KNBR’s Mr. T Has Some Words for You
Photo by Craig Merrill
If you’re a Bay Area sports fan and you’re a man between the ages of 25 and 54, you’ve probably listened to The Razor and Mr. T on station KNBR-AM, 680 and 1050, within the past week: The sports radio talk show is the highest rated afternoon radio talk show in the Bay Area and broadcasts on a station billing itself as—in macho, pumped-up language—The Sports Leader.
The testosterone looms large in sports talk radio, so The Razor (Ralph Barbieri), a cerebral, truth-seeking and occasionally confrontational host, and Mr. T (Tom Tolbert), a quick-witted, funny, opinionated straight shooter, predictably cater to the male fans and ex-jocks of the male- dominated world of professional sports.
Tolbert, a former Golden State Warriors forward and an Alamedan, is part of a long tradition of “jockocracy” in which networks hire retired athletes who are inexperienced broadcasters and put them behind a microphone or in front of a TV camera. But unlike the 1970s, when ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell coined the phrase to rail against the practice, today most ex-players-turned-broadcasters are required to have something intelligent to say.
Tolbert more than fits the bill: He’s smart, says what’s on his mind and throws in some analysis and statistics to back up his opinions, plus he’s easygoing on the radio—much as he is in person. Jenn Violet Kennedy, The Razor and Mr. T’s producer, says Tolbert is very intelligent. “I think a lot of people are surprised by that,” she says.
Despite his success as a KNBR talk show host and as a basketball color analyst for NBC, ABC and ESPN, Tolbert is a regular guy by many standards: He has a house, a wife, a dog and three kids (sons Weston, 11, and Walker, 8, and daughter Hailey, 5).
Some listeners like Tolbert’s opinions on sports and news because they’re direct and brutally honest, plus Tolbert often articulates what many sports fans are thinking but wouldn’t themselves dare utter in public, much less over the radio. Some might brand Tolbert’s beliefs irreverent, politically incorrect or sexist.
Asked about the pair’s male on-air shtick and Tolbert’s penchant for pointing out the poor ratings of the WNBA, Violet Kennedy says, “They’re guys. Whenever Tom talks about the WNBA, I tease him and say, ‘Hailey will be in it someday.’ They’re very respectful of women.”
So who’s the real Tolbert?
At 6 feet 8 inches, he is imposing in person but seems quiet, almost shy—a definite contrast to his radio persona in which he’s never afraid to express himself. “He has a gift of gab, but socially, he’s shy. People say, ‘he doesn’t say much.’ But he does when it’s something he wants to talk about,” says his wife of 13 years, Lorrie, who met Tolbert in college.
A Long Beach native, Tolbert grew up in Lakewood, eventually landing at the University of Arizona in Tucson playing for the Wildcats and its legendary coach, Lute Olson, from 1986-1988, and was part of the school’s first Final Four team. The Charlotte Hornets drafted Tolbert in 1988, and he bounced around playing for the Warriors (1989-1992 were his best pro years), Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers until retiring from the NBA after seven seasons at age 29.
His first child was born that summer, which hastened the retirement decision. “I had always said, ‘If I had enough blenders to whip up a daiquiri in the restroom, it was about time to retire. I was getting to that point. I had blenders all around the house. That’s one thing you can’t rent, a blender,” he says.
Thinking he might try his hand at broadcasting, Tolbert landed a $100-per-show gig with Sportschannel (now Fox Sports Bay Area) doing pre-game and post-game Warriors shows, and that led to co-hosting the NBA draft for KNBR where his radio career was born. An accidental partnership with Barbieri soon formed thereafter.
“They just put me with him. I don’t know what they knew,” says Tolbert.
Violet Kennedy says some of the best moments on the show come when Barbieri and Tolbert just talk to one another. She attributes the show’s decade-long success to the attention the two give their callers and guests. “They’re great listeners. They follow up on callers’ questions,” she says.
The co-hosts, Barbieri says, have mutual respect for each other and are very close. “We just have a lot of fun. There’s no affectation. We’re the same off the air and on the air. People can see that.”
Tolbert loves working with Barbieri, who got his nickname The Razor from the sharpness of his voice. “He’s really passionate about what he does. His views are his views. I couldn’t do it with someone I didn’t like,” says Tolbert.
And Barbieri says Tolbert’s easygoing style and upbeat nature have been therapeutic for him. “I used to go on long diatribes about things. I’d get done, look over at Tom, and he’d say, ‘Whatever.’ ”
Despite his college and NBA careers and success as a radio and television personality, Tolbert doesn’t have a large ego, Barbieri says. “He’s very self-effacing. He makes jokes about himself being a fringe player.”
Tolbert considers himself very lucky to be working as a sports talk show host. “Absolutely. Are you kidding me? I work four hours a day. I talk about sports four hours a day and not always sports, but whatever pops into our heads. It’s a dream life. You get to do exactly what you want to do in half the time … I’m blessed to be able to do what I do and make a pretty good living and provide for my family.”
To prepare for his show, Tolbert reads the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, checks espn.com daily and watches games he’s taped after his kids go to bed. Tolbert is most at home analyzing and talking about basketball, which is second nature to him. He was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 for his analyst work.
“I don’t give it much thought, to be honest with you. I just show up, have fun and do my job,” Tolbert says.
Many Warriors players lived on Bay Farm with their families when the Tolberts arrived in 1989, so they moved to Alameda, too. “We knew when the career was over, we’d settle here because it’s so beautiful. It’s clean, quaint and safe,” says Lorrie Tolbert. Family, Tolbert says, is very important to him, a value instilled in him by his father, a disciplinarian who never missed one of his son’s Little League or basketball games. Tolbert goes to as many of his kids’ games as possible. “It’s not like I feel that I have to go out of my way to do it for them. I always appreciated my dad being there, but I do it because I want to do it,” he says, adding that his own personal demeanor takes after his mother’s affable nature. During the busy school year, he trades off with Lorrie taking the kids to school, and the two manage a regular weekly lunch together and enjoy an occasional movie, like their courting days. Tolbert says he makes up for a lot of lost time with his kids in the summer. “I can shoot baskets with the kids, take them to the driving range and mess around with them before I head off to work.”
In 2003, Tolbert started coaching basketball for his two sons’ teams in Alameda, which he enjoys, but it also comes with some frustration. “I love it. I never want to coach in the pros. Hell, I have enough trouble coaching third- through fifth-graders without pulling my hair out of my head, let alone trying to win games for money,” he says. “But it is fun.”