Ray Davies of The Kinks once said and I paraphrase, “When I write songs my IQ goes way up.” I have always felt that my modest intelligence gets to the level of at least smart when I’m directing, and when I’m directing something live it goes to an even higher level.
So it’s December 1999 and I’m directing a Special for CBS called: “Sports Illustrated Presents the Athletes of the Century.” The special was live from Madison Square Garden (back when the Knicks didn’t suck). The name pretty much says it all, and with the exception of dead ones, nearly every famous athlete showed up. It was like the pictures on my wall growing up had suddenly came to life. I am not going to list them, go Google it, but I will say that the greatest name there was “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali.
Far better writers and historians can properly place Ali in sports and cultural history, his place is etched in our zeitgeist forever. So to be directing a show, which would climax with him being named “The Athlete of the Century” was something kind of historical.
The other categories of the night were not chopped liver (Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, to name a few) the show was fittingly built to climax with Mr. Ali. Billy Crystal paid tribute to Ali with a ten minute read which was visually aided by a giant screen that filled up the stage.
Then the moment happened and you can see it here (clip to come soon!):
Now at exactly (time to come with clip) the greatest athlete of the century slightly teetered to his right as he was walking the stairs to the stage. It was a slight, yet noticeable rocking and given the fact that Ali was dealing with Parkinson’s, could have been trouble.
Now I’m in the truck (the truck is where we controlled the broadcast and I sat in the director’s chair) and I’m on Camera 11 (I think), which was the steadi-cam. I asked the very talented Jeff Muhlstock, the steadi-cam operator, to wait on the stage and shoot Ali walking up with the crowd and Madison Square Garden behind him. It was a moment I had goosebumps watching, but then he teetered and my world STOPPED, vividly my mind raced to about ten places and stood still with simultaneous outcomes of what was next if he fell. If Muhammad fell, or was hurt, and I’m directing a live show on CBS with 15 million people watching, I had no idea what I would have done. Do I tell the camera(s) to zoom into a fallen icon? Do I cut to a high-wide and scream to master control to go to a commercial? Do I wait to hear the executive producer or network executive tell me what to do? There was no host, there are just fourteen cameras and me and no one is going to change that. The second played in quantum time, it had an arc to it in my brain. And then Ali regained his balance and walked right on up, shadow boxed with Billy Crystal, kissed him on the cheek, and accepted the award and that was it.
Now as I look back on that time, that moment, I’m still not sure what I would have done, what would even have been the right thing to do. I hope my humanity would have won out over my director instincts but I’m really not sure. It was something which can only happen in a live situation and I’m very glad it didn’t come to a choice. In the end a great boxer simply got an award he earned and I get to tell this story about that one second in December 1999.