He had a bad cold and his voice, what was left of it, was croaky and raw. This was his fourth NCAA basketball tournament game in two days, and Dick Enberg didn’t think he could finish it. That had never happened before, but it was happening now.
So, during a commercial break, Enberg turned to his broadcast partner Al McGuire and asked the former Marquette coach, who had never done play-by-play, to take over.
Shaking his head, McGuire said, “Dicksie, if you’re goin’, I’m goin’.”
So, of course, Enberg carried on, whispering his way to the finish in true the-show-must-go-on fashion.
Enberg, who got into the broadcast business accidentally and stayed in it to supplement his teacher’s salary, died Thursday morning at his La Jolla home, his wife, Barbara, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
He was 82.
Barbara Enberg said the family found out later in the day when Dick Enberg failed to get off a flight in Boston, where they were scheduled to meet. She said her husband had appeared to be waiting for a car that was set to shuttle him to the San Diego airport for a 6:30 a.m. flight.
“He was dressed with his bags packed at the door,” she said. “We think it was a heart attack.”
Long recognized as one of the most versatile and enthusiastic sports announcer of his era, Enberg did it all: major league baseball, college and pro football, college basketball, boxing, tennis, golf, Olympics, Rose Bowls and Super Bowls, Breeders’ Cup horse racing — earning a trophy case full of Emmys, awards from the pro football, basketball and baseball halls of fame, niches in several broadcasting halls of fame and other assorted honors.
He also was an author, a longtime fixture at Pasadena’s Rose Parade, the host of several sports-themed TV game shows and was still calling San Diego Padres baseball games into his 80s.
“Sportscasting is a kid’s dream come true, which is one of the reasons that I keep doing it,” he said in his autobiography, “Dick Enberg, Oh My!” the “Oh my!” having been his signature call. “I can’t let my dream go. I’m still in love with what I do.”
And how well did he do it? “He could orchestrate a telecast better than anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Billy Packer, former college basketball analyst and longtime Enberg broadcast partner, once told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “I think anybody who worked with him would just stand in amazement at how great he was at anything he undertook.”
As a former teacher, Enberg was noted for his preparation and his knowledgeable yet eager approach to his craft.
“As a broadcaster, you have to be entertaining, you have to be well informed, you have to be excited about what you know and you have to have a sense of your audience — just like in a classroom,” he wrote in his book. “In fact, when I look into the camera, I’m looking into my classroom. When I’m calling a game, I can envision hands shooting up all over the country with questions. ‘Whoops,’ I’ll think, ‘perhaps we need to explain that concept or strategy a little better.’ ”
Even research and preparation weren’t always foolproof, though. Fans could be picky, and when Enberg began using one of his pet calls, “Touch ’em all!” for opposing teams’ home run hitters, Padres faithful rose up in protest and he quickly reserved that call for Padres’ home run hitters.
“Oh my!” was an Enberg family saying, his mother using it to express dismay, such as during the many hours young Dick spent broadcasting imaginary games. He used it to express wonder at athletic grace, but it could just as well have applied to his life.
Richard Alan Enberg was born Jan. 9, 1935, in Mount Clemens, Mich. The family moved to Southern California for several years, then back to Michigan, to a farm near the village of Armada. “We had a one-room schoolhouse and a two-hole toilet,” Enberg recalled for The Times years ago.
He quarterbacked his high school football team, then after graduation, enrolled at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, where he played college baseball. And, fortunately, took a course in debate. One of his debate classmates was the public-address announcer for the Chippewas’ football and basketball teams, and when he graduated the job was passed down to Enberg. He also applied for a job sweeping floors, at $1 an hour, at the local radio station. A station employee liked Enberg’s voice, and instead of a broom he was handed a microphone and went to work as a weekend disc jockey, still at $1 an hour. When the station’s sports director left, Enberg moved into that slot, producing a 15-minute nightly wrap-up.
All of that was fun, but Enberg had more serious things on his mind. After graduation, he enrolled in graduate health science studies at Indiana University, eventually earning both master’s and doctoral degrees. Just as he was arriving in Bloomington, though, a Hoosier radio network was being put together and Enberg was hired, at $35 a game, to broadcast football and basketball.
Four years later, doctorate in hand, he applied for a teaching job at Indiana University. He didn’t get it, but a flier on the health sciences bulletin board, offering a teaching position at San Fernando Valley State College — now Cal State Northridge — caught his eye. Recalling his early boyhood days in Canoga Park, he applied for and got the job, teaching health science and assisting the baseball coach.
The pay was small, and the now-married Enberg went looking for extra income in the other area he knew, broadcasting. He tried more than a dozen stations in the spring of 1962, getting no call-backs. Changing tactics, he began identifying himself as Dr. Enberg, finally got put through to program directors and was able to pick up part-time work.
He got his big break in 1965. KTLA, Channel 5, was looking for a sportscaster and Enberg was hired, at $18,000 a year. “I felt guilty because that was triple what I made as a teacher,” he recalled for The Times in 1987. “Then I found out I was being paid 10% under the union minimum.”
In quick succession, Enberg was calling the weekly televised boxing cards at Olympic Auditorium, became the radio announcer for the Los Angeles Rams, and began working UCLA telecasts during the Bruins’ John Wooden-Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) glory years.
Then it was on to a decade-long association with the Angels, until NBC called. There, he, McGuire and Packer formed an unforgettable NCAA tournament trio, Enberg serving as buffer between the “What will he say next?” McGuire and the almost dour, statistics-driven Packer. So taken was Enberg with the irrepressible McGuire — “My most unforgettable character, and there’s nobody in second place!” — that he later wrote a one-act play about him, “Coach: The Untold Story of College Basketball Legend Al McGuire.”
Basketball also gave Enberg, and his fans, an especially memorable experience. In a UCLA-Oregon game in 1970, Oregon went into a stall, leaving Enberg with little to talk about and air time to be filled. He began humming “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” from the big movie of the previous year, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
At the next game, UCLA’s pep band played the song and the student section called for him to sing it. He demurred, saying he didn’t know the words, but they insisted and he promised he’d learn them. Then, after the last home game of the regular season, he walked to mid-court and sang.
A few days later, he heard from a music professor, who wrote, “I’ve spent 30 years studying music and you hit two notes I’ve never heard before.”
Kupper is a former Times staff writer. Bryce Miller at the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.
10:40 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 10:15 p.m.