Charles Barkley and the 15 Best Jocks-Turned-Broadcasters
A great jock-turned-commentator is like a shortstop with power.
Since they are an apparent necessity, and since most of them usually stink, a good one is worth more to a neutral broadcast than a great play-by-play man.
Allow me to explain.
When Doug Collins delivers a one-minute soliloquy on defending the pick-and-roll, he’s increasing your enjoyment and understanding of the broadcast in direct proportion to the frustration and disillusionment gleaned from a Craig James rant about hustle.
One is Picasso with a telestrator, the other speaks in a guttural patter of cliches and monkey grunts.
The extremes are vast, and the stakes are high.
If we could devise a wins above replacement equivalent for broadcasters—and I think our species is capable—the master analyzers, observers and storytellers on this list would rank among the elite.
But since science always runs two steps behind imagination, my crude estimations will have to suffice.
The Ground Rules
With one major exception—we'll get to that later—the announcer in question has to have played his or her sport at the highest possible level. Sorry Don Cherry fans, one NHL game doesn't count.
You have to have worn the headset. This is not about studio personalities.
The player in question has to have done a significant amount of work calling games.
You have to be good.
No Troy Aikman.
15. Don Meredith
“Dandy” Don Meredith would hardly recognize the modern-day color commentator.
Meredith didn’t exist to read statistics or break down replays. He existed to entertain.
So what if he was little bit drunk? The guy made football fun.
Set against the overwrought oratory of legendary play-by-play man Howard Cosell on the original Monday Night Football broadcast, Meredith grew into the role of America’s football buddy and quickly perfected it.
His rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights” when the game’s outcome was decided became Monday Night Football’s more inviting response to the Red Auerbach victory cigar, and his repartee with Cosell made the broadcast an instant hit.
14. Ron Jaworski
On the same program that affable Don Meredith shepherded to fame, the relentlessly intelligent Jaworski takes fans deeper inside the X's and O's than any of his predecessors.
At times, his analysis is so meticulous it plays like a parody of itself, a sort of satire on the way sports media has embraced analytics in the past decade at the expense of entertainment.
Jaworski is certainly a contrast to Meredith, but the ex-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback gives dedicated fans the kind of coverage they can’t get anywhere else.
Jaws delivers that insider information with a golden-throated modulation that makes his commentary easy on the ears.
13. Greg Anthony
Anthony doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself, but he’s quietly become one of the more versatile commentators in sports today.
After starting as an NBA analyst with ESPN/ABC, Anthony made the jump to the college game and now headlines CBS’ March Madness coverage.
If you think that’s easy, think again.
Try expanding your analytical range from 30 teams to 300 and let me know how it goes.
Anthony, a standout at UNLV and a solid performer in the NBA for a decade, made the transition look easy when he jumped over to CBS in 2008.
He’s informative without being overwhelming, and tends to package a lot of insight into short, concise sentences.
12. Mickey Redmond
Let me first acquit myself and admit that I’m not a huge hockey fan.
I wouldn’t put too much stock in my ratings on that account.
And while I’m more familiar with Eddie Olcyzk and Bill Clement, the hockey people tell me Red Wings commentator Mickey Redmond is the best.
Known for his extensive and esoteric array of catchphrases, or “Mickeyisms,” the colorful former Red Wing and Canadien brings a folksy Canadian charm to every broadcast he graces.
Video Note: Go to about 2:00 in the video to see Redmond at his finest.
11. Mary Carillo
Don’t sleep on tennis, and definitely don’t sleep on tennis commentators.
Among the major sports, tennis features some of the best jock broadcasters around. As a group, they are uncommonly intelligent.
In that subset, Carillo stands out as one of the best.
Sure, she can be cranky and rant-prone, but there is no questioning her deep understanding of the game or her way with words.
More than anything, I appreciate Carillo’s honesty.
She’s not afraid to undress players on air and she can be equally harsh with officials.
That combination of courage and smarts landed her a spot as a correspondent on HBO’s Real Sports, a true testament to her candor.
10. Gary Danielson
ESPN may get top billing and primetime hours, but for my money, no regular college football broadcast is better than the SEC on CBS.
Former Detroit Lions quarterback Gary Danielson is a big reason why.
Danielson is a crystal ball type, the kind of commentator so prescient that he often anticipates plays or critical decisions before they happen.
He and play-by-play legend Verne Lundquist give the biggest game in America’s best conference all the gravitas it deserves.
Danielson doesn’t get the benefit of the ESPN hype machine—College Game Day being the most prominent promotional tool—nor does he need it.
Danielson stands out on his own.
9. Jim Kaat
Picking a baseball commentator is tough because the game is so localized and the best broadcasters are usually hidden in market-bound cable broadcasts.
For that reason, it’s hard to consider Jerry Remy, Richie Ashburn, Jim Palmer and the like.
To boot, I’m not particularly enamored with Joe Morgan, Tim McCarver, Eric Karros, Ron Darling or any of the other nationally-broadcast talking heads.
But of that bunch, I think Kaat is the best.
The 16-time gold glover and seven-time Emmy winner has done games on every major network over his 35-year career.
His resonant voice, accented with a Bill Walton-esque lisp, gives his analysis that extra layer of authority and helps distinguish him from the other noise.
8. Phil Simms
Together with Jim Nantz, Simms makes up one half of the most austere broadcasting duo in the NFL.
What Simms lacks in warmth, he more than makes up for in distinguished analysis and great on-air timing.
With Simms breaking down the plays and Nantz making the calls, games on CBS always feel important.
Unlike that other robot-obsessed network, CBS gives you football without the cartoonish personalities and forced futuristic visual effects.
Simms plays a big role in establishing that tone.
7. Chris Collinsworth
Check the Chris Collinsworth hate at the door.
No one in the NFL today gives better commentary than the former Bengals All-Pro wideout.
He’s sharp, analytical and, at times, wickedly funny.
Employing a deadpan wit that separates him from the starched Simms, Collinsworth manages to massage off-the-cuff observation into the broadcast without disrupting partner Al Michaels or compromising his own analytical integrity.
He can be dour at times, but it’s not the sort of overwhelming cynicism (cough, Joe Buck, cough) that kills a broadcast.
6. Charles Barkley
There’s more to Barkley than pure entertainment, though he’s definitely good for a laugh.
Oftentimes, the joke is simply the vessel for a trenchant bit of commentary.
While others are busy dressing their analysis up in run-on sentences, Barkley gets to the point. He’s a 6'5" Yogi Berra, Alabama’s answer to Confucius.
A few examples, from the blog “Top 50 Charles Barkley Quotes”:
"You got to believe in yourself. Hell, I believe I'm the best-looking guy in the world and I might be right."
"I know why his name is DMX. Because his real name is Earl. Imagine if his name was Earl the rapper?"
"I always laugh when people ask me about rebounding techniques. I've got a technique. It's called just go get the damn ball."
"Yeah Ernie, its called defense, I mean I wouldn't know anything about it personally but I've heard about it through the grapevine."
"You can talk without saying a thing. I don't ever want to be that type of person."
Amen to that, Sir Charles.
Few former athlete commentators can analyze the game and skewer its players as well as Barkley.
5. Pat Summerall
The rare jock capable of calling play-by-play, Summerall followed a successful career as an NFL kicker with an even better career in the broadcasting booth.
Playing the foil to gregarious John Madden, Summerall’s honey-coated baritone helped define the NFL in the 1980s and early 1990s.
4. The McEnroes
All the things John McEnroe wasn’t during his illustrious playing career—poised, balanced, sane—he manages to co-opt with grace in his second life as a broadcaster.
Johnny Mac can be funny, even self-effacing, a bit surprising from a known fierce competitor.
Above all, McEnroe never seems to stumble over his words or lose his train of thought. His delivery sounds crisp and emphatic.
Dick Enberg, Mary Carillo and he comprise the best announcing team in any sport.
I could heap the same accolades on his brother, and former Davis Cup captain, Patrick McEnroe.
The younger McEnroe brings an incredible enthusiasm to his broadcasts, which are often so clean he sounds like a lifelong commentator instead of a jock in his second career.
3. John Madden
So here we find our lone exception, the legendary John Madden.
Although the Philadelphia Eagles drafted John Madden, an injury prevented him from ever taking an NFL snap.
And yet, I feel Madden deserves a spot on this list because of his influence on the entire cache of jocks-turned-commentators.
In his excitable delivery, his malapropist way with words and his affinity for the telestrator, Madden came to define and own the role of color analyst.
In modern-day broadcasters like Brian Baldinger and Tim Ryan, one can still hear the influence of Madden’s chortling yet inviting legato.
Even though I wouldn’t consider him the most insightful or charming analyst, there’s no doubting that Madden brought a level of celebrity and excitement into the booth that no one else can match.
2. Doug Collins
When he’s not serving as one of the best basketball coaches alive, former No. 1 pick Doug Collins provides better in-game commentary than anyone.
Collins, a former TNT and NBC employee, doesn’t rely on catchphrases or hyperbole. He doesn’t worry about branding himself or stealing focus.
Collins is a teacher in the purest form.
In a clear and easy tone, with sentences flowing neatly from one to the next, Collins dissects the kinetic chaos of basketball with perfect precision.
Put it another way: If you want to understand what is happening in a basketball game, beyond that which you can clearly see, listen to Doug Collins.
1. Bob Uecker
Uecker is so self-deprecating about his marginal big-league baseball career—a .200 batting average over six seasons—that it feels ill-fitting to call him a “jock.”
But of all the men and women to have played at their sport’s highest level and then taken a second career in broadcasting, no one has done it better than “Mr. Baseball.”
Though most of the world first met Uecker as the curmudgeonly commentator Harry Doyle in the Major League movies, Uecker had been delighting Brewers fans with his humorous and impassioned play-by-play calls for decades before his star turn in the late ‘80s.
Employing a fierce wit best described as Catskills comedian meets Mario Mendoza—"I led the league in ‘Go get 'em next time’”—Uecker relays the on-field action with a kind of tongue-in-cheek flourish that makes even the most grinding mid-summer games enjoyable.
Still calling Brewers games into his eighth decade, the broadcasting legend and Ford Frick Award recipient stands alongside other master storytellers such as Vin Scully, Mel Allen, Ernie Harwell, Harry Kalas and Red Barber as one of baseball’s great voices.
Don Drysdale, Bill Clement, Richie Ashburn, Joe Garagiola, Kirk Herbstreit, Brent Barry, Clark Kellogg, Dan Fouts, Dan Dierdorf, Ed Olcyzk, John Davidson, Len Elmore, Tony Kubek, Jim Palmer, Frank Broyles, Doris Burke, Darryl Stockton, Mike Mayock, Jerry Remy, Frank Gifford, Scott Hamilton, Rowdy Gaines, Karch Kiraly, Jim Courier