Big weekend for channel surfing


Hey, y'all. Prepare yourself for one of the heaviest weekends in sports broadcasting, as the college basketball season comes to a close, hockey returns to a regular broadcast network schedule for the first time in more than 20 years and a sports magazine show makes its debut.

Extra special Final Four

Let's face it: People would watch the Final Four no matter who's involved, but with two of college basketball's glamour teams, UCLA and North Carolina, defending champion Arkansas and a mystery team, Oklahoma State, hooking up, tomorrow's national semifinals (Channel 13, 5:42 p.m.) from Seattle could be, well, extra special.

"You could have a major story line for every team this weekend," said CBS analyst Billy Packer.

Leading off the stories is the return to prominence of UCLA, which is making its first Final Four trip in 15 years, after dominating the event in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then, there's Oklahoma State and the imposing presence of center Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, the Final Four sleeper, according to Packer's partner, Jim Nantz.

Of course, the second game, matching North Carolina against Arkansas, will be no Nielsen ratings slouch, either.

Packer said of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, "A year ago, even in the place I live [near Greensboro, N.C.], people were saying he was over the hill, and now look. He's back in the Final Four. And what Arkansas showed us last week, especially in the second half against Virginia, is that they are the returning national champions."

Even Michael Jordan will be in on the Final Four act. His Airness' nationally televised return two Sundays ago delivered a direct blow to CBS' tournament ratings, but the network had an ace in the hole: a special with Jordan discussing his favorite NCAA tournament moments with Pat O'Brien for a 30-minute show to air between games Saturday night, taped in February before he announced his comeback and updated last Monday in New York.

"It's the greatest story in sports," said Rick Gentile, CBS Sports executive vice president in charge of production. "You're sort of thrilled by his comeback and you hate the timing."

Then, referring to the fact Jordan left Carolina after his junior season, Gentile said, "But he's got [one] year of eligibility, and we've asked if he wouldn't mind playing for us next year."

Doritos, which was responsible for the Super Bowl halftime fiasco, has signed on as title sponsor of the Jordan show, but rest assured, there will be no singing, no dancing and, thankfully, no hokey Disney presentation.

Not to be outdone, the women's Final Four precedes the men's version at noon on CBS, with Tennessee meeting Georgia in the first game, and Connecticut taking on Stanford in the second contest. The winners meet Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

All aboard the NHL express

So, what do you give a sport that hasn't had regular network exposure for more than 20 years?

A big-time contract, that's what, and the NHL gets back on the airwaves, starting Sunday, as Fox opens five years of hockey broadcasts with regional coverage, which in Baltimore means the Boston-Washington game (Channel 45, 3 p.m.), with Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti on the game call.

"We believe all the dynamics are in place right now to have hockey sweep the country. We are in it for the long term, for the long haul," said David Hill, Fox Sports president.

The network, which broke ground last fall with its NFL coverage, plans more of the same with hockey, with splashy graphics, the FoxBox continuous score and clock and "Foxbots," the 1990s answer to the animated Peter Puck from the NBC telecasts of the 1970s.

Fox also will do a studio show, albeit a brief eight minutes before games as well as the intermissions, with host James Brown, who was at the helm of the NFL studio show. Dave Maloney will act as the permanent studio analyst, with a panel of guest analysts each week, starting with Wayne Gretzky.

Other stuff to watch

Home Box Office trots out the debut of its much-ballyhooed sports magazine show, "Real Sports," with host Bryant Gumbel, on Sunday night at 10, with repeats Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Two features from the first show, a historical look at the baseball strike and a profile of San Antonio forward Dennis Rodman, offer little new material. However, if Frank Deford's devastating look at the Masters is a portent of things to come, then "Real Sports" may well live up to the hype.

Finally, be sure not to miss "Hardwood Dreams," an award-winning documentary that follows the starting lineup of the 1992-93 Morningside (Calif.) High School boys basketball team. Narrated by actor Wesley Snipes, the film travels some of the same ground already covered by the marvelous "Hoop Dreams," but stands on its own. Look for it Sunday night at 7 on Channel 45.

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