She was tired, she had a headache, and now this. It was a night in the spring of 1993, and Jeanne Lavelle was waiting to board a flight from Chicago to New York. Nearby, a crazed man with a speech impediment and possibly a methamphetamine problem was talking a mile a minute about the 54 points Michael Jordan had hung on the New York Knicks that afternoon. With my luck, Lavelle thought, this guy will end up right behind me.
Wrong. Chris (Mad Dog) Russo was seated next to her. But instead of bending her ear, Russo—who, along with Mike Francesa, hosts the vastly popular Mike and the Mad Dog show on New York's WFAN—broke out a copy of Jurassic Park. Somewhere over Pennsylvania, Lavelle asked him what he thought of it. "Next thing you know," Russo says, "we're getting married."
The couple recounts this fateful flight while taking Jordan, their Maltese, for a walk one recent evening on Manhattan's East Side. Should their young marriage encounter turbulence, Russo will be able to draw on lessons from his other marriage—the one with Francesa. WFAN was two years old when then program director Mark Mason decided to pair the Mad Dog in afternoon drive time with fellow Long Island native Mike Francesa, who before landing an on-air job at WFAN had worked as a researcher at CBS Sports, where he was sometimes referred to as Brent Musburger's brain.
As matches go, Russo and Francesa seemed about as promising as Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Francesa, a man of encyclopedic sports knowledge, had no desire to share a studio with a screaming punk who sounded, according to former station owner Jeff Smulyan, "like Donald Duck on steroids." The misgivings were mutual: Russo marveled at Francesa's vast self-regard and wondered why the show couldn't be called The Mad Dug and Mike.
Seven years later they are the Burns and Allen of sports talk; widely imitated, never duplicated. The dominance of Mike and the Mad Dog is quantifiable: Since the spring of 1990 it has been New York's top-rated afternoon drive show. Producer Bob Gelb regularly gets calls from the biggest names in sports, who are eager to get on the air with Francesa and Russo. "That's when you know you've arrived," says Gelb, "when they call you."
Between taking calls and working the phones to chase down stories, Gelb and engineer Jeff Hughes amuse themselves by ridiculing the "talent." Francesa is tweaked for his ego, which Mason once described as being as "big as all outdoors"; Russo for his lisp, his syntactical misadventures and his penchant for malaprops, such as his description of a promising rookie as a "diamond in the bush."
As impressive as the stories WFAN breaks—no all-sports station breaks more—are the ones it has sat on. In October 1993 Gelb had it from two sources that Michael Jordan intended to quit hoops to play baseball. But neither source was quite solid enough, "so we didn't go with it," Gelb says.
Francesa and Russo show their true genius, however, by occasionally giving the sports talk a rest. Francesa will intimate that the Dog was inebriated at a celebrity golf tournament, or Russo will rage against traffic on the 59th Street Bridge. Russo makes no apologies. He says, "It's possible to be nutty and goofy and not lose credibility if, at 5:05, you've got Pat Riley coming on."
Russo is shouting to be heard. Jordan is straining at his leash, yapping at a mastiff that could consume the Russos' fluffy little dog in two bites. Smiling, the Mad Dog asks, "Is my dog feisty or what?"