"Little-known fact," confides Keith Olbermann, Berman's colleague at ESPN and a pal since prep school days. "He's not even using a mike. Thai's strictly his voice crashing into your house." Adds Robin Roberts, Berman's whimsical female sidekick on SportsCenter: "Sometimes I just sit back and watch him and be entertained, like everyone else out there—only I'm diving under the desk and putting on a raincoat to block the spit."
An ESPN mainstay since its 1979 launch, the ebullient Berman, 37, is measurably responsible for putting the 24-hour cable network on the prime-time map. "He's like every sports fan in a bar or in the stands," says Olbermann, "but one who really knows what he's talking about. That's why he never makes a fool of himself." Not even with the unlaundered list of nicknames, now numbering around 600. which Berman began compiling at Brown University. Now, Bert "Be Home" Blyleven and Walt "Three Blind" Weiss are staples of American nomenclature. "But, hey," says Berman, "I'm never derogatory." True. At the request of his pal, New York Met Kevin "Large Mouth" Bass, Berman renamed him Kevin "Small Mouth" Bass.
Puns aside, Berman is at his best broadcasting game highlights. The trick, he says, is "to treat highlights as if they were happening right now." So, during baseball season, virtually every home-run shot is greeted with Berman's trademark "back-back-back-back-back!"
"I hear the cry 'back-back-back-back...' every time I walk through an airport," Berman says. "But, hey, I always knew there were a lot of folks like me out there, people who really care about the games."
Growing up in suburban Rye, N.Y., Berman cared passionately about sports—and rock and roll. (He still enjoys his collection of 800 or so 45s and albums.) His father, Jim, was a mechanical contractor, and his mother, Peggy, a TIME magazine researcher. (Both are retired. His brother, Andy, 35, runs a ski shop in Sun Valley, Idaho.) As a child, Berman admits, "I used to practice play-by-plays and commercials in front of my mirror." He later filled the soccer goal—amply—at nearby Hackley School and broadcast school football games with his buddy Olbermann.
As a history major at Brown (class of '77), Berman became the voice of college station WBRU. In 1978 he joined WNVR in Waterbury, Conn. One day he spotted an attractive woman driving ahead of him. It was Kathy Alexinski, a fourth-grade teacher in Waterbury. Berman followed her and feigned car trouble. When Alexinski asked him what was wrong, Berman asked her to have breakfast with him the next morning. Says she: "He was tall, dark and handsome and looked harmless enough." So she joined him for breakfast—and in wedlock four years later. They now live in Cheshire, Conn., with their children, Meredith, 6, and Douglas, 5.
In 1989, NBC made Berman an eye-popping offer. ESPN countered with a five-year contract worth $3 million, which Berman happily accepted. Says he: "I'm getting to do the job I love—and I don't have to live in New York City to do it." Now Berman can sit back, fire away and revel in his role as America's most entertaining sportscaster. Still, he notes, "I also deliver the goods. Otherwise, hey. I'm just a clown—and nobody's called me a clown for 10 years."