I’m always interested in what other journalists have to say about topics that matter to me so when I saw Jim Gray’s book, Talking To GOATs, I was looking forward to reading it from a professional standpoint. I also knew he had interviewed some of the best athletes of all time and wanted to hear the backstories. Side note: I say “best” instead of “greatest” because I think the GOAT acronym gets overused even though it’s 100 percent accurate. Also, I find it interesting that Gray titled his book Talking To rather than “With” GOATs. But I digress.
While broadcast journalism is different than print journalism in a lot of ways, the job is similar in that you are there to get the story and ask the tough questions, but still be someone who people are comfortable speaking with again in the future. Gray has been that person for a lot of athletes. He is unassuming but still asks the tough questions. He also pays attention – i.e. tracking down a then-unknown, nine-year-old named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods after reading about him in the agate section of an LA newspaper. First of all, I had no idea that Woods’ first name is Eldrick. Second, I can’t believe Gray was there – over 35 years ago – to witness the wunderkind before he hit double digits. Talk about some intuitive reporting.
The book’s foreword is written by Tom Brady – who apparently is best buddies with Gray. They’ve co-hosted a radio show together for over a decade and it’s hard to decide who is a bigger fanboy of who. A relationship like that is fun because it’s unexpected. Brady on Gray: “Someone once said marriage is a long conversation. My relationship with Jim is the same.”
Brady goes on to say that Gray “is only after one thing – authenticity – and he pushes hard to get it.” No bigger compliment to a journalist of any kind. He also describes Gray as a “sportscaster” and “sports historian” who has gotten to where he is today by “working hard, putting in the time and energy developing relationships, and telling stories.” Again, no bigger compliment to any type of storyteller. Lastly, and this becomes a common theme throughout the narrative, Brady points out that Gray learned early on that “the key to interviewing anyone is to listen.” Yes.
As for the content of the book, chapters one and two are about boxers which I think is odd. Why not talk about Ali first (that interview took place at the beginning of Gray’s career) and then talk about Tyson later? Obviously Ali and Tyson are both big deals but Gray might lose some readers who aren’t boxing fans. I’m not a boxing fan, but I knew there were more stories worth reading.
That being said, maybe it was strategic and Gray wanted to start his book with a chapter that contained this attention-grabbing quote: “Mike Tyson fights were like Super Bowls. The world stopped to watch, to see what he might do…Every time, it was a collection of people unlike any collection of people that had ever been assembled.” And then of course he addresses the Evander Holyfield ear bite: “What Tyson had done was crazy, and it was my job as a broadcaster to obtain the most information possible from a volatile and evolving circumstance.” As we all know, that became the bite heard around the world and Gray was right there.
Favorites And Non-Favorites
Throughout GOATs, Gray discusses his experiences (both positive and negative) with athletes (both as a broadcast journalist and a fan) but there are few that are clear favorites – especially Brady and Kobe Bryant.
The chapter on Kobe is tough. Gray met Kobe as an infant – a literal infant – because Gray was scouting for the San Diego Clippers at the time and Kobe’s dad, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant,” was playing for them. So Gray witnessed Kobe’s entire life and career which makes the whole ordeal even sadder. Reading about his death from Gray’s point of view gave me the chills. I remember where I was (snowboarding at Beaver Creek) when I heard about what happened to him and his daughter. Horrifying.
On the other hand, Gray has one major score to settle and that is with Pete Rose. Titled “Your Rose, My Thorn,” the chapter is 100 percent in the book to set the record straight. It’s interesting but, at 30 pages, is also way too long. Rose pissed him off and then (for some reason) the interview pissed a lot of other people off. I’m not sure why Rose had (has?) so many fans but wow did that interview go awry. Another chapter that is way too long is the one about LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for Miami. Ugh “The Decision.” Get over it.
He Was Everywhere
Regardless of his thoughts on the person, situation, event, or game, Gray carefully ensures that the reader knows what major interviews he was responsible for but is also humble and makes sure it’s not all about him. “If there’s nobody there to shoot it, the interview doesn’t happen. If the audio guy doesn’t have the microphone right, the interview doesn’t happen.” I appreciate that because, like anything worth doing, journalism takes a village.
It really is amazing to read how Gray was present for shifts in many different sports with a variety of athletes. Examples include Brady winning the Super Bowl after being accused of cheating, Mayweather changing how boxers took control of the financial aspects of their careers, and witnessing the first time in history the Olympics allowed the United States to use professional athletes aka the Dream Team: “This wasn’t so much an all-star team as an all-history one.”
As a basketball fan, the Dream Team chapter was really fun to read – especially as Gray describes the magnitude of the players assembled: “The Dream Team showed us, reminded us, and highlighted for us what sports can be at their absolute best.” Additionally, Gray makes it clear that the Dream Team brought basketball to the global stage. “If that team had never been assembled, the NBA wouldn’t have players from 38 different countries…with more than 100 of them hailing from outside the United States.”
What sets this book apart is that it covers all different kinds of athletes from a variety of sports. Brady isn’t kidding when he mentions that Gray “has been at the center of one huge sports story after another.” The NBA playoffs, Masters, World Series, Olympics, million-dollar fights – you name it – Gray was there. And he’s got the 12 Emmys, the celebratory anecdotes, and war stories to prove it. Any sports fan will enjoy this book – especially those who love Brady as much as Gray does.
It just so happens that he’s from Denver and went to CU Boulder – I had no idea! But that made him even more interesting for obvious reasons.
Gray talks a lot about humanity throughout the book – which goes beyond sports in many ways as he has interviewed several United States presidents and world leaders like Nelson Mandela.
I didn’t realize that Magic Johnson had already retired from pro basketball (1991) and then played for the Dream Team in 1992.
“Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. Treat them the way they want to be treated.”
On Hank Aaron: “He showed us – he shows us – why integrity matters.”
On baseball player Orlando Hernandez who risked his life coming to the United States on a boat from Cuba: “The man who understood me the most was a man who knew what free speech meant.”
“It’s important to remember that our judgment can be poor when time is of the essence.”
On waiting to interview Floyd Mayweather which was extremely delayed because the boxer was busy buying handbags and a Bentley: “The scene was at once outrageous and totally on brand.”