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ESPN at 40: Chapter 3 of 4

ESPN at 40


EDITOR’S NOTE: In the course of gathering content to surround ESPN’s 40th anniversary on Sept. 7, producers spoke with dozens of current and former ESPN employees.

To commemorate its 40th anniversary, SportsCenter Special: ESPN’s 40, a collection of 40 testimonials from ESPNers past and present, will be televised Friday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Whenever large historical projects like this are undertaken by our content creators, there is inevitably a treasure trove of material that just doesn’t make the cut. But it’d be a shame to not share some of those gems.

Front Row is honored to be able to share some of this bonus content, along with archival photos and helpful links and snippets of content that live on other ESPN platforms.

We hope you enjoy and we thank you for 40 years of fanship and memories.

Chapter 1 | 2 | 4

ESPN had arrived during the 1990s and with the start of the 2000s, it was time to branch out further into studio programming. Nothing embodied the innovation and trailblazing of the time as well as Pardon the Interruption, featuring Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, which burst into the national sports conversation in 2001. PTI would fundamentally alter the landscape of sports television. The “oughts” also were a time of unforgettable sports – and technological – moments for the company.

From “Who would ever watch this?’. . .

Michael Wilbon, Co-Host, Pardon the Interruption (2001-Present)
On the first day of ‘P.T.I.,’ Tony walked into the office and said, ‘I hope you people are renting, not buying.’ I said: ‘Tony, we have two years of guaranteed money. Worst case, we’re back out on the golf course.’ Tony said, ‘Worst case? That’s my best case!’

Mark Shapiro, Executive Vice President, Programming & Production (1993-2005)
Blood-and-guts arguments. Sports is often defined by argument: Who’s better? It’s riveting entertainment. 

Tony Kornheiser, Co-Host, Pardon the Interruption (1997-Present)
What surprises me most is how many high school and college kids like the show. They say, `It’s like watching our parents argue.’

Matthew Kelliher, Coordinating Producer, PTI (1995-Present)
When I took the job, no one thought it was a good idea. I was standing behind a couple of associate producers at the time and they were reading about the show. They said ‘Oh my God; who would ever watch this? This show is never going to make it.’

Steve Bornstein, President (1980-99)
It was everything, from the clock, to making it more of a sports event, as opposed to a new show. The chemistry of those two people is remarkable. I think that’s the most innovative programming on television. I still watch it every day.

Erik Rydholm, Executive Producer, Pardon the Interruption, Around the Horn, Highly Questionable and High Noon (2001-Present)
I wanted, essentially, a show to change topics faster than you felt like flipping the channels. Wilbon is a counterpuncher. In order to drag Mike into the fight, you have to punch him in the nose. And there’s nothing Kornheiser loves more than popping Mike in the nose. And then Mike swings back.

Tony Reali, PTI’s “Stat Boy,” Host, Around the Horn (2000-Present)
And this, for me, made so much sense – not that I was going to be that [Stat Boy] character, but that two sportswriters who come from a newspaper where there’s a corrections part of a page, that they wanted that accountability on TV. That’s something we’re born and raised on at PTI and now Around the Horn – you’re only as good as you are accountable. So you can have your hot takes, you can have your cold takes, at the end of the show that segment where somebody was correcting your stars’ takes, the whole point of the show was being turned on its head and corrected, that made all the difference for me as a sports fan.

. . . to how could you not watch this? (Memorable moments). . .

Kenny Mayne, anchor, SportsCenter (1994-Present)
One of our bosses says, `Hey, we’ve selected you half dozen people, you willing to fly to Kuwait? We’re going to put on SportsCenters for the troops right there in the middle of the desert, this place called Camp Arifjan.’ Everybody said yes. It was just an amazing experience, very rewarding in the sense that we saw what the members of our military really have to deal with. Being surrounded by all these men and women who were coming back from a real war that was two, three hours away to the north, it was something to behold. It made you pretty humble to respect what they do for a living compared to what we do.

Jay Rothman, Vice President, Production (1988-Present)
Of the thousand-plus events I’ve been fortunate enough to produce in my 32 years here, none was more memorable than what we called the “Katrina Game.” In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf region. People fled, the New Orleans Saints fled. 

And 2006 was the first year we had the Monday Night Football package, and we were given their opening game in New Orleans on September 25th. I had piled all of the talent, all of the production team, into our Monday Night Football bus, and we took a tour of the Ninth Ward prior to the game. We saw the devastation. We saw the signs of people that were lost, animals that were lost, how gruesome it all was. 

So we all went into that game knowing we had this ridiculous responsibility, a great responsibility, to do our parts. The place was electric. It was really a special, special night.

David Lloyd, Anchor, SportsCenter (1997-Present)
I was anchoring the 6 p.m. SportsCenter in February of 2001 and the Daytona 500 was that day. That was going be our lead story. And then, right at the end of the race, Dale Earnhardt crashes and we don’t really know how badly he’s hurt.  

But there were rumors that it was pretty bad and maybe a half hour before the show we heard something that Dale Earnhardt had died. But we couldn’t go with it. We didn’t have any substantiation on that.  So we get on the set and I’m asking, `What’s going on?  What’s the latest?  What can we go with?  What are we reporting here?’ And they don’t have anything yet. They just say, `Go with he’s hurt.’ So the music starts playing.  

I’ll never forget the producer saying in my ear – it was just chilling – `Go with he’s dead. Dale Earnhardt is dead.’ And that was literally five seconds before I started talking. And to realize what this man, this figure in racing and in America meant and to have to give the news that he had just died – it was an awful moment.

Jay Harris, Anchor, SportsCenter (2003-Present)
July 4, 2009. I’m doing the six o’clock SportsCenter with Mike Hill. It’s a fun day, so we have this idea to play off the Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest with our own salad-eating contest in the cafeteria. So we’re in the newsroom prepping for the show, and our coordinating producer is scrolling through this new thing called Twitter. And he says `Nashville TV stations are reporting that Steve McNair died, the quarterback of the Tennessee Titans.’ And the news desk confirms it: Steve McNair is dead. So we go from the happiness of the Fourth of July and having this fun contest at six o’clock, a one-hour show, to a two-hour show talking about Steve McNair. I will never forget that day.

. . . and no matter the decade, the show or the event, the talented professionals of ESPN always keep perspective of how fortunate they are to be able to share sports with fans every, single day.

Kevin Negandhi, Anchor, SportsCenter (2006-Present)
Three years into my tenure here at ESPN, around 2009, and I’m on the set with Steve Levy, and we’re a few minutes away from doing the show. And Steve’s one of those guys; he’s locked in, we’ve got our shot sheets ready for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter. 

Now we’re inside a minute, and Steve goes, `So, I was on Miami radio earlier today.’ And I’m marking down my scripts. He continues, `I’m talking to the guys, and they talk about my history at ESPN and how I’ve seen guys from the history of it, like Dan Patrick, I’ve worked with Chris Berman, I’ve worked with the great ones like Bob Ley. Yeah, so, then they started asking me, `Like, ‘Who’s the next great anchor?’ 

Again, we’re 15 seconds from air and I’m looking at Steve, I’m like, `Okay. Uh-huh.’ It’s five seconds until the music starts and he goes, `I said you, Negandhi, so don’t *&^% it up.’ And then, boom, the tease starts.

George Bodenheimer, President (1981-2011)
It was 2003 and this new high-definition technology was only on the television industry horizon, not yet adopted – because it was expensive and would require extensive training of producers, directors and engineers. 

We were having a meeting of senior managers and our head of technology, Chuck Pagano, shows us a high-def demonstration of a a baseball game. We could clearly see the picture was far superior. 

At ESPN our mission has always been to serve sports fans. To his credit, Chuck basically challenged our team that if we were serious about following our mission that we needed to move as fast as we could despite all the obstacles to launch ESPN in high-def and give the fans the best possible picture, which is exactly what we proceeded to do. Of course, HD quickly became the standard with ESPN leading the way. 

Stephen A. Smith, Commentator, First Take (2003-Present)
I remember when I was interviewed by ESPN in October of 2003. Producer Mike McQuade said to me, `You worked somewhere else, and you’re the big fish in a little pond. How are you going to feel about being the little fish in a big pond?’ 

And I looked at him, and I said, `I’m not going to be a little fish in anybody’s pond!’

Molly Qerim-Rose, Host, First Take (2006-2010, 2015-Present)
I was 22 years old, we’re talking mid-2000s, and I have an internship at ESPN. I’m getting out of my car, walking into the building. You’re already a nervous wreck. Now, keep in mind, I had grown up a diehard New York Giants fan. Who am I walking into the building next to? Bill Parcells. 

I wanted to freak out, total fangirl moment. I’m trying to keep it cool. I have my very first suit on and trying to make small talk, and it’s freaking Bill Parcells. He was very nice and polite. But that was one of those moments, I’m like, `Wow, I’m really here at ESPN.’

Stan Verrett, Anchor, SportsCenter (2000-Present)
I was such an avid consumer of ESPN before I ever started working here that I just had this monumental respect for the place. It’s like, `Wow, I’m going to be working at ESPN.’ And the concept just blew me away to the point where I couldn’t think about it. `Don’t think about millions of people all over the world seeing this.’ I was in an airport lounge in LaGuardia Airport and there’s all these huge monitors along the wall, and they happen to have ESPN on that day. And I’m like, `When I’m on, I’m on all these monitors, all of these people can see me. And it just freaked me out. I was like, `OK, I can’t think about that. Just keep your head down and do the stories and just trust that you belong.

John Anderson, Anchor, SportsCenter (1999-Present)
Linda Cohn and I are doing SportsCenter, and we’re sitting at the pod where everybody gathers to write the show. And on ESPN Classic, the A’s and the Dodgers’ 1988 World Series is on, Game One. And you know Kirk Gibson’s going to come up and hit the home run, so we’re typing, all right, and it’s getting closer. So now Linda kind of rolls over by me, and we’re watching, just because you’re fans, and it’s Gibson hitting the home run, right? 

And just as he’s about to hit the home run, we hear a voice from behind. He goes, `Ooh! Ah. This was a great game. I was at this game.’ Turn around, and it’s Orel Hershiser. Because that’s what happens at ESPN. Listen, I’m all for accountants, but that doesn’t happen at everybody’s CPA office.

Neil Everett, Anchor, SportsCenter (2000-Present)
One of the cool things that we’ve been doing out here in Los Angeles is we get to talk to these movie stars. We had Denzel Washington in here, and so I went up to Denzel and I said, `Hey, I’m Neil Everett,’ and he goes, `I know who you are, man. I watch you all the time.’ 

And I’m almost 60-years old, and I felt like 14 right then. I’m like, `Man! Denzel knows who I am! How cool is that?’

Coming Tomorrow - Chapter 4

Talk to any ESPN employee about working for the largest sports media company in the world and inevitably the culture of ESPN will be brought up. From the little start-up that could to the big behemoth that DOES, there has always been an underdog mentality that permeates throughout ESPN. It’s a culture of being bold but not cocky; brave but not brazen and most of all, at the end of the day, it’s about sports fans creating unmatched content – and memories – for fellow sports fans. Here, in our final chapter, is what ESPN means to those who work here and a sampling of their indelible memories.

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