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August 23, 2004
Let's go back-back-back through 25 years with ESPN's Chris (Boomer) Berman, whose outsized enthusiasms have stamped his network, sports and television
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August 23, 2004

Boom Times

Let's go back-back-back through 25 years with ESPN's Chris (Boomer) Berman, whose outsized enthusiasms have stamped his network, sports and television

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Like this one, for example, which is, in its own surpassingly friendly way, rattling coffee cups across the crowded cafeteria and, perhaps, across Sumatra, as well. Chris Berman--universally beloved and even widely respected across the sprawling campus of ESPN in Bristol, Conn.--has come into work this summer's day. People drop by the table, including Tony Valentino, who, like Berman, has worked at ESPN for 25 years, which is all the years that there's been an ESPN. Berman is talking about the great arc of things that has brought him here from the days when ESPN consisted of little more than mud and the dreams of Bill Rasmussen, who launched the network with a $10 million stake from Getty Oil.

"We're the Mercury astronauts, that's who I think I am," Berman explains. "Not me alone, but those of us who were here in the beginning were the Mercury astronauts, and I'm Alan Shepard because I've done all three stages, you know? I went up with Mercury. I was in Gemini and Apollo."

(We pause here to mention that Shepard did only two stages--Mercury and Apollo. But what the hell. Berman's rolling.)

"Or to make it more plain for everyone, it was like we had a car. We had no road map, but we had a full tank of gas, so let's go."

Says ESPN executive editor John A. Walsh of Berman, "He's the image of the network. I think he's the first national sportscaster who spoke to his audience fan-to-fan. I remember reading one time about when [founding New Yorker editor Harold] Ross was at Stars and Stripes, he said that the paper's mission was to speak soldier-to-soldier. I always remembered that, and that's the way I feel about Berman."

"He's worshipful, and I don't say that in an entirely negative way," says Keith Olbermann, the host of MSNBC's nightly Countdown, formerly the dark prince of ESPN's signature telecast, SportsCenter, and someone who's known Berman since their days together at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y. "There's always been a kind of purity about him that served to protect the idea that he was a fan.

"My theory always was that the network could get along swimmingly without Chris, but it was seen there as exactly the opposite," Olbermann continues. "[ ESPN thought] if they ever lost Chris Berman, the first show afterward would appear only in black and white, and then it would just go off the air. I never understood that. It was as if Chris was the ultimate good luck charm."

Chris Berman was right there when television broke the biggest promise it made to us after we invited it in: the promise to teach us about the world. Instead, it taught about the world-on-television. Politicians learned to be politicians-on-television so that they could later learn how to be president-on-television. It taught athletes how to be athletes-on-television, and it taught celebrity to everyone, even the people who talked about the athletes. It taught us how to live our lives to the rhythm of our internal play-by-play.

Chris Berman was right there to learn from it, a child of the old television come to prosper in the new, the line between sports and entertainment, between sports and journalism, between sports and everything else, hopelessly blurred in him, all the fine distinctions drowned out by the sheer ubiquity of his voice. Fifteen years ago, he was standing in Candlestick Park as the great plates of the earth shifted beneath the World Series and the grandstands began to sway. "You see," he says, "I knew the director of operations at Candlestick. He was a friend of mine. So we had him on. And Nightline wanted him, and he said, 'F--- Nightline. I'm with Boomer.'"

And then he's talking about how deeply the New England Patriots have bought into the philosophies that have brought them two of the last three Super Bowl championships. "I mean, they've really drunk the Kool-Aid there," he says, referencing a mass suicide about which we all learned on television. "What do you suppose it was?" he continues. "Goofy Grape? Jolly Olly Orange?"

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