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If an impromptu beach volleyball tournament breaks out in Athens among the broadcast journalists of the world -- admittedly a scarier prospect than when Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards went Karch Kiraly on us in Top Gun -- the smart money is on the team from the National Broadcasting Company.
Not since Jesse Ventura co-hosted NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event two decades ago has a broadcast booth seated the sport's reigning strongman. The network's beach volleyball coverage features Kiraly as a first-time analyst.
And when he's not broadcasting, Kiraly and partner Mike Lambert form the top-ranked team on the AVP Tour. That begs an obvious question: Why will one-half of what is arguably the best beach volleyball team in the world be clothed in an NBC polo shirt, as opposed to sunglasses, a bright pink visor and U.S. togs? The answer is because of a process that seems more backwards than the plot of Memento. Olympic beach volleyball qualifying is based on a team's performances in FIVB events (the International Volleyball Federation) over an 18-month period between the spring of 2003 and the summer of '04. Since Kiraly and Lambert formed their duo at the start of this year, it was impossible for them to earn enough points to qualify for Athens. Despite recent tour victories in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and San Diego, and wins over Dain Blanton and Jeff Nygaard in three of their past four matches, Blanton and Nygaard and the team of Dax Holdren and Stein Metzger will represent the U.S. based on FIVB's system of points.
"One thing I'll be talking about during the Olympics is what my partner and I would do in this or that situation," says Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist. "Not so much in the sense of I wish I were there, but more like what would be effective against opponents."
NBC first approached Kiraly about the possibility of working as an Olympic analyst the year before the Sydney Games. But Kiraly was primed to make the Olympics again as a competitor. After he and then-partner, Adam Johnson, just missed out on qualifying, Kiraly decided to go to Sydney anyway, working for his various sponsors. Last August, after losing in the semifinals of an AVP event in Manhattan Beach, he joined the broadcast team of Chris Marlowe (who will provide play-by-play alongside Kiraly) and Mike Dodd (the NBC analyst for the indoor volleyball competition) for the final. He impressed the NBC brass enough to garner an open invitation (with an eye toward Athens) when he wasn't on the sand. "I'm in a unique situation because I'm still competing full-time," says Kiraly, 43. "The positive is I offer something most analysts don't -- and that's to be playing at the same level as many of the competitors."
The Athens assignment won't be a day at the beach. Plans are in the works to show five or six hours of coverage per day over the first six days of the competition. It's possible Kiraly will arrive at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Centre at 7 a.m. and leave after midnight. "I'm going to have to hydrate more than the players," he says, laughing.
Kiraly has been all over the dial the last couple of weeks -- challenging Maria Sharapova for the most screen time by a blond athlete - including stops on McEnroe, Dennis Miller, and The Best Damn Sports Show, Period. He has a chance to emerge as one of NBC's broadcasting stars during the Games. Kiraly is eerily at ease in front of the camera and is clearly bright - he graduated from UCLA with a biochemistry degree. But, for now, he says he has no intention of following the path forged by his '84 gold-medal-winning teammates Marlowe and Paul Sunderland, now the respected voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. "I'm kind of getting my feet wet in the broadcasting arena," says Kiraly. "I just want to work hard at doing the best job I can do as an analyst of the game I know best."
To that end he's been working with a well-known broadcast coach, Lou Riggs. "He's been a great help just in terms of the little mechanics," Kiraly says. "Such as if you're doing an on-camera piece, how do you hold the microphone properly? I never knew there was a proper way to hold it in terms of keeping it at the same spot on your body -- kind of a little in front of your sternum -- so even if you turn to your broadcast partner, the microphone swings with you. I never even had a clue you would need to think about that."
Still, one wonders if Kiraly shouldn't really be thinking about dinks and digs instead of stand-ups and sound checks. He swears they'll be no regrets or hard feelings once the sand starts flying at the Games. "I really did love being a spectator in Sydney," Kiraly says. "And now I'll have one of the best seats in the house. Much better than the tickets I had four years ago."
60 Seconds with ... Linda Cohn
The ESPN SportsCenter anchor has been with the network since July 1992
SI.com: If you did not have the option of being a sports broadcaster, what would you have likely become?
Cohn: Probably somebody like Sheryl Crow. I'd want to be a rock star because I grew up loving Heart. Nancy Wilson, to me, was like my God.
SI.com: What's the one event you wish you could cover that currently airs on another network?
Cohn: Probably the Super Bowl.
SI.com: If you were starting a network, who is the one broadcaster you would go all out to hire?
Cohn: A guy that really made a big impression on me because he was so natural was Len Berman [of WNBC-TV in New York]. I grew up in New York, and I watched him all the time. I loved the way he just sat there and talked to you about what was happening. He didn't have to scream. He didn't have to give any catch phrases. He was just talking to me like I was his best friend. That's something that I wanted to adopt. The passion came out without going nuts.
SI.com: What talent would you most like to have?
Cohn: Singing. But is that repetitive with the rock-star thing? My daughter doesn't think I sing well. I'm convinced I do.
SI.com: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Cohn: "Oh, by the way." No question, that's my favorite.
SI.com: Will we ever see a day where there are an equal amount of women and men in sports broadcasting?
Cohn: Yeah, but I couldn't give you a timetable on it. I hope it's in my lifetime. But here's the asterisk: The right women.
SI.com: Your favorite subject during your career?
Cohn: Michael Jordan. We've talked at different venues but with no cameras and no mics. And it's not like he's from my favorite team because I'm a New York girl, and I love the Knicks, the Mets, the Giants and the idiot Rangers. It's also been fascinating to watch Ricky Williams develop. I met him right after the Heisman Trophy, and I've always been fascinated by the stuff he's gone through on and off the field.
SI.com: Is it odd to be recognized by people you consider famous?
Cohn: I don't know if it's weird, but I do think it's cool. I met Rob Lowe at the ESPYs this year, and we talked for awhile about the Lakers. But my greatest story is this: A year ago Matthew McConaughey left a voice mail for me and left me his home number. This girl he was seeing at the time wanted to be me -- she thought my job was cool. So the week he was doing Saturday Night Live, she hung out with me. The whole thing was amazing.
SI.com: What would you want written on your TV tombstone?
Cohn: She really did love sports, and she was one of us.
Here are three programs you'll be talking about around the cooler come next week:
July 24, 9:30 p.m., HBO Boxing, Arturo Gatti vs. Leonard Dorin
Here's a good rule of thumb: Don't mess with anyone name Gatti. This has fight-of-the-year potential as Gatti's WBC junior-welterweight belt is on the line against No. 1 contender Dorin ( 22-0, 8KO's), who figures to make this a brawl despite being the same height as Muggsy Bogues. Gatti's (37-6, 28KOs) is usually fine with that. His epic battles with Mickey Ward were so vicious one could feel the violence through the screen. Sort of like when somebody gets beaten up on The Sopranos.
July 25, 1 p.m., ESPN Classic, Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Is there anything more exciting than middle-age guys in suits make speeches? Not to us. At least this year's speeches promise to be stirring given the charisma of Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor. The three-hour Hall of Fame ceremony is part of a seven-hour block of programming devoted to the careers of both ballplayers. The following evening, at 7 p.m. on ESPN Classic, Rece Davis, whose hair belongs in the Sy Sperling Hall of Fame, will host a roundtable with Eckersley, Molitor, Johnny Bench and Lou Brock.
July 25, 2 p.m., CBS, Tour de France, Final Stage
See Lance ride his bike in Paris. See Lance hold his arms up in the air. See French journalists march in celebration down the Les Champs-Elysées. Okay, we made the last one up.