Jim Lampley In Depth

By Thomas Hauser
"In some ways, I'm a mass of contradictions," says Jim Lampley. "The people around me would say that I'm a driven workaholic and largely successful. I see myself as lazy, undermotivated, and largely unfulfilled. When I consider how much some people accomplish in twenty-four hours, I feel as though I hardly scratch the surface. My sportscasting career is like an accidental gift from the universe. Prominence and upward mobility were given to me. By any objective standard, I'm seen as productive, but I know how much more I could accomplish if I were more disciplined. I have so many different things going on at any given time that I approach almost everything like a kid who crams for final exams. The gap between what I do and what I think I could do if I pushed myself harder is enormous."

In other words, Robert Redford as golden boy Hubbell Gardner in The Way We Were. As American as apple pie; everything came so easily to him. Except along the way, there were problems.

"I was an alcoholicat age seventeen," Lampley acknowledges. "I was a college dropout and eventually a college flunk-out. I was arrested for drugs and had to scramble through correspondence courses to get back into school and pull my life together. There were some difficult times."

Lampley's mother had been married to a military man who was killed in the crash of a transport plane in 1945. "The man who would become my father was my mother's husband's best friend," Lampley explains. "After the accident, he brought my mother a trunk with some of her deceased husband's belongings including his war medals in it. Their relationship evolved from there."

Lampley was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina, on April 8, 1949. Five years later, his father died of cancer. When Jim was 11, he moved with his mother and an older step-brother to Miami.

"I grew up as a latch-key kid," Lampley remembers. "My mother sold life insurance to military personnel by going out and banging on doors day and night. We'd have breakfast together every morning and, other than that, I saw her on Friday nights and on weekends. She did the best she could, but I was largely unsupervised."

Lampley's mother was also a sports fan who tried to fill the gaps in her son's life with sports. "She took me to watch the Hendersonville High School Bearcats," he reminisces. "Football, basketball, and baseball. She got me into reading the Chip Hilton stories. She turned on the television for NFL games and for Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese on Saturday afternoon baseball telecasts. She competed with me to pick winners for the Triple Crown races. And way back in the 1950s, she sat down with me to watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on television."

"And the other big thing in our household," Lampley continues, "was reading out loud. It was a family tradition. For reasons I couldn't specify, whenever you wanted someone to know about something you had read, you didn't just tell them about it. You read it to them out loud. So the two basic building blocks of my sports broadcasting career come right out of my childhood, although I never actually identified sportscasting as a career goal."

After graduating from high school, Lampley enrolled at the University of North Carolina. He was an indifferent student, who lost a car and "one of the best collections of rhythm-and-blues recordings ever assembled" in an all-night poker game. He also drank heavily and in 1969, after flunking out of college, was arrested for possession of marijuana.

"That was rock bottom for me," Lampley recalls. "When my mother bailed me out of jail that night, she informed me that she had just spent the last of my father's insurance money to post bail."

Thereafter, Lampley turned his life around. He sobered up, returned to college at UNC, and graduated in 1971. Then he went to work for a three term congressman named Nick Galifianakis, who was running for the Senate against Jesse Helms.

"No matter what I do," Lampley acknowledges, "I'll never work as hard as that again. The job lasted for 16 months and was the key formative experience in my life. I discovered a lot about myself in that time, and I proved to myself that I could be important."

After the campaign, Lampley returned to the University of North Carolina, where he earned a masters degree in communications in 1974. Then he got lucky. ABC wanted to hire an announcer who was close to college age for sideline reporting on its college football broadcasts. There were national auditions and Lampley prevailed. Suddenly, at age twenty-five, he was on network television, having landed on top of a ladder that most people in the industry spend years trying to climb.

Since then, to use Lampley's words, "It's just been a matter of trying to keep my toes on the surfboard." By 1986, he had been at ABC for 12 years, rising through the ranks to become host of the network's college football telecasts, a frequent studio host for Wide World of Sports, and the Olympics heir apparent to Jim McKay. Then Howard Cosell abandoned boxing, and ABC worked its way through Don Chevrier, Keith Jackson, and Al Michaels for blow-by-blow commentary. Finally, producer Alex Wallau asked Lampley if he knew anything about boxing. His first fistic assignment, Mike Tyson versus Jesse Ferguson, came later that year.

In 1987, Dennis Swanson replaced Roone Arledge as president of ABC Sports. Swanson didn't like Lampley's style or salary, so he moved to CBS. There, in addition to sports, Lampley co-anchored the evening news for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and served as a correspondent for CBS This Morning. Next came a stint at NBC involving NFL football, Wimbledon, and the Olympics.

Meanwhile, in March 1988, Lampley began calling fights for HBO and has been doing it ever since. Many in the industry feel that he is under-utilized by the cable giant. Still, he's the glue that holds HBO's boxing's telecasts together.

Lampley has a lot to do during fights. Sandwiched in between welcoming the audience at the top of the show and signing off at the end, he reads promos, clarifies George Foreman's comments, mediates disputes between Foreman and Larry Merchant, and, most importantly, handles the blow-by blow commentary.

Former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham, who hired Lampley, declares, "Jim is incredibly utilitarian in terms of the range of things he does well. He has a superb work ethic. He's passionate about his performance. He's one of those rare individuals who lifts the level of everyone else on the telecast by setting them up and then finishing strong himself. He's the star of HBO Boxing."

"Jim raises blow-by-blow to an art form," adds Abraham's successor, Ross Greenburg. "You don't want any other announcer at the microphone for a big fight."

Lampley, for his part, opines, "Calling a fight is the single most subjective job in sportscasting. There are no point counts while the action is going on, no first downs or yard-markers. But beyond that, I try to be what I call a synthesist sportscaster. That means communicating both the details of the event and the societal backdrop. The single thing I'm proudest of with regard to my work at HBO is that, in 15 years, I've never stopped improving in my ability to see the fights and understand what's happening in them."

Meanwhile, Lampley's broadcasting partner Larry Merchant observes, "Jim has a terrific understanding of the broad picture and near-total recall of minutiae like obscure names and dates. And I've never been on a telecast with him where I thought he just mailed it in. It's like that old line from Joe DiMaggio about how he worked as hard as he did all the time because there might be someone in the stands that day who had never seen him play baseball before and might never see him play again. That's Jim. He might not get it completely right every time; none of us do. But I've never seen him get it wrong either. He's a true professional, who makes what's really a very complicated job look effortless. There are very few people in any sport who can do what he does as well as he does."

Lampley, in turn, says simply, "When I go on the air at HBO, I'm backed by ninety people who are working to make me look good. That makes it relatively easy for me to do a good job."

Lampley has been married three times. His first marriage (1970-1978) was to his college sweetheart. "After we split up," he notes, "she married my attorney and best friend, and he's still my best friend." Then he wed a "nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn" (1979-1989) and had two daughters. Brooke, age twenty-three, graduated from Harvard in 2002 and is in a fine arts PhD. Program at Yale. Victoria, age sixteen, is a high-school student.

TV news anchorwoman Bree Walker was Lampley's third wife (1990-2000). Bree has a daughter, Andrea, age 14, from a previous marriage. She and Jim also have a son, Aaron, age 11.

Lampley and Walker were divorced three years ago, but remain close friends. He believes that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, they'll remarry. "For once in my life," he says hopefully, "I'd like to make a relationship work; not just for Bree and myself, but also to set an example for my children."

"Through all my divorces," Lampley continues, "I'm pleased to say that I've remained in my children's lives in a meaningful way and I think I've done a good job of parenting. That's the most important thing in life to me. I ask myself sometimes, 'If it were to all end tomorrow; what would I need to feel that my life has been worthwhile?' And my answer is always, 'I'd be satisfied if my children have self-esteem and productive lives.'"

That consideration has special meaning where Andrea and Aaron are concerned. Bree Walker has a hand and foot condition known as ectrodactyly that caused her to be born with her digits in jumbled clumps instead of the common assortment of fingers and toes. Both of her children inherited the condition from their mother.

"I've spent thirty years in a world covering the pursuit of physical perfection," Lampley says. "And I live in a family where physical perfection is out of the question. But Andrea and Aaron are wonderful people. And in addition to being wonderful, they win spelling bees and speech contests. Andrea is a terrific soccer player. Aaron is an avid fisherman. How he ties knots, I don't know; but he does it and does it well. So there's spiritual and emotional satisfaction for all of us and it creates a balancing perspective in my life."

Lampley's political principles are also important to him. "I come from white racist southern stock," he acknowledges. "There were Ku Klux Klan members on my family tree. But I came of age in the 1960s, which was an era when liberal politics were respected. I have a well-developed sense of justice that was nurtured by living my formative years in the south during the civil rights movement. My heroes when I was growing up were Martin Luther King Jr. and others who were part of that dramatic pageant."

"I hate the notion that race is an omnipresent backdrop to American life," Lampley continues. "Exploitation of the weak angers me. I believe in government for all the people, not just some of them. I believe in the redistribution of wealth rather than its concentration in the hands of the rich and powerful. The minimum wage should be higher, and so should taxes on rich people. Whenever I hear rich people complaining about taxes, I think they must have never visited any place else. We're the most undertaxed people in the world. It's not an imposition on my personal place in the culture to pay taxes. At the end of the day, it's all about, 'Do we want to share, or do we not want to share? We're the richest nation on earth. Why are so many people poor here?"

"Gun control is, to me, the single most irrational element of American society and politics," Lampley posits. "We're the only nation in the world that thinks there's something good about the proliferation of guns. I'm in favor of gun control and don't understand why everybody else isn't. I have very powerful mixed feelings on the issue of abortion. I've paid for two abortions in my life and lost a lot of sleep over them, although I'm sure the women lost a lot more. But at the end of the day, I support a woman's right to choose. Where Iraq is concerned, I care deeply about the wellbeing of the men and women in our armed forces, but no one has proven to my satisfaction that immediate combat was necessary."

"I'm a 1960s liberal," Lampley says, summing up his political perspective. "And I think that one of the great things about the Bush Administration is that it's going to make liberalism respectable again. We need system fallout here in America. We need something that will shake our government to its core."

Lampley seems to be a man in constant motion. Longtime friend and boxing publicist Bill Caplan notes, "I've never seen him relax. He's always primed and ready to fire."

As part of that active swirl, Lampley will serve as NBC's daytime host for the 2004 Olympics in Athens; his twelfth Olympics assignment (six winter and six summer). He also recently signed a four-year contract extension with HBO that ensures his presence as the network's blow-by-blow commentator through May 2007.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Lampley has devoted an increasing amount of time and energy to Crystal Spring; a production company that he founded in 1995. Lampley likens running the company to "the daily chore of pushing boulders up a hill." Still, Crystal Spring has produced one film, is in production on another, and has development deals for three more.

[Journalistic ethics require the notation here that I'm the author of a novel entitled Mark Twain Remembers. At Lampley's suggestion, Steven Spielberg read the book and purchased film rights for Dreamworks. Crystal Spring is involved with the project.]

Meanwhile, with regard to the sweet science, Lampley declares, "Boxing on HBO has become my primary sportscasting identity and now virtually my only one. I expect the rest of my sportscasting career to consist of calling fights."

And what might that lead to?

"The honesty of my relationship with the audience is important to me," Lampley answers. "Someone asked me recently whether I ever got so fed up with boxing that I thought of pulling a Howard Cosell and just walking away. The answer is, 'Yes, every week.' I'd like to figure out now how to be more of a positive force in the sport and not just part of the scene. I want to be able to give back to boxing, and particularly to the fighters. By the end of next year, Crystal Spring should provide the bulk of my income. And the better my production company does, the braver my commentary will be in terms of resisting the political pressures of boxing and of HBO."

"I'm privileged to work for a company where honesty on the air is a valued and important tradition," Lampley continues. "But I can see where I might push the envelope a bit more in the future, and I'm excited about what that might mean to the content of the show. Sports journalism in general is bigger, broader, and more varied than ever before. But there's a crisis in the print media's coverage of boxing in that the gatekeepers consider the audience for boxing too small to commit the resources necessary for responsible journalistic coverage. That means, for the great mass of consumers, televised boxing is boxing. And for many people, HBO Boxing is boxing, with the result that HBO's role in the sport is of distorted public significance. If we do something right at HBO, it's good for boxing. But if we mess up, it has the potential to cause considerable harm. I can't think of another telecast in any sport that has as much influence within the sports world as HBO Boxing. That's a great privilege, but the opportunity it gives us comes with the responsibility to do our job right."

Thomas Hauser can be contacted at //lw10fd.law10.hotmail.msn.com/cgi-bin/compose?curmbox=F000000001&a=c312123aa6b029b8448c920509f917b8&mailto=1&to=thauserthauserrcn.com
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