Jim McKay, R.I.P.
“They’re all gone,” Jim McKay said that September night in1972
. And we all knew – even my six-year-old self – that the Israeli Olympic athletes were dead. The statement was short, declarative. To the point. And it told us all that needed to be said.
Jim McKay died Saturday. And at the risk of cheapening the sentence for which he’s probably best known, I’m going to say that they’re all gone. They being the great sportscasters who started hitting the airwaves in the late-40s and 50s. Chris Schenkel, Curt Gowdy, Jack Buck, and now Jim McKay. Guys who knew the actual event was more important than they were. Guys who knew the actual pictures being broadcast were better able to tell the story than they were. Vin Scully’s still around and still working, and Keith Jackson still does the occasional college football game for ABC, but the rest, they’re gone.
And we’re the worse for it.
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Jim McKay didn’t work the Super Bowl. Or the World Series. If he’s known for one event, it’s the Olympics. And he didn’t do much play-by-play at the Olympics. He sat behind the desk and took us from event to event. He told us the significance of that day’s events. Made us feel how important the fifth place finish by the long-distance runner from some third-world country was to him and to his country.
And on that summer day in Munich in 1972, it was Jim McKay who came into the studio and told us of the story unfolding at the Olympics. The non-sports story of the Israeli athletes being held hostage by the Palestinian terrorists. And it was McKay, not the news guys at ABC, who stayed with us the next 16 hours as the story unfolded. McKay who made the transition from the track and swimming events which were still going on to various ABC sports reporters (and Peter Jennings) who staked themselves out at the Olympic Village as they tried to get the facts.
Jim McKay knew that as a person, what he thought about the event was unimportant. The important thing was what was happening. He didn’t speculate. He didn’t share his thoughts. He gave the facts. He set the scene. Just as he did every week on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. So when McKay turned to the camera and said those three words, it meant just that much more.
The Beijing Olympics are set for NBC later this summer. And the face of NBC will be Bob Costas. Bob Costas is one of the best studio guys in the business. He knows of what he speaks. He’s good at setting the scene. He gives a sense of importance to the events. But Costas is no McKay. I’m a fan of Costas, but I think most fans of Costas would agree that he’s a little too full of himself, too aware of his own importance. He tends to over-think, to over-talk. He’s intelligent. He’s funny. But would Costas have been able to handle Munich like McKay? Or would he over-talk it? Would Costas be able to stop with “they’re all gone?”
And this question is not too out of line, because these upcoming Olympics are in China. Where the government is already trying to restrict what NBC and other broadcasters can show regarding political protests, and where Steven Spielberg has already bailed from his duties because of Chinese involvement in Darfur.
What happens if there is an incident at Tiananmen Square – where the Chinese have already denied NBC permission to broadcast from – and the Chinese send out the military to shut it down? Jim McKay would ignore the wishes of the Chinese government, and probably of his employer, and tell us the story. And I happen to think Costas will, too, or will try. But will NBC Sports, who has so much money invested in these Olympics, allow Costas to speak or will they pull the plug or will they replace him with someone else?
Jim McKay is gone. And now we’re left with the likes of Bob Costas, and Jim Nantz, and Joe Buck, and the clowns at ESPN. Jim McKay is gone, and we may never see his likes again – especially after Vin Scully and Keith Jackson finally retire. Jim McKay is gone, and we, the sports fans, the sports viewers, are all the worse. -- John Royal
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