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SPORTS: Before ESPN, there was McKay and 'Wide World'

June 16, 2008

It might be a bit over the top to say that a man I met only once and barely knew had a profound influence on my life, but that's how I felt about Jim McKay.

Thus, when I tuned in to view the Belmont Stakes on June 7 and the lead story was not of Big Brown's (failed) bid for the Triple Crown but of Jim McKay's passing at the age of 86, I admit I felt a sudden pang of true sadness.

As with many of my generation, I grew up with McKay, and I rarely missed an episode of ABC's "Wide World of Sports," which McKay hosted for years. On most Saturday afternoons at 4:30, I had an appointment for 90 minutes with McKay and "Wide World."

"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports," McKay would say, introducing the show. "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."

And, of course, there was then-and still is now-the film clip of that ski jumper careening wildly off the ramp accompanying the words "agony of defeat."

I was fascinated with "Wide World" and, later on, realized it had given me an appreciation of sports outside of the stick-andball games I had grown up with. Later on, as my life turned to a career in sports journalism, I became even more enamored with McKay and his ability as a storyteller, especially those stories that existed outside of the mainstream of sport.

Thus, during one of the many years when McKay served as host of ABC's coverage of the Indianapolis 500, I caught sight of the television icon in the pits on Carb Day and decided to swallow my awe and introduce myself. So I waited for an opportunity, stuck out my hand and simply told McKay how much his work and "Wide World of Sports" had meant to me. It was something I'm sure he had heard countless times. Yet he thanked me genuinely, and after a few pleasantries, offered a bit of advice.

"I've often found that the so-called little stories are the best stories," he said. "Don't be afraid to search where no one else is looking. You will be amazed at what you can find."

McKay and "Wide World" seemed to find them all, and his eloquence and enthusiasm gave them credibility and made them matter to the viewer, even if they might not register in the larger realm. "Wide World" was essentially ESPN before ESPN came along, and McKay was the consummate professional host who knew that even when the camera was on him, the focus wasn't.

Ironic, isn't it, that ABC's Roone Arledge, in my view the godfather of modern sports broadcasting, gave both the subtle McKay and the bombastic Howard Cosell their biggest breaks.

As I said, I didn't know McKay nearly well enough to judge the size of his ego. He appeared without one, which makes him the antithesis of many of the shouters and would-be comedians who occupy centerstage in sports broadcasting today.

The exceptions would be two men I do know, at least a little bit: NBC's Bob Costas and CBS's Jim Nantz.

At McKay's funeral last week in Baltimore, Costas called McKay "one of the greatest broadcasters in the history of the medium. Jim essentially created the role of the modern Olympic host. He set the standard."

Added Nantz, "To millions of Americans, Mr. McKay was a poet; he was a storyteller; he was a modern-day explorer. He would take us all over the world, introducing us to people and to sport with his usual out-of-breath enthusiasm."

For sure, I was among those millions drawn to McKay's substance and not his style. Industry experts made McKay the first sports broadcaster to win an Emmy. He went on to capture 13, including one for the opening commentary that began ABC's coverage of the 1987 Indy 500.

Of course, he is best known for his coverage of the Black September massacre at the 1972 Olympics, where terrorists stormed the Olympic village and captured and killed Israeli athletes. He was on camera for 16 hours during that ordeal, and won two Emmys for that coverage.

Time and again, McKay proved that sports broadcasting and journalism are not mutually exclusive and that good reporting makes the story, not the personality of the person delivering it. It makes you wonder whether McKay, if he was just breaking in today, would make it.

I'd rather not think about it. Rather, I'll just remember Jim McKay on those Saturday afternoons, taking me along for the ride on his "Wide World of Sports."



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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