The face and voice of sports on TV

Jim McKay: My World in My Words, an HBO documentary on the life of the legendary 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 one Sunday morning in 1960 while trying to read a newspaper. It was the start of what Margaret describes as a "regular nervous breakdown." As McKay becomes more isolated and withdrawn, she is the one who finds a psychiatrist, takes McKay to meet the doctor and puts her husband on the road to recovery.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 a network sportscaster, including one that involved getting tough with their son, 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 when cub police reporter Jim McManus (the name change would come later) was informed by staff writer Margaret Dempsey that the desk he had been working at during his first few days on the job was hers.

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

Working in the '60s with Roone Arledge, the pioneering producer and network executive 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's coverage in Munich of the 1972 Olympics when terrorists took hostages and killed 11 members of the Israeli team.

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

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

McKay allows viewers to see footage from Baltimore's first telecast (on WMAR in 1947) when he gave commentary on two horse races from Pimlico. Then he reads 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 of McKay, then still known by his real name of McManus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best insight into McKay, though, comes from family members. The children suggest volumes about the way in which the public flowering of Jim McKay 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 him several times: `That was very good, Jim. You looked great, Jim. Those words were 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 in making me care about the life and work of Jim McKay.