Berman: He’s a Regular Guy Living a Fantasy : Announcing: He twice has been named national sportscaster of the year; he is the only man on cable to garner such a distinction.
The Beatles and the Rolling Stones: You like them both, but you can only love one. Think about it.
The theory belongs to Chris Berman. “And I know it’s true,” he says. “You can only love one of them.”
Beatles or Stones, a good subject for tonight’s Breakdown Segment. On one hand we have the multileveled poetry of John Lennon melded with the mass appeal of Paul McCartney. On the other, we have the hard edge of Keith Richards’ guitar riffs coupled with Mick Jagger’s off-beat vocal stylings.
“Go ahead,” Berman says, “guess which one I love.”
Beatles or Stones. An elemental question, but nothing too heavy.
It’s pure Berman. He is elemental. And, outside a minor paunch and a rapidly expanding billfold, there’s nothing heavy about him.
Berman, 38, reportedly earns between $500,000 and $600,000 a year delivering sports news for ESPN, the all-sports cable beast based in the Mum City. (If Berman’s there, can it be the Mum City?)
Berman may as much as double his salary by serving as a pitchman for such companies as Anheuser-Busch and Texaco, two outfits that know their liquids.
Berman, sports, beer and gas. Modern American staples. To quote Jagger: I know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it, I like it, yes I do.
Way back-back-back when, some 14 years ago, Berman went from a dual local role (Waterbury, Conn. radio reporter/late-night sports anchor at WVIT, Channel 30) to overnight cult hero at ESPN. He pulled this stunt by spouting rock ‘n’ roll lyrics and brandishing nicknames at 2:30 a.m. He called himself “a nightlight for new fathers,” but he had a voice to rouse a dog from the hearth on a cold winter morn.
“Try this test,” ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann says. “When Chris is on, turn down your TV and open your window. You will hear him. The microphone is nothing but a prop.”
The Boomer twice has been named national sportscaster of the year; he is the only man on cable to garner such a distinction. And now that NBC’s Bob Costas has branched into other areas, Berman is perhaps the most recognizable sportscaster currently holding a microphone.
“I wish my life was a nonstop Hollywood movie show,” Berman says, quoting Ray Davies of The Kinks and the song “Celluloid Heroes.”
Berman pauses, then adds, “It kind of is, isn’t it?”
Yes. He is a regular guy living his fantasy. Right now, he is sitting at a desk in a building somewhere on ESPN’s sprawling campus headquarters in the Usually Mum City. He has just taped some stuff for later use. His tie is gone; his jacket is gone, but his voice is still there. He is coming to the end of an hour-plus interview. He already has called home, talked to his kids (Meredith, 7, and Douglas, 6) about soccer practice and promised to be there for tuck-in. He’s close to being on schedule.
“When you see me on TV, I’m being me,” he says. “I hope people don’t see me as a complex person. I don’t pretend everybody likes me. But from the vibes I get, I think people believe I’m approachable. I’m kind of a champion of our generation, maybe . . . “
That last thought frightens Berman, who is not trying to sound boastful. Indeed, the secret to Berman’s appeal is such that if his ego went unchecked, he might still be doing traffic reports on Route 8.
He is a champion of sorts. These are times when Luke and Murphy Jensen, French Open doubles champions, ride around on a Harley with electric guitars slung on their backs. Berman seems naturally calibrated for attitudes today.
It does take a certain mikesmanship to make 23 references to different Bob Dylan songs in the course of an hourlong “SportsCenter"--as he and John Saunders once did--and sell it to a nationwide audience in need of auto racing results.
“Chris is like one of them--an average, loudmouthed sports fan. It’s just that his references are very intricate,” says Olbermann, who has known Berman since their prep school days at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y., in the early 1970s.
“Now, there’s an old theory which says that references and associations are the function of the number of tendrils there are in the neural centers of one’s brain. The tendrils can look like a hand with five fingers sticking out, or they can look like a leaf with 105 sticking out.
“Well, Chris has a very leafy brain, and he also has a sophistication. If he was just doing what he does and he didn’t know what he was talking about, then he would just be a yahoo. But he has that expertise, and therefore it sells.”
Berman can intersperse a lyric from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into a play at the plate, and make it work. Leafy brain.
“I’m 38, so I guess people anywhere from, say, 10 to 50 years old kind of get it,” Berman says. “It’s very scary to think that my sense of humor is being transcended over the country. I’m not saying it’s being emulated or taken wholesale as being funny; I’m not a stand-up comic. I hit my spots and run with it. But again, it would be scary to think that there are other me’s out there.”
As Pete Townshend once queried: Who are you?
“I’m kinda boring,” Berman says. “I don’t fly a plane; I don’t go deep-sea diving. I like swimming, but that’s hardly headline material. You could probably guess that I like to crank up the tunes, but really, I can’t think of anything I do that’s all that exciting.”
Berman met his wife, the former Kathy Alexinski, when the big galoot faked car trouble just for the opportunity to ask Kathy for her help--and a breakfast date. Ten years later, the Bermans have a very, very, very fine house in Cheshire. They swim with the kids in the pool and play street hockey in the driveway. They crank the tunes.
Same as ever. He still has just one suit, for use at weddings, funerals and interviews with Pete Rozelle. He still eats Cap’n Crunch and drinks Diet Coke at breakfast. When asked about any quirks in his lifestyle, Berman has to think a long time before saying that he hardly watches TV. Scandalous.
“Not that I’m an iconoclast living on Walden Pond, but I prefer being in a theater with the big screen and the popcorn,” he says. “TV, I watch what my kids watch. They like ‘Get Smart,’ and I think that’s cool. I like being in the kitchen and hearing them yell, from the other room, ‘Hey Dad, F Troop’s on.”’
Berman grew up in suburban Rye, N.Y., listening to a young Don Imus. Berman’s father, Jim, was a mechanical contractor with season tickets to the Jets; his mother, Peggy, a Time magazine researcher. Both retired, they have lived in Greenwich 20 years. There, Berman’s vast collection of souvenir game programs remain in storage.
“The style, the Boom quality about Chris, was there in the formative years, no question,” Olbermann says. “We used nicknames to sign our articles in the (student) newspaper. He would use Ilie Nastase. It was sort of an embryonic version of the nickname gig, I think. That’s probably where he started. The basketball pieces, he used to sign Clifford Ray.”
Berman played tennis at the Hackley School, and Nastase was his hero. He also played basketball, and he favored Ray for reasons he can’t quite explain. Berman says he was a “pretty good” goalie on the soccer team. Back then, he was 6 foot 5 and under 200 pounds. (He’s still 6-5, and growing).
His idol of idols was Joe Namath, who Berman emulated by growing his hair. His team of teams was the San Francisco Giants; to this day, his scant memorabilia collection includes only four autographed baseballs: Mays, Marichal, McCovey and Cepeda.
“This last month,” he says, “is killing me.”
At Brown University, where he was forced to like the Red Sox, Berman majored in history and general collegiate behavior. “Oh man,” he says, “that Dire Straits song, ‘Heavy Fuel,’ that would have been a great song for me in college.”
There followed stints at radio stations in Providence and Waterbury and then in 1979, just over a year removed from college, he got his shot at the nascent sports station, ESPN. It was the first of his two marriages.
“I always wanted to be a U.S. senator--the idea of being one of 100 always intrigued me--or a rock ‘n’ roll star,” Berman says. “You might go, ‘Ha-ha, that’s a great answer.’ But seriously, what would I do if I weren’t a sportscaster? Thank God I don’t have to find out. Not yet, anyway.”
At ESPN, he had the space to develop his unique interpersonal skills, which he somehow has honed to reach millions of viewers at any given moment. From the start, there were nicknames, and there was rock ‘n’ roll. Excuse him now, while he kisses the sky.
He is the Oppenheimer of the award-winning “NFL GameDay.” He also hosts “NFL PrimeTime” and “Baseball Tonight.” He even gets to do play-by-play for Giants games once in a while. Even NBC, which came calling with a reported $800,000-a-year offer, couldn’t take him away. It’s not worth missing all the football and the Giants games.