Turn on the TV early on most Sundays, hours before anybody kicks off, tips off or pitches out, and you'll find that Bob Lipsyte, formerly Robert Lipsyte, has about cornered the in-depth sports feature market. And he isn't even a sports fan.
You won't mind.
CBS can make mistakes--Bill Russell, the world's biggest small voice, comes to mind--but it has certainly done right in Lipsyte, the 45-year-old writer/author who last year turned TV reporter for CBS' "Sunday Morning" (WDVM-TV-9 at 10).
Lipsyte's eight- to 10-minute features appear two out of three Sundays on a program with an intentionally pastoral pace, set by host Charles Kuralt from his plexiglass pulpit. Lipsyte's pieces, similarly thoughtful and clear-eyed, include revelatory gems on gymnast Tracee Talavera (vs. her parents, whom she's forsaken for Olympic pursuits) and, most memorably, on football's George Allen (vs. life and losers, as always).
Lipsyte, who knows how to get people to talk, has landed at the one magazine show on television that knows how to listen.
"The world is tough," Allen counseled Lipsyte, and the rest of us would-be quitters, from behind his desk at the Chicago Blitz offices. "The world is mean. The world is coldblooded. The world really doesn't care about you. You have a few friends, but it's up to you to do it yourself.
"Don't have self-pity," Allen said, smiling that half-earnest, half-condescending smile of his. "Don't feel like you can't do it. Have confidence. And when you work hard . . ."
Right. The title of the piece was "George Is Back."
Lipsyte, a New York Times sports columnist until 1971, when he began writing young-adult novels ("The Contender," "One Fat Summer"), is no slouch at the typewriter. But since he joined up last summer with "Sunday Morning," where writing of necessity resembles poetry more than sports columns, Lipsyte has proved himself an artful interviewer.
"George Allen is not gonna lose anywhere," Allen told him later. "I mean, I'm not gonna lose at Broken Axle High School in Iowa . . .to lose is, well--L is for lonely, O is for outcast, S, uh, you're a sucker, and E, you must be easygoing . . ."
Other than occasionally wondering over the mysterious transformation of his name from Robert to good old Bob, Lipsyte seems to have safely made the treacherous leap from fly-on-the-wall, pad-and-pencil print journalist to TV reporter, saddled at every shoot with cameraman, sound man and producer. Saddled, however, is not exactly the way Lipsyte would put it.
"Two things amaze me most," says Lipsyte, who was originally told the job would be part time but hasn't written a letter to his sister in a year. "One, that the people we interview let us in in the first place. Two, that after such a short amount of time, they tend to forget we're there. Here we have all this massive equipment--the presence of a TV crew in somebody's house or locker room is enormous, and you're imposing another reality on people. But they forget about it."
Overall, Lipsyte's pretty glad that "Sunday Morning" executive producer Bud Lamoreaux and senior executive producer Shad Northshield chose him to replace Ray Gandolf, the gifted ex-actor whose sentimental "Sunday" sports work earned him a roving reportership last year with ABC.
"Having just spent 10 years at home alone in a basement writing," he says, "it's been like a year-long cocktail party.
"It was a hard act to follow," Lipsyte says of Gandolf, who was, in Lipsyte's view, a sports fan above all. "I'm not a sports fan. I consider myself . . .sanctimoniously . . . a journalist who happens to have, you know, majored in sports."
For the most part, Lipsyte's low-key bent keeps him out of the way of his stories--a nice change of pace in post-Jim Bouton America. He's gotten a lot of help here from "Sunday Morning's" lovingly ruthless crew of producers.
"The thing that took me a very long time to overcome, and I haven't entirely, is really wanting to go off in a corner and do it all by yourself," Lipsyte says. "But you can't, because you need those pictures; you need everything."
That's "everything," as in, say, the ending of the Talavera piece. The voice of Talavera's father continued as the screen cut from him to the 16-year-old gymnast, 500 miles away in Seattle--where she's been since age 14. "Yeah, she's gone," said her father, as we watched her coach, Dick Mulvihill, pick some debris out of her hair after a workout--kind of a tender, fatherly gesture. "If you lose a child," the voice went on, "you go on and do the best you can." Fade to black.
Lipsyte says he may do this for a while. Fine.