Bud Greenspan: Artist of Sports

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Bud Greenspan, the award-winning Olympic filmmaker, died on Christmas Day. The eulogies and obituaries have poured forth. High praise for his many, beautiful works of art. Bud…I affectionately called him by his birth name, Jonah…was my long-time, dear friend. And he was far and away THE number one mentor in my career. Who among us doesn't swoon under the spell of the classic Greenspan minimalist wording, the cinematography that conjured up oil paintings?

It all started when he was a cub newspaper reporter in New York and was sent to the London Games, 1948. He sent a telegram to his boss, saying he was going to skip the 100-meter dash at track the next day because he figured the press area would be so crowded, he would be shoved to the back and not get much. He heard there was an interesting story over at pistol shooting instead. The boss sent him a return telegram, saying if he didn't cover the 100-meter dash, he was fired. Jonah followed his intuition and showed up as one of the few press reps at pistol shooting. It turns out the Hungarian in the lead had won the gold in the event at the last Olympic Games, Berlin 1936. But during the war years, he had lost his right arm and was now shooting with his left hand, an evidently nearly impossible transition, in terms of switching dominant eye-hand tracking. The following day, the boss back in New York came down for breakfast in the morning to find his wife crying over the morning paper. She said this story by Bud Greenspan of the Hungarian pistol shooter had moved her to tears. That was the beginning of six decades that, in the end, rendered Bud Greenspan one of the grand storytellers of our time.

One of the powerful and poetic Greensspan techniques is one that I have blatantly imitated in my own cadre of storytelling. Bud recognized the vigor of the present tense. No matter how long ago the actual action, he took us to the moment, as if we were living it live. Over 1936 footage of Jesse Owens stepping to the line on the track at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, he has Owens read in the 1960's, in the present tense: “The track is heavy. It's starting to rain. My lane will be particularly soggy. This is it. A lifetime of training for just ten seconds.”

Bud was moved by the soul of human drama…and nobody, but nobody, depicted, elevated that drama as he did.

And it wasn't just the larger-than-life Olympic moments that inspired him. We would sit in his New York office for hours at a time, Jonah with a twinkle in his eye as I regaled him with the eccentric saga of my family history. He would invite the waitress to sit down and join us at lunch, fascinated to hear the rest of a story she had started.

Knowing you, Jonah, is one of the great privileges of my life. Your utter delight in and enormous compassion for mankind, has inspired me…and thousands more.

I miss you, Jonah. I'll never forget you. You often said your films were the children you never had. How lucky for the world at large that the Greenspan films live on. If you don't know the Greenspan body of work yet, cable channel Universal Sports will start this weekend airing all his films for nine consecutive days. This is an artist who takes you on a magic carpet ride from the first frame to the end credits. So now go tell your stories to the angels, Jonah. You will enchant them as you did us.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image: Bud Greenspan speaks during an interview at a TV station on June 28, 2005 in Beijing, China. Greenspan had been invited to attend the first 'Beijing International Sports Film Week' activity. Photo: China Photos/Getty Images



Diana Nyad