Bryant Gumbel's introduction to this week's "Real Sports" 10th anniversary show aptly capsulizes the magazine series.
"Ten years ago this month . . . we came on the air with what we felt was a fresh idea," Gumbel says on the installment set to air at 10 tonight on HBO, "to look at sports from a news perspective, one that eschewed the softball and sycophantic approach so common to sports television coverage."
After 10 years of reporting stories ranging from hard-hitting exposes to inspirational human-interest pieces -- and winning 13 Sports Emmy Awards in the process -- one thing has remained true: "Real Sports" isn't afraid to ruffle feathers.
That can be seen in this week's special, which features clips from past reports, among them Armen Keteyian's interview with Vince McMahon, during which the World Wrestling Entertainment founder lashed out at his interviewer; Frank Deford's less-than-flattering look at the inner workings of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters; and Deford's piece on former International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, in which Samaranch proclaimed the IOC was "more important than the Catholic religion."
"I don't think we've changed a whole lot," says Deford, a charter member of the show's team of correspondents, which now includes James Brown, Mary Carillo, Bernard Goldberg and Keteyian. "I think we know what we're doing better and probably have expanded our reach a little bit. . . . You know, somebody wrote the mission statement or whatever you call it in the beginning, and I don't think a word of that would be changed."
When Deford interviewed Samaranch in 1996, he recalls he was taken aback at how "very full of himself" the IOC president was.
"That one absolutely astounded me because he was always very careful only to be interviewed by his sycophants, the people who would just love the Olympics and would just say, 'Isn't it marvelous, this wonderful movement?' And he would say, 'Yes,' and then he would go on. And he was hoping to get the Nobel Prize for peace. Luckily, the Nobel Prize was smarter than sportswriters and never gave him that," Deford says.
Deford recalls his piece on the Masters, which aired on the inaugural broadcast in 1995, caused some controversy because it compared Augusta National to a dictatorship. "We called it 'The American Singapore,' and it created a great stir because nobody had ever said anything bad about the Masters before," he says. "All everybody did was just ooh and aah, and golf writers are the worst because they want to play these courses.
"You know, the guy who covers baseball doesn't think, 'Well, if I'm nice to the White Sox, they'll let me play second base,' " Deford says, laughing. "But the guy who covers golf doesn't want to ruffle any feathers. So I come down there and call it 'The American Singapore,' and they really had a fit. . . . The main thing I was saying was that it was this absolutely private preserve, and it looks upon itself sanctimoniously as almost a cathedral or, in the political sense, this beautiful little place which is run by dictators, like Singapore."
Less memorable are some segments that were tried and dropped. One that had a particularly short life span was the celebrity profile, a rather transparent attempt at drawing in more viewers.
"What we found out, is, no, people didn't want to see some stupid superstar who didn't have anything to say and didn't have any story; that he may be the greatest guy in the world on the football field or the basketball court, but he was dull," Deford says. "And it was funny because that was the one time that we sort of went away from our formula, and we got our hand slapped.