BOZICH | My memories and appreciation of ESPN's John Saunders - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | My memories and appreciation of ESPN's John Saunders

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ESPN host John Saunders was an the award-winning host of The Sports Reporters. ESPN host John Saunders was an the award-winning host of The Sports Reporters.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The phone call came from New York City, and I'll confess that my first reaction was the call was either A) a prank; B) a wrong number or C) (likely) both. This was 2004.

The caller identified himself as Joe Valerio, a television producer for ESPN. He introduced himself, apologized for the cold call and finally said that Mike Lupica, a columnist for the New York Daily News, had given him my name.

Valerio asked if I had the time and interest to fly to New York City to appear on The Sports Reporters, the agenda-setting, Sunday morning 30-minute show on ESPN that featured a host named John Saunders and three sports writers.

I don't remember what I told him other than saying, "YES." But Valerio must have sensed a splash of apprehension in my response because I do remember the next thing he said was, "I know you've never done the show, but don't worry about anything. John Saunders will be the host. He's the best in the business. He'll guide you through it like a champ."

Yes, Saunders was the best. Yes, he did guide me through it like a champ.

And, yes, John Saunders, merely 61, is gone entirely too soon, a savvy, engaging supportive television stalwart whose stunning death was announced by ESPN Wednesday morning.

I can't say I was a close friend of Saunders, not like local radio host Bob Valvano, who worked with Saunders on college basketball telecasts as well as during their charity work with The V Foundation. Dick Vitale always loved having Saunders sitting next to him for a telecast. Everybody did.

My only interactions with Saunders in recent seasons had been to say hello whenever I spotted him at a college basketball game.

But I can say that during the dozen or so times I traveled to the ESPN Zone in Times Square to appear on The Sports Reporters, one constant source of professionalism and poise was Saunders. He accepted the impossible job of replacing Dick Schaap, the show's creator, by deftly staying out of the way, focusing the discussion and placating egos.

Lupica gave the show vinegar, energy and powerful opinion. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe regularly brought his wry sense of humor and historical anecdotes. Mitch Albom of Detroit was the best-selling author capable of engaging viewers with trends and big pictures instead of statistics.

But Saunders made it all work, making certain every opinion was valued and, hopefully, well-reasoned.

John Saunders could have been the star. But he never wanted to be the star. Saunders wanted the show to be the star. He succeeded, taking what Schaap created and keeping it relevant for more than another decade, an eternity in today's media culture. 

Saunders told me that he wanted the men and women watching at home to believe they were the fifth person in the room, enjoying a fascinating conversation. Talk, don't shout.

My best memories of appearing on The Sports Reporters were getting to Times Square early, usually around 7:30 a.m., to huddle near several bags of bagels and the coffee to get Saunders' take on sports.

Usually, he operated with minimal sleep. He worked Saturday night, hosting ABC's college football show or an NBA program.

Saunders didn't try to tell you what a broadcasting professional did. He showed you.

He had encyclopedic knowledge of everything that went down in every sport leading into Sunday morning -- hockey, basketball, tennis, baseball, the works.

He knew which NFL games mattered. He understood how the national championship race was tilting. On the weekend of the Big East Tournament, he was ready with his four top seeds for the NCAA Tournament.

But that wasn't what made Saunders different.

What made Saunders different was that he wanted to understand your take. He worked to develop a sense of where the conversation would lead. Sometimes he'd read my parting shot, offering praise or a suggestion of how to make a point with more clarity and fewer words.

Getting a nod of approval from Saunders was like getting a thumbs up from John Wooden. 

Saunders was wise, self-effacing, intelligent and thoughtful, always offering an encouraging word after the show wrapped. You couldn't tell if his next assignment was the NBA playoffs or Indiana high school basketball regionals (and he once asked me about high school basketball in Indiana). He was as close to an average sports guy as one of the best hosts in network television could be.

Usually at least one of the writers was rushing to leave the studio, driven by a deadline to get to the airport for his next assignment. Saunders always had time to talk. He shared his opinions on what worked and what did not work.

You couldn't leave the ESPN Zone without a handshake and a question about where the sports calendar was about to take you.

That's what I'll remember about John Saunders. And that he is gone way too soon.

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