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The Big Picture: ESPN's Patrick having a ball

Monday, March 26, 2001

He was enraptured, like the rest of us inside this Tri-State corner of the sports sphere, by Bob Prince's Pirates calls on radio. He turned down the television sound inside his Clarksburg, W.Va., home and voiced his own play-by-play. He commenced his announcing career on Western Pennsylvania football and basketball in such familiar outposts as Turkeyfoot Valley and Shanksville-Stony Creek. "They had some names, boy," he said yesterday, rewinding the memory three and a half decades, and more.

Tonight, Mike Patrick will talk to an ESPN nation about the NCAA women's basketball tournament, and it will have some names, girl. Takeisha and Tamika, Ayana and Ashja, Essence and Swin, "Bird" Walker and Sue Bird will roll trippingly off his tongue during the East Region final, Connecticut-Louisiana Tech (a mouthful in itself), live at 7 p.m. from Mellon Arena. After all, two days earlier, the play-by-play announcer was able to handle competing Nos. 24 named Lassiter.

"And they ended up guarding each other," Patrick said, still flabbergasted by Louisiana Tech's Brooke and Missouri's Amanda. "Twice they tied each other up for loose balls. They blocked a couple of shots off each other, too. Geez. Thanks so much.

"You're trying to memorize four teams in three days. And women's first names ... they're killing me. But that's what I signed up for. I'm having a ball."

For the seven years of ESPN's women's tournament coverage, Patrick has been, well, The Man. He is the lead voice again this weekend at the East Region, with color commentator Ann Meyers Drysdale and sideline reporter Heather Cox, and next weekend, in the Final Four in St. Louis. He also serves as ESPN's men's college basketball announcer on Atlantic Coast Conference games. Oh, and he also works without a net every NFL weekend on ESPN's "Sunday Night Football."

As if teaming with Paul Maguire is tough enough by itself.

But Joe Theismann, his partner for most of the past 25 years?

That's longer than most marriages.

Including theirs.

"He's been through two of three for me, and I've been through his three," Patrick said of Theismann, with whom he began working Maryland basketball broadcasts when the former toiled for a Washington station and the latter found employment as a Redskins quarterback-punt returner. "Lots of lawyers for $90 an hour under the bridge there.

"But one of the luckiest things I've ever had going for me is, without exception, the people I work with on the air are people I've known or been friends with. Guys you want to go play golf with. That's a tremendous advantage for me as a play-by-play guy."

The companionship translates to the audience. Patrick, indeed prone to excitable moments, mostly spends game nights spinning a casual atmosphere of facts and fun. He makes you feel like he's having chips with you on the couch. If you turn on the television tonight caring little about Takeisha Lewis and Ayana "Bird" Walker and Essence Perry of Louisiana Tech, knowing less about Tamika Williams and Ashja Jones and McKeesport's Swin Cash of Connecticut, Patrick will infuse you with interest.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's a Tri-State thing. To be certain, he should understand this area's audience.

Patrick grew up in Clarksburg, 100 miles south of Pittsburgh, raised by a single, working mother and his grandparents. The father he never met until age 16 was reputedly quite the local athlete, and a great-great-grandfather supposedly once played for Connie Mack.

Baseball was Patrick's game then. He played it. He favored the St. Louis Cardinals, "though I loved listening to Bob Prince" on Pirates games.

His plan was to become a professional ballplayer, but that got derailed when his family moved to northern Virginia and he took psychology courses at George Washington. Classes interfered with afternoon baseball practices. One afternoon, Patrick realized that he would hit .210 and make $6,000 in a rookie league somewhere at best. "That day, I went to the radio station at GW. . . and asked if they wanted anybody to do sports. I did my first show about an hour after that. Thank God GW wasn't a big school; I got all that experience with nobody listening."

His first job, in 1966, took him to Somerset. WVSC-AM gave him the chance to broadcast high school football and basketball, even American Legion baseball. His first game: Turkeyfoot against somebody.

"Their field was a natural bowl. There were no stands, no broadcast booth -- people just sat up on the hill. So, to do the game, they built us a little tower, like a scaffolding. The opening kickoff, here they come, about 12 guys, right toward the scaffolding. They hit it, and I thought, 'Here it is, our first game, and we're going to die.'

"We kind of leaned the rest of the game."

Live, lean and learn, he did. After Somerset came WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla. -- he rented a Johnstown studio so he could make a tryout tape. After five years announcing Jacksonville University's Artis Gilmore and the orange-ball, ill-fated World Football League's Jacksonville Sharks came a return to Washington with WJLA-TV. There he called Maryland basketball and Redskins preseason football and branched into announcing work for syndicators such as Jefferson Pilot. He tried to balance all that with studio work, and the station ultimately fired him.

"The biggest break I had was when I got fired from there."

By the 1980s, the syndicated announcer ascended to ESPN football and basketball, and kept ascending up the network's booth flow chart. Although Dick Vitale and Chris Berman and Dan Patrick remain the poster boys for the ESPNs, Tri-State's Patrick is their clear, consistent game voice. Even though he broadcasts nary a women's game until March, he is the network's unwavering voice of choice for women's Final Four coverage that has become prime time.

"The College World Series is the same kind of drill: You're not involved in it all year, then you work the championships. You have to try to gather and absorb all the information in a short time. It's back to the cramming-for-a-test mentality. It's a discipline."

And he gets the Essence.

In addition to The Big Picture, Chuck Finder writes a general-sports column exclusive to the http://www.post-gazette.com/ every Tuesday. He can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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