Behind The ScenesESPN AudioSportsCenter

Ley and Schaap look back at initial hours of SportsCenter’s Ali coverage

3:45 a.m.: Jeremy Schaap (left) and Bob Ley continue coverage.
3:45 a.m.: Jeremy Schaap (left) and Bob Ley continue coverage.

Today’s extensive coverage of the day of remembrance for Muhammad Ali in Louisville marks the culmination of a remarkable week for the newsgathering and storytelling arms all across ESPN.

As the news started to filter out late last Friday and early Saturday, ESPN mobilized resources and personnel to be in place to capture the outpouring of tributes and events for “The Greatest.” In those initial hours, it was the anchor duo of Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap, who were charged with putting Ali’s life in proper perspective and they delivered like few others could have.

Now, nearly a week removed, with Schaap in Louisville co-anchoring today’s Ali coverage alongside Hannah Storm and Ley in France for EURO 2016, both hard news veterans admit things felt different in and around Bristol’s Studio X in those early hours.

“For me,” Schaap said, “there was a palpable sense in the studio of our responsibility in that situation, that is, our responsibility to the story. You’re just hoping you can put such a colossal life into perspective, ask the right questions, do justice to the man and not the myth.”

Bob Ley on his most memorable interview from the Ali coverage:

(Video below was part of that conversation)
Michael Wilbon and I are roughly the same age, and our conversation about the hype surrounding the first Ali v. Frazier fight was most enjoyable. I think we were able to capture the national mood of the time – in examples small, and large – and also relate Ali’s cultural impact as well as the fact this was one helluva an athlete.”

If video above does not play on your device, click here.

It was a justice served through a combination of live interviews, desk discussion and pre-planned features, vignettes and film clips.

“The spirit and the dedication of the entire staff who rose to the moment [is what stands out most],” Ley said. “The planning – and chance – that put this group of people together – behind the camera, and those of us in front – and called upon everyone involved to tell stories, reflect, provide perspective and remind all of the many facets of this consequential man.”

It was, for Ley and Schaap, a freeform, nearly four straight hours of commercial-free television.

“No one felt fatigued, I feel confident in saying, because of the importance and gravity of the moment and the freedom of time to tell this story the way we felt it needed to be,” he said.

The show – and indeed the network’s initial hours of coverage – flowed in a respectful, solemn manner. Schaap said in some ways it was similar to covering the breaking FIFA scandal last year.

“At some point you shift from delivering the news to broadening the scope of the discussion, bringing in the right voices, and being careful not to traffic in cliché,” Schapp said. “If he were alive, my father [the late Dick Schaap] would have been there, because very few journalists knew Ali longer or better. In his absence, I thought about some of the the points he would have made and the stories he would have told.

“Sitting there last week on set next to Bob and Scott [Van Pelt] was a great comfort,” he said. “They’re such tremendous professionals and it means a lot in those situations to know that we can rely on each other and complement each other. They made sure I had time to make the points I wanted to make and led the conversation in that direction. It helps so much, too, to know that we weren’t going to break, or rushing off the air. The coverage needed breathing room and we didn’t want to interrupt it.

“From the control room, there was a pervasive sense of calm,” he said. “Nobody was freaking out. That show was as well-produced as it could be.

ESPN's coverage of Ali around the world

To offer some perspective on the global impact Muhammad Ali had, the above collection of screen grabs offers a glimpse into how ESPN’s international websites handled the news of Ali’s death last Saturday.

Here, a further sampling of Ali stories from around the world:









ESPN Radio’s Ali coverage a team effort

When ESPN Radio Program Director II Louise Cornetta heard that boxing legend Muhammad Ali had died, her first thought was how special it was when she met Ali at the 1997 ESPY Awards rehearsal at Radio City Music Hall. “I still cherish the photo of us.”


She then immediately turned to Saturday’s ESPN Radio programs. “We knew Ali was in the hospital and Pete Ciccone (program director) scheduled a meeting Friday to begin preparations. Saturday at 12:30 a.m., I received a call with the news and shortly thereafter I was on the line with [Vice President, Audio Network Content] David Roberts to discuss strategy for the day.”

The news broke during The Freddie Coleman Show and an interview with Evander Holyfield was quickly secured. The guest booking throughout the day was a collaborative effort of a dozen ESPNers, led by Roberts. Josh Drew, talent producer, David Cummings, audio content strategist, show producers and Cornetta all played key roles in securing a powerful guest lineup with diverse perspectives on Ali’s life,

“Whoever had the best contact made the call and ideas were being shared all day. It was amazing how many big names wanted to talk about Ali, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, George Foreman, Jesse Jackson and Lennox Lewis.”

One area that separates Radio from other mediums is the live callers. The emotion was palpable, with several sobbing on air because of the impact Ali had on their lives and communities.

Cornetta added, “I knew this was the most significant sports death any of us will cover. I went to sleep late that night knowing we superserved our listeners and honored Ali with dignity. I’m very proud of our entire team.”

– By Diane Lamb

ESPN Radio guests reflecting on Ali

From Saturday through early this week, ESPN Radio supplied fans with access to some of the biggest names in sports and beyond through wide-ranging interviews. Here is just a sample of the first few days’ guests.

  • The Freddie Coleman Show with Freddie Coleman (on air when news was confirmed): Evander Holyfield
  • Dari & Mel with Dari Nowkhah and Marcus Spears:
    Nick Saban
    Eddie George
    Jesse Jackson
    Oscar Robertson
    George Foreman
    Brian Kenny
    Tony Dungy
    Herm Edwards
    Steve Kragthorpe
    Stephen A. Smith
  • The Trifecta with Kate Fagan and Jane McManus:
    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    Gene Kilroy
    Lennox Lewis
    Kelley Carter (The Undefeated)
    Larry Merchant
  • Rothenberg Mike’d Up with Dave Rothenberg, Michael Wallace:
    John Wooten
    Deontay Wilder (current heavyweight champ)
    Clinton Yates (The Undefeated)
    Thomas Houser (wrote Ali’s autobiography)
    Britt McHenry (live from Louisville for ESPN)
    Bernard Hopkins
  • Mike & Mike
    Larry Holmes
    George Foreman
    Don King
    Kareem Abdul Jabbar
  • Russillo & Kanell
    Teddy Atlas
    Larry King
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