The OSDB Interview: Jim Lampley

By Stefan Bondy | Posted 1 year ago

Forty years later, it was like we were there. Dean Smith with the clipboard. Michael Jordan on the ball. We were watching UNC-Georgetown in 1982, hearing the insider details about the play that pinned Jordan on the national map. There was Worthy’s anxiety in the huddle and a collective hope that Jordan, despite being just a freshman, got the call for the game winner.


“James and every one of the upperclassmen we were all acutely aware that Dean had been to the Final Four seven times and had not won the national championship,” Jim Lampley said. “Worthy told me, ‘I was so nervous you couldn't have driven a nail into my skin.’ And the last thing in world he wanted was to be passed the ball with a double team and the impossible task of trying to score on that play. And he said, ‘If you have to ask any of us in the huddle, who did we want to take the shot, we knew there was only one player in the huddle who wanted to take that job.”


Lampley heard all this from Worthy, his golf buddy, many years later. And he recalled it last week with his trademark delivery, impeccable timing and that unmistakable Lampley voice. The voice of excitement that always seems to rise to the occasion.


A master storyteller.


"Dean reached down and patted Jordan on the butt and said, ‘Michael, knock it down,’’ Lampley said. “And said it loud enough for the rest of (Worthy and teammates) to hear. In other words, solidifying that it was going to be option number three. And Jordan hit the jump shot. And the rest was history.”



(Interview edited for posterity and please read it in Lampley's voice): 

Q: So, what went into your decision to start teaching this course at UNC?

LAMPLEY: First of all, I don't know if you've ever been to Chapel Hill or….

Q: I’ll throw this in there first, I went to University of Maryland when they were in the ACC, and I hated UNC. But that’s okay, go on?

LAMPLEY: Right, And. there's a lot of reason to hate UNC (laughs). Because UNC is insular, self- worshiping, absolutely devoted to the notion that there's no other place like UNC. I remember one night I was in a bar called Barney's Beanery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. And I was with two or three other Tar Heels and we were chatting with each other and a woman I had never met and tapped me on the shoulder from behind and said, ‘What is with you people?’ What is the whole idolatry and worship for Chapel Hill. You're like a cult.’ And I said, ‘Madam, we're not like a cult. We’re a cult (laughs).’ So fundamental to a cult –  and Worthy will tell you this. And Jordan would tell you this. Anson Dorrance would tell you this, etc


We all have the urge to come back. If we can. We all expect at some point that we're going to come back and a lot of us actually do come back. So I always knew through 47 years broadcasting after I left this place, that if a convenient meaningful opportunity to come back to Chapel Hill would arise, I would probably do that. 


Soseveral years ago I was having a fundraising-type lunch in Los Angeles with the Head of Financial Affairs for the university and the Dean of Arts and Sciences, a guy named Kevin Guskiewicz, who would eventually become Chancellor and the Chairperson of the Communications department.


They were lunching me for the purpose of raising money. And at some point during the conversation I mentioned, ‘You know, I've always had kind of a wild hair, even though I've lived here in California for 30 plus years, I've always had wild hair that probably someday I would come back to Chapel Hill. And somebody said, ‘What do you think you'd want to do there?’ I said, ‘Well, I mean, I'd like to teach.’


I was very, very grateful for my experiences in undergraduate school and graduate school and I think it would be really fun to teach a class at Chapel Hill and (Guskiewicz) opened his mouth and said to me, ‘Jim, knowing you and knowing your mind, if you want him to come in and stand in a classroom and talk about anything you wanted for a semester at a time, we'll call that a course. We’ll designate it as a course, and I said, ‘Kevin, that's very thoughtful and generous of you. But the fact of the matter is I want more than that. If I want to do it, I want to be serious. I want to create something that will stay in the Academic Catalog that will be offered by the Communications Department whether I'm teaching it or not. I want to do something that legitimately contributes to academia.’


And he smiled and he said, ‘Oh, you mean, you want to work?’ (Laughs). I said, ‘Yeah. You know, even though it's all been in sports, I'm accustomed to working so that's what I would consider doing.’ So that became a standing invitation. And then, several years later, I think there's about a five-year passage of time before Time Warner was suddenly purchased by a bunch of cell phone salesmen from Dallas, and they decided to get rid of the boxing franchise. And at that point, I looked at the tea leaves and I said, ‘You know, I think my network television sports casting career is now over.



And this is the moment, if there's going to be such a moment, to consider what I said about teaching in Chapel Hill.’ So in late 2019, just before the beginning of 2020, my wife and I left San Diego and arrived here in Chapel Hill for what I expected to be a one-semester experiment teaching the course that I created. And the title of the course is Evolution of Storytelling in American Electronic News Media. And everybody expects hearing that I'm teaching a course that it's going to have something to do with sports or sportscasting. But it doesn't. I had contracts with news departments at both ABC and CBS. I was a network news anchor at KCBS TV in the early 1990s. So I have a news background. From the standpoint of teaching something in academia, it's far more meaningful to be talking about news coverage and news reporting than sports coverage and sports reporting. It's particularly meaningful now as we watch what's happening in the interaction between what we still call the news ecosystem – even though it's really, in a lot of cases now, the propaganda ecosystem – and our politics. And I'm now in my fifth semester of teaching that on campus in Chapel Hill.

Q: Sticking with sports here, how has broadcasting changed since you first started?

LAMPLEY: Well, of course change – and one of the things I teach in my courses – is that change can come from a number of different sources. There's technological change, there's economic change, there's personnel change, there's change in the way the institutions interact with each other, etc. Most everything is different from – in some way or another – from what I was doing when I was working. And that has to do with changes in distribution patterns, streaming as opposed to network delivery. Lots of things have affected both the messages and the messengers. So I watch it, and a lot of it is something I don't recognize. It's interesting that boxing is in a lot of ways a backwards sport.


But in terms of the changes that have taken place in the way sports are distributed via television to the public, boxing was a pioneer. Boxing was at the forefront Pay-Per-View and streaming and other sports went along mimicking boxing because boxing demonstrated how a single event can maximize the audience and maximize its economic return in a way that other sports had not yet happened on to. The single biggest economic event in the history of boxing is still the single biggest economic event in the history of sports television and that's Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. And you could see Mayweather-Pacquiao coming if you were in my envelope, in my world. But if you were an NBA or NFL or Major League Baseball person, you might not have seen exactly what was coming in that regard because they weren't doing that where you maximize the one event. And they still aren't. They're still dealing with more traditional patterns of network distribution, but they are tinkering with the model to maximize economic return. And obviously, everything is about money.


There's nothing in sports television that isn't about money. I was chosen out of a talent hunt in 1974 for a unique and unprecedented role: standing on the sidelines of college football games for ABC Sports with a camera and a microphone. Anybody who's been born since 1974, turns on the television and makes an assumption that ever since the beginning of televised football, somebody's been on the sidelines with a camera and a microphone because it is now an absolutely indelible convention in television delivery. But that isn't the case. Televised football games were on the air for 20-plus years before anybody ever stood on the sidelines with a camera and a microphone.

Q: So you were the first sideline reporter in the NFL? Wow, I didn’t know that. 

LAMPLEY: Not NFL. College. I was the first college football sideline reporter. The NFL was resistant. And ABC had a uniquely bonded and impregnable relationship with college football, largely because ABC was a conduit to Chevrolet money. And Chevrolet was willing to spend huge numbers of dollars on college football at the time. And it was in college football that the concept of the sideline reporter first emerged and, that's another story.


Forgive me for moving from tributary to tributary here but the origin of the sideline reporter idea came from something that happened at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped by Black September terrorists. And suddenly ABC Sports, under the leadership of Roone Arledge became a news organism. And two reporters, Howard Cosell and Peter Jennings, were both pushing the control room for more and more and more access. 


How can we get closer? How can we tell this story more intimately? How can we get into the Olympic Village? How can we get near that apartment, etc, etc. And what happened as the result of that was that the network's engineering department learned that radiofrequency cameras and microphones would perform in ways that they had not previously known – that the signal would go around concrete walls, that the signal would go through metal barriers. And therefore they were able to service what Cosell and Jennings wanted. They got closer to the story. And they learned a great deal about the engineering capabilities of the equipment they had, but had not ever used for those purposes before.


So, they came back to New York. There was a meeting among the news division, the sports division and the engineering division. And the question in the meeting was, ‘Now that we know this, what can we do with it?’ And the first big idea that came out of it was, ‘Aha, we could put a reporter on the sidelines of college football.’ NFL would never let them do that at that time. Colleges said yes. They had a national talent hunt.


They interviewed 432 college-age or close to college-age people around the country to look for someone to do this. And I, along with a Stanford undergraduate named Don Tollefson, was chosen to be the first guinea pigs to toparticipate in that experience. …Even in my first couple of years on the sideline, I recognized and articulated to some people that this will become a vehicle for more women's sportscasters because, inevitably, they're going to choose to put a pretty woman there and that makes all sense in the world. 

Q: So from the terrorist kidnapping in 1972 to football sidelining reporting – that’s quite a lesson in the evolution of sports broadcasting, just like your course?

LAMPLEY:  The Evolution of Storytelling in American Electronic News Media. Absolutely right. You made the right action. That's why I think the way I do about things of that nature. In fact, in the first 10 minutes of every semester, I described to the students how I developed a network television broadcasting career as the result of that particular strange juxtaposition of factors.

Q: Earlier you brought up Mayweather-Pacquiao as the gamechanger event as far as big business, and you obviously know 1,000 times more than me on this subject. But as a boxing fan, I think of Mayweather-De La Hoya was somehow more impactful. Or maybe that’s because Mayweather-Pacquiao was so disappointing as a fight that I don’t view it as fondly? 

LAMPLEY: But that even makes it more interesting. Yes, Mayweather-De La Hoya built the model to a certain degree, but Mayweather-Pacquiao took it to another level in terms of the numbers. It was more globalized. It was a bigger sell. What's the primary reason for that? Social media and Floyd’s particular manipulation and skill with regard to social media. Floyd Mayweather was the first great social media self-promoter. Even precedes the Kardashians in that regard. And in fact, that factor is so central to what went on there that, as I have said to many people over the years since 2016, and I'll say it to you now – no Mayweather, no Trump. 


There's no question that Donald Trump watched what Floyd Mayweather did, and wound up mimicking it to a large degree in his unexpected rise to the presidency. And one of the things he discovered that Floyd illustrated for him was you don't have to be nice. You can be mean-spirited, antagonistic. You can offend everybody. And that has its own vast appeal for a lot of disgruntled people. And I think if Trump had not learned what he learned from watching, how Floyd manipulated anger and hatred and mean-spiritedness to create a larger and larger, larger audience, he wouldn't have been able to achieve what he achieved in 2016.

Q: That’s a terrifying connection.

LAMPLEY: But it's an obvious connection if you think about it. Trump worked in boxing. Trump is a boxing fan. Somewhere along the way, I'm sure Trump met and befriended Floyd. They're perfect for each other. Show me the money. At the end of the day, all those things connect and and yeah, obviously I did both of the fights you're talking about – Mayweather-De La Hoya, and Mayweather-Pacquiao. And Mayweather-Pacquiao happens to be a few years further along in the evolution of social media. And that's the reason it's the larger event. In fact, people were spending – it's been documented – people were spending $30k, $40k, $50k per individual ticket to get into that fight.


And this despite the fact that everyone in boxing knew it would be virtually unwatchable, knew that Pacquiao did not have a formula that could open Mayweather’s envelope and create real combat. And that Floyd was going to toy with him and stay away from him and make it a noncontact affair. Which he did. And that he would easily win. Which he did. So why were people there? Why were people paying $30,000 per ticket? It was so that they could stand there in the arena, and take the selfie that they could put on social media to say, ‘Look at me, I got in. Look at me, I have a ticket to Pacquiao-Mayweather. That’s what it was all about. 

Q: I wish I knew this before I shelled out my $100 for the Pay-Per-View?

LAMPLEY: Absolutely. You wasted 100 bucks. And frankly, I’m the person who called the fight and I could’ve told you. 

Q: Do you have a favorite all-time call? I still hear your voice when I’m thinking about George Foreman knocking out Michael Moorer in 1994?

LAMPLEY: Yeah, that’s it. Foreman knocking out Moorer. ‘It happened. It happened.’ And if there's a phrase that identifies and typifies my career, that's it – ‘It happened. It happened.’ It's a phrase that highlights and underlines the unexpected. And everything about my career was unexpected. I was one out of 432 who went to a talent hunt-type screening interview in 1974 and wound up with a 47-year network television career as a result.


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