By DJ Sixsmith
Michael Jordan, Jim Brown and Mike Tyson. These are just a few of the legendary icons in sports history that Ross Greenburg has interviewed and become friendly with during his 33-year career in sports media. The former president of HBO Sports has won over 50 Sports Emmys, 8 Peabody awards and is most known for producing the 2004 movie Miracle.
2015 was a busy year for Greenburg. He produced the Road to the NHL Winter Classic on EPIX, went behind the scenes with the Notre Dame football team, and created powerful documentaries on the late Dean Smith and Jack Nicklaus. Greenburg sat down to talk about the Winter Classic, his relationship with Floyd Mayweather and the impact of the late Frank Gifford on his career.
This year’s Winter Classic matchup was great. Montreal and Boston, two original six teams. What was it like documenting these two historic franchises on EPIX?
Ross Greenburg: “The first thing we wanted to do was to re-alert the American and Canadian public to how much these two teams and two cities hate each other. This is a real rivalry. These two teams don’t like each other. We wanted to put that in stone right off the top of the first episode. Both teams are vying for first place in the division and both teams were incredible in giving us access.”
You recently tweeted that Canadians star PK Subban is a special man. We know that he is a great player and a very charitable person, but what stands out the most about PK?
RG: “His charisma. He lights up a room. He’s a great teammate, people just really gravitate to him. He has an uncanny social ability to adapt to wherever he is and whomever he is with. He’s just a special breed of person. He’s very charitable, we followed him around in the hospital and he shows up there weekly. He’s that electric, Joe Namath-like figure that you don’t see everyday in sports.”
I read recently you guys are using GoPro cameras to bring the audience closer to the action on and off the ice. How has the advancement of technology allowed the Road to the NHL Winter Classic and other productions to go to the next level?
RG: “Yeah, it really has. It’s not only GoPro’s, it’s also being able to mic all the players, coaches and refs and hear the chatter on the ice when little fights break out. It’s very important because it brings the viewer onto the ice. Our cameras that are placed down low also pick up all the action. The technology allows us to take all that footage and funnel it back to New York City.”
2015 was a busy year for you. In addition to the Road to the NHL Winter Classic, you produced documentaries on Dean Smith, Jack Nicklaus and Notre Dame Football. Let’s start with the Irish. It was a crazy year for Brian Kelly’s team. How did this experience compare to past productions with other teams?
RG: “It was fascinating because Brian Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff took us in and allowed us to show what it is really like to be an NCAA Football player. A lot of people don’t understand what goes into being a student athlete, and at Notre Dame you have to be a student as well as an athlete. More importantly, Brian Kelly really let us in to understand the inner-workings of the program. We got to know Keizer, we got to know Fuller, we got to know Sheldon Day, we got to know all their stars, but we also got to know the backups. It was a fascinating season to follow.”
One of the other great pieces you worked on in 2015 was Jack Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion. What did you learn about the Golden Bear that you didn’t know before?
RG: “He’s a funny guy. We had a lot of fun with Jack. What makes me really laugh about Jack is that he’s gotten humbled in his older age. At the age of 75, he looks back at his life and his career and jokes about not remembering anything. Then you sit him down and he gives you a story about every shot on the back nine from every major championship. What he’s given to the game of golf is unprecedented.”
Speaking of legends, you also produced a documentary on the Dean of College Basketball, Dean Smith. What was the greatest challenge you faced in telling his story?
RG: “The greatest challenge was that unfortunately he passed away right before we finished the documentary. The reason we did this documentary is because we knew he was in failing health. Most importantly, we wanted to get across the type of man he was. Toward the end of the documentary, we got into his work with inmates on death row, how he adamantly wanted to wipe out the death penalty and his civil rights campaigns in North Carolina.”
Sticking with basketball, you did a documentary on Dwight Howard last year. He has been in the news recently for being unhappy in Houston. Does the public have the wrong perception of Dwight or is the news of this drama unsurprising?
RG: “There is one side of Dwight that I don’t think people are aware of. He’s a very affable, nice, charming person when you are in his presence. There’s a multi-dimensional side to Dwight. He’s committed to winning, but he has made some wrong decisions when something is standing in his way. In the documentary, he owns up to the mistakes he made with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. He is who he is and he doesn’t hide behind anyone.”
Going back to your time at HBO Sports, you spent a lot of time following Floyd Mayweather as a part of the 24/7 series. Given all the backlash Floyd has received for his history of domestic violence, what are your thoughts on Floyd the person versus Floyd the boxer?
RG: “I will never defend anyone who has had issues with domestic violence. In that area he gets a big X mark from me. I know that he learned his lesson while sitting in jail. I don’t think you’ll ever see that type of behavior from him again, I hope to God not. That is one side of Floyd. Having gotten to know him over 16 years, he is a genuine, nice, loyal friend too. That’s the side people just don’t see. There is no simple definition to who Floyd Mayweather is.”
One of the crowning achievements of your career was producing the movie Miracle. What was the most rewarding part of that experience?
RG: “I can remember when I first got the idea for the movie. I was sitting on a plane in 1980, the pilot announced the score of the game and the plane erupted. Many years later in 2000, I said to myself I think it’s time to do the definitive movie on the game. I knew Miracle was special because it was hitting theaters and it would take on another level of interest. I knew if we told the story right and explained to people where America stood at that time, that people would get chills up and down their spines. We will never see an upset like that again in the history of sports because the circumstances won’t allow for it.”
You had a great relationship with Frank Gifford. You grew up with his son and Frank helped you get your start in the business at ABC Sports. How would you describe the impact he had on your life as a man and a producer?
RG: “My mother and father were the most important people in shaping my life, but Frank was the most important person in shaping my career. If it wasn’t for Frank, I probably wouldn’t have been in this business for 35 years. I owe my entire career to him because he put it in motion. I will never forget that man. I still have a copy of the New York Daily News with his picture and the caption “A Man for All Seasons.” I’m going to hold on to that Daily News for the rest of my life.”
Lastly, another part of Gifford’s passing was the announcement from the family that Frank suffered from CTE. How surprising was the news to you?
RG: “I knew towards the end that Frank was suffering a little bit with memory. I actually had lunch with him and his two sons Cody and Kyle two weeks before he died. He was starting to lose his short-term memory. When he was at lunch, he would talk about everything that happened in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and was as sharp as a tack. I never saw the violent deterioration that other victims of CTE have experienced. He never suffered like that and I don’t want people to think he ever did.”