Chris Berman and Keith Olbermann go back such a long way that one of them might describe it as back, back, back. If you’re at all familiar with sports broadcasting over the last 35-plus years, you know which.
Berman and Olbermann rose to eminence during the cable television explosion in the 1980s. Berman emerged as perhaps ESPN’s most recognizable figure in its early years, while Olbermann, who spent a brief time in the ’80s at Ch. 5, ascended at CNN.
When Olbermann joined Berman at ESPN in 1992, soon teaming with Dan Patrick to set a standard of quality and humor at “SportsCenter” often imitated but never to be matched, they were stars in an ESPN galaxy that has never been more spectacular for sports fans.
But Berman and Olbermann knew each other long before that Bristol heyday. A couple of decades earlier, they were students at Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y. who were just hoping to get through a broadcast without their equipment failing them.
“We did a women’s basketball game together,’’ said Olbermann, who was a freshman when he met Berman, a junior, “and the radio station shorted out in the middle of the first quarter or something. It was an abrupt end to the women’s basketball season on radio at the Hackley School in 1972.
“We’re walking across campus afterward, and he looks at me and says, ‘You and me kid, doing the NBA game of the week on ABC in 10 years.’ He wasn’t that far off. We were both working in cable sports about eight years later.”
Berman and Olbermann will be reunited in a sense again Monday at Fenway. They’re not in the same broadcast booth, but both will be calling the Red Sox-Indians Memorial Day game on radio.
Berman, one of several broadcasters taking a turn alongside Joe Castiglione in the Red Sox radio booth this season, will call the next three games on flagship station WEEI. Olbermann has the play-by-play on ESPN Radio’s broadcast.
“It’s Fenway Park,’’ said Berman. “You walk in with a smile on your face. The weather is supposed to be nice, everyone will be outside. Some of us grew up with baseball on the radio in the background — you’re out, you’re on your boat, you’re at the beach, it’s a 4 o’clock game. It’s a perfect day to listen to a game on the radio. My God, we’ve waited long enough for it, right? I can’t wait.”
As far as Berman and Olbermann can recall, Monday will mark the first time they have been at Fenway at the same time since they attended a game together in April 1973. Olbermann figures they met either in December 1971 or January 1972.
“He was the first kid I ever knew who took it seriously when I said I wanted to be a sportscaster when I grew up,’’ said Olbermann. “When I told him that, his response was, ‘Yeah, kid, me too.’ ”
Berman called football and basketball games, while Olbermann had hockey and baseball. “Fifty people probably heard us, if we were lucky,’’ said Berman.
Olbermann soon became the assistant editor to Berman at just about every media the school offered — the student newspaper, radio station, and yearbook.
“He was easy to work with, very supportive, very few demands. He was like, ‘Do you have your own cassette machine?,’ and that was about it,’’ said Olbermann. “I’ve known him a long time, and he’s basically no different in terms of personality or voice than he was in 1971. I’ve never met anyone of his stature less affected by success.”
When this is relayed to Berman, he responds philosophically. “He’s just respecting his elders,’’ said Berman, now 64. “He’s respecting his elders. That’s high school. What did I know? What did any of us know?
“Keith is brilliant. He always was. He may not always hit it down the fairway as you or I define it, but he’s never been afraid to hit the ball.
“He wrote for the paper when I met him way back when and knew what he wanted to do, and I just happened to be a couple of years ahead of him. To be reunited years later at ESPN and then here, kind of, again, with 10-15-year pockets in the middle, it’s nice. It’s nice to have that history.”