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Talking to GOATs

The Moments You Remember and the Stories You Never Heard

By Jim Gray
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Talking to GOATs by Jim Gray

Talking to GOATs (2020) recounts the inside stories and memorable moments from some of the greatest athletes and sporting events the world has ever seen. These insights have been culled from the from the four-decade-long career of the renowned sports interviewer, Jim Gray.

Key idea 1 of 9

A chance interview with boxing icon Muhammad Ali kickstarted Jim Gray’s broadcasting career.

The year was 1978. Jim Gray was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Colorado and a sports intern at a TV station in Denver. He was editing a show early one Monday morning when a panicked assignment editor asked him to go to the airport and conduct an interview with the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

Ali had arrived two hours early for an interview with one of the station’s sports anchors. In an era before mobile phones and beepers, there was no way of letting the anchor know about the change.

Gray didn’t have time to prepare any questions before setting off for the airport. In fact, he didn’t even have a notepad. But he was surprisingly prepared. 

The key message here is: A chance interview with boxing icon Muhammad Ali kickstarted Jim Gray’s broadcasting career.

Gray was an Ali fan and knew everything about the three-time world heavyweight champion. For years, he had watched his favorite sports broadcaster Howard Cosell banter with Ali after bouts, so Gray decided to model himself on Cosell.

When Ali met the author, he was surprised at how young the interviewer looked, and asked if he was still in school. He nonetheless proceeded with the interview and, after a few exchanges, remarked that the budding sports reporter was like a local Howard Cosell.

Despite having no prepared questions, Gray recorded a 32-minute interview with Ali. He had two topics to discuss: Ali’s upcoming rematch with Leon Spinks, and his proposed exhibition bout with a Denver Broncos American football player. So how did he manage to keep the interview going for so long? Gray simply asked him questions based on his previous answers. The result? Ali discussed his global initiatives, his hopes of another “Rumble in the Jungle,” and what his Muslim faith meant to him.

That day, Gray learned the secret to being a good interviewer: listening.

Back at the TV station, Gray planned to edit himself out of the interview. But the news director had other ideas and decided to run the interview on the air that very evening. His first on-air appearance would change Gray’s life forever. 

This chance interview with Ali gave his career a boost in other ways, too. He and Ali became friends, and industry people noticed. Boxing promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank was among them. He would send Gray to fights to conduct interviews. So would Don King, another renowned boxing promoter and erstwhile rival of Arum’s. Gray, then, had the unique distinction of being among the select few who worked for the two bitter rivals at the same time.

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