|Red carpet right next to playing field|
By Chris Connelly
Special to Page 2
Remember when the NCAA finals and the Oscars took place on the same night? Well, this whole week has been Jocks & Frocks for me: interviewing the good people who come to Anaheim for "Unscripted" and prepping for my Oscar night duties, when I will be among the official pre-show hosts.
Note that my inability to predict the outcome of the Oscars rivals my ineptitude at NCAA bracketology -- so if you're counting on me to give you in the inside scoop on who this year's Marcia Gay Harden is gonna be, look elsewhere.
In 1988, for example, I inexplicably declared in some public forum that Jodie Foster would be the "least-likely" winner in the Best Actress category. By the end of the night, there she was in front of me on the podium in the press room, happily brandishing her Oscar and asking me, "Hey, Chris-what about that 'least-likely' thing?"
Sometimes it's easier on everyone when the winners are pretty much foregone conclusions. I would eventually play a season of softball -- badly, but enthusiastically -- for Kevin Costner's TIG productions team, but that was before the day in 1991 when he won two Oscars for "Dances with Wolves" about 15 hours after my daughter Rose was born. I was giddily happy and weirdly disclosing that entire night, and as a result now have on-videotape congratulations from Denzel Washington (whose wife was then pregnant with twins), Wesley Snipes, and -- imagine this -- Richard Grieco, the good-looking young actor from the upstate burg of Watertown, N.Y. ... just like the author of "A Fan's Notes," Frederick Exley.
But I remember Costner the most: I told him I was the only guy who'd had a better night than he had, and the actor-director-producer who once played baseball for Cal State Fullerton shook my hand ... placing one of his Oscars under his left arm to do so. How many people in Hollywood history have ever needed to perform that particular gesture?
Costner can often be spotted at the Final Four nowadays ... but he wasn't the only Oscar winner with a serious sports connection, as a fan or participant. Tommy Lee Jones, the 1993 winner for Best Supporting Actor, played for Harvard in the legendary 29-29 tie with Yale back in the '60s -- the game when Harvard scored 16 points inside the last 50 seconds to win.
The Best Supporting Actress of 2000, Angelina Jolie, got to take batting practice at Safeco Field for her upcoming movie, "Life or Something Like It." She told her husband Billy Bob Thornton, "I love the sound the bat makes when it hits the ball."
And then there's Sidney Poitier, the only African-American Best Actor winner in Academy history, and a man who will receive a lifetime achievement award at this year's ceremony. I was on the set of "Sneakers" for Poitier's 65th birthday: they'd gotten him a cake with a rendering in frosting of a golfer ... only they'd had to send it back once, because originally the golfer depicted was a white guy.
The main man on "Sneakers" was Robert Redford, of course, an Oscar winner himself who'd gotten through college on a baseball scholarship and whose swing in "The Natural" later helped to shape Jim Thome's stroke. Anyway, I had ample reason to be watching Redford as Poitier arrived on the set for his surprise party -- especially since Redford, like everyone else on the set, was singing "To Sir, With Love" to Sidney.
By the time I got to talk with Redford, he'd turned up on a list of prominent Los Angeles natives who allegedly been under some sort of surveillance by a division of the LAPD. Other citizens who'd been observed by the cops included one particularly well-known baseball figure, the idea of which made Redford -- not readily inclined to humor or jokes -- laugh out loud: "Tommy Lasorda ... one of the best-known subversives in Los Angeles!" (He was kidding, of course.)
So it's hard not to think about sports alongside the Academy Awards ... maybe since I actually attended my first Final Four years before I ever got within shouting distance of the Oscars. That was in 1981, when the championship game still conflicted with the Academy Awards. The Saturday before, I had sat in the LSU cheering section as Isiah Thomas and company demolished the Tigers with a second-half spurt that would be Bob Knight's trademark that entire tournament. Earlier, it was North Carolina's Al Wood going off on Ralph Sampson's Virginia team, which had already beaten the Tar Heels twice that year.
I was delighted to be at the games, of course, which were at the Spectrum in Philly -- but it felt a little weird, too. It was the last year NBC, where my dad worked at the time, has the rights to the NCAA Tournament -- and that meant these were the last games that would be called by the three-man team of Dick Enberg, Billy Packer, and Al McGuire. I never enjoyed a sports broadcasting team more in my life. So by going to the games, I was missing the broadcasts! I was a little torn.
On the day of the North Carolina-Indiana title game, I was in New York, ready to catch the Metroliner to Philadelphia. I was doing an interview in my office at Rolling Stone, just wrapping up things up with George Thorogood, when someone ran in and told us that Reagan had just been shot.
They were smart enough to postpone the Oscars, and I still can't believe they played the game that night. I was no fan of Reagan's, believe me, but it was appalling, really -- and McGuire, God bless him, said so. It was a rotten night to play, and a lousy way for anyone to win a championship, and a totally inappropriate way to send off such a glorious broadcast team.
That year, 1981, was also the year I learned how good Bryant Gumbel was on television: it was he at the studio helm for two of the most exciting back-to-back finishes in tourney history: U.S. Reed's halfcourt heave at the buzzer to lift Arkansas over Louisville ... and seconds later, Roland Blackmon's jumper to beat No. 2-ranked Oregon State and Steve Johnson. I still have that sequence on tape somewhere.
Last year, on a cold morning after the Super Bowl, I was sitting next to Bryant Gumbel on the set of "The Early Show." Before our segment, I told him how exciting that 1981 year had been, and how it had been the year that really made the NCAA Tournament for me and so many others. He took it all kindly, with a more rueful smile than I had anticipated.
"Did you hear?" he asked me. "Al McGuire died last night."
Chris Connelly is a regular contributor to Page 2. "Unscripted with Chris Connelly," the TV show airs at 5 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday on ESPN.