Saturday, May 12, 2012

Looking back on the Rick Barry "watermelon grin" comment

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the controversial "watermelon grin" remark made by CBS analyst Rick Barry. It took place early in the second half of game 5 of the 1981 NBA Finals on 5/12/1981 as the announcers were discussing photos from the 1956 Summer Olympics. This clip illustrates the incredibly awkward exchange which became most noticeable when CBS put the broadcasters on camera. Co-analyst Bill Russell clearly didn't appreciate the attempt at humor by Barry or the subsequent prodding by play-by-play man Gary Bender.


The incident bothered Russell who offered less analysis than usual for the remainder of that telecast. Barry insisted he was unaware of the racial overtones of his remark and later apologized to Russell who eventually forgave him.

CBS televised this game on late night tape delay at 11:30 pm and the margin was 26 points at the time of the comments. Both of these factors limited the number of viewers who saw this segment of the original telecast. Despite the 2.5 hour delay, CBS either chose not to edit out the comments or wasn't aware of the sensitive nature of the remarks until later. Of course, this exchange took place while game action was going on so it would have been challenging for CBS to perform any kind of cleanup before the delayed telecast.

This episode came at a historical low point in TV coverage for the NBA as CBS produced four of the six 1981 Finals games on tape delay. It also turned out to be the only season for the trio of Bender, Barry, and Russell. CBS dropped Barry after the Finals. For the next season, CBS moved Bender to college games and paired Russell with Dick Stockton on the NBA. Interestingly, Barry and Russell would team up a few years later to call NBA telecasts on WTBS with Barry serving in the play-by-play role.

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