George Michael: The man who was must-see TV

George Michael, dean of Washington sportscasters, has died at the age of 70 after a long battle with cancer.
By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 25, 2009

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.

He cursed. He threw things. (If you wanted to see him curse and throw things just mention covering the Oympics.) He made people want to quit. One night, egged on by Kornheiser and DuPree, he rolled tape on "Full Court Press" before I arrived not just to make a point about my being late but because he knew it would make for good TV, for folks to see me lumbering onto the set five minutes into the first segment. I hated George until about midnight when he called me and said, "Oh, come on and admit it, that was funny as hell." George would bellow seconds before tape was to roll about an unacceptable shadow or the light being too hot on somebody's forehead, or the sound quality not being to his liking. Everything he produced had a network-level quality to it that most network affiliate program simply didn't have. I don't know what made George invite me to join him, Sonny and Riggo in 1995 but I'll be thankful he did for the rest of my natural life.

Quick story I've never told: On Thanksgiving Friday in 1996, George wanted to shoot a pilot for a basketball show that would enable WRC-4 to lock up the 7 p.m. time slot that "Redskins Report" already owned in the ratings. It was mostly Sonny's idea to do a basketball show but George was skeptical. He wanted to see for himself that a basketball show could work. One problem: My cousin was throwing an engagement party for me and my fiancee that same night in Chevy Chase.

But I was sure Sonny's idea would work and that George would love such a show, so I convinced Kornheiser, who was making one of the toasts at the engagement party, to stall and make excuses while I slipped out of the party to drive to WRC and tape the pilot. Pat, George's wife, hated the idea of it but George said, "Son, if this works, I'll pay you enough to buy a great apology gift." My absence was discovered about 10 minutes before I could sneak back into the party, but the pilot was a success and "Full Court Press" lasted 11 seasons.

I loved Thursdays with George, all of them, all the years of them, the time before and after the show, walking back into the newsroom to see the interns and kids just out of college who were monitoring games from all over the world that would turn into George's highlights. So many of them went on to great things. It was clear in George's final years on-air, 2006 and 2007, that ESPN had killed the local sportscast as we knew it for 30 or so years.

But George's shows still dominated the ratings. Some nights he was the gumshoe reporter, some nights a carnival barker, some nights outraged at the local team, many nights a sympathetic ear, some would say a homer for the local team who could get the coach or star player to tell him something the others working the beat would hear and think, "Damn, I wish he'd told me that." Now, George's voice has been silenced the only way it could be. But if you close your eyes and listen real closely, you'll hear Jim Vance and Arch Campbell laughing and see Doreen Gentzler shaking her head, and George Michael taking you out to Capital Centre or RFK or Cole Field House, or the rodeo or some silly dog races for one more highlight, one more interview or piece of information. We were so lucky we had him for a big, fat chunk of our lives. We're so lucky what he did was so entertaining for so long. And we'd better get used to the fact that nothing like him will ever pass this way again.

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