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Friday, February 23, 2024

Bryant Gumbel on wrapping up HBO’s "Real Sports": "I’ve kind of lived my fantasy life"

For two thousand mornings (give or take) behind the desk at NBC’s “Today” show, Bryant Gumbel made history, with his first “Good morning” in 1982. Tom Brokaw’s successor on “Today,” he was the first Black man to host a morning network news program. He’d already made a name for himself in sports, earning the nickname “Never Stumble Gumbel.”

And just as flawlessly, he transitioned to news, as impeccably prepared as he was dressed.

I asked Gumbel, “On a scale of one to 10, working with me was …”

“Nine.”

“No!”

“Yeah, because you were always you, and I love that,” he said.

“Why not a 10 then?”

“Because of consistency,” Gumbel smiled.

“My slipshod style of preparation, for someone like you, must have been annoying?”

“No, no, not annoying, because I never – it’s funny you say that. I never expected others to do things the way I did them.”

He conveyed an effortless polish, from every detail of his wardrobe, to his meticulously color-coded notes. But there’s a story there: “I always figured, you know what? I’m never gonna be the good-looking guy. I’m never gonna be the popular guy. I’m never gonna be the big guy. I’m gonna be the guy who knows how to do things in the margins. I’m gonna have to be able to be the guy who knows how to order food in a restaurant. I have to be the guy who knows how to dress. I’m very aware that I ask more of myself than I would ever ask of anyone else. I am excessively demanding of one Bryant Gumbel, but not of others.”

Not to say he was “easy-going.” He noted, “I was kind of the cactus of the garden.”

“Yeah, you were prickly!” I added.

Still, the garden grew; the ratings for “Today” climbed. Gumbel scored coups with the big newsmakers of the day – though sometimes he was the newsmaker. It’s something he considers now with the wisdom of age and hindsight: “I’ve said a lot of dumb things that, as I stand from a distance of a 75-year-old, you sit there, and you go, Wow, how could I have said that? So, um, I’ll apologize.”

The drama mostly stayed outside, and after 15 years hosting “Today,” he moved to CBS News and to primetime.

He said, “When things are seen in their most chaotic, I’m generally pretty calm. I have a lot of faith in myself, that’s obvious.”

Which he credits to his father. Gumbel grew up in Chicago, the youngest of four (including longtime sportscaster Greg Gumbel). A lot of people would have looked up to his father: Richard Gumbel, a probate court judge in Cook County, Illinois in the 1960s, when a Black man on the bench was a rarity.

Though Judge Gumbel died at the age of 52, he remains a towering presence. Bryant said, “When people say, how do you define yourself? I say, ‘I’m my father’s son, that’s who I am. At heart, that’s who I am. That’s all I ever wanted to be.'”

When Gumbel was honored earlier this year at the 44th annual Sports Emmys, he paid tribute to his father: “I had the best role model that ever lived, in my dad. Judge Richard Gumbel taught me conscience, commitment, confidence, curiosity, and to believe in myself in a way that made all things possible.”

Gumbel received a lifetime achievement award, while his “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” on HBO is one of the most awarded shows on television: 37 Emmys, and duPonts, and Peabodys.

When asked why the show is called “Real Sports,” Gumbel said, “Because at a certain point in life, I think, rather than looking at athletes and how they impact the game, you look at the game and how it impacts the athletes.”

“Real Sports” isn’t sports journalism in the usual way, but sports seen through the sometimes critical lens of journalism. “We’ve done a lot of good, thankfully,” he said.

Such as stories on netting at baseball games (“People have gotten maimed, hurt by foul balls. Now you go to every baseball game, there’s netting all over the place”) and brain injuries (“The extent to which concussions are very much a part of the debate about football is something that we pressed a long time”).

But the news came this fall that the 320th broadcast of “Real Sports” would be the last. After 29 seasons, the final episode premieres this week.

What happened? “Nothing happened, other than I knew my contract was coming out, it was ending, and I had to ask myself, Did I want to do another three years? Could I do another three years?” Gumbel said. “And the answer was, probably not. My heart wouldn’t be in it. I’m OK with that. I’m at peace with it.”

Not so prickly, Bryant Gumbel has mellowed. He plans to spend plenty of time with his wife, Hilary, his children, grandchildren – and maybe more golf, if that’s possible.

“Only a fool says never,” he said. “So, I would never say never again, but I’m not actively looking for another chapter, I’m really not.”

I asked, “In your fantasy life, would you have played with a band or been a professional golfer, or what?”

“No. You know what? This is going to sound very pollyannaish: I’ve kind of lived my fantasy life. I really have. And if you had told me when I was in high school in Chicago, what I would do with my life, I would’ve said, I’ll sign up for that in a heartbeat. That’s my fantasy life, and I’m okay with it.”

For more info:

“Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” onHBOandMax

Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.

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