The Greatest Sports Broadcaster

In my continuing series on the best behind the mic, the easiest category for me to fill is greatest sports broadcaster of all-time. To be the best broadcaster just in one sport is a great achievement, but to be the all-time best in 3 different sports is mind-blowing. Who is the greatest play-by-play man in NFL, College Basketball, and Tennis history? Hands down it would be Dick Enberg.

Enberg hit the national scene in the late 60’s, doing college basketball for the old TVS network. (which meant he did a lot of UCLA games) To me there is a bigger separation between him and the second best college baskeball play-by-play announcer of all-time, than the gap that exists in any other sport. While most point to the Monday Night Football group of Cosell, Gifford, and Meredith being the best 3-man booth, I believe Enberg’s work with Al McGuire and Billy Packer with NBC was far superior.

There have been a lot of quality NFL play-by-play men, but Enberg sits on top of the list here, as well. His ability to express the joy he felt from the action, without ever being shrill is completely infectious to listen to. Enberg never seems to overhype the event he broadcasts, as he portrays the enthusiasm of a fan, without coming off like a homer. He has worked best with intelligent, non-macho football analysts like Merlin Olsen, Bob Trumpy, and Bill Walsh, who helped show that you don’t have to be brutish to succeed in a brutal game.

Many of you might forget how tennis was a major sport from the 70’s until the early 90’s, as some of the world’s biggest pop culture stars appeared regularly on center court. The mix of charismatic stars like Connors, McEnroe, Agassi, Navratilova, Evert, King, and many others meshed with the poetic way Enberg presented the broadcasts. This was a time before Tiger Woods, when tennis was the sport that could get ratings like the Big 4.

While he never did much college football outside of the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, I have little doubt Enberg would have been right near the top when it comes to that sport, as well. The pure passion that he exudes fits perfectly in college football, as the only college football play-by-play man I’ve heard that I would rate above him is Keith Jackson. And there is no one who would rank higher in a poll of his sport’s best than the Old Hoss, Jackson.

Outside of SoCal, few know that Enberg was a top-notch baseball announcer for the Angels and that his first major professional gig was doing the Halo games. Personally, I’ve only heard him do a few baseball games for NBC, but I do remember thinking he was really good at it, as well.

Enberg also hosted the only sports game show I ever really liked which was called Sports Challenge. Syndicated during most of the 1970’s, Sports Challenge used former athletic greats to compete against each other answering trivia questions. As a young sports nerd, it was thrilling to see some of my idols off the field and at the same time be able to do better answering the questions than most of them could.

Dick Enberg is the best all-around broadcaster in sports history. It’s hard to even come up with someone as a number 2, though I guess it would be between Curt Gowdy, Al Michaels, and Bob Costas. Gowdy was a great football and baseball announcer, but I don’t remember caring much for him doing college sports and like Michaels, I never liked him at all doing basketball. Michaels was part of the greatest sports broadcast ever, the Miracle on Ice, and I rate him as the best NFL play-by-play man next to Enberg, but he is not the greatest in any sport, unlike Enberg who I rate at the top of 3 different sporting fields. Costas might have had a chance to be right there with Enberg, if he would have stayed with a network that had baseball, but between that problem and mainly doing studio work, he is a distant second, at best. Costas is the greatest studio host, hands down, but many of the great moments in sports history will have Dick Enberg featured prominently in the background.

I still feel he is one of the best around, even at the age of 72. Whenever you hear an Oh My proclaimed by Enberg, you realize that he is young at heart. My ultimate sports moment was Larry Bird versus Earvin Johnson. The 1979 NCAA Championship. Big Conference Michigan State against small school Indiana State. David and Goliath on the hardwood. The 2 most versatile players to hit the college ranks since Oscar Robertson. And Dick Enberg behind the mic, handing out assists to McGuire and Packer as effortlessly as Magic did for Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent. I hope Dick Enberg continues on for as long as wants to.

9 thoughts on “The Greatest Sports Broadcaster

  1. 1.  You didn’t even mention Dick Enberg’s Olympic (’88 Summer & Winter, ’92 Summer, ’96 Summer) work which is excellent. In addition to hosting the above events (a huge job, like being a network anchor) Enberg has done those mini-newsmagazine type pieces on sports and culture in subsequent games since NBC has had the Olympic rights. I think it was Jim McKay at ABC that started that kind of coverage but Enberg was excellent at NBC doing the same.

  2. 3.  You won’t get any argument from me about Dick Enberg. Great point about him capturing the joy of the event.

    I was just talking yesterday to my wife about Cal/49ers radio announcer Joe “The Band Is Out On The Field!” Starkey. I said I think there are four things an announcer needs to do accurately and consistently:

    1. Update you on the game status: score, count, down/distance, etc.

    2. Describe the play as it is happening.

    3. Capture the emotion of the moment.

    4. Provide interesting analysis, either by directly analyzing the game themselves, or by setting up their partners properly.

    Enberg is masterful at all of these.

    Starkey is absolutely horrible at #2 (“…and there’s another one”…huh?), mediocre at #1 and #4, but he usually nails #3, which for a local announcer makes him tolerable.

    A’s/Warriors/Raiders broadcaster Bill King was also excellent across the board, and probably as good at #2 as anybody in the history of broadcasting. Watch some of those old ’70s NFL Films tapes of Oakland Raider games where they have the radio call synced with the film, and the detail he could put into his descriptions was absolutely astounding.

  3. 4.  I would agree with your complete list, Ken. Bill King is good, from the times I heard him.

    The guy that I love above all local football announcers is Paul Allen for the Vikings. Most have heard him during highlight packages by NFL films. Allen has a great voice and a brings emotion and a strong attitude that I’ve never heard matched by any other broadcaster. His disgust when the Vikings fail is pure. I will listen to him on my Sirius radio, even though I’m not even a Vikings fan.

  4. 5.  Maybe I’m a New York-area homer, but to me, the greatest sports broadcaster is Marv Albert.

    You want three-sport mastery?

    He and Boomer Esiason, doing Monday Night Football on Westwood One radio, form the best NFL broadcasting tandem working today.

    He’s in the Basketball Hall of Fame for his roundball announcing.

    He was the voice of the New York Rangers for more than 30 years, memorably narrating the Blueshirts’ run to the 1994 Stanley Cup.

    He has all the catchphrases you could want from an announcer (Yesssss!!), he’s always prepared, his commentary is always precisely accurate, he conveys the excitement of the game without losing his composure, and he has flourished with any number of color analysts across several sports.

    Heck, he’s even sired several good sports announcers, particularly Kenny, an above-average hockey play-by-play man.

    Enberg’s an all-timer (though his time, sadly, is past), but Marv’s still on his game – whichever game he’s doing that day.

  5. 6.  I would put Albert in the Top 10, overall. He is the best NBA play-by-play man of all-time. No arguments there. I don’t listen to hockey announcers much, so I couldn’t tell you if he is the best, though I like Gary Thorne when I do watch the Cup. Albert is really good with Esiason on radio, but I’ve never thought of him as being much above average in football.

    One problem I do have with Albert is that his New Yawk accent is so thick that it can be a bit overdone for my ears. In a sport like the NBA, where he is so great, it doesn’t bother me much, but in football, it poses more of a problem for me.

  6. 7.  It’s funny being a native New Yorker, I don’t even hear Albert’s accent. I agree with you about Enberg though. He is a great play-by-play guy. I enjoy his tennis work the most. Enberg’s #1, but Marv is a close second in my book.

  7. 8.  3 Long but worth it.

    BILL KING: Ten seconds left, (Fred) Biletnikoff out, (Morris) Bradshaw in, the ball on the 14, Oakland trails 20 to 14. The crowd takes up a chant of “Defense!” (Terry) Robiskie and Banaszak are the backs. Slot right, (Cliff) Branch inside Bradshaw.

    Stabler back. Here comes the rush. He sidesteps. Can he throw? He can’t! The ball, flipped forward, is loose! A wild scramble! Two seconds on the clock. Casper grabbing the ball. It is ruled a fumble. Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play!!

    Stabler, while being hit, the ball squirted forward. (Raiders coach John) Madden is on the field; he wants to know if it’s real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here! He does!

    The ball went wildly, bounding inside the 10. (Chargers coach Tommy) Prothro is on the field. Stabler, it is ruled, has been hit and fumbled. Banaszak knocked the ball forward, it bounded crazily. I’m looking at a replay now. Ultimately, Casper fell on it in the end zone. On the replay you see Banaszak go after it, it’s knocked away as he shovels it forward. It’s bounding inside the 5, Casper flips it with the fingers and falls on it.

    And I have to tell you, I think Kenny Stabler threw the ball away, belt-high with a little flip and got away with it.

    MONTY STICKLES: I’ll tell you what, I think Kenny threw the ball away and got away with it. I think Banaszak fumbled it forward. But on all of that, Casper still has the presence of mind to get it in the end zone.

    BILL KING: There it is, the kick by Mann is up – IT’S GOOD! THERE’S NO TIME LEFT!

    There’s nothing real in the world anymore! The Raiders have won the football game! Fifty-two thousand people, minus a few lonely Raider fans, are stunned! The Chargers are standing, looking at each other, looking at the sky. They don’t believe it! Nobody believes it! I don’t know if the Raiders believe it!

    It’s not real! A man would be a fool to ever try and write a drama and make you believe it. And now, this one will be relived – forever! Bitterly here in San Diego, joyfully in Oakland. Final score: Oakland 21, San Diego 20!

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