Larry, the color commentator and former All-American, says, “Bob, my man, how do you think the Cats look going into first game of the Sweet Sixteen?”
Bob spots a light flashing at the bottom of his screen where everything he and Larry need is fed to them by WDGT’s crew. (Bob’s inside joke with Larry is the station’s call sign is an acronym for We Don’t Go There, that you can do anything in radio so long as you don’t step in the doo-doo). Bob’s screen displays information about a call cued up from Paintsville, first name Jake. Finally. Two faceless guys broadcasting into the megahertz universe can bullshit only so long. Call-ins break time into paragraphs, make better pacing.
“Larry,” Bob says, “They have more of a chance than ESPN gives them, but let’s see what our callers think. Hello, Jake.”
“Hey, fellas,” the voice says. “The Cats are going all the way.”
Bob recognizes the tremolo of a groupie.
“Jake. Is this the same Jake who gave me a wood carving of Coach Joe B. Hall’s head? I think it was before the Ole Miss game, last year.”
‘Yeah, that was me.”
“You’re a heckuva wood carver, Jake.” A lie – the head looked like bust of a feeble-minded wood fairy – but it makes good radio.
“Yeah. I have that head in my den at home and look at it every morning while I eat my Cheerios. Great to hear from you, Jake. So, Jake, I guess you think the Cats will beat the Florida Gators tonight?”
“The Cats will beat the Gators by thirty points, easy.”
“Why Jake? Why will the Cats win by thirty points?” Callers have no insight, but listeners equally ignorant vicariously hear their own voices, and listeners drive advertising, advertising pays the bills, so Bob masturbates caller egos. It makes good radio.
“D.J.’s hit his stride. I mean, nobody gets seven threes in three games in a row unless they’ve hit their stride. And the Cats, they’re playing as a team. Nobody can stop them. Unless maybe D.J. gets hurt.”
“Jake, my man, we don’t go there,” Bob says, punching a button, ending the call, winking at Larry. Negativity breeds negativity, listeners change the channel. Mood must be managed to get good ratings, ratings drive advertising, so we don’t go there.
“Bad luck to talk about injuries,” Larry says, winking back.
“Knock on wood. So, Larry, Jake says nobody stops the Cats. Is he right? Does Jake have the crystal ball?”
Bob’s setting Larry up for an extended riff. Larry knows – they’ve worked together long enough to play off each other’s moves, like dancers. Larry hesitates, a girl spinning away from her partner for a solo, then starts in.
“Nobody has a crystal ball.” Larry says this with emphasis, manufacturing a straw man he plans to tear down. “You can’t say nobody stops the Cats. Duke can stop them. Gonzaga can stop them. Even Auburn can stop them on a good night. But –“
The “but” defines everything. Bob feels Larry slide into his groove. Larry will take over for a while, pontificate about strengths and weaknesses of the teams in the Cats’ bracket, likely winners of the other brackets, and gradually destroy the straw man he created to conclude, as the listeners want to hear, that the Cats will win it all. Bob needs to only half-listen in case Larry calls for an amen or some other interjection to break up the pacing. This moment is like a cigarette break (though Bob doesn’t smoke). Bob lets his brain cool, fuzzes out, thinks about the tits on the station manager’s cute assistant. His reverent novena is shattered when a light flashes on the lower right-hand corner of his screen. Commercials are cued.
“We’re gonna take a break. When we come back, I’ll ask Larry a really tough question.”
“Uh-oh. Should I be scared?”
“Probably. Your answer might get you into trouble.”
This is a set-up, too, unrehearsed, but Larry will expect what sounds like a curve ball will end up being a softball. It’s what Bob and Larry do, pitch and catch, and it makes for good radio.
During the commercial break, Bob checks messages on his phone. Leanne says her parents are coming to town next week and does he want to take them out for dinner or her fix a meal at home? Bob reasons it out. If they stay at home, he can slip away to his mancave after dinner on the pretext of doing research for the NCAA games he’ll be broadcasting next weekend, assuming the Cats survive the round of sixteen, whereas if they go out to dinner he’s stuck for as long as that takes. But if he chooses staying home, Leeanne will say he doesn’t think her parents are worth spending money on, and if chooses going out she’ll take it as a slam on her cooking. If he defers the decision to her, she’ll say he takes no interest in their marriage. Wives never ask easy questions. He texts dinner at home, your cooking’s the best and hope he hasn’t stepped in doo-doo.
“We’re back,” Bob says. “Larry, here’s the question. Who is the greatest UK fan of all time?”
“Unfair question,” Larry says. “All the fans are great. Are you trying to introduce division into the Big Blue Nation?”
“Sure, all the fans are great, but some go way, way beyond the call of duty. Like what about the fellow who died recently?” Larry will know who he means.
“The guy who’s been to every game for the last sixty years? Didn’t they actually carry him from Hospice on a stretcher into Yum Arena for the Louisville game?
“Right. They set him up in a hospital bed behind the UK bench. But I don’t think he’s the greatest.”
“So who’s the greatest?” Larry asks.
“The guy in the hospital bed didn’t actually go to every game,” Bob says. The hierarchy that distinguishes between blue and bluer is box office radio.
“The guy, and he’s a great guy, don’t get me wrong, but he only went to every home game. There’s a guy from Madisonville who’s been to literally every game, home and away, for the last thirty-seven years. He even went on his honeymoon to Knoxville because the Cats were playing Tennessee. And get this – he left his wife in the hotel room during the honeymoon to go to the game.”
“He didn’t take his wife?”
“He only had one ticket.”
“Couldn’t he find a scalper? That’s pretty cold to leave your wife in the hotel while you go to the game.”
“That’s my point.”
“Are they still married?”
“I don’t know.” For some reason, recounting the story gives Bob an unsettled feeling of safety, as if the bar for wrecking marriage is higher than he’ll ever reach.
“Another caller on the line,” Larry says. “Terrence from Horse Cave. Terrence, what’s up, buddy?”
“Not much, just getting ready for the game,” says a voice that sounds prepubertal. “Do you think the Cats will beat the Gators tonight?”
“I think they will, Terrence,” Larry says. “Florida has a home court advantage, and I think it will be close, but the Cats are firing on all cylinders here at the end of the season.”
“Terrence, my man, how old are you?” Bob asks.
“This game’s going to be on late, probably won’t start until 10:30. Will your parents let you stay up and watch the whole thing?”
“Oh yeah. They’ll let me stay up.”
“It’s not a school night,” Larry interjects, “so I guess they bend the rules.”
“Even if it’s a school night,” Terrence says, “they always let me stay up and watch the Cats.”
Bob isn’t surprised. Wildcat basketball is a religion in Kentucky. Staying up for the game is like going to Midnight Mass where Jesus wears a jersey.
“Terrence, you said you’re getting ready for the game. How do you get ready for the game?”
“I put on my UK sweatshirt and my mother makes popcorn and cheese dip.”
“You dip the popcorn in cheese dip?”
“No,” Terrence says, laughing. “We have tortilla chips.”
“Two different things,” Larry clarifies. “Popcorn and cheese dip with tortilla chips.”
Bob knew this and had been making a joke by pretending to misunderstand. Jokes break things up, makes for better pacing, better radio.
“I have a question for you guys,” Terrence says. “How do you get ready for the game?”
Larry looks at Bob and grins, but Bob knows Larry won’t say what he’s thinking – that Bob likes a joint on game day and nurses vodka in a water bottle. That at games away from Lexington, Bob scouts the hotel bar and the pregame crowd for hot unattached women looking for trouble, scouting them more intently than UK’s coaching staff scouts the next opponent. But we don’t go there. It’s not the kind of thing you tell Big Blue Nation. It wouldn’t make good radio.
“Larry,” Bob says, “tell Terrence how we get ready.”
Larry takes over, describing how they immerse themselves in statistics, talk to the coaches, so on and so on, while Bob checks his phone again. Leeanne has texted okay. But there’s a second bubble on Bob’s screen. Tina in Nashville, the divorcee who picked Bob up in the hotel bar after the Vanderbilt game, has sent him another video of her doing things to herself. She’s a redhead, top and bottom, a groupie of a sort different than Jake the wood-carver or Terrence the eleven-year-old, a temptation drawing Bob in and a stalker he wants to run away from. Tina is trouble with a capital T. Not just a capital T – she’s trouble in ALL CAPS. Bob doesn’t open Tina’s video, but he can’t bring himself to delete it, just like he couldn’t delete the other one she sent. If Leeanne ever saw what Tina’s showing him, it would mean doo-doo bigtime, and they have kids, so Bob keeps his phone with him at all times so we don’t go there.
Larry has narrated the pre-game preparation process up through game day when the WDGT crew sets up the technical end. Bob knows Larry’s monologue is about to end. It needs to. Pacing is key to keeping a radio audience.
“Thanks for the call, Terrence,” Bob says. “Next caller, Dan from Durham. Dan, you’re calling from enemy territory.”
“I bleed blue,” Dan says. “UK blue, not Duke blue. Are you guys having fun in Gainesville?”
“No beach in Gainesville,” Larry says, “but it’s a college town, so there’s always something going on.”
“It’s not just a college town, it’s a party town,” Bob says. “But we’re too busy working to party. So what do you think, Dan? Will UK go all the way?”
Bob thinks going all the way hadn’t been an issue with Tina in Nashville for even a millisecond. He’d been tossing back screwdrivers at a table by himself, expecting to spend the night loving alone, when he’d felt a warm arm settle around his shoulder, the smell of perfume, and a big boob pinning his elbow against his rib cage. How are you doing sugar? They hadn’t bothered to exchange names – adjectives and verbs were sufficient for their immediate purposes – until the next morning. She insisted on his contact information and, shortsightedly, he gave it to her. He really needed to delete those videos.
“Once they get past the Gators, I think they have a chance,” Dan says, “but I’m worried about Bruce Pearl. He should have been thrown out of basketball and here he is in the Sweet Sixteen.”
Dan is referring to Coach Pearl’s firing at Tennessee for NCAA ethical violations and his subsequent comeback coaching Auburn. But while Bob never defends the poor buggers caught in scandals, he never points fingers, not even when Rick Pitino, the former coach at hated-rival Louisville, was blackmailed by a woman he banged in a restroom, accused of arranging payoffs to Nike, and finally fired amid claims that U of L assistants hired hookers to service high-school recruits and their fathers. No need to get high and mighty about it, Bob thinks. Anybody can make a mistake. Besides, the blame game makes bad radio. The conversation gets hung up circling around outrage and pacing is ruined. So we don’t go there.
“Dan, I wouldn’t worry about Pearl,” Bob says, winking at Larry. “That’s the NCAA’s call. But once we get past Florida, I do worry about Auburn. They’re hot right now.”
“It all depends upon three-pointers,” Larry says. “Auburn will double-up on D.J., but if the other Cats hit three-pointers, we’ll come home with a win.”
“It hope you’re right,” Dan says. “Go Cats!”
It’s time for another commercial break. Bob checks his phone while WDGT broadcasts locally-produced ads pimping everything from gutters to automobiles, all with a UK twist. Leeanne has texted again. Why did you lie about the Joe B. Hall head on your desk? She means why did he lie to Jake the woodcarver. Technically, Leeanne is correct. There is no Joe B. Hall head on Bob’s desk. Bob tossed it in a trash barrel five minutes after Jake gave it to him. Woodcarving clearly wasn’t Jake’s day job, but we don’t go there. We tell Jake he’s the Michelangelo of woodcraft. Makes for better radio.
“Next caller,” Larry says. “Tina from Nashville. Tina, what’s on your mind?
“Hey, Bob, remember me?”
Bob feels blood rush from his face and extremities to his abdominal cavity, like peasants fleeing to the castle and pulling up the drawbridge.
“Tina from Nashville?” Bob struggles to keep his voice even. “I meet a lot of people, Tina.”
“You ought to remember me, unless you drank so many screwdrivers that you don’t remember what we did. Did you get my messages?”
Bob smells doo-doo.
“I’m sure I did, Tina, I always appreciate Cat fans who keep in touch. So what do you think about the game? Will you be watching the Cats on the tube tonight?”
“Actually, I’m coming to Gainesville. What hotel are you staying in?”
“We’re at the Marriott downtown, Tina,” Larry volunteers, before he sees Bob vigorously shake his head. Bob presses a button to terminate the call, then says, “Tina, Tina are you there? Looks like we lost Tina.”
Bob prays the line will light up quickly with another caller whose prattle will erase Tina’s voice from the memory of Big Blue Nation. Fortuitously the light is on again almost immediately. Thank you, Jesus. Larry will keep the show moving. Pacing is everything. During the next commercial break, Bob will text Tina his room number and a time to meet. Larry presses a button and takes the call.
“Leeanne from Lexington. What’s on your mind, Leeanne?”
Mike Wilson‘s work has appeared in magazines including The Seventh Wave, Fiction Southeast, Chicago Literati, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He is author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020), political poetry for a post-truth world. He resides in Central Kentucky and can be found at mikewilsonwriter.com