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ESPN Celebrates World Storytelling Day

March 20 annually marks "World Storytelling Day"; a few of ESPN's storytellers reflect on their most impactful stories over the years

World Storytelling Day is a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling that takes place annually on March 20.

Front Row is celebrating this day by recognizing a few of ESPN’s storytellers and sharing their most impactful stories over the years. Inside the courageous comeback of USC guard Aaliyah Gayles

Katie Barnes brushes Aaliyah Gayles’ teeth during one of their many conversations. (Katie Barnes/ESPN)
This digital feature story that went inside the courageous comeback of USC women’s basketball player Aaliyah Gayles has been turned into an E60 special that premieres on March 23, as the Trojans earned their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Championship.

Katie Barnes, ESPN writer, Digital Features:
“On Easter Sunday in 2022, I learned the name Aaliyah Gayles for the first time. She was a top-10 recruit who had been shot multiple times at a house party the night before. For the next 18 months, I chronicled her journey back to the court, culminating in a digital feature story and an E60 special. Hers is a story of resilience, persistence, and triumph. It’s been an honor to have a front-row seat.”

E60: “Qatar’s World Cup”

Max Brodsky (far right) stands in front of Jeremy Schaap when interviewing local soccer players in Qatar (Max Brodsky/ESPN)
In 2022, one of the most controversial sporting decisions in recent memory became a reality as Qatar hosted the 2022 World Cup. E60 examined the controversies surrounding the selection of the Gulf state as the venue for the world’s most popular sporting event.

Max Brodsky, producer:
“What I am most proud of is the way we humanized the issue of migrant labor, going beyond statistics and policy. To hear, in their own words, people who worked on building the World Cup stadiums in Qatar describe their lives, their dreams, and the hardships they face made for the most powerful and revealing moments in the film.”

Andscape: Spike Lee’s Lil’ Joints: “Black Hoosiers”

Marquis Daisy (R) tands with Oscar Robertson on location in Indianapolis (Marquis Daisy/ESPN)

This piece explored a high school team’s journey, pain, and triumph in 1950s Indiana.

Marquis Daisy, producer, ESPN Films:
“Teaming up with Academy Award winner and renowned storyteller Spike Lee to tell the story of Hall of Fame basketball standout Oscar Robertson under Lee’s Lil’ Joints series not only afforded me the opportunity to tell the triumphant story of a group of transcendent, young, black student-athletes from the then-racially-divisive Indianapolis, but it also allowed me the honor of preserving the greatness of an often-forgotten sports and social rights hero. As we move forward with the history of our sports legends, it’s important to never forget figures like Oscar, and I am lucky to have played a small part in keeping his legacy alive.”

E60: “The Survivor”

Frank Saraceno (L) and reporter Jeremy Schaap flank interview subject Shaul Ladany (Frank Saraceno/ESPN)
As a child, Shaul Ladany survived WWII and the Holocaust. Then, competing for Israel at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he would again confront the unthinkable.

Frank Saraceno, producer:
“One of the great honors of my life was telling the story of the most amazing man I’ve ever met. Shaul Ladany is a Holocaust survivor and a proud Israeli who represented his country at the 1972 Munich Olympics and survived yet another unspeakable tragedy. Today he remains, at 87 years old, the very embodiment of what the human spirit is all about.”

ESPN Originals: “Greenland: San Francisco”

ESPN Originals crew films at Soledad State Prison in California for “Greenland: San Francisco” (Martin Fradkin/ESPN)
The series that takes us on a journey to discover the most exotic and inhospitable soccer fields on planet Earth is back. A visit to the absolute equality that soccer generates and the hope to even practice the sport, where it seems impossible.

Martin Fradkin, producer and director: Greenland: San Francisco:
“It was the first time, as a group, and for me personally, that our ESPN Originals team worked inside a maximum-security prison. This experience was profoundly meaningful. To see how sports, within the confines of a prison, becomes a powerful vehicle for individuals to feel purposeful and part of a larger community was truly special.”

ESPN Originals: “Greenland: Puerto Rico”

(L-R) Martin Fradkin, Edgardo Mattei and Vilma Obando celebrate the Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Feature Story in Spanish for Greenland. (Edgardo Mattei/ESPN)
Edgardo Mattei, Coordinating Producer on Greenland: Puerto Rico:
“‘Greenland: Puerto Rico’ was an unforgettable experience for me because we discovered a side of Puerto Rico that not too many people know. Soccer is not one of the main sports in Puerto Rico. It was special to see how, through the sport, a community came together to uplift its youth.”

SC Featured: “Nothing Else Matters”

Alexandra Nolen (center, right) interviews basketball coach Patrick Behan (Marc Stern/Capitol Hoops)
In May 2022, at just 34 years old, Patrick Behan, the head boys’ basketball coach at St. John’s College High School in Washington D.C., was diagnosed with ALS and given just one year to live. While adjusting to the diagnosis and its devastating impacts, basketball became a form of medicine for Patrick in the most competitive high school basketball league in the country.

Alexandra Nolen, director and producer:
“Having the opportunity to help others tell their story is one of the most rewarding things we get to do at ESPN. I had the chance to follow Patrick Behan, a former high school basketball coach who was coaching his team while battling ALS and won his first-ever conference championship. His story not only inspired me but showed all of us that nothing can stop you from doing what you love.”

ESPN: “El Paso Strong”

Luis Calvillo (R) is released from the hospital on Sept. 27, 2019, 55 days after surviving a mass shooting outside an El Paso Walmart. (Joshua Vorensky/ESPN)
“El Paso Strong” tells the story of a youth soccer team, EP Fusion, and its recovery following a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019.

Joshua Vorensky, feature producer (English & Spanish):
“‘El Paso Strong’ taught me that we have incredible power in our storytelling. The stories we do can resonate and inspire, which is why building relationships and gaining the trust of these families who had endured an unspeakable tragedy was essential. Without a camera, I first traveled to El Paso just to get to know them and start to understand their story. It is the reason we were able to tell the story we did, because of the relationships we built. I am incredibly proud of ‘El Paso Strong’ and four years on, it is one of my favorite features I’ve helped to tell.”

ESPN: “A Father’s Resilence”

A shot behind the scenes at Steve Gleason’s house.(Michael O’Connor/ESPN)
When former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, he set out to make video journals for his son in case he wasn’t around.

Michael O’Connor, feature producer:
“The opportunity to share a Father’s Day story on Steve Gleason’s resilience to overcome the ALS that he lives with, in order to be a present father in his children’s lives, was an experience I’m forever grateful for and that inspires me to be the best father that I can be.”

ESPN Deportes: “Bicycle Diaries: Iñaki Williams”

The Athletic Club forward Iñaki Williams took a ride through the beautiful Biscay countryside with Martín Ainstein. They spoke about a range of subjects including Iñaki’s parents, racism in football and playing for the Ghanaian national team.

Martín Ainstein, ESPN/ESPN Deportes soccer reporter and host (English & Spanish):
“Iñaki Williams is a great story because we’re talking about one of the most important players in the league. His story is a story of immigration. Williams was born in Bilbao, Spain, and is the son of immigrants (his parents are both from Ghana and had to cross the desert on foot) in a club that plays only with football players who were born in the Basque country. His story is a perfect example of how you can learn and adopt without losing your roots.”

Andscape: “The Rebirth Of Hinchcliffe Stadium”

The ESPN creative team worked for more than two years to tell the story of Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, N.J. — a stadium built in 1932 that had been the site for everything from Negro League baseball to high school football contests but sat in disrepair for more than two decades. In 2023, the death of local activist Najee Seabrooks just a mile from the stadium at the hands of Patterson Police forced us to reexamine the direction and tone.

Sean Hurd – with assistance from ESPN Vice President, Production and senior writer for Andscape, Dwayne Bray and the ESPN Creative Studio team — used exhaustive reporting and interviews over months to tell an honest about a community and the stadium at the center that came to represent more than just ball games. The multimedia piece, published in May 2023, was a Top 10 winner in the 2023 Associated Press Sports Editors contest.

Sean Hurd, Andscape staff writer:
“It was a privilege to tell the story of the revitalization of Hinchliffe stadium, one of few Negro League ballparks still standing. Through multimedia storytelling, our team was able to present a complete picture of the stadium’s complex rebirth in Patterson.”

ESPN Originals: “In Her Shoes”

ESPN Originals’ crew sets up for an interview with USWMNT Forward Lynn Williams. (Vilma Obando/ESPN)

ESPN Originals premiered the second season of “In Her Shoes,” featuring seven episodes focused on the 2023 Women’s World Cup. This Emmy-nominated series highlighted football’s most exceptional protagonists and their life stories, with each part representing a pillar of resiliency, inspiration, influence, and a hopeful message.

Vilma Obando, producer:
“‘In Her Shoes’ was a project with a lot of heart. Through it, our goal was to highlight these exceptional athletes and the role they play as leaders and role models for the next generation.”

ESPN Originals: “LISTEN”

Nicole Noren and reporter T.J. Quinn work on “LISTEN” (ESPN)
In 2018, University of Utah track and field athlete Lauren McCluskey repeatedly sought help as her ex-boyfriend stalked and extorted her, but the people and the institutions responsible for listening to her and protecting her failed at every turn. LISTEN is an investigative documentary from ESPN exploring McCluskey’s life, murder, and her parents’ quest for answers.

Nicole Noren, director and producer on “LISTEN”:
“In addition to ‘LISTEN’ being viewed by over 5 million people on YouTube, the film is also being used by numerous campus police departments and school safety officials across the country as an education and training tool. Lauren McCluskey’s voice is being heard now, and we are honored to have played a part in helping amplify her story and make an impact.”

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