Les Nessman Redux: John is interviewing Ley in the eight-foot cubicle he shares with Robin Roberts. She and Cohn are ESPN's only female SportsCenter anchors. For all of their relative fame and minor fortune, none of the ESPN talent has an office. No privacy, no secrets, not even permanent walls. Nevertheless, there is no hint of territorial jealousy or superstar tantrums among all the on-air icons who have been crammed into these newsroom digs. "This is no shark tank," Ley tells John. "You know why? Because we're too busy. That's the truth."
Ley first went on air at ESPN three days after the network began broadcasting, and he, Berman and Mees are the only talent left from the original team. Berman refers to Ley as "ESPN's master of disaster" because of, among other things, the cool, crisp job he did of reporting from Candlestick Park after the earthquake during the 1989 World Series and his calm, in-depth handling of Magic Johnson's revelation of his HIV infection.
"Believe it or not," says Ley to John, "one of the things that makes my brain percolate in the morning is not the standings in the Atlantic Division. We have the most demanding audience in television. The most precious thing we can give them is our credibility."
To that end Ley and his fellow talent work hard at pursuing stories themselves, calling their own contacts among coaches, agents, players, team owners, whomever. As their deadlines inch closer, they move out of their personal cubicles and line up side by side in the computer cubicles in the newsroom. This is, if you will, the engine room of SportsCenter. It looks a bit like a language lab, with a TV monitor set up to receive satellite channels and a computer in each of 15 cubicles, arranged three rows deep. Four large TVs are lined up on a shelf above the cubicles, all tuned to ESPN or to various feeds from the world outside.
Now, as this day's 7 p.m. SportsCenter is coming to a close, the four anchors for the two later shows are seated within 10 feet of each other, pounding out their stories. All four keep an eye cocked on the 7 p.m. show on the sets above. "The highest tribute you can have at ESPN," Ley says, "is to make the traffic stop in this room while you're on-air."
Steve Anderson: The son of New York Times columnist Dave Anderson and a former assistant basketball coach at Fordham, Anderson, 38, is ESPN's managing editor. Though a soft-spoken fellow, he's a tough taskmaster who demands originality and initiative and is very blunt about the kind of people who anchor his news shows. "Our viewers are not going to be fooled by pretty faces and deep voices," he tells Bill. "We want talent who know sport very well and can write. We are interested in knowledge-ability and credibility, not in looks."
So much for a strong jaw and a Jim Lampley hairdo.
Bill Patrick: Though ESPN purports to be a meritocracy, promoting from deep within whenever it can, most of the on-air talent comes from outside—often far outside. Patrick is an exception because he worked just up the interstate, doing nightly sports on WFSB-TV in Hartford. He was noticed in Bristol because people saw him every night. He did look good, but he was also knowledgeable and, best of all in the Walsh Era, creative. "I saw a Peanuts special in which Charlie Brown had lost his 1,000th game, and that night on WFSB we showed highlights of the game," said Patrick. He was hired in August 1988.
6:41 p.m. Patrick begins changing his clothes in the aisle outside his cubicle in preparation for the seven o'clock show. Since there are no women around, he takes his shirt off with confidence. Suddenly a telecommunications class from Tunxis Community College enters the area on a tour of ESPN and comes upon a subject that is not listed in the course catalog. This reminds Patrick of another story about changing clothes: "One year at WFSB we were showing highlights of the Harvard-Yale game, and every time the camera returned to me, I had switched from a crimson blazer to a blue blazer and then back again, over and over. Nobody noticed."
Denis Sedory: The director of the SportsCenter at seven is asked by John to give him an idea of exactly what the director's job entails. "My job?" he says. "It's to turn McDonald's into a four-star restaurant. We're juggling graphics, highlights, anchors. It's like one person in the control room is flipping burgers, another is doing fries, and we all have to have it done by seven o'clock. Of course, as far as I know, this whole thing could be a secret CIA experiment on human stress. Hell, for all I know, SportsCenter may not even be going out of here to anyone at all."