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As the tributes continue to pour in testifying to the greatness of John Madden, it brings back memories of times shared about 35 years ago when we were both @ CBS. John had worked with me on a Fathers Day Special about some of the special Father/Son, Father/Daughter relationships in sports and we were talking about the power of storytelling… about how something as simple as a well conducted interview could reveal so much about life. John asked “Why isn’t there a Barbara Walters type show about people in sports?” Barbara’s interview specials preceding the Academy Awards show were legendary and huge audience draws at that time. I said we could if he wanted to be “Barbara Walters”. With characteristic enthusiasm he said, “Let’s do it!” and so we did. With Mike Arnold as our producer, the concept was simple…we want to talk to the people who were the best at what they did…and so we made our list.
Topping the list was Joe DiMaggio, then at least tied for best with a host of others with names like Williams, Mays and Aaron. Joe was known as a bit of a recluse and I had no idea how to reach him. Of course John had a phone number and when I called it a very grumpy Joe D answered. On the strength of John’s name he preliminarily agreed and then withdrew. I was disappointed and started to have some doubts about the viability of this idea as the names on the list didn’t get easier. Jack Nicklaus, Bob Knight, Larry Bird, Walter Payton. I needn’t have worried, they all gave an enthusiastic “yes” to the idea of meeting and talking with John.
The greatest living golfer told John about his passion for building golf courses, while he played out the final chapter in his historic career and insisted that he had “one more big one” within him… and 9 months later at Augusta he claimed his 6th Green Jacket and his 18th and final major championship. Knight, then known for his temper as much as his record breaking victories as a College Basketball Coach hosted us in his small cluttered office for almost 3 hours of a conversation that had the tone of two old friends catching up and of course Walter Payton, the greatest running back of the that era of the NFL, living up to his nickname “Sweetness” was so happy to have the chance to talk and share with John, a coach and a man he clearly so respected.
Our final stop was Boston to sit with Larry Bird. The Celtics were in the Finals playing the Lakers and our plan was to meet Larry the day after Game 6 in Boston at his then agent, Bob Wolff’s house. What we hadn’t planned on was a Lakers series ending victory in Game 6 but that’s what Magic and Kareem delivered. Knowing how fierce a competitor Bird was we were all fairly certain he’d be a “no show'“ and who could blame him… but we set up and hoped for the best. At the appointed hour in walked Larry Bird, hours away from a painful defeat, smiling and happy to meet and talk with John…and talk they did for about 2 hours of some of the greatest basketball and life stories you will ever hear. At the end of the session we thanked Larry for being there, especially given the circumstances. He insisted it had been his privilege to be there to spend the time with John.
That was simply John being John… the living example of a person being the best at what he did, enjoying the experience of being around people and making them feel at ease no matter who they were or where he found them. From coaching, to broadcasting, to becoming one of America’s favorite pitch men and an icon of the video game industry he was simply the best…and in ways small and large he had the gift to bring out the best in others that crossed his path.
He’ll be sorely missed.