“The fact that so many people were suffering …” said Finebaum. “I think the thing that kept me going is I've worked every day since this thing started. And, you know, it's different than it was and in different places. But I really believe that without that, I would've been lost.”
In these perilous times when our lives are dictated by cataclysmic change, one of the most overused words is “pivot.” There are several definitions. In one dictionary it means “to turn or rotate, like a hinge, or a basketball player pivoting back on one foot.”
There is yet another, more apropos, meaning: To change your opinion or position on your point of view.
The slippery slope of judgment these days is causing reticence and creating self-doubt; yet to the thinking man or woman, keeping the lines of communications open is critical in what sometimes seems like a dark dungeon of despair. However, it’s also tough to light a candle in the darkness when you can’t see well enough find a match. But Paul Finebaum has found a match, and a path.
How do you sustain four hours of sports talk daily when there are no sports being played? Finebaum has simply cast his lines to the other side of the boat just when it seemed like he might be a man without a lake, or a boat, or even a country.
Finebaum’s pivot has been bigger than Wilt Chamberlain’s.
As the thunderous voice of the South’s most influential and far-reaching TV Sports Talk Show, Finebaum’s keep-‘em-honest approach appeals to a vast audiences from Mississippi to Moncks Corner, S.C., from Tennessee to Tuscaloosa, Ala. and California to Collins, Miss., with far-reaching tentacles that even permeate the culture of Wall Street suits, snooty Ivy Leaguers and misguided protagonists of the Big Ten.
After March 13, with two weeks off air at ESPN and another almost two months of audio-only from a makeshift home studio, Finebaum says he was beginning to feel almost “lost” when he encountered this epiphany:
“Shut up and listen,” Finebaum said.
The feisty guy who sometimes enjoys the rough ‘n tumble with Jim from Tuscaloosa, or Squirrel from Mississippi or even friendly fire from I-Man in Montgomery, became a listening post for intrepid souls caught in crisis. All of this came just after he was hospitalized with a serious illness and rumors swirling about of his possible departure from ESPN. He survived that. And suddenly one day he was overwhelmed with gratitude.
“I have a job,” said Finebaum, “and it’s a good job.”
And he’s got his fastball back.
Good things have happened. There have been substantive talks with a talent agency and a well-known actor about a possible TV show based on Finebaum’s show and his followers which may very well happen. Last year he spent several days in Burbank discussing the show with an agent. So it’s real. And he is thrilled at the prospects.
This protracted health/economic crisis has given us a different kind of Paul Finebaum, as well as different kinds of callers – many of them angry, scared, confused and looking for somebody to blame for football deprivation. Or just needing an on-air hug. Thus the "Pivot." It has become sort of a ministry for him.
“Well, I think in some ways how fragile everything is—I was out with my wife yesterday, we went into some store wearing masks. I've been doing this now for months. I mean, you never really took for granted the fact that you could walk into Target or Wal-Mart or a grocery store without living in fear that there's a person around every aisle that may be running into you. It's like a war game almost. I mean, I'm laughing at myself at the absurdity of it, as well as I'm realizing how serious it is.
“It sounds like it’s right out of a motivational book—how little we appreciate what we have. I think I've learned really to shut up and listen more than anything. And my experiences are great to me, but it's more important to listen to other people’s story, because I'm doing OK.”
He calls it “dealing with the reality of life as we know it.” That means talking and listening to people every day “as opposed to being isolated in a room and not really knowing what is next. I think that's really been good.”
There have been critics who think the “dealing with reality” paradigm shift is an intrusion on their entertainment and sports world, because they’d rather talk about Alabama’s new quarterback Mac Jones, or Jimbo Fisher’s emerging team in College Station, or Kyle Trask’s plight in Gainesville.
To which Finebaum adds: “I feel all you can do is control what's in front of you. I've leaned on a lot of friends, especially early in the process when I was ‘lost.’ I mean, I showed up for work on March 13; I was in our building for a couple more days before everything shut down. And it was like it's like being in London after the blitzkrieg.”
March 12 versus today, four months later, he said, “is just incomprehensible.” He says it has been “A little bit like 9/11 … There was a pre 9/11 war world and a post 9/11, September 12. Well, in some ways, that's where we are. We went to work on March 12, expecting to watch the SEC basketball tournament, expecting to have the NCAA tournament the next week and everything was shattered. And it's just been swimming upstream ever since about everything.”
But the current is now running in his favor. It’s a national show now. During the past several months the programing-starved ESPN is airing it three-times daily.
His main staple, says Finebaum, isn’t star-quality guests like Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn or Dan Mullen. The listeners remember the unique callers because “people like them are calling in every day.” It’s unlike any other show, he says, “because we have THE best callers in the country.”
Through it all, most of his callers have stayed tethered. When he began the show on Birmingham radio there were the faithful go-to group he nicknamed “The Mercury Seven.” Some have died off, a couple don’t call as much, but Finebaum has a strong base of passionate callers who regularly show up – including I-Man, Jim from Tuscaloosa, etc. On Thursday this week he heard from Legend on the last call which became a powerful testimony to change.
“Legend called me to say he just voted for the first time in his life in the Tommy Tuberville/Jeff Sessions primary,” said Finebaum. “What you may not know is that he’s not only a convicted felon, he went down for first-degree murder.”
At 17, Legend shot a man seven times, although there were mitigating circumstances. He got out 20 years later, rehabilitated and regained his voting rights.
“I’m really proud of the guy. He’s a great Finebaum caller.”
Meanwhile, Finebaum still gets a thrill out of seeing the red light come on in anticipation of what the broadcast day will bring. Paul has no intention of leaving his ESPN job which has included jetting off weekly to New York for regular appearances on Mike Greenberg’s morning show, encounters with his newfound friend Stephen A. Smith and various other appearances on national programs. But more change has ensued. He will not return to the Saturday morning SEC Nation show – even if there is a football season – and quite frankly had asked to be taken off a year earlier.
So now, it’s on to the next thing, whatever it is, and waiting to see if there is going to be football, and if he has to keep doing a daily four-hour talk show without games. And if he will continue fishing from the other side of the boat, which has landed him a different kind of catch.
Most likely, there’s going to be more than a nibble from the studio about the TV show based on his life and work. And just for the record—although I have no inside information—I’m voting for Larry David to play Paul Finebaum.