There was no San Diego repeat at the National Spelling Bee yesterday.
But I did enjoy this story on what it's like to be at the Bee.
Great Sports Any Way You Spell It
By Bill Simmons
Editor's note: This article orginally ran on May 31, 2002.
You know it, you love it ... that's right, it's the National Spelling Bee, a spectacle that ranks alongside the Adult Video News Awards and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as the most secretly captivating telecast on TV.
Has the Spelling Bee ever not delivered the goods? For one thing, you can compete along with the contestants. You learn dozens of words that could never be used under any circumstances. The tension during the contest becomes unbearable at times. And if you're watching this with some friends, the "Mystery Science Theater" potential is off the charts. There's something for everyone.
This year's contest aired live on ESPN Thursday afternoon ... as always, I kept a running diary. Here's what transpired:
1 p.m. -- Welcome to Washington, D.C., for the 75th annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee! Our announcers: former Bee champion Katie McCrimmon and Page 2's own Chris McKendry, who handily defeated the Road Dog and David Halberstam in Scrabble during our Christmas party last year. The contest started on Wednesday with 250 competitors, eventually getting whittled down to 40 kids between the ages of 10 and 14 (20 males, 20 females). My goal? To make it through this entire column without poking fun at any of them. I haven't been tested like this in years.
1:02 -- Today's Head Pronouncer: Dr. Alex Cameron, a professor of English at Dayton who could best be described as a poor man's James Lipton. Shouldn't he grow a cheesy beard to complete the Lipton effect? And while we're at it, shouldn't every Spelling Bee moderator have a cheesy beard? That should be in the rule book.
1:03 -- Our first word: "Gloxinia," a greenhouse Brazilian herb. I think I bought this once while I was in Mexico; I got ripped off. Somehow, the 10-year-old boy from New York nails it. You have to love any contest that features people from New York who can spell.
1:04 -- Jacqueline from New York enjoys Irish dancing, basketball and swimming ... but she doesn't enjoy the word "casein" (the principal protein of cheese), which she just spelled wrong. Fifty years from now, somebody will say something to her like, "This cheese doesn't taste like it has enough casein," and she'll snap and kill everyone in the room.
1:10 -- Our next competitor: Charlotte, N.C., resident Ifreke Okpokowuruk, who prepared for the contest today by repeatedly spelling his own name in the hotel lobby. He can't spell "brevet" (a government document). After him, Kevin from South Dakota correctly spells "parabulia" (abnormality or perversion of will power). The next three contestants screw up on "skiagram" (an X-ray photograph), "masseter" (a jaw muscle) and "instauration" (restoration after decay). I actually spelled two of those. I'm 2-for-6 right now. You can't stop me.
1:12 -- All right, I have to ask: What's the over-under on "And this one time, at band camp ..." jokes these kids hear in school during the average week?
1:15 -- Michael from Ohio gets "noumenal" (relating to an object of apprehension), then heads back to his seat as the camera follows him, finally smiling into the camera and looking officially noumenal. That might have been the first time in Spelling Bee history that someone actually acted out the word.
1:17 -- Reason No. 32 why I love the Spelling Bee: ESPN uses some sort of modified version of the "Fletch" soundtrack for the commercial breaks. Is Dr. John Koktostin one of the judges? By the way, I think I've watched too much playoff basketball over the past few weeks -- I keep waiting for one of these kids to spell a word correctly, then pound on his or her chest and point defiantly to the crowd. Way too much Kenyon Martin in my life lately.
1:19 -- Parth Lakhani from Pennsylvania has a bushier mustache than Rudi did during the last two years of "The Cosby Show." Chris tells us that Parth speaks several languages, including Hindi ... that doesn't help him spell "doyen" (the senior male member of the group).
1:20 -- After two minutes of procrastinating, Mohammad Bader from Pennsylvania just misspelled "marcescent," described as "withering without falling off" ... which could also describe just about every contestant's stage presence this afternoon.
Meanwhile, Katie tells us that "Dr. Cameron spends months sitting on his front porch working on this list. Grueling preparation." That might be the first time in history that "grueling" was ever used in the same sentence as "front porch." We're making history here at the 75th annual Spelling Bee.
1:24 -- You know, Chris McKendry's hosting job has been absolutely usufructuary so far.
1:25 -- Abhijith Eswarappa. That's not a word, that's a competitor. "He's also a strong mathmetician," Chris tells us, as Katie adds that Abhijith is already being recruited by colleges at age 14 (including Duke University). Sounds a little suspicious. Sadly, he couldn't get "beignet" (a fritter).
(Note: I actually knew that spelling, because beignets are a New Orleans specialty, as I found out during Super Bowl week. Nothing like throwing down some beignets while people are leaving death threats in your hotel room. Good times.)
1:28 -- Just the facts about Steven from Tennessee: He wants to be a video game programmer some day ... his favorite movie is "Shrek" ... he enjoys swimming, drawing, traveling and hyperventilating during spelling bees. Somehow he pulls off the spelling for "sericeous" (having a fuzzy surface) before nearly passing out. Very exciting. It's not officially a Spelling Bee until someone's practically hyperventilating.
1:33 -- Next up: Sarah Yang. You might remember her sister, Ying. She incorrectly spells "spheterize" (take for one's own). I actually got that one -- I'm on a 3-0 streak right now.
1:34 -- Random TV thoughts: Couldn't ESPN show an alternate version of this contest on ESPN2, with Jay Mohr and Jeffrey Ross serving as co-hosts and cracking jokes? Would anyone be against this? What would it be like if Fox ever acquired the rights to the Spelling Bee? Couldn't Fred Williard serve as a co-host one year, just so he could pull his "Best In Show" routine? And why aren't there sideline reporters in the Comfort Room?
1:36 -- Word of the day so far: "pesade" (a maneuver in which a horse is made to raise his forequarters off the grounds without advancing). I'm sure workers in the stables use this word all the time.
1:39 -- Katie again: "Every year we've had more and more home schoolers ... this year we had 10 percent of the pack from home schools." Sounds like a potential "Outside the Lines" episode. Have you ever met anyone who was home-schooled? These people eventually leave their houses, right? Are they allowed to have social contact? I'm brimming with questions right now.
1:41 -- Dr. Cameron's example of how to use "garibaldi" properly: "Antonio followed his mother through the crowded market, keeping a sharp eye on her garibaldi." I don't even have a joke here. Twenty-six spellers still alive.
1:44 -- The highlight of the day: The flashback to the 1997 finals, when the soon-to-be champion hears the winning word ("euonym"), jumps up and down (because she knows it), then shrieks each letter in crazed delight. That's like a cross between Carlton Fisk's homer in the '75 World Series and Carl Lewis singing the national anthem. The greatest spelling bee highlight of all-time, on about nine different levels.
1:46 -- Words from Round 4: "hermeneutics" (the study of biblical interpretation); "soterial" (relating to salvation); "drupaceous" (relating to the skin of a fruit); "garibaldi" (an Italian word relating to a woman's blouse). "breccia" (a rock consisting of sharp segments); "Torquemada" (one who harasses in a manner to injure, grieve or afflict). Feel free to use them in your own sentences, like, "The Yankee fan was arrested for acting like a general Torquemada."
1:48 -- Ladies and gentleman, our associate pronouncer for today ... Dr. Jacques Bailly! He's clearly the second-best pronouncer in the country right now. Think he ever fantasizes about smashing a breccia over Dr. Cameron's head?
1:51 -- Now we're in Round 5 ... our last three words, including back to Round 4, were "graveolent" (having a rank smell), "tonitruous" (thundering), and "barathrum" (a place of misery or torment). We've apparently entered the "flatuence-related words" portion of the contest.
1:54 -- Hey, somebody normal! It's Stephanie from San Francisco, who seems like she's actually ventured outside in the past six months. She just nailed "periosteal" (situated around bone). Come on, Steph! I'm rooting for a showdown between Steph and The Hyperventilator for the championship.
2:01 -- When a kid from Illinois spells "sortileger" (someone who tells fortunes), the judges use instant replay to make sure he spelled it correctly (nope). For God's sake, even the Spelling Bee instituted instant replay before the NBA did. Unbelievable.
2:02 -- All right, I'll ask: What happens in the Comfort Room? Just a lot of crying and back-rubbing? It's like the secret room that David Stern emerges from before every NBA draft pick ... we simply don't know what happens back there. I'm downright intrigued. Do they give each kid a smoking jacket, a massage chair and some spiced-up punch? Are there psychologists back there? I need to know these things.
2:04 -- According to Chris, contestant Mallika Thampy is the sister of George Thampy, winner of the 2000 Spelling Bee. Good times at the Thampy house, huh? Who's up for some Scrabble?
2:05 -- Words from Round 5: "thremmatalogy" (the science of breeding animals and plants); "ortstein" (a cemented or compacted clayey layer in soil); "putsch" (a sudden coup d'etat); "ramellose" (having little branches); "besom" (a broom made with a bundle of twigs); "quattrocento" (refers to the 15th century); "jordanon" (a small, usually localized population). Some good potential fantasy team names in there.
2:08 -- Put it this way: I can't remember ever hitting on someone at a bar and having them say, "Yeah, back in high school, I appeared in a couple of National Spelling Bees."
2:17 -- Katie has perfected the agonized "Ohhhhhhhhh" groan when somebody misspells a word. Right out of the Dick Button playbook. By the way, would it kill ESPN to show Katie and Chris a little more? We have to look at Chris Berman for six straight hours during the NFL draft, but we hardly get any shots of Katie and Chris. Heads are going to roll the next time I visit Bristol.
2:19 -- April Reynolds endured 14 different brain surgeries as a child, she was reading by 18 months old ... now she's being forced to spell "macumba" (a Brazilian ritual or cult). Way too much going on right now. Do you think the Brazilians ever break out the gloxinia bong during the macumba?
2:21 -- Anyone who dares to have any normal outside hobbies can't win this thing. Michael from Ohio (a superb soccer player), Samira from Colorado (a kickboxer), Sarah from Tennessee (designed her own online fashion magazine) ... they're all out. There's a lesson here.
2:22 -- Along those same lines, Chris and Katie have this exchange:
-- KATIE: "About 10 million students start in local spelling bees, now we're down to the best 19 in the country."
-- CHRIS: "How much work do they put out on a daily basis?"
-- KATIE: "At this point? Almost all day."
(Note to self: Don't push kids toward spelling bees.)
2:26 -- Wisconsin's Trevor Mahoney has a full-fledged, Dave Wannstedt-esque cheesy mustache going. Highest of high comedy. This kid is 14 going on 35. Absolutely the highlight of the show so far. You can almost picture him backstage hitting on all the female competitors and showing people his fake ID. Unfortunately, he botches "sculpin" (scaleless bony fishes). Everyone I like keeps getting knocked off.
2:33 -- Reason No. 34 Why I Love The Spelling Bee: Whenever one of the contestants asks, "Is there another pronunciation?" for a word, and Dr. Cameron coldly looks up and says, "No." That kills me for some reason. He would make a fantastic movie villain.
2:38 -- We're done with Round 6 ... 14 kids remain. Also, my right eye won't close. Some of my favorite words from last round: "echinate" (covered with stiff bristles); "limitrophe" (the bizarre decline of Jose Lima over the past three seasons); "resile" (to draw back, recoil or retract); "orpiment" (an orange to yellow material); "verticil" (a circle of similar body parts); "nephelognosy" (scientific observation of clouds); "jacamar" (brightly colored South American bird); "epiphora" (a watering of the eyes due to excessive secretions); "chela" (a pincerlike organ). Are you resiling at some of those words?
2:43 -- If I were contestant Eric Bolt, I'd be pissed that somebody got "caulicolous" (growing on the stems of other plants) right before I got "onychophagia" (the act of fingernail-biting). Somehow he still nailed it ... capping it off with an apparent F-bomb as he left the stage! That was the unequivocal highlight of the day. I think I willed that one to happen.
2:45 -- After the Thampy sister gets bounced, Chris tells us that no sibling has ever won a Spelling Bee after another sibling did. All stats today courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. "It's so difficult," Katie says. "That's why it's never been done."
2:47 -- Dr. Cameron ventures onto the stage to pronounce "epopt" (one instructed in a secret system), getting two rounds of applause for doing the face-to-face thing with the contestant who couldn't understand the word. That was absorbing. Any time Dr. Cameron's moving around, I'm on the edge of my seat. Of course, after all that commotion, the girl couldn't spell it. "Horrible word," Chris says. I think we all feel that way.
2:53 -- For the definition of "hallux" (the big toe), Dr. Cameron gives this sentence: "The football player became afflicted with an arthritic hallux that affected his mobility." Couldn't he have thrown Shaq in there? Would that have killed him?
2:55 -- The Hyperventilator's back! He just nailed "feretory" (a place for keeping an ornate coffin). He's the crowd favorite right now ("He wears his heart, his emotions, everything on his sleeve,'" Katie says). Let's face it: When you combine spelling, hyperventilating and panicked groaning, you're winning over the crowd every time.
2:59 -- Reason No. 35 Why I Love Spelling Bees: when one of the kids nails a word, then skips back to the seating section and pulls the "I didn't know it!" routine with one of the other competitors, as braces fly everywhere. Just a little Spelling Bee bonding.
3:02 -- We're headed into Round 7 with nine competitors remaining. I actually spelled four words right that round! I want to go pro. Here were some of them: "sertulum" (a collection of scientifically studied plants); "amole" (plants used as a source of soap); "pelisse" (a woman's loose overcoat); "gabion" (a hollow cylinder of wickerwork); "culgee" (a jewel plume worn on Indian turbans); "balmacaan" (a loose boxy overcoat); "kakemono" (something you wear at an Asian massage parlor); "batture" (describes specific land between a river and water).
3:04 -- Here's what the champion wins: $12,000 ... an engraved trophy that looks a little like the Stanley Cup ... an Encyclopedia Britannica set ... Great Books of the Western World ... the 2002 Britannica CD ... a $1,000 U.S. Savings Bond ... the Merriam Webster reference library ... and the new X-rated DVD, "Home School Orgy: Final Exams."
3:05 -- Colorado's Pratyush Buddiga nails "oubliette," defined as a dungeon with a concealed pit. Is that what Buffalo Bill had in "Silence of the Lambs"? An oubliette? It places the lotion on its skin, or it gets the hose again ...
3:08 -- The star of the day: Nathan from Indiana, who just handled "chirognomy" (palm reading) in about six seconds. He listens to the word twice, then he spells it. He's a machine. The other competitors are getting psyched out. Hell, I'm getting psyched out.
3:12 -- You know, I keep waiting for one of the contestants to miss a word, then magically disappear from the screen with a loud pop, like the contestants during the Charlie Brown spelling bee. By the way, I'm drunk again.
3:19 -- Nooooooooooo! The girl with 14 brain surgeries just got bounced on "tiralee" (a succession of musical notes). Everyone's bummed out. Fortunately, The Hyperventilator advanced on "altricial" (having the young hatch in an immature condition), so at least we still have him around ... and he's strangely serene. The Big H is in the zone right now.
3:22 -- Reason No. 36 Why I Love Spelling Bees: Every contestant's father is either an engineer or computer consultant. You never hear announcers say, "Her dad is a bartender," or "His dad is an assistant manager of a video store." Not gonna happen.
3:23 -- My hallux feels a little stiff.
3:29 -- Fast Nathan takes about 20 seconds to spell "soavemente" (a direction of smoothness in music). I was a little worried there. It's all coming down to him and the Big H. You can feel it.
3:33 -- Kevin from North Dakota correctly spells "uveitis" (inflammation of the iris), as Chris says, "He's still in! He wants to bring it home for North Dakota!"
(Lemme tell you something ... that might be the most exciting thing that ever happened to North Dakota. You would definitely see a highway sign or two commemorating that one.)
3:33 -- The Big H spells "muliebral" (relating to a characteristic of women) to end Round 8. Only five competitors remain, including just one girl -- JJ Goldstein (not a stage name), who spelled "areopagus" (the supreme tribune of Athens) to remain alive. The tension builds. I feel like performing a pesade.
3:36 -- Some words from the last 30 minutes: "pelean" (pertaining to volcanic ash); "badigeon" (plaster); "talipot" (Taliban marijuana); "saxifrage" (showy five-part flowers); "troching" (a small point of a stag's antler); "icteric (afflicted with jaundice); "repoussage" (hammering out thin metal).
(Out of everything today, I think "barathrum" (a place of misery or torment) was my favorite. That would make a good name for my fantasy football team this year: Billy's Barathrum. Consider it done.)
3:39 -- You know, when it comes right down to it, it doesn't get much creepier than close-ups of nervous parents at a spelling bee. Parents holding lucky stuffed animals and crosses, parents videotaping their kids in intense silence, even parents high-fiving their child's home-schooling tutor. Remember what Joaquin Phoenix told Nic Cage as they delved into the world of hard-core porn in "8 MM: "You're gonna see some things ... things you can't un-see." That's a little how I feel right now.
3:43 -- Ouch! Three contestants get bounced right away: Fast Nathan stumbles on "lucarne" (dormer window). Good run. Right after him, J.J. Goldstein fudges "porraceous" (a clear light green color), and Kevin can't spell "miombo" (an East African name).
(That leads to another Spelling Bee highlight -- Kevin's mom trying to kiss him congratulations, while he recoils in horror, pushes her away and screams, "Mom!" A legitimate resiling!)
3:44 -- Before I forget, now that "Two-Minute Drill" has been canceled, can't ESPN launch a series of spelling bees with professional athletes? Could you put a price on seeing Rickey Henderson trying to spell "badigeon?" Or Brett Favre asking for a definition for "ceraunograph"? They could even have Cynthia Cooper be the pronouncer. This couldn't lose.
3:45 -- After the Big H nails "hirundine" (relating to the swallow), we're down to two spellers -- the Big H and Pratyush from Colorado. Actually, we could probably just call him Pratyush at this point.
3:50 -- Feel the drama. First, Pratyush spells "paraclete" (someone called to aid or support). Then the Big H messes up "morigeration" (servile obedience). And since you need to spell the last word of the contest correctly to win the title, Pratyush must spell "prospicience" (foresight), only with the Big H lurking behind him and trying to psyche him out ... high drama here ...
3:52 -- He nails it! Unbelievable! Pratyush Buddiga has done it! He's our 2002 Spelling Bee champion ... and he's hearing some tonitruous applause from the crowd! No chrigonomist or sortileger could have predicted this.
3:55 -- McKendry jumps on stage to interview Pratyush, who acknowledges "troching" almost stumped him and seems way too humble. We might as well do some trash-talking for him:
"I spheterized this contest and turned this into my own personal barathrum! It was all about parabulia, baby! Take these other contestants, build them some feretories and throw them in my oubliette! It's time to get badigeoned! It's Buddiga time!"
Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.