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DTL
04-27-2002, 12:53 PM
Air apparent: Former NBA not-so-All-Star Tom Tolbert makes his points on radio -- and scores a shot at NBC
By J. Freedom du Lac -- Bee Pop Culture Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Thursday, April 11, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO -- Where do you begin the story of Tom Tolbert, the basketball-bench-player-turned-broadcaster whose star has been rising recently right along with his voice?

Does it start in one of the National Basketball Association locker rooms he helped leaven as a player with his comedic quips, curious clothes and an atypical hairstyle that earned him the nickname "The Bobcat"?

How about in NBC's New York studios, where Tolbert made a memorable debut on the network's NBA halftime show in early March by noting that Wilt Chamberlain's greatest statistical achievement was not his 100-point game but rather his supposed 20,000 conquests? "Heidi Fleiss couldn't put out a starting five to match those numbers," Tolbert observed.


OK, maybe not.

No, the Tom Tolbert story should begin in New Orleans, during Super Bowl week in January 1997, when The Bobcat took a catnap on the radio between interviews with some of the Crescent City's more colorful characters.

Bob Agnew remembers that episode well.

Why wouldn't he? It only helped change the tone of the San Francisco sports-radio station that he runs.

"It was Tom's first year with us, and I assigned him to cover the Super Bowl," recalls Agnew, the operations manager at KNBR (680 AM). "I told him he needed to do a live report on our morning show. But he'd never gone to sleep (the night before) and he passed out during the interview. One of my most regrettable moves ever."

Agnew laughs at the memory of Tolbert snoring and the show's hosts scrambling. He can't help it.

Tolbert has that effect on people.

"Tom did some of the most outrageous stuff on Bourbon Street," Agnew says. "He interviewed transvestites, witch doctors, strippers -- it was the most off-the-wall stuff. People responded going, 'HOLY what?!'

"We were trying to be a hardcore sports station. But Tom took it to a very entertaining and offbeat level, and it helped us change our focus. He's just a lovable oddball -- a 6-foot-8 guy walking around in loud shorts and tank tops saying goofy things and just having fun. He's loosened everybody up."

So here it begins: The story of Tom Tolbert, former NBA journeyman turned radio revolutionary who is now also beginning to impose his addictively amusing mix of insight, irreverence, frat-boy humor and unpredictability on a national television audience.



This is how Tolbert, 36, gets ready for his radio role: He throws on a gray T-shirt and white knee-length shorts that for some reason are adorned with images of insects. He drives from his home in a quiet East Bay enclave to KNBR's south-of-Market studios. He looks through a few computer printouts. And then he starts talking.

"Hundreds from Enron contact Playboy," Tolbert says, reading a headline. "Hey, that's excellent; I'm all for that. I mean, I guess since your 401(k) is gone, you've gotta start somewhere. It'll be 401 double D."

He chuckles at his joke. He does that a lot.

Between 3 and 7 p.m. on this particular weekday, Tolbert and his broadcast partner, Ralph Barbieri, will also riff on locker-room politics, strange hockey statistics, "The Osbournes," the Oscars, people who talk during movies and, um, why the show spends so much time on nonsports topics when it's on a station that bills itself as "THE Sports Leader."

Off the air, Barbieri shrugs and says: "Nobody wants to say it, but this has turned largely into a comedy show."

Barbieri, who is in his 50s, is the dean of Northern California sports-talk personalities, having spent 18 years on the air at KNBR. For the past 5 , he's shared a studio with Tolbert, who in many ways could not be more different.

If Barbieri is the intense Ivy League intellect, then Tolbert is the laid-back class clown.

A Southern California guy from Long Beach, Tolbert -- who is slavishly devoted to his wife, Lorrie, and their three children: Weston, 6, Walker, 4, and Hailey, 11 months -- likes pro wrestling, dumb movies and heavy metal. He answers calls by asking: "What's shakin'?" He's like a much younger (but funnier) John Madden.

Barbieri is cultured and well-read, and he's serious about his vocabulary, with a penchant for using words like "compunction," "predicated" and "portend," making him Bob Costas with a higher-pitched voice.

When he learned he was being paired with Tolbert, then, Barbieri wasn't in love with the idea.

"I thought it would be a capitulation to modern-day dumbing-it-down," he says. "And in the beginning, Tom was pretty far out there. But I think we've blended together well.

"The show is not only fun to do, it's also easy. We just talk about what's interesting to us, and there are literally times we'll talk and we can't remember if it was on or off the air."

During those times that the chatter has been sent out over the airwaves, it's been a hit: In almost every ratings period since Tolbert and Barbieri teamed up, their show has been No. 1 among 25-to-54-year-old men, KNBR's main demographic.

In fact, the show's ratings share is sometimes higher than Tolbert's NBA scoring average of 6.5 points, which he got over seven seasons with four teams, including the Golden State Warriors. During the program's best periods, its share is better than 7 -- meaning more than 7 percent of the total radio audience is tuning in.

Still, Tolbert, who started in the NBA in 1988, isn't quite sure if that means he's having success on a show that can be heard from Salinas to Sacramento, where it competes with Grant Napear's afternoon-drive program on KHTK (1140 AM).

"I think I do a pretty good job, but I don't know how to define it," Tolbert says. "There's no scoreboard; I don't know if I won or lost by 7 o'clock, when the show is over.

"But I guess if I had a good time and Ralph and I were laughing, then people were laughing and having a good time, too. I just like to make people laugh, whether I'm in the left-field bleachers doing Stooges routines or I'm on the radio or NBC."



The first thing you notice about Tolbert on TV is that the bobcat is gone from his head. No more Chia-hair; he now looks like Stone Cold Steve Austin. "I used to bleach it and spike it up, but I started losing it in front," he says. "You can't have Billy Idol hair that starts in the middle of your head."

The second thing you notice about Tolbert is how strikingly different he is from his fellow NBC commentators.

There's Tolbert, looking and sounding so casual and comfortable next to the starched and serious former coach Mike Fratello and the jittery ex-executive Pat Croce that you'd almost never know that he was the new addition to the studio crew.

After working briefly as an NBC game analyst, Tolbert was tapped to take the studio seat of Jayson Williams, who was charged this year with second-degree manslaughter in a shooting death at his estate.

Tolbert immediately made an impact with his analysis and asides -- such as the time Michael Jordan was shown riding a stationary bike, prompting Tolbert to blurt: "Look at LeMond!"

There also was his commentary on the worst teams in the NBA. "The players have done enough; it's time for the owners to step up," he said before suggesting the owners give away free pizzas if their teams scored under 75 points or make a charitable donation for every turnover.

"From the moment he arrived in the studio, he's been the kind of on-air personality that makes you want to hear what he has to say," says David Neal, NBC's head of production for NBA programming. "He has a unique way of looking at things that's very attention-grabbing. He's responsibly off-the-wall.

"And he has one gear, which is very engaging, very personable. He is who he is, and that person translates very well in television and in the studio."

In other words, Tolbert could become a fixture on NBC, which airs three games (and several studio shows) this Sunday and will continue to feature Tolbert and crew throughout the playoffs.

Just one problem: After the NBA Finals this year, the network will lose the NBA rights to ABC. Tolbert says his agent has contacted ABC about joining its broadcast team for the 2002-03 season. But, he says: "I have no idea what's happening with that."

NBC's Neal thinks the decision should be a slam dunk for ABC executives.

"I honestly believe that Tom is a star on the rise," he says. "We won't have the vehicle for him beyond this season, but others will. And I would be very surprised to see Tom's career not continue to go forward."

An ABC deal would suit Tolbert just fine.

After all, to him, this is the best punch line of them all: He's being paid to deliver the same sort of comedic commentary he'd always given out gratis.

"I'm the luckiest guy," he says. "I mean, I get paid to be me ... and for some reason, people like it. I don't know why, and I'm not interested in analyzing it.

"It's a joke for me to talk about sports and make people laugh and get paid for it. I'm like Jesse James. I should wear a handkerchief around my face."

Bayliss
04-27-2002, 02:29 PM
I hope Tolbert does get a job next year either with ABC or ESPN.

I remember when he would appear on The Last Word with Jim Rome (who I tolerate but don't think is great), and he held his own... not just with basketball knowledge and analysis but overall sports.

DTL
04-27-2002, 02:34 PM
Did you see the old clip they showed with Tolbert, with still lots of hair, playing against Malone? That was funny i/expressions/face-icon-small-smile.gif

Murphy3
04-27-2002, 04:48 PM
big fan of tolbert.

Drbio
04-27-2002, 06:58 PM
nice article. maybe he could get a gig around the Dallas area.