The Mourning Anchor: Bryant Gumbel is alone at the top with the memory of his late father
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection is "The Mourning Anchor," by Rick Reilly, which originally ran in the Sept. 26, 1988 issue.
WHAT IS IT THE POET said? Like muffled drums, our hearts beat a funeral march to the grave. And so it is that Bryant Gumbel, a man who is nothing if not prepared, keeps a list of his pallbearers. Who has been true? Who has transgressed? Though only 39, he has done it many times. Gumbel hates surprises. The list changes every few months or so. He keeps track.
''I don't want to wait until something happens to see who my friends are,'' says Gumbel. ''Or maybe I just don't want to be the guy who, when he dies, they can't find six guys to carry his coffin. Maybe this is a way to be sure I have six.''
There have been days when he has wondered. Gumbel has a couple of thousand acquaintances but very few friends. Not that he couldn't have more. It's his choice. ''If I'm in a room with 100 people, will I be able to find one person I'd like to have dinner with?'' he asks. ''Probably not,'' he answers.
Forget that. There are times when friends visit the Gumbels and Bryant won't come out of the den. ''I've long since stopped apologizing to company for his grumpiness and aloofness,'' says June, his wife of almost 15 years. ''Sometimes he doesn't feel compelled to entertain. It doesn't bother me anymore.''
Strange man. Stubborn man. A man who might have best described himself when he said, ''It's not that I dislike many people. It's just that I don't like many people.''
The problem with people is that they just aren't as good as a certain Chicago probate judge who has been dead for more than 16 years -- Gumbel's father, Richard. People don't try as hard as he did; they don't work as hard, achieve as much, carry themselves as tall. And who could be as heroic? Once, in the Philippines during World War II, Richard continued to march despite being obviously ill. The medic finally pulled him aside, sat him on a rock and took out his tonsils, then and there. And what did Sergeant Gumbel do? He got up and marched on. The man never let up. When he returned from the war, he put himself through Xavier University in New Orleans while working full-time to keep his family eating. He was senior-class president and yearbook editor. Then he put himself through Georgetown law school while working two jobs. He graduated second in his class.
Let's face it. Compared to Richard Gumbel, most people come off like Lumpy Rutherford. So Bryant finds it hard to be impressed; he finds himself getting let down a lot. He has more feuds than some people have friends: David Letterman, Connie Chung, Linda Ellerbee, Steve Garvey. It's not his fault. People aren't good enough. People aren't professional enough. People aren't true enough. And so he sits alone in the den of his 14-room home in Waccabuc, N.Y., making a list that weighs heavy on his mind. Who can be trusted to hold up one-sixth of his memory?
You also have a friend you can take to any party, for there is no subject on which he is not conversant. You have the world's best Trivial Pursuit partner, a Jeopardy! fiend, one of the last of the Renaissance men. You also have the Beau Brummell of this age, an impeccable dresser, a man with more than 100 suits (18 of them made specially for the Olympics by award-winning designer Joseph Abboud), some with the tags still uncut, a man who wouldn't think of leaving the house without color-coordinated tie, cuff-links, underwear and socks.
You have a whiz in the kitchen, a connoisseur of champagne, a global citizen, a 12-handicap golfer, a father of two (daughter Jillian, 5, and son Bradley, 9) and a multimillionaire by virtue of a contract with NBC that pays him some $7 million over the next three years, enough to keep him up to his thorax in cuff links. And that doesn't include the biggest prize of all: his job as host of the most expensive TV undertaking ever -- NBC's coverage of the Seoul Olympics. Over the 16 days of the Games, Gumbel's image will be projected by more prime- time cathode rays than any network anchor's in history. The assignment is the fattest enchilada ever handed out by NBC, and the ultimate testament to Gumbel's talent is that no one has yet mentioned that it went to a black man.
It's 98 degrees in Chicago, and Rhea Gumbel, 68, has all the windows open in her seventh-floor apartment. She has an air-conditioner in the bedroom, but it's not enough to cool the whole apartment. She would go somewhere cooler if she had the energy or a car, but she has neither. Sold the car. Too much trouble. So five mornings a week, she takes the bus to her job as a city clerk. Plenty are the days when she wishes she could afford to retire. ''Did you see what Oprah Winfrey bought her mother the other day?'' one of the other clerks asked Rhea recently. ''A brand-new beautiful mansion, that's what.'' Rhea knows what that woman would loooove to say next: And your son, the big-shot NBC man, host of the Today show, what does he give you? You live in a lousy apartment. You won't go out at night and get milk because you're afraid of walking in the streets. What kind of fancy son is this you have?
Still, she would never ask him for money. For one thing, she's too proud. For another, ''It would hurt me like a knife if he said no. Besides, if he wanted to do something for me, he'd go ahead and do it on his own, wouldn't he?''
She knows what the trouble is. She has this one glaring fault. She's not his father.
As a leader, he was the first black to hold office in a national Catholic student organization. As a father, he was both strict and kind. While rearing his four children in the racially mixed neighborhood of Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, he not only wouldn't let them get away with bad grammar, but he also wouldn't let their friends get away with it. ''He was very hard to impress,'' says Bryant's brother, Greg, 42, a sportscaster with the Madison Square Garden Network and, starting with football season, with CBS. ''A C should have been a B, and a B should have been an A, and if it was an A, why wasn't it an A before this?''
Yet when the family went on a picnic, Richard would play pepper with his boys for two hours. Or they would go to the sandlot and work on grounders for three. On summer days Bryant rarely missed a Cub game at Wrigley Field and also saw plenty of the White Sox at night at Comiskey Park. What a life. In his day, he not only caught more than 100 batting practice balls and fouls, he wore them all out, too.
Greg lost that boyhood idolization of his father in high school, but Bryant never did. Greg was handsome and popular in high school; Bryant wasn't. Because racial attitudes then favored lighter skin, and his skin was the darkest of any in his family, including his cousins, Bryant felt ugly. Lacking social confidence, he stayed away from the dances and the back row at the Bijou, and held close to his hero. ''I don't think I'll ever see a man as good,'' Bryant once said of his father.
When Gumbel set out for Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1966, he was still not very sure of himself. After a small success in his social life during his freshman year at Bates, he wrote home: ''For the first time since I've been here, I don't feel like a complete failure to myself or to you.''
Gumbel may have even married to please his father. June Baranco, a student at LSU who would later become a Delta stewardess, came through Chicago to visit a friend for a few days in 1968. On one of those days, Gumbel's dad ended up taking June on a tour of Chicago. Richard liked her. In fact, Bryant told McCall's, ''. . . at the very beginning he thought more of her than I did. But that fact was very important to me.'' They were married in 1973.
His first job after graduating from Bates, where he majored in Russian history and had a 2.6 average, was as a salesman for an industrial paper manufacturer in Manhattan. Those were lonely times. He didn't like the job, and he wasn't much good at it, so he quit without telling his dad.
The last Christmas Eve his father was alive, in 1971, Bryant looked around his New York apartment and took stock: He had a mattress, an eight-inch black- and-white TV and a light bulb. Total. He went out, bought a Blimpie sandwich and called his parents, collect. Deck the Halls.
How long did it take him to get over that death? ''You're assuming I am,'' says Gumbel.
And the truth is, he's not. As Greg has said, ''Without sounding as if I don't miss [my father], I think it's fair to say Bryant misses him more. He suffers more. He gravitated tremendously to Dad. It's certainly nothing we've ever talked about, but I would say Bryant was probably my father's favorite.''
This summer Bryant recalled the last time he saw his father. He was saying goodbye, and he had wanted to kiss him, but thought, ''Nah, you're a man, now,'' and shook his dad's hand instead.
Ironically, a week after Richard's funeral, Bryant's career began to bloom. An acquaintance at KNBC in Los Angeles asked him to try out for the weekend sports anchor job. Gumbel flew in and was so good that the producer assumed Gumbel had memorized the audition script. Within a year, he was doing the weekday sports.
The world discovered Zero-Stumble Gumbel during the 1974 Oakland-Los Angeles World Series. He was doing a wrap-up for his own affiliate, using NBC cameras, and the network people watching were so impressed that they called him in. ''Here comes this chubby guy with hair down to his shoulders,'' remembers the associate producer that day, Michael Weisman, now executive producer of NBC Sports. ''He stands up and rolls it through in one take. O.K., guys, see ya later. We were dumbfounded. We had experienced network guys who would've taken two hours to do what he did in two minutes.'' In the truck, NBC Sports VP Chet Simmons was yelping, ''Will someone please tell me: Who in the hell is that kid?''
The next year that kid was hired as cohost of NBC's wraparound show, Grandstand, paired first with Jack Buck and then with Lee Leonard, both of whom were phased out over the next few years. It wasn't their fault. Next to Gumbel, everybody else clunked like a dryer full of tennis shoes. When the show folded, Gumbel joined the first wave of ubiquitous sports anchors.
Before long, Gumbel was the rock of 30 Rock. Once, he was supposed to do an opener from the floor at an NCAA title game. What the producers didn't know was that the empty seats behind Gumbel at rehearsal would be filled that night by a very loud band. When the show went on, there was a trombone threatening ! to turn Gumbel's tympanum to Malt-O-Meal. He not only couldn't hear what his producers were saying from the truck, but he also couldn't hear what he was saying. Unruffled, he spun through his segment as though he were chatting over a backyard fence, finishing at the correct second, cueless. ''He saved the telecast for us,'' says Weisman.
The early years on Today were dicey -- the show was still running a distant second in the ratings in the summer of 1983 -- but by '85 it had tied Good Morning America in the Neilsens, and last winter it held a comfortable lead. One big reason, says Today writer Merle Rubine, is that ''Bryant just improved every day, absorbed new material every day, got better, smarter, wiser and more sophisticated as he went along.'' Says rival Harry Smith, co-anchor of CBS This Morning, ''As a sports guy and a black guy, he came into all this guilty until proven innocent. Yet he sits there and proves himself day after day.''
Gumbel will turn 40 during the Olympics, the Carnegie Hall of his career. He will be dissected daily by every newspaper critic with a TV in his den. What, him worry? ''Look, if Michael the Archangel hosted these games, he'd be lucky to satisfy 50 percent of the people,'' Gumbel says.
Anti-Gumbelers say his microchip perfection will wear out its welcome the first week. Hey Gladys, does this Gumbo guy ever screw up? Is he ever at a loss for words? Can a man who knows everything ever be surprised? Jim McKay, the perennial Olympic host for ABC, may have slipped a bit, but he at least seems human; he at least seems thrilled. Gumbel-maniacs think he'll be golden. Bob Costas, who will follow Gumbel each night as NBC's late night Olympic anchor, says picking Gumbel was ''a no- brainer. They needed somebody who had stature, who was tremendously facile and glib, who had supreme confidence in himself and wasn't likely to be rattled by anything. That's Gumbel.''
What some people don't like about Gumbel is that he seems to know how good he is. Jim Lampley, the former ABC sportscaster now with KCBS in L.A., is impressed with Gumbel's ego, and Lampley is no wallflower himself. ''Bryant makes me look humble,'' he says. ''In Seoul, he'll make us all look humble.''
Egocentric? O.K., so Gumbel once said that Pauley, Today movie critic Gene Shalit and weatherman Willard Scott ''never looked better'' than with him on the show. And, O.K., Gumbel doesn't read his mail or look at tapes of his performances or those of his competition. And, O.K., Gumbel always has to have the last line and the last laugh. Even he admits, ''I've always got a comeback.'' But what's he supposed to do, take dull pills? Does Paulina Porizkova walk around without makeup?
Says Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, ''To me, calling Gumbel 'cocky' sounds too much like 'uppity.' It sounds almost racist.'' And if there's one thing you can say about Gumbel, it's that he's so good, the question of race almost never comes up. In fact, the only racism he encounters comes from other blacks. ''You're not black enough,'' they write. Gumbel doesn't listen. ''It's like [Georgetown and Olympic basketball coach] John Thompson said to me once: He wanted to be free not only from what the whites expected of him but what the blacks expected of him as well.'' Only one problem: How do you get free of what you expect of yourself?
''My mom sees her sons as baby boys,'' says Gumbel. ''Well, I stopped being her baby boy a long time ago.''
Rhea has noticed. When Bryant is in town, he stays at a hotel and takes her out for dinner. Greg was on hand for his younger sister Renee's wedding. Bryant? He was at Fergie's wedding in London. ''Renee is still hurting from that,'' says Rhea. And his sister Rhonda? Her birthday is the same day as June's. ''You'd think he couldn't help remember that birthday,'' Rhea says. ''But he never does.''
But all that is side hurt. The real hurt is Rhea's. She reads of Bryant speaking eloquently about her husband, but never about her. She was so ''heartbroken'' after one article that she wrote a letter to Bryant that was almost unreadable from the tear stains.
''O.K., so I'm not a big shot,'' she says, reciting the letter from bitter memory. ''I'm not a big person in the social life, not a cultural leader. But I brought you into this life, not him.''
Bryant wrote back, ''I'm not going to dignify some of your remarks. You wrote it when you were hurting."
Greg: ''I think my father is probably bigger in death to Bryant than he was in life. With that constant, every-day comparison, there's no way she can measure up.''
Bryant: ''She probably doesn't think I'm as proud of her as I am. I just don't show it. I'm not good at showing a lot of things. . . . Besides, you've got to understand where most relationships are with me. If it's halfway decent, it's way up there with me. I guess she sees it as much less.'' He's got that right.
Rhea: ''I'm just trying to forget I have him.''
Gumbel has a spare dark suit and tie hanging in his office in case the news is tragic and the suit he's wearing is too light for the occasion. He brings six golf shirts on a three-day golf trip just to make sure he looks perfect. Gumbel never loosens his tie or takes off his jacket, even in summer.
''Bryant is a perfectionist squared,'' says Today writer-producer Paul Brubaker. The reason is simple. If he knows that he ''will never see someone as good'' as his father, he knows that includes himself. Guilty as charged. ''In his best year, my dad didn't make what I do in a month,'' says Gumbel. ''There's something profoundly wrong with that. My father did what he did better than I do what I do. What my father did required a lot more intelligence than what I do. He was smarter. He was more important to society. He had more worth.'' It is a constant process, Gumbel has said, ''measuring myself against my father and always coming up short.''
And so, to alleviate the guilt, to prove his worth, Gumbel works obsessively. He didn't become a lawyer as his father had hoped, so he'll be 10 times as good in television. His goal is to go into every interview unsurprisable. No answer can shock him because he knows all the answers. Gumbel sometimes stays over at his Manhattan town house, but when he sleeps at home in Westchester, he's up at 3:45 a.m., catches the limo at 4:30, arrives at Rockefeller Plaza at 5:30, studies notes for the day's show in his office until 6:15, goes to the studio to do his ''sunrise tease'' for Today, does the show until 9:00, tapes interviews and Olympic voice-overs or studies research on forthcoming guests until about noon, almost never breaks for lunch, studies and goes to meetings until about 4:00, reads research material for the show in the limousine on the way home, eats a quick dinner, then heads back to the den to finish studying from 7:30 to 11:00 and goes to bed by midnight. Gumbel might know more about Dan Quayle than Dan Quayle does. Are you watching, Dad?
Take the Olympics. He went on a coach-hopping tour, meeting with Olympic coaches from coast to coast. He personally edited scripts for more than 50 Olympic features and did the voiceovers himself. He took six weeks off to absorb eight network-prepared Olympic guides, each thicker than the Dallas Cowboys' playbook.
The remarkable thing is that he retains it all. He has a mind that would turn an IBM mainframe green. Without notice, Gumbel can tick off, to the day, how long he has been married, who started in 1963 on both sides of the line for the Chicago Bears, and the last five Speakers of the House.
It borders on the supernatural. Once, Gumbel was doing highlights on NFL '81 when he was handed the news that the New York Yankees had just fired Gene Michael. He broke the story and then proceeded to reel off the last seven managers fired before Michael, with the year of each pink slip. ''You will hear people say he's a son of a bitch,'' says Today writer/producer Allison Davis, ''but you won't hear anybody say he's not a smart son of a bitch.''
The only problem with perfection is that when you get there, there's nobody to talk to. ''I have high expectations of people,'' he says. ''When they achieve something, I say, 'So what?' ''
People aren't good enough.
One morning, a presidential speech at the U.N. ended five minutes early. Connie Chung, the NBC newswoman, was anchoring the network desk with Gumbel. Producer Steve Friedman asked her off the air to remain on camera and help Gumbel kill time. She refused, saying she wasn't prepared. Gumbel killed the time himself, but he hasn't spoken to Chung since. ''She acted in an unprofessional manner, so I disassociated myself from her,'' Gumbel says. ''If it was an isolated incident, I'd forget about it. But it's not.'' Chung says she doesn't want to talk about it.
People aren't professional enough.
Once, during the taping of a prime-time Today special in Rockefeller Center's Channel Gardens, NBC late-night talk-show host David Letterman leaned out the seventh-story window and yelled through a bullhorn, ''I am Larry Grossman, president of NBC News. And I'm not wearing pants!'' While the Today show continued uninterrupted (Letterman was too far away for the microphones to pick up his voice), Gumbel was so angry that he has since refused to appear on Letterman's show -- this despite the fact that Today show producer Friedman and Letterman's producer had discussed staging some kind of stunt. Doesn't matter. A professional wouldn't have done it, says Gumbel. Letterman says he doesn't want to talk about it. Gumbel says he doesn't want Letterman to grovel. ''I just want him to pick up the phone,'' he says.
What? And ruin a good shtick? The Gumbel feud is an eephus pitch right in Letterman's wheelhouse. One night on his show, Letterman said Gumbel was the kind of guy who would spend a weekend ''alphabetizing his colognes.'' Then there was the night a huge marquee appeared behind Letterman's desk with the billing BRYANT! THE MUSICAL.
Gumbel, who refers to Letterman as ''the -- --,'' isn't laughing. ''It's this hip-sick-I'm-cool-you're-not kind of humor, a kind of mocking humor that I don't think is particularly funny,'' he says of Letterman's show. ''He's insecure and it shows. But since he's competing against test patterns, he looks terrific.'' So forget the nightly coast-to-coast bashing Gumbel is taking from Letterman; he'll hold out. ''Bryant can hold a grudge for a long time,'' says Brubaker. ''He doesn't worry about p.r.''
People aren't true enough.
Gumbel is godfather to Steve Garvey's daughter Whitney, as Garvey is to Bradley Gumbel, yet now the relationship has chilled. Gumbel won't say what happened, only that ''You're seeing the new Steve Garvey now . . . the one who had too much pressure to become STEVE in capital letters.''
People don't try enough.
If there's one thing Gumbel can't stand it's somebody ''mailing it in,'' giving a half-hearted effort. This includes everybody from interviewees (''If somebody wants to sit there and look like an -- -- , I'll let him look like an -- -- ,'' Gumbel says) to interviewers (''Nancy Reagan is a wonderful interview as long as you stick to wonderful subjects,'' he says. ''But get to something else and she's monosyllabic. So when I interview her, I come out looking like an -- -- . But when David Hartman interviewed her, writers said he was 'warm and endearing.' Give me a break.'').
Sometimes, women aren't good enough.
Gumbel has a grudge against New York Daily News TV critic Kay Gardella. He once promised that if they ever showed up at the same press conference, he would walk out. Nor is he fond of former Today contributor Ellerbee, who claims he refused to introduce her TGIF pieces on the show. ''He's never liked me,'' says Ellerbee. ''He has a locker-room mentality when it comes to women. . . . I think I was too strong a woman for him.'' Says Gumbel, who denies, by the way, that he refused to introduce her TGIF pieces: ''It's nothing personal against her. She just thinks everything is done better by a woman.''
Hmmmm. Sounds a little like Gumbel in heels. Pauley once called Gumbel's attitudes toward women ''Neanderthal.'' Truth is, Gumbel seems to be the anti- Alda. He likes all-male social clubs and eight-inch Cuban cigars. Like all good men, he believes that if talking won't settle an argument, a good punch will, which is exactly what he once threatened to do to Simmons during a contract negotiation. He hates ''sensitive'' movies -- ''You'll never get me to see On Golden Pond or Julia or Tess,'' he says -- and Woody Allen's films, but he loves Schwarzenegger's. One emotional movie he says he likes is a man's flick, Islands in the Stream, Hemingway's story of a doomed artist. Every day, a march to the grave.
That's Gumbel. A Hemingway man. A man's man. Grace under pressure. Men being valiant to other men. ''I'm the kind of guy who cries when guys truly hug after a very important touchdown,'' he says. He can be sheer ice in a tender moment -- during their courtship he signed letters to his wife with ''best wishes'' -- but when the team is at stake, when competition is at stake, he gets emotional. In 1980, when he was wrapping up a 90-minute special on the Moscow Olympics -- the Games he was supposed to host for NBC but didn't because of the U.S. boycott -- Gumbel became so choked up he almost couldn't finish. Talking about it still brings tears to his eyes. ''It was just so very emotional because of what we missed,'' he says.
True sports between men on the field, he cherishes. For instance, he is reverential about golf, partly because it is ''a control game'' -- you control your fate, your opponent doesn't -- and partly because it is primarily a man's game.
''Playing golf with somebody is such a pure thing,'' he says. ''Sex is a pure thing too, but the closest thing you do with a guy is play golf with him. Your emotions are exposed when you play golf: humility, pride, anger, it all comes out with each swing. You lay it all on the line.''
He belongs to two country clubs, Burning Tree, the political heavyweight's course in Bethesda, Md., and Whippoorwill in Armonk, N.Y. He assumes that both clubs have the same number of black members: one. And by the way, one member who helped Gumbel become a member at Burning Tree was a certain gentleman, name of Bush -- George, that is.
Can you imagine if his father could be with him now, just for one weekend? Gumbel does, all the time. They would catch a game from the box seats. Take him to the club, have breakfast, get a couple of caddies and play a Nassau with the VP.
''He never sat in box seats in his life. Or had a caddie or played at a private club,'' says Bryant. ''It's just not fair. The only reason I have what I do now is because of what he did back then. You're supposed to work hard so you can enjoy it, but he never got to enjoy it.''
And so, whenever Gumbel plays with a buddy and the buddy invites his father along, Bryant aches. ''It's such a beautiful thing.'' Pause. ''Maybe I elevate golf too much.''
Or is it fathers?
*****Rhea Gumbel has folded her hands in her lap and is about to cry. ''He's distanced himself not only from me, but from the whole family,'' she says. ''You love him and raise him, but you'd never dream this would happen.''
She stares at the television, the box where her son lives, and then rolls her eyes to the ceiling: ''If his father were alive, this would never happen. If he, for one minute, thought that they weren't looking out for me. . . .''
After a long pause, her visitor gets up to go.
''What time is it?'' she asks.
''Two o'clock.'' ''Good,'' she says.
''Only eight more hours until I go to bed.''
March to the grave. High above a checkerboard landscape, Gumbel reaches into the pocket of his first-class seat, pulls out his Filofax and draws out a yellowed piece of paper. The creases are so deep that the paper threatens to rip at the touch.
It is the eulogy from his father's funeral, the one Gumbel wrote and delivered that spring day in 1972. He keeps it with him always. It ends: I say goodbye for those who knew him as ''Your Honor.'' . . . I say goodbye for those who knew him as Dick or Richard and thereby shared in the joys which come of fine and rare friendship. I say goodbye for those who knew him as family. . . . I say goodbye for my dear mother who knew him as husband. . . . I say goodbye for Gregory, Rhonda, Renee and myself, who were lucky enough to call him father. . . . Goodbye, Daddy. We love you so very much. God has taken from us and unto himself, the finest man we'll ever know.
He reads it once, cries a little, folds it up and puts it back in his Filofax.
You want pallbearers?
Bryant Gumbel is one still.