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Jim Murray: best sports writer ever

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO this month, I met my all-time idol in the unlikeliest of places.

I was riding in the back seat of a press bus, returning early from the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.Jim Murray plopped down beside me.

If Jim Murray were in a back seat, I thought, it ought to be in a limo.

To me, he wasn't the best sports writer in Los Angeles, or the United States of America. He was the best sports writer anywhere, anytime. The best there ever was, the best there ever would be.

And there he was, just like me, trying to figure out how to sit in one seat with his Teleram computer, identical to the one I had wedged between my knees.

I wanted to tell him of my esteem for his writing, how I'd spent my life as a sports writer in awe of his ability. I knew he was legally blind after eye surgery five years previous. I knew that personally because in 1979, shortly after I began writing a sports column myself, I had taken the liberty to write the great Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times and ask if I could come to California and spend a day following him around.

It was a bold request on my part, and quite out of character, but such was the extent of the respect I had for Jim Murray. I thought it was high irony that, of all people, he would have trouble with his eyes, because he had this amazing ability to see things none of the rest of us could see - until he pointed it out.

That was Jim Murray's genius. Yes, he was a master of simile, metaphor and, above all, exaggeration for effect. But what set him apart from the field, what set him in another universe altogether, was his uncanny vision.

Time and again, I would observe an event or some development in the sports world and then read about it the next day in a Jim Murray column and suddenly see what had been right in front of my eyes.

I'd read Murray, hit my forehead and say, "Yeah!"

Case in point: the day he wrote about girls playing Little League baseball. This was when the battle of the sexes was just heating up and attorneys were entering the fight. Jim Murray chimed in with a column that said the only people who had the right to tell you you had to play with a girl was your grandmother.

Man, I wished I'd thought of that.

He did it all the time. The rest of us would go to the Indianapolis 500 and write about A.J. Foyt's chances. He'd write about a sporting event that cost so much in human life ("Gentlemen, start your coffins"). The rest of us would go to the Masters and write about the speed of the greens. He'd write about racial inequality ("Everyone here rides in the front of the bus"). The rest of us would go to the Olympics and write about Al Oerter or Carl Lewis. He'd write about the wrong-ness of a barefoot Zola Budd being discriminated against because of politics.

So there I was, on the bus seat next to this, this, icon, and Olympic traffic being Olympic traffic, we had some time on our hands.

I played it cool. I didn't bring up my request of 1979, when he graciously sent a reply he'd typed himself saying he couldn't accommodate me because of the eye surgery.

I talked to him about column writing.

And Jim Murray talked back.

He agreed with me that it was tough finding fresh leads in the Olympics.

"Yeah, you think you have a good idea and then you get 20 lines into it and it falls off a cliff," he said.

He agreed that the fireworks at the closing ceremonies were too loud.

"Dime store fireworks," he called them, "and they screw up the computer."

That was why we were both on the bus, in fact - off to the press center so we could file our columns.

"I'd have phoned it in," said Murray - who died last week at 78, leaving a journalism void never to be filled - "but this time of night, I'd get some guy on re-write who types with his thumbs."

Man, I sat there mentally hitting my forehead, I wished I'd thought of that.