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Paul Byrd is not listening. He sits by himself in the corner of the RFD Washington restaurant in Chinatown, balancing his chair on its two back legs, his big hands resting on his chin. Ten feet in front of him, on the elevated stage where he’s slated to compete, one of his opponents stands under the spotlight, spitting words into a hand-held microphone as a scoreboard clock counts off two minutes.

In the precious time before he springs into action, Byrd tries to get into the zone, that elusive place where everything extraneous fades away, leaving just the athlete and a clear path to the goal. “I’m pretty much trying to focus on just being complete in my delivery,” he says, now tilting forward in the chair.

The rest of the audience tunes in and mostly, like Byrd, out. Seventy-two men and two women have come to the restaurant tonight to talk about sports. They’re here to audition for radio: D.C.’s SportsTalk 980, WTEM. For them, tonight’s tryout is the ultimate crucible of sports knowledge, and like most tests, it must be braved solo. Each competitor gets two minutes onstage to impress the judging panel—three of WTEM’s sports-talk professionals. The grand prize, a full scholarship to the Connecticut Schools of Broadcasting and a shot at a two-hour show on WTEM, promises to elevate the winner from the ranks of amateur bullshitter to licensed and accredited sports talker.

With such high stakes, and a public-speaking requirement, that hoary broadcaster’s cliché# is the truth: The sport is at least 90 percent mental. “It’s my first time on the stage in front of a group of people,” the 37-year-old Byrd says. As the Laurel resident collects his thoughts in a one-man huddle, his competitors conduct other pre-game rituals: pacing, smoking, drinking—and talking about sports. The informal bullshitting about the Redskins that buzzes through the place is a warm-up for the more regimented bullshitting that comes when each name gets called.

In this contest, the infinite sports universe gets pared via a 12-section wheel of fortune labeled with pre-selected hot-button issues. Notable in its absence from the wheel are any nuts-and-bolts Redskins questions. For those champing at the bit to pontificate on Laveranues Coles—and it’s safe to say that describes the majority of the crowd—the only hope is the one-in-12 chance that the spin comes up “Dan Snyder: Good or Bad?”

The wheel doesn’t just omit preferred areas of oration—it also has a way of getting to competitors’ weak spots. There’s some grumbling in the crowd that the telltale device must be broken—it seems to stop disproportionately on the questions nobody wants (and, by the grace of the sports gods, never on “Kobe???”). In the post-game recap, a confession of “I got the Mystics” or “I got the Capitals” will win instant sympathy.

“I don’t know too much about hockey. I’m a black guy,” says Beltsville resident Orville Thomas. The clock ticks, slowly. “I know there’s one black guy on the team. They do their thing, rollerskating.” Thomas’ scores: 5, 3, and 5 out of 10.

“I don’t have much to say about the WNBA, except it’s boring, and I wish I got another topic,” concludes 24-year-old College Park resident Tim Flood, who’s rewarded for his honesty with two 7s and an 8.

Flood’s brother Bryan Flood, a lifelong Cowboys fan, is similarly vexed by his question: “Why do you hate the Cowboys?” An hour earlier, the crowd suddenly came awake when one contestant interrupted his pedestrian comments on Snyder to interject that he rooted for the Redskins—except for the two times a year when they played his beloved New York Giants. Boos drowned out his next few sentences. The crowd’s hostile reaction still on his mind, Bryan spends his two minutes going through the motions of Cowboys hatred. His post-match analysis—”My heart wasn’t in it”—matches his middling score.

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When the wheel lands on Annika Sorenstam vs. Anna Kournikova, Byron Thompson decides to ignore the potential perils of improvisation. As Thompson works in jokes about the items stolen from college-football star Maurice Clarett’s SUV, his co-worker Bill Sheehan provides play-by-play. “He grabbed control of the audience,” Sheehan says. “Kept it going, kept it fresh, got the audience into it.” Then Thompson’s scores are posted: 0, 0, 0. “That’s the most important lesson: Follow the rules,” Sheehan says.

“I wanted to do my own thing,” Thompson says. “I don’t have any regrets.”

Will Spencer, for one, finds enough freedom within the spokes of the wheel. The 25-year-old private security officer from Northeast takes the stage with gusto, breezing through the requisite 15 seconds of awkward, here’s-a-joke-relating-to-your-job banter with one of the SportsTalk 980 hosts. Then the wheel spins. It lands on the dreaded Capitals question. Spencer doesn’t hesitate. He immediately bellows out bullet points in his powerful baritone: “Olie the Goalie” is too old, Jaromir Jagr hasn’t played up to his contract, and the team hasn’t done enough to market itself to the African-American community.

As Spencer breaks off each new argument, the crowd seems increasingly shocked. By unraveling the problems faced by the Capitals point by point, Spencer proves that the unconquerable Capitals question can be conquered. As he reaches the home stretch, the crowd grows louder, like fans hoping to push a tired runner across the mile marker in less than four minutes. At the finish, Spencer wraps up, beaming as he exits the stage to hearty applause and high fives: The scores on the judges’ cards—10, 8, 9—are high enough to get him to the final round.

In the end, the highest scores go to those who, like Spencer, speak with confidence and find the safe ground between the banal (on LeBron James: “Thus far, his impact has been impressive”) and the excessively analytical (buttressing an argument on the Caps by listing all the Vezina Trophy winners in the ’90s). With no radio host, color man, or friend to fill in the gaps or ask follow-up questions, the unpracticed monologuists strain to fill the dead air. Some contestants simulate give-and-take by pretending to take callers; others give structure to their responses by falling into the familiar patterns of the junior-high five-paragraph essay (“In conclusion, the answer is two-fold…”).

While some entrants say they bought a few magazines to bone up on their weak spots, Kristi Gill, a 34-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative, says she didn’t prepare at all. The Silver Spring resident, who matched Spencer’s first-round score of 27 with her speech on the future of D.C. baseball, says presentation is more important than a command of arcana. “Talk loud, make a point, and stick with it,” she says as she smokes, waiting for her next turn. “It’s debate. It’s so easy.”

Though the rudiments of debate are present—each contestant argues one side of an issue and presents supporting evidence—there’s one crucial piece missing: the other person. In this argument vacuum, each topic eventually gets distilled to one, or two, or three unchallenged talking points. Once upward of 50 people have taken their turns, it’s increasingly rare to hear an original thought. “It seems as though they’re talking about the same things over and over,” Byrd says.

With pretty much everything already said by the time Byrd takes the stage, all that’s left is presentation. And Byrd looks uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the draw: He’s been hoping for the question about the worst owner in D.C. sports, but when the wheel stops, the arrow’s pointing at Annika vs. Anna.

Byrd doesn’t really pick a side, instead punctuating his remarks on both women with a laudatory “You’ve got to take your hat off to the young lady.” “If you can play the game of golf, you can play the game of golf,” he starts, giving credit to Sorenstam for playing in a PGA tour event. He then praises Kournikova—”It’s like eye candy. We need that.”—before noting that she deserves additional credit for freeing herself from the yoke of the Russian economy.

Byrd’s score of 20 is just about average. He’d be a good guy to talk sports with: He knows the facts, he has a sense of humor, and you get the sense that he’d let you get a word in here and there. That’s why he’ll never talk sports for a living: There’s no bluster to back up his words.

After he announces the names of the five finalists, WTEM’s Smokin’ Al Koken ensures those who haven’t advanced that “we’re going to need your support.” With the field now separated into the spectators and the entertainers, most of the confirmed amateurs turn their backs and walk out the front door.

That exodus limits the audience for Gill’s final-round speech to the judges, her fellow finalists, and a few curious stragglers. It’s clear that she’s one of the few who belong in the room. First, she explains the hypocrisy of criticizing basketball players who turn pro out of high school when juvenile golfers and tennis players get a free pass. Then she name-checks “Chocolate Thunder, Darryl Dawkins.” When her two minutes are up, she seems to sense impending victory. It turns out that all of the five finalists, including Spencer, will get a chance to host their own two-hour show, but Gill will get the grand prize and the scholarship. As Gill raises her arms exultantly, her friends look on in amazement from their table in the back of the room. “That’s why she’s there,” one says, “and we’re here.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Joe Rocco.