No more phone shots at draft? Networks make right call

California running back Marshawn Lynch, center, talks on California running back Marshawn Lynch, center, talks on the phone as he is congratulated by supporters at his former high school, Oakland Technical High School, in Oakland, Calif., after he was picked by the Buffalo Bills. (April 28, 2007) Photo Credit: AP

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

ESPN emailed a 21,107-word transcript of a conference call last week featuring Mel Kiper Jr., which can mean only one thing: The NFL draft is upon us again starting Thursday, its third year in prime time.

Thirty-two years ago, commissioner Pete Rozelle wondered why anyone would want to watch such a thing. But we now know many otherwise sane Americans very much enjoy hearing news of large, fast men they never have seen play.

The challenge for ESPN and the NFL Network is to keep things as fresh as possible by tinkering with the show, and this year brings one notable and welcome change.

In an admirable display of bilateral disarmament, the networks (at the NFL's helpful suggestion) agreed to no longer show draft picks on the phone with their future employers before they are announced at the podium.

The old system was a buzz-killer. Now at least viewers have a fair chance to be surprised, assuming the teams stick with the program and don't leak the news on Twitter -- another recent development that has annoyed fans.

Other than that, the coverage mostly will be status quo, with Chris Berman anchoring ESPN's first-round coverage for a 32nd consecutive year. Why Berman, a lightning rod for criticism?

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"It's not even a debate for us," producer Seth Markman told SI.com. "He is the face and voice of the NFL on ESPN . . . He is dialed in. He makes everything feel bigger that he hosts, and I think that comes through to the viewer."

The most intriguing addition for ESPN is former Colts president Bill Polian, who in 1998 encountered a draft that, like this one, was topped by two talented quarterbacks. He opted for Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf. Polian will appear at 10 o'clock Tuesday night on "Bill Parcells' Draft Confidential," a one-hour special starring the guy who beat Polian's Bills in Super Bowl XXV.

 

Dickey's 'Knuckleball!'

"Knuckleball!'' a film about the famously quirky pitch, had its world premiere -- outdoors! -- Saturday night during the TriBeCa/ESPN Sports Film Festival, with R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Jim Bouton on hand.

Did I like it? Yes, but not as much as I would have liked to like it. The film does a fine job profiling Wakefield and Dickey and conveys the unique, cross-generational fraternity of knuckleballers. "It's like coming home and all your brothers are sitting there waiting for you to get there,'' Dickey said before the screening. "It's very unique to the pitch.''

Alas, the focus on Wakefield and Dickey gives relatively short shrift to the history of the pitch and to its old-time practitioners. Also disappointing is the mostly serious tone. There are dashes of humor, to be sure, but not as many as you might expect, given the pitch in question.

Oh, well. It certainly is worth a look at one of the two screenings this weekend. Or just catch Dickey in action at Citi Field. He's the last knuckleballer standing on a major-league mound.

"Once he stops throwing it, it might never resurface,'' Bouton said. "I don't know if kids have the patience for it . . . You can get discouraged. But if you're half-nuts, you continue doing it no matter what.''

Said Dickey: "It takes a big commitment and a lot of maturity to handle how awful the pitch can be, and how awesome it can be.''

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'Benji' tells a sad tale

"Benji," ESPN's centerpiece at the TriBeCa Film Festival, packs the emotional punch you would expect of a story about the death of a high school basketball star that rocked Chicago in 1984.

Directors Coodie and Chike capture the story of Ben Wilson through effective use of ancient video and interviews with many of those who knew him best.

What stands out is how his life and death continue to affect men and women now in middle age. "A lot of us really haven't had closure,'' Kurt Jones, one of his best friends, said after a screening Saturday.

Coodie said the goal is "to make thugs cry. We want to show kids, gangsters, gangbangers, one second of pulling out a gun and shooting somebody you don't know, who that person is and how many lives you may destroy, including your own.''

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The film has one more public screening Saturday; it will be on ESPN on Oct. 23.

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