I vaguely remember Jim McKay, the esteemed sports broadcaster who died Saturday. I remember watching “Wide World of Sports” when I was a kid. My memories have faded, replaced by the clips being run by NBC or ESPN.
While his defining moment was his coverage of the Munich Olympics, I take away two important life lessons from McKay.
The first lesson: To be a good journalist — to be a decent human being — one has to have humility, empathy and respect. Those words are pretty easy to type, but pretty hard to practice. Even McKay had to learn this.
Today, offbeat sports on TV become setups for announcers’ punch lines. But McKay didn’t talk down to competitors. In 2001, he told me why: “One time, half-kidding, I asked a guy who won the World Demolition Derby title about his ‘achievement.’ He said it was because he went to church a lot. And I thought, damn it, I’m not going to make that mistake again. It was the achievement of his life.”
The other lesson that every reporter should understand: we scratch, claw and dig to find the deeper stories and meaning.
One time, Jim said, he had been sent to Switzerland to cover a skiing event. After it was over, he and a young production assistant went to Zurich to stay the night. The next morning, they took a taxi to the airport. As they headed down a main boulevard, Jim kept turning his head. The assistant finally said, what’s going on?
“I said, ‘I’m just looking down the side streets.’ And then I thought, that’s what we do. We don’t just look down the main boulevards.”
Inside the farmhouse, it was suddenly still and very quiet, the shafts of light arcing through the windows. Jim paused. He closed his eyes. Here he was in his 80s, yet he was seeing that part of himself he always saw, the young reporter he had been at the Baltimore Evening Sun, long before he got into television and TV made him famous and he, with the incomparable grace he displayed under extraordinary pressure at the 1972 Munich Olympics, moved television and sportscasting forward. In his mind’s eye, as I would write about this moment in a story published six years ago in the Los Angeles Times, Jim still saw himself as that cub reporter making all of $35 a week, $28.50 after taxes.
“We look down the side streets,” Jim finally said. “And we see.”
Simple lessons, yet profound and not always applied. I hope to remember these tenets when I’m in Beijing in August.