Tom Tolbert glances at a sheet of ad copy and leans toward the microphone at KNBR's studios in San Francisco. The 6'8" former NBA forward and current sports radio host is supposed to be reading a promo spot for a mattress outlet, but he ends up talking about onetime Lakers forward Kurt Rambis.
"Folks, they're practically giving away free beds here," Tolbert says, and he breaks into a big, goatee-expanding grin. "And as Kurt Rambis used to say, 'If it's free, it's me!' Believe me, he dressed like it too. Kurt had this reversible neoprene tie. It was blue on one side and black on the other."
Tolbert eventually returns to the mattress ad, but soon enough he's off on another tangent, this time about "those freaky flying monkeys" in The Wizard of Oz. It's not clear what the monkeys have to do with American League MVP Jason Giambi, today's main topic on The Razor and Mr. T—San Francisco's top-rated drive-time show among men ages 25-54, which Tolbert cohosts with Ralph Barbieri—but that's beside the point. It is this freewheeling style, combined with candor and a bottomless reserve of NBA war stories, that has made the 35-year-old Tolbert a rising star of sports radio in the Bay Area.
"There's nothing contrived about Tom, and I think that's why he's so popular here," says Bob Agnew, program director of KNBR, which thanks in part to Mr. T's draw has become the No. 2 sports radio station in the country, behind New York City's WFAN. "He has these John Madden-esque descriptions that are convoluted but end up making sense."
Tolbert has always provided entertainment value, whether he was launching shots at Arizona (where he was dubbed " Denny's" because Tolbert thought he was "open 24 hours") or growing his hair into a mushroom cloud of blond curls while playing for the Golden State Warriors. Although Tolbert's seven NBA seasons were unremarkable (in his best year, with the Warriors in 1989-90, he averaged 8.8 points and 5.2 rebounds), he was a beat writer's dream. Once, when asked who he was most like, he paused. "Maybe," Tolbert said, "I'm a little bit like me. In fact, I'm a lot like me in a lot of ways. I like the same food that I do. I like a lot of the same hobbies, too. Yeah, that's it. I'm a lot like me."
Tolbert's radio career unofficially started in 1994, while he was buried deep on the L.A. Clippers' bench. Frustrated with the team, he began calling in to Jim Rome's radio show to provide updates on the ineptitude of his woebegone club. His humor won over the audience, if not his employers. " Elgin Baylor called to reprimand me," Tolbert says of the Clippers' vice president of basketball operations. "But what were they going to do, play me negative minutes?"
Two years later, when KNBR needed an analyst for the NBA draft, Agnew remembered the calls to Rome from Tolbert, who had since retired. To keep things lively during the station's six hours of draft coverage, Tolbert provided play-by-play of the draftees' wardrobes. When Samaki Walker went ninth and strolled to the podium in a white jacket and top hat, Tolbert said, "I don't know what's worse, the pick or the suit."
Tolbert joined KNBR full time in September 1996, and he certainly kept the KNBR staffers on their feet—"Thank god we had a seven-second delay," says Agnew—but he also gained the respect of the old-school Barbieri, a longtime Bay Area radio personality who was wary of his new partner's goofiness. "Tom's a ham, and he's funny," says Barbieri. "But he's also a born observer of the human condition, which is rare in a pro athlete."
Their chemistry is unmistakable, even if Tolbert's train of thought leaves the station early on occasion. "Our show is like Seinfeld" says Tolbert. "You listen to it and then you say, 'What the hell did they just talk about for four hours?' "
Asked if he has any plans for world media domination, Tolbert is, as usual, blunt. Expanding his duties would cut into time with his wife, Lorrie, and their two boys, Weston, 5, and Walker, 3. They're the reason he didn't renew his weekend job as a Fox basketball analyst this year. More important, Tolbert says, "more than four hours a day might start to feel like real work. I love Jim Rome, but that guy works too hard. Sixteen hours a day? I could never do that. I'm not on a time clock; I'm on a fun clock. When this is no longer fun, I'm outta here."