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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Sports Guy

By Bill Simmons
ESPN The Magazine

THE CLIP

My favorite YouTube clip runs 572 magical seconds. It celebrates an impossible-to-fathom era of political incorrectness, egotistical celebs, misguided testosterone and the purest unintentional comedy possible … only it finishes with a Hall of Fame sports moment. That's right—I'm referring to the match race between Robert Conrad and Gabe Kaplan on the 1976 debut of Battle of the Network Stars.

A quick explanation: Building on the success of its Superstars franchise, ABC mustered an athletic competition that pitted on-air talent from the three networks against each other. Howard Cosell was the emcee/announcer for what is best described as a trashy coed team decathlon. Many TV biggies showed up for the $20,000-per-member-of-the-winning-team prize, even Farrah Fawcett-Majors. Nowadays, of course, she'd tell the producers to screw off. But then? Thanks for inviting me! (You have to love the '70s.) The team captains were Telly Savalas, star of Kojak (CBS), Gabe Kaplan, boss of the Sweathogs in Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC), and Robert Conrad, Pappy Boyington in Baa Baa Black Sheep (NBC). Here's a running diary that won't possibly match the clip itself: GABE KAPLAN IS THE MIKE ERUZIONE OF REALITY TV.

0:00 A furious Telly complains about an illegal NBC baton exchange during the sprint relay. This is personal for Telly. As he explains to Cosell, his people, the Greeks, started the Olympics, so he feels obligated to stand up for what's right. Wait, did the original Olympians smoke cigarettes between events or wear red jogging suits with gold chains and dark sunglasses?

1:15 After a 35-second we-haven't-quite-figured-out-how-this-slo-mo-works replay of NBC's chicanery, Conrad bitches to sideline reporter … wait for it … reigning Olympic decathlon champ Bruce Jenner! (This show practically created two things: sideline reporters and instant replay. In other words, it went one-for-two.) "If they're protesting the fact that we really outran them," he hisses, "that's their problem!"

Not to be outblowharded, Savalas throws around words like "vulgarly" and "flagrantly" to condemn NBC. That's when Conrad crosses every line: "[Telly] is Greek, and the Greeks are famous athletes. That's how this all started. [Kaplan] is Jewish, he wants to arbitrate. And I'm German, I vant to kill both of dem!" Everyone laughs. Why? It's the '70s, that's why!

Just when it can't get better, Pat Harrington Jr.—Schneider, the wisecracking janitor on One Day at a Time—quips, "And I'm Irish, and I'm looking for another mick to hit!" followed by Telly deciding, "And I'm from New York, and I want the bread, baby."

I think that was a joke. I'm almost positive.

2:25 NBC's made-for-TV-movie queen Joanna Pettet sums up: "What is the hullabaloo?" It's the last time the word is ever used.

3:12 Director of competition Howard Katz, who would parlay this gig into a job running ESPN and ABC Sports, assesses a two-second penalty to NBC and awards the race to ABC as future A-list directors Penny Marshall and Ron Howard celebrate a bit too exuberantly. How have Laverne and Opie not yet pooled 10 mil to destroy all copies of this telecast?

4:00 Kaplan, Howard and Robert Hegyes (Kotter's Epstein) discuss the verdict with Cosell as Wonder Woman Lynda Carter happily kisses Kaplan on the cheek. Telly strolls in after popping four more blowhard pills. "I'm still upset, Howard," he gripes.

Me too. I'm upset we once lived in a world in which Telly was a sex symbol. Telly isn't half as ticked as Conrad is. He's now threatening to pull NBC from the competition. "I'm the captain of this team!" he screams. "We ran a damn good race!"

Katz makes the mistake of saying NBC would have placed second if not for their infraction. "Like hell!" Conrad bellows four times. Seriously, LIKE HELL!! When ABC star Richard Hatch (Streets of San Francisco) tries to calm things, Conrad sucks disdainfully from a cigarette and pushes Hatch away. Why was everyone so terrified of him? The guy is barely taller than Darren Sproles.

"Tell Kaplan to get his team out there and run it with us," Conrad yells. "We'll determine who the best team is." He's in a frenzy.

And then it happens: To a bemused Kaplan standing behind him, Conrad turns and snarls, "You and I want to run a 100 to see who the fastest is?" Kaplan quickly agrees. "Lets go!" Conrad says as he whips down his towel.

Now, before I found this clip on YouTube, I hadn't seen this moment in 32 years. I'd always remembered it vividly, though. You don't forget a bully calling out one of your heroes. No one challenges Mr. Kotter like that! I also remember thinking Gabe was in deep doo-doo. He was a gawky teacher with a Groucho mustache. Conrad shot people in Black Sheep. How could Mr. Kotter pull this off?

What I didn't know: Kaplan ran track in high school. He'd actually made up 15 yards on Conrad in the previous relay. "I'm sure it looked like I couldn't possibly win," Kaplan told me recently. "I looked like a guy who should be hanging around a deli, and he was, like, the macho man of his generation."

Even Farrah (Gabe's teammate) complained about the mismatch to Cosell, causing him to respond, "Farrah, baby, I'm not in charge of the rules committee. But … [shifting into Dramatic Cosell Mode] clearly, CON-tro-VERSY has beset the Battle of the Network Stars." DID THE ORIGINAL OLYMPIANS SMOKE AND WEAR JOGGING SUITS?

6:30 Back from a tense commercial break. Gabe's teammates try to talk him out of running. Nope. He has to do this.

8:00 They're off!

8:05 Things look bleak as Conrad rips off an early lead. But Gabe makes his move heading into the turn, catches up and—wait, this can't be happening—completely dusts Conrad down the stretch! It's Kaplan by a good 10 yards! ABC wins!

I can't emphasize this strongly enough: This was the happiest sports moment of my childhood—besides Carlton Fisk's home run and USA 4, USSR 3. My man ran 120 yards in under 14 seconds, while poor Conrad heaved his way to the end, handicapped by too many butts and a monstrous ego. It was too fantastic. All of it.

8:16 Gabe is mauled by his euphoric team. They do everything but pile on top of him like the 2008 Phillies. And then, a heartwarming moment: Conrad and Kaplan walk toward Cosell, arms around each other—and Conrad coughing up a lung.

"That's the way I like it," Conrad tells Cosell dramatically. "Best man wins … Best captain won."

Then he walks away, but not before giving Gabe two demeaning slaps on the face. Ladies and gentlemen, the biggest celebrity blowhard of all time … Mr. Robert Conrad!

9:01 The clip ends with a slo-mo replay of Gabe dusting Conrad as Epstein cheers like Lasorda after Gibson's homer. "Look at the smile etched in the visage as he breasts the tape," Cosell narrates. I was just thinking that. What the clip doesn't show is that ABC won the next event and later won the climactic tug-of-war. Gabe's race was Dave Roberts' steal, in a way.

Even now, Gabe remembers each detail. People have been bringing up the show to him for 32 years. He's the Mike Eruzione of reality TV. "I didn't realize at the time how big it would be," he admits. "Nobody could believe I won."

Or anything about those 572 seconds, for that matter.

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