Jim Gray was a college intern at a Denver television station when by good timing and good luck he found himself interviewing no less than Muhammad Ali.
That would mark the start of one of the most notable sports broadcasting careers of the last half century.
Not only is Gray adept at being in the right place at the right time (it happens enough and it isn’t just coincidence) but improbable that one interview with Ali turned into a personal relationship — at the time the most famous man in the world and a kid reporter.
Through the coming years, if you watched sports, there, often, was Gray. He wasn’t a network mainstay, pregame host or famed play-by-play guy — a Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, a Howard Cosell or a John Madden. He was usually the “sideline” guy that producers would send into the proverbial line of fire — the losing locker room, the ring after a chaotic bout, off to talk to someone in the throes of controversy.
When Mike Tyson chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear … there was Gray.
When someone needed to ask Pete Rose about his gambling, even in the middle of a baseball All-Star game tribute … there was Gray.
When LeBron James was announcing his free agent “Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami … there was Gray.
Some it was Gray working his way in — particularly the much-panned LeBron television special. Some of it was just seizing the mayhem — he was courtside for the “Malice in the Palace” when the Indiana Pacers Ron Artest charged into the stands in Detroit to confront a fan.
Some of it was his natural inclination to take often mundane interviews into deep waters — Jack Nicholson nicknamed him “Scratchy” for how he was always scratching for more. Gray himself has laughingly wondered why no one ever punched him.
“It’s such an accumulation of things that happened, or I happened to be covering that took on a life of their own,” Gray said.
It is what led Gray to write his memoirs (so far, he insists, because he isn’t retired) and release the book “Talking with GOATs.” It recalls his interactions, both on camera and mostly off, with many of the Greatest of all Time in their respective sports.
Gray has lived more than just a Forrest-Gump, fly-on-the-way career. He has a smooth, disarming personality and is effusive in his praise of others. It’s part of why he’s found a connection to many of the athletes he’s interviewing.
Sure he was there asking Tyson why in the world he bit someone’s ear in one of boxing’s lower moments. But the two were also close friends away from the camera, which allowed Tyson to trust Gray enough that he’d speak to him and Gray the trust he wouldn’t get mauled for asking.
So in the book, he talks a lot about Tyson. And Ali. And Michael Jordan, who he shared a helicopter ride with during the 1992 Olympics. And Tiger Woods, who he first met when Tiger was nine years old because Gray read in an L.A. newspaper aggregate page about this kid hitting a hole in one.
And Kobe Bryant, who he knew nearly since birth and in the book says if he had one word to describe Gray, it would be “honest.” And Michael Phelps, who credits Gray for introducing him to Ali, Carl Lewis and other Olympic greats when Phelps was just 17 as a source of confidence. And Tom Brady, who he still hosts a weekly radio show with and is a rare confidant of a very private star.
Gray is a natural storyteller — he can set up jokes, he namedrops with the best of them and can whittle down anecdotes.
If a good autobiography is like having dinner with someone and getting to hear their best stories, then this book is that ... minus the food.
At least, that was kind of what Gray was going for … here are his best stories, written down, while he still recalls all the details (and had author Greg Bishop check the facts).
“Johnny Cochran, he was a good friend of mine, and he said to me one day, ‘Now Jim, are you going to be one of those guys whose memory will get better with the passage of time?’ ” Gray said. “Then Steadman Graham [best known for his relationship with Oprah Winfrey] kept saying, ‘You’ve got to do this.”
Like we said, the name dropping is phenomenal.
The book is here and the stories are great. There’s a bit of everything in there, not just sports. Presidents. Movie stars. Michael Jackson. Whatever. Perhaps most interesting is Gray’s perspective being around so many athletes who were the very best at what they did. The similarities struck him.
On the surface, there might be little in common between, for example, Phelps a swimmer from suburban Baltimore, and Tyson, a boxer from the streets of Brooklyn, and Bryant, the son of a NBA player who grew up in Italy, and Brady, a quarterback from the Bay Area whose potential was doubted until he was in his 20s.
Except their competitiveness.
“They all have an insatiable desire and a thirst that can’t be quenched to be the best at what they do,” Gray said. “I’ve never heard Tom Brady say he can’t improve or that he’s got it. He’s held greatness in his hands and then it escapes and he wants to hold it again.
“Kobe Bryant,” Gray continued. “Kobe did not care who you were. If you were in his way, he was going to get you out of his way. Opponents. Teammates. Coaches. Friends. Kobe was going to win.”
The stories go on and on. Personal. Professional. At times hysterical. All of it from a one of a kind career.
“I’ve been lucky,” Gray said. “I’m certainly not looking to trade with anyone.”
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