When WGN asked Bryant Gumbel to broadcast one Chicago Cubs game earlier this year to fill in for the ailing Harry Caray, Gumbel declined. It was his favorite team in his favorite sport, but Gumbel had decided when he left sports for news in 1982 that he never would go back. Never.

But when NBC asked Bryant Gumbel to be the prime-time anchor for its 1988 Summer Olympics coverage, he not only agreed, he also made sure that he was the only host rather than part of a rotating-anchor system. The Olympics were more than sport, he argued, they were a compelling news story.

And so it is that Gumbel, who made the rare jump from network sports to network news, will return to the arena that established him next September. Once again, if only for two weeks, he'll be a studio sports czar demanding our attention, sending us to the 100-meter final or a street demonstration with that self-assured smoothness.

Bryant Gumbel is a lot of things -- arrogant, bossy, competitive, cocky, brash, smart. And enormously successful. Seemingly, he always has been in a hurry to get places before the rest of us, and he usually does.

He was born in New Orleans on Sept. 29, 1948, and raised in Chicago. He graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1970. He wrote for Black Sports magazine before becoming editor in chief there. In 1972, he became a sportscaster for KNBC in Los Angeles; by 1976, he was sports director there. He began working for NBC Sports in 1975 and became its preeminent studio presence -- hosting the NFL pregame show, as well as baseball and NCAA basketball tournament shows.

He began with the "Today" show in January 1982, replacing Tom Brokaw. "Today" has been No. 1 in its time period for the past year. But at first, NBC's Gumbel gamble was widely questioned. Even some people at NBC grumbled about the move.

After moving to "Today," Gumbel chose to distance himself from the sports world. He didn't want the thought of failing -- and of falling back on his sports career -- to clutter his mind. And he needed to disassociate himself from sports so that viewers would disassociate him from sports.

"I've always felt that when you walk away, you walk away," he said. "Choosing not to return to sports was a confirmation of the fact that I hadn't taken the decision {to go to news} lightly.

"Also, one of our continuing problems was that people said, 'Bryant Gumbel is a sportscaster.' It's not something I'm ashamed of. But people would think, 'Why is this sportscaster talking about Beirut? Why is this sportscaster talking to George Shultz?' I wanted to end that lingering doubt in their minds."

He ended those doubts, and he quickly learned the differences between sports and news.

"When you cover sports, a lot of it is inbred. You grow up learning sports, that '63 was the Bears' title year and so on. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's on the tip of your tongue when the last revolution in Greece was. In sports, even though you try to stay away from mistakes, if you say the Bears won by 21-17 and it was 20-17, that's not earth-shattering. If, on the other hand, you say a Northwest Airlines plane crashed and 53 died and it was actually 153 that died, that's a mistake of a different nature."

Still, Gumbel said, "There's not a world of difference between interviewing Pete Rozelle and Alexander Haig."

His biggest qualms about sports remain what he perceives as blatant racism during game broadcasts. "How many times do you listen to an NFL game and every black guy making a catch has blinding speed and natural talent but a guy like Steve Largent {who is white} is a hard worker who runs intelligent routes? Every black guy is gifted and every white guy uses his head."

Just as Gumbel began his NBC News career under skepticism, his return to NBC Sports for the Olympics has had its critics. Much was made of Gumbel's demands on his Olympics role. Gumbel wanted it clearly determined that he would be the focal point in the studio.

"It's tough enough to get it on the air without worrying about who's delegating what," he said. "There's going to be news breaking, crises developing. If we're interested in doing the job right, let's make sure we have one central individual we run things through. I was very clear on that."

Besides, he craves the pressure. "I like being the guy with 10 seconds left and a point down who gets the ball."

He's been that guy now, in one way or another, for the past decade. "The idea of doing this for 25 years is remarkable," Gumbel said. "Talk about Lou Gehrig's streak. How about Johnny Carson? I could never do what he's doing for that long."

He was asked if any current sportscaster came to mind as someone who could make the jump to news, as he did.

Without hesitation, he replied: "No, I don't think anyone can."

He paused.

"I don't mean to suggest that Bryant Gumbel is so exceptional in such a way that nobody else could do what I've done. In politics, they always talk about candidates not being 'presidential.' No one is presidential until they're president."

He paused again.

"But no, I don't think anyone else out there can."