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SI 60 Q&A: Rick Reilly on Bryant Gumbel and "The Mourning Anchor"

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In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, is republishing, in full, 60 of the magazine's best stories. Today's selection was "The Mourning Anchor," a penetrating look by Rick Reilly at Bryant Gumbel as the then-Today show host prepared to anchor NBC's coverage of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. Reilly, an 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, recently retired from writing. associate editor Ted Keith spoke with him about the story, which first ran in the Sept. 26, 1988 issue, as well as the reaction from Gumbel and the drain of writing a bonus story on both the writer and the subejct.

Read each story and Q&A from the SI 60 series

SI: Why do a story about Bryant Gumbel?

REILLY:The Korean Olympics were coming up and he was so good at his job, so smooth at everything he did and he was going to be in front of people everyday. I think I suggested we do a 10-page profile of him. So I did. I went to New York and spent a week with him. He's just such a complicated guy. He kept a list of who his pallbearers were going to be and names were crossed out! I’m thinking, I’ll be lucky to find six people and this guy’s eliminating people! So many people said so many nice things about him and so many people would just say awful things about him. How can he have so many different layers?

I went to visit his mom in Chicago and she lived in a crappy apartment in a bad part of town. She cried on my shoulder about how he didn’t come to his sister’s wedding and when I asked him about it, he said, I have to admit, she’s just not the person my dad was. I’m like holy s--- he’s talking about his mother! I think he’s so talented and so smart that he didn’t tolerate the lack of that in others. I think he said in the story that he could see himself walking into a party with 100 people and not seeing anyone he wanted to talk to.

SI: It's almost surprising that he would open up about some of this stuff. For instance, how did you get him to tell you about the list of pallbearers?

REILLY: Someone had told me that story and I said, "Is that true?" He said, "Yeah, look" and he pulled it out of the drawer at the Today show. 

SI: Do you think your story on Gumbel defines him?

REILLY: I hope my one story doesn’t define him, but the process on these bonuses was that it just takes a year off your life. For everyone you do you live one year less. It's four weeks of research just calling people. Like [longtime SI writer] Gary Smith has the rule of 50, in which he has to talk to 50 people for a story, which is really hard to do. I tried it, I tried to get to 50. You call and you call and you go out to meet people and you try to have like 500 questions for the guy so no matter how bad the interviews go you have something. I spent a week with Gumbel, visiting him in the office, visiting him at dinners and he was very open. Then you go back home and you organize your notes for a week and then you write for a week. It was brutal. Brutal. You'd live that guy. Your wife would be talking to you and you’d be thinking about Bryant Gumbel as a six-year-old.

SI: Was there much stuff that was left out of that story?

REILLY: It was usually Chris Hunt, a fabulous editor there, who handled those stories. He would treat it like you wanted your kid to be treated: "Look, this was really good, but you’re going to have to use it somewhere else, it just doesn’t fit." He had such tender, loving care for your stuff, but he still cut the hell out of it. He’d help you cut it by saying, "You really have to look hard at this section." We called it killing your darlings. "It’s just a beautiful paragraph, so beautifully written, but it’s going to have to go somewhere else." Which meant your trash pile.

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SI: What was the reaction to the piece?

REILLY: I can’t imagine what the reaction would be like now. Because then you could write a piece and then in two or three weeks you'd get the letters packet. And they would Xerox every letter that wasn’t "I hope you get nose cancer and die." And they would list what piece would get the most letters. That one was like 250 out of 300 letters. Two-thirds thought it was a great piece and one-third thought I committed murder.

SI: Did you ever find out what he thought about it?

REILLY: I have been told he hated it, absolutely hated it. He’s never spoken to me. I thought it was a really deep look inside a guy and the fact that no one could be as amazing as his dad and so many people didn’t live up to his own incredible intelligence and he didn’t have much tolerance for those people. It was incredible, his talent. You could throw anything at him live on the air. I tried to explain what was going on inside that and where that talent came from and how he lived with that kind of skill.

A lot of people didn’t like him after that piece. I sent him a letter saying, "Let's talk it out, tell me what I did wrong, let’s meet each other, take a punch at me, whatever you need to do." He never replied.

[His brother] Greg was asked about it on Roy Firestone's TV show and I think Greg said something like -- I'm paraphrasing -- "He’s just a different kind of guy." He and Bryant are so different. Greg’s just so easygoing and gets along with everybody. [Bryant] isn’t easygoing and doesn’t get along with everybody. 

When I’d watch him on Real Sports he just has that imperious way with his little legal pad: OK, Frank Deford, here’s a nice piece you did, but here’s what I think you did wrong. It’s Frank Deford, you don’t get to grade Frank Deford. Everything Frank does is brilliant. I’d love to know what’s on the legal pad. He’s the kind of guy who reads the morning paper to see what they left out.

When you spend so much time on one guy's life, you just hope you get him right. I did one of these on Dave Winfield and people said, "You got him wrong, that’s just not how he is." I hope I sculpted an image of [Gumbel] as he was, warts and all, greatness and all, skills and all, loves and sorrows and joys and all. When I did a bonus on Jim Murray he said, "You got it alright but it was like being paraded down Main Street in a cage. . . . it’s a really uncomfortable feeling to have everything out there in front of everyone."

SI: How do you think it holds up? Have you re-read it yourself?

REILLY: I read it in the magazine when it comes out just to see a) if they screwed it up or b) all the mistakes I made or places I could have been better or ugh, you're such an idiot don’t you see how you could have used the perfect metaphor to describe something here. Very rarely, 1 of 2 percent of the time, I’ll come across it and read it just to get a feel of how it holds up, just to remind myself of the time and the travel and where you were and all that. I guess now that I’ve retired it might be fun to read some of them again.

SI: You are probably best known for your almost 10 years writing the Life Of Reilly column, the back-page piece that closed every issue of SI. Do you think people have forgotten about your bonuses like this one?

REILLY: You'd be surprised how many people come up and talk about the bonuses: Shaquille O'Neal Jim Murray, Marge Schott, especially. I hear a lot about them.