Every week, I'll excerpt a handful of stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that I urge you to read for one reason or another. Send any suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is art to an Ebersol deal. It's a seduction. He determines what the object of his affection wants to hear, whether that object is basketball commissioner David Stern, acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, or Samaranch and IOC television negotiator Dick Pound, and then he murmurs it into their ears. Ebersol has a habit of likening negotiations to love affairs, and his blockbuster Olympic deals owe much to the strength of his personal charm. "He has this quality of remembering things." Costas says. "Things about your personal life that are important to you, like what grade your kids are in or where your wife went to college."
Ebersol knows what people want to hear, because he is consistently better prepared and informed than his rivals. He rises at 6:15 every morning in his Manhattan apartment with a wraparound terrace and reads four daily newspapers. He also reads the Star and the National Enquirer, although he doesn't have them delivered to his house. "I also read the New York Post," he says. "In the car." He does not go anywhere without a fax machine. "He comes home and sits in his boxer shorts, reading a stack up to his knees," says [wife Susan] Saint James.
Ebersol is so on top of his game that he drives his friends and associates crazy. Recently he called Stern to inform him what time he thought the NBA All-Star Game should be telecast...in 2002. "it's totally obsessive-compulsive behavior," Stern says. "To the point where you say, 'For crissake, go out on a boat or something.' "
There is one thing Ebersol is consistent about: his love for the Olympics. "It is my passion," he says. His ardor dates back to the early 1960s when he was a teenager watching ABC's fledgling attempts to span the globe. In '66 he left Yale temporarily when Arledge hired him as ABC's first Olympic researcher. Ebersol took five years to graduate because he kept running off on jobs. He would schedule classes for Mondays and Tuesdays and fly to Europe on Wednesdays, returning to campus on Sundays.
Ebersol was Arledge's executive assistant in 1972 when he went to the Munich Olympics, where he and Arledge worked through the night of Sept. 4. They were leaving the ABC compound near dawn when Arledge paused to gaze at the fading full moon. Nearby, a dark incline led to a chain-link fence, beyond which was the Olympic Village and the athletes' dormitories. For several minutes they enjoyed the moonlight while Arledge waxed poetic. Just before sunrise they got in their car and drove away. Munich police later told them that hiding in the well of the incline 50 feet from them was the gang of Arab terrorists about to launch the attack that would result in the deaths of 11 Israeli team members and a West German policeman. About the time Arledge and Ebersol pulled away, the terrorists rose out of the dark and scaled the fence. It was the opinion of local officials that had Arledge and Ebersol not left before sunrise, they would have been killed.
"How We Got Here — Chapter 1: The Titan Of Television," by Steve Rushin (from Sports Illustrated, 1994)
Suggested readers: Anyone wondering how the Olympics became a television franchise whose mishandling would offend half the country
Before he made the Olympics Olympian, fathered Wide World of Sports, The American Sportsman, Monday Night Football, The Superstars, Nightline, 20/20, This Week with David Brinkley, Prime Time Live and Howard Cosell; before he pioneered and/or perfected the use of instant replay and handheld cameras and isolation cameras and sophisticated graphics and underwater video and split screens and field microphones; before he miked a dead zebra so that Sportsman viewers could better hear its being devoured by lions; before this ruddy-faced man named Roone fashioned a grand, safari-going, desk-dodging, expense-vouchered, limo-driven life for himself, he wrote a famous memo to his superiors at ABC telling them he was going to do all of that. The year was 1961.
Nineteen sixty-one happened also to be the year that ECC chairman Newton Minow famously called television "a vast wasteland." Television's presentation of sports, specifically, was something worse altogether.
"The prevailing attitude was summed up by baseball commissioner Ford Frick," wrote Marc Gunther and Bill Carter in their book, Monday Night Mayhem. " 'The view a fan gets at home,' Frick once said, 'should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat of the ball park.' "
Turnstile-obsessed baseball owners agreed, and the networks fulfilled their wishes with primitive coverage. It would be uncharitable to say what your typical baseball owner was at the time, but it rhymed with Frick: If you wanted to see a ball game, went their shortsighted thinking, you would simply have to buy a ticket to the ballpark.
None of this mattered to ABC, which had no pro football and only a piece of baseball when Arledge arrived. But the development of videotape and the DC-8 — cassettes and jets — allowed him to go "spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport," which was really a fancy, Roone-ified name for auto racing.
To be fair, Wide World of Sports also brought heavy coverage of figure skating and gymnastics, sports that would stir a quadrennial appetite for ABC's coverage of the Olympics and vault a few female athletes into the ether of superstardom: Olga Korbut and Peggy Fleming, Nadia Comaneci and Dorothy Hamill, Mary Lou Retton and Katarina Witt, Tonya and Nancy. Nevertheless, it was a measure of television's meager interest in the Games that ABC paid $50,000 for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and then skittishly reneged on the deal. But the space race was on, the cold war was at its hair-trigger, missiles-in-Cuba, shoe-pounding peak, and, says Arledge, "it became apparent with the Olympics in those days that if you had an American against a Russian, it didn't matter what they were doing, they could have been kayaking and people would watch it."
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been shot into space, and U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane had been shot out of it. So eager were Americans to see vanquished Russkies of any athletic stripe that even 20 years later, when the host nation would finally beat the Soviets in ice hockey at Lake Placid, the U.S. would go bananas over a sport about which it knew precious little. The victory would be consecrated by many as the greatest sporting achievement of the second half of this century, and the moment of triumph would be punctuated by announcer Al Michaels's asking in all sincerity, "Do you believe in miracles?" The game was brought to Americans by Roone Arledge and the American Broadcasting Company, which had been serving the cold war hot for two decades.
"The Only Bigmouths Were the Fish," by Sam Eifling (from Slate, 2009)
Suggested readers: People watching the Bassmaster Classic, for some reason
My favorite fish stories are just barely piscatorial. Bill Lowen was bass fishing, I suppose, when he killed a duck by running into it with his face. And yes, I was driving home from a tournament the night I saw lightning strike a semi trailer just ahead of me, blasting flaming chunks of debris onto Interstate 40, and forcing me to swerve as the smell of fried ozone filled my car. Then there are mornings such as one on Lake Champlain two summers ago, when the sunrise coincided with a storm; the world hallucinated in oranges and purples and double rainbows before plunging back into lightning and darkness as "The Star-Spangled Banner" wrapped up, as the boats tore off into the pelting rain. As I watched the sky cycle through the spectrum without ever reaching a shade of blue, I understood what Rick Clunn meant about the dynamic universe.
Again, I'm writing about the sky. Maybe that's what I should've been writing about all along. A hyper-aggressive, rapidly updated news feed about bass fishing is pretty ridiculous. Like the event itself, outdoors writing requires patience, meditation, and silent, predatory observation. In a fishing event, you have the three basic templates of conflict in one venue: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Hemingway wrote about fishing. Zane Grey wrote about fishing. I wrote about the catching and displaying of fish, and guys with sponsored truck wraps and Power Tackle PG104 7-Foot, 6-Inch Flipping Sticks.
Telling stories about fishing is as natural as pissing off the back of a boat. Fishing journalism is a slightly less natural enterprise. When a fisherman can't tell you how he caught that 8-pound largemouth he just brandished by the gills, the great outdoors are a little less great.
The first word I had of the accident came from my father, who called me that afternoon and told me flatly that my brother had been hurt. I can still hear the nauseating pause before his "I don't know" when I asked him if Worth were going to live. I got in the car and drove from Tennessee to Lexington, making the five-hour trip in about three-and-a-half hours. I was met in the hospital parking lot by two of my uncles on my mother's side, fraternal twins, both of them Lexington businessmen. They escorted me up to the ICU and, in the elevator, filled me in on Worth's condition, very calmly explaining that he'd flatlined five times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, his heart locked in something that Captain Jones, in his interview for Rescue 911, called "asystole," which Jones described as "just another death-producing rhythm." A I understood him to mean, my brother's pulse had been almost one continuous beat, like a drumroll, but feeble, not actually sending the blood anywhere. By the time I showed up, Worth's heart was at least beating on its own power, but a machine was doing all his breathing for him. The worst news had to do with his brain, which we were told displayed 1% activity — vegetable status.
In the waiting room, a heavyset nurse came up to me and — in the sweet, thick accent you hear in the little Eastern Kentucky towns that exist in a cluster around Lexington — introduced herself as Nancy. She took me by the hand and led me through two silent, automatic glass doors into Intensive Care. My brother was a nightmare of tubes and wires, dark machines silently measuring every internal event, a pump filling and emptying his useless lungs. The stench of dried spit was everywhere in the room. His eyes were closed, his every muscle slack. It seemed that only the machines were alive, possessed of some perverse and secret will that wouldn't let them give up on this particular dead man.
I stood frozen, staring at him. Suddenly the nurse spoke to me from the corner of the room in an unexpected tone of admonishment, which angered me at the time and which, even in retrospect, seems hard to account for. "It ain't like big brother's gonna wake up tomorrow and be all better," she said. I looked at her stupidly. Did she think the situation didn't look quite grim enough?
"I realize that," I said, and asked her to leave the room. When I heard the door close behind me, I went up to the side of the bed. Worth and I have different fathers, making us half-brothers, technically, though he was already living with my dad when I was born, which means that I've never known life without him. Still, we look nothing alike. He has thick dark hair and olive skin and was probably the only member of our family in the hospital that night with green, not blue eyes. I leaned over into his face. The normal flush of his cheeks had gone white, and his lips were parted to admit the breathing tube. There was no sign of anything, of life or struggle or crisis, only the gruesomely robotic sounds of the oxygen machine pumping air into his chest and drawing it out again. In my mind I heard my uncles, their voices composed with strain, telling me about the "1 percent brain activity." I leaned closer, putting my mouth next to my brother's right ear. "Worth," I said, "it's me. It's John."
Without warning, all six feet and four inches of his body came to life, writhing against the restraints and what looked like a thousand invasions of his orifices and skin. Then his head reared back, and his eyes swung open on me. The pupils were almost nonexistent, the irises seagreen with flecks of black. His eyes stayed open only for the briefest instant, focusing loosely on mine before falling shut. But God, what an instant. When I was a volunteer fireman in college, I helped one time to pull a dead guy out of an overturned truck, and I remember the look of his open eyes as I handed him to the next person in line — I'd been expecting pathos, some shadow of whatever had been the last thought to cross his mind, but his eyes were just marbles, mere things. The eyes into which I'd just glimpsed had been nothing like that. If anything, they were the eyes of a madman.
It occurred to me then that a condition parallel to the asystole, which had seized Worth's heart and nearly killed him, must have effectively taken over his mind. What the machines were reading as vegetable activity was really chaos, the fury of an electrified brain fighting to reassemble itself. I had sensed all that, unmistakably, and it had been like looking down on a man trying to climb his way out of a mossy well: the second he moves, he slips back to the bottom. Worth's head fell back on the pillow, motionless, his body exhausted from that brief effort at reentering a world his mind couldn't fathom. I put down his hand, which I had taken without knowing it, and ran back into the hallway. I remember wanting badly to tell my family what I thought I knew but deciding against it, trusting my instinct but doubting my ability to convince them. The doctors, at that point, were still in telling us not to hope.
I've tried so many times over the years to describe for people the person who woke up from that electrified death, the one who remained with us for about a month before he went back to being the Worth we'd known and know now. It would save me a lot of trouble to be able to say "it was like he was on acid," but that wouldn't be quite true. Instead, he seemed to be living one of those imaginary acid trips we used to pretend to be on in junior high — you know, "Hey, man, your nose is like a star or something, man." He had gone there. It was an über-acid trip, only better, and scarier, and altogether more profound. My father and I kept notes, neither of us aware that the other was doing it, trying to get down all of Worth's little disclosures before they faded beyond recapture, or became indistinct against the backdrop of their own abundance. As I write this, I have my own list in front of me. There's no best place to begin, so I'll just transcribe a few things:
Squeezed my hand late on the night of the 23d. Whispered, "That's the human experience."
While eating lunch on the 24th, suddenly became convinced that I was impersonating his brother. Demanded to see my ID. Asked me, "Why would you want to impersonate John?" When I protested, "But, Worth, don't I look like John?" replied, "You look exactly like him. No wonder you can get away with it."
On the day of the 25th, stood up from his lunch, despite my attempts to restrain him, spilling the contents of his tray everywhere. Glanced at my hands, tight around his shoulders, and said, "I am not ... repulsed ... by man-to-man love. But I'm not into it."
Evening of the 25th. Gazing at own toes at end of bed, remarked, "That'd make a nice picture: Feet in Smoke."