More than 40 years ago, Jim Gray was an 18-year-old University of Colorado freshman, working as an intern at Channel 9 in Denver early one morning when assignment editor Sue Tews ran up to him.
“Muhammad Ali is two and a half hours early at the airport,” she said. “You’re the sports intern; please go interview him.”
This being the days before cell phones, none of the on-air talent could be reached, so Gray hustled to the airport.
“I had never done an interview before,” Gray said this week.
What happened at old Stapleton Airport that day would spark a remarkable career that has made Gray one of the most well-known and respected broadcasters in history. A 12-time Emmy Award-winner and Hall of Famer, Gray now has a book to his credit.
“Talking to GOATs,” a collection of stories from Gray’s four-decade career in journalism was released last week. A Denver native and graduate of CU and Thomas Jefferson High School, Gray teamed with Sports Illustrated senior writer Greg Bishop to capture memories of his interactions with some of the greatest of all time – the GOATs.
Gray’s career has included some unforgettable moments, including interviewing boxer Mike Tyson after he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997; his famous interview with baseball legend Pete Rose in 1999 during an All-Century Team celebration; and his part in “The Decision,” when LeBron James announced his choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010.
In 1987, Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, while being interviewed by Gray for ESPN, broke the news of his blockbuster trade to the Indianapolis Colts. That was a landmark moment for ESPN, which had produced sports highlights, but became a news gathering organization after that.
Throughout his career, Gray has interviewed and befriended Ali, Tyson, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and many others. He’s interviewed the last nine United States Presidents, as well as the first and last men to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, respectively.
About a decade ago, journalist and author Cal Fussman told Gray that with all of his experiences, “You have a book.”
Fussman wrote the chapter on Rose, but Gray wasn’t ready to do a book at the time because he was only 50 years and still in the prime of his career.
As time went on, however, Stedman Graham, a businessman, author and long-time partner of Oprah Winfrey, kept telling Gray, “These stories need to be told.”
“He just kept imploring me – him and Oprah,” Gray said. “There’s encouragement from them and they know a lot about books.”
Gray then connected with Bishop and the two spent about two and a half years working on the project.
“Talking to GOATs,” chronicles some of the great moments and people in recent history, but it’s also a story of Gray’s remarkable career and highlights the respect he’s earned from many of the GOATs. The audio version includes Brady reading the foreward (which he wrote), Vin Scully the introduction, Bob Costas the table of contents and rapper Snoop Dogg reading the acknowledgments. Actress and comedian Carol Burnett contributes, as well.
For Gray, who worked in CU’s sports information department as a student, it all began as a youth in Denver, where his father cultivated a love of the Denver Broncos, boxing – including Ali – and broadcasting. Gray looked up to legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell.
When Gray showed up to Stapleton Airport as an 18-year-old, Ali said to him, “You’re doing the interview? Are you still in school?”
“Yeah,” Gray said.
Everybody in the room laughed.
“But, that took all the edge off when they laughed,” Gray said. “I was able to relax and by the third or fourth question, he said, ‘You sound like the local Howard Cosell.
“That was the nicest compliment I had ever heard in my life to that point.”
That was Gray’s first talk with a GOAT, but it wouldn’t be his last.
“Ali opened so many doors,” Gray said.
Gray discovered a passion for getting to know people, and his book – his first and last, he said – chronicles some of the relationships he has formed during what has been a blessed career.
“That’s been the critical and focal point of my life is the relationships with people, and to actually not only cover them but to have the experience of having seen them trying to achieve or witness their tragedies and triumphs and trials and all the ups and downs and then to see some of it from a really, inside perspective up close and personally,” Gray said.
“I’m not looking to trade with anybody else. I’ve had the greatest fortune in existence ever for what it is that I’m trying to do. I’ve enjoyed it all. I’ve never one day gone out there and thought this was work. It’s not like it’s been without any bumps, but basically it’s been a magic carpet ride.”