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Al Michaels On Great Sports Moments That He's Witnessed


OK, pick a moment in sports - a big moment - over the past four decades, and our next guest - he was probably there.


AL MICHAELS: It is super Sunday, and the weather conditions are next to super in Tampa as we get ready to determine the championship of the National Football League.

GREENE: That voice - Al Michaels. He's done play-by-play for "Sunday Night Football," Super Bowls, the World Series and the Olympics. At the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, he had the perfect call in one of the most amazing upsets in sports history - the U.S. hockey team, a bunch of college kids, up against the mighty Soviets. In the final period, improbably, the U.S. took a 4-3 lead.

MICHAELS: It was bedlam from that point on. And it's as hard as I've ever had to concentrate. And I just kept telling myself - much like a horse with blinkers - look straight ahead, call the game, call the game, call the game.


MICHAELS: Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes. Unbelievable.

GREENE: How did that come into your head? I mean, had you thought of it as a possibility?

MICHAELS: No, zero. The word that came into my head was miraculous. Miraculous came into my head. It was one of those things where three hours later after we had stayed out there and we had to the Sweden-Finland game, believe it or not, on tape...


GREENE: Should have to get up the energy for another game.

MICHAELS: The people were telling me wow, that was great what you said. I - David, I didn't know what I'd said at the end of the game because I'd done three hours of a telecast trying to think of 18 million things, trying to get the Soviet names correct. So if you were to ask me what I said, I don't know what I said.

GREENE: It does seem like fate that Michaels was there to narrate that sports moment and so many others, which explains the title of his new memoir, "You Can't Make This Up." He remembers as a kid using a garden hose as his microphone in the backyard when he wasn't at the ballpark with his dad.

MICHAELS: Our team was, like, 10 blocks from our house, the Brooklyn Dodgers - Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese. My father walked me over to Ebbets Field one Saturday afternoon at the age of 6. And I walked in - it's the first thing I can remember in life - and I remember thinking, oh, my God, the grass - it's so beautiful, it's so green. And the infield is this, like, perfect shade of brown, almost tan. I mean, it was a toy. So I remember thinking very early on, man, oh, man, how great would it be to go to every game and get in for free? And that's what drove me to it. And I never wanted to be or do anything else.

GREENE: And, boy, did he get his wish. Al Michaels called baseball games for the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants. Eventually, he landed at ABC sports, where he got to wear the network's signature yellow blazer and work with legends like...


HOWARD COSELL: Hello, again, everyone. I'm Howard Cosell. Glad to have you...

GREENE: Howard Cosell. Distinctive voice. Some people loved him. Some people hated him.


GREENE: Prickly personality to say the least. You have an amazing story in the book about being in a limousine with him. What happened?

MICHAELS: Well, we were in Kansas City, and we have a Monday night baseball game the next night. And it's Sunday, and Howard calls the room. He always called me Alfalfa, which was the name that Bob Uecker gave me and Howard stole. Alfalfa, you know, what are you doing? I said nothing, Howard. What's up? Let's go to the Savoy Grill for dinner. So we go to the Savoy Grill, and Howard would drink a lot. I say in the book he had an aquarium's worth. I mean, Howard...

GREENE: He puts them down.

MICHAELS: He could put them down. And we get back in the car, and we go back through a gritty inner-city section of Kansas City, not where you necessarily want to have a long, white limousine come to a stop. But we come to a red light. And Cosell looks over on the sidewalk, and there were two kids, 17-18 years old, having a serious fistfight surrounded by a knot of other teenagers. And the next thing you know, Howard - who's got the yellow blazer on, the toupee, he's got a cigar going - gets out of the car. And he goes up - and meanwhile, now the fight stops, and you've got seven kids - it's suspended animation. They look at him. And Howard goes, now, listen, to this strained observer, it's quite apparent that the young southpaw does not have a jab requisite for the continuation of this fray. And furthermore, his opponent is a man of inferior diminishing skills. This confrontation is halted posthaste.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's amazing.

MICHAELS: And they just - they stand there. And then finally, one kid says - thank God - Howard Cosell, Howard Cosell - they - a pen gets produced. Howard then signs a couple of autographs. And, well, you know, gets back into the car...

GREENE: Probably satisfied with what he...

MICHAELS: Oh, unbelievably. I mean, he got away with it, and off we went.

GREENE: You describe your style in the book in musical terms, saying the game is the melody and you provide the lyrics. I love that. Talk to me about what you mean exactly.

MICHAELS: As a kid growing up, I was so in sync as a fan that that served me well through the years. I can feel the game. And I try to match where the game is with my inflection, with my - the tonal quality, with getting excited.


MICHAELS: From the 'gun, Steelers show blitz. Here they come. He gets it away, and it's picked off at the goal line.

GREENE: This Michaels calls his favorite broadcast ever - 2009 Super Bowl. Arizona Cardinals driving to score just seconds before halftime. The Pittsburgh Steelers's James Harrison intercepts and runs back for a touchdown.


MICHAELS: Harrison is going to go all the way and waiting for the official to get there. Touchdown is signaled.

You could make a case for that being the most amazing play in Super Bowl history. I know that every Giant fan will say, no, that's David Tyree catching it against his helmet. But that turned what would've been maybe a 4-point Arizona lead into a 10-point Pittsburgh lead.

GREENE: But you were just talking. It feels like there was very little emotion. You were controlling your emotions sort of.

MICHAELS: But I think I got excited enough. People are riveted to the game. They've already bought the car. What am I going to do? Go tell them, oh, you know, this automatic transition and Sirius Satellite Radio - you know, at a certain point there's overkill here. You don't have to gild the lily.

GREENE: Well, I want to chart the 34 years since 1980 and the game at Lake Placid that we started out talking about. How much has changed? How much hasn't?

MICHAELS: Well, the players are bigger, stronger, faster, better condition...

GREENE: We're talking about hockey or all sports?

MICHAELS: All sports.

GREENE: All sports, OK.

MICHAELS: Yeah, when I hear people say, you know, it's not like it was blah, blah, blah in 1965, I'm going stop it because I heard that when I was starting, like, in baseball in the '70s. I'm doing the Cincinnati Reds, and I remember a couple times I'd be in Cincinnati and would run into somebody downtown or at a restaurant. And they would say, oh, you know, you should've been here when we had Ted Kluszewski and Wally Post and Gus Bell. And I'm in my 20s, and I'm thinking, never get that way. So don't tell me that everything was better years ago. But I think, you know, sports are played at the highest level. And one of the big differences - and this is what I - one of the reasons I wrote the book - it's television - what television has done for sports. It's high drama; it's unscripted. You don't know what's going to happen, and I think that's a beauty of it.

GREENE: Al Michaels, thanks for coming by. I really appreciate it.

MICHAELS: Hey, David, what a pleasure.

GREENE: Al Michaels's new memoir "You Can't Make This Up" is out now. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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