1992 Elite Eight, his shot to beat Kentucky at the buzzer). There can’t be any hate on your part.
A: I do like Christian Laettner. I caught the last half of that ESPN “30 for 30” documentary and I sent him a note telling how much I enjoyed it and how I thought he came across in such a positive way. He’s an unusual man and he may be the most important college basketball players ever – four years, four Final Fours, a career to be envied. And I truly appreciate what he has done for my career. I do not hate him.
Q: Here’s a slight detour: We understand you helped start the show “Bowling For Dollars” when you were in Dallas, and part of that was being convinced by Chick Hearn, who did the show here in L.A., that it wouldn’t compromise your integrity. Any good stories there?
A: I use the story to this day in speeches I have to make. This was 1975. The show was franchised out of a company in Baltimore called Klaster Productions. Their other claim to fame was they had “Romper Room.” It was a dignified operation.
Q: Sounds like the same target audience for both shows.
A: (Laughing) They came to me and asked if I would host this pseudo-sports show for the Dallas ABC affiliate. I wanted to know: How is this a sports show? Well, it’s taped at a bowling lane. It’s done in Los Angeles. And it dominates the market. Here’s Chick Hearn’s number. He’s expecting your call. I never met him. He’s very kind to take my call, I explain what they’re asking me to do, and I wonder what is involved. He said they taped six shows every Monday, so they run Monday-through-Friday and they get an extra week off after the fourth week. They run on KTLA at 7 o’clock in the evening. I asked: How does it do in the ratings? Chick said: We kill Huntley and Brinkley (the NBC Nightly News). We kill Walter Cronkite (the CBS Nightly News). And we run away from anything ABC puts on the screen. So I was a little full of myself and I said: But Mr. Hearn, you’re the voice of the Los Angles Lakers. That responsibility to represent the Lakers must come with a certain need for dignity. Do you worry at all that the bowling show how you’re perceived as the voice of the Lakers? And he started laughing. He said: Son, I need to explain something to you. Anyone who watches ‘Bowling for Dollars’ has no idea that I do the Lakers.
Q: Except some of us really did.
A: (Laughing) Based on his recommendation, I did the show. It lasted only two years in Dallas. But to this day, and it’s been some 40 years later, at least once a month in an airport or restaurant when I’m on the road, I’ll get approached by someone who says: I grew up watching you in Dallas. And I start to sigh heavily because I know what’s next: I watched you on ‘Bowling for Dollars.’ It can be in a TSA security line, at a gate waiting to board a plane … really.
My wife and I got married in ’82. Both of us had previous marriages. I never met her father. He was in a VA hospital by the time we got together. But prior to us getting married, she visited him and said, ‘Daddy, I have a new boyfriend, and it’s quite serious. You might have heard of him. His name is Verne Lundquist.’ And Nancy’s dad sat up in his bed and said, ‘You mean the guy from the bowling show?’
You never know.
Q: Chick made it a must-watch event because how he dealt with the contestants. And they all loved him.
A: Oh my gosh. I don’t know how he lasted so long. We taped every Monday at 10 o’clock at a bowling center in Grand Prairie. They pre-interviewed the guests and they came through a door and there was a cheat sheet where I could get their name, age and profession. I got one minute. I’d say, Is there anyone in the audience you’d like to introduce? And then look into the camera and say hi to anyone else who couldn’t be here. And now you go to the lane, two balls, if you roll two strikes you win the jackpot. Otherwise, it’s one dollar per pin knocked down. And here was the genius of the concept: They had a big rolling basket with 10,000 post cards in it. People wrote in to become the ‘pin pals.’ The contestant would pull one out and they would share in whatever prize was won. That added to the popularity.
Q: One last question so you save your voice: You find out God tells you it’s time to retire — or Sean McManus, whomever yields the most power — but you get your choice of one more assignment. Either one you’ve done before, or one you’ve always wanted to try. What is it? Another ‘Bowling for Dollars?’ What’s your one shining moment?
A: I might surprise you with this. I hope I surprise you. I’ve thought about this. I grew up idolizing Jim McKay on every level. I always wanted to work the Olympics – winter or summer. The most treasured event was the opportunity to work with Scott Hamilton on three Winter Olympics figure skating. If I could ask Sean to do one more thing for me, it would be to have me at the Winter Olympics, and sit next to Scott Hamilton one more time.
Q: But not having to do that whole Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding thing that you once had to endure.
A: I’d just as soon dispense with that drama. It attracted an enormous audience and got people’s attention for all the wrong reasons. It was an aberration. But to go back to Albertville or Lillehammer would be something. I love to travel internationally. That was the one event I’d love to do again.
Q: I’m just glad you didn’t go completely sideways and say you wanted to do a remake of “Happy Gilmore.”
A: (Laughing). Now that is the gift that keeps on giving. The kids are still enamored with that movie and it’s been a wonderful blessing. So many university students are still attracted to it.
I once met Aaron Craft out of Ohio State, we did a game when he was a freshman. And Jon Diebler was an upperclassmen shooting guard on that team. After a practice, Jon saw us and asked if he could come over. He brings this little guard Aaron Craft with him and introduces me. And Jon says: Aaron doesn’t really believe you’re the guy from ‘Happy Gilmore.’ Can you give him the line? It’s the line everyone asks for, from a scene where I put my hand in front of my face and turn aside and say, ‘Who the hell is Happy Gilmore?’ For whatever reason, it strikes everyone funny. Including last night, I was asked by a young fan to pose for a picture, we did a selfie, and then he asked: Would you please give me the line? And I knew what he meant.
So after all that, I was an admirer of Aaron Craft, for his tenacity and intelligence, his personality. And last year in Buffalo, we had Ohio State and Dayton in the first game. After the shootaround, Aaron came over and said: Mr. Lundquist, I just wanted to say goodbye and thank you for the four years you’ve been covering my play on the court, because if we lose I may not see you again. And just so that you know, last night I watched ‘Happy Gilmore.’