Fred Hickman, a skilled and affable journalist with CNN’s “Sports Tonight” who was one of the first Black people to anchor a national cable sports broadcast, died on Nov. 9 in Kissimmee, Fla. He was 66.
His wife, Sheila Bowers Hickman, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was liver cancer.
Mr. Hickman would later work at the YES Network, the Yankees’ channel, and at ESPN. But he was best known for his 21 years at CNN, a network that was otherwise devoted to national and international news.
He became a sports anchor at CNN when the network started in 1980, and gained praise early on for his interviews with sports figures, including Frank Robinson, whom he pressed on the racial issues facing baseball before his first season as manager of the San Francisco Giants. Within a few months, the network teamed Mr. Hickman with Nick Charles on “Sports Tonight.” Competing directly with ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” “Nick and Hick,” as they were known, became an entertaining and popular pairing, c anchoring a half-hour of news, analysis and highlights on weeknights at 11 until 1997, with one two-year interruption in the mid-1980s.
“We were a sports show in the context of news,” Mr. Hickman told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000, referring to being on a network with no other sports programming. “One of the biggest compliments I get is ‘I really don’t like sports, but I like watching your show.’”
During CNN’s coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Mr. Hickman watched a man hold up a sign that alluded to a regular “Sports Tonight” feature.
“Fred on CNN,” it read. “United Germany the Play of the Day.”
Fredrick Douglas Hickman was born on Oct. 17, 1956, in Springfield, Ill. His father, George, was the head of maintenance at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield; his mother, Louise (Bush) Hickman, worked for the State of Illinois.
He was the program and music director of the campus radio station at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from which he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. After a stint at a radio station in Springfield, he was hired as a news anchor and sports reporter on the Springfield television station WICS.
He was 23 when he joined CNN. “I’m the sort of guy who’s been stuck doing two-to-three-minute highlights,” he told the Sunday magazine of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution in 1980, “and now I’ve got a chance to show almost everything important that happens in sports.”
He and Mr. Charles had fun — on one early show, confetti was dropped on them to celebrate a rare Baltimore Orioles victory — but they also interviewed newsmakers like Mike Tyson, when he was released from prison after serving time for rape.
“Fred had an amazing ability to exude intelligence, humor and charm whenever he was on camera,” Jim Walton, the former president of CNN Worldwide, said in a text.
Mike Hill, who worked at ESPN and Fox Sports, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Hickman was a Black role model. “Long before I was inspired by any sports anchor on ‘SportsCenter,’” he wrote. “Fred was the anchor I looked up to. He was solid, great & looked like ME. A rarity back then.”
Mr. Hickman left CNN in 1984 to anchor sports at WDIV-TV in Detroit. While there, he developed a cocaine habit.
“I was a young kid and I was in a city that I didn’t particularly like,” he told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y., in 1993. After rehabilitation, he left the station in 1986 and rejoined CNN and Mr. Charles later that year. He remained on “Sports Tonight” until 2001. (Mr. Charles died in 2011.)
While at Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of CNN, Mr. Hickman also hosted an N.B.A. pregame and postgame show on TBS and an N.F.L. pregame and postgame show on TNT. He and Mr. Charles also hosted TNT’s 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics coverage.
In 2000, Mr. Hickman made news when it was revealed that he had cast the only vote against Shaquille O’Neal for the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player Award. He preferred Allen Iverson. That choice led to anonymous threats of personal harm on his office voice mail and to antipathy from Mr. O’Neal for being denied a unanimous vote.
After Mr. Hickman’s long run at CNN, his career turned peripatetic: relatively short stints at YES, ESPN and Fox Sports South, where he hosted Atlanta Braves programming, as well as TV stations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, La., and Hagerstown, Md. In Baton Rouge and Hagerstown he was a news anchor, which helped satisfy his love of political coverage.
Sheila Hickman said that his shift to jobs at local stations was a bit of a shock to her husband.
“None of the networks were biting,” she said. “He felt he was a network guy.”
His final job before retiring was as an anchor for the Black News Channel from 2020 until earlier this year, shortly before it went off the air. He had been working on a memoir at the time.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Hickman, who lived in Poinciana, Fla., is survived by a daughter, Gabrielle Hickman; a son, Mack Hickman; a sister, Louann Hickman; and a stepbrother, Steven Archie. His first marriage, to Judith Tillman, ended in divorce.
“Fred was the most naturally talented person I’ve ever worked with on television,” Vince Cellini, who in 1998 became Mr. Hickman’s partner on “Sports Tonight,” said in a phone interview. “He had an electricity that jumped through the screen.”