On Sports Genius: Mike Greenberg Opens Up
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The ESPN anchor and novelist opens up about his journey and the biggest surprise about sports he learned over the years.
By Nick Fouriezos
ESPN anchor, radio host and novelist Mike Greenberg sat for a revealing interview with OZY’s CEO and co-founder on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show. The following are some of the best cuts from the full conversation.
How did you end up going the journalism route?
Mike Greenberg: Neither of my parents were journalists, but they did become writers. So my father was a lawyer, my mother was a schoolteacher, and they both grew up very poor in the Bronx. And when my father got out of law school, they started to have a little money and they wanted to travel, so they traveled. This was before they had me and then subsequently my brother. They traveled through Europe and all of that, and they wanted to go to South America. And so they went to try and buy a travel guide to South America and they found that none existed.
In 1965, my parents went to Arthur Frommer and said, “You don’t have a travel guide to South America. Let us go down there and write one for you.” So they did, in the summer of 1965, my mother was a schoolteacher, she had the summer off. My father took the entire summer off from his legal practice. They traveled all across South America, and they wrote a guidebook. The original one was called South America on $5 a Day. And they wound up writing the Frommer South America guide every year from 1965 until sometime in the ’90s. They were travel writers for my entire childhood.
To be honest with you, my real dream was to be a writer. The day that I walked into a bookstore when my first book was published and saw my book, there was … I took more pride in that and still do than I do in pretty much anything I’ve ever done on TV or radio. That probably comes with having grown up around books.
What was your big break?
Greenberg: I would say the two people who were most responsible for me getting noticed would be Michael Jordan and David Letterman. There were, at the same time I was starting out in my industry and in sports broadcasting, I don’t even know how to count how many people out there, there probably were, who were just as good as I was, just as knowledgeable, would have worked just as hard, and just didn’t get those breaks. Just weren’t in the right place at the right time. That’s what I mean when I say, any successful person who does not list good fortune, just good luck, among the reasons they are where they are, I think is kidding themselves.
The show that I hosted for 18 years with Mike Golic called Mike & Mike was really what made my career. Unquestionably the biggest thing that ever happened to us was David Letterman became a fan of our show. We had a sports talk show, and we were on the radio every day. We were on for years before anyone knew we were. We were as small an entity as you could possibly be. We had like 11 listeners. Then it slowly but surely started to grow a little bit. Some people liked us, but we were very much an underground thing. We were not a huge, popular, well-known talk show.
What have you learned about sports that would have surprised you?
Greenberg: What I have learned more than anything from having covered sports, as you say now, for basically 30 years, is that the thread of commonality that unites all of the great ones is intelligence. That you will never find a genuinely great player who is not some level of brilliant. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she would have gotten straight A’s in school, but there was a certain genius that I think is attached to the truly great ones, and that actually separates them from the merely good, and then those who couldn’t get there at all. And that’s something I don’t think I would have expected.
I would’ve just thought back in those days that the great ones — the Dr. J, the Elvin Hayes, the Terry Bradshaw — that they were just bigger, faster, stronger and better athletes. But what really separates them, because what I’ve learned is that the difference in athleticism, the difference in skill and talent is generally something like this. And the difference in brilliance and the difference in intellect and intelligence and understanding of the game is this. And that is what separates Wayne Gretzky from the guy who is still in the American Hockey League that never quite made it to the NHL.
I think it is the genius. And the best example of that I can give right now would be LeBron James. If you look at LeBron James, everyone looks at him and they say, “Well, look at his size, look at his speed, look at his strength.” Do you know how many guys out there are built like LeBron James in the world? When we were able to watch these games in the bubble, if you were paying attention, you were able to hear so much more of the communication on the court, because there were no fans making noise. And what I think a lot of fans may have learned from watching those games on TV is that LeBron is basically coaching every single play on the court.
The New York Times asked me to review a biography of Michael Jordan that came out some years ago. And what I wrote in that was that to watch Michael Jordan play basketball, which I had the privilege of doing every day for seven years — it’s how I got my start — I think was no different than being able to watch Picasso paint or to watch Beethoven sit at a piano. And you were watching a rare genius in his or her [prime], doing stuff that only they can conceive. Many people could do it if they could think of it, but only they can conceive it.