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.”
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.