UK Men's Basketball

Conley, Hammond prepare for last call

After the telecast of the Alabama-at-Mississippi game on Feb. 28, Larry Conley took a long look at an empty C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum before leaving.

"I'll never be back," thought the man who, coincidentally, scored the first basket in the building.

It's a nostalgic time for the crew televising Southeastern Conference basketball. With ESPN buying the rights to televise league games beginning next season, it's been the last go-around for Conley and longtime partner Tom Hammond.

"It's a little sad," said Hammond, who has made the TV call of league games for 30 years.

Conley, who has worked SEC games for 22 years, echoed the sentiment. "It saddens me," he said. "I'll miss this."

Some behind the camera also find it difficult to say goodbye. The crew will call its last games in this week's SEC Tournament. The sweet sorrow of this parting comes after Saturday's semifinals.

"I'm incredibly sad," said David Burchett, a director on the telecasts for 26 seasons. "There are wonderful people in the conference and in the crew I work with. It's like when you leave high school, you think you'll stay in touch with people, but you probably won't."

The crew has worked for at least five rights-holders through the years: Sports Productions Inc., Lorimar, Jefferson-Pilot, Lincoln Financial and now Raycom.

Although Hammond, 64, and Conley, 65, are as familiar as Billy Donovan and Bruce Pearl to SEC fans, the crew figures ESPN will want its own people presenting the games.

Conley called continuing to call the games for ESPN a "remote possibility." Hammond noted that his other employer, NBC, would have to grant permission. Then he added one other requirement. "ESPN would want us to do it," he said. "And they haven't shown any sign of that."

If this is the last roundup, the crew can take comfort in a load of good memories.

Burchett recalled working an Auburn game at Vanderbilt in the 1980s. As Charles Barkley got set to shoot crucial free throws, he noticed a hand-held camera under the basket and winked. "Then he made the free throw," Burchett said with a smile.

Then there was the 1992 SEC Tournament, arguably the most newsworthy ever (with the possible exception of last year's tornado interruption). Besides Kentucky's return from a two-year exile for rule-breaking, the first appearance by Arkansas and the Hogs' epic semifinal against Alabama, the 1992 tournament also saw LSU Coach Dale Brown appear to throw a punch at Tennessee player Carlos Groves.

As SEC officials scrambled to figure out how to handle the situation, the TV crew reviewed replays in its production truck outside the Birmingham Jefferson County Coliseum.

First, Tennessee athletic department leaders knocked on the truck's door and asked to watch replays. Then LSU officials did the same. All were turned away.

The third knock, by SEC officials, led to an entrance.

More than one crew member cited the Kentucky-Arkansas SEC Tournament championship game of 1995 as a favorite. That's the game that went into overtime as Rodrick Rhodes missed two free throws at the end of regulation and then broke down emotionally, before Kentucky eventually won.

Burchett recalled getting a shot of UK teammate Anthony Epps curled in a fetal position by the bench as Rhodes got ready to shoot the free throws.

"All the (TV) shots worked," Burchett said. "It was a magical day where it all came together."

Among his favorite players to watch, Conley noted all-timers like Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Jackson, Dominique Wilkins, Jamal Mashburn and Barkley. Then he added UK's John Pelphrey.

John Pelphrey?

"What little ability he had, he laid it on the floor," Conley said.

Hammond and Conley have been friends since high school. They played against each other in high school, Conley for Ashland and Hammond for Lafayette. They became friends while attending Boys State.

Hammond, who has worked with at least 12 partners over the years, noted the bond he's shared with the crew members who now will go their separate ways.

"We're all best friends," he said. "Every time we do a game, we can't wait to get there and get started and tell stories, most of them really true."

Like at last year's SEC Tournament when Hammond and Conley came upon Barkley.

"My God," Barkley exclaimed. "Don't they have an age limit on announcers in this league?"

Reliving the moment with a twinkle in his eyes, Hammond laughed.