But Michaels was apparently doing too much to suit Hearn. As the Lakers were about to leave for their second road trip, Rothenberg remembers Hearn saying, "If the kid gets on the plane, I ain't."
Michaels was at the airport, his bags already loaded, when he got word to call the Lakers office. "Don't get on the plane," Rothenberg told him. Michaels was shattered. "I was ready to commit suicide," he says, "when I thought, How am I going to get my bags off that plane?" He remembers a panicky moment when he didn't know if the bags would come off the plane or wind up revolving endlessly on a carousel in Boston.
Twenty years later Michaels is still bitter. "I've been told that Chick says he gave me my break," he says. "The truth is he almost broke my spirit. Here I was at 22 ascending to a position that had seemed unascendable and—boom—it blows up in my face. What truly upsets me is that I was used and pretty much abused to grease Chick. I became a sacrificial lamb."
Michaels went home and moped. For the first and last time in his life he was speechless. "It's the only time I've ever doubted myself," he says. "It's as low as I've ever been." But Michaels has too big an ego to hang back for very long. "I wanted to show the Lakers up, to put it mildly," he says. "Five years later I was doing the World Series on TV. It wasn't lost on them."
After being dropped by the Lakers, Michaels went back to selecting bachelorettes. Jack Stamaton, his father-in-law, who was the owner of a vending machine company, invited him along on a business trip to Hawaii, where Michaels picked up a job doing play-by-play for the Hawaii Islanders baseball team of the Pacific Coast League. He did all 146 Islanders games, re-creating those on the road just as the young Dutch Reagan had done Cub games years before. "I might have stayed there a long time," he says, "if I hadn't had other goals."
Michaels had set those goals when he was 15. He wanted to be the No. 1 announcer for a major league baseball team by the time he was 25. And by 30 he planned to have done the World Series on national television and be earning a six-figure income. "I lived in fear of never accomplishing those things," he says. "And then all of a sudden...."
He got a job with the Cincinnati Reds, who loved the demo tapes Michaels had sent them. He was 25. In 1972 the Big Red Machine obliged him by winning the pennant. Michaels helped call the Series for NBC. He had completed two of his three life goals before he was 28. He made it to six figures in '74 when he left the Reds' broadcasting booth for that of the San Francisco Giants.
With his smart, cocky glossiness, Michaels was such an obvious big league prospect that ABC signed him in 1976. The network assigned him to Wide World of Sports; he got to cover motorcycles on ice in West Germany, cliff diving in Acapulco and barrel jumping in Northbrook, Ill. "I didn't expect to be stuck with those events," he says. "The frustration came in that things just weren't moving. I didn't want that stuff to become my legacy."
Even the six-word miracle at the 1980 Olympics left him unsatisfied. After seven years at ABC he was still playing understudy to Keith Jackson, the smooth, folksy football commentator who was badly miscast doing baseball. One day in '83 Michaels stormed into the office of Jim Spence, then the No. 2 man at ABC Sports. "I read him the riot act," says Michaels. "Basically I said if they didn't pay attention to me, I was getting out."
"I'll get back to you," Spence said. A month later Jackson was off the No. 1 baseball team, and Michaels was installed in his place. When Dennis Swanson replaced Roone Arledge as head of ABC Sports in 1986, Michaels was the biggest beneficiary of the move. Swanson made him the star sportscaster of
Monday Night Football
and the Triple Crown horse races, in addition to baseball. "It was like opening a Christmas present," says Michaels. "I was finally getting recognized."