Bob Costas has managed to establish himself as an engaging TV personality with viewers who don't know a slam dunk from a hockey puck. He first attracted media notice for his quick intelligence as a sportscaster and continues to apply that amiable braininess to good effect on his NBC talk show, Later with Bob Costas, now in its third season. A couple of months ago, he sat in for Bryant Gumbel on the Today show, with Katie Couric as his cohost, and it was absolutely shocking to see two people on a morning show banter articulately and ad-lib amusingly. Hey, Today, I've got a deal for you: Make Costas and Couric a regular team and I'll give Joe and Willard bunk beds in my house just to keep them off the set.
Costas has continued his involvement with sports, recently completing his seventh year as host of NFL Live and his first time spitting out basketball stats on NBA Showtime. He has been generous to his Showtime cohost, Pat Riley, discreetly guiding the former Los Angeles Lakers coach through the hazards of live TV broadcasting.
Now, as the play-offs get under way, the two really complement each other; Costas, first and foremost a baseball fan, seems to appreciate Riley's profound basketball knowledge, while Riley sometimes seems vastly relieved when Costas tosses off a joke to cover up an awkward moment or a technical flub. A couple of weeks ago, for example, neither cohost could seem to get a fix on which camera was trained on them, and the wrong set of game scores flashed on the screen. ''Well,'' said a cool Costas to a rattled-looking Riley, ''to mix my cliches thoroughly, you've endured a baptism of fire as the stuff hit the fan. Congratulations.'' Then, turning to the audience as the show broke for a commercial, Costas said, ''Stay with us at your peril.''
Costas has been bad-rapped as a mere smarty-pants, a glib know-it-all. Part of this, to be sure, has to do with the fact that, at age 39, he looks like the most eager-beaver 12-year-old in the U.S. (''I'm a lanky 5 foot 6 1/2,'' he remarked to guest and fellow shrimp Dudley Moore on a recent Later; they spent an entire segment of the show discussing Life Under Six Feet.)
But Costas' smarts are striking: Here's a guy who speaks in complete sentences, seems to have a photographic memory, and employs irony for comic effect. (After watching a mind-fuzzing taped segment featuring NBA Showtime analysts Peter Vecsey and Bob Ferry, Costas turned to Riley and said, ''I think the legacy of the Hope and Crosby road pictures is not threatened by that duo.'')
Costas works in a medium whose overseers are petrified of putting anyone on-screen who might make viewers feel dumb; it's almost a miracle that he has even one regular TV outlet, let alone the half dozen or so he's had over the past decade. Costas is comparable to Howard Cosell in that his first instincts are to ask athletes blunt questions and to expose the show-biz trappings behind big-time sports. But, mercifully, he does so without any of Cosell's grating sonorousness or sleepy-eyed malice: Costas is the Anticosell. Ultimately, though, the television figures that Costas reminds me of most aren't sportscasters at all, but other talk show hosts: He's a combination of Jack Paar and Dick Cavett, with a little of Pat Sajak's moon-faced sarcasm.
Costas has something of Paar's impulsive curiosity and cold-fishiness, and, for all his on-air assurance, a lot of Cavett's stiff, almost formal demeanor. The set of Later is supposed to be a well-heeled regular-guy's rumpus room, right down to a glowing jukebox filled with rock oldies in the corner. But even when settled into a comfy armchair and dressed in sweater, cords, and loafers, Costas isn't a hang-loose guy: His small talk remains intense.
When Dudley Moore tongue-twisted a few words and apologized for his ''babble,'' Costas said with mock forgiveness, ''I'm here to help you in self-analysis you say whatever comes to mind and suddenly a light goes on in your head and you realize you've reached inside yourself for some deep, heretofore hidden truth.''
Two things should be said about that remark. First, can you believe this guy makes that stuff up off the top of his head? And second, Costas was kidding around, but he may, on another level, have been quite serious. On Later, he has a single guest each night, and, with interviewees ranging from Paul Simon to Mario Cuomo, the idea is to transcend the idle chatter and product-plugging of other talk shows.
Sometimes Costas succeeds his two-part talk with Simon, for example, was an engrossing discussion of the pleasures and pains of pop songcraft. Sometimes Costas fails he lobbed softballs at Moore (''How astonished were you by the public's reaction to 10?'').
His critics say Costas can be snappish and full of hot air, but if anything, it would be nice to see more of Costas' temper losing his cool humanizes him. And as far as his inflated vocabulary goes well, let's put it this way: If watching Costas on NBA Showtime prompts my daughter to ask, as she did recently, ''What does that word he just used 'rhapsodic' what does that mean?'' I think George Bush should make Costas the new secretary of education. Later With Bob Costas: B+ Costas as TV presence: A