It’s 20 minutes to air, and Greg Gumbel, co-anchor of ESPN’s Sports-Center, is lounging, tie askew, at his newsroom desk and shooting the breeze. “This year the elite teams in the NBA are Philadelphia, Boston, L.A., San Antonio and Milwaukee. The Bulls had a good draft…” Cut. Here comes a production assistant with news hot off the wire: LaMarr Hoyt, pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, has just won the Cy Young Award. Gumbel grins beatifically. “I guess Bryant already knows this,” he says smugly.
Greg, 37, is the brother of Bryant Gumbel, 35, the co-host of the Today show. Greg is a White Sox fanatic; Bryant is a rabid Chicago Cubs fan. They’ve been zinging each other since they were kids on the Southside.
Just as Bryant—who started in sports at KNBC in Los Angeles—quickly caught the eye of TV bigs, so is Greg now turning heads. In the three years he’s been at ESPN, the 28.5-million subscriber sports cable network based in Bristol, Conn., Greg has won two Outstanding Sports Personality awards from On Cable Magazine and become one of the keenest analyst-commentators in the game. His style, like Bryant’s, is cool, incisive and seemingly effortless. Watching him is like dropping in on a neighbor who is savvy and fanatical about sports.
It wasn’t always like that for Greg. During his first job at WMAQ in Chicago, the boys in the booth used to call the elder Gumbel “Waterfall.” As he explains, “I was just plain scared, and the sweat would pour down my face. I had no broadcast experience at all.” After graduating with a B.A. in English from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he did stints in advertising and printing and wound up as a sales rep for American Hospital Supply. The leap from bedpans to broadcasting was pure happenstance, helped along by “a big boost from my brother.”
Bryant, then in L.A., phoned Greg with news of a sports casting job that was opening up at WMAQ. Greg auditioned and was hired. “It was more than a lucky break,” he admits. “I’m sure it didn’t hurt me that Bryant was just making inroads into network sports.” Yet he denies that nepotism helped after that. “Bryant didn’t hire me,” he scoffs, “and he never renewed my contract. The station did.”
Eventually WMAQ’s resident waterfall ran dry, but as Greg’s professionalism increased, he began to chafe under the station’s lack of interest in pro sports. “Local management,” Gumbel grumbles, “would rather hear about the little girl down the street who had polio when she was a kid and who’s now on the high school tennis team.” Worse yet, “I had to sit and chat with the anchorperson—you know,” he says, shuddering, “happy talk.”
Still, he endured it well enough to win two Emmys in seven years, then was wooed and won by ESPN. Besides co-anchoring Sports Center twice a night, he will do the pre-and post-game shows for all of ESPN’s 52 NBA games this season. He lives in a contemporary house in Simsbury, Conn. with his wife, Marcy, 34, a nurse he met while peddling hospital goods, and Michelle, 14, her daughter from a previous marriage, whom he adopted.
Both Greg and Bryant, who have two younger sisters, were born in New Orleans and raised in Hyde Park, an integrated middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, where their father, Richard, was a Cook County probate judge and their mother, Rhea, was a housewife. Their favorite kids’ game was a clear omen. “We’d grab our gloves, stand in front of a full-length mirror,” says Greg, “wind up, pitch and announce entire imaginary games, taking turns every half inning.” Their dad umpired the relationship. “He’d have to settle such earthshaking questions as who was the better shortstop—Banks [of the Cubs] or Aparicio [Sox]. Bryant would say the Cubs are in a tougher league, I’d say bull. It was a typical brotherly rivalry.”
Is it still? “We’re supportive,” says Greg. “The rivalry is less intense now that we don’t share a bedroom.”
That’s not to say that Greg has never thought of following in his little brother’s footsteps by moving out of sports-casting. “Have I ever watched Bryant and said, ‘I can do that’?” he asks. “Sure. I don’t think there’s a job in broadcasting I can’t do.” Just then someone reminds him of the wire story about the Cubs manager who complained that “eighty-five percent of the world is employed. The other 15 percent come out here and boo the Cubs.” Greg put that one aside to send to his kid brother. “But I didn’t mail it,” he says, with an evil chuckle. “If I took all the bad things about the Cubs and paid to mail them to Bryant, I’d go bankrupt.”