If you’re going to dream, dream big. I took that advice literally back in 1984 when I was a feature reporter for The Coors Sports Page on TBS. While craning my neck to interview behemoths like 7’4″ Mark Eaton of the Utah Jazz, I fantasized what it would be like if I, like him, had to duck before entering any room. Not so I could run into chandeliers or scrape drywall off living room ceilings. No, I wanted to see what life would be like as a dominant center in the NBA. At 5’11”, that simply wasn’t going to happen organically.
My playing career, if it could be called “playing,” consisted of two years as a bench rider for Blackford High School’s “C” and “D” teams. We played our games during football season and out of view of the student body, which was just as well. It was from those benches that I would spring into action with forty-five seconds left in the game, knowing that whatever contribution I made, good or bad, would have no effect whatsoever on the outcome. That relieved me of a lot of pressure. Like the pressure to keep the plays straight in my head and translate them into action on the court. In two years of high school ball, I scored a total of seven points.
But in an unguarded moment of compassion, my coach allowed me to start a game late in my second season. I can still remember sitting in the visitor’s locker room prior to the game against Camden High School and soaking in the coach’s instructions. He was diagramming plays on the chalkboard and my only thought was, “What in the world is he talking about?”
Some twenty years later, when I was a reporter for TBS and was interviewing Golden State head coach Don Nelson, I related that story to him off-camera. He smiled knowingly. “I still have guys like that,” he said.
So I have always known that if I were going to make a splash in the realm of sports, it would have to be as a reporter or announcer, not a participant.
Which brings me back to 1984 and the day that I decided to change all that, if only fictitiously. I called a buddy of mine, Phil Gambill, who coached a middle school basketball team, and convinced him to get his team to meet me at the Omni, where the Atlanta Hawks played then, and let me fulfill a fantasy. We lowered the baskets, drew up a few plays, and transformed this one-time feckless sub into a superstar. I’ve got to be honest. It was a rush. One less item in the bucket list:
It was 1982 and I was working for one of Ted Turner’s shows called Winners, a magazine show that featured successful people, some well-known, others just regular folks with great success stories.
The actor/singer, Robert Goulet had fallen into a bit of a bad way in the early eighties, what with his drinking issues and a messy divorce, but now he was back in Las Vegas after an eighteen-month absence. His manager thought it would be a great idea to get him back into the public spotlight. What better way than through a positive, fluffy program like Winners? Little did he know that no one actually watched Winners. But if nothing else, it would certainly be good practice for when he encountered actual journalists on the comeback trail.
So my cameraman, Steve Shepard, and I, showed up at the home of the chagrined performer and were welcomed in a way that said I have no idea who you are, but I think my manager put you up to this so let’s get it over with because I’ve got other things to do like have meetings in the next room while you’re setting up to do whatever it is you’re here to do. Right this way.
So in through the door we went, ushered into a suburban Vegas ranch-style house decorated in what can best be described as post-divorce modern. Apparently, Carol Lawrence (Mrs. Goulet) had secured the better lawyer and had left Bob with his piano, a few wall hangings, a portrait of Robert Goulet, and his collection of ceramic frogs.
We did our interview, during which we explored his problems with the bottle and how he overcame them. His answer was, if I can paraphrase here, “I just quit.” I could tell we would not exactly be plumbing the depths of his psyche, and if we were counting on bringing the great man to tears, we could forget that. In fact, here’s how it went:
We were told ahead of time that Goulet would sing for us as part of the piece we were doing. I brought that up to him the way that Johnny Carson would “convince” his guests to get off the couch and favor the audience with a song the guest was desperate to plug. If you’ll remember, the audience would cheer them on, and the singer would hit his mark and croon.
But when I suggested, “How about we hear a song from you?” Goulet took a deep drag on his cigarette and uttered the words that are forever sealed in my memory bank as the ultimate brush-off: “I don’t feel like singing, Gentlemen.”
But he finally relented and sauntered over to the piano in the otherwise gutted living room and emoted his way through a ballad, flicking ashes as he sang. A cat made an appearance in the background, possibly to see what all the noise was about before making its way back down the hall.
That night before the show backstage, Goulet graciously spoke with us on camera about the excitement of being back in the big room.
In the years to come, he would revive his career, make more movies, and even became a spokesman for ESPN in a series of tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating promos for the network. They were actually pretty funny, and they won an Emmy. He died in 2007 and I was sorry to hear that. I would love to have seen him once more so I could rib him about the time he blew me off.
One sweet memory I keep with me from my encounter with Robert Goulet was that I was probably the last reporter he ever sang for in his living room.
For those of you tuning in because you saw my name on Tyler Stanton’s blog, welcome. That’s not me in the picture to the left. Furthermore, I am not, as Tyler would have you believe, the real Ron Burgundy. I did, however, start my television career five years before young Tyler was born, a time when real-life Ron Burgundy types were dotting the “happy news” landscape.
If you saw Anchorman, you know that Ron Burgundy was an idiot. I was an idiot too, but for much more forgivable reasons. Let’s just say that Mr. Burgundy was funny unintentionally. I like to think I knew exactly what I was doing.
As you’ll see in perusing this blog (if you’re that starved for entertainment), I was given free rein to add to the newscast whatever I thought was amusing (to me, mostly.) This went from my start in Green Bay, Wisconsin through my stint in Louisville, Kentucky, and even to my days at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta. I was sort of my own assignment editor, to a point.
In 1990, TNT started covering NFL games on Sunday nights and I was given the task of coming up with witty halftime features. I’d do things like stake out Lambeau Field and wait for the first person in the stands to arrive or show people in everyday jobs celebrating their little successes the way a player celebrated after scoring a touchdown. It was all quite over the top.
But occasionally, there was a legitimate story that may have actually answered someone’s question about football. One such story was a piece that answered the question: “Who came up with all those dorky football poses you see on football cards?”
Turns out, the answer was: a photographer in Dallas. He had the audacity to be dead, so we were unable to talk with him. But his son-in-law (and photographer’s assistant) was still with us. So we flew to Dallas to get to the bottom of things. We enlisted the aid of two veterans of the very first Super Bowl—Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg and the late Jerry Mays—to play with us, and this was the result:
Do you ever watch a newscast on TV—assuming anyone watches them anymore—and say to yourself, “That was stupid. They didn’t have anything better to cover than that?”
Well, that was sort of my niche when I worked in local news back in the day, the “day” being the late 70’s and early 80’s. I was the goofy feature reporter with an odd twist on the news or life in general. I prided myself on knowing the difference between funny and silly but was still sometimes criticized by local newspaper writers who thought that what I did had no place on the news. Looking back, they may have had a point. (More than once, costumes were involved in my “reporting.”) But how many car wrecks and house fires can you sit through before you turn off the TV? Is that what local news was supposed to be all about? We preferred to think of a newscast as a slice of life. Bad stuff happens, funny stuff happens, and we wrapped it all up in a thirty-minute package.
I speak now as someone who doesn’t watch local news anymore. It’s moved from car wrecks and house fires to more car wrecks, more house fires, drug deals, and random gunfire, all delivered with great emotion and empathy. I have a lot against local news, but I’ll bore you with that some other time.
These days, I use my reporting skills to tell other kinds of stories. (You can read more about that on my web site.) But occasionally I’ll see something in the news and it will remind me that when I was a local feature reporter doing weird little slices of life stories, I would latch on to those news events as a peg, and then put my own particular spin on them. And it was fun. I was fortunate enough to have my own little spot on the news at WLKY in Louisville called “Ryden Originals.”
The other day, I read about a guy who scaled the Millennium Tower in San Francisco using suction cups. You can see the video on-line, of course. But it reminded me of the time a guy calling himself Spiderman—it may be the same guy, Dan Goodwin—climbed the Sears Tower in Chicago. It was May of 1981 and I was at the height of my feature reporting madness. So I decided to “climb” the First National Bank Building in downtown Louisville.
Check the leader board of any major—like this weekend’s PGA Championship—and you’ll see the obvious international influence. England, South Africa, Australia, Korea. But Cuba? Probably not in our lifetime.
But just because someone has lived under an oppressive regime, cut off from the joys of the free world their whole life, doesn’t mean they can’t at least dream of a career that involves a stick and a ball. Baseball players have done it from Luis Tiant to Yunel Escobar, why not golfers? Oh, that’s right—where would you practice? Are you ready for Cuba’s dirty little secret? The Diplo Club.
I had a chance to tee up a few shots there for a story I did during the Pan Am Games of 1991. People ask me how I was able to visit Cuba. You can actually get a visa to that diplomatically isolated island if you’re a journalist. (The Cuban government obviously never saw my work.)
I was part of a contingent of reporters and crews from TNT and ABC to cover the Pan Am Games, and it was my job to capture stories about Cuban life, much the way I did a year earlier when I rounded up feature stories in Italy for the World Cup coverage.
Turns out there are a lot of fascinating and unusual stories coming out of Cuba, even if their people aren’t. Coming out, that is. One of those stories was about the “elitist” sport of golf as played on Castro’s island.
A couple things to note about this piece: my golf swing is utterly atrocious, to the point of embarrassment. Bear in mind this was five years before my rebirth of interest in the game. I got better.
Second, this piece features my Turner Sports office mate at the time, Craig Sager, now known as the NBA insider on TNT who wears crazy jackets and knows everybody. In this particular feature, he was but a foil for my antics, and a pretty good one at that.
I would love to play St. Andrews. What golf fan wouldn’t? The only thing stopping me (besides money—lots of it) is that I would have to play with a caddie. Obviously, I’d appreciate the course knowledge that only a Scottish caddie could bring to the ordeal, but who wants to embarrass themselves on such sacred ground in front of someone who can only be thinking, “He paid money for this?”
There is much to be said for a caddie who can walk you through a difficult round. If nothing else, it gives you someone to blame for your inability to put ball in hole in under 100 whacks.
Actually, come to think of it, I always find it amusing that when playing with regular guys, I will be preparing for a ten-foot putt when one of them will advise me to aim about an inch and a half to the right. An inch and a half? From ten feet? That’s like me being about 200 yards out and asking where the pin placement is and whether it’s playing at 200 or 203. Best advice at that point: just hit and hope. Who needs a caddie?
While I’m on the subject of my game, I have played in several tournaments where I am one of the designated “celebrity” golfers. You can just see the disappointment on the face of my partners when they find out I’m the “celebrity.” I get the feeling that they’re thinking, “How much more would I have had to pay to get Jerry Rice?” At least I make them feel good about their games.
Anyway, we were talking about caddies. You’ll see them this weekend at the PGA Championship, of course. But back in 1992, TBS sent me to North Carolina to check out a unique and novel caddie concept. And this is what I came back with:
Sorry, golf fans. It had to happen. The last major of the year is finally upon us, the PGA Championship. All that’s left to look forward to now is the Ryder Cup, the Tour Championship, hibernation, and Christmas.
Knowing that golf is on the front burner of sports news this week, I thought I’d drag out a couple golf features I did for TBS when they carried the PGA back in 1992. Oddly enough, they sent me all the way to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Pinehurst in North Carolina to do two very unusual pieces, neither of which aired.
So, making its world debut—18 years after it was produced—is the story of the most unusual golf hole you’ll ever have the privilege to play. Since you may never venture to the northern panhandle of Idaho, this may be as close as you get. But if you do ever get there, let me know how you did on the soon-to-be-famous-because-of-this-post movable green.
If ever there were a contest I could win, it was the one organized by the PGA Tour and Golf Digest Magazine in 1985. It was the “Worst Avid Golfer” contest held at the TPC course at Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship every spring. Only I wasn’t signed up to play in it; I was assigned to produce a feature on it for TBS. Though I was neither an avid golfer nor an avid golf fan, I was an avid fan of getting paid, so I trekked down to Florida.
As I said, my golf background was sketchy at best. I took golf lessons as a 16 year-old and quickly became wretched at the game. I hung on to my clubs and carted them with me across the country as I started my career, but rarely put them to use.
Then in 1996 I began what became a seven-year run hosting a show produced by PGA Tour Productions called This is the PGA Tour. It was great fun visiting incredible courses and interviewing the greatest golfers in the world and having an inside-the-ropes look at a game I had sort of ignored. Just being around guys like Davis Love, Peter Jacobsen, and Phil Mickelson rekindled my excitement for the game. So I plunged in again and, with enough practice, became marginally better than I had been a quarter century earlier. (I’m being modest; I became much better. But considering where I had started, that wasn’t saying all that much. I still struggled to break 100. Though I did shoot my age once—had I been born in 1876.)
Anyway, when you’re on TV talking knowledgably about golf with golfers, people start to believe that you’re a competent golfer yourself, not just a guy who loves the game, wears golf shirts, and knows how to do research.
But I’m getting off track, hitting it into the first cut of rough, if you will. What I want to show you today is the golfing establishment’s effort in 1985 to reach out to the everyday golfer, the golfer I have since become. I only wish this contest were an annual affair.
I have the good fortune to live in Atlanta and cheer for a baseball team that has been extraordinarily successful. But not every baseball fan in America enjoys the thrill of a pennant race year in and year out. Imagine living in Kansas City or Pittsburgh. Fine cities, to be sure, but when it comes to baseball, not so much.
That’s the way it was for Braves fans in the seventies and the mid to late eighties. Abject failure on the field, five-thousand die-hards in the stands. It was ugly. I was around for much of that too.
But in a way, rooting for a losing team has its advantages. At least that was the premise of a story I did for a show on TBS called The Coors Sports Page back in the eighties. In those days, the Cleveland Indians represented the dregs of baseball, and their stadium—the Mistake on the Lake—was a cavernous mausoleum where hopes and dreams of baseball success were laid to rest after they died, which was usually around mid-May.
But surely not every team’s fans suffered so. The pennant race actually meant something to fans of the Anaheim Angels, as I believe they were called back then before they went all Rand McNally on us (The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California, USA, Earth. Or something like that.)
So I took a crew to Cleveland—and Anaheim—to investigate a tale of two cities.
I went to the Braves game the other night and spotted Leo Mazzone, the former pitching coach turned sports radio host. He was in the booth set up on the Fan Plaza, holding forth as part of a three-man team on the pre-game show. I had interviewed Leo a few times in my career as a sports feature reporter, most recently seven years ago for TBS.
My first interview with him was when he was the pitching coach for the Braves’ triple-A team in Richmond, VA about 150 years ago. (1989 to be more accurate.) It was an extensive sit-down with Leo as he showed me the process by which he tracked the progress of his pitchers, and we hit it off rather well. Check out what 21 years will do to a couple guys:
Apparently, the piece was meaningful enough to him that he saved a copy, and when our paths would cross over the years, he’d mention it. Not as in, “Wow, you are such an awesome reporter! That piece changed my life and I have you to thank for it!” but more as a point of reference, the way you bring up the one thing you have in common with someone you may see only once every few years.
(An example is the time I played a game of Bocci Ball with the then-County Judge of Jefferson County, KY, Mitch McConnell, for a fluff feature of some sort for the local news. He beat me, of course, and to be honest, I have no recollection of the video that came of it, but I just remember that I played Bocci Ball with Mitch McConnell. He’s now the Senate Minority Leader and a household name among people who actually read those things—what do you call them? Oh, yeah, newspapers. But if I ran into him on the street today, I would remind him—as a point of reference—that we played Bocci Ball together some 30 years ago, and I’m confident he’d remember. Or I may be deluding myself. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Actually, he may really remember. Shortly after that, I was doing a light news piece which featured McConnell, and afterwards, to wrap things up, I did an on-camera stand-up with him in the background. He had finished doing whatever he was there to do and was now seated with a bunch of folks at a round table having lunch. As a joke—not for air—I said, “Coming up, we’ll see the county judge eating at taxpayer expense.” Everybody laughed, including McConnell, and then he played the Bocci Ball card. I happen to have that video, circa 1979, for your enjoyment.)
So there I was at the Braves game when I spotted Leo Mazzone in the pre-game radio booth. We were separated by a pane of glass, so in an effort to get him to recognize me, I smiled a “Hey, remember me?” kind of smile. Leo did a double take, then, eyes wide, to prove that he really did recognize me, he made the universal gesture for video: left hand in a fist just below the chin and extended about four inches in front of the face. The right hand makes a circular motion at eye level and slightly to the right. And regardless that film has not been shot that way since the Coolidge Administration, everyone has come to recognize that as the universal gesture of video.
But we do this a lot. We use hand signals to make ourselves understood whether or not it has any relation to reality.
We extend our thumb and pinky and put that combination up to our ear when we want to tell someone silently to call us. If we mimed what making a phone call really looks like, it would look as though we were preparing to punch ourselves on the side of the head. Go ahead; try it. See what I mean?
When we want to tell the waiter that we’re ready to pay the bill, we spot him across the room and then raise our left hand, palm up, and pretend to write on it with our right hand. Doesn’t matter whether we’re paying with credit card or cash, they get the point. We’re ready to pay up.
We rub our thumb and index finger together quickly when we want to discreetly tell someone that “this is going to cost a lot more than I have at the moment.”
While in Moscow for the inaugural Goodwill Games on TBS twenty-four years ago, I had the privilege of working with the late, great sportscaster, Curt Gowdy. A small group of us were at dinner one night, and Curt was so taken with the food and the service that every time another breadbasket or drink showed up, he gave what we understand to be the universal signal that says, “A-OK:” A circle made with the thumb and index finger. After Curt flashed a few of those, our translator felt it best to advise him, “You probably shouldn’t do that anymore. It doesn’t mean what you think it does.” As anyone who’s traveled extensively overseas can tell you, that’s the first cousin to our one-finger salute that says, in effect, “I highly disapprove of what you’ve done and I find both you and your mother extremely disagreeable in my sight.” Or something like that.
I’m pretty sure that’s what the guy meant when he flipped that to me on the way to the Braves game where I saw Leo Mazzone where he gestured to me and where I got the idea for this entirely-too-long discourse on sign language.