If Al Michaels had decided to write a book about his life as network broadcaster just five years ago, it would have been missing the ultimate opening chapter.
The autobiography that comes out Tuesday called “You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television” ($28.99, HarperCollins, 288 pages) leads off with Michaels recounting the joy he and three generations of his family encountered sitting at Staples Center on June 11, 2012 – watching the Kings win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
It reminded him about how he felt about sports as a 6-year-old growing up in L.A., where he eventually attended the first Kings game in 1967 back at the Long Beach Arena.
“I’ve covered a couple of thousand sports events all over the world. I’ve called Super Bowls and World Series and NBA Finals, the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics – and have hosted the Stanley Cup Final. A number of years ago, a colleague at ABC figured out that I’ve appeared on live prime-time network television far more than anyone in history. But from day one, I’ve always tried to follow the advice the legendary sportscaster Curt Gowdy once gave me: Don’t ever get jaded.
“The Kings have helped take care of that. … When I go to a game, I don’t bring a media credential – I bring a ticket. I don’t have to prepare notes or try to gather nuggets of information in the locker room beforehand – I go straight to my seat. When I’m on the air, I work to be impartial. With the Kings, I can just be another fan who lives and dies with a team.”
Michaels, who turned 70 last week, could have been the Kings’ first colorman had owner Jack Kent Cooke not given the job to long-time friend Ed Fitkin to partner with Jiggs McDonald in the late ‘60s. In fact, Michaels once told us the story about how when he moved to L.A. as a 14-year-old in 1958, CBS did a game of the week and “I couldn’t wait for it. That was the only fix.” The Western Hockey League finally came to the L.A. Sports Arena.
But still …
“There was this annual thing that Gil Stratton used to do at Channel 2 every year where he’d read a letter asking Santa for certain things, and incorporate letters from viewers,” Michaels once told us. “I wrote a letter to Gil in 1959. And for some reason I didn’t use my real name. I signed it ‘George Exmont.’ I wanted Santa to bring us a National Hockey League team. He read it on the air in his newscast. My brother (David, five years younger) and I went wild. I loved Gil, because he was the only guy in town that gave you an NHL score.”
That story actually didn’t make it into the book. It was a story Michaels told us some 20 years ago for a piece we did on him for a Kings game program.
But Michaels, in his ninth season calling “Sunday Night Football” for NBC after 20 years of “Monday Night Football” for ABC, remembers many other moments when the course of TV and sports history could have gone on a different path. He explained in a Q-and-A:
Q: We’ll skip to a chapter near the end of the book: You describe a meeting in a restroom with Lakers owner Jerry Buss. It’s 2003, at halftime during the Lakers-Spurs Game 5 playoff game — the Derek Fisher, 0.4-second finish – and you’re in San Antonio covering it for ABC with Doc Rivers as your analyst. Buss isn’t sure if Phil Jackson is going to come back to coach after the season. Rivers, fired from Orlando just a few games into that season, just agreed to coach the Boston Celtics the next year. So you run into Dr. Buss, and he admits to you that if Rivers hadn’t signed with Boston, he’d have been his first choice to coach the Lakers if Jackson left – which he did eventually. You’ve got this piece of information, finally decide to tell Rivers about what Buss said . . . and he gets quiet. “You know, I’m not sure if the ink on that Celtics contract is totally dry,” Rivers says. Did you think he might have changed his mind and gone after the Lakers job had things played out differently?
A: He wouldn’t have changed his mind, because Doc had already signed with Boston. Maybe if all that happened two weeks prior to all that. But I kid Doc about the fact that had he not got the Boston offer and made the decision, he’d probably be in his 11th or 12th season as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. And the rest of Phil’s career would have turned out quite differently. It was all one of those very funny things where you know something, and it’s so dramatic, and I wonder, ‘Do you tell him?’ And we were ready to come back on the air, teams are on the court warming up, 30 seconds before the second half, and I couldn’t help myself.
Q: What were the pros and maybe cons about growing up in L.A. listening to Vin Scully? When you finally get your first play-by-play job in Hawaii doing minor-league baseball, you write that all you can think about is: ‘Just sound like Vin Scully.’ How did you mean that? Is there a way to channel him without imitating him?
A: Well, I mean, we all have models. It’s probably the same in a lot of businesses – especially what we would call working the arts, and that includes acting, broadcasting, writing, that kind of discipline. If you start out writing as a kid, you do it like someone you really enjoyed reading. So when I’m starting out at Arizona State and trying to figure out how to do this, you hear the voices in your ear and obviously Vinny was primary at that point. Early on in my career, I’m sure I sounded a lot like Vinny. I sounded somewhat like him by the time I got to Cincinnati. Jim Palmer once told me that he remembers watching the 1972 World Series on NBC and he said, ‘Wow, is that Vin Scully doing the game?’ And it was me. I’m sure I carried it for quite some time. But with experience, you develop, I don’t want to say my own style, but a way of broadcasting. And it’s been so long now that I don’t think I sound like anybody.
Q: Was there anything you picked up from Chick Hearn – listening to him as well as a kid, then working very briefly with him during that time you write about when you’re the sacrificial lamb in getting him to accept a broadcast partner? Or was his personality not as close to yours?
A: That was different, and I liked him, and I picked up stuff from Chick – I could transfer that when I started doing basketball at Arizona State. There’s no question he rubbed off on me. You’re emulating the guys most on your mind.
Q: You take a big-league baseball job with Cincinnati, then San Francisco — the Dodgers’ two greatest rivals in the National League as you’re watching them growing up in L.A. How did your family ever let you live that down?
A: We all found it to be very ironic. I’m growing up thinking I wanted to do the Dodgers someday and I wind up with the Reds and Giants – kinda crazy.
Q: And you had chances to be with the Lakers and Kings, but that doesn’t happen, and you can always thank Jack Kent Cooke for that. You write about how he once tried to take credit for your broadcasting career when in effect he almost derailed it. You aren’t about to write any glowing appreciation columns about him, are you?
A: If I had to do an appreciation column on Jack Kent Cooke? I think it would have a lot of asterisks, ampersands, equal signs, hashtags and all that other stuff. You know what I’m saying? Bob Miller and I have talked about working for Jack Kent Cooke, and Jiggs McDonald, too. And all that nonsense.
Q: I bet many don’t recall when you two important seasons of UCLA basketball games for KTLA after Dick Enberg left – the one that included the back end of the 88-game win streak and the coach John Wooden’s last year. Could it have gotten much bigger than that covering college basketball?
A: You know what’s so funny: I just got off the phone with my daughter, who was born in 1974. And I have a story in the book about how I missed her birth, the one day I wish I had back in my life, because I was on the road working. She was reading the book and told me she didn’t realize I had done UCLA basketball. Did not know. And two tremendous seasons. The one year they actually don’t win a title (’74) and then the following year when Coach took ‘em all the way and retired.
Q: Could that have turned out be any kind of fulltime job? You were doing it in the fall and winter between baseball seasons, traveling down from the Bay Area.
A: It wasn’t full time because they were only playing like 26 games a season then, and some were national broadcasts. I might have done 20 of them. Then when they’re in the tournament, it’s a network deal. It was a heck of a part-time job.
Q: When you go back to all your thoughts about the Miracle on Ice game, you write about how you learned to use your voice as an instrument, don’t shout over the drama as the tension rises because you’d be a “nuisance.” There are broadcasters today who probably do the opposite. They feel they’re adding to the enthusiasm or emotions that are rising. How does that all sit with you? Have times changed for the understate style of calling a game?
Q: Maybe. Look, take somebody like Gus Johnson. I really nice guy, I’ve got to meet him a couple of times. Really like him. And Gus has a following. Some think maybe he’s over the top, but a lot think that’s fantastic. To each his own. We live in this great, vast, diverse country where some will love it and some won’t appreciate it. So you have that, then you go back to Ray Scott, Pat Summerall … the minimalists who let it play out. There’s a fine line there. You don’t want to be too understated. But once something happens, especially on television, let it go. On radio, you can let it go, too, but Vinny has always talked about letting the crowd take over. Great. On television, not only does a crowd take over, but you can see it. As guys are exulting and celebrating on the ice in Lake Placid (in the 1980 U.S.-USSR hockey game), I wrote that there were a million thoughts going through my head, and I was enjoying it as much as the audience was.
Q: Your connection to Hollywood Park – as a horse player and a horse owner, even how it fit into the place you were heading on the day O.J. Simpson took off on his freeway chase and you got involved in covering it with Ted Koppel. Have you had time to mourn the loss of Hollywood Park?
A: It’s just too bad. I really wanted to get over there when it was closing down but the (NFL TV) travel schedule was just too much of a problem for me (last December). Look, everything comes and goes. You remember, too, the days when that was a heck of a track, track of the lakes and flowers, weather’s fantastic, great walking ring. A lot of good times were had at Hollywood Park.
A: Don’t forget – 20 years ago, there was a big sign posted there that called it “the future home of the Los Angeles Raiders.” I used to go to the Kings games at the Forum, and there was the sign, right where that hotel was on the corner. So here we go again.
Q: And you point out, too, in the book, you watched the Rams play at the Coliseum with 100,000 people, and still there are augments about how L.A. can’t support an NFL team.
A: I laugh when I read this crap about, “Oh, they’re out there always at the beach, surfing …” Yeah, 14 million people are out there surfing on an autumn Sunday. It’s so silly and it’s always written by someone who doesn’t know L.A. When they say they didn’t support either (the Rams or Raiders), well, you know, the Coliseum was a pretty bad place to go to a game, and Anaheim Stadium was one of the ugliest pieces of garbage. It looked like Candlestick Park the way they took it from a baseball stadium and tried to make it into a football stadium. It was a terrible place. Just like Candlestick.
Q: From a Hollywood perspective, you touched on the frustrations as the result of cameo performances from movies like “Jerry Maguire” and “BASEketball.” Considering how those things turned out, do you just say no now to any movie propositions?
A: (Laughing) After you’ve fallen off the turnip truck twice, I’m not looking for a hat trick. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to pull this thing off now.
Q: Do you need a special agent for these kind of things?
A: I have Marvin Demoff now. He would have been way ahead of all this.
Q: There isn’t a place in the book where you talk about the one event you’d like to have covered but haven’t yet. So let’s throw out there anything — sports, news, entertainment. The Academy Awards red carpet? An election night? A guest on “Shark Tank?” You’ve hosted a Stanley Cup final but never got to call an actual final game.
A: World Cup? Never been to a soccer game in my life, so that would be difficult. I gotta say, nothing. When you do World Series, Olympics, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup final, Kentucky Derby, NBA Finals, the Indy 500, Hagler-Hearns, I’d have to make something up.
Q: Like BASEketball?
A: (Laughing) I’m at the point in my life and career where . . . maybe some part of some documentary. It would be more on the production end of something like that.
Q: Your son Steve is still doing that?
A: Sure is, and a great job at that, too. He and his partner (at L.A.-based Asylum Entertainment) have the debut coming up on a documentary about the Penn State abuse scandal called “Happy Valley” (with an L.A. premiere this week).
Q: A lesson you said you learned early on about getting facts straight in reporting carried with you many times in your professional career, from the O.J. Simpson story, the 1989 World Series earthquake. You say you despise the media people who have the “you heard it here first” mentality. With today’s information output and constant misinformation circulated, so you see any way of fixing that? Does someone really have to get burned badly to learn a lesson about this?
A: There are many who have been burned badly, and you sit there and you say, “I can’t believe this still exists.” But again, we live in this world where we tilt at windmills until we’re dead. There are certain things you can handle, you can affect, and there are other things that are just going to happen whether you want to rail against them or not. One of the great lines uttered was by Keith Jackson, in an interview with the University of Oregon student newspaper. Years and years ago. Keith had always talked about going away and retiring, and he said he was going to do it “very soon, because I’m not going to die in an airport parking lot.” And they also asked him a similar question about news coverage, and all of that, and he said: “I’m not happy with the course of history.”
Q: We’ve talked off and on for the last 20 plus years about all kinds of things – from World Series and Super Bowls, Dennis Miller, the aftermath of 9/11, the Kings. Had you been collecting stories in your head over the years to eventually do this project? Did you research things that had been written about you, stories you had told, and refresh your mind?
A: On a couple occasions I did (review stories), but for the most part I did remember everything. I’m blessed with a good memory, but then I’ve got to say not everything was perfect and I would go, ‘What happened here again?’ but it was mostly for a fact in a game. Fortunately in today’s world you can go back sometimes and research a lot of these games. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect. And we got it to the finish line.
Q: Was the process really like going through 50 root canals, as you wrote? It must have felt all that was missing was Ralph Edwards popping in at the end to tell you that this was your life.
A: How about 60 root canals? But at the end of the day, I’m happy. I got it in my voice. One of the key things obviously is, opposed to someone who writes a book and you don’t know what they sound like, people have heard my voice for a long time – how I put sentences together. So that part of the process was interesting. And difficult at times. But at the end of the day, it’s all where I wanted it to go.
= Part I of a Q&A with Michaels on more things related to his life and the book by SI.com’s Richard Deitsch. Followed up by Part II.
= Michaels on the Jim Rome radio show last Thursday.
= A feature on Michaels related to “Sunday Night Football” by the Boston Globe’s Chad Finn.
= A local radio interview with Fred Roggin on 980-AM “The Beast” last week.
= Michaels on the Bill Simmons-Grantland.com podcast from this summer.