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Remembering Dick Enberg, a broadcasting star and special person

John Feinstein, Special to the Washington Post
Published: December 22, 2017 Updated: December 22, 2017 at 10:04 PM
San Diego Padres broadcaster Dick Enberg waves to crowd at a retirement ceremony prior to the Padres' final home baseball game of the season, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Diego in September 2016. Enberg, the sportscaster who got his big break with UCLA basketball and went on to call Super Bowls, Olympics, Final Fours and Angels and Padres baseball games, died Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. He was 82. Engberg's daughter, Nicole, confirmed the death to The Associated Press. She said the family became concerned when he didn't arrive on his flight to Boston on Thursday, and that he was found dead at his home in La Jolla, a San Diego neighborhood. [Associated Press]

On a late February Sunday afternoon in 1989, Duke and Arizona played a basketball game in the New Jersey Meadowlands that was telecast on NBC.

Dick Enberg and Al McGuire worked the game. It was their 12th season together, and they had become close friends. After the game, they went into New York to have dinner at Smith and Wollensky, the great East Side steak house.

It was late when Enberg began telling the story about how he had met his wife Barbara and how she had transformed his life at a time when, as he put it, "I doubted whether I could fall in love again."

Enberg was crying. He didn’t stop talking, just kept on: still crying, saying again and again how grateful he was that, somehow, she had found enough good in him to marry him.

I’m willing to bet when Dick Enberg died Thursday at the age of 82, Barbara Enberg was still finding plenty of good in her husband of 34 years.

More than anything else, that goodness may explain the magic Enberg brought to a telecast.

Oh sure, he was the consummate television pro: His preparation was meticulous; his understanding of every sport always had depth. When NBC asked him to add golf, a sport he really wasn’t that familiar with, he made it sound like he was born to sit in an 18th hole tower.

Enberg didn’t bring out his signature line for just anything. When Enberg said "Oh my," you knew something special had just happened.

Enberg knew a moment when he saw it and made it his own without ever becoming hysterical. No one was better at calling attention to the event and at making his partners better, whether it was McGuire or Billy Packer or Merlin Olsen or Bud Collins or Johnny Miller or the slew of color commentators he worked with through the years whether on basketball, football, tennis, baseball or golf.

I met him at the 1968 Holiday Festival in New York. He was UCLA’s play-by-play man, and I was a kid who loved collecting autographs. UCLA players sat in the stands, watching the third-place game, and I worked my way among them getting signatures, including the one I wanted most: Lew Alcindor.

Sidney Wicks nodded at Enberg as he signed for me and said, "You need him: Mr. Enberg. He’s our announcer." I walked over and asked Enberg to sign my book.

He gave me that smile that always lit up his face and said, "Who told you to ask me? Sidney?" Then, as he signed, he leaned over and said, "Did you get Lew? If not, I can help you out."

I had Lew, but it was quite an offer from a stranger to a boy.

Because he was so good for so long in so many sports, people often lost track of Enberg’s accomplishments. He did Super Bowls, Olympics, Final Fours, World Series, major tennis and golf tournaments. He did essays and commentaries in his later years and wrote a one-man show based on his experiences with McGuire called Coach.

He and Collins essentially invented "Breakfast at Wimbledon" in 1979, when the notion of televising a major sporting event at 9 a.m. on a Saturday was considered a huge risk.

Dick loved to tell the story about Bud "saving" the first Breakfast, a final between Bjorn Borg and Roscoe Tanner.

"We were coming on the air at 9 — 2 o’clock in London," Enberg recalled. "Wimbledon tradition was that the match was to start at 2 p.m. precisely, meaning the players were to walk on court at 1:52. We wanted to open the telecast with the players walking on court live and taking their bows to the Royal Box.

"Wimbledon waits for no man. Bud went and found Donald Dell, who was his pal and Tanner’s agent. He told Donald to stall somehow. Well, a minute before they were supposed to go on, Roscoe suddenly had to go to the bathroom. It took a while. The players walked on at — you guessed it — 2 p.m. precisely, just as we came on-air."

Enberg loved to tell stories about how good his partners were. Enberg was never the hero of an Enberg story.