The surreal day began early Thursday morning in the NBC office of Dick Ebersol. We were there to talk mostly about golf coverage — Ebersol, you might know, has had a major effect on golf coverage on television. He gave Johnny Miller an open microphone, he gave the brilliant golf producer Tommy Roy an open canvas, and so on.
Then, it wasn’t just about golf. How could it be? Ebersol is one of those men who has tilted television. He was hired by NBC in 1974 to create a bit of late night television to replace the Johnny Carson reruns shown on Saturday nights. He hired a genius named Lorne Michaels. And they created a show called Saturday Night Live. Later he was a driving force in changing the way we watch the Olympics, not to mention the NFL, pro basketball and hockey. He was also the guy behind the XFL and Friday Night Videos. It was like that for Ebersol for 40 years — a huge career, enormous highs, titanic lows. I would say that only Roone Arledge has shaped sports television more.
I asked one question. It wasn’t exactly a question. It was more of an introduction. “So … golf …” I said, and he was off. For the next 45 minutes or so he regaled me with stories about Ryder Cups and U.S. Opens and Super Bowls and NBA Finals and his grave distaste for the way Yankees radio announcer John Sterling calls a baseball game.
I’ve been around many people who dominate conversations, but dominate is not the right word for Dick Ebersol, because that would suggest that he bullies his way into the pole position of the discussion. And he does not. He just happens to be one of those people who has more fascinating stories and more interesting things to say than I do. And he does not drift into the tedious. Interrupting him with a question or an aside seems not only pointless but disruptive. I not only didn’t interrupt, I was never even tempted to do so.
We had started the conversation earlier than scheduled because, he said, a meeting with the boss had come up. He seemed perfectly at ease. We sat on a couch beneath a large arrow in a frame — I did remind myself to ask him at some point if it was the arrow that had lit the torch that started the Barcelona Olympics. There was one giant television on the wall, bordered by three smaller ones. The photos all around the office were of family members and celebrities and in some cases both (Ebersol is married to actress Susan Saint James). There was a large stuffed dog standing by the desk. My wife would ask if the office resembled Alec Baldwin’s in 30 Rock. I said it had more Emmy Awards.
A few minutes before 10 a.m., Ebersol apologized and said he needed to go meet with his boss. He invited me to stay in his office and “go through my files.” I chose to wait in the office of NBC Sports senior director of communications Adam Freifeld. Ebersol said, “I hope this will only take about 20 minutes.”
Not too long after that, NBC Sports’ VP of communications Chris McCloskey walked into Adam’s office and told me that Ebersol’s meeting would take just a little bit longer, that “something had come up,” and that maybe I should come back to finish the interview a little later in the day.
It wasn’t until after I had gotten to the Sports Illustrated offices a block away that I heard that Dick Ebersol had resigned.
* * *
It is a strange thing to be in a place just before news happens. Immediately afterward, word began to spread that Ebersol had resigned, people wanted to know: How had he SEEMED in the minutes before? It’s a fair question. Dick Ebersol had been running NBC Sports for more than 20 years. He had been doing what it seemed like he was born to do.
He had dropped out of Yale in 1967 to become the first-ever Olympic television researcher. He did this for the legendary Roone Arledge. Even when he went back to Yale, he would leave on Thursdays to help produce the Pro Bowlers’ Tour on TV.
The point is, that sports on television has been his life, his world, and it is only natural to think that he would have offered unmistakable hints and clues that he was about to walk away. Maybe he did. Maybe I just missed them.
But I also think it’s true that people are not easily read. Bill James talks about this a lot, about how in the thousands of crime books he has read he has had to endure countless descriptions of the murderer’s eyes. The powerful suggestion in these descriptions is that murderers have different-looking eyes from normal people, that if you are observant you should be able to pick out murderers from normal folk by the blackness or cloudiness or cruelty in those eyes. This, Bill says, is the most dangerous kind of horse manure, and I would tend to agree. Eyes, in most cases, are just eyes.
Maybe a body-language expert … or a master of reading human cues … or simply a better reporter … maybe anyone else would have been able to tell that while Dick Ebersol was talking about his views on sports and television, that his mind was far away, focused on how it was all coming to an end. But I didn’t notice it at all. Ebersol was his typical self — lively, engaged, opinionated. If he was weighed down by his contract dispute or the very real possibility that he was about to quit — “I more or less suspected that’s what was going to happen,” he would tell me later that afternoon — he hid it well.
Or maybe he didn’t hide it at all. Maybe it’s just that people are not open books. The challenge for Dick Ebersol for more than two decades was to bring people closer to sport, to pull them through that box of glass and wires, and he has always known how hard that was, to get beyond the moments, beyond the facial expressions, beyond the action and reaction, and to the people.
“The only way I know to do it,” he said, “is through storytelling.”
And in those moments when he had to be pondering his career and his future and the many things he had done in his life, Dick Ebersol told stories.
* * *
The second time I sat in Dick Ebersol’s office — late Thursday afternoon — the wear of the day WAS evident. He sounded different … tired. Or maybe that was simply my own perception. He began by going through a stack of papers. They were various reports and notes. “I don’t need these anymore,” he said, not happily nor unhappily.
Ebersol said he left over money. He made no bones about this. He is 63 years old, and as he looked ahead to a crushing year with the NFL lockout unresolved, the 2014-2020 Olympics to bid on, the 2012 Olympics to produce and all sorts of new programming with Comcast (which includes the Golf Channel, Versus and numerous regional sports networks), he saw a workload unlike anything he had ever dealt with in his already legendarily work-loaded career. He had decided that it would only be worth his time if NBC paid him a whole lot of money.
Of course, NBC was already paying him a whole lot of money and was offering him a huge deal — a fact that Ebersol cheerfully acknowledged. “I had just determined I was not going to budge,” he said. Maybe he really was just looking for a clean way to end things. More than once, he brought up that he had only spent four days in his home in Telluride over the last two years. More than once, he brought up the pile of 17 books he has been dying to read but has not had the time. More than once, he brought up how his wife, Susan Saint James, had grilled him over the weekend with questions designed to see just how much he would miss the job if he quit.
“She’s even smarter than Sally McMillan,” he said of his wife, who played the role in McMillan and Wife, opposite Rock Hudson. “She really asked me everything.”
Their conclusion? He was ready to walk away. Speculation has been rampant that NBC has lost its appetite for the Olympics — the network reportedly lost $223 million on the Vancouver Winter Games. Ebersol denied that. “I believe NBC will make an aggressive bid,” he said. And he added: “It’s just time.”
We talked for quite a while about how sports on television has changed, how he viewed his years in the business and how much he has loved what he has done. I’ll be writing about these things in Sports Illustrated magazine next week. We talked more about storytelling. ”The guy at home is every bit as smart as we are,” he said. “He might not be as informed about the event. But he’s every bit as smart. He can figure it out.”
And then we talked for a few minutes about personal things, about taking time to enjoy life.
“I do know how to relax,” he said. “I’m not the kind of person who can’t relax.” It was hard to tell if he was saying those words to me or to himself. People around him, friends, acquaintances, everyone, say that Ebersol cannot stop, that it is not in his constitution. But Ebersol said they don’t know him. He said that he wants to take 15 months and relax, read, sit by the water, spend time with friends, remember. After 15 months? Well, he doesn’t know.
“If an opportunity comes along to produce or executive produce,” he says, “and the situation is exactly right …”
He let the words trail off. He abruptly told a different story, seemingly unrelated. It seemed he was driving through the desert one time, and he was driving very fast, when suddenly he saw a Volkswagen Bug pull up beside him. A Volkswagen Bug! He sped up. The bug sped up. Ebersol looked over to see who was driving, and he got the second surprise of his life. Nobody was driving. There was no head in the window.
He looked for a moment and then suddenly looked back and saw a head all the way in the backseat. And he got his third surprise: The driver from the backseat was his friend, the great Bill Russell.
They pulled over and talked for a little while right by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. That is the life Dick Ebersol has lived, a life of burning arrows at the Olympics and prime-time wars and desert races with Bill Russell. What did that Russell story have to do with how much he will miss that life or what comes next? That’s for the listener to determine. Dick Ebersol was just telling a story.