A memoir is an act of self-preservation realized by way of a public vivisection; in laying bare the vitals, the writer consents to an immersion in a sort of hagiographic formaldehyde solution. To document one’s own works and days is to forever fix oneself behind glass while maintaining the illusion of rude vigor—an operation that brings to mind Damien Hirst’s ferociously dead tiger shark.
With the newly-released book From Saturday Night to Sunday Night, Dick Ebersol gives the shark tank the slip with an almost dizzying array of stories culled from his 40-plus years in television. Storytelling is the means through which Ebersol interprets the world around him, serving as the guiding principle throughout his career at NBC, where he all but reinvented sports broadcasting. (Ebersol’s influence on entertainment is perhaps no less monumental, given his role in launching a certain late-night comedy program.)
Speaking with Sportico from his home in Litchfield, Conn., Ebersol, 75, says he’d dragged his heels on writing the book until his wife Susan and son, Charlie, intervened over a meal. “I knew I had to get these stories out there before I forgot them, but frankly, I grew a bit tired from the initial effort,” Ebersol recalls. “I thought we were just out having a nice lunch until Susie and Charlie said, ‘Look, you have to get this done.’”
As Ebersol began taking inventory of his vast storehouse of anecdotes, a through-line began to emerge. From the moment the high-school exchange student in Normandy managed to wrangle a go-fer job from the ABC crew at Le Mans to the time the seasoned exec hatched the cloak-and-dagger “Sunset Project” plot which secured the rights to the Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympics, Ebersol’s life has been an object lesson in hustle.
“If you don’t have the rights, you don’t have the opportunity to tell the stories,” Ebersol says, as he reflects back on his 1995 Olympics caper. The deal was something out of Robert Ludlum, featuring clandestine flights to Sweden on GE’s Gulfstream IV—Jack Welch approved the night raids from his Nantucket hospital suite—and a $1.25 billion deal that was hashed out with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch while Ebersol’s rivals at Fox and ABC were still in bed. Before the year was out, Ebersol would add three more Olympics to the NBC roster, extending the first deal through 2008 with another $2.3 billion.
We’re not doing justice to the story here, if only because it’s difficult to convey how lethally cool Ebersol’s Spy vs. Spy act was. Outside of his own dispassionate re-telling of the tale, perhaps the best way to characterize Ebersol’s masterstroke is to toss around phrases like “cut-throat sangfroid” or “an assassination in casual dress.”
When Ebersol isn’t averse to talking about his past exploits, he really comes to life when he thinks back on the human element. To hear him speak of his efforts to bring Muhammad Ali onboard to light the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games is to experience the same profusion of goosebumps that erupted the moment The Greatest appeared on-screen with the torch. That Ali’s participation was shrouded in absolute secrecy—even the NBC broadcast crew had no earthly idea as to what was about to go down inside Centennial Olympic Stadium, which became obvious when Dick Enberg was reduced to repeating his trademark “Oh my!”—is a testament to how Ebersol got things done.
When we talk about Ali, however, it’s less to do with the sports icon than the man himself. Ebersol had gotten some pushback from Atlanta organizer Billy Payne, who objected to the prospect of Ali’s ceremonial role because many viewers in the South still perceived the champ as a “draft dodger.”
Even today, Ebersol remains passionate about this misperception, saying, “He didn’t run! He was willing to go through the legal process, and in so doing, put himself at the risk of losing everything.
“He was on his way to prison when the very conservative court threw out the case. Still, because he was willing to fight for what he believed in and stand by his principles, he lost his three biggest money-earning years,” Ebersol says. In the end, it was Ebersol’s own principles that prevailed, and anyone who watched as Ali lit the wick is unlikely to forget that moment.
Ebersol says he’s happily retired, having parted ways with NBC back in 2011, and while he’s an investor in the nascent Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy indoor golf series and tech company, TMRW Sports, that’s about the extent of his involvement in sports business nowadays. At times, he grows pensive, having lost Bill Russell just weeks ago, but as soon as he starts telling stories about his great friend, Ebersol’s smile steals its way back across his face. (In one of the many highlights of our conversations, Ebersol relates a story about being overtaken in his Porsche on the I-5 by a VW Bug piloted by Russell, who had the little car retrofitted so that he could drive while sitting in the back seat.)
“I miss him so much, but I’ve been blessed to have so many truly wonderful friends about whom I can share my memories,” he says.
Even the melancholy moments are instructive. When we talk of the plane crash that took the life of his youngest son, Ebersol says that whenever he makes his way the half-mile down the road from his home to the gravesite, he’ll catch up with Teddy while leaning against the tombstone of another old friend.
“I talk to Teddy, but I know he’s not talking back. That’s just hocus-pocus,” Ebersol says. “It took me some time to get to this place—and all credit is due to Susie, who wouldn’t let any of us feel sorry for ourselves—but I know now that we have to keep the memory of those who are no longer with us alive. And the way to do that is to talk about them, to tell our stories.”