‘Godfather of Sports Talk’ recalls career highlights

AnotherViewsquareConclusion of a two-part column

Sportswriter Wendell Smith covered baseball games sitting in the outfield stands because he was Jim Crowed from the press box. Such segregation, though not so overt, still is practiced today, especially locally.

Harold Bell (r) and ESPN's Michael Wilbon
Harold Bell (r) and ESPN’s Michael Wilbon

Those of us who are Black and not in the mainstream media in this town are relegated to the “Black row” at Wolves, Lynx and Gopher contests like spots on a white wall. Being disrespected “is the kind of stuff we go through” as members of non-mainstream Black media, who too often are seen and treated by teams and their lackeys as “second class,” states Harold Bell.

Sports media press boxes as a result remain today a “major media plantation” as a way of “keeping us in our place,” says Bell. What also bothers him is that too many non-mainstream Black media accept this separatist treatment because “they [are] scared of [losing] their little press pass.”

Bell is known as “The Godfather of Sports Talk,” a moniker given to him by a local D.C. reporter. “I am the only brother in sports media that got two people elected to the Hall of Fame — Willie Wood in 1989 and Earl Lloyd (in 2003) — because I know how to use media to put the pressure on,” he says.

view.book cover.40He was the first Black to host and produce a prime-time sports special on Washington, D.C. television. He was a sports talk show pioneer who gave many their initial 15 minutes of fame on his groundbreaking Inside Sports show, including Sugar Ray Leonard, John Thompson, Michael Wilbon and others “before they became anybody,” notes Bell. “I may not have ESPN on my mic, but I got a microphone, and a lot of people pick up on what I am saying and what I stand for.”

Perhaps his greatest if generally unrecognized media footnote is his sit-down interview with Muhammad Ali shortly after Ali’s historic victory over George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

“He wanted me to go to Zaire with him, but I was scared to go across all that water,” admits Bell. But after he turned down his request, Ali told Bell that he would later talk to him as soon as he returned from the African country.

“He called me late one night [saying,] ‘I’m back and I’m in New York City, and this is the hotel where I am staying. Bring your camera crew.’ I said, ‘OK, Champ,’ and called my boys.

“We had no money and no gas in the car. But one of my guys had a credit card, and we took that credit card, got gas, and drove [from Washington] up to New York in the wee hours of the morning,” says Bell. “He opened the door combing his hair. He told me, ‘Didn’t I tell you I was The Greatest?’ We had a fantastic time.”

Ali waxed philosophically on various topics on film in a conversation between two friends rather than an interviewer and subject format that “scooped Howard Cosell, 60 Minutes and the entire sports media world,” says Bell, who is releasing the Ali interview as part of his Harold Bell’s Legends of Inside Sports DVD series.

“I’m a risk taker,” declares Bell, who years ago with a White reporter desegregated the Washington press row, which at the time had “Blacks on the left and Whites on the right.” The two men joined ranks and sat in each other’s assigned seat, a lunch-counter moment that moved things forward.

“I became a force because they couldn’t control me — I controlled everything that went on, and that’s unheard of today,” concludes Bell.


Related content: Read more on how Bell and Ali first met

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.