Thursday, March 19, 2009

March Madness Preview: Why You Should Watch Whatever Game Gus Johnson Calls

Tuesday 1pm ET: South Regional Preview (can be found here)
Tuesday 5pm ET: East Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 9am ET: Midwest Regional Preview (can be found here)
Wednesday 11am ET: West Regional Preview (can be found here)
Thursday 12:20 ET: 2009 Tournament tips off with Butler and LSU from Greensboro, NC

I haven’t done any research to prove this, but it seems that Gus Johnson has a knack for getting stuck with the exciting, it’s-going-to-come-down-to-the-last-possession NCAA Tournament games. Does he end up calling more close games than anyone other commentator? I can’t say that with certainty, but part of the reason why many games are so memorable is because Gus Johnson is calling the game. It’s pretty well known that Gus brings the excitement of a tween who got tickets to a New Kids on the Block Concert in 1989 to all of his games. Whether it’s his “RISE AND FIRE” description of an insignificant shot in the first half or when his screaming at the end of a game coincides with Adam Morrison crying at center court, he's entertaining. We all know that Gus Johnson is well known to most for his March commentary, but few people understand the man’s versatility.

Johnson calls games for the Knicks on MSG, which is probably why we only associate him with college ball. He called a pseudo-MMA fight involving Kimbo Slice where he managed, as only he could, to compare (while screaming) a man with pink hair to Rocky Balboa (which I admit, I have a few qualms with, at least Ivan Drago was fighting professionals in Soviet Russia, wasn’t Kimbo Slice just walking around with a camcorder and beating up on homeless people?). Even with all his experience, Johnson finally walked the halls that Bob Ley, Bill Raftery, P.J. Carlisimo, and Samuel Dalembert (although I’ll have to doublecheck that re: Dalembert) walked years ago. The same halls that Dick Vitale has so graciously disowned in exchange for his degree in obsequiousness from Duke. Those halls are the halls of Seton Hall University. Now Gus Johnson wasn’t going back to school, oh no, he finished all that years ago at Howard. Last year Gus Johnson arrived on the campus of Seton Hall to host the annual sports trivia night. Now that, my friends, is versatility.

I was a senior at the Hall when Johnson agreed to host the event, and I was tasked with heading the "committee" (me and my roommates) that formulated the trivia for the entire night, which means I got to work closely with Johnson to make sure the evening went off without a hitch. What we basically did was rip off the format from ESPN’s Stump the Schwab, but with twelve contestants and no Schwab. Then we put it on big stage in a big auditorium and invited the student body. So Gus agreed to be Stuart Scott, but without the annoying booyah’s, the scary eye, or the need for us to print his cue cards in size 72 font. I still think it’s amazing that Johnson is down-to-Earth enough to accept the role of spending four hours on his night off in northern New Jersey on a stage in front of dozens of presumably drunken frat boys. That sounds like nightmare fuel to me, but Gus Johnson really, really loves sports.

A few of my classmates and I met Johnson over lunch a few weeks before the event. We went over the makeup of the event, what he needed to do, and then mostly just talked basketball. He even took breaks to talk to his young son, who had joined him, in Spanish. Johnson even has great foresight, clearly anticipating the language advantages his son will need when Hispanics obtain a population majority in 2040. But what was amazing is that even over lunch this guy was excited about hosting this thing. The guy has no batteries, he’s always plugged in.

Then came the night of the event. We were all cooped up in an office, putting the finishing touches on scripts (we probably took ourselves entirely too serious, but this was for Gus Johnson, so shut it) when a man wearing an all-black fitted Detroit Tigers hat - cocked slightly to the side - and a leather jacket came walking down the hall. Anyone who didn’t know any better would have thought that he was Bobby Gonzalez’s latest transfer (sidenote: Bobby Gonzalez is Seton Hall’s coach who roams the sideline like he's the next Billy Elliot, and he apparently doesn’t recruit people out of high school). But no, it was Gus Johnson, the same guy we’re all used to seeing in a suit and tie on national television. In a split second he shed his urban look for the sweater and collared shirt he had on underneath. After all, he’s a consummate professional.

The night went on without a hitch (except when passport-losing Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim was an answer on one of his cards, Johnson turned to me (I was his spotter) with a look of ‘Hey B, what the hell is this name?’ but said “I don’t call baseball games” instead). Gus Johnson was about as fired up to host as some contestants were nervous to field questions from him, knowing he could enter an excited but entertaining fit at any moment. He even spent his time between set changes sitting at the front of the stage and shooting the breeze with folks in the audience.

So that’s the side of Gus Johnson that not everyone gets to see, the one who’s the humble guy who is the centerpiece of a feel good story about giving his free time to a bunch of college kids who felt it was better to spend their time making up vague trivia questions so that they could challenge their cohorts instead of doing boring and even more useless things, like studying or going to class. Maybe Gus Johnson isn’t the type of guy who likes to sit at home and read by the fire on his night off, but he enjoyed this little gig so much that he came back for a second year, and by those standards I would think he’d show up again next year (I was just forwarded pictures from this year's event. Not only does Gus own a shirt that says "rise and fire" but there is photographic evidence, at right).

Now that you know about Gus Johnson’s versatility, let’s go back to that whole knack for involvement in the dramatic game. Here it is, a YouTube stroll down March Madness memory lane:

We’ll start in 1996, in what is one of Gus Johnson’s first years calling games for CBS. This defensive battle (or as I like to put it “offensive struggle”) is what he considers his favorite game to have called. Defending champs UCLA inexplicably allowed for dozens and dozens of backdoor cuts by a bunch little nerdy guys from Princeton (some guy named Christopher Doyal played the whole game and couldn’t even spell his last name right. Talk about lowering your admission standards for athletes, Princeton).

Three years later, Gonzaga exploded onto the tournament scene and into the Elite 8. Gus was there too.

Fast forward to 2005 when Vermont stunned Syracuse in overtime, and T.J. Sorrentine knocked down a three from the center court logo.

Then in 2006, Johnson goes berserk when Adam Morrison pulled a miracle shot out of his ‘stache (or whatever rests on that guy’s upper lip) against Oklahoma State. The combined reaction of Johnson (“Larry Bird…baby!”) and Bill Raftery ("ONIONS!") might be one of the best ever.

Later that same tournament, Johnson called the game that ended with Morrison’s midcourt meltdown, while salting the wounds by using his stentorian voice to remind the entire arena that Gonzaga blew a huge lead.

Then, in 2007, Gus had competitive first and second round games (with the exception of Louisville’s first round game), including the amazing game between Ohio State and Xavier in the second round.

Last year Johnson was involved in Davidson’s Elite Eight run, calling their second weekend games against Wisconsin and Kansas. And yes, even though we haven’t delved into March Madness yet this season, Johnson was already in on one of this season’s best games, UConn at Gonzaga last December.

So where can you find Gus Johnson this March? He’ll be calling the games from Minneapolis alongside Len Elmore (whose pseudonym isn’t very creative, by the way). He’ll be calling North Dakota St.–Kansas, which has all the makings of another Bucknell/Bradley-Kansas of years past. Then you have West Virginia-Dayton, BC-USC, and Michigan St.-Robert Morris. Don’t tell me that at least one or two of those games won’t be entertaining in the fortieth minute.

You can spend all day Friday, a whole eight hours, on the other side of the television screen from Gus Johnson while he, and whatever game he’s calling, has you standing and screaming at a high pitch that mirrors his as something extraordinary happens while time expires.

I’ll be spending my late afternoon over on Deadspin, liveblogging the UConn-Chattanooga game at 3pm. So if you’re stuck in a cubicle, stuck in class, or comfortably sitting at home watching the game, join me. A sixteen seed has never beaten a one seed before you know! Either young’un Carter Blackburn or Dick Enberg will have the play-by-play (I think it depends on whether or not Enberg has thawed out from being in storage all winter) and Jay Bilas will be providing the color commentary. We can only hope that he somehow finds a way to bring Dick Vitale to near tears again.

Have a history of disputes in your Fantasy Baseball league? We've got you covered. Head over to and sign up for our Fantasy Baseball '09 dispute resolution season package. Fully-customized League Constitutions are also on sale for a limited time only. Don't wait...sign up today!

Related Posts by Subject