David Barrett claims to have a fuzzy memory, but the night 27 years ago that a stunning waitress sat next to him in an East Lansing, Michigan, bar and forever changed his life? That he remembers quite well.
Barrett was just 31 and could have been most generously described as a sometimes-guitar player, sometimes-composer, and sometimes-songwriter. None of these career paths had held much traction, but after playing a gig at the Varsity Inn, Barrett pulled up a stool, ordered a beer, and turned his head. What had taken his attention away from Larry Bird and the Celtics was, as he remembers her, the most beautiful waitress he’d ever seen. “She could’ve been a Victoria’s Secret model,” he says. “She was so gorgeous, unless you were Robert Redford, you wouldn’t even bother talking to her.”
To his surprise, she started talking to him, so Barrett stammered to try to explain the allure of basketball and, on some deeper level, the captivating nature of watching elite athletes perform elite skills. When he swiveled toward the TV during a Bird-led fast break and turned back, she was gone.
The self-effacing Barrett wasn’t so surprised by that turn of events, but he was struck by the conversation and what he’d tried to convey. “I had played a lot of basketball growing up, and I realized I’d gotten an insight like, ‘Hey, I know a lot about this and I’m going to write a song about it.’” There wasn’t much semblance of verse structure or even a strong melodic direction — not like John Tesh calling his own answering machine in 1990 to hum out the burst of inspiration that became NBC’s theme for its NBA telecasts — but there was a phrase that lingered. He wrote it down on a cocktail napkin: “one shining moment.”
The next morning, Barrett had plans for brunch. His friend ran a few minutes late, and Barrett couldn’t shake the feeling he was onto something with this half-baked sports song. “I’m just waiting there, so I grab another napkin and I literally wrote all the lyrics on the napkin,” he says. “God knows how that happened, but it just did. I went home and, in 20 minutes, put the lyrics down and wrote the music. The whole thing was seemingly undeniable.” Had Barrett’s friend shown up on time, life might’ve turned out quite different.
Barely one year later, Barrett would become one of the most sought-after TV composers in the industry. And the song, “One Shining Moment,” will air Monday night for the 27th straight year as the music bed for an array of highlights honoring the memorable stories, comebacks, and heartbreak of the men’s basketball tournament. Moreover, the song has also provided a nice living for Barrett (who still owns the rights to its usage) and his wife and two daughters.
And while “One Shining Moment” was meant to be a cathartic afterthought to the trials of March Madness, a palate cleanser to wrap up a near-month of competition, it’s also maintained its familiar mid-’80s schmaltz, the same sense of comfort that personifies so many sports-movies clichés.
But in an age of pop culture where everything old is new again, “One Shining Moment” serves as a reminder that for every skin-crawling collegiate scandal that pops up, there’s one constant immune to tarnish. Every year, the script plays out the same — great teams lose, small schools stand up, and only one is left at the end — and then it’s time to cue up “One Shining Moment.” Weeks of behind-the-scenes work by CBS Sports engineers go into three minutes and five seconds of montage, but no challenge is too great when you’re dealing with what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has deemed “the national anthem of college basketball.”
There’s a sense, not altogether false, that if you’ve seen one year’s “One Shining Moment,” you’ve seen them all. To watch a few individual installments is to verify this claim, as there’s an obvious method to the montage. Barrett’s lyrics provide a road map through the song, giving at-home viewers something that is not so much formulaic as it is subliminal. The opening stanza practically comes storyboarded:
The ball is tipped
And there you are
You’re running for your life
You’re a shooting star…
What are you going to see? Well, there’ll be an opening tip-off, clearly, perhaps followed by someone chasing after a loose ball going out of bounds, possibly ending with a slo-mo jump shot or under-the-rim dunk. That’s followed by another set of lyrical instructions:
And all the years
No one knows
Just how hard you worked
But now it shows…
Anything showing raw emotion — a coach yelling in protest or perhaps someone staring at the arena roof in contemplation — will suffice.
In the blinking of an eye
Ah, that moment’s gone…
Now you get someone (you guessed it) blinking wild-eyed, followed by a losing team’s player in tears or his head cradled in someone’s hands.
And when it’s done
Win or lose
You always did your best…
This is always some amalgam of buzzer beaters, “No. 1” fingers pointed high in victory, and somber elbows resting on heavy knees after a loss. But then the second run of the chorus strikes up:
One shining moment,
You reached deep inside
One shining moment,
You knew you were alive…
And this is where we start to get heavy voice-overs from pivotal games, perhaps a top seed getting upset or the completion of an improbable comeback.
From there, the focus will typically segue to fresh footage of the Final Four, taken 48 hours prior, and the national championship game, which has only just concluded minutes ago. And just as each verse spells out the tournament, so does the cryogenically frozen melody. From the snare drum and piano that opens the segment to a few seconds later, when that familiar 11-note synth-trumpet kicks in, the interplay between words and harmony never veer from Barrett’s original architecture. In fact, despite all the iterations through the years, many of the same musical elements remain from that fall day in 1986, when a handful of men came together in an Ann Arbor studio to record the song for the first time.
Though they played basketball against each other for rival high schools in Michigan, David Barrett and Armen Keteyian eventually became close through a mutual friend. When Keteyian moved to New York in 1982 to write for Sports Illustrated, Barrett would often crash at his place when he was swinging through town for a gig or near-begging others for work. (“Most likely the latter,” Barrett admits.)
Keteyian, meanwhile, grew through the ranks as an investigative reporter and made connections across the Manhattan sports media scene. It was during a chance meeting with Bob Tassie, who was involved with marketing at CBS, that Keteyian learned the network was looking for a song to play during the closing moments of the national championship game.
A couple of months after he wrote the song — and just a few days after Keteyian’s meeting with Tassie — Barrett found himself in New York on his friend’s couch as Larry Bird was again on the TV, this time in the NBA Finals. Barrett figured he’d bring up his idea: “Armen, you know, I wrote this song about basketball, and I think it’s pretty good.”
Keteyian turned. “Well, if you ever record it, send it to me.” He made a demo, eventually, but not without reservations. “I was going through a pretty rough patch, and that song was too optimistic for me. I was only going to record songs that art professors would like — and then I’d go broke.”
In September 1986, Barrett hired some local musicians to professionally record “One Shining Moment” — Barrett himself providing piano and main vocals. He sent that cassette off to New York, where Keteyian listened to the tape (“It gave me chills”) before personally dropping it off at CBS headquarters.
The next day, Keteyian’s phone rang. It was Tassie. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. Tassie had popped the tape into his own cassette player, and as the song wafted through the halls of CBS, people started flocking to his office in awe. “I think we’re going to do this,” he said.
The tape eventually made its way to Doug Towey, the longtime creative director of CBS Sports. He had loved Barrett’s composition and wanted to use the song on one of their telecasts, so Towey called him up in Michigan. Barrett was incredulous.
“It took him 10 minutes just to convince me that he was Doug Towey from CBS and that they wanted to use my song,” Barrett remembers. “I have a bunch of knuckleheads for friends, and it wouldn’t be above them to do something like that.” After those 10 minutes, though, the two became close friends, right up until Towey’s death in 2009.
From the get-go, Towey was determined to get “One Shining Moment” on the air at the earliest possible moment. It might require a slight lyrical tweak here or there, but Towey already had one date in mind: Jan. 25, 1987. Barrett’s song would premiere after the Super Bowl.
It was a beautiful song but it ran too long
If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05.
— “The Entertainer,” Billy Joel
At some point in the wee hours of today, Shawn Robbins will have boarded a red-eye flight from New York to Atlanta. He’ll have been clutching a book-sized container in his hands, one that never leaves his sight. He’s been told he can run it through the TSA’s mammoth scanner machine, but that’s when the paranoia usually sets in. As he says, “You don’t want to get down there and the tape is blank.”
The tape happens to be the two minutes and 30 seconds or so of “One Shining Moment” that has taken him and editor Shelley Goldmark, who’s worked on OSM for some 20 years, more than three weeks to cobble together. Robbins always spends these hours in the air staring at the plane’s overhead compartment, making sure no one makes off with this master reel. If he has to go to the bathroom, he might even take it with him.
For him, the national championship game is a culmination of sleepless nights, bleary eyes, and nonstop basketball. As the producer of “One Shining Moment,” Robbins gets constant emails, texts, and voicemails from CBS cameramen to producers and everyone in between, full of helpful suggestions for what might be deemed OSM-worthy. This starts from the opening moments of the first games in mid-March, and it’s up to him and Goldmark to sift through not only those moments that seem obvious — a buzzer beater here or an alley-oop there — but also the hours of B-roll game footage that never make it to air.
It’s hard to adequately convey the chaos that pervades any TV production truck or control room doing a live sporting event. It’s a testament to any successful broadcast that we, the at-home viewers, rarely witness any stray artifacts from this organized madness. What we do see, if everyone is on their game, is, in this case, basketball with informative graphics, timely replays, and seamless transitions. Robbins’ job is all of that — only magnified. He must go back through all those endless reels of tape and piece together two- and three-second clips until he forms a narratively cohesive story. It’s e pluribus unum in action: out of many, one.
“Literally watching the games is one way,” Robbins says. “But then there are things that never make it to air. Let’s say there are eight cameras at each game. All those cameras are feeding into a tape machine and there are all sorts of things the people at home never see. So if the game is two hours, that’s 16 hours of footage on each game. We literally go through every frame looking for stuff.”
Robbins knows how it sounds, like there aren’t enough hours in a day for him and Goldmark to accomplish such a feat — the first four days alone consist of 48 games. “I know this tournament very well in fast-forward,” he says. The struggle pays off, though, when a process that can feel downright Sisyphean yields a special moment that never made it to air.
That’s actually something that CBS is hoping to accentuate this time around, according to Harold Bryant, an executive producer and VP of production at CBS Sports. “This year, we have not just game cameras, but now we’ve added in ‘specialty cameras’ that will look for those dramatic moments: a hug, a high five, a kid on the bench looking like he’s in pain or sorrow,” he says. “The fun of the tournament is what we’re trying to capture: the color, the cheerleaders, the bands, the painted faces, and so on.”
For Robbins, that means keeping eyes on as many cameras as possible. For the championship on Monday night, it’ll be him, an editor, and two assistants that have access to the main CBS video router, allowing them to pull in any feed they like. They’ll go into the game with about two minutes and 35 seconds already done. That leaves just 30 seconds to fill, and every image is a contender, right up until the final buzzer and postgame celebration.
“It’s mayhem for us in the best way, because there are all these great celebration shots and everyone is chiming in,” Robbins says. “And it’s like, ‘Oh my god, punch up 32! Punch up X! Punch up Z!’ And we’re looking at all these great shots but we need to figure out, OK, what’s getting in at this point?”
The most frequent complaint Robbins hears is that some school, of the 68 that now get selected every year, is not depicted in some way. It’s an unfortunate reality of his job, he says, and a wholly unrealistic ideal at that. With barely more than three minutes of airtime, there’s just no way that every school will make it. This year, he says, there’ll be just over 40 schools, give or take, that make it to the final cut, but that’ll mean more than two dozen unhappy alumni groups. And there are tournament moments, such as the harrowing leg injury suffered by Louisville’s Kevin Ware, that pop up without warning but always deserve their due tribute. “What we’ve done really works,” Robbins says of how they treated the grisly incident. “That’s part of the journey of the tournament. It is touched on, and that postgame shot of Rick Pitino being hugged by his players is so unbelievable.”
And if it seems odd how little “One Shining Moment” has actually changed over the years, that the themes and representations embedded in Barrett’s composition seem to need no revision, that, according to Robbins, is all by design.
“The segment has to stand the test of time,” he says. “We always look at the piece, and we say, ‘In five years or 10 years time from now, is this going to be representative of this tournament? Did we do a good job?’”
David Barrett picked up the phone and his heart sank. It was the night of Jan. 25, 1987, and Doug Towey was on the line from Pasadena, explaining that “One Shining Moment” would not be airing after all. Super Bowl XXI had run long, thanks to the New York Giants’ 39-20 romp over the Denver Broncos. The closing montage, at the last minute, was scrapped. Barrett didn’t take the development well.
“I was a beat poet for about two weeks after that. It was me and Jack Kerouac,” he says. “It was terribly disappointing.” Towey, though, was undeterred. He had championed the composition’s use for football, since its lyrics and musical stylings were generic enough to work for almost any marquee sporting event. (According to CBS Sports VP Harold Bryant, “I think you would’ve heard ‘the ball is kicked’ rather than ‘the ball is tipped.’”) Regardless, the song had originally been written for basketball, and so it was decided that the 1987 NCAA Tournament would see its unveiling. That was a more controlled event for which CBS could plan more precisely. Towey assuaged Barrett’s concerns, telling him, “Now we’re going to put it where it should be.”
The debut of “One Shining Moment” on March 30, 1987, after the National Championship Game, could not have played out more perfectly. In the waning seconds, Keith Smart’s jumper from the left baseline gave coach Bobby Knight’s Indiana team a 74-73 win over Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen, delivering, in essence, a shining moment for the entire montage to stand upon. In now typical OSM fashion, clips from the tournament’s previous games played on while Barrett’s voice and piano work provided the soundtrack for a memorable tourney. A phenomenon had been born.
But to go back and watch the original OSM segment is to peer into the closest thing resembling a time machine that can blend the spirit of ’80s basketball and the sensibilities of popular culture at the time. Lost to the years is the piano prelude that Barrett also composed and performed, called “Golden Street,” and this did play during the CBS credit roll that prefaced “One Shining Moment.” Barrett actually wrote this particular piece of music when he was 19, but its somber, singular nature provides a welcome contrast to the underlying Rocky IV, ’80s-synth vibes that come to bear in what follows, a now hilarious time capsule filled with legendary coaches, younger than we can possibly remember them. (Most striking is seeing a bespectacled, emotional Boeheim, who returned to the Final Four this year with Syracuse. The only real difference between now and then is a hairline in full retreat.) But the highlights, even from that first year, do wonderfully sync up with Barrett’s voice and instrumentation.
From that day forth, the segment has become a staple of every tournament, a comfortable coda that officially closes the college basketball season. That sort of longevity stems from how “the imagery of the song cuts across generations,” Keteyian says. “Everyone has struggled, and the whole of idea of winners and losers, you’re running for your life, you’re a shooting star … Those are timeless lyrics, even though they’re simple. And in a world that’s increasingly commercialized and complex, the beautiful simplicity of the song holds together.” The Wall Street Journal has even called it “arguably the most famous song in sports,” and no compelling evidence has yet countered that charge.
Barrett’s career almost immediately took off. He ended up writing themes for golf’s PGA Championship and tennis’s U.S. Open, as well as some compositions for the Olympic Games. His rendition of “One Shining Moment” played after the conclusion of the NCAA Championship Game until 1994, when he was bumped in favor of soul singer Teddy Pendergrass. However, Barrett kept the rights to the song, which means he not only gets a nice check from CBS and the NCAA every year but also stays close to its production and evolution. (“I’m the guy who knows where all the stuff is buried in those tracks,” as he says.)
Though the boon to Barrett’s career would’ve been undeniable had the song aired after Super Bowl XXI, Keteyian, for one, likes that the song has remained indelibly connected to one event. “I think it’s great it’s never been used outside basketball,” he says. “David would never say this, but he’s turned down opportunities to cash in on that song. He owns the masters. He owns everything with that song, and he’s protective of the history of the song and the message that it sends.”
Barrett’s original version was remixed and “enhanced” when it was brought back for the 2000 tournament. An organ, some strings, new background vocals, and a horn section were added, though it was still Barrett himself “playing the piano like a chimpanzee.” That version played for two more years before R&B legend Luther Vandross was signed to be the new voice of “One Shining Moment” in 2003. It was, famously, the last song Vandross ever recorded before a massive stroke ended his singing career.
It’s the Luther Vandross version that has remained since, save for 2010, when Jennifer Hudson recorded a new, more contemporary version. Controversy ensued, and the public clamoring for the Vandross version led to its reinstatement the following year. In truth, Hudson’s vocals were superior, but the more egregious affront was to intersperse clips of Hudson into the actual “One Shining Moment” montage, something that had never been done with the song’s three prior vocalists.
To this day, no one close to CBS Sports seems particularly keen on rehashing the short-lived debacle, and at least one YouTube user has even removed Hudson’s vocal, cut out her scenes, and dubbed in Pendergrass instead. “Hope you all appreciate this,” the video’s description says, “because I hated the new ‘One Shining Moment.’”
This is Shawn Robbins’ third year at the helm, and he’d like to think this is when he finds a happy middle ground. His first year of overseeing “One Shining Moment,” the one that followed the Jennifer Hudson debacle, an inspired University of Connecticut team blew out Butler University, and Robbins scrambled to fill precious seconds in those manic final minutes. Last year, an expected Kentucky victory provided for a fortuitous final image, of the Wildcat players mussing John Calipari’s perma-styled ‘do.
This year, Robbins is prepared for anything. “Now I always have extra shots ready to insert, like, in case of emergency, break glass,” he says with a laugh. There won’t be much time for laughter as the tournament concludes Monday night inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, but he’s more confident than ever in his ability to continue the legacy of what Doug Towey envisioned 26 years ago. “You always want more time, but you never have it,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that I get to do it, it’s definitely an honor, and we all treat it that way. We really do.”
And while he and his CBS Sports peers are busy holed up in their production trucks just outside the stadium, Barrett will be sitting inside the dome, cheering on (as any good Ann Arborite would) the Michigan Wolverines, along with his family. They’ll fly home the next morning, and then he has to drive one of his daughters back to college. He’s got two small films he’s scoring now, and he hasn’t truly ever been out of work long since his first shining moment in 1987. Barrett says he never tires of discussing the song, mostly because of the sheer happenstance from which it was created. He never saw this coming and has learned not to question it too much. Like the star basketball player he was in high school, Barrett threw up his best shot with “One Shining Moment,” and the ball just happened to swish through. “You have this dreamer idea that you’re going to write songs and people are going to like you and pay you and you’re going to make a decent living,” he says, “but it was a real blessing.”
Does Barrett still watch every year? “Oh, gosh, yeah,” he says. “It’s a perfect marriage between song and video. Even last year, I got moved just looking at it, thinking, man, these guys who cut this up are good.”