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Sports on the air

Reunions not same without Big Show

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published August 6, 2004

The Big Show will not get the retro treatment this week, despite ESPN bringing back a host of former SportsCenter anchors to help celebrate the network's 25th anniversary.

Though Craig Kilborn, Charley Steiner, Greg Gumbel, Gayle Gardner and original host George Grande will be teamed all week with the current talent, the most famous former anchor did not receive an invite.

For most of us weaned on SportsCenter, the exclusion of Keith Olbermann is truly a disappointment. For just one night, the possibly of Olbermann and Dan Patrick back together would have been broadcasting's version of a Beatles reunion.

It would have been a huge ratings hit.

But Olbermann didn't just burn bridges since he left Bristol, Conn., he apparently obliterated them. It's a shame he'll miss the reunions, but ESPN says it didn't have much of a choice.

"We didn't want to bring him into the workplace," said ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro. "The damage he could do in one day in the newsroom could put us in damage control for two years."

When Olbermann was told of Shapiro's statements, he said he was a little surprised, adding he would have loved to return to ESPN for a reunion.

"Of course I would have accepted," Olbermann said.

If there is too much baggage, as Shapiro suggested, "the label doesn't have my name on it, it has ESPN's name on it."

Shapiro was open to Olbermann's return at one point. He said two years ago, when he was hired at ESPN, he met with the former anchor about possibly coming back to the network.

This despite Olbermann's surprising and head-scratching split from ESPN and some less-than-flattering things about the network's management in Michael Freeman's book, ESPN: The Uncensored History.

But time had passed, and Olbermann had written an apology of sorts, published on Salon.com, for some of the things he said in Freeman's book.

There was hope then, Shapiro said. But others at ESPN weren't so eager to forgive.

"I was blown away by how much that one meeting ... how people reacted to me even taking the meeting," Shapiro said, adding he had no idea how many "bodies were buried along the way."

He was undeterred, though, until a short time later. Just six months after Olbermann's mea culpa on Salon.com, ESPN/ABC president George Bodenheimer hired Lisa Guerrero for Monday Night Football, and the final piece of the bridge demolition disintegrated into ash.

"It's a complete repudiation of Monday Night Football's tradition," Olbermann was quoted as saying. "(John) Madden and (Al) Michaels should walk, and Bodenheimer should be led away in handcuffs."

And so ended Shapiro's flirtation with Olbermann.

"Personally I couldn't get past that," Shapiro said. "Even though he did leave a tremendous legacy and helped chart the course of the show, there was too much bad stuff that came with it, unnecessary bad stuff."

Tis a shame. Olbermann and Patrick did what Grande and Co. never could, elevating SportsCenter to cult status with a smug, sarcastic but clever delivery of sports highlights that struck a chord with the viewing public. The 11 p.m. SportsCenter became the network's signature show, and its first must-see piece of programming.

Olbermann and Patrick wrote a top-selling book, The Big Show, and their catch-phrases became instant classics, repeated the following morning around watercoolers across the country.

"A week does not go by when someone on the street or at the ballpark asks (about SportsCenter)," Olbermann said. "Just the other day Frank Thomas came up to me and said, "I've seen the news show and I like it, but boy I miss you guys on SportsCenter."'

Thomas' memories will have to be enough. Though Sunday's Kilborn-Patrick pairing will be the best of the week, one can only imagine what a Big Show reunion might have been like.

"I take full responsibility," Shapiro said. "There's probably a lot of people inside and outside that disagree with the decision. But we want this to be meaningful. We want to look back at (SportsCenter) fondly and not contentiously."

It just won't be the same.

Here's the schedule:

SUNDAY: Craig Kilborn and Dan Patrick

MONDAY: Charley Steiner and Bob Ley

TUESDAY: Gayle Gardner and Stuart Scott

WEDNESDAY: Greg Gumbel and Chris Berman

THURSDAY: George Grande and Chris Berman

[Last modified August 6, 2004, 01:00:38]


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