Thursday, December 24, 2009

George Michael: The man who was must-see TV

Through word of mouth in the community of people that revolved around and adored George Michael, I'd come to know in recent days that he was sicker than he would ever let on. And anyway, when the phone rang one recent Sunday morning George was in vintage form. He was having a good day and was in full voice, which is to say very loud, jumping from one topic to another. The Redskins stunk, the Wizards stunk, he hated a column I'd written a few days earlier. It was George unplugged, George wanting to know the latest, the same old George who'd just gotten off the phone with The Squire or Abe or Dan, George who hadn't slept because he'd been watching some NBA game on the West Coast until 1:30 in the morning.

After the conversation ended, my wife asked how George was doing, how he really and truly was. And I told her I had no idea. Like typical men, I didn't ask and he didn't tell me. In this case, I didn't have the courage to ask. He was fabulous in those 30 minutes, like it was 10:50 p.m. and he was minutes from a newscast. And if that was going to be the last conversation we'd ever have -- and it was -- then that's the way I wanted to remember George Michael: funny, informed, irreverent, a little profane, always engaged.

I spent Thursdays with George for 13 years, 40 Thursdays a year for nearly a dozen of those years. "Redskins Report" with Sonny and Riggo during football season, "Full Court Press" with Tony Kornheiser and David DuPree during basketball season. My professional life has been greatly influenced by two indomitable men named George. Solomon, who brilliantly ran The Washington Post sports section for a quarter-century and Michael who became the only sportscaster in America to develop a dominant national profile while working a local gig nightly for a quarter-century.

Before cable TV was in millions of homes George Michael brought us the world weekly, with a tiny little band of men and women who worked on Nebraska Avenue and produced an unthinkable volume of award-winning work. Every other sportscaster worked in a confined space; George worked wherever he wanted and did it all: football, basketball, baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, 'rasslin', rodeo, racin', here, there, everywhere. You think there was anybody else who could comfortably engage Wayne Gretzky, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Cal Ripken, and tell them on-camera they were full of it? There wasn't.

George Michael left us as Wednesday night turned into Thursday morning.

Those closest to him, starting with his saintly wife Pat, were relieved because the suffering had become too great. In the 70 years before that he was an American original. He outworked just about everybody, never conceded stories to newspapers like just about every other TV sportscaster, was at times an insufferable perfectionist and commanded a room no matter who else was in it. Twenty-five years ago, before I began spending Thursdays with George, I walked into a room -- I don't recall the occasion -- and there stood Joe Gibbs, John Thompson and Sonny Jurgensen all being hassled in full voice by George Michael. It took awhile before I realized he could do it not because his personality was so outsized, which it was, but because they found him outside of all the showmanship to be credible. They respected him. Even better, they trusted him.

Just about everybody did.

By will and force of personality as much as anything, George Michael made himself must-see TV in Washington. When the Redskins stunk you wanted to know what George thought. When Abe Pollin decided to build a downtown arena you wanted to know what George was going to say.

Didn't mean he was the sweetest man in the world. God, George had a temper.

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