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As Sir Laurence Olivier was destined to play Hamlet, and Marlon Brando to portray Stanley Kowalski, Chris Berman was fated to be Fred Flintstone, the yabba-dabba-dooing, Stone Age Everyman. "Fred's been my idol since I was 2½ years old," says the bedrock of ESPN's announcing team.
Which turns out to be slightly impossible, because Berman was born in 1955 and The Flintstones didn't make its debut until 1960. "I loved the guy then, and I still do," says Berman. "He's brilliant, a genius. Best of all, he's always himself. He can't help it."
Like his caveman hero, Berman has a chin like a curbstone, a fondness for rock music and a voice that could rouse a frozen mastodon from its slumber. Both crash about in a state of animated confusion—they're kids in big, boulder-shaped bodies. But there are differences: Flintstone went to college at Prinstone; Berman, Brown. Flintstone operates a dinosaur-powered crane in a quarry; Berman bellies up behind a desk in a TV studio. Flintstone is always getting in trouble at the quarry; Berman is such a hot property that last fall ESPN got into a bidding war with NBC and gave him a five-year contract worth nearly $3 million, the heftiest ever for a cable sportscaster.
Berman's presence on SportsCenter, the nightly sports-news program, looms as large as his 6'5", 250-pound frame. His mouth has only two speeds—fast and extremely fast. The three-minute drill of highlights he does during half-time of ESPN's NFL games leaves his big league counterparts—Brent Musburger of CBS and Bob Costas of NBC—as outtalked as Barney Rubble. "Chris has blazed through life, stumbling and bumbling," says Chet Simmons, ESPN's first president, who hired Berman for the fledgling network in 1979. "He may not have known what he wanted, but he knew what it was when he got it."
What Berman got is popular. Last January he was voted National Sportscaster of the Year by sportswriters and sportscasters. "Brent and Bob give a little feeling of aloofness," says Simmons. "Chris is more playful and accessible. He's the one viewers would most want to have a beer and watch a game with. More than any other sportscaster, he embodies the spirit of the average fan."
He manifests that spirit by sausaging rock lyrics into his roundups. And hanging punny nicknames on ballplayers. And clucking "back-back-back-back-back" to describe a backpedaling outfielder. "I know it makes me sound like a funky chicken, but that's me," says Berman. "I just try to be human. Why sit there and act like nothing ever happens? That's so network."
He's saying this while patting on makeup before a late-evening broadcast at ESPN's Super Bowl headquarters, a concrete bunker in a New Orleans shopping mall. He's crouched over a water cooler, a pocket mirror in one hand, a compact in the other. "Does Brent do this?" he asks.
As the seconds tick away, Berman becomes as restless as a caged lion, pacing the set, mumbling to himself, gulping down Coke after Coke after Coke. "Five minutes to go," says the stage manager.
"What's going on here?" says Berman. "Am I doing something here? What? What? What?"