For 20 Years, It’s the Best Seat on Television

We never took off the ties.

The athletes got flashier. The analysts got louder. It would have shocked no one if the host and the three panelists undid their Windsor knots, unbuttoned their collars, and got down and dirty with the rest of the sports business.

But we didn’t. For whatever reason. Maybe it was the reverence of Sunday morning. Maybe it was just habit. But if you check the tape of the first “Sports Reporters” show on ESPN, you’ll see men wearing jackets and ties (and a female panelist in a dress). And if you watch the show today, not much has changed.

Today marks 20 years of Sunday mornings for this half-hour program, one I joined a few years after it started. For a while we filmed in the old HBO studios off 23rd Street in Manhattan. You hopped a cab, got out at a stage door, rang a bell and hoped someone would answer; otherwise, you’d be stuck in the rain or snow for a while.

Today the show is filmed in the ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square. There’s a lobby store with ESPN merchandise. Hanging near the set is a blown-up cover of ESPN The Magazine. None of these things existed when we got started.

But we are still here.

Talking without politicians

The premise of “The Sports Reporters” was novel and clich├ęd. Sunday morning TV traditionally had been occupied by panel shows such as “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press.”

“The Sports Reporters” was essentially a sports version. But with one caveat. The panelists were sportswriters. No athletes. No coaches. And no guests. It was a conversation for 30 minutes, wrapped with minute-long “parting shots” at the end. Simple. Straightforward.

And it worked.

It worked largely because of the host, Dick Schaap, one of the most beloved sportswriters of our time. Dick, who penned heralded books and columns before joining ABC News, was a white-haired wizard of words, as thick with insight as he was devoid of ego. He let younger panelists such as Mike Lupica, Bob Ryan, Tony Kornheiser, Bill Conlin, Mike Wilbon and myself argue back and forth, cutting across his airspace with our sentences. Then, just before a commercial break, he’d button it up with something smarter and wittier than any of us said.

Dick hosted the show from 1988 until his death in 2001. His last appearance was the Sunday after Sept. 11, one of the program’s finest hours. There were many who felt “The Sports Reporters” minus Schaap wouldn’t be the same.

It wasn’t. But it was still the show. John Saunders ably stepped in, and while he didn’t expect it to be long-term, he has been there ever since. “The Sports Reporters” has that effect on certain people. It offers them a seat, and next thing you know, they’re kind of living there.

Tales from the studio

Over the years there have been plenty of hairy moments. Taped shows from West Coast Super Bowls when it’s still dark outside. Outdoor winter programs where chattering teeth affect your speech. Two weeks in Albertville, France, fighting snow and foreign language. Microphones that go out. A janitorial crew that turns on the vacuums just as the cameras roll.

Oh, and my total inability to read a teleprompter unless it is 3 feet from my face, which has prompted frequent screams from Lupica of “GET CONTACTS!”

The thing I tell fans of the show, which now airs at 9:30 a.m. on ESPN, is that we would all do the same thing, cameras or not. Ever since the old days, there has been a bag of bagels and hot coffee when we arrive. And for 20 minutes, we chew and sip and argue the sports issues of the day – until sometimes the executive producer, Joe Valerio, yells, “Save it for the program!”

There is no script. No rehearsed lines. The cast rotates. And you have no idea going in if the show will hold up at all. But then it does. It is the magic of sports conversation and the karma of people enjoying what they do.

Sports has gotten loud, mean and at times repellent. But I am proud of the show for maintaining a sense of grace. We don’t shout each other off. We don’t pounce. We keep our ties on.

As one of the original “guys talking sports” programs – long before “Best Damn Sports Show Period,””Pardon the Interruption” or “Around the Horn”-“The Sports Reporters” may be considered by some to be old school. But you can learn new things in an old school. And 90% of life, someone once said, is just showing up.

We’re still here.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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