The first person Jim Gray interviewed in a professional capacity was the Greatest. All of 18 or 19 years-old, toiling quietly and anonymously in the edit bay of a Denver television station, an assignment editor approached him, asking if he'd be up to a tough, intimidating task. The first foray into conversation would pit him toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion.
Muhammad Ali was 2.5 hours early at the airport. Someone who knew a little bit about sports should probably go over there and ask some questions.
"I had never done an interview in my life and Ali gave me 45 minutes," Gray recalls. "When I first walked in and started asking questions, he laughed and couldn't believe I was the one doing the interview. He had this entourage and they all started to laugh, but they weren't laughing at me. It was a laugh that made me feel comfortable. It took all the edge off. They weren't poking fun, they weren't giving me the needle. They were putting their arm around me."
Gray realized he was doing something so many people would kill to do. Ruining it by being nervous wasn't an option.
"I tried to pattern it in my head like I had heard Howard Cosell do it," he says about the strategy. "About three or four questions in, Ali said that I sounded like the local Cosell. I had never been complimented like that in my life and that gave me confidence right there."
Gray was told that he, and the work product he'd created, were both barely adequate. He jokes that he's remained barely adequate since. It's an understatement.
Nearly two decades later, Gray watched with raw emotion from his front row seat with NBC as Ali captured the world's attention on a zillion-watt stage, alighting the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
"Here was a man with Parkinson's," Gray remembers. "He had enough courage and was so dignified that he went up there shaking to light a torch to give us all the ability to know that standing on the top step of the victory platform isn't a momentary thing, it's a lifetime achievement."
Inconceivable lifetime achievement and the questions it inspires are the core tenets of Gray's new book, Talking to GOATs, in which he explores his professional and personal relationships with sports' most transcendent talents. For over 40 years, the venerable journalist has stood next to greatness, or sat in front of it, and served as a conduit to their stories.
He was there with LeBron James in 2010 for The Decision, which arguably changed the media ecosystem as dramatically toward athlete agency as anything over the past decade. He's been eye-to-eye with Pete Rose and chest-to-chest with Chad Curtis during the World Series. He's been ringside for some of boxing's biggest and most perverse moments, adroitly tailoring lines of questioning for maximum impact.
How? Well, he insists there's no specific formula. But upon reflection, it's easy to see the nascent amino acids that helped build his block of knowledge.
"I was enamored with Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson," says Gray of his younger days. "I could see from watching them that they could listen, think, and react all in the same blink of an eye. They could hear the information, they could interpret the information, and they could react with a question instantaneously. Carson did it for humor, Koppel did it for information."
Dinner wasn't served in the Gray home until Walter Cronkite had finished reading the news. He wanted to be one of two things when he grew up: his father or Floyd Little. Curt Gowdy, from just over the border in Wyoming, was an inspiration.
"I paid attention," Gray says. "The seeds were planted at a young age but I didn't have any grand ambitions of doing it for a career."
A high school internship with a television station turned into a regular gig and the regular gig put him in a darkened room where the brightest of lights would be offered as an opportunity. All Gray has done since is establish himself as one of the most ubiquitous and versatile real-time storytellers in sports.
He's done that by gaining access and trust with the most powerful of powerbrokers. But lest you think there's a people-pleasing price to pay for such opportunity, Gray clarifies that the best human connection is achieved when both sides are doing their best to be authentic humans.
"I can't be a chameleon and be someone different to everyone," he says. "I couldn't keep track of all that. Not everyone is going to be your friend. And not everyone should be your friend. Not everyone is going to like you. And not everyone should like you."
Some of the all-timers have been cordial to Gray and some have been something more meaningfully reciprocal. Collegiality is more clearly delineated and understood by those who have the relationship. And so he speaks slowly yet openly about the now-departed Kobe Bryant.
"I love Kobe. Always love Kobe. We had a great relationship but it was still professional when I needed to ask him the questions that were required and he understood that. You don't have to hide relationships. I am proud of my relationship with Kobe. He's the first word in my book."
In the foreward, Bryant writes: "If I had one world to describe Jim Gray, I would say honest. It's very tough for reporters to be honest in the media business. He's not afraid to ask tough questions, even if they're uncomfortable ones. He's transparent and direct about it and that's why I've always had respect for Jim for what he does and how he does it."
Circumstances, as they do in real life, dictate the tone and tenor of conversation.
"It's kind of hard to be soft with someone when they've bitten someone's ear off," Gray points out. "You need to find out what led to that."
An acutely specific circumstance to find one's self in, but it most unforgettably happened.
"Nobody has to do the interview," Gray observes. "Imagine Mike Tyson or another boxer. Imagine Tom Brady getting sacked. Do you really think anything that comes out of my mouth is going to hurt him more than the guy who hit him in the head?"
It's an astute observation, though necessary considering how many athletes would have the public believe the opposite to be true.
Lurking under the surface of every conversation, televised or otherwise, is that there are infinite ways the dialogue could go. When one person is the designated driver of the dialogue, as in the case with a reporter-subject dynamic, the pressure to press the gas into a personal desired direction is palpable. With great power can come great ego, a desire to stick to script and end at the pre-planned destinations believed to be best.
Gray's approach is not one of fierce rigidity. It is one of fluidity and adaptation. Pro-active in research but reactive in the moment.
"You have to have a thought process of what you're trying to accomplish," he explains. "Why are you sitting down with them in the first place? If you listen, that creates all your questions. Be in the moment. Use your ears. They'll never hurt you."
The book, much like an interview, is a literary call and response. The man known for having all the questions reflecting on those who have found all the answers on the playing field. It's a deep dive into their trials, their tribulations, their hard work, and their devotion. Gray hopes a nugget or morsel will be consumed and applied, perpetuating the greatness. He also believes that his story, though not the main focus, will inspire.
"If this can happen to me, this can happen to anyone," he says.
Gray, the everyman who stood and still stands next to those who appeared to be more than mortal, does it by finding that collective humanity and shared conversation. One greatest of all time at a time.