Sunday after Sunday, he was the first one there and the last to leave. His job title was “producer” but that’s such a vague word. What Joe Valerio did was conduct. He was the man in the orchestra pit, waving his wand, silent to the audience, yet in charge of everything they heard.
Joe’s orchestra was “The Sports Reporters,” which ran on ESPN for 30 years. Today, if a show lasts two years it’s doing well. Thirty years? Yep. And for most of that time, I was lucky enough to be a part of it. So I was lucky enough to know Joe.
For those of you too young to recall “The Sports Reporters” think of “PTI,” “First Take,” “Around the Horn” or any of the sports roundtable debate shows today and know that “The Sports Reporters” (along with a Chicago-based show called “The Sports Writers on TV”) was there first.
Long before pundits screaming at each other became vogue, “The Sports Reporters” did 30 minutes a week of jacket-and-tie debate, often contrary but never nasty. Joe wouldn’t tolerate that. Because Joe didn’t act like that.
A dapper man himself, Joe always arrived before 6 a.m., wearing a sportscoat, tie, slacks, nice shoes, even though no one ever saw him on TV. He set the example for “The Sports Reporters” by being dignified — and being prepared. Every Thursday, the panelists would get notes for the upcoming Sunday show. These “notes” were usually three pages worth of information, opinion, angles, and often humor. Most of them could have been printed verbatim as a newspaper column.
He was one of us
That should surprise no one, because Joe, before he became a producer, was a young sports columnist with the New York Post. He knew how to write. He knew how to report. And shortly after stepping behind the scenes, he knew how to produce.
Now I’m sure Mike Lupica, Bob Ryan, Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Skip Bayless, Bill Rhoden, Stephen A. Smith, Jackie MacMullan, Jason Whitlock, Jemele Hill, Adam Schefter, or any of the other panelists whose careers were propelled by sitting around that Sunday morning table have their own memories.
But here is how I recall it going. I’d fly from Detroit to New York on Saturday nights. Joe always wanted me to come in earlier, in case of weather. He’d wait like a nervous mother for me to call and assure I was there. When I did, he’d always thank me and tell me tomorrow “is going to be great.”
When we arrived on the set, bleary eyed, often in pre-dawn darkness, Joe was already there waiting, pacing, running through topics. As we poured coffee or ate bagels, he’d be reviewing the segments out loud. If we started to debate this game or that player, he’d raise a hand and say, “Save it for the show.”
And during the show, we all wore earpieces. This was so Joe could cue us. Sunday after Sunday, I’d hear his lowered voice whispering things like, “Let’s get to baseball now” or “Remember, Tom Brady had over 400 yards last week” or — the thing I most hated hearing — “Lay out” which meant we had to get to a commercial break, so stop talking. So many times, I felt — we all felt — we had just one more really important thing to say and maybe we could squeeze it in really fast, but if we did, we could surely expect Joe’s voice during the commercial break booming over the speakers like a tongue-clucking school principal:
“Guys, when I say ‘lay out’ you have to ‘lay out!’”
An orchestra without its conductor
We did shows at Super Bowls, at Final Fours, at Olympic Games. These were logistical nightmares for Joe, yet he was always there, arranging the set, the cars, the hotel rooms. He was the ringleader, the steadying force, the lion tamer when it came to our egos, the peacemaker when it came our squabbles.
I can’t tell you which of the more than 1,000 “Sports Reporters” shows he produced were the easiest, but I know which two were the hardest. The one after Dick Schaap died, and the one after John Saunders died. Those two hosts steered “The Sports Reporters” from the center chair for 13 years and 15 years, respectively, and both of them passed away while still on the job. We did long opening segment tributes to both men. Joe had to produce those segments. It was beyond sad. We were eulogizing on TV.
And I am eulogizing now. Because last week, I learned that Joe passed away from cancer at age 71, leaving behind his wife, Debbie, his three children and five grandchildren. True to his dignified self, he told very few people that he was sick, and had sworn most of them to secrecy. I suspect he didn’t want pity. Joe never found that a particularly admirable emotion.
Better to remember him then with honor and admiration. “The Sports Reporters” aired its last show in 2017. And while it exists now in podcast form, it’s not the same. There’s no cameras. There’s no suits and ties. There’s no coffee and bagels on Sunday mornings. And there’s no Joe.
The orchestra is never as quiet as when the conductor lays down his wand. Thanks for the symphony, Mr. Valerio. Well played.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.