Back in 1979, ABC decided that pro soccer had arrived -- arrived enough for them to air a regular NASL Game of the Week. What gave ABC's decision major impact was that the play-by-play announcer would be Jim McKay, the most respected sports announcer of his day.
Better still, McKay had requested the assignment -- he wanted to get involved with soccer. For over two years, I worked alongside McKay on those games -- our partnership, and ABC's soccer interest -- ended in the summer of 1982, when we did the first-ever live telecast in the USA of a World Cup final -- the 1982 Italy vs. Germany game from Madrid.
What was it like, then -- a question that I have often been asked - working with a legend? One thing it was not: it was not like working with a legend. Or not how I imagined that would be.
Because McKay, for all his fame, was one of the least egotistical people you could imagine. As a super-professional, he was totally confident of his own abilities and therefore did not find it necessary to impress people with them. Nor was he the least reluctant to admit ignorance in areas where his knowledge was flimsy. Soccer, of course, was just such an area. I was about to take on assignment where I would be instructing a legend.
Except that that didn't happen either. Working with McKay was very much a two-way, give-and-take experience. He had so much to teach me about the subtleties of on-air television work, but he was never didactic, never assumed the role of an instructor.
Early in our relationship, I told him that maybe, with my light skin, I needed to use make up. "Come with me," he said. Out we went, to the nearest pharmacy. He selected the face powder, then quickly showed me how to use it. Maybe it all took about 20 minutes, but when McKay finished his demonstration, I was an expert already.
His effortless charm worked like that with everyone. ABC had decided to do some short features on NASL players -- one of the first was on the New York Cosmos player Romerito -- Julio Cesar Romero. In the studio, McKay started to read a prepared script, referring to the player as Julius Caesar Romero. I protested, no, it must be Julio Cesar, pronounced the Spanish way. The producer butted in, and said it would be Julius Caesar. I went home that night in a grumpy mood, full of resentment because the director had made what I saw as a wrong soccer decision.
The following day we returned to the script. McKay started to read, immediately coming out with a very Spanish "Julio Cesar Romero ..." I looked at him: "But I thought ..." "We decided to go with the Spanish," McKay said, simply. And on we went with the featurette.
That was pure McKay. He had agreed with me, but had said nothing. Later he spoke -- quietly, I'm sure -- with the director, and he got his way. Just as he got his way with the pre-game production meetings when we were on the road. One day he insisted that the meeting be held in my hotel room, rather than anyone else's. I reluctantly agreed, provided no one smoked. After the meeting, Jim told me that all future meetings would be in my room: "That was the shortest, most efficient meeting we ever had," he said, "The smoking ban did it."
For McKay, soccer was, quite literally, a new ball game. He didn't know the players, or the rules, or the tactics. But, my, how quickly he learned, how amazingly he remembered names and dates. As a play-by-play commentator, I felt he was ideal -- by and large he limited himself to identifying the players involved in the action. He never found it necessary to pepper his commentaries with pretentious anglicisms like "pitch" and "nil." He stuck to the American language, and there was a beauty in the sturdy simplicity with which he used it. He rarely made tactical comments or criticisms of play, because, as he told me, "we pay you to do that."
Whether I did it well or badly is not the point here. Which is that McKay recognized the limitations of his own soccer knowledge and never tried to play the expert. In no time at all I could have a meaningful soccer conversation with Jim. But the conversations always roamed off into other topics -- it seemed to me that there wasn't much that Jim wasn't interested in, or about which he wasn't well-informed.
In the various cities we visited, McKay was always a prime target for local journalists wanting interviews. I soon noticed that McKay usually managed to work my name into his interviews, or arranged for the journalists to speak with me.
I have no doubt that he was fascinated by soccer, and his obviously genuine interest in the sport was an essential part of the ABC telecasts. Making fun of soccer is an attitude that persists to this day -- but it was much more common in 1979. But the ABC telecasts -- there must have been about 15 of them in all -- were models of professional competency. Because McKay took the sport seriously, all the ABC staffers took it seriously.
But that's not the word -- serious -- with which to end this short memory of Jim. He had a great sense of humor, quiet, non-flashy, like the man himself. In one of those studio sessions we watched a tape of a promo -- where the voice over told us that "at halftime, we'll feature an explanation of the offside rule, which you will find easy to follow, and an interview with Dr. Henry Kissinger ..." and McKay, sotto voce murmured "who you will not find easy to follow."