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June 17, 2015

Keeping It Real

As HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel marks its twentieth year, its host counts his blessings.

Jason Lynch

Matt Lauer can still remember when he learned that his Today colleague was going to be moonlighting on a new HBO series, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.

"My first reaction was, if anybody had been placed on this earth to do any kind of a show, it was Bryant on Real Sports," says Lauer, who was Today's news anchor when Gumbel's show launched in April 1995. "It just fit so beautifully with his passion, with his journalism, with his ability to tell stories."

As Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the series has proved Lauer's prophecy, masterfully marrying its host's two greatest loves: sports and storytelling.

"I consider it the best program on which I've ever worked," the former Today host says of Real Sports, which is now HBO's longest-running show. "It's telling serious stories about societal problems and issues through the medium of sports."

In the process, it's pushed sports journalism to new heights. Each Gumbel-hosted episode has three or four long-form segments featuring correspondents like Frank Deford, Bernard Goldberg, Mary Carillo, Carl Quintanilla and Gumbel himself.

Real Sports has racked up an impressive 26 Sports Emmy Awards, including 15 for Outstanding Sports Journalism, with four more nominations this year.

Real Sports has consistently been at the forefront of major sports issues, from the NFL's concussion problems (in 2007, "We were first on the ground talking about it, long before it became popular," Gumbel says) to the struggle for gay athletes to come out in the midst of their professional careers. He says he is proudest of the segments "where we have not just shined a light on an ill, but made a societal difference."

Some of his favorite examples of such segments include:

  • Deford's 2001 piece on the Miracle League, a Georgia-based program that allows physically and mentally challenged youths to play on specially crafted baseball diamonds. Gumbel says that story "started a national movement."
  • Goldberg's 2004 piece on the exploitation of children as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. Per Gumbel, that story "changed the way business is done in a world where children were winding up abused or dead. We were able to eliminate that."
  • Bryant's own 2003 story on high school football player Marcus Dixon, who had consensual sex with a high school teenager (he was 18 and black, she was 15 and white), but was jailed for statutory rape and child molestation because of the Georgia Child Protection Act. He was released after the piece prompted media attention. "It would be hard for me to envision a story we did," Gumbel says, "that involved so many of the things that we think and talk about constantly at Real Sports, and had such a positive final outcome." 

Back in 1994, Gumbel had no idea what a journey he was in for when he met with Seth Abraham and Ross Greenburg, then the president and senior vice-president, executive producer, respectively, of HBO Sports. The trio hatched the idea for Real Sports over that lunch.

"We all thought this was something that was fairly interesting," says Gumbel, who had to persuade Andrew Lack — then the president of NBC News and now its chairman — to allow him to work on the show in addition to his Today duties.

"I suspect he said yes because at the time it was only going to be on twice a year." The show ran four times in 1995 and steadily increased frequency, finally going monthly in 1999.

Though he left Today less than two years after his first Real Sports broadcast, Gumbel insists he wasn't trying to lay the groundwork for life after Today.

"I wish I could say I was that smart. I'm not!" he says, adding that he was focused on doing something different in sports journalism.

"I don't think there's a lot to be proud of out there in most sports coverage. We were trying to raise what was an admittedly low bar, and those of us who were serious about sports were able to look at a game and realize that [the score] was the least important aspect of it."

On Real Sports, Gumbel "has been the guiding compass of the show for so long," says Joe Perskie, Real Sports senior producer and vice-president of HBO Sports. "And he will always keep us honest, if there's something we're looking into that's maybe a little off-base for us, or the tone isn't right."

At the same time, Gumbel also sets the standard for what the show can accomplish. In January, the Chicago native interviewed the 1985 Chicago Bears team, which had won the Super Bowl.

"There's no one else who could have done that story in that way," Perskie says. "Who else would [coach] Mike Ditka have told, 'I don't think I'd have my kids and grandkids play football'? And that's the credibility and the respect that people have for Bryant, that they'll say that kind of thing to him."

Gumbel is also unafraid to speak his mind — on any number of topics. "If somebody asks me an intelligent question, then they deserve an intelligent answer," he says. His candor and refusal to pull punches have been a part of Real Sports from the start.

"You can be everybody's friend, and you can make sure you never rub anybody the wrong way — perhaps it's going to keep more doors open for you," Perskie says. "But it comes at a cost, and the cost is credibility, honesty and authenticity. Those are the things that Bryant is never going to be willing to sacrifice. It's in his DNA."

Because HBO, unlike almost any other television network, doesn't have contractual obligations to sports leagues or sponsors, "We're free to follow a story wherever it may lead," Gumbel says.

"I worked for networks — I know what your limitations are. We can say, 'Why did a league choose to look the other way when they knew so-and-so was a domestic abuser?' Because we don't have a contract with the league that's going to [make someone] pick up the phone and go, 'Hey, don't go there.' I don't expect there's another program that could say that."

For Gumbel, Real Sports is the culmination of a lifelong passion. Born in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, he says sports "was something I'd known and enjoyed my whole life."

In 1972, he was named sportscaster of KNBC in Los Angeles, which was the first local station to switch to a two-hour news format. That gave him the freedom to tackle personality pieces, commentaries and book reviews on-air. "I tried to do different things," he says, "and that served me well."

He got the attention of NBC Sports execs twice when he filmed commentaries in front of the national NBC cameras. Those two spots, which were sent back to KNBC for broadcast, were shot after the Oakland A's won the American League pennant in 1973 and when UCLA basketball coach John Wooden announced his retirement after the 1975 NCAA championships in San Diego.

"I had the good fortune then of the NBC Sports executives standing in the truck watching," he says. "And they said, 'Who's the fat kid with all the hair?'"

The execs liked what they saw and hired him in 1975. He hosted all NBC Sports programs and championship events until 1982, when NBC News president Bob Mulholland asked him to succeed Tom Brokaw as Today host. It was a difficult decision.

"I was 31 and had what many would consider a dream job. I remember Don Ohlmeyer, the head of NBC Sports, saying, 'Why on earth would you take a pay cut for a lesser audience to go do this?'" Gumbel recalls.

But his friend and NBC Sports cohort, Joe Garagiola, helped persuade him by pointing out, "If you do it, you will see things, you will go places and you will meet people you never imagined."

The start of his Today tenure, alongside Jane Pauley, was rocky.

"I was not a very popular choice," he says, laughing. "The issues were twofold. Number one, that a lot of people — it seems funny now — took exception to a black guy sitting next to a white woman. And a lot of people took exception to the idea of a 'sports guy' being in charge of a news program."

Lauer notes: "The ironic thing about Bryant and his time on the show was that there were all these questions when he was given the job, coming out of sports in Los Angeles, whether he was the guy who could take over the journalism of the Today show. And as it turns out, he's one of the best journalists to ever occupy the chair."

Gumbel finally proved the naysayers wrong during Today's historic 1984 trip to the Soviet Union. He got to show off what he'd learned as a Russian history major in college, and he finally solidified his hard-news bona fides for skeptical viewers.

He remembers: "We did it effectively enough that once I came home, people said, 'You know what? He's not as dumb as we thought he was!'"

During his 15 years on the show, Gumbel lived and breathed Today from morning until night. "He was relentless in terms of his preparation," says a still-awed Lauer. "When we would go someplace, Bryant always had a folder out, always was going through notes for a segment for the next morning, whether he was interviewing the secretary of state or Martha Stewart. He was absolutely obsessive about preparation, and it showed in every interview he did."

But that drive eventually wore him down.

"It consumes your life, and to do it 15 years was a lot," he says. When he left Today in January 1997, he admits, "I fully intended to retire. I would have continued to do Real Sports, but I was basically done."

Instead, he found the major networks engaged in a heated bidding war for his services. In the end, he signed a lucrative deal with CBS to launch his own primetime newsmagazine, Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel.

He had only five months to launch the show. "It wasn't the best decision. Five months is a very short time to try to get everything together," Gumbel says of Public Eye, which was canceled after one season. "I'm not embittered by it at all. Most of the fault was mine in rushing on air when I should have taken my time."

Laughing, he says "guilt" lured him back to mornings in 1999, when he started hosting The Early Show. Still under contract to CBS, he was "being paid a very hefty salary, and I had nothing on the air."

But it didn't take long to see that the thrill was gone. "After a while you realize, you're talking to the latest ingénue, or the latest this or that, and the same drive and spirit isn't there. It's time to get out — and I did."

Leaving CBS in 2002 finally afforded him the freedom he'd sought five years earlier after exiting Today. He stepped up his presence at Real Sports — where he reported eight or nine pieces a year in addition to his hosting duties — but refocused his time on family. Now he spends half the year in Florida.

"As you get a little older in this business, your priorities change," says Lauer, who will one day be in his best friend's shoes, embarking on a post-Today career.

"He's found a way to live the life he wants, have the career he wants at the level he wants it, and stay engaged and passionate and challenged. The template he's created is something that I absolutely look to."

Gumbel returned to the national spotlight in February with a Super Bowl commercial for BMW. In it, he and Katie Couric poke fun at their infamous 1994 Today segment when he asked, "What is 'Internet' anyway? Do you write to it like mail?"

He says now: "We've always been able to laugh at ourselves, and we had a great time shooting it."

The ad revealed a lighter, softer side, one Lauer says has always existed but that Today viewers rarely saw. "I think that the misconception about Bryant when he had this [Today] job is that he was a little bit stuck in his ways," Lauer says. "And the fact is, he's not that guy at all. He's a guy with a wicked sense of humor."

In the midst of Real Sports's 20th-anniversary celebration, its host isn't sure whether he'll make it to year 25. He's 66 and has three years left on his contract. "A great part of it depends on how I feel. It's going to be a constant reassessment."

Regardless of his future, Bryant Gumbel is eternally grateful for that fateful lunch that led to Real Sports and forever changed his life — and sports journalism. "The show has just been a blessing to me," he says. "I'm so fortunate."

And so are sports fans.

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