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WASHINGTON

Tony Kornheiser? Why not?

He's a good writer. He knows sports. He's funny. He's a smart aleck.

That's presumably what John Naitove was thinking when Mrs. Smitten called

on him in English class one day at Woodmere Junior High South and suggested he

be sports editor of the school newspaper.

John turned and pointed to the kid seated behind him.

"He said, 'Why don't you let Tony do that? He likes sports more than I

do,'" Kornheiser recalled. "I was the wise guy in class. She didn't really want

it to happen, but she let it."

Naitove, an advertising representative living in Croton-on-Hudson, laughed

when told that story and said he remembered none of it. But he had no doubt it

was true.

"He was a fun kid," said Naitove, one of Kornheiser's closest friends then.

"He was into girls a lot, and very much into the music of the time. But always

very funny. We all tried to be wise guys."

No one was wiser than Kornheiser, and three weeks before his 58th birthday,

nothing really has changed since Naitove first fingered him as the man for the

job.

It led to sports editor gigs in high school in Hewlett and college in

Binghamton and later to Newsday, The New York Times, The Washington Post,

radio, ESPN and now this: "Monday Night Football," the most iconic

regular-season sports property on television.

He still can write. Still knows sports. Still is a funny wise guy. But will

that play in Peoria as well as it might in Patchogue?

That is the gamble ABC/ ESPN executives are taking in trying to make

lightning strike twice. Throwing an acerbic New York Jew at Football America

worked with Howard Cosell in the 1970s. Can Kornheiser make ratings magic in

the 21st century?

We will start to find out Aug. 14, when the new Monday night announcing

team of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Kornheiser debuts with a preseason game

in Minneapolis. The regular-season opener is Sept. 11.

Since being tabbed in February amid the aftershocks of Al Michaels'

defection to NBC, Kornheiser has unleashed every angst-ridden,

lower-the-expectations morsel of shtick in his arsenal.

But those who hired him are unshaken, encouraged by a rehearsal with his

new partners last month.

Executive VP John Walsh said that in pursuing Kornheiser, ESPN in part

sought "new and different ways to present television. We're always in search of

the next new thing, whatever it is." But the network believes the risk factor

has been overstated.

Unlike with the Dennis Miller failure of 2000-01, in Kornheiser, ESPN will

get comic relief backed by a sports background and proven TV chops after five

years on "Pardon the Interruption."

"To me," Walsh said, "there is no question that in the history of sports

media, he is the most multitalented person ever."

Ever?

"He can do a game story. He can do a column. He can do a magazine piece. He

can do a [feature]. He can do TV. He can do radio."

Walsh is in position to know. Kornheiser arrived at Newsday on his 22nd

birthday in 1970; Walsh joined him two weeks later, holding several positions,

including sports editor, before leaving in '73.

Like most people at the paper then, Walsh was dazzled by the cocky kid's

ability.

Kornheiser grew up the only child of the late Ira and Estelle Kornheiser in

Lynbrook, near enough to the Hewlett border to go to high school there in an

environment in which he was "without the financial advantages of about 90

percent of the student body."

Ira was a freelance dress cutter who left for the Garment District at 5

a.m., only to return without having found work half the time.

"I don't come from the silk- stocking district of Manhattan," his son said.

"I went to public school for a reason. But all I wanted to be was a

sportswriter. I got that early. So this is all gravy."

He played sandlot baseball. He rooted for the Mets. He played touch

football in the street. He played basketball in driveways, including that of

Brent Glass, whose father, Joe, has been busy lately in his job as Larry

Brown's agent.

Kornheiser still has a key he won from Newsday in a high school journalism

contest. He read the paper's star writers, including Stan Isaacs, Steve

Jacobson and the late Ed Comerford.

Then he tried to become one of them. He sent sports editor Dick Clemente a

letter in which he recalled writing: "I'm just sort of stopping by on my way to

superstardom. I'm going to be the next great writer of books in the universe

and I just need to learn the craft for a little bit."

Kornheiser thought it was a letter "nobody could take seriously." Instead,

the editors invited him in for a tryout. They asked him to rewrite a drab

roundup that began with the news of a kid from West Hempstead named Howie

Miller signing to play basketball at Columbia.

He turned it into an essay that referred to Students for a Democratic

Society and its leader, Mark Rudd, and the Columbia protests of the late '60s.

"I asked if it was OK if I sat at Stan Isaacs' desk [for the test],"

Kornheiser recalled. "Clemente said, 'Go ahead; knock yourself out.' I was a

little jerko kid. I had long hair. I wasn't bald then. They started calling me

'Way Out' right away. Next thing I knew, I had a job."

His first story appeared July 22, 1970. It led with lyrics from Simon and

Garfunkel's "The Boxer." He turned what might have been a dry preview of a

Monday fight in Freeport featuring up-and-comer Jimmy Elder into an essay on

never-was Charley Harris, his eyes "puffy like chocolate cocoons."

Jacobson became and remains one of Kornheiser's best friends and is the

godfather of his son, Michael, 20. (Kornheiser and his wife, Karril, also have

a daughter, Elizabeth, 23.)

"Very early on, Tony was established as off the wall," said Jacobson, who

worked at Newsday from 1960 to 2004. "Tony's approach was very appealing to a

lot of us. He was curious and a smart-ass and generally a kook that the

department could use very well."

Even then, Kornheiser was afraid to fly, a condition that has haunted him

throughout his career and will be a logistical challenge in his new job. He

will take a bus as often as possible, but some plane travel will be unavoidable

because of his PTI commitments. Kornheiser's predecessor, John Madden, is able

to bus everywhere because he is free during the rest of the week.

Jacobson recalled Kornheiser's first out-of-town assignment, a Nets game in

Indianapolis. "At 7 in the morning, he called and said, 'I can't go. I can't

do this.' He was in a panic." Jacobson convinced him to go.

Kornheiser eventually wrote for Part II and the magazine section at

Newsday, then spent several years at The New York Times before moving to

Washington, D.C., in 1979. There he evolved into a local celebrity, writing

columns in the sports and style sections and eventually becoming a radio

personality.

His appearances on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" demonstrated he could

translate to TV, and in 2000 he auditioned for "Monday Night Football" before

ABC gave the job to Miller.

Five years later, with Michaels wavering, Walsh and executive vice

president John Skipper presented the Monday night idea to Kornheiser. "I said,

'No, no, no, no.' Twenty minutes later, I said, 'Yes.'"

To prepare for the Monday night gig, Kornheiser has given up his radio show

- in part to train himself to sleep later in the morning - and for now his

regular appearances in the Washington Post.

"I've sort of written every word I have," he said. "I've been repeating

myself for a number of years now. I'm pretty much done with that."

ESPN is desperate for its version of "Monday Night Football" to be accepted

as the rightful successor to ABC's, but NBC is staking its claim with a Sunday

night package that features flexible late-season scheduling and the proven duo

of Michaels and Madden.

Can the eclectic Tirico- Theismann-Kornheiser booth match up? There seems

little doubt Kornheiser's wit will add to the telecast late in a 30-0 rout, but

what about in a tie game with two minutes left?

Some of Kornheiser's best friends, including Jacobson and PTI partner

Michael Wilbon, have concerns about how he will be received.

"I'm pulling for it, but I don't know how it's going to play," Wilbon said.

"I know he can do it. I just don't know what the reaction will be. I am a

purist. I watch for football. I don't watch for entertainment."

On one hand, Kornheiser seems bothered by the suggestion that he won't know

when to turn down the humor dial.

"When there are important plays, you shouldn't start babbling about your

dog; I get that," he said. "But to be fair, it's not like I don't know anything

about football. I've been a sportswriter 35 years ... So let's not say, 'My

God, they hired a Uruguayan physician,' because I don't think that's what they

did."

On the other hand, he is a master of self-deprecation. He noted that

executives seemed pleasantly surprised after the recent rehearsal.

Said Kornheiser, "I guess I succeeded in setting the bar so low, even a

chimp could have walked over it."

Erik Rydholm, PTI's producer, said Kornheiser's chronic worrying "is a

great strategy, unless you're around it every day. It wears on you. Finally

you're like, 'Yeah, yeah, you're terrible. Nobody likes you. That's why you

have eight jobs.'"

The trick, Rydholm said, will be for Kornheiser to avoid the trap of being

"the funny guy" and instead be "a sports guy who has fun."

Miller recently called Kornheiser and advised him not to be as scripted and

forced as Miller was. "He said, 'Tony, I watch PTI all the time. Just be that

guy.'"

Kornheiser said if Tirico involves him and the show turns into a

conversation, it will work.

"If I am that person who's parachuted in from Mars and I say something and

there's no response other than, 'God, I wish you'd shut up so we can get on

with the game,'" Kornheiser said, "then I'll sink like a stone."

Producer Jay Rothman said he came out of the rehearsal "thrilled with the

sound and the vibe and the energy" and pondering the possibilities.

One key moment in the rehearsal came when Kornheiser asked Theismann why

Shaquille O'Neal could not simply step in as an NFL defensive lineman - a

question that might seem silly to a football expert but might intrigue a viewer.

That is the type of interplay everyone wants between Kornheiser and

Theismann, whom Kornheiser was in the position of having to criticize during

Theismann's playing days in Washington.

"The guy has ripped me up; I know he did it when I played and he's done it

other times," Theismann said. "But the more I think about it, the closer we get

to the season, the more excited I get. I think we're going to bring something

unique and different to the broadcast of professional football."

Kornheiser certainly wants it to work. But with a list of professional

achievements behind him, he does not believe this intriguing turn will define

his career.

"Even if I bomb, I've had a career, I've had my professional life," he said.

"What I'm thinking of saying [before a game] is, 'All I know is I filled

out the form, I entered the contest and I won. Now what am I supposed to do?'"

No shortage of voices through the years

"Monday Night Football" has had three play-by-play men - Keith Jackson (1970),

Frank Gifford (1971-85) and Al Michaels (1986-2005) - with Mike Tirico to join

them this year. The cast of analysts has been more complicated:

1970-73 Howard Cosell,

Don Meredith

1974 Cosell, Meredith,

Fred Williamson

1975-76 Cosell, Alex Karras

1977-78 Cosell, Meredith

1979-82 Cosell, Meredith,

Fran Tarkenton

1983 Cosell, Meredith,

O.J. Simpson

1984 Meredith, Simpson

1985 Simpson, Joe Namath

1986 Gifford

1987-97 Gifford, Dan Dierdorf

1998 Dierdorf,

Boomer Esiason

1999 Esiason

2000-01 Dan Fouts,

Dennis Miller

2002-05 John Madden

2006 Joe Theismann,

Tony Kornheiser

New York Sports