With the college basketball season ready to tip off, there are two Kentuckians, one from Lexington and the other from Ashland, whose faces and voices will be seen and heard across America on a regular basis. How they got to where they are today is a testimonial to their Kentucky heritage: basketball and horses.
Listening to nationally known sportscasters Tom Hammond and Larry Conley broadcast a basketball game is like overhearing a couple of friends talking about the game they are watching. Neither is overpowering and neither tries to upstage the other. Never do they try to be bigger than the game they are calling.
Hammond and Conley are, indeed, good friends, but the paths they took to reach the point of sharing a microphone is not one anyone would have predicted when the two first met some 50 years ago.
“It was the summer before our senior year of high school,” recalls Hammond. “It was at Boys State (Basketball Tournament) at Eastern Kentucky University.”
The two had actually been in each other’s company during the previous basketball season. Conley, as a junior, was a star on the Ashland Tomcats powerhouse squad that won the state championship, losing only once during a 31-1 season. And Hammond was a player for Lexington Lafayette, the only team to beat Ashland that year.
“I’ve reminded him of that several times over the years,” laughs Hammond.
Conley’s broadcast future might have been a bit more predictable given he was always an outgoing, rah-rah type, the spiritual leader of Rupp’s Runts—the starting five in UK basketball—in 1966 at the University of Kentucky. A three-time All-Southeastern Conference pick and an Academic All-American, Conley was rarely at a loss for words. In retrospect, he seemed destined for the broadcast booth.
Hammond, on the other hand, took a far different route.
Although a decent high school football and basketball player, he realized early on that his future had to begin in the classroom. Enrolling at the University of Kentucky, the young man whose friends called him Tommy concentrated on getting his degree in animal science. Summers were spent working at horse racetracks such as Saratoga and Belmont in New York. He did pedigree research for legendary horseman Tom Gentry, all the while learning more and more about horses and racetracks. Nowhere did his budding résumé show any broadcast journalism classes. “I became a broadcaster by accident. My first love was horses,” says Hammond.
A friend, he says, asked him to fill in one day at Lexington radio station WVLK by reading the Keeneland race results.
“I had no idea I wanted to be a broadcaster,” he recalls. “I was sort of shy, but that one opportunity turned out to be a big break.”
That big break turned into a 15-minute, six-day-a-week gig with a $35 weekly paycheck. Eventually, he left grad school to be the program director at WVLK.
Television soon followed at Lexington’s WLEX, where Hammond was a one-man sports department, shooting film, editing, writing copy, and reporting.
While Hammond was earning his spurs in an unplanned broadcast profession, Conley was experiencing a year of law school at UK, and what he calls “the shortest professional basketball career ever.”
“I played one game with the Kentucky Colonels,” Conley says, referring to the old American Basketball Association team. “I had joined the National Guard, but had no idea when, or if, they might call me up. All of a sudden they said it was time for basic training. My pro career was over.”
In 1969, after a brief stint as an assistant basketball and baseball coach at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Conley began a 10-year run as a salesman and promotional representative with Converse shoes. His outgoing personality, basketball reputation, and his knowledge of the game made him a natural in working with people who bought basketball shoes.
It was these same attributes that drew the attention of cable television executives as college basketball was on the verge of making its grand entrance across America.
In 1979, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (now simply known as ESPN) broadcast its first televised events and decided, in addition to kick boxing and Australian-rules football, to add college basketball. Conley and Dick Vitale were the first two basketball analysts the network brought on board. Conley was quickly recognized as one of the top analysts in the country. His ability to describe a certain defense and explain why it may or may not be working were often so instructional that they could function as a basketball clinic, yet he never talked down to the viewer.
As Conley was progressing, working with the likes of Pat Summerall, Dick Stockton, Ron Franklin, Brad Nessler, and Bob Carpenter, his old friend Hammond had used his Lexington WLEX (an NBC affiliate) experience and opportunity to make an NBC connection when he accompanied sportscaster Dick Enberg to see Secretariat at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.
“My ticket to network was horse racing,” says Hammond. “I broadcast the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984. They needed someone who could help fill four hours of time, so I worked with Enberg as the horse expert.” At the end of the day, they asked him if he wanted to do more broadcast work with NBC, starting with NFL football. He said yes.
Hammond’s animal science degree and work with horses helped him reach another level of his profession. While at WLEX, he was hired to help with horse auctions at Keeneland and other places for 15 years.
A few years earlier in 1980, TVS Television Network had started a prime-time Southeastern Conference basketball package, and Hammond wanted to be their play-by-play guy.
“I really wanted to do this,” he says. “Joe B. (Hall), Lee Rose, Dan Issel, C.M. Newton, and Larry Hopkins all recommended me. I got the job and initially worked with Joe Dean (Joe Dean Sr. of string music fame).”
It was with TVS that Hammond and Conley’s paths crossed once again, this time combining to become what some say is the best college basketball broadcast team in America.
Jim Host, founder of Lexington-based Host Communications, has a history with both.
“I played high school baseball for Larry’s dad, George, back in Ashland,” Host says. “Larry was always hanging around, and later I coached him in Little League. So I’ve known him for quite a while. He’s a tremendous person and a well-respected broadcast talent.”
Host remembers Hammond, too, from days gone by. From playing basketball at Lexington Lafayette, to WLEX-TV, to the Keeneland sales, to working with Host Communications and the Keeneland broadcasts, Hammond kept moving up the professional ladder.
“Tom is a national sports figure,” Host adds. “The people at NBC think the highest of him and so does everyone who ever meets him. He’s never let his ego get in the way. He’s just like he was when he worked at WLEX, in that he has never changed in how he treats people.”
From the old Jefferson-Pilot days (which became Lincoln Financial Sports) to today what is Raycom Sports, Tom Hammond and Larry Conley became a part of the SEC basketball landscape.
Hammond and Conley partnered up late last season to work the UK-Mississippi game in Lexington, just as they have done many times before. During one of those match-ups, Ole Miss struggled early, particularly with the three-point shot. At one time they were 0 for 10 when Conley matter-of-factly pointed out that “Ole Miss throws up a lot of threes.” Hammond, somewhat out of character, quickly added, “Throw-up being the optimum word.”
“Larry can analyze the game critically without upsetting people,” offers Hammond. “He lets the game speak for itself. Both of us never forget that the viewers want to see the game, not necessarily listen to us. We’re just there to help out.”
The pair has the distinction of being involved in the first game when the referees used their television monitor to review the replay to decide which players were involved in a scuffle.
“It was 1983,” remembers Conley. “It was an NCAA tournament game in Dayton between Morehead and North Carolina A&T (Agricultural and Technical State University), and the referees came over and said they wanted to see the replay.”
Hammond recalls that the officials were criticized for their actions. “We praised them for doing it,” he says. “All they wanted to do was get the call right.”
While Conley does mostly basketball, he is also a regular on the college baseball scene. His love for the game, which he also played in college and coached, has never waned.
As for Hammond, he has become one of the most versatile sportscasters in the history of television.
Working with NBC, he has broadcast many Bowl games, including an Orange Bowl National Championship, NFL, NBA, and Notre Dame football, as well as the Breeders’ Cup and, of course, horse racing’s elite Triple Crown. However, it’s the Olympics that probably put Hammond’s face and voice in more homes than any other sporting event.
He just completed his eighth Olympic Games this past summer in Beijing, China, where he served as the anchor for the track and field events. He’ll do the same for figure skating at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. These are the two most-watched events at the Olympics.
What does the future hold professionally for Hammond and Conley?
Hammond is quick to point out that NBC has the broadcast rights for the Olympics through 2012. You get the feeling he would like to see that through.
As for Conley, he readily admits to being in a profession that is not always kind to the older generation. Even though his future in basketball is a bit uncertain with the August announcement that Raycom Sports will lose all SEC broadcast rights to ESPN for 15 years come the 2009-2010 season, the passion in Conley’s voice when talking about basketball is evidence that he does not want to quit anytime soon.
• Ashland native, age 64, wife Lorie, two grown children (Chris and Ryan), lives in Dunwoody, Georgia
• Career: NBC, CBS, ABC, College World Series, ESPN, Raycom Broadcasting
• Mentors: Ray Scott, Dick Enberg
• First televised game: University of Georgia basketball on public TV in 1977. First televised game he was paid for: TVS Television Network in 1977, Florida/Vanderbilt at Florida. He was paid $200.
• Pre-game prep time three-five hours. “It lessens as the season progresses.”
• National cable studio show for Fox Sports Network, 2004-2006
• Is known for referring to a team as a club. “They have a nice ball club.”
• Star of 1961 High School State Championship Ashland High School, a team many consider the greatest in Kentucky history.
• In 1966 a key player on UK’s NCAA runner-up team to Texas Western. When broadcasting a UK game: “I’m a professional. I have to represent the conference, so I’m there as a broadcaster, not a former player.”
•Most embarrassed: When he and Roger Twibell were wiped out by the roller-skating Kansas State mascot while doing the pre-season show of the Kansas State and University of Kansas basketball game in 1988. “It made all of the blooper tapes.”
• Lexington native, age 64, wife Sheilagh, three grown children (David, Christopher, and Ashley), lives in Lexington
• Career: Olympics, Breeders’ Cup, Triple Crown, World Track & Field Championship, World Figure Skating, NFL, NBA, Notre Dame Football, Olympics
• Mentors: Cawood Ledford, Dick Enberg, Claude Sullivan, and J.B. Faulconer
• “Two sports I broadcast but could have never participated in: gymnastics and figure skating.”
• Has never broadcast tennis or golf. “I’ve had the opportunity but turned it down.”
• Has flown more than 6 million miles.
• Has worked with Joe Namath, Cris Collins-worth, Bob Trumpy, Randy Cross, Phil Simms, Paul McGuire, Pat Haden, Bill Walton, Gary Stevens, and Scott Hamilton.
• 30 years of SEC basketball. “Larry and I have probably worked close to 500 games together, including NCAA Tournament games over the years.”
• When broadcasting a UK game: “We are professionals. We don’t let our thoughts and emotions intrude in the game. We try to appeal to both the die-hard and casual fans.”
•Likes to grow vegetables and roses, read, and collect wines—there are 1,500 bottles in his wine cellar. “I’m not a wine snob.”