Jim Gray was one of my favorites.
Among many tense interviews with difficult subjects, I'll always remember Gray getting in Mike Tyson's face seconds after the fire-breathing fighter lost a boxing war. There was Gray, amid the chaos and pandemonium, asking the tough questions.
I feared for Gray's safety. Tyson is going to kill you, Jim! But he didn't. Gray stood his ground and looked like one of the guttiest, poised TV sportsreporters in the land.
He did it again during the 1999 World Series by asking Pete Rose if he would finally admit to gambling on baseball so the stubborn Rose could get back in the sport's good graces. The pundits crucified him for asking a "rude" question during a special moment for Rose, who was being honored for making the All-Century Team. Turns out, Gray was right. Rose did bet on baseball -- and it was the right question.
In a marketplace where softball questions and tell-us-nothing sideline reports are the norm, Gray was a throwback to the Mike Wallace era of fierce journalists not afraid to get answers.
All that ended last Thursday night during "The Decision."
In front of millions of eager viewers, there was Gray sitting across from LeBron James on ESPN. And there was Gray asking the worst questions of his career. Despite such accomplishments as 11 Emmy Awards, Gray's obituary will always contain the words: "Are you still a nail biter?"
Yes, Gray asked James that question before he asked: "Where are you going to play next year?" so he could stretch the show into one loooong hour.
It was sad, it was pathetic -- and I still don't understand Gray's motivation.
Interestingly, in trying to comprehend what went wrong for the award-winning reporter, just look at his last name -- gray. There was too much "gray" area heading into that interview.
Gray was working as a freelancer and that's where the problems started. He wasn't hired by ESPN so the network didn't have control over the guy in charge of their show. You never want this scenario. It's your network. You hire the staff.
Unfortunately, Gray was selected by his subject -- LeBron James.
This is what those in the news business call a conflict of interest. If your subject is the one who hires you, do you really think it's possible to ask difficult, pointed questions like: "Why divorce yourself from your hometown of Cleveland in such a public way? Do you see how some Cavaliers fans could see this as humiliating?"
A reporter can't be that combative -- if that individual ever wants to work for the subject again.
Yet here's where it gets weird. Gray says he didn't receive payment from LeBron or his team. He told CNBC that, other than expenses, he wasn't paid for his work.
"I am not receiving a single penny from LeBron or any entity involved with LeBron," Gray told the news outlet after it reported that he was indeed getting paid. "I will receive a small stipend to take care of expenses. But I'm not making money off this."
So, Jim, if you're not making any money from it why be a part of this nonsense?
Was it the exposure? If that's the case, Gray did far more harm to his name and brand than he did good. The exposure turned negative before the show even concluded and now he's a laughingstock.
During the meetings leading up the show, Gray should have been clear about his intentions. Once he heard how the show's power brokers expected an infomercial and not a true news show, Gray should have walked away with his professionalism intact. Yet he stuck around.
Listen, people make mistakes in their personal lives and with their careers. I hope Jim Gray rebounds and continues his great work. I want to like watching him again.
But instead of remaining defensive, he owes us an explaination about what happened and where he went wrong. If he does that, he'll distance himself from such a TV sham, appear a lot more human in the process, and the American sports public will trust him again.
The guy is simply too tough, too smart and too talented to stay away.