On Sunday, July 26, just before 6 p.m. Barcelona time, a production assistant in NBC's Olympic studio in the International Broadcast Center at the foot of Montju�c will tell Bob Costas he has 15 seconds to air, 15 seconds, now 14, before he begins hosting the first day of Olympic competition.
At the count of 10, Costas is being cut from the Commack ( N.Y.) South High basketball team. At nine, Syracuse Blazer goon Bill (Harpo) Goldthorpe is threatening him, the club's rookie broadcaster, with a hacksaw. Eight, and Costas is substituting for the host of Bowling for Dollars on WSYR. Seven, he fiddles with the bass to make himself sound older on his audition tape for the ABA Spirits of St. Louis job. Six, shortly after KMOX in St. Louis hires him, he leaves a $3.31 tip at Stan Musial's restaurant in homage to The Man's lifetime average. Five now, and he is walking on his home field, Busch Stadium, as part of the NBC broadcast team for the 1982 World Series. Four, live on a New Year's Eve broadcast from the festive maternity ward of a New York City hospital, Costas tells David Letterman, "Meanwhile, the plaintive cries of desperately ill men and women go unheeded." Three, he is jumping on the bed of his New Orleans hotel room, bopping his wife, Randy, on the head with a pillow and shouting, "Welcome everyone to NBC's telecast of Super Bowl XX." Two, he is interviewing Paul McCartney and wondering, What would the guys back in Commack think? One, let the Games begin.
In the moments before he goes on the air, Costas says, "my life often flashes before my eyes." And while there's no telling what he'll be thinking on July 26, there is one certainty about that telecast. When he does go on, Costas will be collected and prepared and quick-witted. He always is.
If you don't know Costas by now—from his baseball work on NBC's late lamented Game of the Week, his football work on NFL Live, his basketball work on NBA Showtime, his radio work on Costas Coast to Coast and his talk-show work on Later with Bob Costas—then you can't help but catch him from Barcelona. NBC will have 161 hours of Olympic coverage, about 80 of which will be anchored by the 5'7", 145-pound, 40-year-old righthander and father of two, one of whom bears the name of a certain Minnesota Twins centerfielder.
Costas is up to, and for, his Olympian task. "I'm not going to pretend to tell you who's going to win the gold in taekwondo," he says. "But neither am I going to show up in Barcelona on July 23 and ask, 'So, what's the deal here?' " Actually, Costas will be going over to Barcelona in late June to acclimate himself.
He is taking this assignment so seriously that he temporarily moved his family from St. Louis to Connecticut earlier this year to better prepare himself for the Olympics. He has been reading—Carl Lewis's autobiography and Robert Hughes's Barcelona are on his nightstand—and poring over the material prepared for him by the NBC Sports research department. In his New York hotel he has a VCR for the purpose of playing the collected works of Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. In addition he has been going to various Olympic trials and meets. By the start of the Games he will know as much about Javier Sotomayor (the Cuban high jumper) as he does about Julian Javier (the former Cardinals second baseman), and that's saying something.
He also knows full well the responsibility and the recognition that comes with hosting an Olympics. "When I started in this business," he says, "and people asked what I did for a living, I would say, 'sports announcer.' Invariably, they would say, 'Like Howard Cosell?' and I would answer, 'God forbid.' Then they'd say, 'Like Jim McKay?' And to that I would answer, 'I wish.' " Wish granted.
On the first day of competition in Barcelona, Costas will be working a virtual 12-hour shift, from noon to midnight with a one-hour break. Daunting as that sounds, it is nothing unusual for Costas. On Sunday, May 17, he anchored an NBA playoff doubleheader from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m.—traveling back and forth between Rockefeller Center and Secaucus, N.J., for the NBA draft lottery—and did his live radio show from 9 to 11 p.m., interviewing Ferdie Pacheco, the Fight Doctor, and Donald Fehr, the head of the Major League Players Association. In between, Costas answered the proverbial question of how you get to Carnegie Hall—by practicing for his appearance at a benefit there the next night, when he would read a version of Casey at the Bat called Bucky at the Bat.
Barcelona is a long way (23 years and 3,842 miles) from the bleachers of Commack South, which is where Costas began his vocation, doing play-by-play of the basketball games he couldn't play in for the benefit of those sitting around him. While at Syracuse University, he landed a job with the Blazers, an Eastern Hockey League team right out of the movie Slap Shot. On one bus trip Goldthorpe snatched a newspaper out of the kid broadcaster's hands and ripped it up. Costas couldn't resist. "I said, 'Don't be jealous, Goldie. I can teach you to read.' The next thing I knew, I was lifted up and pushed against the inside of the bus, and Goldie had a hacksaw—the players used it to cut their sticks—about an inch from my throat. The other Blazers talked Goldie into sparing my life. He released me, and I slid down the wall into a pool of my own sweat."
Boyslaughter averted, Costas got his chance to do Bowling for Dollars and pursue a broadcasting career that has been, in his own words, "one happy accident after another." Lowering his voice on that audition tape got him the job in St. Louis at KMOX. St. Louis, which remains close to Costas's heart, proved to be a gateway to a stint as a regional NFL and NBA broadcaster for CBS. In 1980 Costas was hired by NBC to do the backup Game of the Week, even though, much to 30 Rock's surprise, he had done a grand total of four baseball games in his life, two of which were minor league. Similarly, he was made the host of the NFL wraparound show in 1984 even though he had little experience in the studio.