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Interview with Bryant Gumbel

HBO

How did you first become involved with Real Sports?

Bryant Gumbel

It goes back to the days of Seth Abraham as president of HBO Sports and Ross Greenberg as executive producer, both friends of mine. We started talking about the possibility of a program with the concept of reporting on serious aspects of sport. To talk about sports in a fashion that no one else was doing, and in a way that wasn't beholden to the leagues or to advertisers.

And when they came to me with it, I thought it was a great idea. It's very difficult for the networks to do a show like this, because the networks have contracts with the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball and the like. And those leagues don't take too kindly to you telling the truth, when the truth is sometimes ugly.

HBO

What's the most rewarding part for you personally doing this show?

Bryant Gumbel

I have been a sports fan my whole life. To be able to talk about sports in an intelligent, journalistic fashion, and to do things of a serious nature is a dream job. I was in sports for the first ten years of my career before switching over to news. To be able to combine the two at this late stage, it's just fabulous for me.

HBO

There are a lot of fans of "Real Sports" who are not fans of sports, in general. Why is that?

Bryant Gumbel

We are about sports, like 'Rocky' was about boxing. We are about sports, like 'The Natural' was about baseball. We are essentially in the business of telling stories. We would like to think that most of our stories are basically human stories, with sports as a backdrop.

I did a story on a guy who had both of his legs sheared off in a racetrack accident, and he had refused to let it beat him. But it's a not story about racecar driving. It's a story about a guy having tragedy impact his life, and him not viewing it as tragedy, but viewing it as a challenge to overcome, and doing so. You needn't be a sports fan to enjoy it.

HBO

What's the most professionally rewarding story for you, looking back over the past 10 years?

Bryant Gumbel

Without question: the Marcus Dixon story. Marcus Dixon is an incredibly gifted athlete and student, who wound up being sentenced to 15 years in prison, for what was consensual high school sex. We had a production assistant find the story in a Georgia paper and brought it to us. We went down, and we did it. After we did the story, everybody jumped on the bandwagon. I think Oprah did it. I think Koppel did it. I think CBS Evening News did it. I think NBC Nightly News did it. MSNBC did it. Everybody then jumped on the bandwagon, and did the story.

It went before the Supreme Court, and he was freed, just recently. I just went back, and spent some time with him and his parents and his lawyer-- it's not often you get a chance to do a piece that impacts somebody's life, in such a positive fashion.

I was teasing with Frank Deford, I said, "You know, we don't keep score on these things. But if you look at the Marcus Dixon piece, it created an incredible buzz. It won an Emmy. And it helped free a young man and give him a second chance at life." I am not necessarily sure you can get more out of one piece than that.

HBO

How much does gender and ethnicity play into the sports world?

Bryant Gumbel

I think quite a bit. Because sports is viewed as a level playing field. It's something where talent prevails and the best man wins. But as is often the case, race matters, gender matters, class matters, money matters.

Those are the things that when you open up your sports page, most sportswriters don't want to talk about. But the reality is, that they exist in society. And while Real Sports is not preoccupied with them, we are very conscious of them, and we want other people to be aware that decisions are made, and judgments are passed, and opportunities are given or denied, based on things a lot of times that have nothing to do with talent. Real Sports is ever watchful of that.

HBO

What do you look for when choosing a Real Sports story?

Bryant Gumbel

I am not sure there is a basic criterion that has to be met for something to be a "Real Sports" story. I think there has to be something engaging about it. There has to be a primary character or issue. And there has to be something that the viewer is not getting elsewhere. Plain and simple.

The truth is, if people could open up their newspapers and read about it, then it's probably not for us. If somebody has just written it up, or it just been featured elsewhere, that's probably not for us. We are always looking for stories that people aren't going to be able to get anywhere else. That has to be our stock and trade, because we are monthly. We'd like to think that we find stories that no one else is doing. In those instances where somebody else has done it? We like to think we do it better.

HBO

How would you define a Sports Hero?

Bryant Gumbel

I am not necessarily sure how you define a "hero." I think in the sports vein, the word is tossed around, way too loosely. Heroes are hard to come by, and they should be. Heroes are people who are to be admired. Not just for what they are able to do, but for who they are.

We did a story on a young man, who had no arms and no legs, who was a wrestler. That is heroic, in that he is striving to overcome a physical disability. The effort is heroic. Whether he is a hero or not is, we'll never know. Because like I say, it's not just what you do, it's who you are. But certainly the effort is heroic.

Bryant Gumbel