Cnn's Hickman No Longer Has Reason To Take A Powder

ONE HALF of the cable network's popular `Sports Tonight' duo, Fred Hickman seems the epitome of success. But the anchorman has battled back from problems with cocaine to make peace with himself and fame.

CLEVELAND - As Fred Hickman climbs off the airplane, he looks a bit ragged.

No wonder. At 11:29 the previous night, he had still been on the air, wrapping up his popular "Sports Tonight" show at the Cable News Network studios in Atlanta. Now it is 10:15 a.m., and already he and his wife are in Cleveland, en route to Canton, where he would emcee the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction breakfast.

Wearing shades and a rumpled shirt, fumbling with a pile of carry-on luggage, he appears to be a man running on empty, a man who still isn't completely sold on the idea of flying with a 2-month-old baby.

But compared to how he might have looked eight years ago, Fred Hickman looks like a million bucks.

Were this 1985, Hickman would have had even less sleep. After his show, he would have gone off and snorted a few lines of cocaine.

Hickman, 36, one of the shining lights of network sports television, once had a serious habit. It peaked in 1985, while he was working as a sportscaster in Detroit.

Back then, he figured a toot a day would keep the demons away.

"It was one of those things where - I don't like to make excuses about it - but where I was a young kid and I was in a city that I didn't particularly like," he says. "It was a bad choice of career moves."

After hooking up with CNN in its 1980 infancy, Hickman walked away as the company was turning the corner. In 1984, CNN was beginning to make money - and Hickman was taking an weekend anchor job in a local market.

It was a disaster. The job was not what he envisioned. He missed CNN. He had no friends.

For a while, the coke helped him ignore the bad stuff.

He never missed work, and nobody knew he was putting part of his salary up his nose. But he felt his life slipping out of control.

The Springfield, Ill., native checked into a one-month rehab program in Xenia, Ohio.

When he returned to Detroit, his heart still wasn't in it. Three months later, in 1986, he was back at CNN. Soon he was reunited with Nick Charles, his co-host from the early days, and their show caught fire. Within a year, "Sports Tonight's" ratings shot up 75 percent.

You've undoubtedly seen the duo. Charles is the bright, funny, white guy. Hickman is the bright, funny, black guy. They're good buds. They kept in contact when Hickman was stumbling in Detroit.

A Turner Network executive once referred to the pair as "the Lucy and Ricky of TV sports."

While Hickman is trooping around Northeast Ohio, the Ricky role is being played by Vince Cellini, who teams up with Hickman on TNT's pro basketball shows.

Says Cellini: "The only thing that bothers me about Fred is he makes it look so easy. . . . He is the most charismatic person I have ever worked with. He jumps through the screen."

So how can somebody with such talent have slipped so far off track?

The usual way. Despite appearing to be the epitome of self-confidence, Hickman, like many folks, had to wrestle with low self-esteem.

"I didn't get into the business to be any kind of star," he says. "All of a sudden, people are asking for autographs, interviewing you. . . . I never knew whether people wanted to hang out with me because they liked Fred, or because they were trying to get free tickets."

His drug problems now seem a lifetime ago. Today, things look rosy through Hickman's sunglasses. He has a wife and a child he adores. He recently signed a fat five-year contract extension.

Hickman now seems to know who he is and what he wants. But he also would like others to know that wasn't always the case.

"I'm a walking miracle," he said. "I came out of that thing a lot better human being than I was before I went in. So, thanks to God, things always happen for a reason."