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Monday, December 9, 2002
Updated: December 10, 12:48 PM ET
Arledge's world flowed with ideas

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

What is Roone Arledge's greatest gift to the American viewing public?

Let's work up to it. In the first place, if not for Roone Arledge, we would not be assembled here right now. This website would not exist. ESPN probably wouldn't exist. I would not be writing this. You would not be reading it.

But here we are. And it's Arledge's party. Still.

Roone Arledge
The Mark Twain of sports television: Roone Arledge could spin a tale.

We all have our Roone Arledge moments, in the sporting life, especially.

"The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat." His. "Up close and personal." His. "Wide World of Sports." His. Epic Olympic coverage. His. Breaking spot news on terrorism. His, really. "Monday Night Football." His. Howard Cosell. His. Dandy Don Meredith (TV version). His. Frank Gifford. His. "American Sportsman." His. "Nightline." His. "20/20." His. Isolated camera. His. Instant replay. His. All totally his. Sports as storytelling. His, in a big way.

There were less successful vehicles for his vision, like Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, or the Juice, or Jim Brown, all in the context of "Monday Night Football"; or "Monday Night Baseball"; or "The Superstars"; or Cosell's train wreck of a variety show; or Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters sharing an anchor desk.

Those don't matter a damn. What matters is Arledge was a visionary. He tried stuff. Every story you write won't be as memorable as every other story you write. Every vision you have is not going to be as encompassing and complete as every other vision you have. But that doesn't mean you can't write a helluva story, and aren't a visionary.

When you push the envelope, sometimes you expand human horizons, and sometimes the plane breaks up around you. But it takes a brave human being to even light the fires. That's what Roone Arledge did, and who he was.

He was 71 when he died. That means he was not yet 30 when he parlayed a script for a pilot he wrote called "For Men Only" into a job at ABC. He (and an ABC honcho named Ed Sherick) came up with the "Wide World of Sports" concept, wedding doc-style presentation to exotic sports and locales, mostly to cover blackouts of major sports events like baseball, because nobody else could figure out what to do to fill the hole. The network (in the form of Sherick) had to go to bat for it, threaten a major advertiser, R.J. Reynolds, to get them to sponsor it. So sometimes, Roone "shared" his good ideas, got a few from somebody else, amended them. Can't talk about replay without talking about Tony Verna; still, it's Roone's baby.

By 1964, he was network VP. By 1968, he was president of ABC Sports. By the time the fireworks were extinguished and the bodies buried, it was 1977, and Arledge segued to being president of the ABC news division. Oh, he was five-tool, all right.

Howard Cosell
One of Arledge's best moves was hiring Howard Cosell for "Monday Night Football."

Every time you hear the mighty Olympic theme, every time you see split-screen of Vick and Finneran, every time you hear the concussive hit near the sideline, or Peyton Manning barking, every time you see a pre-recorded interview of a guy who just made a play, explaining his interior motivation, those are Arledge moments.

Every time you turn on "Monday Night Football," circa 2003, or the new "American Sportsman" -- that's a spinoff of the mind of Arledge. Every time Dennis Miller inexplicably (to us) gets hired, every time Dave Wannstedt can't get the red instant replay flag out of his pocket after the iso camera on the big screen at the stadium shows up a ref, every time Tony Kornheiser honestly, deservedly and with righteous indignation rips somebody a brand new one, every time an Olympic interview and one lap to glory of a Cathy Freeman makes your nose burn and your eyes water -- those are Roone Moments.

He dreamt a world. He's the Mark Twain of TV sports. The greatest storyteller there ever was, at least in this country. The author of the book from which all other American sports TV are made.

Look up visionary in the dictionary, and there's a picture for Roone Arledge. And just to show you its not all speculation here, that it's not all about dollars and cents, yours truly has his own Roone Arledge moments.

The first came with my earliest memory of the melding of sports and TV. I was, what, all of seven, and for the first time paying rapt attention to sports on TV. The year was 1963; I had the attention span of a mayfly back then. Yet I remember it now like it was yesterday. I was transfixed for the first time. The broadcast might not have even been in color. But I remember it in color, somehow. Was it "Wide World of Sports"? Must've been. That was the only way a U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R track meet was being broadcast in 1963.

I didn't know where it was. I barely knew where I was. Turns out it was at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. The event was the high jump. The object of my fixation was Valery Brumel, the Russian jumper, battling John Thomas, a good high jumper and a nice enough man, but for TV, he didn't have that magic. You know. Brumel being Russian didn't mean anything to me. I just saw that it was raining, a crowd was making a guttural sound, and this long, lean man kept bounding through the rain, and trying to jump over this bar. Twice he failed. Then he succeeded. What was the height, 7-5? Don't remember. Just know on the third try he made it, and the stadium exploded in sound.

O.J. Simpson and Roone Arledge
Not all of Arledge's ideas worked out, such as O.J. Simpson's lackluster broadcasting career.

I remember another picture then, "jump cut" to a "two shot," of two old men hugging. I didn't know who they were, Khrushchev, Harriman? All the same to me. They seemed to be as exhilarated as I was. But I knew the jumper's name, Valery Brumel, never forget it, or him, and this great combination of the fire of human competion and the ballet. Many years later, when I tried high jumping myself, which no power on earth could have kept me from doing, people were doing the Fosbury Flop. (That was an Arledge moment, too). But I used the Western roll. That's what Brumel had used.

The next time Arledge got me was when he was producing AFL football games. Sometimes, it was like there was nobody in the world but Charlie Jones doing play-by-play, and my ears and eyes feasting on Jones and the powder-blue unis of the San Diego Chargers as they tried to outscore the Oakland Raiders. I never even knew Arledge was there. I just knew, or sensed, that my eyes were treated by the newer, better camerawork.

You never know that any good artist is there, really.

The next time Arledge got me was when I worked in TV myself, in spite of the fact that, visual-magicwise, I was more pedestrian like John Thomas than electrifying like Valery Brumel. But I knew story and often was guilty of vision. That was how I came to be hired by and worked for any number of television sports producers, from in-field generals like Bud Morgan of "The American Sportsman," both old and new versions, or Joe Valerio, producer of "The Sports Reporters," or Terry O'Neil, originator of same and an exec at both ABC and NBC for a time, and Dick Ebersol, still division head of NBC Sports.

They'd all worked for Roone Arledge, you see, and it was off his value system that they hired me, each in his own way. They were all smart guys, and a couple of them were really brilliant; they know who they are. They taught me a lot about the television business, some of which didn't accrue in my mind until years after it rubbed off on me. But they all gave me a shot at it, worked with me, listened to my thoughts, gave me theirs, put me on air, and let me embarrass myself and them.

But occasionally, a story or a vision or something else good came out of it. They'd all learned from Roone Arledge to look for translators of story, and don't worry about the wrapper it comes in. If Roone had worried about what people thought of the wrapper, there never would have been a Howard Cosell. These men, and the division chiefs at the three major network sports divisions, all learned the Game at the foot of Roone Arledge. It was because he was the kind of man he was, that people like me, or Dennis Miller, or John Saunders, or Deion Sanders, or Trev Alberts or Mark May or Hank Goldberg, or Robin Roberts, or Cokie Roberts, or George Will or Mike Lupica even got a whiff of it.

The late Dick Schaap would've gotten a whiff anyway. Dick was that good. But who do you think Dick worked for? One guess. You probably don't need it.

What was Roone Arledge's greatest gift to the American viewing public?

Why, the future. In the immortal words of Howard Cosell: "Of course."

Roone Arledge, about all else, above even being a storyteller, was a visionary. He saw that these things would come to pass. He was Jules Verne ordering a guy with something called a hand-held, H.G. Wells re-writing a script for a talking head named McKay, Isak Dinesen working with a control board, Coppola before Coppola, with a bigger canvas and headcount.

If my limited sense of the man serves me correctly, from speaking to the people who worked for him, whatever his foibles were (I'm sure, judging from the remarks and personalities of those who worked for him, that his foibles, like ours, were legion, if ruthlessness and opportunism are foibles), at bottom he was a man who could not tolerate the oppression and exploitation of others.

Unless they happened to be on staff, and did not respond to his litmus test.

He detested the idea of owning anybody, probably because he detested the idea of anybody owning him, or, more to the point, his ideas. Of course, if somebody did steal his idea, which happened countless times, then he'd just have another one. Even dead broke, he would've been the richest guy in the room. He understood that talent is the only real royalty in this life.

"Creating an artificial situation (or re-creation) fraught with incredible tension, and then seeing how people perform. It's exciting, it's exhilarating," he said in a 1976 Playboy interview, probably the definitive story about the Man as Visionary, because he told it himself, led by the interviewer, whose name I do not know. But whoever he was, he too was an artist.

"You must use the camera and the microphone to broadcast an image that approximates what the brain perceives, not merely what the eye sees," Arledge said in that interview. "Only then can you create the illusion of reality ... making pictures and words that move people."

Those ideas are what he wanted to get on tape. Those who understood, those are the ones he wanted around, working for him. The best of them he'd say worked with him. A movie about him might be a blend of "Network," and a sequel to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" where Huck is all grown and a TV exec, and "Citizen Kane." Maybe someday somebody will try to make it. It'll have to be somebody with vision, who is also a fine storyteller.

Keyword: "Rosebud"?

No. Try "Replay."

It seems it was only in the last minute that a soft rain fell on Moscow, as Brumel and Roone Arledge approached the bar. And then ... my God ...

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."