Who's the best-ever behind the mike? Classy Jim McKay

It's a quixotic relationship we have with television sportscasters.

It can be more like family than anything else. That means we sometimes listen closely to them and other times not; that we get aggravated with their quirks and their phrases (Marv Albert repeatedly saying a basketball player scores a hoop "from downtown") but we forgive; that we take issue with them and can't imagine why they don't think like us; that we laugh at their ties and their haircuts.

Predictably, it can be difficult reaching a consensus concerning sportscasters.

Many old-timers still insist that it has been nothing but downhill since the glorious days of Curt Gowdy, Red Barber, Marty Glickman, Mel Allen, and Lindsey Nelson, who once got a trifle confused when he said, "Hello, Lindsey Nelson, I'm everybody."

Others contend that the one person who most got our attention was the bombastic Howard Cosell, often wrong but never in doubt. Yet, he had that indescribable something that demanded attention. When he left Monday Night Football, the show began a downward spiral from which it has never recovered.

These days, the populace gives mixed reviews to John Madden, whose over-the-top exuberance can leave a viewer exhausted midway in the first quarter of an NFL game. Many see him as the loud neighbor you can't get away from. But for others he is the life of the party. Bob Costas gets raves. Al Michaels has his fans.

And then there is Jim McKay.

There's never been anybody better. It seems improbable there ever will be. Everything about him bespeaks class, eloquence, and professionalism. Dating to the early '60s, McKay has been a fixture in family rooms. Somehow, viewers never tire of him. Nobody is easier to listen to for hours on end.

He vaulted to our attention at the 1972 Olympics in Munich with his reporting of the terrorist attack on the Olympic Village that ultimately ended in the death of 17 people, including 11 Israeli athletes. McKay's composed descriptions riveted the attention of a horrified world. For 16 straight hours, when facts were scarce and rumors rampant, McKay kept a firm hand on the wheel. Says Terry Jastrow, veteran former golf producer at ABC, "Jim McKay was to a sports event what Walter Cronkite was to news." Indeed, McKay steadied us then as Cronkite had nine years previous when JFK was assassinated.

And, finally, when the awful truth was known, McKay looked sadly into the television camera and uttered words that made him famous, "They're all gone." It was said with genuine despair. He read from no Teleprompter. He simply gave voice to a world's sorrow.

The reflection is prompted because last weekend, McKay presided over what apparently will be his final Kentucky Derby. At next year's Derby, NBC will replace ABC, McKay's network. Too bad. It was a perfect match, taking what is arguably this nation's most elegant sports event and pairing it with sports most eloquent sportscaster.

Happily, McKay will keep talking at selected events. He's been with the network for 39 years, won 12 Emmy Awards, and covered some 100 sports in 40 countries.

"Sport at its ultimate expression," McKay told PGA.com, "must function on these three levels: man against the environment, man against his opponent, and man against himself."

Another McKay signature is the exquisite "Wide World of Sports." Jastrow says it was McKay who wrote the show's slogan: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat." That phrase is a classic example of McKay's brilliance.

But beyond his television presence, McKay is a marvelous person, a superb human being. Once when a young sportswriter was moving to New York to write for a national magazine, he called McKay and asked for advice on where to live.

"So where are you thinking?" McKay asked.

"Oh, New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Westchester, Connecticut."

McKay interrupted and laughed, "Don't you think you should narrow it down a bit?"

And with that, he took charge. He said the caller should live in Westport, Conn. (where the McKays did for years), that it wouldn't be necessary to look anywhere else, that he would arrange with his real estate agent to get on the project forthwith. And, if it would help, the caller and his family could live temporarily in the gatehouse on McKay's property.

McKay's words define him as the consummate pro, but actions like this define him as the quintessential good guy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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