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Nathan Arizona
Nathan Arizona

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The Zelig of Sports

How Jim Gray cozied up to Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, and nearly every sports giant (and a few movie stars) in between

On June 3, when Jim Gray learned that Muhammad Ali had died, you could almost hear the flutter of an old Rolodex as he snapped into action. If you know Gray from Showtime Boxing or LeBron James’s The Decision, you might be surprised to learn he’s also a contributor to Fox News. Roger Ailes personally recruited him to be the network’s sports guy. That night, the decision paid off in spades.

Gray landed four celebrity eulogists: Floyd Mayweather, Don King, the hotelier Steve Wynn, and former Georgetown coach John Thompson. In the wee hours of the morning of June 4, as Fox moved into tribute mode, Gray was coaxing memories out of them — and was once again stationed at the center of the biggest sports story on the planet. But for a few surreal, only-on-Fox moments (Wynn compared Ali’s "noblesse oblige" to George H.W. Bush’s), the package was about as good as any network’s.

Of all the gratitude heaped on Ali that night, Gray’s was the most profound. In 1978, Ali came to Denver, where an 18-year-old Gray was videotape editor at a local TV station. When the anchors couldn’t be located, Gray borrowed a sport coat from the weatherman and interviewed Ali himself. Ali gave him 45 minutes; the gesture made Gray’s career. He escaped a life of editing drudgery and became a reporter.

From there, Gray was able to infiltrate Ali’s inner circle. In the ’80s, Ali granted him several interviews. "Ask whatever you want!" he’d say. When Gray celebrated his 50th birthday in Las Vegas, Ali was one of the famous athletes who attended. (There were many.) In 2004, Ali gave Gray the ultimate prize: his last interview on national TV, for an Olympics special on ESPN.

On Fox News, Gray pointed to his tie. "This was given to me by the great Muhammad Ali, and he signed it," he said proudly.

Over lunch a few days later, Gray got to talking about how he’d become, in effect, a Muhammad Ali insider — a vessel the champ used to speak to the world. With a touch of boyish wonder in his voice, Gray asked, "Why did he pick me?"

An old boss at NBC called Gray "Zelig" because of his knack for showing up wherever the action was. I got interested in Gray after another celebrity death. In March, Garry Shandling’s comedy pals played a basketball game in his honor. A group photo was taken. Standing with Sarah Silverman, Judd Apatow, and Kevin Nealon was Jim Gray.

This followed Gray’s appearances at, or journalistic participation in, the Malice at the Palace, the Atlanta Olympic bombing, the Pete Rose interview, the Mike Tyson ear bite, and The Decision, to offer a partial list. Gray’s omnipresence was well established, but what drove him remained mostly unprobed. I wondered: Why was he everywhere?

Gray arrived at a hotel in Santa Monica one afternoon. He is skinny and soft-spoken — he always seemed to catch brawnier athletes off-guard — and was wearing a Jordan Brand jacket. "That’s my guy," he said, pointing to the logo. As Gray explained it, the key to understanding him is to understand his notion of friendship. "I don’t have children," he said. "So my friends are important."

"I put a lot of energy into relationships, and they’re meaningful to me," he continued. "Emerson wrote, ‘To have a friend, you have to be a friend.’" Indeed, for Gray, from journalism comes friendship, and from friendship comes journalism.

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Getty Images

When he was a twentysomething TV reporter in Philadelphia, Gray became pals with Julius Erving. The doors to the ’80s NBA flew open. "When you show up with Julius," he said, "it sure makes Magic and Bird look at you really, really amenably." In 1989, Dr. J was one of two groomsmen at Gray’s wedding. (The other was Pistons coach Chuck Daly.)

In 1987, L.A. sportswriters were roasting the Rams’ Eric Dickerson for asking for a raise. Gray, who was a reporter at ESPN, offered himself as a sympathetic ear. "Jim did the best he could for me," Dickerson said. "That’s why I liked him." That October, when Dickerson learned he’d been traded to the Colts, Gray and Dickerson raced to an ESPN studio, where Gray — this time in a sports coat borrowed from Dickerson — broke the news to the world. "In essence, it was The Decision 1987," Gray said.

An insider like Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski may win nearly every confidence in a single sport. Gray claims dozens across several walks of life. (Recently, Gray interrupted a call with a friend by exclaiming, "It’s President Bush on the other line!") After the Patriots won the 2015 Super Bowl, I saw Gray taking a selfie with Tom Brady in the locker room. I was baffled — not least because no reporter was able to get within 5 yards of Brady. What I didn’t know was that Gray and Brady appeared together each week on a Westwood One radio show. A friendship had formed, and Gray called Brady "as professional and as upstanding a guy as I’ve ever dealt with."

For years, Kobe Bryant liked to make news in interviews with Gray — much to the annoyance of Shaquille O’Neal. I asked Gray if Bryant was a friend, too. "The word ‘friend’ is a hard word to describe, right?" Gray said. "Kobe trusts me, and I trust Kobe. We’re not social. We’ve been to dinner one time in 30 years, OK? … I’m not going to Italy this summer!"

"Now, having said that," he continued, "if I needed something from Kobe ever, he always did it. ‘I need you to do this interview.’ ‘We need to talk about this.’ He did it. He was great. He was fantastic. I’ll always be grateful — grateful that he picked me."

Gray’s universe is one of "great friends" and "dear friends" and "best friends" whom he tends to like a doting uncle. When I asked Jerry West, an adviser to the Warriors, if Gray checked in once a month, West said incredulously, "Once a month?" Gray is also discrete. Mike Ditka, the former Bears coach who worked with Gray at NBC, said: "Some guys you do an interview with, you’re not sure you trust them. I trusted him. He had my best interests at heart."

Gray loves telling stories about his friends. (Did he tell you about the time Steve Wynn introduced him to the Dalai Lama?) Gray tells so many stories that even when he’s the ostensible interviewee, as he was with me, he seems to transform into a sideline reporter holding the mic. Bill Walton — another pal — observed: "He knows the subject is the story. Jim is the vehicle that brings it out."

Fishing for an anecdote, I asked Gray how he wound up at the Shandling basketball game. He smiled — it was an anecdote he’d told many times. When Gray and his fiancée, Frann, went to Hawaii for their wedding, they found their honeymoon suite was occupied by Shandling. Gray invited Shandling to the rehearsal dinner. Shandling wound up attending Gray’s wedding with Dr. J and Chuck Daly. A friendship blossomed. Shandling cast Gray and Bob Costas in an episode of The Larry Sanders Show.

Toward the end of our interview, I asked Gray whom I might call to learn more about him. This is a standard request. I later realized it was like asking Gus Johnson to emote — I’d given the ultimate insider his next assignment. A few days later, my phone rang. "He’s a fine boy, Old Jim," a voice purred. It was Gray’s dear friend Jack Nicholson.

"One of the lovely things about Jim," Nicholson said, "is that he’s quite a — what do you call it?" He waited for le mot juste. "A networker, to use an apt term."

But it wasn’t Gray’s insiderdom that caused that friendship to blossom. "I’d first become aware of Jim interviewing people during the bombing at the Olympics," Nicholson said. "That was Atlanta, wasn’t it? That razor-cut profile, the way he flips the microphone at people, made me think of him as Scratchy — like he scratches the interviews out of people."

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Getty Images

In his early days on TV, scratchiness seemed to define Gray. In 1989, he went to Miami with NBC for the Super Bowl. Gray didn’t have an assignment. His bosses expected him to watch from the stands. On game day, Michael Weisman, the former executive producer of NBC Sports, was stunned when Gray showed up in a suit. A few hours later, Gray was on TV with a scoop: Stanley Wilson, the Bengals’ fullback, had been caught using cocaine in his hotel room and wouldn’t play.

During the ’97 NBA Finals, Dennis Rodman denounced the "fucking Mormons" in the stands in Utah. During Gray’s sit-down interview, you could observe his style: He began by listening sympathetically as Rodman talked about being an odd duck in a buttoned-down league. Then, Gray asked: "But aren’t you responsible for a lot of this behavior?" Rodman’s eyes filled with tears, and he walked off the set.

Sideline reporters occupy the lowest rung of network sports. Gray’s ’90s contemporaries, Ahmad Rashad and Craig Sager, were seen, at best, as empathetic liaisons to the stars. When CBS’s Evan Washburn interviewed Ron Rivera after this year’s Super Bowl, he seemed to be sadder than the losing coach. Ric Bucher, who took over Gray’s sideline duties when Gray left ESPN in 2008, told me: "As a sideline reporter, you’re invisible in a way. Or you’re aspiring to be."

On one level, Gray simply did a menial job better than most. He asked follow-up questions instead of ingesting sound bites; Marv Albert, who called NBA games for NBC, remembered Gray passing intel to announcers during the game. But Gray stood out primarily because he didn’t recede into the background. "I don’t think I’m misunderstood," Gray said. "How can you be misunderstood 45 seconds at a time?"

When Gray steps into a boxing ring for Showtime, where he has worked since 1994, the sideline job becomes the main event. He is the "emcee of the post-fight," as producer David Dinkins Jr. called it, with the possibility of an Erin Andrews–Richard Sherman–style showdown every week. "Don’t come up here and try to give me no badass questions," James Toney warned Gray after one fight. Then he slapped the mic out of Gray’s hands. After a 2003 match with Clifford Etienne, Mike Tyson claimed that he’d broken his back before the fight. When Gray asked what specifically he’d broken, Tyson answered with one word: "Spinal." Shandling suggested Gray host a show called I Can Make You Hit Me.

On June 28, 1997, the night Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, Showtime decided not to leave the air until it got an interview with Tyson. For a normal reporter, the assignment might have been terrifying. But Gray and Tyson had a relationship — three years later, Tyson would tell Gray that he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’s children. So when Gray insisted Tyson address the ear bite, the boxer deigned to answer. "He stopped to do the interview," Gray told me. "In his worst moment. From my perspective, what he’s saying is, ‘I have the ultimate respect for you, and your position, at this moment in my life.’"

Before Game 2 of the 1999 World Series, Gray was standing in the Yankees dugout. That night, Major League Baseball allowed Pete Rose, who’d been banned from the game for life, to mingle with legends from the All-Century Team. The ceremony was flat, Gray thought. When he approached Rose a few minutes later, he was at his scratchiest: "Are you willing to show contrition, admit that you bet on baseball, and make some sort of an apology to that effect?"

When Rose said he wouldn’t, Gray tried four more times to extract a confession. "This is a prosecutor’s brief, it’s not an interview," Rose snapped. The encounter lasted only two minutes and 20 seconds — and Rose was lying. But it served to lift a sideline reporter out of obscurity and make him into an object of infamy.

One columnist declared, "Gray is the most despised announcer since Howard Cosell." (Cosell, as it happened, had been yet another friend of Gray’s.) The Yankees’ Chad Curtis hit a walk-off homer to win Game 3 and then stiffed Gray when he asked for an interview on the field.

For a collector of friends, the following days were a revealing period. Gray could see which of his famous pals would surface and go to bat for him. Roger Goodell, then a young lord in the NFL’s Game of Thrones, sent Gray a letter of support, the league’s press office told me. In the middle of Game 2, Gray got a call on his cellphone from Don King, the boxing promoter. With typical hyperbole, King declared, "They’re gonna treat you like a nigger for the next 20 years!"

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Getty Images

But the most intriguing connection Gray made was with Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando! Brando had read about Gray in the papers and asked Nicholson for his number. As Nicholson told me, "Marlon was a big-time networker, too."

Over the phone, Brando told Gray: "Everything they say about me is true." If something negative or defamatory was written, Brando didn’t correct it. Letting critics have their reality was its own kind of nirvana. "The longer this goes on, and the more you have, the better you’ll get at it," Brando said.

Over lunch, Gray considered Brando’s advice. "I wasn’t good then," he said. "I’m really good now!"

Gray still thinks The Decision was one of the great coups of his career. In many ways, it was the culmination of his journalistic method. He had painstakingly built a relationship with LeBron James: Gray had interviewed him while he was still in high school. In 2010, Gray approached James courtier Maverick Carter and agent Ari Emanuel and suggested they make a TV special out of James’s free-agent decision. Gray would do the interview.

The first thing that was jarring about The Decision is that it was bad TV. James spoke in halting corporatese ("the process has been everything I’ve thought and more"), while Gray took 18 questions to get to the money shot. (It was the longest stretch many viewers had seen Gray on television.) "I wanted to throw my TV out the window," one critic wrote.

The second thing that was jarring was that Gray was working with, if not for, James. (He’d left ESPN when his contract ended in 2008.) Even if sportswriters had long ago started writing memoirs for athletes, even if ESPN was paying about $1 billion annually to the NBA for game rights — The Decision made it seem like a Rubicon was being crossed. The journalist no longer dictated any of the terms; the athlete had taken control.

"We did a television show — a television show!" Gray protested.

"I tend to agree with Jim’s point," said one NBA writer. "I challenge the premise there was anything wrong with The Decision to begin with. Was it a little narcissistic? Yeah, but LeBron’s the face of the league. Of course it’s narcissistic. Isn’t that priced in?"

In one sense, The Decision was unremarkable. The queasiness we felt about the show is the same queasiness we feel about all insiders. That guy doesn’t give a fuck! we cheer after an insider drops a front-office-rocking scoop. And then, when the same insider is parroting a favored player’s message: He’s totally in the bag! At once, we feel the insider is the most fearless and most compromised person in sports media — Scratchy and Schmoozy in a single body.

Gray doesn’t have a Twitter account — he’s not that kind of insider. But he heard the criticism that poured in. Gray says his friend Gavin Maloof, the former co-owner of the Sacramento Kings, told him: "Don’t worry about your enemies bringing you bad news. Your friends will do just fine."

"My advice to Jim was just let ’em say what they will," said Jack Nicholson. "It’ll come out in the wash. But in reality, I mean, what journalist would not have done that interview?"

A test case arrived four years later. James hit free agency a second time. Once again, he found a reporter to serve as a vehicle for his announcement, giving an as-told-to scoop to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. Gray was stunned to see Jenkins hailed in many places as a hero. "[They] thought because Sports Illustrated did it somehow that was better?" Gray said. "Really? … I didn’t write the answers for LeBron. I asked him questions. … You saw the hypocrisy right there."

"And I’m happy for Sports Illustrated," he added. "I wasn’t upset. They got something I didn’t get. They were better than me at the time."

There are reasons why The Decision 2 seemed like a triumph while the The Decision seemed like a disaster. D2 sought to explain James’s thinking rather than tease his answer. ("It wasn’t The Decision," the NBA writer said. "It was The Rationale.") ESPN is an evil empire while Sports Illustrated is, at least in the current mediascape, a plucky underdog. And James picked the "happy" ending the second time.

But these aren’t moral differences. As Ric Bucher noted, "Lee’s was better disguised."

The day after The Decision, CNBC reported that Gray had been paid by a "LeBron ‘entity’" — that is, that he hadn’t just won over the star but had been in his employ. Gray went ballistic — he said he didn’t ask for money because James donated his own funds to charity. CNBC’s source later recanted. For its part, ESPN moonwalked away from The Decision, claiming that Gray had asked too many prefatory questions.

For Gray, the censure stung. Critics were saying his ability to get into James’s camp had not been a virtue but a liability. As Gray thought about it years later, he smoldered. "They should have paid me," he said of ESPN. "They should have paid me a ton."

"Public hurricanes do eventually pass," Gray said. "But there’s destruction that’s left after the hurricane."

I asked if the criticism of The Decision had damaged his career. "Well, of course," he said. Did Gray want a network job again? "I’m on a network," he said. "I’m on Fox. I’m on Showtime. I’m on the biggest radio network there is, doing the biggest games there are." (Gray covers the Super Bowl and the Final Four for Westwood One.)

Asked about his sports TV legacy, Gray found it hard to sum up. When I reeled off his Zelig list, he said, "That focuses on what’s wrong. What about the first interview with Tiger? What about the last interview with Ali? What about the first and last interviews with Kobe in his uniform?"

Besides more exclusives, Gray forswore a grand plan for his future. "What do I plan to do when I leave you?" he joked. "I don’t really know. I’ll figure it out. … Chuck Daly used to always say, ‘I don’t have a plan.’"

He also quoted his pal Doug Collins: "A man doesn’t find himself until he’s 50.’" At 56, I think what drives Gray is being a human Rolodex — a networker. It’s the satisfaction of playing golf with Jack Nicholson; of dropping in on Jerry West’s weekly lunch group; of bucking up Bill Walton when he’s suffering from back pain. ("Jim Gray is the über of life," Walton said.) As much as any news that might be broken, Gray treasures the relationship that might be built, and that’s the mark of an insider.

A few years ago, Gray convinced George W. Bush to let him produce a 30 for 30 documentary about Bush’s first pitch at Yankee Stadium after 9/11. "Anybody could tell his story," Gray said. "But he trusted me to do it. And that gives me more pride and humility and gratification than — I mean, we’re talking about the president of the United States. The president of the United States. Now, I’ve interviewed every one of them since Nixon … "

Brian Kenny, a former Showtime colleague, told Gray he ought to write a book. Gray said no one would want to read it. For though he’s always at the center of the action, a sideline reporter is one of the "interchangeable parts of television." Fame, or whatever it is Gray has attained, is fleeting.

To illustrate the point, Jim Gray told stories about his friends.

In 1995, Gray and his great friend Al Davis walked into the funeral of Howard Cosell. How-ud Co-sell, a true giant — and here were empty pews. "A few years ago, this would have been overflowing," Davis said.

A few years later, Gray took his dear friend Jack Nicholson to the Masters. "I never bought into fame," Nicholson told him.

Gray asked why.

Nicholson looked at the piddling gallery following Jack Nicklaus and the enormous gallery following Tiger Woods. "That’s why," he said.

For once, the ultimate insider even quoted himself. "I say this all the time: Nobody leaves television. Television leaves you."

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