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A FLY ON THE WALL
By Walt Brown
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Walt Brown
All rights reserved.
"You met him?"
* * *
It seems that friends and relatives often say to me, "What? You met, you know him, her?" And I say, "yes." I've never been one to "name drop" just because I've met or known someone that was famous. That was part of my job for many decades.
It is true! I was a "fly on the wall." And, there have been enough questions from friends and relatives that, now, it seems something should be written. "Who was the most impressive?" always seems to be one of the first questions asked; once over their shock that little-old-me actually did meet or know someone famous.
The answer is difficult. There have been many. But, it does seem to narrow to five atop the list. And, then, there are two: Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens. My time with Jesse was eerie in its memories. (More on that later.) But, in answering who was the most impressive with just one name, it really must be Muhammed Ali.
I visited with Muhammed Ali three different times, and each was unique in its own way.
In the mid-1970s, most television stations were "adapting" to racial equality by broadcasting Sunday morning programs with local minority talent and perspective. This was true in Phoenix, where I was Sports Director of KPHO-TV.
There had been word passed to the media—and remember, there was no cable TV at this time—that Muhammed Ali would be visiting Phoenix to lend his support to housing and general improvement in South Phoenix. And, the word was that he would not be talking to the sports media at any time during his visit.
The day before his visit, the local host of KPHO-TV's Sunday morning program dedicated to African-Americans asked me whether I'd like to interview Ali. I said I was under the impression that he was not going to do any interviews. The host said that Ali had agreed to be on his program and was coming by the station to tape the show. He said he'd ask Ali if he'd visit with me, if I'd just be in the lobby the next morning.
Next morning, I was in the lobby; the only white person there, except for the receptionist and a pre-teen girl sitting on a bench against the far wall. There were several local men on hand to greet Ali. I recognized the girl as a Junior Olympic National Champion in the 11/12 age group.
The girl looked bored and began lying down on the bench. I had interviewed her before, and went over to her to ask why she was there, if I could do anything for her. She said she was there for "Wallace and Ladmo," the highly rated local TV Children's Show. About that time, there was a clamor among the men in the room.
Looking out the front door, we saw two long limousines in the parking circle; the second, with Islamic flags on both front fenders. Their doors opened. Out came a dozen tall men wearing fez on their heads. And, then ... Muhammed Ali; no fez, but all smiles.
The station host introduced himself to the Muslim guard, and to Ali. I saw him gesture toward me and the leader of the guard shake his head, "no." Ali smiled and, in turn, shook his head at his guardians; nodding at me to come on over. I signaled my videographer to join us.
As we approached, my videographer seemed scared by the guards, and held back. Ali noticed the girl, and walked to the bench. With a friendly smile, he asked the girl why she was there. I said to Ali, "she's a champ, too, Champ; national age-group track champion." Ali said to the girl, "You are? Let's see how you run." The girl got up and started jogging around the room. Ali joined her.
I whispered to my videographer, "get them jogging!" He didn't turn on his camera. And, we missed out on what would have been one of the great Ali videos of all time; jogging in a reception room alongside a Junior Olympic Champion pre-teen white girl. It was joyful and warm.
Finished jogging, Ali joined the TV host and they came over to me. The host introduced me. Looking around the room at the guards, and noticing my videographer still hanging back, I suggested to Ali that we speak out in the atrium, not the reception room. He agreed. Only the two of us, and the videographer, were out there.
Despite the pre-visit announcements, Ali seemed totally at ease in talking to me; a Sports Director. Still, I thought it appropriate the questioning should be about his efforts to boost aid for the people living in South Phoenix.
I remembered one of the great Ali sayings—as I stood there with "The Greatest"—"Why is it when you buy an ice cream cone, they always put the vanilla on top of the chocolate?" And so, the camera now turned on, I said to Ali, "I understand you're visiting Phoenix to see about putting the chocolate scoop on top of the vanilla." He already had been smiling. Now there was a grin, and a huge guffaw. And he explained his economic aid plans.
The second of my three visits with Ali was a decade later, in the mid-1980s. By this time I'd proved to myself that I could describe a full plate of action; play-by-play of over twenty different types of sport, including NBA, MLB, and college football's "Game of the Century" between Nebraska and Oklahoma. Moving on, now I am in charge of one of the top rated TV newsrooms in the nation.
Leaving the building, following the evening newscasts, whom do I see sitting in a corner of the sports office one evening? It's Muhammed Ali! I'm baffled. We haven't had him on our newscasts. What's he doing here? I said it was good to see him again—doubting he'd remember me from ten years before—and asked if there was anything we could do for him. He said, no, he just was waiting to visit a nearby boxing arena. He'd told the owner he'd stop by to say hello.
He was smiling and friendly and just sitting there, visiting with one of our sportscasters, Pete Cirivilleri. Why Pete, one of the nicest guys I ever knew in television, hadn't bothered to ask Ali to appear on the newscast is a question without any logical answer.
My third time with Ali was a more "normal" occasion to see a sports celebrity. It was at a celebrity sports show in San Francisco, where dozens of name athletes were on hand to sign autographs for money.
Included among the athletes, past and present, were the women baseball players that had inspired the movie, "A League of Their Own." They always had intrigued me. I took along my copy of the movie and bought tickets to visit them; and to get their signatures on the box holding the movie. While in the convention hall, I wandered among the tables and booths.
Muhammed Ali's line for autographs was the longest in the room. I circled around the line to watch "The Greatest" in a different setting than I'd seen him before. He was his usual smiling self. He would stretch across the table to pose with people. If they had small children, he'd lift them up on the table and give them a hug. He really seemed to like his "visitors." This approach was so different than that of most of the celebrity athletes.
Emmitt Smith was there, two tables down from Ali. Smith didn't even look at the people who'd paid to get his autograph. He just looked down at the table; occasionally sipping from a soft drink can. If a fan handed Emmitt Smith a pen of a different color or type to use for his signing, Smith then kept the pen.
Two tables away, Ali was smiling and shaking hands, and looking his fans in the eye.
Returning to that question from my friends and relatives, "Who was the most impressive famous person that I've ever met?" brings me back to Jesse Owens.
During my days growing up in the 1940s, the name Jesse Owens always appeared in any discussion of great athletes of the day. Not only was Jesse a world record holder in the long jump and the sprints, but the stories of the 1936 Berlin Olympics always gave his name an even greater glow; a black man winning four gold medals in Berlin as Nazi Germany was forming its Aryan culture. It's the tale of which dreams are made.
In 1972, there had been a national news story that Jesse Owens was returning to Berlin for the first time since his triumph in the 1936 Olympics. I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, with my first TV job. I also was doing radio play-by-play.
A few weeks after the national story that Owens would be back in Berlin, I received a morning phone call at home. It was the TV station wanting to know whether I wanted to interview Jesse Owens or should they send someone else at the station to do the story.
They told me he was at the airport. I said I'd meet the videographer there. At the airport, Jesse was at the edge of the runway with the local media; newspaper and radio.
There is just one TV station in Lincoln, Nebraska. When Jesse finished with the others, I introduced myself and, camera running, asked the simple question, "After 36 years, how did it feel?"
Then came the most eerie, most compelling, moment in my career as "a fly on the wall." Jesse spoke. "My visit brought me back to when I was looking down the track; knowing that in ten seconds my entire life would be formed. It was an eternity then, an instant now."
"Remembering Hitler. Coming back, after 36 years, brought back everything." As Jesse spoke, the hairs began to stand out on the back of my neck. I've never, before nor since, had this feeling upon hearing anybody's spoken words in person. And for me, anyway, it was the same watching it later, during my sports segment in the news.
Sadly, that tape was lost or recorded over. When I later went to save it for "posterity," it was nowhere to be found.
But that eerie, electric, moment on camera was just the beginning of my memory of Jesse Owens.
At the airport, once the camera was turned off, Jesse asked me, "are you doing anything right now? Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
It seems Jesse's flight wouldn't leave for another hour and a half. The two of us went into the airport cafeteria and sat at a table. The first thing that shocked me was that he lit a cigarette. This greatest track athlete who'd ever lived was smoking.
Jesse just wanted someone to talk with. And I was honored he felt he could trust me. He talked of his growing up. I mentioned mine. He spoke of the last 36 years, since Berlin; how that had effected his life, for better and (oddly, to me) for worse. He continued to chain smoke and drink coffee. Finally his call came to board the airplane. He bid me goodbye. He was returning home. He now lived in Phoenix.
In all my more than thirty years as "a fly on the wall," there only was one other time when I sat with a sports hero who shared inner thoughts with me. It also was in an airport; Phoenix International.
Ironically, a year after my visit with Jesse Owens in Nebraska, I also lived in Phoenix. During my decade in Phoenix, many of the world's major sports and entertainment names spent time in the city. And many of them I interviewed. But that's "on camera," not like my extended time with Jesse Owens.
When I first moved to Phoenix, my thoughts were to ask Jesse to recall his return to Berlin for the KPHO-TV cameras. I waited too long. Years of chain smoking caught up with him. Jesse Owens died of lung cancer before we could meet again.
I thought of Jesse during the only other time a star athlete shared lengthy off-camera thoughts with me, a perfect stranger. It was Dan Marino at the Phoenix International Airport who asked me to sit and join him; not as the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, but as a freshman who'd led Pitt to the 1979 Fiesta Bowl win and now wondered just what his future might bring.
As Dan looked out the window at planes taxiing on the runway, he suggested I join him. He thought, out loud, of his recent good fortune and wondered what might lie ahead. We shared thoughts for almost half an hour before a videographer arrived for our taped interview. Dan was so modest and revealing that, from the beginning, I was rooting for him in the NFL. When other media, later, would tell me Dan was difficult, I figured it was their fault, not Dan's. He seemed far too nice.
Phoenix warm winters were a drawing card for celebrities of all types. And the PGA stop, the Phoenix Open, drew many of them for its Pro-Am. Often shooting my own video, I visited with Bob Hope and other movie stars.
Actor George C. Scott's appearance in the Pro-Am for the Phoenix Open drew a huge media throng. His visit was soon enough after his refusal to accept the 1971 Best Actor Oscar for "Patton," that everyone still was looking for his comments on that. He'd ignored all questions on that subject; refusing to talk with the media anywhere about anything at all.
At the Phoenix Open, George C. Scott was brushing aside all media as usual. I worked my way around the crowd and asked him, "Can you tell me about the New York Actors' Softball League?" I knew he'd helped form it.
He stopped pushing through the crowd, smiled, and began talking with me. After a full discussion about the league, and softball in general, I said, "I suppose I'd be remiss if I don't ask about the Oscar." He smiled on camera, and said "no comment;" his only response to anyone.
Another Pro-Am celebrity player was less responsive. In the early '70s, "The Flip Wilson Show" was a huge success on television. Flip played in the Pro-Am one year, and I approached him for a comment. He snarled and stormed off in a huff. I was surprised; thinking all comics enjoyed interaction with others. I remembered one of the first big TV stars I'd met, Bill Cosby.
Ali, and Owens, and Who?
* * *
In the 1960s, I was a radio sportscaster and newsman in Seattle; my first commercial broadcasting job. One day, as I was preparing for a newscast, Bill Cosby stopped by to visit the disc jockey on air. I was holding my script between my teeth so I could cue the tape recorder with my hands. Bill looked at me and asked, "what are you doing?" I took the script from my mouth and said, "digesting the news." Bill chuckled loudly. Still laughing, he went in to visit the DJ.
Thinking back, now, to my days as "a fly on the wall," I am amazed to remember making two of America's greatest icons laugh out loud: Bill Cosby and Mohammed Ali. This from a shy "fly on the wall."
Someone did notice "the fly" once, though. After that Flip Wilson snarl and exit at the Phoenix Pro-Am, I turned to leave when I heard a voice calling, "Walt Brown." I turned back to see Ernie Banks. I really was shocked. It made no sense. I'd never met this baseball hero. "How do you know me, Ernie?" "Why, I watch you every night on TV."
Another golf tournament brings me to another of the five most impressive athletes I ever met. This was in Seattle; on my first commercial radio job. Soon after my arrival, the PGA's Seattle Open was taking place. I was to be part of the play-by-play team reporting the final day's play.
The first days, I was near the clubhouse as each day's leaders were coming off the course. Also there was one of Seattle's leading broadcasters and golf authorities, Bill Goff. Gary Player had just fallen out of the tournament lead. Goff rushed up to Player as Gary was being handed his scorecard to sign; to verify his day's play.
It was obvious that Gary Player was emotionally down from his play that day; falling from the lead. And the PGA staff around him was trying to ease his stress and get the scorecard signed to legalize the round. Then, here comes Bill Goff, with tape recorder: "How does it feel to fall out of the tournament lead, Gary?"
The scene amazed me. The PGA staff started to shove Goff away as he tried to grab hold of Player's arm. Player tried to ease things by saying to Bill, "as soon as I review my card and sign it, we can talk. This is on deadline."
The tussle continued as Bill Goff said, "I'm on deadline, too." He pushed in tighter. The PGA staff strengthened its opposition to Goff.
It was then that Gary Player said to the PGA staff, "I'll sign my card in a moment." Gary turned to Bill and, with Goff's tape recorder running, he pulled aside Bill's jacket; reading his name tag to see who he was. Forcing a smile, he said, "Well, Bill, golf is a game. Some days you win, other days you lose. Yes, I've fallen out of the lead, but there's still tomorrow." With Goff 's recorder still running, Player then thanked Bill for the interview before the PGA staff rushed him off to review and sign his scorecard.
Excerpted from A FLY ON THE WALL by Walt Brown. Copyright © 2013 Walt Brown. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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