The face and voice of sports on TV

Sun Staff

Jim McKay: My World in My Words, an HBO documentary on the life of thelegendary sportscaster, is at its best when it gets personal, very personal -as in his relationship with his wife, Margaret.

There's the story about how McKay's hands began shaking uncontrollably oneSunday morning in 1960 while trying to read a newspaper. It was the start ofwhat Margaret describes as a "regular nervous breakdown." As McKay becomesmore isolated and withdrawn, she is the one who finds a psychiatrist, takesMcKay to meet the doctor and puts her husband on the road to recovery.

There's the account of how Margaret negotiated McKay's contracts as anetwork sportscaster, including one that involved getting tough with theirson, Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports, whom she jokingly accused of"trying to gyp" them.

And there's the tale of how they met at the old Baltimore Evening Sun whencub police reporter Jim McManus (the name change would come later) wasinformed by staff writer Margaret Dempsey that the desk he had been working atduring his first few days on the job was hers.

The one-hour documentary, written and narrated by McKay, is mostly aboutthe public man - the Jim McKay who, more than any other living broadcaster,has become the face of network television sports. McKay came of age withsports coverage on television, and was on the scene or at the anchor desk forsome of the medium's most trivial and elevated sports moments.

Working in the '60s with Roone Arledge, the pioneering producer and networkexecutive who died in December, McKay became a household name as host of ABC's Wide World of Sports. But he became a respected journalist as anchor of ABC'scoverage in Munich of the 1972 Olympics when terrorists took hostages andkilled 11 members of the Israeli team.

McKay's career is a grand one capped with 12 sports Emmys. In 1995, he waselected into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Today, his face and voiceare as much a part of shared national consciousness as those of anybroadcaster this side of Walter Cronkite.

There's a lot of public ground to cover in this film, and, for the mostpart, it is covered well. Like most truly accomplished people, McKay has asolid sense of proportion and humor about his career. He knows that not everytelecast was Munich 1972.

McKay allows viewers to see footage from Baltimore's first telecast (onWMAR in 1947) when he gave commentary on two horse races from Pimlico. Then hereads a review of the telecast written by none other than H.L. Mencken.

"The young man doing the talking was poor at the job," Mencken said ofMcKay, then still known by his real name of McManus.

Two years later, McManus became McKay when he started as host of a networkshow named The Real McKay in New York.

The documentary includes a healthy sampling of McKay's work from the earlydays of Wide World of Sports as he covers fringe competitions such as logrolling, barrel jumping (on ice skates) and target diving (with divers judgedon how they hit targets in the water."

In the film, one ABC Sports executive, Doug Wilson, describes many of theevents as "off the wall."

Margaret offers the most succinct overall analysis: "They weren't very goodsports. They were a lot of little rinky-dinky things."

The genius of it involved Arledge, McKay and ABC getting hundreds ofthousands of viewers each week to watch events for which it cost thethen-struggling network almost nothing in rights fees. The winningcombination: Arledge's technical innovations in coverage married to McKay'sstory lines that stressed the emotions of the athletes rather than statisticsand scores.

McKay's skill is on display in segments from the 12 Olympics he covered, aswell as clips of the broadcaster's signature events such as the Kentucky Derbyand British Open.

The weakest part of the documentary involves talking-head "experts" (mostlyMcKay colleagues) who provide the kind of comments one might hear at atestimonial dinner rather than sociological or historical analysis of McKay'scareer.

Still, it carries considerable weight when ABC anchorman Peter Jennings -who was a reporter at the Munich Olympics - says: "I wouldn't have wantedJim's job for all the tea in China that day, because I wasn't qualified to doit. It took me many, many years after that to begin to think that maybe I wasqualified to anchor a broadcast like that."

The best insight into McKay, though, comes from family members. Thechildren suggest volumes about the way in which the public flowering of JimMcKay has its roots in the private relationship between Mom and Dad McManus.Sean describes his father as "not the most secure individual in the world."Daughter Mary Guba follows with: "My mother would often have to tell himseveral times: `That was very good, Jim. You looked great, Jim. Those wordswere perfect, Jim.' "

I wish there were more of the personal in this documentary. But in the end,that's not so much criticism as testimony to how effective this film was inmaking me care about the life and work of Jim McKay.

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