I’d venture to say that, for many of us, sportscaster Jim McKay remains highly responsible for our vast love of sports. For yours truly in particular, McKay’s hosting of the influential ABC hit show Wide World of Sports undoubtedly left its mark; truthfully, if it weren’t for McKay’s weekly presence in my parents’ living room so many years ago, a column like this would have never materialized. Yeah, when I first became a devoted fan of the show known for “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” some 40 years ago, something happened inside me. I mean, I was hooked. Sports then became something MUCH MORE than just the nightly backyard catch with Dad; there were competitive matches and games to be experienced from ALL around the globe–and I realized it was a “wide world” out there, for sure. From that juncture on, I simply HAD to tune in each week in order to experience the melodramatic/brassy show opening while being introduced to sports I’d never seen or played. Hell, if you became enamored with Wide World in those days, you couldn’t help but develop an overall well-roundedness as a sports participant along with an eclectic admiration for an array of sports in general. And it was Jim McKay who was our guiding force along the enjoyable ride.
When I first heard of Jim McKay’s death a couple of weeks ago (at the age of 86), I immediately thought of sports such as surfing, jai-alai, and badminton–activities I would have never been involved in and/or developed a respect for had it not been for Wide World’s presence on those weekends so long ago. I thought of Evel Knievel and his daredevil jumps. I was reminded of Ali, Leonard, and Duran–and their dominance of the “sweet science.” The list goes on–but when you think of Jim McKay, you automatically think of the Olympic Games (he covered 12 of them); his name was synonymous with the international competition. And when he uttered those simple but chilling words “they’re all gone” during the ’72 Munich Games as Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes, McKay was no longer a sportscaster to me; he became the consummate JOURNALIST. Tony DeAngelo, my co-host on the cable TV show “Monday Night Sports Talk,” remembers the tragic moment in Munich: “I recall being in Michigan at the time, playing in a baseball tournament and already feeling far from home, and seeing the look in McKay’s eyes–which were as big as saucers; here’s a sportscaster telling us all about murders, and we all felt SO scared.” McKay would later say that it was his job to communicate what it was REALLY like at the time and to capture the immense sadness on a day when sports lost its innocence. And he did that SO magnificently–rendering him a media giant. Also, how many sportscasters would be talented enough to reveal a despised dictator’s human side–as McKay did during a 1991 interview with Fidel Castro? Very few, folks, if any.
It’s been estimated that Jim McKay traveled 4½ million miles while being on assignment for Wide World–having visited 40 different countries; yes, McKay was the one who made sure the show lived up to its name. When McKay arrived at ABC Sports, legendary producer Roone Arledge (featured at length in this column previously) knew there’d be no other choice than Jim to lead this pioneering program. It was Arledge’s intention from the very beginning to create a program where sports drama stood solely on its own; there was no need for the “shock/in your face” studio input from unqualified “journalists” that remains so familiar to today’s medium. Jim McKay would become that special cog and simply supplement that drama–not SUPPLY it–and he became the sports voice for a couple of generations.
ESPN/ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer recently called McKay “a founding father of sports television.” In essence, he was that “other sports Dad” for those of us who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s due to his incomparable work on ABC’s signature production. He was there every week nurturing our love for competition and he made it SEEM that sports really meant something. Simply put, anytime Jim McKay was part of a broadcast, you felt like it HAD to be something special. I believe many of us were in awe of him simply out of gratitude–that is, for making our weekly, living-room sports viewing an event in itself.
I remember a day back in the early 80’s when I traveled to NYC in order to be interviewed by McKay’s son, Sean McManus, regarding a position with NBC Sports. Without much work experience, I remember thinking of a worst-case scenario–that I’d at least have a chance to pass along my thanks to his father for instilling in me a humongous appreciation for global athletic competition. McManus was held up in meetings that day so I never did get that opportunity. But I guess the redeeming/soothing thing right now is that I can send thanks along in a fond, written remembrance and share it with some of the many other countless people that Jim McKay touched; I’m sure he’d like that.
Thanks, Mr. McKay, for being a guiding, influential force to me during an upbringing filled with a bevvy of sports viewing. Your strong moral compass, journalistic excellence, and integrity truly “spanned the globe” and knew no bounds. As an unquestioned titan in the sportscasting business, you’ll surely be missed.