Recalling a “piece-of-cake” task regarding ESPN’s fifth birthday; capturing a leap of faith

(caption to pic: Someone had given McEnroe, now a tennis analyst for ESPN, the American flag after his match. It was his idea to put it in the cake.)(Credit: Russ Adams)
Former ESPN commentator Jim Simpson (left) poses with John McEnroe, now a tennis analyst for ESPN, with a cake celebrating ESPN’s fifth anniversary in 1984. It was McEnroe’s idea to put the American flag in the cake. (Credit: Russ Adams)

Every great picture tells a story, but sometimes there’s a great story behind the picture.

And that’s what today’s post is about.

ESPN turns 35 Sunday, Sept. 7, but this story starts 30 years ago, when the network – because that’s all we were, one network – was approaching its first significant anniversary milestone. We were in many ways then like every other five-year-old – full of promise and optimism but with an uncertain future.

So we needed a breakthrough image to celebrate our achievement. We decided on a picture with Jim Simpson, our commentator who was hired from NBC who gave us instant credibility at birth; John McEnroe, one of the world’s brightest tennis stars and leader of the U.S. Davis Cup team and – this was key – a sheet cake. This sheet cake would have our logo on it and feature an anniversary wish, since that was the story.

ESPN was televising the Davis Cup in Atlanta that summer of 1984 – a signature event for us since there were no tie breakers, a perfect scenario for a 24-hour network. We dispatched Mike Soltys – now our VP of Corporate Communications, but then a kid in his mid-20’s just starting his career – to stage the shot. We told him we hoped he liked Atlanta, because he was not to come back without it. Pressure!

“I carried a sheet cake around 95-degree Atlanta trying to get this shot,” Soltys said. “After striking out getting McEnroe through formal channels, I was told that the best time to approach John directly was after a win. He won his first singles match, but then bolted. I trudged back to the hotel, sheet cake in both hands, and went to bed that night thinking, ‘how am I going to get this done?’”

McEnroe was playing doubles the next day, and this time he didn’t bolt after the win. Soltys had everything in place – the photographer, Simpson, the cake still firmly in his hands – when, nervously, he approached McEnroe after John’s post-match press duties and made his request.

It seemed like it could have gone either way until he mentioned Jim Simpson. Turns out Simpson was very kind and helpful to McEnroe when he was a teen playing in Europe.

“Anything for Jim,” McEnroe said.

Elation turned to consternation when Simpson, who was asked to stay close, was nowhere to be found. Faced with the prospect of apartment hunting in Atlanta, the Connecticut-born and bred and normally mild-mannered Soltys did the only thing he could: He screamed Jim Simpson’s name as loud as he could.

And Simpson appeared, miraculously, from behind a curtain. The cake left Soltys’ hands for the first time in two days, and the shot was taken. Success! (Soltys felt better, though, a few days later when the actual prints arrived in Bristol. These were the days of film, not digital, and what if the film was lost, or damaged, or their eyes were closed, or the cake was blurry, or… get the….ahem….picture?).

The photo that accompanies this post appeared in editorial outlets all over the country, and heralded the fact that ESPN had, indeed, made it to its fifth birthday from inauspicious beginnings.

ESPN, just like Soltys did in Atlanta, had found a way.

“You want me to do what?!”

Cam Zink (Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)
ESPN Communications colleague Joyce Wang helped photographer Joe Faraoni capture this creative photo of Cam Zink’s record stunt. (Joe Faraoni/ ESPN Images)

Soltys had an idea when he went to Atlanta, but he didn’t really have a plan. This next item is about how you can still get the shot when even the best-laid plans go awry.

A few weeks ago, ESPN televised a successful world record attempt by Cam Zink, who set a Guinness World Record by successfully completing the longest dirt-to-dirt backflip on a mountain bike – 100 feet, 3 inches – in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Thirty years after the McEnroe-Simpson cake shot, my ESPN Communications team now has a sophisticated, talented group of photographers and editors who make up ESPN Images, and it was their job to capture the moment.

Photographer Joe Faraoni flew to California with a clear plan in mind. He had consulted with Phil Ellsworth, a colleague who has authored some fabulous action shots for us over the years. When he arrived, he spent a loooong day-and-a-half scouting the venue, shooting practice, scouring every inch of the expansive site.

After several, time-consuming experiments, Joe decided to use a remote setup he could trigger from another location, giving one guy two chances to get the killer shot. It was perfect, except for one thing: Right before the actual jump, for some reason the remote trigger was not working reliably.

“My last and most reliable resort was to use a human standing nearby to trigger the camera,” Faraoni said. But which human?

Meet Joyce Wang, a California-based ESPN Communications colleague on site to help manage press operations for the jump. Wang, not a photographer by trade, was going to be stationed closer to the remote camera, on the backside of the jump, and Faraoni wondered if she wouldn’t mind pressing and releasing the trigger at precise times he described to her – first on the launch, and then on the landing. It was the only way.

“I was slightly nervous that I would mess up and fumble the remote or trigger it too late, but I wanted to help and told Joe I wouldn’t let him down,” Wang said.

So, quite unexpectedly, there she stood, on a hill, surrounded by press and other photographers, hand raised in the air with a remote trigger firmly in grasp, concentrating intently on a guy on a bike racing nearly 50 mph towards history – and not wanting to fail her colleague.

You can see from the photo that Faraoni’s planning and Wang’s calm under pressure resulted in a terrific shot.

“When you are prepared and equipped for what you want to achieve, luck has an easier time finding you,” Faraoni said. “She nailed it.”

The venue, the event, the team we have in place – all a far cry from the bowels of an Atlanta arena 30 years ago.

But the creative use of technology, the hard work, the advanced planning, the teamwork, and ultimately, the result … are all a fitting snapshot of where ESPN is today in advance of its 35th birthday.

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