As head of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol has - as that motel commercial says - been everywhere, man. But he's spending this weekend in Baltimore, and it's a place as close to his heart as anywhere, thanks to two Maryland families that have touched him deeply in his professional and personal life.
Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, who is in town to serve as executive producer for tomorrow night's Ravens-Washington Redskins telecast, said: "Baltimore has been the source of the high and low end of my emotions this year."
The low: the death of his longtime friend and mentor, legendary sportscaster Jim McKay. The high: the triumphant splash of Michael Phelps at the Beijing Olympics.
Ebersol last came to Baltimore in June for McKay's funeral.
"Coming down the 10th represented lots of hurdles," Ebersol said yesterday. "The 10th of June was the first funeral since my son's death."
Ebersol's son Teddy died in a November 2004 plane crash, which also injured Ebersol and son Charlie. Teddy Ebersol would have turned 18 on June 10 this year.
"I came and I'm glad I did," Ebersol said. "I thought his funeral was a particularly loving event."
Ebersol, 61, got his start in the business when he was hired by Roone Arledge, ABC Sports' visionary leader, to be McKay's first Olympics researcher before the 1968 Winter and Summer Games. Taking a break from Yale, Ebersol traveled the world to collect information that would become ABC's "up close and personal" looks at the athletes. He was helping McKay do what he did best, Ebersol said.
"He really, more than any other person in front of the camera, brought stories to sports. ... He was responsible for Americans having a love affair with so many [beyond-the-mainstream] sports."
It was Ebersol who brought McKay back to the Olympics one last time by putting him on NBC's coverage of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and who decided to dedicate - via a classy, unobtrusive on-screen message - NBC's telecast of the Beijing opening ceremony to his former mentor.
From Ebersol's start with ABC, "he and [wife] Margaret were part of my life," Ebersol said. "One of the joys of my life was bringing him back in 2002."
With Phelps, Ebersol has had much the opposite relationship.
"I feel like Michael is a son," he said. "I've been involved with him for five years."
In fact, Ebersol told Phelps about NBC's plans to get the Beijing swimming finals moved to U.S. prime time (morning in China) a year before it became public. It turned out to be perhaps the network's best move.
"There are a lot of reasons the Olympics were such a success back here ... [but] the main reason people watched for eight straight nights, he swam in the middle of prime time and Americans followed him more than they ever followed any serialized drama," Ebersol said.
"Americans really get a sense of what a fine young man he is. ... He's unassuming. He always seems to find a way to give you that naive smile."
When Phelps won a USA Swimming Golden Goggles award in 2004, Ebersol made the presentation, speaking up for Phelps not long after his drunken- driving arrest. Phelps and his mother, Debbie, obviously didn't forget.
At the funeral for his son, through the haze of painkillers, two of the faces he could clearly recognize at the service were Michael and Debbie Phelps. When Ebersol made it back to work in March 2005, on his first day inside his New York office, the Phelpses came by to visit.
"The emotional bond I have with Michael and Debbie is unique," he said, "bound together by some tough moments in life. ... All I have to do is look at Debbie Phelps' eyes and we start to tear up."
So it's a business trip this weekend for Ebersol, but "I have a very special feeling about Baltimore."