Honoring Jim McKay

Jim McKay is dead.

But what he brought to the world of journalism, not just sports television journalism but the world of journalism, will live on and be taught in classrooms and newsrooms for years to come.

And I hope his legacy will also be talked about in living rooms as families gather to watch this year’s Olympics from China or when anyone next hears the words, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports” and “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

My memories of Jim McKay are not just tied to his magnificent work, especially those long hours during the tragedy at the Munich Olympics when his voice was the central thread that tied us together, but also of a little personal moment at Churchill Downs.

Jim McKay’s wife, Margaret, a talented writer in her own right and a person whose generous and adventurous spirit matched that of her husband, became a free-lancer for us when I was managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, and through her I met Jim.

One year when ABC was telecasting the Kentucky Derby Jim invited me and our then 11-year-old son, Jeff, to a party at Churchill Downs the night before the Derby. And, as always, he was an extraordinarily gracious host.

“Who do you want to meet?” he asked Jeff.

“Howard Cosell and Jimmy the Greek,” Jeff answered. And Jim almost immediately made the introductions, making a young boy quite happy and adding a page to his book of memories.

Visiting with Margaret and Jim in their New York apartment was like visiting old friends, even though our relationship was not at that level. But they made it feel that way, just as we all felt we had a friend when Jim McKay spoke to us as a reporter trotting across the globe.

There are still some sportscasters with Jim McKay’s eloquence and style and class, such as Bob Costas, Al Michaels, Vin Scully, Keith Jackson and a handful of others. But in today’s universe of so many mean-spirited and silly talk shows, the dignity and care and the love of the language that McKay brought to his work is much too often a missing ingredient.

His line at Munich about the athletes who were killed, a line that still rings so clearly in our heads: “They’re all gone.”

Now, he is gone. And will be deeply missed, but not forgotten.

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