Man of the Moments: How Jim Gray Got His Start in Sports

How did a singular (and ubiquitous) sportscaster begin his career? By being in the right place at the right time when the Greatest came to town.
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The following is excerpted from Talking to GOATs: The Moments You Remember and the Stories You Never Heard by Jim Gray, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2020 by Scratchy Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.

While in college at the University of Colorado, I interned for Channel 9 in Denver. The station went by the call letters KBTV back then, and it was the local ABC affiliate. The offices were located at 1089 Bannock St., a 35-minute drive from my dorm room in Boulder, and I performed all the usual unglamorous intern tasks without complaint: ripping important sports stories off the AP wire, watching games, pulling highlights and making phone calls for the anchors.

This was 1978, so long ago that station managers were just starting to convert from film to videotape. When the people in charge asked whether I wanted to become a videotape editor, I understood almost nothing about the job but knew my answer immediately. Yes, of course. I was an 18-year-old freshman making $50 a day. That was a lot of money back then. I used the money to make payments on my mustard-yellow Toyota Corolla and a small portion of the leftover cash to purchase beer kegs for my friends in the dorm.

At 7:30 one random Monday morning, I sat down to edit a show called The Broncos With Red Miller, featuring Denver’s coach from 1977 to 1980. The offices were quiet until the assignment editor, Sue Tews, came barreling into the editing suite.

“You know something about sports, right?” she asked, while trying to catch her breath.

Yes, I told her. I was the sports intern turned videotape editor.

“You gotta go right now and interview Muhammad Ali,” she said. “He’s at the Stapleton International Airport and he’s two hours early.”

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Apparently, Ali had an interview scheduled with one of the sports anchors. But this was before cellphones, before anyone could find anyone else short of catching them at home and near the phone and willing to pick up. That also meant Sue had no chance to find the anchor before Ali left the airport, catching an earlier flight without doing the interview. So, instead, she had chosen to send the only person available—me.

Immediately, I ran to the sports office, searching for a tie, or a jacket, anything to help me not look as young as I actually was. I found nothing, so I sprinted to the weatherman’s cubicle next. He was this little guy, with the most perfect nickname you’ve ever heard for a person in the profession. Stormy Rottman. His real name was Leon, but no one called him that after he left the Air Force and carved out a career on local television. But the jacket didn’t fit, so I took off for Stapleton, my stomach swirling, adrenaline coursing through my veins. I would soon conduct my very first interview—with the most famous person, at that time, on Earth.

I didn’t have a notepad. I hadn’t had time to write down any questions. But I tried to fashion a conversation from what I had seen my favorite broadcaster, Howard Cosell, ask him for years. I had watched all Ali’s fights since I could remember and I knew his life, inside and out.

I drove myself to the airport, found Ali’s gate and walked with him up a concourse into a small room. “You’re the interviewer?” he asked as he sat down, incredulous. “Are you still in school?” he continued, having a little fun at my expense.

I started to ask questions, and he glanced over at his entourage and handlers, maybe a half-dozen total, and when no one said anything like, Hey, this is crazy, he simply answered the questions that I asked. After a few quick exchanges, he said, “You sound like a local Howard Cosell.”

That was the best compliment I had received in my entire life. That was the thing about Ali, though. He put everyone at ease.

He went on to discuss his global initiatives, his plans to help the poorest people in places like Ethiopia and Afghanistan and Sudan. How he wanted to return to the jungle and have another rumble. He told me about the Muslim religion and what it meant to him, how it defined him.

I learned a great and simple lesson that day. That the key to interviewing anyone is to listen. Sounds easy. It’s not. I knew Ali would soon fight Leon Spinks in what would become their famous rematch. I knew he wanted to stage an exhibition in Denver with Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado. But exploring those topics was the easy part. I filled the rest of our 32-minute interview with questions based on his previous answers. You’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen.

I came back to the station to edit myself out of the interview, and Roger Ogden, the news director, came into my edit suite. He wanted to see the Ali tape. He watched it twice. After an hour, he looked at me and said, “I’m putting you and this tape on the air.”

The interview aired that night, marking my first appearance on 9News. It changed my life. The thrill from that day has never faded.

***

After I did the Ali interview, I thought things would be easy. But they weren’t. I was getting great experience, but I wanted to be on the air more. So I started to send out tapes, all across the country, to try to land a full-time reporting job. I still have all the various rejection letters that stations mailed me early into my career. There were many of them. They motivated me to get better and prove them wrong.

The interview with Ali helped boost me. But the biggest boost came from Ali himself, as we developed a relationship after that first meeting. Ali liked me, and he seemed to get a kick out of seeing someone so young covering him. At Top Rank boxing, promoter Bob Arum took notice. He’d send me to many of the fights he promoted to do interviews he’d use for promotional spots and satellite distribution. He did this with several fighters, from Sugar Ray Leonard to Marvin Hagler to Thomas Hearns. Arum would fly me in the week before the bouts and give away the content to stations across the country, which then didn’t have to spend money to dispatch their own reporters to the fights. The approach was genius—and also how I got into boxing, all because of that first interview with Ali. Don King saw some of those interviews and decided to hire me as well. I believe I’m one of the few to have worked for the often-bitter rivals at the same time.

In 1980, before Ali’s bout in October with Larry Holmes, while I was going into my senior year in college and working on my broadcast journalism degree, we took a road trip. Ali was in a white convertible Cadillac the size of a submarine. He drove with the top down. We were headed from Atlanta to Columbia, S.C., and he stopped for gas right near the state line. As we exited, he noticed a group of children playing basketball on a dirt court. “Watch this, Jim Gray,” he said.

Cameras rolled, and the kids continued to hoist jumpers, using a peach basket that had been nailed to a tree. They were all African American and playing shirts versus skins. There must have been at least 15 players, none of whom took notice when Ali stepped out of the car and, like something from a movie, the ball rolled out of bounds right up to his feet. He picked it up, and one kid ran over and recognized him.

“Ali? Are you Muhammad Ali?”

The rest of the children turned around. They knew right away. “It’s Ali!” they shouted. “It’s Ali!”

He shot baskets with them for a while, then started with his magic tricks. Fifteen kids became 40 people, then 90, then the crowd swelled beyond what anyone could possibly count. Ali had that kind of instant impact on the world around him. The ground seemed to rumble: kids jumping around, parents carrying their babies, everyone sprinting in circles and delirious. All this took place in a wooded area off the highway, in the middle of nowhere.

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By the time we departed the field 45 minutes later, the car could hardly move due to human roadblocks. Strangers held on to the hood of the car and the trunk, wanting simply to touch him. It was scary. I hoped no one would get injured. Ali just turned to me and smiled.

“What do you think about that, Jim Gray?”

We stopped at a Waffle House for dinner. Ali put on a hat and sunglasses, insisting that he planned to keep himself disguised. Good luck with that. Four hours later, a line snaked out the door, around the building. He signed every autograph, spoke to every waitress, told every story. It was almost like he had forgotten he had somewhere to be.

Ali didn’t guard himself the way that athletes do now. He didn’t undergo media training, or ask his publicist to cut off interviews, or dance around uncomfortable topics. Anyone who asked him a question, he answered it, honestly, without trying to spin reporters or curry favor. If he didn’t like the interview, he said that, too. I respected that, even though that very honesty, the way his life was so open and so out there, at times exposed his flaws. He was as human as they come, even if he can seem mythical in death.

By the time we took that road trip, you could see Ali nearing the end of his career. He had retired after a rematch with Spinks (he won), only to come back for the Holmes fight. In the ring, he moved more slowly. He had fought 59 times as a pro and more than 100 times as an amateur, and yet he rarely shied away from contact, taking blows while landing them, even when he danced around.

In the Holmes fight, Ali’s corner called for a stoppage after the 10th round. That night struck everyone as sad. Few wanted to see Ali lose; no one wanted to watch him get beat up. Holmes punished him, landing heavy, thudding blows to Ali’s midsection and face.

Ali invited me in to see him after that loss. Inside his room, the entourage had thinned and all the hangers-on had disappeared. His most loyal friends remained. Ali himself was so quiet, the result of the physical and mental beatings that Holmes administered. He remained a proud man, and, in that moment, his pride had been wounded. He told me he had let the fans down. He said they didn’t deserve to see him lose like that, and he wanted the public to remember him as the “greatest of all time.”

“This will dull that impression,” Ali continued. “Time is my biggest enemy, not Holmes.” Everyone hoped he wouldn’t enter the ring again.

Instead, Ali fought Trevor Berbick 14 months later in the Bahamas. Officials there didn’t even have a typical ring bell; incredibly, they used a cow bell instead. Ali lost that fight, too, to a solid but not transcendent opponent, by unanimous decision. Ali’s career never should have ended that way. He deserved better, deserved to be cared for, cherished and protected.

I saw Ali a few months before that final bout, in Las Vegas, at one of the greatest matches ever staged inside a ring. Sugar Ray Leonard versus Tommy Hearns, the first one. Ali called me up to his hotel room before the fight. I brought my best friend from college, Tom Dolven, up with me. When we entered the room, Ali was lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. A smile, that smile, spread wide across his face. “Hey, Champ,” I said. “How ya doing?”

“Good,” is all that he responded.

I introduced him to Tom, and, after sitting there for maybe 45 minutes, Ali turned in my friend’s direction. He seemed melancholy. “You’ve been watching me your whole life,” he said. “You’ve been knowing me as well as you’ve been knowing your own family. And all these great moments, all these things, they’re in your head.”

“Yes,” Tom responded. “They are.”

“I made an impression, didn’t I?” Ali said. “Absolutely,” Tom responded. “You did.”

***

I can’t remember when I found out he had Parkinson’s. Maybe when his voice dropped to a whisper. Perhaps when he started to shake. It wasn’t just a flat descent. Ali still had a good time, still loved talking, and he still played jokes on people.

One night I went to dinner at La Famiglia in Los Angeles, at Ali’s invitation. I brought my dad. This was after the Olympic Games in 1984. When I arrived, the restaurant was empty and mostly quiet. I saw Dean Martin—yes, that Dean Martin—sitting in a booth, silent, sipping a cocktail. I did not see Ali. Now, he was always late, because he got held up everywhere. But 10 minutes passed, then 20, then 90. I figured he wasn’t going to show up.

I went outside to retrieve my car from the valet, and I’m fumbling in my pockets to find the ticket, and the valet is growing impatient, and I still can’t find the damn thing. And then I look up—and look closely—and the valet guy is Ali! He was wearing a hat and glasses and a fake mustache. Since he had been obscenely late to dinner, he decided instead to pull a prank. I had already given him $10. “How do you expect someone to make a living off that?” he asked, breaking into that trademark cackle.

***

The most memorable thing I ever saw Ali do didn’t happen in the ring. I had been assigned by my boss, the television legend Dick Ebersol, to cover the Olympic Games for NBC in 1996. Ebersol sent me to the opening ceremony. Bob Costas, Dick Enberg and Katie Couric did the hosting. They wanted me to remain on the infield as all the Olympians walked in for the parade of nations and conduct interviews with prominent athletes and their coaches. No one knew who was going to light the Olympic torch at the culmination of the ceremony.

As the parade finally wound down, I stood with my wife, Frann, in our end zone seats, and then we saw it. Saw him. Ali was standing there; hands trembling, he lit the torch. Since I was on the air, I could hear the broadcast in my ear. “The Greatest,” Enberg said on the broadcast. “Oh, my!”

“Once the most dynamic figure in sports,” Costas said. “Still a great, great presence, still exuding nobility and stature. . . . And the response he evokes is part affection, part excitement, but especially respect. What a moment.” Then Costas let the broadcast breathe, let the gravity sink in, a brilliant move. The millions watching this unfold on television could hear the crowd, could feel like, for those few minutes, they were there. Costas didn’t remind viewers that Ali had won gold in Rome in 1960, only, according to legend, to throw the medal into the Ohio River because of racial discrimination and being refused service in a restaurant. That moment would come up soon enough.

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It was striking and moving and such a great example of U.S. strength. This was maybe the greatest athlete of all time and the most famous athlete on the planet, and on that night, in that stadium, you could see the humanity in him and the fragility of life. He exhibited grace and courage that most people will never know.

He was the Greatest, still.

The International Olympic Committee gave Ali another medal during those Games, to replace the one he no longer had. He received it during a ceremony at the men’s basketball final featuring the third incarnation of the Dream Team. After some of the best players in NBA history had swarmed Ali at midcourt in celebration, I climbed into an elevator with Ali; his best friend, photographer Howard Bingham; and Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC.

Ali kept staring at the medal, and you could tell how much it meant to him. He said he would wear it with joy because his stance had now been vindicated. He stood up against the establishment and he had been proved right. He also said the replacement version looked better, fancier; an upgrade from his first one.

***

After those Olympics, I still saw Ali from time to time. Sometimes, I’d run into him when his daughter Laila fought. He didn’t like her boxing. But he would still come, would still pray, and he’d retreat back to the locker rooms after she vanquished another opponent. In those moments, he looked so proud.

As the years went by, I would check in with his strong and supportive wife Lonnie (they married in 1986) about an idea I couldn’t let go of. In the summer of 2004, I wanted to interview all of the U.S.’s greatest living Olympians together. I reached out to the gymnast Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. woman to win an all-around gold medal, and Carl Lewis, the most decorated modern-day track and field star. I also reached out to a swimming youngster named Michael Phelps, still unknown to the world, who had set his sights on breaking Mark Spitz’s record of most gold medals won in a single Olympics—seven, in Munich in 1972.

Ali’s presence was not only important but critical. I told Lonnie the interview would be historic, that it could be viewed in a hundred years. I asked her what it might be like if we had a video of Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams all doing one interview.

“Muhammad will be there,” Lonnie said.

His yes cemented everyone else’s participation. And so it happened: Ali, in his last interview, the greatest athlete of all time; Phelps, who would become the winner of the most medals in Olympic history; Retton, a U.S. idol; Lewis, the owner of nine gold medals; and the fabled Sugar Ray Leonard, another boxing icon who had modeled his career after Ali’s.

As I worked tirelessly on that project, I thought back to something Bud Greenspan once told me. He was the legendary director, writer and producer who made the Olympics so vividly come to life. “I don’t have children,” he said. “So I try to leave my legacy through these great stories and films, because if they have my name on it, they will be like my children. That will be my form of immortality.” I thought that sounded a bit out there, but over time I came to accept it as truth. Those stories, those moments, they do matter.

The ones I’ve told are also like my children. They’re part of both history and what I have left behind for others to enjoy. I don’t want to overstate that. I’m not solving world peace or creating an iPhone or curing a disease. But I love stories and I can see the value in them.

Like the Olympics roundtable. We did the interview at the Stanford pool a few nights before Phelps departed for Greece. The other Olympians, despite their heavy medal collections, all spoke to and about Ali as if in awe. We had torches sent in from Athens, and every one of them signed them. One sits in my office, near my desk, and I see that torch—and what that moment represents—every day.

When we were done, Ali stood up and said to Phelps, “I’m the Greatest. You’re the Latest. It’s up to you now.” Then he handed him the torch. “Go win all those medals,” he added.

He would never again do another television interview.

We had come full circle. From my first interview, to his last one.