Showtime broadcaster Jim Gray recently attended a rally for featherweight boxer Abner Mares at a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station when a young boy asked the fighter how to become great.
Gray felt compelled to encourage the boy by telling him that same kind of curiosity led him to induction Sunday at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., along with boxing champions Vitali Klitschko, Erik Morales and Winky Wright, among others.
“There’s other ways to get into sports and have that exhilaration and have those thrills … I’ve interviewed every president since Nixon … Nelson Mandela, Gorbachev, all these people … and I’ve never taken a punch, tackled anybody and I can’t hit a baseball,” Gray said.
But Gray knows how to ask probing questions that often best reveal an athlete’s personality.
“I’ve been doing this for 41 years. To have the recognition from my peers — the writers, the fighters, the historians — it’s not like you can say, ‘Where do I sign up for the Hall of Fame?’ It’s not something you can give yourself. It’s really fantastic,” said Gray, 58. “I’ve loved my association with boxing, with fighters and all the doors it has opened.”
He nudged it open himself at age 18. While working as a videotape editor one early morning at the ABC affiliate in Denver, an assignment editor entered and said that Muhammad Ali was at the airport with time to talk before his rematch with Leon Spinks, but the news anchor and sportscaster were nowhere to be found.
“I ran into the weatherman’s office, took his coat and tie, got out there and Ali gave me 45 minutes,” Gray said. “The news director, who didn’t even know my name, says, ‘Let me see that Ali interview.’ He watched it with me and said, ‘We’re going to put you and this interview on the air. It’s barely adequate.’
“Until now, I’ve told everyone since that time, at least I’m still barely adequate.”
The bond with Ali got Gray hired by veteran fight promoter Bob Arum, and later by Don King, who pushed Showtime to retain Gray for pre- and post-fight interviews. Thankful for the work, Gray has adhered tightly to the tenets of journalism.
“Don King told me something early: ‘Keep this real. Ask me whatever you want to ask me. Don’t protect me or the fighters,’” Gray said. “He would get mad at me — steamed — but he’d always come back and hire me.”
Gray was there to question an upset Mike Tyson after the former heavyweight question bit a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear off in 1997. He asked Pete Rose if he’d admit to betting on baseball when the hit king returned for a 1999 All-Century team ceremony. And he hosted the ESPN special in which LeBron James announced he was “taking my talents to South Beach.”
He counts Ted Koppel, Johnny Carson and Bob Costas as those who most influenced him to “listen and react.”
“You owe it to yourself, the people you work for, and you owe it to the audience,” Gray said of his interviewing style. “If you’re sitting at home and wondering, ‘Why didn’t he or she ask this?,’ the viewer thinks, ‘What are they doing there? Don’t they have the same curiosity I do? Don’t they want the same information?’
“They’re thinking, ‘Why did he bite that ear? Why is he late for that fight? Why did you bet on baseball?’ Isn’t that what all of us who tune in want?”
In addition to his weekly radio interviews with Tom Brady during the NFL season, Gray has powerful friends, including WME-IMG talent agency head Ari Emanuel and Oprah Winfrey’s longtime partner Stedman Graham, who “tells me all the time, ‘Jim Gray, they’re paying you to talk. Just keep talking.’”
Gray’s wife, Frann, his 87-year-old mother, his brothers and five NFL owners, including the Chargers’ Dean Spanos, are expected to attend Sunday’s ceremony, along with NBA great Julius Erving.